Balanced Statecraft

Balanced Statecraft
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With the presidential election in full swing, foreign policy has taken center stage as a major issue for voters evaluating the next commander-in-chief. There is no shortage of global headline events shaping the debate. Rising nationalist sentiment underpinned a vote for the Great Britain to leave the European Union, suggesting globalization is in retreat. Shifting energy dynamics and hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia hearken back to a 1980’s balance of power conflict in the Persian Gulf. Nuclear missile tests in North Korea bring waves of uncertainty to East Asian stability. Cyberattacks from state and nonstate actors underscore an evolving domain for international security policy. Increasingly aggressive Russian actions in Europe alongside heightened rhetoric in the South China Sea serve as reminders that great power rivalry is ever present. Islamic State affiliated shootings in the West have heightened a sense of homeland insecurity, all while religious and economic drivers compound a fracturing Middle East along sectarian lines that have existed far longer than the United States of America.


Henry Kissinger (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)

How these events impact electoral debates will play a significant role in the public discussion and policy orientation of the country in January 2017. For the next president, strategy remains essential to crafting a coherent foreign policy vision. Strategic coherence can sustain competitive advantages and marshal a unity of effort across government for efficient pursuit of national interests.[1] Furthermore, developing congruent policy options for distinct challenges should be at the center of any campaign for higher office, from the executive branch to the legislative whose committees are tasked to fund, support, and oversee the conduct of American foreign policy. For the next president, such an undertaking will require a flexible mind able to navigate geopolitical storms, remaining steadfast and consistent in pursuit of objectives, but open to adaptation as conditions warrant new ideas for a changing world.


Individuals seeking office often speak of interests. Fundamentally, interests are whatever a state defines as a priority. Throughout history there has been a hierarchical ordering to what constitutes vital interests versus those which might be termed extremely important, less important, or secondary. In the realm of modern grand strategy, they serve as an underpinning for what matters most to a country in their conduct of foreign policy. This is generally understood by practitioners, advisors, and students of history, as many core interests are self evident to an engaged public from Main Street to Wall Street. For example, defending the homeland from attack constitutes a clear and vital interest, a maxim seldom in dispute. Preventing nuclear or great power war elsewhere in the world is an interest of the United States, as any such war would impact American security sooner or later. Finally, stable energy markets drive economic growth and constitute a core interest for Washington and partners around the world. To some degree most observers find accordance with these three general areas.[2]


There is far more debate on how to best secure such interests and what other interests merit a high level of prioritization for the United States. To the second notion, extremely important interests are often the focus of practitioners, academics, and campaign advisors. For instance, preventing nuclear proliferation and maintaining a lead in military and information technology underpins a strong foreign policy, as does supporting the rule of law. Suppressing terrorism abroad is extremely important alongside stability of the international system. The nature of relationships between allies is a contentious debate, though alliances are surely part of the equation. Balancing bilateral trade deficits, or spreading democracy everywhere for the sake of doing so may fall within the scope of American interests, but they are decidedly less important than immediate or existential threats. As is the case for human rights and global income inequality. Succinctly, there are a wide array of arguments, but some interests are more important than others in support of a stable coherent foreign policy facing limited resources. How to secure such interests requires the development of sound, pragmatic policy options.

Policy options are developed to address specific challenges or goals impacting national interests, and these options in turn are implemented via an array of tools consisting of the core elements of statecraft. Whether there is an emphasis on diplomatic, information, military, or economic mechanisms of engagement, any candidate for higher office should first articulate and prioritize reasonable policies that which pursue clear objectives in alignment with national interests.


The American experience is rife with contentious debate between those who sought vigorous engagement in foreign affairs, through unilateral or multilateral means, and those who opted for a more selective or restrained approach.[3] This has resulted in various strategies within two worldviews, differentiating in emphasis on what mechanisms or tools can best achieve core objectives.[4] Hard power, or military and economic instruments used to influence the behavior of states, define a stable of coercive tools for the executive that tangibly drives outcomes. Hard power emphasizes the military and use of force, relying on coercive diplomacy, war, alliances, deterrence, and protection of friends and allies in the pursuit of national interests. Foreign aid, bribes, and sanctions are tools that shape the behavior of states. Fundamentally, hard power represents instruments that can further interests of a state in a clear and direct way.

Conversely, soft power refers to the mix of predominantly civilian led tools that play an even larger role in twenty-first century statecraft. They are more persuasive in nature, relying on an ability to attract or co-opt versus coercion or the use of force. Many of these tools focus on long-term diplomatic relations, education, strategic communication, civic action, and economic development. In the battle for hearts and minds, and a war of ideas, in some ways soft power can take a country much further than the use of force. One might argue they are more value-centric versus interest-dependent, but this mischaracterizes the impact of of well executed statecraft. Shaping the norms and conduct of international politics is just as important as clear, decisive action in pursuit of interests.

