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Evaluating Grand Strategy in American and Chinese History
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By Justin Leopold-Cohen.

When addressing grand strategy as it has been used or not used by the United States and China, in history and today, it is clear that despite the overwhelming power and global status, these countries have not managed to find the perfect grand strategy for their respective states. Indeed, the two seem to echo Carl von Clausewitz’s maxim that “in strategy everything is very simple, but not on that account very easy.”[1]

The theory of grand strategy at its core is about territory, and in a way resembles the biblical instruction of the Book of Genesis 1:28 where man was told to “be fruitful and multiply” over the earth. [2] This is elaborated on by philosopher John Locke, who posited that “God gave the World to men in common”-- though as mankind has developed into multiple political entities, this created competition over various areas, and “every political community beg[an] by acquiring and establishing dominion over a particular part of the world.” Such budding competition for dominion over land evolved into “the art of acquiring property…[or] a species of war.”[3]

Beyond a focus on dominion of territory, a successful grand strategy should include a consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of states. A grand strategy that incorporates these advantages turns conflict into “a multi-player game with powerful adversaries who are seeking their own future state of the world to serve their own interests.” [4]

There are several sub-components needed for grand strategy to work. Primarily, certain self-awareness is needed to realize that conflict and war is inevitable, that all sides will make mistakes either in the battlefield or in policy regardless of how prepared they are, and that whichever faction has anticipated these mistakes (and hopefully rectified them) will have a better chance at achieving its objectives in ways that disadvantage potential enemies.

Grand Strategy could be said to have been a guiding point for American leadership through Manifest Destiny, with territorial expansion as a “path to security,” and an advantage for the United States.[5] The need for the United States to establish itself from the Atlantic to the Pacific found much of its legitimacy in the concepts of “preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony.” Through these three concepts, by the close of the 19th century, the United States was able to fulfill its continental goals, as well as acquire several extra continental island territories. [6]

At the start of American expansion strategy in the early 19th century, American President Thomas Jefferson orchestrated one of the first large-scale American territorial efforts with the Louisiana Purchase, “instantaneously doubling the size of the United States.”[7] Though Jefferson “surely had security through expansion in mind,” this act was in a legal gray zone for authority granted to the President at the time. The legal proceedings that ensued afterwards concluded that as there was nothing in the Constitution that prohibited the President from expansion, he therefore had the ability to initiate such expansion. This fortuitously would allow future American leaders to build on the expansionist strategy as a means of securing the nation from any European imperialist notions.

Despite the doubling of size as a result of Jefferson’s action, the majority of North America was still under control of various European powers.[8] American leadership continued expansive plans in the 19th century with a series of preventative acts, including the acquisition of Spanish Florida and the lands now comprising the American South West to the Pacific Coast, as well the disputed state of Mexican Texas.  In then-Spanish-controlled Florida, the Spanish were unable to exercise much control over the territory, which had become a safe haven for all sorts of violent actors. By 1818, after “a series of attacks across the border by Creeks, Seminoles, and escaped slaves” and various bandit groups, then-General Andrew Jackson led an American invasion into Spanish-Florida to stop the attacks. The invasion’s justification can be argued through a preemption strategy, claiming that since Spain could not control its own territory, the United States was going to have to act sooner or later in its defense.[9]

Spain, though reluctant to lose territory, realized that it was unable to control the banditry taking place along its Spanish Florida borders, and that eventually it would have to cede it to the Americans. Accordingly, it agreed to sell Florida to the United States, on the condition of a diplomatic agreement, which would confirm borders in Spanish-held territory in the North American West.

In more modern times, the Cold War policy of containment, is perhaps one of “the most often cited example of grand strategy success.”[10] American diplomat George Kennan thought of containment as a way to deal with the Soviet Union in the emerging Cold War, in order to avoid the eruption of a physical war. The strategy dictated a “vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy,” meaning the U.S. should do its best to stop the Soviet Union from acquiring more territory.

The containment strategy worked well, by not allowing for an increase in additional Soviet satellite nations, Soviet leaders were denied “incremental dividends”—the periodic successes that would lend credence to their ideological conceit.” Eventually the Kremlin would collapse and be forced to reform to the world around them.[11]     

Though many other factors contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War (including the Space Race and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, to name a few), the merits of the containment strategy are perfect examples of the grand strategy doctrine on disadvantaging one’s adversary.

