The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Politics and Strategy

Fri, April 1, 2011

Politics and StrategyOne of the greatest services political science provides is offering interpretive guides that help make sense of the morass of news flooding our bandwidth and airwaves. This is particularly valuable in the often chaotic realm of international relations, where we struggle to keep up with dramatic events unfolding in far-flung lands. The recent international show of force in Libya is a prime example. Why exactly did the United States get involved? Is American involvement consistent with what we have come to expect from the Obama administration?

Peter Trubowitz’s new book, “Politics and Strategy: Partisan Ambition and American Statecraft,” offers a means to make sense of American foreign policy at the broadest level – the level known as grand strategy. The term grand strategy refers to the purposeful and planned use of military, economic and diplomatic means to achieve desired foreign policy ends. In formulating grand strategy, Trubowitz argues, chief executives must balance the cross pressures of governing effectively at home and guaranteeing the nation’s security abroad. In all circumstances, chief executives strive to maintain their hold on political power. Mismanaging either international or domestic politics can threaten that hold on power.

The book develops a typology of grand strategies that vary by ambition and cost. Grand strategies may be revisionist – seeking to shift the international balance of power in one’s favor – or they can be status quo-oriented. For example, a grand strategy may be expansionist, by seeking to acquire more power and influence abroad. But grand strategy might take the form of retrenchment, seeking only to maintain a state’s international position. In addition to strategic ambition, grand strategies may be expensive or cheap. National leaders are therefore faced with four types of grand strategies: ambitious and expensive; ambitious and cheap; status quo and expensive; and status quo but cheap.

The grand strategy that leaders choose will depend on geopolitical circumstance – what Trubowitz calls geopolitical slack – and the leader’s domestic coalition’s preference for guns or butter (investment in the military and national security versus investment in domestic welfare and economic development). The different scenarios and their consequences are readily illustrated by the different circumstances – and subsequent choices – found when comparing the presidencies of George W. Bush and, to date, Barack Obama.

Bush chose the revisionist grand strategy of expansionism. Domestically, the Republican Party preferred investing in the military and national security. Originally, the Republican preference for military expansion was out of sync with public opinion, but this changed with the 2011 terrorist attacks. The 2011 terrorist attacks also altered the political incentives to project U.S. power abroad. For Bush there were reputational dangers in underplaying the risks of another attack on American soil. There were also potential electoral rewards in highlighting these risks. National public opinion was now amenable to Republican Party preferences and sympathetic to Republican claims to be the most credible on issues of national security. The Democratic Party was easily fractured over how to approach the issue, all providing clear domestic political benefits to the Republicans of an expensive, ambitious expansionist policy.

Obama has favored a vastly different approach – a status quo strategy of retrenchment, marked by moves to scale back foreign commitments and reduce the size and costs of the country’s geopolitical footprint. Compared to Bush’s ambitious and expensive strategy, Obama’s is much less ambitious, and cheaper. The difference is primarily due to an inverted set of domestic political incentives. Obama has little to gain politically from ambitious national security projects. Obama’s domestic political fortunes are tied to his ability to provide butter, not guns, and his foreign policy choices reflect this.

Although U.S. involvement in Libya may appear to contradict the Obama policy of retrenchment, in fact it is clearly in line with it. On the issue of why the U.S. would involve itself at all, there is risk of geopolitical failure that could hurt Obama politically. A humanitarian disaster or the unraveling of the Middle East into chaos would pose serious political troubles for Obama. And, having decided to act, it is abundantly clear that the extent and type of U.S. action coincides with Obama’s broader foreign policy strategy, by insisting on broad international cooperation, leadership by NATO, and heavy reliance on European involvement and burden sharing.

Trubowitz’s book demonstrates how grand strategies are derived from national executives balancing the competing demands of geopolitics and domestic politics, and from leaders’ fundamental incentive to  maintain – or strengthen – their hold on executive power.

Watch video of Peter Trubowitz discussing the book.

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