The Promise And Failure Of U.S. Grand Strategy After The Cold War


By Jeremi Suri

Like so many things, it began and it ended in New York. In December 1988, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union flew into the city amidst great fanfare and anticipation. President Ronald Reagan, President-elect George H.W. Bush, and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev met on Governors Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan. They were to celebrate how they had, through unprecedented arms reduction agreements and credible personal commitments to cooperation, built what Reagan called “a strong foundation for the future.” Conversing casually and strolling “as friends” in Gorbachev’s words, almost no one could deny that the international system had entered a new, post-Cold War era.[1] The fall of the Berlin Wall less than a year later – and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years after that – were surely not inevitable, but they were no longer unthinkable. The New York Times echoed popular sentiments, evidenced by the enthusiastic crowds on the streets of Manhattan (soon Budapest, Prague, Beijing, and Berlin, too), when it looked forward in late 1988 to the “basic restructuring of international politics—for the rule of law, not force; for multilateralism, not unilateralism; and for economic as well as political freedoms.”[2] By September 2001, nearly everyone recognized that the terrain of international politics had changed fundamentally. The hopes embodied by the December 1988 superpower summit in New York, however, turned to unmistakable horror as a new group of actors left their indelible mark on the city. The two hijacked aircraft that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and killed more than 2,500 civilians announced a new era of fear, violence, and extended conflict. A global “War on Terror”—including American-led military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as fundamental transformations in the treatment of prisoners and domestic law enforcement —was not inevitable. Yet, it became almost irresistible as Americans grappled with the damage inflicted by a gang of well-organized Islamic extremists.

Scholars have begun to write about the years, bracketed by these two New York moments, as an “interwar” period—a time when Americans became convinced of their “exceptional” ability to both transcend the hard choices of international politics and to pursue an expansive agenda at low domestic cost. Apparent safety and freedom encouraged indiscipline and wishful thinking. Even self-identified hardliners in the early 1990s adopted this point of view. Richard Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Lewis “Scooter” Libby described an abstract and self-reinforcing “democratic ‘zone of peace’” in the post-Cold War Defense Planning Guideline, released to the public in January 1993. They claimed that: “This zone of peace offers a framework for security not through competitive rivalries in arms, but through cooperative approaches and collective security institutions. The combination of these trends has given our nation and our alliances great depth for our strategic position.”[3]

In a context of perceived “strategic depth,” the rapid policy transformations of the late 1980s, surrounding big issues like the nature of the Soviet threat and the prospects of German unification, gave way to slow, tentative, and agonizing decision making about American interventions in strategically less significant places: Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda. This was the “regional defense strategy” of Cheney, Wolfowitz, Libby, and their Democratic successors in action.[4] The 1990s did not witness a return of classic great power politics (“back to the future”), as one political scientist famously predicted.[5] Instead, the decade was dominated by small policy decisions, misguided political controversies, and half measures.[6]

Sophisticated strategic thinkers like George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and Henry Kissinger gave way to the more technocratic inclinations of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Anthony Lake, and even Colin Powell. The “wise men” of the Cold War had defined clear national interests, identified pressing threats (foreign and domestic), and devised policies that promised to secure interests from threats at manageable cost. Their successors did not do any of these things consistently. What were American national interests after the Cold War? What were the key threats? Which policies promised the greatest security and prosperity to the nation? None of the leading figures in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton answered these questions coherently. None of the strategic documents they produced articulated a political-military architecture beyond vague claims about democracy, markets, stability, and American primacy.

Circumstances at the end of the Cold War made strategy articulation particularly difficult. The United States no longer confronted a clear adversary (the Soviet Union) or a rival ideology (communism.) These threats had disciplined American strategic thinking. They had also become comfortable lodestars. Suddenly removed, they left policymakers adrift. The new threats to American interests were both more defuse and more numerous. They were difficult to think about in systematic terms, ranging from rogue states to anarchical societies, with warlords and terrorists in-between. Strategists had to make a cake from crumbs—to find some coherent unity in a fragmented, incoherent post-Cold War world. As one author shows, the Clinton administration eventually gave up and satisfied itself eating crumbs.[7]

Despite American wealth and power, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton governed at a moment—like the interwar 1920s— when the nation turned primarily within. These circumstances, however, made a coherent and sophisticated foreign policy strategy more important than ever before. With diffuse threats and limited resources, the nation needed discerning leadership. A post-Cold War grand strategy could not rely on the obvious; instead, it had to define priority interests carefully, identify a hierarchy of threats, and nurture means for protecting interests and thwarting threats. A post-Cold War grand strategy had to guide and persuade, rather than simply react.