While Soviet-containment and American expansion represent two success stories for American Grand Strategy, the United States is not to immune failure. The United States policy towards its Caribbean neighbor Cuba, in particular, represents a grand strategy failure. During the Cold War, Cuba was able to resist every attempt to overthrow its government, despite Castro’s removal being a “top priority in the United States government.”  The most notable failure was the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, when a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed paramilitary force of Cuban revolutionaries was defeated. The repercussions of this failure has been traced to the lack of American follow-through beyond funding, and how “the CIA task force in charge of the paramilitary assault did not believe it could succeed without an a larger invasion supported by the U.S. military.”[12]

After the failed invasion, the policy to oust the Cuban government continued with multiple efforts to “sabotage and destabilize the Cuban regime, and [even] through attempts to assassinate Castro himself.”[13] Though Cuba was the physical target, the actual intention was to disadvantage the Soviets influence so close the America. After the failed invasion, “Nikita Khrushchev concluded that President Kennedy was weak and incompetent…and then proceeded to test the American president from Cuba to Berlin.” [14] Being continually tested by one’s opponent is hardly an advantageous position; and when it came to Cuba, the Soviets sought to “protect their client state,” resulting in the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, which is thought to be “the closest that the world has ever come to apocalyptic nuclear warfare.” [15]

Similar elements of grand strategy can be found in the history of the People’s Republic of China, which at the beginning of the 19th century was a long standing civilization, self-described as the “Middle Kingdom”, just below heaven, and above all other countries--an easy image to grasp given the size and abundance of resources within the Chinese borders. [16]

Even with its impressive stature, China suffered greatly throughout the 19th century, and well into the first half of the 20th century. Externally, it was routinely at the mercy of “aggressive imperialist powers. ” Internally, it had to deal with a series of rebellions as well as a lengthy civil war ending in the years after World War II.[17]

Despite this, Chinese grand strategy has had its own successes in the modern age. Primarily, the Chinese reformation of its self-image has contributed greatly to its military advancement. In Chinese history, the “middle kingdom” concept created a “nothing we lack” attitude and superiority complex seen most clearly through China’s foreign relations, and reluctance to import European goods. Though its superiority complex may not have been entirely abandoned, its commitment to grand strategy can be seen, as it is no longer unwilling to admit to what it lacks militarily, and is intent on acquiring whatever that may be. This self-awareness has led to the embracing of an “outward oriented reform strategy…[which has] permitted significant…increases in aggregate Chinese military power.” This has included nuclear weapons and modern ballistic missiles, as well as a larger maritime presence. [18]

As well, much of China’s military decision-making seems to be about dropping its previously held skepticism towards alliances. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been pushing the importance of security cooperation across Asia, hoping to establish a “new regional security cooperation architecture,” focusing on combating “terrorism, separatism, and extremism.”[19]

One of the key elements of China’s grand strategy is to “maintain control of its buffer regions.” While historically China was able to rely on tributary nations on its borders, now it must rely on strategic buffers throughout “inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet, into Yunnan and along the mountains in the south.” [20] In order to strengthen its maritime presence, the Chinese have created a buffer by increasing its presence in the disputed South China Sea, and more specifically, laying claim to the Spratly Island chain. Despite the objections of other claimants such as “Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and others,” China has continued to press on with its grand strategy needs for a maritime buffer. Whether or not this will turn out to be a strategic success or failure, remains to be seen, but at the moment, China’s increasing physical presence is meeting its strategic needs, and no one has shown a willingness to take an action large enough to force the Chinese to stop, as it would damage relations with Beijing “over some piles of sand around Mischief Reef.” [21]

While many see China’s future as on a continual rise, the country has had its fair share of grand strategy failures. Within China’s borders much of its citizenry, especially the “educated Chinese professionals [are] express[ing] growing alarm over their country’s future.” Under the Maoist party, China has a long tradition of extensive censorship and secret police actions, but many claim the situation now has not been this bad since the 1970’s. Under President Xi, a reform agenda aimed at ridding the Party of corruption has been launched-- a noble idea for sure, but it has resulted in fear and unrest as it has turned into a “neo-Maoist-style mass purge aimed at political rivals and other with differing ideological or political views.” [22]

Among independent media and academics, there is increasing worry about Xi’s policies that have anyone who speaks out against the Party detained, forced to make public confessions, retractions, or having them arrested for such charges as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble… creating public disorder…and even subverting state power.” [23]

While not yet a grand strategy failure, domestic unrest and dissatisfaction with its leadership has been a historical problem for China. Meanwhile, what could constitute the final push from potential problem to actual failure are President Xi’s military reform plans. President Xi has begun one of the “largest restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since the 1950’s” with a goal of remaking the PLA into a “smaller, modern force capable of projecting power far from its shores.” While this may serve to increase China’s advantages in its external grand strategy, negative effects have already been felt. A key component to the reform, for example, is the cutting of 300,000 of the PLA’s troops, which has upset much of the military command, which had become accustomed to be in charge of large forces. As well, these cuts will add to the six million unemployed Chinese veterans already on state welfare programs, “thousands of whom have joined well organized protests” over insufficient government support.[24]

While President Xi has placed increased emphasis on making sure China is never at the mercy of external forces, as it was in the 19th century, this grand strategy is proving very risky domestically. In light of growing fear and instability among the populace, combined with hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied out of work soldiers, and a military command that feels slighted, it would not hurt for Xi to reexamine his home front.

Clearly there is an argument to be made that both the United States and China are would-be practitioners of grand strategy, and that despite their best efforts, have been exposed to just as many failures as successes. This leaves the question of what might the world see in the years to come?

