Saturday, 13 July 2024

    Strategic Vision in Wonderland 

    by Navy Capt. (Ret) Pete O’Brien

    Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

    The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

    Alice: “I don’t much care where.”

    The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

    From 1775 to 1783 the 13 Colonies were just trying to be free of England. It was a simple enough vision: independence. 

    Following the war the vision shifted to anther very basic vision: just staying “afloat,” trying to make some sort of nation function as a nation. 

    We created a Constitution – a remarkable feat, a document that was the envy of the world for 220 years – and still is if you want the root explanation of why millions of people are trying to get into the US and not so much anywhere else. (How many people tried to sneak into China last year?) 

    Then we had to fight for our survival again. And then we had a goal of taming this great continent – and that vision truly did override a whole list of other considerations. 

    We also struggled – and finally succeeded – in ending slavery. 

    With the closing of the frontiers in the 1890s our vision changed, perhaps the most successful changes in focus any nation has ever executed, without some great geopolitical catalyst to push it. Massive change in just a decade straddling the turn of the last century – led by perhaps the most energetic, and perhaps smartest, of our presidents. The US assumed a new vision, America taking a leadership roll on the world stage.

    And we did. And that role was critical in the next great goals or visions: Win World War I, then prepare for – and win – the next Great War (from a strategic perspective everyone who was thinking about it knew WWII was coming) and we reached that goal, we achieved those visions. 

    Then came two great visions: first, the vision of a world free from communism (really, the USSR), and the space race. Again, both visions were achieved.

    In each case the grand vision “percolated down” to the individual and was transformed into something that was personal – everyone saw, at least to some small extent, that they were part of this great challenge, this great adventure.

    What is the lesson learned? Simply, the United States has benefited for most of its existence with an obvious grand goal in mind, and that goal has provided enough focus that other problems – and some have been severe – have been overcome or pushed aside.

    Then the Soviet Union went away and the space race had not only been won, what remained was boring to most people, except when there was a tragedy.

    But since the USSR broke up the US has lived in a strategic vacuum. The nation has no clear goal, no electrifying vision, poor leadership, and a distinct lack of visionaries in Washington. During the 90s there was a seeming lack of any effort to construct a meaningful grand vision and hence grand strategy to achieve that vision. Arguments among the doyens of US foreign policy seemed to focus on whether in fact history had ended, that “liberal Government” – legislatures and market economies – were now the accepted forms of government. Everything else was given short shrift. 

    And since the end of the Cold War the US has had no great vision. The 1990s, a strategic vacuum, was followed by 2001 and 20 years chasing terrorism and trying to bring peace to the Mid East. 

    In short, since 1990, with a few minor exceptions, the US has been reacting, not acting, following the violent and chaotic events caused by civilizations grinding against each other, never staking out any great vision, never charting an independent course; always following world events, never leading them..

    And so here were are, having left Afghanistan, we watch central Asia deteriorate. Time-late efforts at deterrence failed in Ukraine, and 2 years later we are watching war rip apart that country, and we still have no plan, because we have no clear goal. Our leadership has made a point of saying that it’s up to Kiev, we are with them to the end.  That’s not leading; we’re following them. Those are the words of a second tier nation, not a great power, and certainly not a superpower. 

    Israel, once one of our closest allies, finds itself in an existential struggle and we find ourselves giving them weapons on one hand and confusing advice on the other.

    China keeps expanding (as it has for 30 years) and we find it difficult to marshal the gumption to kick start our industries to deter her aggression.

    A rag-tag group of terrorists, backed by Iran, upset global maritime trade, we find ourselves in another war, and again reacting, not acting.

    It might help if we asked why should we care? Like Alice, we don’t seem to care where we are going. So, like Alice we’ll be led by events, not lead them. We will be a re-actor, not an actor.

    Where does that leave us?

    In the short term it means that we are going to find ourselves responding to events and that means almost assuredly we will be surprised. 

    But more to the point, it’s going to mean that getting out of any of these situations is going to take longer, be more expensive, and will probably be much more destructive.

    Is there a way out? Sure. We need to begin a national dialogue about what is next for this country, a goal that’s worthy of a great nation and a great people, a goal outside ourselves, a grand goal. Begin by asking a simple question: What do we want?

    Or we cannot care, we can continue inside the strategic vacuum.

    Problem is, the rest of the world will fill that vacuum. And we probably won’t like how it’s filled.ReplyReply allForward