In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lean Forward and Pull Back Options for US Grand Strategy

  • Introduction
  • Defining Grand Strategy
  • Grand Strategies: General Overviews

International Relations Lean Forward and Pull Back Options for US Grand Strategy
Gabriela Marin Thornton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0195


Should the US grand strategy be one of leaning forward or one of pulling back? Or are the US interests best served by a strategy situated midway between lean forward and pull back? An intense debate continues over what kind of grand strategy the United States should pursue in order to best preserve its national interests. And consequently, there is also a major debate about how America’s interests should be defined. However, these debates are not new. They have been waged since the United States gained its independence, and they have passionately continued into the early 21st century. These debates have been flamed by various traditions of US foreign policy and by changes in the structure of the international system, as well as by the different interpretations of the US past. Intellectuals, historians, policymakers, and scholars of international relations (IR) have vigorously engaged the issue of grand strategy, its definition, and even its usefulness. IR scholars still wrestle about the criteria to classify grand strategies and about the consequences that various grand strategies could have for the US future. Given all these factors, this article is structured as follows: (1) it defines and presents a general view of grand strategies (see Defining Grand Strategy and Grand Strategies: General Overviews), (2) it presents the reader with a Taxonomy of Grand Strategies, and (3) it presents US Grand Strategies in Historical Context—and the debates that surrounded them—from World War I to the early 21st century. Given its forward orientation, this article gives more attention to debates that took place after the Cold War.

Defining Grand Strategy

The annotated sources in this paragraph familiarize the reader with the definition of grand strategy. The sources in this section were selected because they offer some of the best definitions of grand strategy. Students and scholars of international relations (IR) interested in grand strategy will benefit most from the definitions presented in these works. Generally, grand strategy is understood as a plan to achieve a state’s vital interests, a plan that reconciles ends and means. The term “grand strategy” was first introduced in Liddell Hart 1967, which built upon the ideas of Major J. F. C. Fuller (see Fuller 1929). Hart expanded the term “strategy”—a term linked to military affairs—to “grand strategy” by incorporating resources, such as finances, diplomacy, commerce, and ethics. However, in his view, grand strategy remains a tool of wartime. Earle, et al. 1943 also makes the same claim that strategy must go beyond military affairs. The authors define grand strategies as an art of controlling and utilizing the resources of a nation. Kennedy 1991, while pointing out that grand strategy is used mostly to guide how war should be waged, conceptualizes grand strategy as the capacity of a nation to combine military and nonmilitary elements in order to preserve and enhance its interests. Brands 2014 offers a much more sophisticated definition of grand strategy. The author defines it as an integrated scheme of interests, threats, resources, and policies. Dueck 2006 sees grand strategy as a prioritization of foreign policy goals—a balancing act in front of armed conflict. Martel 2015 offers an interesting model of evaluating a grand strategy along two axes: articulation and implementation. Fever 2009 argues that grand strategy involves what leaders think and want. When defining a nation’s grand strategy, leaders are constrained by budgetary, cultural, and cognitive factors.

  • Brands, Hal. What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.

    Argues that the term grand strategy was used following World War I, and it emerged from the limitations of the concept of strategy confined to military affairs. Defines grand strategy as the “intellectual architecture that gives form and structure to foreign policy” (p. 3). Grand strategy represents an integrated scheme of interests, threats, resources, and policies.

  • Dueck, Colin. “Power, Culture, and Grand Strategy.” In Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy. By Colin Dueck, 1–27. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    Discusses the factors that determine US grand strategy. “Grand strategy involves the prioritization of foreign policy goals, and the selection of a plan or road map that uses those resources to meet those goals” (p 1). Military policy instruments remain central to grand strategy.

  • Earle, Edward Mead, Gordon Alexander Craig, and Felix Gilbert, eds. Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1943.

    See p. 8. American military historian argues that an effective strategy must go beyond the battlefield. Defines strategy as “the art of controlling and utilizing the resources of a nation . . . including its armed forces.”

  • Fever, Peter. “What is Grand Strategy and Why Do We Need It?Foreign Policy, 8 April 2009.

    Grand strategy refers to a collection of plans and policies that illustrates the state’s effort to bring together political, military, diplomatic, and economic tools to advance national interests. Grand strategy is constructed by “government actions in response to real (or perceived) threats and opportunities.” What leaders think is important.

  • Fuller, John F. C. The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1929.

    Describes grand strategy as a way of synchronizing both military and nonmilitary activities. It encompasses directing all warlike resources toward the winning of the war.

  • Hart, B. H. Liddell. Strategy. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.

    See p. 322. British military theorist who first used the term grand strategy, or higher strategy, mostly linked to military affairs. Hart points that the definition of grand strategy should include the calculation and development of economic resources for the fighting services and financial, diplomatic, commercial, and ethical pressures to weaken the opponents’ will.

  • Kennedy, Paul. “Grand Strategy in War and Peace: Toward a Broader Definition.” In Grand Strategies in War and Peace. Edited by Paul Kennedy, 1–7. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

    Renowned historian—in the first chapter of his book—discusses various definitions of grand strategy. Argues that grand strategy is “the capacities of nation’s leaders to bring together all of the elements, both military and non-military for preservation and enhancement of nation’s long term best interests” (p. 5).

  • Martel, William C. “Foundations of Grand Strategies.” In Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice: The Need for an Effective American Foreign Policy. By William C. Martel, 23–56. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    For Martel, grand strategy “articulates the state’s highest political ends” (p 33). Grand strategies are best evaluated along two axes: articulation and implementation. Articulation, meaning conceptual unity between strategy and grand strategy, and implementation mainly consists of an ongoing process along the war-peace continuum. See p. 56.

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