On the one hand, the world is filled with doomsday singers, predicting a future rife with conflicts; an eventual showdown between the United States and China, and other states the world over at each others’ throats due to an “increasing contention over resource issues; and a wider spectrum of more accessible instruments of war.” [25]

But there is a second school of thought for a more optimistic future. Despite a widely held belief that the “era of American ascendancy” is over, the years to come will likely still see the United States as the “first among equals,” due to the sheer level of its current status.  Even so, with a decline either in progress or on the way, it would be beneficial for the United States to learn “to work with new partners to reinvent the international system,” to make sure it obtains the necessary advantages to suit its own grand strategy. [26]

Who better to partner with than China, which so many think may overtake the United States in international power.  In a “best case” scenario, these two countries could have enough power and influence to stem the spreading conflicts that are so feared by the doomsayers. Such a partnership could be “a major positive change…[to] their bilateral relations” and lead to an increase in worldwide cooperation, in which all sides see prosperity.[27]

Still, for such a scenario to work, both the United States and Chinese leadership must be willing to overlook their “more cautious domestic constituencies to forge a partnership” with enough trust to accomplish these goals.[28] However positive the outcome may be, the future will likely fall somewhere in-between the worst and best case scenarios. With that in mind, American leadership should continue to utilize grand strategy according to the aforementioned core principles: to better advantage your own state or to disadvantage your opponent in the inevitable future conflicts. American grand strategy going forward must evolve with this in mind, looking to the interests, choices, decisions, and consequences.

As to the consequences, too aggressive of a grand strategy could put the United States onto a collision course with the grand strategy of China, which has a “long standing and deeply felt suspicion towards” the United States. The U.S. has held a great degree of influence in Asia, with regional interests that include “freedom of [American] action throughout East Asia,” open economic access, several privileged political relationships with various Asian powers (some of which are “formal and informal alliances”); the Chinese grand strategy therefore, is likely to evolve to counteract that.[29] All that can be done is hope that the two grand strategies land closer to the best-case scenario, than the worst. Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia noted, “the future of the US-China relationship is not predetermined.... [The two states] have more common interests than may meet the eye.” Looking to those common interests, and maintaining a constructive relationship should be paramount to both countries’ grand strategies as a way to avert disaster.  “The world faces a growing list of challenges that are too big for even the strongest countries to solve alone… This is an opportunity to make common cause.” [30]


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, or any other government or institution. 

About the author: Justin Leopold-Cohen completed his undergraduate degree in American History from Clark University. He later interned with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political and Military Analysis, and has written on international affairs in Foreign Policy News and The Diplomatic Courier. Justin is currently involved in graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, nearing the completion of a Master’s Degree in Global Security Studies.


[1] Clausewitz, Carl Von. Chapter I, Book III, Strategy in General, On War, 1874.

[2] King James Bible Version, Genesis 1:28.

[3] Flannery, Christopher. "Geography and Politics." Statecraft and Power: Essays in Honor of Harold W. Rood. Lanham: U of America, 1994. 3-14. (Pg. 3)

[4] Zegart, Amy. “Complexity and the Misguided Search for Grand Strategy,” Hoover Institution, Foreign Policy Working Group, 2013   (Pg. 1)

[5] Gaddis, John Lewis. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. (Pg. 13)

[6] Ibid (Pg. 16)

[7] Ibid (Pg. 14)

[8] Ibid (Pg. 18)

[9] Ibid (Pg. 18)

[10] Zegart. (Pg. 1)

[11] Murray, Williamson, and Richard H. Sinnreich. Successful Strategies: Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2014. (Pg. 357-359)

[12] Golan-Vilella, Robert. “The Bay of Pigs and Its Consequences.” The National Interest. April, 17, 2013.

[13] Ibid

[14] Mead, Walter Russell. “The Failed Grand Strategy in The Middle East.” The Wall Street Journal August 24, 2013< http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324619504579028923699568400>

[15] Golan-Vilella

[16] Swaine, Michael D. and Tellis, Ashley J. Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present and Future, Washington, DC: RAND Project Air Force, 2000. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1121.html (Pg. 14)

[17] Rowe, William T., China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing, Chapter 6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. (Pg. 157)

[18] Ibid (Pg. 4)

[19] Jinping, XI. “New Asian Security Concept for New Progress in Security Cooperation,” Remarks at the Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, Shanghai Expo Center, 21 May 2014. http://www.chinausfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Xi-01.pdf

[20] Baker, Roger. “Revisiting The Geopolitics of China.” Stratfor. March 15, 2016.

[21] Walt, Stephen M. “Where Do We Draw the Line on Balancing China?” Foreign Policy Magazine. April 27, 2015.

[22] Schell, Orville. “Crackdown In China: Worse and Worse.” The New York Review of Books. April 21, 2016. (Pg. 1-3.)

[23] Ibid (Pg 2.)

[24] Page, Jeremy. “President Xi Jinping’s Most Dangerous Venture Yet: Remaking China’s Military.” Wall Street Journal. April 26, 2016.

[25] National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, Executive Summary. December 2012. (Pg. VII)

[26] Ibid (Pg. X)

[27] Ibid (Pg. XIII)

[28] Ibid (Pg. XIII)

[29] Swaine (Pg. 5)

[30] Walt, (Pg. 3)

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