Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Why American Strategy Fails

Ending the Chronic Imbalance Between Ends and Means

In January, either a second Trump administration or a Biden administration will face the most difficult foreign policy test the United States has experienced since the early years of the Cold War. This test stems not just from specific challenges but also from a growing imbalance among four classic variables of grand strategy: ends, ways, means, and the security landscape. Left unrecognized and unaddressed, gaps between U.S. ambitions and the U.S. ability to fulfill them will generate increasingly unacceptable strategic risks.

From our experience as national security officials—in the military, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense—we understand why correcting this imbalance is easy to say but hard to do. The policy community resists setting priorities, mostly reacts to ongoing events, and uses the term “vital” promiscuously. Military services and warfare communities are wedded to long-cherished legacy systems that are in many ways misaligned with the full range of U.S. interests. And the thought that open sources now provide insights into global developments as important as those provided by stolen secrets is difficult to accept for an enterprise built to spy.

Overcoming this resistance requires a clear and direct order from the president and disciplined follow-up to hold his administration responsible. The result of the president’s directive should be a new kind of national security strategy: short and succinct, not all things to all people. It needs to lay out an understanding of ends through the lens of a list of generic, prioritized security interests, as well as guidance on using that list to both resource and employ national power. And it needs to have a clear outline for how the entire symphony will be conducted so the instruments are well tuned and coordinated.

Accompanying the directive from the president must be a national sense of urgency, which will in turn demand bold and unifying leadership. The United States is slipping in the eyes of the world, and ambitious powers are capitalizing on every moment. It is more important than ever to frame an effective approach to foreign policy and national security. But that effort will fail absent a new way to align American power with American purpose, one that avoids the mistakes of strategies past.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, James A. Winnefeld, Jr. and Michael Morell.“Why American Strategy Fails.” Foreign Affairs, October 28, 2020.