In an election campaign dominated by domestic issues, foreign themes have appeared as isolated snippets.  Questions regarding what to do about Syria or Iran, or how to manage relations with China and Russia, produce stock responses unrelated to the broad picture.  These are among the most important questions facing political decisionmakers, foreign-policy practitioners, and their advisors, yet America’s grand strategy is never mentioned.

Grand strategy is an overall blueprint for action that matches a state’s resources to its vital interests.  A sound grand strategy enables a state to deploy its political, military, economic, and moral resources in a balanced and proportionate manner, in order to protect and enhance its security and promote its well-being.  It is the brains behind diplomacy and military power: No actual or potential hot spot is considered in isolation from others and apart from the broad picture.

Great Britain successfully pursued a grand strategy during the two centuries that separate the War of the Spanish Succession from Versailles.  That strategy had two pillars: the maintenance of a Continental balance of power and the development of a maritime trading empire, with unhindered access to vital resources and markets secured by a mighty navy.  Britain’s crisis-response strategies—in the wars against Napoleon, in the naval race with Germany, and during the July Crisis of 1914—were clearly correlated to this grand strategy.  Disputes over policy details could be contentious at times; on the fundamentals of higher strategy, however, the British political class maintained a solid consensus until after the Great War.

The Third Reich and the Soviet Union after Stalin were powers devoid of grand strategy.  Until the attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler was a successful opportunist; thereafter, a doomed dilettante.  Conquering the eastern Lebens­arum, while murdering and enslaving millions of Untermenschen in the process, was not a grand strategy but a demonic vision doomed to failure.  Having run out of ideological appeal abroad and economic and social dynamism at home during Stalin’s final years, the Soviet Union could not win the Cold War.  Its piecemeal strategies of subverting the West and promoting Marxist insurgencies in the Third World were a poor substitute for a grand strategy that needed to be defensive to prolong the Soviet state’s life.  Its adversaries recognized the extent of its fundamental weaknesses only toward the very end.

In its infancy, the American Republic was an autarkic continental power pursuing a limited grand strategy.  Its rationale was summed up by George Washington when he warned the United States to preserve her fortunate distance from the affairs of other countries and not to enter into lasting pacts with them: “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?  Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?  It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”  This strategic vision was echoed by John Quincy Adams, who noted approvingly that America “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings . . . But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”  These were rational statements by geopolitical realists.  They were comfortable with the idea of a U.S. monopoly on power in the Western Hemisphere, but free from the present-day delusion that America herself is the embodiment of some “principles.”

The conquest of the West and the rapid growth of industrial capitalism created the conditions for a paradigm shift, which was articulated in the strategic vision of Alfred Thayer Mahan at the end of the 19th century.  His emphasis on sea power signaled a reinvention of Manifest Destiny in the guise of imperialism.  After 1898, America emerged as the third naval power in the world, with overseas possessions and protectorates, bases and coaling stations.  Her grand strategy came to resemble that of Great Britain.  The parallel expansion of political, financial, and economic power—primarily in Latin America—fortified and extended her traditional hemispheric sphere of influence.  Lord Bryce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913, quipped that “the subject of foreign policy in the United States is like the subject of snakes in Ireland.”  He was wrong: America may have entered the century without a mature apparatus for managing her foreign policy, but Theodore Roosevelt changed that and made her a great power.  He also sowed the seeds of two unfortunate heresies: the notion that the exportation of American values would have a redeeming effect on the world, and the tendency of the chief executive to bypass Congress while aggressively pursuing his foreign schemes.

“Again and ever I thank Heaven for the Atlantic Ocean,” wrote the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James in July 1914.  Three years later hundreds of thousands of Pershing’s soldiers were crossing that ocean.  “We may be replacing Britain as the gyroscope of world order,” Col. Edward House declared at a time when Woodrow Wilson was busy devising his grand schemes for a new postwar order.  The boast was premature.  It was only after 1945 that the United States started assuming British security responsibilities, but the Wilsonian Conceit was only temporarily shelved.  World War II transformed America from a great power into one of two global superpowers.  The objective was not balance, but worldwide containment; the alliances were fixed; the paradigm was a zero-sum game.  In the end, the grand strategy based on George Kennan’s “long telegram” was successful, but America was fundamentally transformed during that half-century.  With the rise of the military-industrial-congressional complex and the imperial presidency, the republic morphed into the national-security state.