The Bush and Clinton administrations were not merely victims of circumstances in the 1990s. Their strategic failures were conceptual. Neither administration made the effort to define the kind of international system it hoped to create. Neither administration thought seriously about how it wanted to manage state-to-state relations in anything beyond ad hoc arrangements and vague ideas about democratization, development, and regional defense. Effective strategy requires much more. It demands clear thinking about how to exert leverage over distant societies, how to build effective allies and institutions, and how to co-opt and deter potential adversaries. Eloquent ideals and smooth diplomacy are only a start.

President George H.W. Bush’s commencement address at Texas A&M University, in May 1989, revealed the limitations of his strategic vision. The president spoke about moving “beyond containment to a new policy for the 1990’s”:

In sum, the United States now has as its goal much more than simply containing Soviet expansionism. We seek the integration of the Soviet Union into the community of nations. And as the Soviet Union itself moves toward greater openness and democratization, as they meet the challenge of responsible international behavior, we will match their steps with steps of our own. Ultimately, our objective is to welcome the Soviet Union back into the world order.[8]

Bush paraphrased Reagan when he called on Gorbachev to “support self-determination for all the nations of Eastern Europe and central Europe…In short, tear down the Iron Curtain.” Bush also demanded “lasting political pluralism and respect for human rights” from the Soviet Union, as well as a general commitment to “openness”— “open emigration, open debate, open airwaves.”[9]

The problem with Bush’s speech, and the strategy it outlined, was that it placed the entire onus for action on the Soviet Union. The speech said nothing about American priorities, American leverage, and, most important, long-term American actions to ensure favorable outcomes in foreign behavior. The speech also failed to identify the core U.S. interests that future relations with the Soviet Union and other great powers would serve. Bush’s words gave little guidance to policymakers beyond a hopeful wait-and-see attitude, and a readiness for crisis reaction. Instead of a strategy in 1989, the Bush administration had a wish list.

Giving appropriate credit to the president, Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice—two national security veterans of the Bush administrations— show that the White House pushed its wish list on Gorbachev, pressing him to allow the reunification of Germany (within NATO) in 1990.[10] The end of the German division, however, did not require a sophisticated U.S. strategy. It was an easy case for U.S. policymakers at the time. The citizens of East Germany and other Soviet satellite states had taken politics into their own hands. Emboldened by Gorbachev’s pledges to create a more open political system, they had challenged communist authorities in 1989, calling for more national independence and representative government. Gorbachev’s reforms had unleashed this process, Reagan had encouraged it, and the brave citizens of Eastern Europe had seized control of the circumstances. Bush and his advisors were in the envious position of watching events play out.[11]

Bush carefully avoided humiliating Gorbachev in 1989, but he required the Soviet leader to make all the difficult concessions. Historian Melvyn Leffler describes it very well: “The affection that characterized Gorbachev’s relations with Bush, and even more, the warmth that developed between Baker and Shevardnadze were conditioned by the weakness of the Soviets’ position domestically and internationally. They were supplicants … At the outset of the Cold War, Truman had said that there could be cooperation between Moscow and Washington if the United States got its way 85 percent of the time. Now that was happening.”[12]

It would not happen elsewhere for the United States. In the subsequent American-led war to turn back Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait, and U.S. interventions in Panama and Somalia, the Bush administration had trouble articulating a strategy beyond defeating bad dictators. The post-Cold War Defense Planning Guidance emphasized “common defense against aggression” and actions to “preclude any hostile power from dominating a region critical to our interests.” Like the president, leaders of the Defense Department sought to assure U.S. dominance without any clear purpose beyond just that.[13]

The Bush administration lacked a clear framework for explaining its small and often unsatisfactory wars. When the United States chose not to intervene—in China after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989 and in the Yugoslav civil war—it also could not articulate a strategy that explained tolerating these atrocities. Time and again, policy decisions appeared reactive and uncertain in their broader purposes. How did the Bush administration seek to re-shape the Middle East by forcing Saddam Hussein’s retreat? How did the White House envision a post-Cold War East Asia, and China’s role in this region?

Perhaps the experience of the Bush administration helps explain why moments of rich “victory” are poor times for serious strategy debate. The optimism and self-confidence of grand achievements make it very difficult for policymakers, especially in democratic societies, to limit expectations. Claims on national resources quickly multiply, calls for sacrifice lose their appeal, and citizens (including leaders) come to think that they can get more for less.

