A Three-dimensional Study of Grand Strategy. An interview with Simon Reich

Across Time and Space Cover

CERI Associate researcher Simon Reich and his co-author Peter Dombrowski have recently published Across Type, Time and Space. American Grand Strategy in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge, 2021). According to the two authors’ claim, the goal of this book is to “offer a framework that scholars can use to compare grand strategies in three dimensions - across type, time and space” and “to reveal both the similarities and the differences between different national grand strategies, as well as their sources of continuity and change in a dynamic global environment.” Interview with Simon Reich.

You write that the primary goal of this short book has been to “introduce the notion of comparison to the study of grand strategy: between types, over time and across space”. As such, can this book be considered as a companion book to the coedited volume you published in 2019, Comparative Grand Strategy or vice versa?

Yes, my new book with Peter Dombrowski is indeed part of the same broad project as our 2019 edited book. But there is more to come. We, together with CERI’s own Thierry Balzacq, are working on several different books, articles and even a book series for Oxford University Press entitled “The Oxford Studies in Grand Strategy.” These elements are collectively focused on introducing various comparative dimensions that are generally absent in the field of grand strategy.

As currently constructed, for example, the field is overwhelming preoccupied with the assumption that only great powers are capable of formulating and implementing grand strategies. Only they, reputedly, have sophisticated enough bureaucracies and capable enough militaries to do so. In practice, today this means that only China, Russia and the US are worthy of study because only they can potentially dominate or broadly “shape” the global system. And even they, in practice, are not compared with each other.

We, in contrast, begin with the observation that many states—whether small (like Israel or Norway) or large (like Germany or Japan)—and even city-states (like Singapore or Qatar) or regional organizations (such as the EU) are capable of mounting and implementing a grand strategy. Their strategies may often be intended to be more adaptative than controlling or shaping. And they may not focus as much on military issues as diplomatic or economic ones. But even they can heavily influence geo-political events, either globally or regionally. Take the example of a country like Morocco. The country has embarked on large solar power strategy and hopes to become a sustainable clean energy exporter to Europe. It is hard to argue that this does not fit the description of a grand strategy, as it plots a future pivotal role in European energy security.

Indeed, we, as series editors, are in the process of commissioning several books on grand strategy that examine a variety of African, Asian and European countries (as well as the EU itself). They all combine diplomatic, economic and military strategizing in intriguing and often surprising ways that will appeal to an academic and policy audience. Not surprisingly, we have discovered that Europeans are a lot more receptive to this kind of non-traditional argument, although the global response to Peter and my new book has been encouraging1.

Beyond the main typologies of current grand strategy, you explore alternatives. Given the emergency to deal with such threats, are climate change and global pandemics increasingly included in grand strategic thinking?

They generally are not by many countries, but should be. Taiwan, for example, had a very effective pandemic strategy worthy of study. But the dominant trend among realists and other more traditional IR scholars, and policymakers in many major countries, has remained a focus on traditional national security threats, such as conventional and nuclear war. The return of great power competition as a high-profile issue has consolidated that thinking among many.

Nonetheless, an encouraging alternative trend is emerging. The work of scholars working on climate change or public health, like Sara Davies on the former or Laurie Garrett on the latter, have often been marginalized in grand strategy debates.2 Their voices, however, have become increasingly central in that field in view of recent events. Interestingly, Bruce Jentleson, a noted American scholar who has produced important work on grand strategy, published a piece in the Washington Quarterly last year in which he compellingly argued that American strategists have to include climate change and pandemics in their national security planning.3 It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a passing fade or will actually gain traction.

Peter and I did publish a freely-available article in the October 2020 edition of International Affairs in which we discussed the many failed efforts of American presidents to get public health issues such as pandemics incorporated into grand strategic planning.4 But the initial signs are hopeful under President Biden. As the evidence of the lives lost and financial costs of climate change and pandemics mounts, there is a greater pressure on governments to develop national security plans for non-military threats. Recent floodings in China and across Western Europe, as well as droughts and wildfires the US, have only added to that pressure.

Three dimensional study of Grand Strategy - Image copyright: shutterstock

What period have you chosen to compare US grand strategy in time and why?

American scholarship in international relations tends to focus on critical historical junctures—and thus to periodize history—such as the end of World War Two, the end of the Cold War, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. These junctures, it is generally argued, change the dynamics, indeed often the entire structure, of the global system. Utilizing that logic for an American audience, we elected to compare the strategies of the American administrations of George W. Bush, Barrack Obama and Donald Trump. We made that choice for two reasons. The first was that since 9/11, when “everything changed” for the US, and subsequently arguably Western Europe, the “War on Terror” entailed a reorientation of the conception of the primary threats that those governments faced. For them, it was a tipping point.

