At a time when the standard-bearers of both the Republican and Democratic parties appear to have moved away from being interested in a globally interventionist foreign policy of the kind practiced by recent presidents such as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is there a future for a grand strategy premised on democracy promotion, free trade, and an active US military presence around the world? In American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy, Paul Miller—a professor in the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, a former US Army intelligence officer, CIA analyst, and National Security Council director during the George W. Bush administration—makes a forceful case that such a grand strategy served the US well for a long time, and that it should continue to do so in future decades.
The core argument of the book is aptly summarized by the following three major theoretical ideas put forth by the author from the very beginning: “American power and liberal order are mutually constitutive, the balance of power and the spread of democracy are complementary objectives, and kinetic operations against terrorists and stability operations in failed states are mutually reinforcing.” Each of these contested ideas is carefully and thoroughly expanded upon in separate chapters of the work. In addition, the author also analyzes the challenges and opportunities present in the twenty-first-century international security environment, at least as they appeared in the pre-Trump/pre-Brexit era. Unlike most books on US grand strategy, American Power and Liberal Order also devotes considerable attention to the “nuts and bolts” tools and resources needed to implement the ambitious goals set forth by the author, with separate chapters on homeland defense, diplomacy and development assistance, and the military and intelligence communities.
Grand strategy, defined by historian Hal Brands as “the intellectual architecture that gives form and structure to foreign policy,” is usually grounded in one of the major international relations schools of thought, such as realism and liberalism. Because each grand strategy needs to answer questions such as how the world of international politics works (i.e., are power considerations, institutions, or cultural norms driving state behavior?), what are the main threats to US national interests, and what role should Washington play on the world stage, a larger theoretical worldview is needed to underpin the specific principles of any grand strategy. In Miller’s case, he eschews realism and liberalism and instead grounds his arguments in three other paradigms that he calls “normative frameworks”: just war, Christian Realism (particularly as it was formulated by the famous theologian and thinker Reinhold Niebuhr in The Irony of American History), and conservative internationalism (as outlined recently by George Washington University professor Henry Nau in his book Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy Under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan).
Miller’s eclectic choice of frameworks introduces some tensions in the book, given some of the differences between the three bodies of thought presented above. For example, Nau’s armed diplomacy explicitly advocates the use or threat of force early during negotiations to gain leverage, while the just war tradition usually considers in the jus ad bellum framework the need for force to be seen as a last resort. Another tension lies in Niebuhr’s constant warnings about not being too optimistic about foreign interventions in what we would today call nation-building operations (acknowledged by Miller, to his credit), and Miller’s own recommendations for improving our ability to conduct such missions.
The first and arguably most important argument put forth in this book is that the US national interest is tightly connected to the upholding of a “liberal world order.” This order is usually defined as the legal treaties, norms, and institutions governing state interactions; in addition, Miller argues, the culture that prevails in the international system is another key aspect of it. The book’s contention is that we currently live in a favorable liberal world order shaped by the United States and its Western allies and buttressed by America’s military power. Moreover, this liberal world order represents “the outer perimeter of American security,” and therefore “championing liberalism and investing in good governance abroad” should be core elements of America’s grand strategy.
Miller’s forceful defense of the liberal global order may have been prescient, given the remarkable shift in US foreign policy over the past couple of years away from this tenet of the post-Cold War grand strategy. The Trump administration’s positions on a number of political and economic issues are almost diametrically opposed to the ones presented in American Power and Liberal Order, starting with the most basic question as to whether the liberal order is serving US interests or not. The administration’s focus on trade deficits and job losses in certain sectors of the economy that it contends are a direct result of the present liberal order led Trump to reconsider the very nature of the assumed mutually beneficial relationship between US economic interests and the liberal order. Given the tepid defense of free trade and globalization among either Republicans and Democrats, it remains to be seen whether the United States will reverse to the post-Cold War consensus on foreign economic policy. Miller’s argument is on solid economic ground in theory, but politically difficult in the current climate.
In the realm of security and great power competition, the relative impunity with which Russia conducted military and cyber interventions in Eastern Europe and with which China defied international law by militarizing man-made islands in disputed territories in the South China Sea leads to skepticism as to the extent to which the liberal, rule-based character of the world order truly extends beyond the confines of the West. Despite the hopes of the architects of America’s post-Cold War grand strategy that efforts to integrate Moscow and Beijing into the liberal world order through extensive trade cooperation and participation in international forums, such as China’s admittance to World Trade Organization (WTO) and Russia’s invitation to the G-8, these two revisionist great powers unfortunately did not move toward either a rule-following behavior abroad or toward more political and economic freedom at home. In other words, they moved in the opposite direction of liberalism and rule of law. Perhaps Niebuhr’s warning against the liberal hubris of attempting to change the inherently conflictual nature of international politics through international institutions should lead us to rethink the idea that great powers have entered an era of potentially peaceful cooperation. The new National Defense Strategy released by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is likely correct in stating that “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers.” Together with addressing the immediate threats to the homeland from a rogue state developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, as North Korea is intent on doing, it is this great power competition that likely represents the greatest threat to US interests. The potential decay of global liberal order may be more of a symptom than a cause of the current threats to US interests, and thus maintaining it should perhaps be regarded as a byproduct rather than a goal of US grand strategy.
Lastly, Miller’s strong advocacy of stability operations and democracy promotion as the recommended long-term strategy to deal with jihadist terrorist groups relies on a plausible but controversial view both of the dynamics of international terrorism and of the right lessons to be learned from the recent costly experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This book presents a spirited defense of the idea that the basic intuition of the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11, that the transformation of the Middle East through democracy promotion is the right long-term response to combat al-Qaeda’s ideological appeal and defeat jihadist terrorists in the long-run, is still the right view. Similarly, Miller carefully shows how errors of planning and under-resourcing plagued the stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and prevented the US and its allies from achieving the goals of leaving behind stable democratic states that deny sanctuary to terrorists. Consequently, American Power and Liberal Order offers ways to improve US capabilities in conducting stability operations and calls for increases in foreign aid and democratization assistance.
While the book makes a strong case on these two points, a word of Niebuhrian caution is in order. As shown by the results of elections in the Palestinian territories (with the terrorist group Hamas coming temporarily to power), Egypt (with the Islamist terrorist organization the Muslim Brotherhood’s similarly short-lived rule before the military reasserted control over the government), and the sectarian Iraqi Shiite government that so alienated the Sunnis that it lost a large part of its territory to the Islamic State (ISIS) before the US military had to step back in, not to mention the free-for-all environment for terrorists groups in Libya—one is left wondering whether democratization is really the best strategy for winning the war on terror, even if the US were better at it. Moreover, there is of course now the growing danger of homegrown, self-radicalized terrorists and of the ones coming from established democracies in Western Europe; neither one of this two new problems are likely to be adequately addressed by further democratizing the Arab world.
All in all, American Power and Liberal Order is an excellent book providing a spirited defense of what has largely been a successful American grand strategy for the past 70 years. The big question remains whether the same framework could work for the next 70 years, or whether new external challenges and internal political changes call for a different approach.
Ionut Popescu is an assistant professor of political science at Texas State University. He is the author of the new book Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy (Johns Hopkins, 2017).
Photo Credit: A US Army trooper assigned to Task Force Thunder, Third Cavalry Regiment, provides security during a routine patrol in Iraq on December 2, 2018. The regiment is deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, working by, with, and through the Iraqi Security Forces and coalition partners to defeat ISIS in designated areas of Iraq and Syria.