The makers of foreign policy, in the Clinton administration, were both less worldly and less provincial than their predecessors. Figures like Anthony Lake, Warren Christopher, Strobe Talbott, Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, and the president himself were highly educated and professorial in outlook. They had traveled widely and thought instinctively about the diversity of international experiences. Like most academics, they were uncomfortable with the exercise of concentrated power by a small group of decisionmakers, even Americans. They were all marked by a belief that just such a concentration of power had brought the United States to tragedy in Vietnam. Instead of power politics, as practiced by the Bush administration, Clinton and his advisors sought a more open system of international relations, where the United States led through consensus (“world opinion”), markets, and institutions. The popularity of Joseph Nye’s phrase, “soft power,” captured Clintonian hopes.[14]

Anthony Lake, Clinton’s first national security advisor, took up the challenge of authoring the administration’s foreign policy strategy. Speaking at Johns Hopkins University on September 21, 1993, Lake described how the United States would transform its grand strategy “from containment to enlargement.” “Throughout the Cold War,” Lake explained, “we contained a global threat to market democracies; now we should seek to enlarge their reach, particularly in places of special significance to us. The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement—enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.”[15]

How would this “strategy of enlargement” work? Lake emphasized four kinds of action:

  • “We should strengthen the community of major market democracies—including our own—which constitutes the core from which enlargement is proceeding.”
  • “We should help foster and consolidate new democracies and market economies, where possible in states of special significance and opportunity.”
  • “We must counter the aggression—and support the liberalization of states hostile to democracy and markets.”
  • “We need to pursue our humanitarian agenda not only by providing aid, but also by working to help democracy and market economics take root in regions of greatest humanitarian concern.”[16]

Markets and democracies were Lake’s solution to all foreign policy problems: “The expansion of market-based economics abroad helps expand our exports and create American jobs, while it also improves living conditions and fuels demands for political liberalization abroad. The addition of new democracies makes us more secure because democracies tend not to wage war on each other or sponsor terrorism.” Supporting markets and democracies, therefore, was both self-interest and the common good.[17]

Lake’s speech succeeded in framing the administration’s foreign policy. It was immediately echoed by the president and other cabinet officials. Despite the many inconsistencies in policy over the next seven years, it roughly characterized the aims of Clinton’s international activities. From Bosnia to Russia to Haiti to China to Kosovo, the president emphasized opening access to trade and preventing egregious—and obvious—examples of violence against human communities. The administration attempted to use economic incentives and promises of public respectability to encourage democratic reforms overseas. When that did not work, Clinton only very hesitantly considered the use of force. At almost all costs, he avoided the commitment of American troops on foreign territory.

This was fatefully true in the most significant military action of Clinton’s eight years in office. On March 24, 1999—after more than seven years of civil war and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia—Clinton invoked Lake’s rhetoric of enlargement to justify an American-led NATO bombing campaign over Serbia: “we need a Europe that is prosperous, secure, undivided, and free,” the president announced. Slobodan Milošević, the leader of Serbia, threatened this market democratic vision through his consistent efforts to separate peoples, close markets, and rule through dictatorship. After denying the obvious for years—that Milošević would not accept a diplomatic agreement for a multiethnic Yugoslavia—the Clinton administration resorted to force from a distance. For eleven weeks, NATO aircraft and missiles attacked Serbian military and civilian positions. Milošević finally agreed to withdraw his forces from Kosovo on June 11, 1999, and he eventually stood trial for war crimes in the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY.) At the same time, the NATO bombing inspired wide international opposition for its damage to civilian and diplomatic targets (including the Chinese embassy in Belgrade), its questionable strategic purposes in a war fought largely by paramilitary units, and, above all, its half-hearted quality. Clinton committed to an ambitious agenda of protecting Kosovo while also promising: “I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war.”[18] This was a war for enlargement fought with diminished means.[19]

America’s stumbling actions in the former Yugoslavia capture the shortcomings of the Clinton administration’s approach to strategy. “Enlargement” articulated preferences for markets and democracies that were widely shared in the United States and elsewhere. It did not, however, identify the key priorities in pursuing these ends. Were the Balkans more important to American interests than North Korea or Iraq? Was stopping genocide more important than nurturing productive relations with regional leaders? Enlargement promised everything without giving any guidance about trade-offs and necessary sacrifices. For this reason, the Clinton administration wavered inconsistently on almost every major foreign policy issue—unsure whether to commit its military and political capital to a particular purpose or watch events from afar. This strategic uncertainty encouraged the same kind of triangulation Clinton practiced with domestic policy—half measures like bombing without ground troops that satisfied no one and provoked many.