After the Cold War it made sense to disarm and “come home,” but the process proved to be irreversible, and foreign-policy elites opted for the historically unprecedented model of unipolar global hegemony.  Having declared itself the leader of an imaginary “international community” in the 1990’s, the U.S. government started treating the entire world as an American sphere of interest.  Under Bill Clinton came the expansion of NATO and the Kosovo war—neither of them justifiable in grand-strategic terms.

The formal codification of hyperpower hegemonism came in September 2002 with George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy.  It claimed the right of unilateral American action against “rogue states” and “potentially hostile powers,” in pursuit of an end to “destructive national rivalries.”  Such audacious goals required the United States “to keep military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”  The Obama administration’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance is a rehash of the strategic assumptions of the Bush era.  In Obama’s words, our “enduring national interest” is to maintain the unparalleled U.S. military superiority, “ready for the full range of contingencies and threats” amid “a complex and growing array of security challenges across the globe.”  The Guidance itself asserts that the task of the United States is to “confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.”

This is not a grand strategy but a blueprint for disaster—especially when combined with the interventionists’ urge to “confront and defeat” not only “aggression” but violations of human rights resulting from internal conflicts irrelevant to the American interest (Syria) and putative threats to regional stability (Iran).  It does not recognize the limits of American power and does not correlate that power with this country’s security and prosperity.  It is inflexible and fails to balance military and nonmilitary, short and long-term capabilities.  It rejects the fact that the world is becoming multipolar again while the relative power of the United States is in steady decline.

The absence of a viable grand strategy produces policies that are disjointed, nonsensical, and self-defeating.  Had Saddam stayed in power, Iraq would have acted as a significant check on the spread of Iranian influence.  Instead, nine months after the U.S. withdrew troops, Iraq is emerging as Iran’s key regional ally.  The Shi’ite-controlled government is providing Tehran “with a crucial flow of dollars at a time when sanctions are squeezing its economy,” the New York Times reported in August, and it has allowed Iranian planes to use Iraqi airspace to ferry supplies to Syria.  Not having a grand strategy, the United States went to war in Iraq for all the wrong reasons, and the intervention distorted the regional balance to the benefit of Iran.  A similar result will ensue from the U.S. government’s policy of appeasing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and promoting its offshoot in Syria against Bashar al-Assad.

The period of unipolar dominance following the end of the Cold War has produced a tendency in Washington to equate any stated political objective in some faraway land with America’s “vital” interests.  Last December, President Obama issued a directive elevating the rights and treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people abroad as “a priority in U.S. foreign policy.”  In July 2011, the Hudson Institute declared that “the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on American national security.”  A few months earlier Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that “a resolute US commitment to [Moldova’s territorial integrity] will ensure that we do not cede influence in a region of paramount importance to U.S. foreign policy.”

The list of such absurdities has no end, because no leading political figure in Washington offers a coherent definition of “vital” American interests.  On both sides of the duopoly, the ideology of American exceptionalism and the doctrine of global dominance reign supreme.  November 6 will bring no change.  In addition to an unreservedly pro-Israel stance, a more “robust” policy on China, and—effectively—a war with Iran, Romney is calling for a new cold war, labeling Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” and promising to inform the Russian public of “the virtues of freedom and a government free of corruption.”  Like the one we have, presumably.

At a time of domestic financial weakness and cultural decline, the American interest requires prudence, restraint, and a rational link between ends and means.  Abroad, it demands disengagement from distant countries of which we know little; at home, a sane immigration policy.  Making Belgrade safe for a gay-pride parade; securing Moldova’s integrity; and protecting Kyrgyzstan from whoever may be threatening her is not worth the bones of a single Alabaman grenadier.