Yesterday's opinion piece by Daniel Drezner on America's next Grand Strategy is an interesting summary of the main contenders for an organizing principle for American foreign policy. There are two rather important omissions. Both are understandable, given the constraints of a newspaper. But both are also clearly important.
First, there's precious little mention of Iraq. Specifically, it would be nice to see American thinkers point out the obvious - America's foreign policy options are damn close to zero until the US military recuperates from the disaster in the land of two rivers. There's a note that all of the contenders apply to a "post-Iraq" world, but a brief paragraph stating the fact that none of these ideas matter a whit until the US military leaves Iraq would have been nice.
The other problem is more fundamental, in my mind. There's really no grasping with the question of what American power is supposed to be for in the 21st century. Basically, most of the theories Drezner mentions agree that open markets and continued globalization is a good thing, but none of them seem to have a purpose beyond that. Meanwhile, the purpose of the much-lauded containment doctrine was simple to grasp - it's right there in the name, after all.
All of these theories acknowledge that America has plenty of challenges ahead, but there's no sense, from Drezner's precis, that Washington needs to pick a threat and concentrate on it. It should be clear that depending on the threat America chooses to prioritize, different strategies should be followed. To pick an obvious example, if the US decides tomorrow that in an age of terrorism nuclear proliferation is the country's top concern, it would pursue a wildly different Grand Strategy than if it's decided that China is the next threat - America could find itself once more arming and training terrorist groups in proxy wars against a Communist power. For thinkers living in the shadow of Kennan, there's a need for clarity at least, even if simplicity on these matters is impossible.
Who is America guarding itself against in the 21st century? Terrorism? China? Russia? The EU? Anyone? Everything? There's no consensus on this question, so it's impossible for a consensus to form on the solution. Meanwhile, Bush's policies have made American power seem terrifying instead of benign, and have dramatically broadened the circle of nations who are trying to build a "multipolar world." Countries who once believed they had a place in an American-led liberal order can now be forgiven for being suspicious, and even after 2008 it will be hard for any President to rely on the trust that America had built up during the 1990s.
Even if you think that America's potential rivals are pissants now, a reasonable grand strategy for the future needs to think about who will be challenging America, why, and what the proper reaction will be. And sometimes - as in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of WWII - the proper response is going to taste bitter indeed. Will Americans, and more importantly America's leaders, be willing to accept that in years to come?