If George H.W. Bush was unable to master the post-Cold War landscape because he had process without purpose, Clinton had purpose without process. Both combinations were fatal for articulating and implementing grand strategy

Formulating a grand strategy for a country as large and powerful as the United States is not easy. The shortcomings of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—two enormously capable people—should humble anyone who thinks about these issues. The United States has a stake in so many foreign and domestic issues, and therefore it is very difficult to prioritize. The country also has a wide margin of error—its survival is rarely jeopardized—and therefore it can afford to formulate policy without sufficient concentration or commitment. Most of all, the United States is a pluralistic society. Grand strategy requires consensus which is very difficult to build and sustain amidst the competition of interests and ideas that define American democracy.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 did not eliminate these problems. In fact, they contributed to a rapid expansion in American activities around the globe. The United States quickly found itself conducting serious military operations virtually everywhere. The “War on Terror” had no clear territorial or temporal limits. President George W. Bush’s commitment “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” was the most universalistic foreign policy mission in the nation’s long history of universalistic endeavors.[20]

Despite the suffering in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania, the country continued to benefit from a wide margin of error. The destruction was limited and the nation’s survival was not in jeopardy. The patriotic consensus born of the terrorist attacks was very strong throughout the United States. However, it did not foreclose immediate debate about basic issues like whether the country should go to war and how it should reconcile civil rights with national security. Patriotism does not prevent vibrant political pluralism. That is a great virtue of the American system.

What ended in New York City on that terrible day was not the on-going and still unresolved debate about post-Cold War grand strategy, begun more than a decade earlier on Governors Island. Instead, the terrorist attacks shattered the false belief that the United States no longer faced grave threats. The clear skies over the Hudson River shined a bright light on how vulnerable Americans were to the worst forms of violence, and how inadequate present policy had become. The efforts by George W. Bush and his advisors to formulate a grand strategy in this context—with very controversial results—should only reinforce how difficult and important this endeavor is. Like urban politics, international politics requires leadership, resources, and the discipline to put those to their most effective use amidst a proliferation of pressures. Grand strategy is about making sense of complexity. Grand strategy is the wisdom to make power serve useful purposes.

Jeremi Suri is E. Gordon Fox Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This essay is condensed from the Fall 2009 issue of Orbis, which featured five papers on American Grand Strategy originally prepared for the 50th anniversary of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in cooperation with Duke University’s Program in American Grand Strategy and the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College. Other essays in this collection covered U.S. grand strategy after World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, respectively, and the strategy debate in the wake of unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Established in 2009, the Hertog Program in Grand Strategy is a unique endeavor between Temple University’s Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. This program is composed of three components: research, publication, and education. The Consortium on Grand Strategy will provide a distinctive intellectual community for the presentation and vetting of innovative research in the study of grand strategy. The Hertog Program in Grand Strategy’s e-mail newsletter, The Telegram, will disseminate the condensed-length versions of this and other related research to a wider scholarly and policy-interested audience, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s journal, Orbis, will frequently carry the full-length pieces. In addition to these events, Temple University has launched a seminar for advanced undergraduate and graduate students entitled “Grand Strategy: History and Policy” to help educate the next generation of leaders who can apply historical training to contemporary international challenges. Students from the seminar participate in the Consortium programs. The Hertog Program on Grand Strategy is made possible by a grant from the Hertog Foundation.

This article was first published by FPRI


1 ^ Memorandum of Conversation between President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev, et al., Governors Island, New York, December 7, 1988, in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 261, (accessed December 30, 2008).
2 ^ New York Times, December 8, 1988, A34.
3  ^ “Defense Strategy for the 1990s: The Regional Defense Strategy,” January 1993, available at: (accessed May 5, 2009).
4 ^ Ibid.
5 ^ See John J. Mearsheimer, “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War,” International Security, Summer 1990, pp. 5-56; idem., The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).
6 ^ See Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (New York: Public Affairs, 2008); Hal Brands, From Berlin to Baghdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008); Donald Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan, While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today (New York: St. Martins, 2000).
7 ^ Brands, From Berlin to Baghdad, p. 196.
8 ^ George H.W. Bush, Commencement Address at Texas A&M University, May 12, 1989, (accessed December 21, 2008).
9 ^ Ibid.
10 ^ Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), esp. pp. 256-352.
11 ^ This point follows Mary E. Sarotte 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
12 ^ Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), p. 450.
13 ^ “Defense Strategy for the 1990s: The Regional Defense Strategy,” January 1993, available at: (accessed May 5, 2009).
14 ^ See Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1991); idem., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
15 ^ Anthony Lake, “From Containment to Enlargement,” speech at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington D.C., September 21, 1993, available at: (accessed December 21, 2008).
16 ^ Ibid.
17 ^ Ibid.
18 ^ Bill Clinton’s Address to the Nation, March 24, 1999, in Public Papers of President William J. Clinton, 1999, Volume I, pp. 451-54.
19 ^ See Chollet and Goldgeier, American Between the Wars, pp. 222-26.
20 ^ President George. W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005, available at: (accessed May 26, 2009).

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