Our choice was also conditioned by a second factor: the reemergence of Russia as a major regional power. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 was treated as aberrant. Neither the US nor Western European governments changed their strategy towards Russia. But the hybrid war fought by Russia in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea was too grave a transgression of sovereignty for them to ignore. It alerted both the United States and its European allies to both Russia’s new assertiveness and its military build-up in the Arctic and areas bordering the Baltics, Eastern Mediterranean and adjacent territories.

While American policymakers now regard China as of greatest concern, they widely recognize the role Russia has played in electoral interference, cybercrime and the militarization of the Arctic. Yet, despite these facts, President Trump curiously refused to regard Russia as an adversary, despite the American military’s protestations. Three presidents with three very different strategies towards Russia in Europe, made for an interesting comparison.

In the final section of the book, you focus on the spatial dimension and you are interested in comparing the US with two other major actors on the international scene, namely China and India. You claim that the US is moving from a proactive to a reactive grand strategy. Can you tell us more?

American scholars of grand strategy have generally debated whether US strategy should be designed to ‘dominate’ the global system or to “shape” it more broadly, even if the US cannot determine every outcome. We therefore decided to examine whether either was true in, arguably, what is now the most important strategic theatre on the planet—the Indo-Pacific.5 We focused our attention on China, the region’s (and the globe’s) biggest peer challenger to the United States, and on India because it will potentially grow to be a pivotal partner or rival to either in the future.

What we discovered was something quite different from either classic expectation. Grand strategies are not simply architectures or blueprints that can be seamlessly implemented. Rather, grand strategies are often adaptive and interactive, and thus relational. Even strong states have to adapt to changing circumstances. As we document, this certainly increasingly describes American behaviour in the Indo-Pacific. China has often dominated or shaped the regional agenda through the assertion of its sovereignty over the South China Sea, the construction of artificial islands, the sponsorship of various forms of economic integration, and the creation of the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The USA has attempted to coopt India in counteracting increasing Chinese assertion, with mixed results. While India has become integral to the Quad powers (the US and India being joined by Australia and Japan) in dialogue over regional strategy, it has also demonstrated a capacity for independence, purchasing the S400 air defence system from Russia, thus undermining efforts at collective defence.

This particular case study in the book thus demonstrates the reduced capacity for America to control or shape a vital region, one where it has traditionally enjoyed dominance—known as primacy—since the end of World War Two. The questions that scholars therefore have to address is under what conditions does the US have to adapt, who are the key actors that force that adaptation—they can be state or non-state actors, such as Russian cyber criminals—and what form does that adaptation take? From the scholarly perspective, these questions are both theoretical for academics and diagnostic for policymakers. The implication for American policymakers is that they have to grapple with a swiftly evolving global environment in which America may still remain a powerful actor, but one in which new powers can often play a decisive role. Policymakers need to take this change into account when devising a strategy.

Finally, is comparison always possible in the study of Grand strategy?

Comparison in the field of grand strategy is conditioned by the same factors that apply to the social sciences in general. You can’t compare the strategies of the United States and Qatar; for example. An apple and a tomato may both be a fruit, but the differences are so numerous that it makes comparison invidious. The circumstances are far too different.

But it may be useful to compare states in similar circumstances, what we call a “most similar” research design, to see why they adopt different strategies. In our 2019 edited book, for example, we asked experts to compare the strategies of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. They are three countries in the same region whose primary security threats emanate from each other. What has primarily fluctuated in each country over the last five decades has been which state they are most concerned about. Saudi Arabia’s grand strategy used to be focused on Israel, now it is preoccupied by Iran. Indeed, it would be reasonable to characterize each as being in an existential struggle for regional influence. These scholars in our book addressed the questions concerning why and how each state’s focus had changed. Was it primarily driven by domestic or external factors? What tools do they use— interestingly, each combines diplomatic, economic and military instruments in very different ways—and how do they use them? And what has been the consequence? This exercise was useful because it identified a series of domestic factors that drives the formulation and implementation of grand strategies that researchers might find useful when comparing other countries.