For American foreign policy, if hard power represents a direct approach in pursuit of national interests, soft power might be termed the indirect approach, though no less effective when paired with the appropriate problem set. Neither approach is sufficient on their own, and if exercised in balance, each ebbs and flows with the other depending on timing, effectiveness, and level of risk. As is the case with smart power, or the skillful combination of both hard and soft power, a well articulated foreign policy not only finds a balance in the application of various instruments of statecraft, but stronger alignment of interests and options conveyed by strong leadership to underpin strategic coherence.[5]


Balanced statecraft finds the right mixture for a new era, drawing on an array of tools best fit for the task and purpose. A president should consider all the elements of national power in developing sound options for dealing with foreign policy challenges in the short and long term.[6] Throughout history the most successful presidents have adroitly pulled on a mix of the various levers, aligning distinct challenges with policy options utilizing the most efficient instruments in lieu of singular, one dimensional approaches that are seldom adequate.[7]


A president and his or her advisors must be cautious about relying too heavily on a single approach to a problem, no matter how effective. For example, policy options overly dependent on a military instrument may not sufficiently secure American interests if the nature of the challenge is cultural or economic. A diplomatic approach to a regional challenge may not succeed if there is an inadequate deterrent or willingness to use force in support of negotiations. Such governing philosophies lend to the imbalance of statecraft and runs an increased risk of over-extension, under-use of alternative instruments, or if a favorite tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.[8]

Sometimes a hammer is the tool needed to get the job done. But that is not always the case, and narrow-minded instrumentalism, either by design or as a result of less-than-adequate planning, may compound foreign policy challenges more than they secure American interests. Strategic dissonance, or the misalignment of interests with options and foreign policy tools, can run as great a risk as doing nothing at all.[9] A misaligned strategy cannot only fail to resolve major challenges, or mitigate adverse effects, but can exacerbate uncertainty, widen security gaps, or inflame regional and sectarian disputes. In the twenty-first century, more than any other era in American history, a mismatch in policy and capability can lead to outcomes which leave citizens and allies increasingly vulnerable.


Globalization has dramatically reduced the luxuries of time and space, and while this is not to suggest the stakes are higher than the Cold War, or even the immediate post-9/11 world, the playing field is now longer, wider, and boasts an array of new players operating at unprecedented speeds inside and outside national boundaries.[10] Recent national security strategies have acknowledged such dynamics, but even with forewarning it is difficult for bureaucracies and agencies to keep up with the increased volume and exponential growth rate of evolving threats. In such a strategic environment, prioritization and clear communication of objectives are essential to sound alignment and maximizing gains in pursuit of national interests.


President Obama and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images)

Every president produces a national security strategy in their first term, but the guiding principles can be made clear well before January 2017. Therefore the next president should articulate a clear view of what they deem vital or extremely important interests versus less important or peripheral to American national security. Furthermore, they should identify key foreign policy tools needed to achieve those objectives. If the United States plans or trains for everything there is to do, it probably has not maximized its edge in the areas that matter most and can make the largest impact. Clarity in policy direction and strategic objectives are not just a force multiplier across government and the military, but a national adhesive for a resilient American society.


To the detriment of a national conversation, the loudest voices often set a metanarrative for policy discussion whether or not they are grounded in the art of the possible. A public debate should not discount the nuance of statecraft, nor should citizens be content with accepting the views of candidates absent a thorough exploration of pros and cons for specific policy arguments. Confronting speculative assertions can further the national conversation and strengthen the overall policy debate. Perhaps no one expects the oratory of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan, but Americans should expect a reasonable amount of substance regardless of political optics. Such efforts can bridge the discussion of strategy and force the next president to think harder, deeper, and chart a clear course for America in a changing world.


Fireside chat on the Tehran Conference and Cairo Conference, 24 December 24 1943. (Public Domain)

The American people feel the world is a better place when the country is engaged rather than in retreat, and how the next president views such public sentiment offers significant insight regarding the future of American foreign policy. An engaged citizenry should be asking the hard questions on what interests matter most and how policy options align with key objectives inside an overarching strategy. It can only strengthen the field regardless of who emerges as the next commander-in-chief, and as the old maxim goes, the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed combat.

Michael D. Miner specializes in government coursework at Harvard University where his research and teaching interests include twentieth century diplomatic history, international security, and area studies in East Asia and the Persian Gulf. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and a member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.


[1] Henry A. Kissinger, “Strategy and Organization,” Foreign Affairs, April 1957.

[2] Graham T. Allison and Robert Blackwill, America's National Interests: A Report from The Commission on America's National Interests, 2000 (Washington, D.C.: Report for Commission on America's National Interests, July 2000)

[3] Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World(New York: Routledge, 2002)

[4] Derek S. Reveron and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “(Re)Discovering the National Interest: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy,” Orbis, Summer 2015.

[5] Joseph Nye, “Get Smart: Combining Hard and Soft Power,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009.

[6] Gerald R. Ford, “My Definition of a Statesman as Opposed to a Politician,” President Gerald R. Ford’s handwritten reflections, 1977 or 1978. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

[7] George H.W. Bush, “Statement on the National Security Strategy Report,” Public Papers, George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, College Station, Texas. January 1, 1993.

[8] Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. New York: Joanna Cotler Books, 1966. p. 15

[9] Robert A. Burgelman and Andrew S. Grove, “Strategic Dissonance,” Harvard Business Review, January 1, 1996.

[10] James R. Clapper, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, February 25, 2015.

[11] Dina Smeltz, Ivo Daalder, Karl Friedhoff, and Craig Kafura, “America Divided: Political Partisanship and US Foreign Policy,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, September 15, 2015. 

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