The Unintended Empire

February 2011


“Those who question us now owe the country an explanation of how they would have acted differently given the stakes, the opportunities and the dangers.” – John Poindexter

There seems to be a rather startling lack of dispute of the idea that the United States lacks a strategy or a grand strategy. This lack of dispute makes the deficiency all the more alarming. Clearheaded, well-grounded strategic thinking is difficult – particularly in an era of newfound uncertainty. But it can be grounded in well-founded and well-understood geopolitical principals and history. The importance of the writings of CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan and the value of history are two examples that need little further clarification at this blog. War Plan Orange is another.

The question of how we got to this point is an important one for understanding how to regain the long-range strategic perspective that has served this country so well in the past (while avoiding the far less productive Monday morning quarterback or Captain Hindsight discussions – hence the Poindexter quote). And even more pressing is where we should be now, but are not.

This is a central theme of Dr. George Friedman’s new book, The Next Decade. He argues that the United States oversees an “unintended empire,” that it is neither institutionally organized nor intellectually prepared to make the strategic choices and direct the various elements of national power in a coherent and integrated manner in pursuit of its long-term national interests:

Under both President Bush and President Obama, the United States has lost sight of the long-term strategy that served it well for most of the last century. Instead, recent presidents have gone off on ad hoc adventures. They have set unattainable goals because they have framed the issues incorrectly, as if they believed their own rhetoric. As a result, the United States has overextended its ability to project its power around the world, which has allowed even minor players to be the tail that wags the dog.

The overriding necessity for American policy in the decade to come is a return to the balanced, global strategy that the United States learned from the example of ancient Rome and from the Britain of a hundred years ago. These old-school imperialists didn’t rule by main force. Instead, they maintained their dominance by setting regional players against each other and keeping these players in opposition to others who might also instigate resistance. They maintained the balance of power, using these opposing forces to cancel each other out while securing the broader interests of the empire. They also kept their client states bound together by economic interest and diplomacy, which is not to say the routine courtesies between nations but the subtle manipulation that causes neighbors and fellow clients to distrust each other more than they distrust the imperial powers: direct intervention relying on the empire’s own troops was a distant, last resort.

Adhering to this strategy, the United States intervened in World War I only when the standoff among European powers was failing, and only when it appeared that the Germans, with Russia collapsing in the east, might actually overwhelm the English and French in the west. When the fighting stopped, the United States helped forge a peace treaty that prevented France from dominating postwar Europe.

During the early days of World War II, the United States stayed out of direct engagement as long as it could, supporting the British in their efforts to fend off the Germans in the west while encouraging the Soviets to bleed the Germans in the east. Afterward, the United States devised a balance-of-power strategy to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Western Europe, the Middle East, and ultimately China. Throughout the long span from the first appearance of the “Iron Curtain” to the end of the Cold War, this U.S. strategy of distraction and manipulation was rational, coherent, and effectively devious.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the United States shifted from a strategy focused on trying to contain major powers to an unfocused attempt to contain potential regional hegemons when their behavior offended American sensibilities. In the period from 1991 to 2001, the United States invaded or intervened in five countries— Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia, which was an extraordinary tempo of military operations. At times, American strategy seemed to be driven by humanitarian concerns, although the goal was not always clear. In what sense, for example, was the 1994 invasion of Haiti in the national interest?

But the United States had an enormous reservoir of power in the 1990s, which gave it ample room for maneuver, as well as room for indulging its ideological whims. When you are overwhelmingly dominant, you don’t have to operate with a surgeon’s precision. Nor did the United States, when dealing with potential regional hegemons, have to win, in the sense of defeating an enemy army and occupying its homeland. From a military point of view, U.S. incursions during the 1990s were spoiling attacks, the immediate goal being to plunge an aspiring regional power into chaos, forcing it to deal with regional and internal threats at a time and place of American choosing rather than allowing it to develop and confront the United States on the smaller nation’s own schedule.

After September 11, 2001, a United States newly obsessed with terrorism became even more disoriented, losing sight of its long-term strategic principles altogether. As an alternative, it created a new but unattainable strategic goal, which was the elimination of the terrorist threat. The principal source of that threat, al Qaeda, had given itself an unlikely but not inconceivable objective, which was to re-create the Islamic caliphate, the theocracy that was established by Muhammad in the seventh century and that persisted in one form or another until the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Al Qaeda’s strategy was to overthrow Muslim governments that it regarded as insufficiently Islamic, which it sought to do by fomenting popular uprisings in those countries. From al Qaeda’s point of view, the reason that the Islamic masses remained downtrodden was fear of their governments, which was in turn based on a sense that the United States, their governments’ patron, could not be challenged. To free the masses from their intimidation, al Qaeda felt that it had to demonstrate that the United States was not as powerful as it appeared—that it was in fact vulnerable to even a small group of Muslims, provided that those Muslims were prepared to die.

