The View From Olympus: Getting Grand Strategy Wrong

One of the iron laws of warfare is that a higher level dominates a lower. You can be brilliant tactically, but if you are defeated operationally, you lose. You can win tactically and operationally, but if you get beaten strategically, you lose. And if you get your grand strategy wrong, you lose no matter how well you did at the lower three levels. The German Army was the best in the world for almost eighty years, but Germany lost both World Wars because its grand strategy was terrible.

Having failed to copy tactical and operational excellence, we now appear instead to be imitating Berlin when it comes to grand strategy. The new national security strategy published by the White House on December 18 is a disaster. The strategy it recommends was obsolete before the ink was dry.

As the New York Times reported on December 19,

Mr. Trump’s strategy contains more than a few hints of a return to a Cold War view of the world. . . China is a ‘revisionist’ power. . .Russia is also described as revisionist. . .it [the strategy] is animated by a single idea: that the world has been on a three-decade holiday from superpower rivalry and it suggests that the holiday is now over.

What a wonderful Christmas present to “terrorists”, i.e., Fourth Generation war and those who fight it! The White House just told them that instead of creating an alliance of states to fight and defeat them, we are going to put our energy into picking quarrels with the other two great powers, Russia and China – the two countries we need most as allies in defense of the state system. If 4GW were listed on the New York Stock Exchange, I’d sell all my Bitcoins and put everything into Terrorism Consolidated Amalgamated Ltd. (A financial note: critics’ argument that Bitcoins have no intrinsic value is not true. One Bitcoin is worth exactly one tulip bulb.)

As I have argued repeatedly and is evident all around us to anyone who has eyes, the world is caught up in a grand strategic paradigm shift. Fourth Generation war, war waged by entities that are not states, means that the grand strategic contest for the 21st century is the fight to preserve the state system itself. To do that, we need an alliance of all states in defense of the state system. Obviously, such an alliance must begin with the two other Great Powers, China and Russia. Only after these three have united in a Triple Alliance will it be possible to bring in everyone else.

The greatest hope of those seeking to undermine and destroy the state system is that instead of uniting in self-defense, states will expend their energies fighting other states. Every state vs. state conflict is a gift to the forces of Fourth Generation war, because the losing state will be so weakened that it may collapse and will certainly be more vulnerable. Yet this is exactly what the White House’s new grand strategy calls for. To quote a line from a favorite 17th century tavern song, “Huggle Duggle Duggle, the Devil Laughed Aloud.”

The New York Times, whose loathing for President Trump drips from every page, referred to the new grand strategic document as “Mr. Trump’s strategy”. But is it?

In his speech accompanying the paper’s release, the president said little about it. Instead of echoing its hostility toward Russia, he thanked President Putin for a call thanking our CIA for information that prevented a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. The president said, “That’s a great thing. And that is the way it’s supposed to work.” Indeed it is, in an alliance against the forces of 4GW.

As was the case with the president’s earlier speech on Afghanistan, I think we are seeing Mr. Trump say, “This isn’t the way I want to go. My instinct is to do the opposite, i.e., get out of Afghanistan and ally with Russia. But this isn’t an area I know much about so I am deferring it to my advisors.”

In the early part of the 20th century, we saw another national leader, who is now unfairly looked down upon by too many historians, repeatedly defer to his foreign policy and military advisors even though he disagreed with them. That leader was Kaiser Wilhelm II. Unfortunately for Germany, he was usually right and his advisors were wrong. Had he followed his own instincts, Austria would have taken Belgrade but then stopped after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination; had war come anyway, Germany would not have resumed unrestricted U-boat warfare in 1917, thereby bringing in the U.S. and guaranteeing Germany’s defeat.

The price of Kaiser Wilhelm’s deference to his advisors was the end of his dynasty. The price of Washington intentionally renewing the Cold War instead of accepting the new grand strategic paradigm and building the alliance of all states it requires may be the end of the state system itself.