Globe - copyright: ShutterstockLikewise, in the same book, scholars also wrote chapters about Brazil and India, two very different regional behemoths. In this case, they had very little in common. They are countries in different regions, with different histories, that live in vastly different neighbourhoods. It is what we call a “most different” research design. Brazil faces no traditional threats from regional neighbours. Indeed, there has not been a conventional war in Latin America for decades. Its primary security threats emanate from domestic criminality and violence, poverty and climate change. India, in contrast, lives in a neighbourhood where it faces the legitimate prospect of conventional and nuclear conflict with China and Pakistan, as well as widespread ethnic violence in Kashmir. Yet, remarkably, the two states grand strategies have looked remarkably similar, with a focus on economic modernization. Here the question becomes what explains that convergence, despite the multitude of differences? What are the key factors that explain the similarity of their grand strategies, with a focus on modernization? The answer, preliminary evidence suggests, lies in the civilian leadership’s historical antipathy towards the military in both countries. They don’t want to invest too much power in the military, and thus tend to understate the military’s role in strategizing.

So, comparing across countries can play an important role in the study of grand strategy. The same is true of comparing over time. While the actual threats to American homeland security have changed marginally in the last two decades, the focus and content of its grand strategy has altered radically from George W. Bush to Joe Biden. Bush’s neoconservativism (an alluring mixture of realist primacy and liberal deep engagement strategies) to promote democracy and defeat terrorism has now been consigned to history. Trump’s combination of aggressive primacy (especially) over allies and (often less so) adversaries was combined with an isolationism marked by nativism reminiscent of the 1930s. Joe Biden, in contrast, seeks to recast America as the leader of the liberal free world in conflict with China, even as America’s rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan undermines its credibility with its European allies, leaving them to wonder if the US will abandon them in their moment of need. What explains these dramatic changes? The threats to homeland security haven’t objectively changed that much. But the perception of the source and strength of that threat has clearly altered. What role do domestic policymakers play in those changes? How much significance should we attach to electoral politics and how much to elite debates?

Ultimately, our book is largely exploratory. Like most academics, we hope to generate as many questions as answers, and to prompt a debate about both the theory and practice of grand strategy among both scholars and policymakers. Take the notion of comparison over time. The same questions we asked of the United States can be asked about France. Its political leadership today debates its role in Africa (the withdrawal of troops from Mali), on the future of Europe (as an independent actor), on whether it should focus its orientation on “strategic autonomy” in security and digitalization, on further economic integration in China, and on leadership on climate change. The situation is in flux. The results of next year’s presidential election will go a long way to answering both the balance and direction of these questions. But even today’s answers look a lot different from prior presidencies where the collaborative transatlantic impetus was far greater. The question we would ask, is which factors explain that change in France’s grand strategy?

Further online reading

National Security Expert Simon Reich Examines “Grand Strategy” Through a Comparative Lens, Interview, August 2021, available at https://sasn.rutgers.edu/news-events/news/national-security-expert-simon...

"Hedging by Default: The Limits of EU "Strategic Autonomy" in a Binary World Order," Richard Higgott and Simon Reich, IDEAS, February 2021, available at https://www.lse.ac.uk/ideas/publications/reports/hedging-by-default

“The consequence of COVID-19: how the United States moved from security provider to security consumer,” Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski, International Affairs, 96, no. 5, 2020 pp. 1253–1279 available at https://academic.oup.com/ia/article/96/5/1253/5901375

What is Grand Strategy?, A CERI interview, November 2019, available at https://www.sciencespo.fr/ceri/en/content/what-grand-strategy-interview-...

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI
Illustration copyright: Shutterstock
  • 1. Cambridge University Press made the book freely accessible for 14 days, and it was downloaded more than 3,300 times by readers from around the world.
  • 2. Sara E. Davies, “Securitizing Infectious Disease,” International Affairs, 84, No. 2 (2008), pp. 295-313; Laurie Garrett, “The Next Pandemic?” Foreign Affairs 84, no. 4 (July- August 2005).
  • 3. Bruce W. Jentleson, “Refocusing US Grand Strategy on Pandemic and Environmental Mass Destruction,” The Washington Quarterly 43 no. 3, (2020) pp. 9-15, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0163660X.2020.1813977
  • 4. Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski, “The Consequence of COVID-19: How the US moved from Security Provider to Security Consumer,” International Affairs 96, no. 5, September 2020, pp. 1253–1279, https://academic.oup.com/ia/article/96/5/1253/5901375.
  • 5. For further research on the region, join the CERI’s Indo Pacific project’s events.
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