In response to al Qaeda’s assaults, the United States slammed into the Islamic world—particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. The goal was to demonstrate U.S. capability and reach, but these efforts were once again spoiling attacks. Their purpose was not to defeat an army and occupy a territory but merely to disrupt al Qaeda and create chaos in the Muslim world. But creating chaos is a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. The United States demonstrated that it is possible to destroy terrorist organizations and mitigate terrorism, but it did not achieve the goal that it had articulated, which was to eliminate the threat altogether. Eliminating such a threat would require monitoring the private activities of more than a billion people spread across the globe. Even attempting such an effort would require overwhelming resources. And given that succeeding in such an effort is impossible, it is axiomatic that the United States would exhaust itself and run out of resources in the process, as has happened. Just because something like the elimination of terrorism is desirable doesn’t mean that it is practical, or that the price to be paid is rational.

Recovering from the depletions and distractions of this effort will consume the United States over the next ten years. The first step—returning to a policy of maintaining regional balances of power—must begin in the main area of current U.S. military engagement, a theater stretching from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. For most of the past half century there have been three native balances of power here: the Arab-Israeli, the Indo-Pakistani, and the Iranian-Iraqi. Owing largely to recent U.S. policy, those balances are unstable or no longer exist. The Israelis are no longer constrained by their neighbors and are now trying to create a new reality on the ground. The Pakistanis have been badly weakened by the war in Afghanistan, and they are no longer an effective counterbalance to India. And, most important, the Iraqi state has collapsed, leaving the Iranians as the most powerful military force in the Persian Gulf area.

The entire introduction is available for free.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy

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  • Andy (JADAA)

    A well-articulated point that the US needs to identify its strategic needs and aims and then articulate them in a clear and identifiable manner.

    On the other hand this reads like you’re simply hawking your boss’s new book.


    Sorry, just can’t buy the whole “the US used some balance of power strategy” up until 9/11. I mean, image the skill to keep that awesome grand strategy completely hidden from the American people for this long. One nead only point to how totally unprepared we were for WWI and WWII to see that our involvement had very little to do with our grand strategy.

  • I think an important point of recent history was missed here. Nation level strategic planning will never be the same as it was in the past. This is not a case of “history repeating itself”. Since at least 2001, an individual with a tiny bit of information can influence a strategic power into a theatre level conflict (Iraq, etc.). Today, with a tweet, an email, a wiki leak, or even a Google search a small group, or again a single motivated (or even stupid individual) can not only influence events where he/she stands, but also in the dark back rooms of the largest strategic powers. Maybe not since the time of an “Alexander” (and this is a poor comparison) can one individual game the world so easily. We can plan and strategize and we should, but we have to plan for many multiple circumstances and we won’t be able to control, or even influence. From time to time the modern “great powers” will look to the world as weak, because the “common man” has become strategically powerful. There is great danger and surely much human suffering in that.

  • Andy,

    I am hawking my boss’ new book. I think it adds considerably to a discussion that has been going on here for a while about whether we have a national grand strategy.


    I think we absolutely made mistakes during the interwar period, but I would point to War Plan Orange as a counter to the idea that we were totally unprepared. War Plan Orange pretty much called the ball on the Pacific War. And we often forget the ‘lease’ part of lend/lease, where we ejected the British from nearly every remaining strategic possession in the western hemisphere. Taken as a whole, the decisions we made in the run up to and during WWII strike me as having a sound grounding in larger strategic and grand-strategic thinking.


    I’d caution against overplaying the significance of a single tweet. A couple good reads on that:

  • I dont think I was totally clear. A single motivated man or small group of men with a knife, a gun or a poison has been able to impact history since time before Caesar. Today, the weapon is information. Wikileaks (or other) does impact decision making and the social network does alter and influence the behavior of individuals and groups. My actual point is it serves as a lever, but it has the danger of causing more bad then good when the object rocks back and forth deciding which way to fall.

  • Lowly USN (retired)

    A. Lincoln, U.S. Grant, W.T. Sherman, P.H. Sheridan, D. MacArthur and D.D. Eisenhower proved Total War results in breaking the enemy’s spirit and will to wage war ending with their Unconditional Surrender.

    Andrew Johnson’s failure in Reconstruction and Harry S. Truman’s incompetence to engage the Russians after WW II and the Russians and Chinese in the Korean War has cast a long dark shadow of failures in U.S presidents and the their will to engage in Total War and unconditional victory. – JFK, LBJ, RMN, G.R.F., J.E.C., W.J.C., G.H.W.B, G.W.B. and B.H.O.

    When politicians decide to wage war and prosecute the enemy, including those who would invade our country from our bordering countries, the ROE must be total war to include plans for occupation and reconstruction once the military achieves victory and action ceases.

    When U.S. politicians have no other recourse but to wage war, they must understand it must be total war with one goal, victory over the enemy in the shortest time possible. This can only be achieved by a committed military, committing millions, billions or trillions of USD and the loss of precious American lives.

  • Lexie

    Mr Hughes,
    Firstly I wanted to say I really liked your essay about robotics (Our Own Worst Enemy).
    Anyway, today I watched you speak on polish news about Libya. Is that true what you said, about the civil war and terrorism? I’m making a project for my University about the situation in Libya and its consequences.
    Thank you

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