Does 'grand strategy' still matter?

At NBR, my interview with Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis recently went live. Perhaps my favorite exchange from the talk was his response to my question about the value of “grand strategy,” which it seems to me can mean different things to different people.

I think Tellis makes a reasonable argument for taking a broad view in policymaking, but I still wonder whether humans can handle the complexity inherent in something like the international system. I will hold for another day my thoughts about the tenuous relationship between assumptions of an international system of sovereign states and the reality of utterly complex political life.

Here’s that exchange. Full interview here.

A lot of people might be skeptical of the idea of grand strategy, thinking that perhaps globalization, regionalization, or a hub-and-spoke network of bilateral ties produces a more fractured reality. Why is grand strategy still an important way to understand and act in world affairs?

What you are saying is that the traditional way of managing grand strategy has become more complicated, and I fully agree. It is no longer sufficient to think of grand strategy as operating entirely in the realm of politics or strategic affairs. Globalization has reminded us that the foundation of politics and strategy is ultimately economics, and that the productive capacity of a state is the motor that provides the resources that enable it to acquire national power. To that degree, grand strategy has to integrate elements that previously might have been neglected.

I think a good grand strategy has always had room for integrating the economic components of state power. Even before globalization, in a world that was relatively autarkic, states had to think about their material capacities and how they stacked up relative to other actors. The biggest change since globalization is that states must manage competitors and adversaries even while remaining deeply intertwined with them economically. This change has not made grand strategy irrelevant; indeed, it has become even more relevant, as well as a lot more complicated.

Can we get anywhere near a “grand strategic” understanding of the world as complexity (or our information about complexity) increases?


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