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The Promise and Pitfalls of Grand Strategy

The Promise and Pitfalls of Grand Strategy - Cover

Authored by Dr. Hal Brands.

August 2012

79 Pages

Brief Synopsis

What is “grand strategy,” and why is it seemingly so important and so difficult? This monograph explores the concept of grand strategy as it has developed over the past several decades. It explains why the concept is so ubiquitous in discussions of present-day foreign policy, examines why American officials often find the formulation of a successful grand strategy to be such an exacting task, and explores the ways in which having a grand strategy can be both useful and problematic. It illustrates these points via an analysis of two key periods in modern American grand strategy—the Truman years at the outset of the Cold War, and the Nixon-Kissinger years in the late 1960s and 1970s—and provides several suggestions for how U.S. officials might approach the challenges of grand strategy in the 21st century.


This monograph offers a critical examination of the idea and utility of “grand strategy.” The concept is very much in vogue these days, with commentators of all stripes invoking it in one way or another. But what the term actually means often remains unclear, and discussions of the issue too often muddle or obscure more than they illuminate. The purpose of this monograph, therefore, is to provide a more precise understanding of the meaning, importance, and challenges of American grand strategy—not to recommend any single grand strategy that the U.S. Government should follow, but to illuminate the promise and limitations of grand strategy as a national endeavor.

To this end, the monograph addresses three principal tasks. First, it offers a general discussion of what grand strategy actually is, and why it is simultaneously so essential and so difficult to do. Second, it further fleshes out these issues by revisiting the doing of grand strategy at key inflection points in the history of U.S. foreign policy—during the Harry Truman years of the early Cold War, and during the Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford/Henry Kissinger years between 1969 and 1977. Third, this monograph offers several basic suggestions for how U.S. policymakers might approach grand strategy as an intellectual and geopolitical

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