The Balance of Power, Public Goods, and the Lost Art of Grand Strategy: American Policy toward the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia in the 21st Century

27 November 2012

An important driver of relative decline in America’s international standing is the failure of its political elites to define reality-based foreign policy goals and to relate the diplomatic, economic, and military means at Washington’s disposal to realizing them—the essence of “grand strategy.” For several decades, American policy has been pulled in opposite directions by two competing models of grand strategy. In one—the leadership model—America maximizes its international standing by adroitly managing regional and global power balances and promoting the processes of economic liberalization known collectively as globalization. In the second model—the transformation model—America seeks not to manage power balances but to transcend them by becoming a hegemon, in key regions and globally. The chief reason American policy is failing is because, since the Cold War’s end, the transformation model has gained almost complete ascendancy in American political circles. That is problematic because transformationalists reject a lesson that balance of power theorists and foreign policy realists know: while hegemony seems nice in theory, in the real world it is unattainable. Pursuing hegemony is not just quixotic; it is counter-productive for a great power’s strategic position. To arrest its decline, the United States must recover a capacity for sound grand strategy, grounded in the leadership model. This is especially so with respect to two regions where policy efficacy will largely determine America’s standing as a 21st-century great power: the Persian Gulf and rising Asia. Deficiencies in U.S. policy toward each of these critical regions have become synergistic with deficiencies toward the other; over time, these deficiencies have contributed much to the erosion of America’s international standing. Recovering a capacity for sound grand strategy will require a thoroughgoing recasting of policy toward both regions—and more nuanced appreciation of the interrelationship between them for U.S. interests.