A U.S. Strategy beyond the Cold War

The lessons of World War II became the strategy of the Cold War, a nuclear war did not erupt, and that is the measure of a successful national strategy

RealClearWorld | By George Friedman

The United States became the only global power in 1991. In the 45 years prior, it had been locked in a swirling global struggle for primacy with the Soviet Union, and at many moments it did not look like the United States was going to win. Before that, since about the turn of the 20th century, the United States was an emerging power, finding its place in a violent world.

In 1991, the United States had to come to terms with a new role. The collapse of the Soviet Union took the U.S. by surprise. Washington’s strategy during the Cold War was to create a complex alliance structure for both military and economic affairs. It embedded its forces in military alliances, and it focused on the development of trading structures designed to entice other countries away from the Soviet Union and into the U.S.-led trading system. The United States was prepared to trade economic advantage for an enhanced alliance. It was also prepared for asymmetric military alliances in which the United States provided the bulk of the resources, and its allies provided far less than they could have.

Since the United States saw itself as caught in a global struggle with strategic and moral dimensions, this imbalance made sense. What also made sense was the use of U.S. forces not only to guarantee the security of the alliance, but to act in direct military operations with minimal support from allies. From the Korean and Vietnam wars to the crises in Lebanon in 1958 and Grenada in 1983, as well as endless covert operations, the United States waged a global war of varying intensity against Communism.

The United States was driven both by national interest and by its historical reading of the Munich Agreement, which was meant to appease the Germans by allowing them to annex parts of Czechoslovakia.  The failure of Munich to prevent World War II was understood by the United States as the result of appeasement and of the failure of the United States to join the Anglo-French alliance sooner. Therefore, during the Cold War, America’s strategy was to constantly refuse to reach accommodation, while attempting to increase the number of its allies. The lessons of World War II became the strategy of the Cold War. It worked in the end. A nuclear war did not erupt, and that is the measure of a successful national strategy.


The True Asymmetry

Since the Cold War, the United States has been at a loss to define its national strategy. It attempted to respond to 9/11 as it did to Pearl Harbor, with a multi-theater campaign built on conventional force.  It tried to create an alliance structure to support its efforts. It retained the Munich lesson as the core element of its strategy. But this approach has not worked. Transferring the lessons of World War II and the Cold War to the war against Islamist radicalism cannot succeed. Using the U.S. strategy developed from Dec. 7, 1941 to Dec. 31, 1991 to respond to Sept. 11, 2001 was the true asymmetry of the past 15 years.

The world that created NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and other multilateral structures collapsed 25 years ago. The United States has tried to make the artifacts of the past serve its present purpose, both out of habit and out of a fear that, in moving beyond these institutions, it will lapse back into what it sees as the worst possible strategy: isolationism. But it is important to bear in mind that the United States was never isolationist. This was a term of opprobrium used against those who wanted to avoid involvement in a second European conflict.

During the time it was debating isolationism, the United States was deeply involved in Asia, supporting China against Japan. It was hardly isolationist. There was a general sense in the United States after World War I that American intervention did nothing to solve the European problem, and that being drawn into another protracted and brutal European war did not serve the American interest. It was assumed that the European balance of power would block Germany and, in the event of war, lead to a repeat of the First World War and Germany’s defeat. Had France not collapsed in six weeks, but rather fought as it had in World War I, the American strategy would have been prudent. France’s collapse created an outcome no one was prepared for. It also changed the strategic equation, and ultimately it changed American strategy.

The U.S. strategy had been to focus on Asia and allow the European balance to work itself out. This strategy has something to teach us today. The intrusion of a major American force is not the first step, but the final step, only to be taken when necessary. U.S. strategy in Asia and Europe during World War II depended on the interests of regional powers and their ability to limit each other. The United States provided aid, but it did not become the guarantor of Asia and Europe against Japan and Germany until this became necessary because the balance of power collapsed.

The United States is enormously powerful, but it is not omnipotent. It is not capable of leading the world through direct force. Neither the British nor the Romans used their own military force as the primary means of governing. Rather, they used the conflicts that raged within their future empires as the basis of their power. The British did not occupy India with a million troops. They used the conflicts among competing powers to increase British power by supporting certain factions against others. They used economic relations as incentives and raised native Indian armies, with British advisers and commanders, to achieve their ends. They did not use main force as their primary tool in pursuing their interests. Had they done so, they would have exhausted themselves far earlier than they did.

The question the United States has faced since 1991 is how to manage its power. The World War II/Cold War model has not worked in the Middle East, because the United States lacks sufficient force to pacify these countries after it destroys their conventional militaries. The alliances it developed during the Cold War also have no relevance in the new global model. These alliances lack the force and motivation to provide strategically significant strength in the new reality. The United States has proceeded as if the old strategy still serves its purposes. It does not.

Certainly, the United States has an interest in the Middle East, but it is not nearly as great as the interests of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel — countries distrustful of each other and unable to leave the region. Using this dynamic between the region’s major powers to shape the Middle East is in keeping with traditional imperial strategy and is far more likely to work. Similarly, the Europeans have a growing interest in the region. The United States must make it clear that it will not be the prime force in the Middle East but that it might, at its discretion, support European efforts. And if the Europeans fail to build a force that can act, they will have to live with the consequences.


A Strategy for a Mature Power

Being the only global power means the United States is involved everywhere. But given the limits of power, it cannot be the primary actor everywhere. The breadth of interest requires an economy of force and attention. U.S. policy in the interwar period was appropriate for that period. The Cold War strategy was appropriate during the Cold War. But the interwar strategy could not be used during the Cold War, nor can the Cold War strategy be used now.

Therefore, Cold War institutions and concepts have to be re-examined. Chief among them is the assumption that a fixed alliance structure benefits the United States, and that commitment to complex multilateral trade and financial relations born of the Cold War benefits America. This isn’t to say that alliances and trade and financial relations aren’t necessary. But the necessity of such relationships, in general, does not mean that the arrangements that worked in the Cold War are the way those alliances and relationships should be structured.

The United States emerged from the Cold War in a state of surprise. It has never fully adapted to the post-Cold War world, and in particular to the need for a different strategy. The U.S. currently has a problem defining what issues matter to the country, and recognizing that many, if not most, don’t matter. In this period, the core principle of U.S. strategy should be that the United States has few overriding interests, and when it shares these interests with others, those others must take the prime responsibility and risk in managing them.

The world’s only global power cannot take responsibility for the stability of the world. To try is to fail. It can support and, in important matters, involve itself. But it does not have the power to manage the world, nor the interest. Thus, we need a new foreign policy based on the limits of American power and interest — and a will to act when those interests are challenged. It is a strategy of subtlety and not of main force. It is a strategy for a mature power, which we are not yet, but which we must become.


This piece was created in collaboration with Geopolitical Futures. George Friedman is the Founder and Chairman of Geopolitical Futures. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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