Can America Think Strategically?

America's greatest statesmen fear America's political paralysis endangers our ability to lead the world.

Last night, the Atlantic Council honored Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.  A common theme of the evening was the paralysis of American politics, which in turn imperils US leadership in the world.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates bemoaned the “oversized egos and undersized backbones” of America’s political leaders, wishing more of them would emulate Brent Scowcroft’s “steadfast integrity, common decency, and moral and political courage” to deal with enormous global challenges.

Speaking at a gala dinner honoring the great soldier, scholar, and statesman as part of the Atlantic Council’s year-long launch of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Gates declared that he was “deeply concerned with the decline in view and values associated with Brent Scowcroft when it comes to how we govern and relate to one another,” lamenting that “civility, mutual respect, putting country before self and country before party” were “increasingly quaint” and becoming “historic relics.”

For a variety of reasons, including gerrymandered Congressional districts which promote ideological politicians and a “24/7 digital media environment” that advantages “the most extreme and vitriolic views,” Gates believes that American politics has become so polarized as to put our system in danger. We’ve seen a “coarsening and dumbing down” of our national dialogue. As a consequence, Gates argues, compromise has became a dirty word. The “moderate center” which historically governed American foreign policy “is not holding.” And a series of “wave elections” makes it virtually impossible to “sustain strategies beyond one presidency and one Congress.”

Gates’ theme echoed remarks made in a pre-dinner roundtable featuring four former National Security Advisors: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jim Jones, and Scowcroft.

Brzezinski was the most blunt, declaring “We have this strange situation in which the party in power is kind of almost frozen in the face of this complexity and the party out of power is raving mad.” There’s plenty of blame to go around, Jimmy Carter’s top advisor declared. “The American public is abysmally ignorant about the world” and “we don’t have a mass media that provides a significant degree of pertinent information about the world.”

Mostly, though, he blamed our political leaders, observing that George H.W. Bush was the last president to truly understand how to lead the world, charging that all subsequent presidents–including his own party’s Bill Clinton and Barack Obama–have been “inward looking” and lacking a grand strategy. Additionally, the political climate and the need to pander to a simplistic electorate leads to “demagoguery” which in turn “imperils intelligent decision-making.”

Kissinger agreed, observing that “there are too many tactical issues for any National Security Advisor to solve.” The truly effective ones keep their focus on the strategic level issues, which Kissinger allowed is incredibly difficult given “the philosophical and cultural problem as a society of immediacy.”

Jones served the sitting president and was naturally far more cautious. But he allowed that the media and political climate forces politicians to focus on the minute-by-minute fight over issues, which “makes strategic thinking next to impossible.”

Additionally, Jones warned that “We must get our own economic house in order.” He lamented that “Decline comes when a nation is not doing the things it knows it must do.” He cited America’s decades-long refusal to come up with a sustainable energy problem, despite repeated system shocks.

Scowcroft concurred but noted with characteristic understatement, “The world is not going to call a recess” while America sorts out its own problems.

The transcript and audio of Gates’ speech can be accessed at the link. Video will be up later today.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Environment, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ponce says:

    Was Scowcroft a “great soldier?”

    He joined the military right after WWII even though he was old enough to serve during the war.

    He seems to have been getting advanced degrees during Korea and Vietnam.

    None of his bios mention combat duty.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    We have a major political party whose agenda is set by talk show hosts in search of ratings. The GOP cannot behave rationally so long as its greatest concern is not the state of the United States, but the Nielsen numbers for Fox News. Politics has become a subset of entertainment, and long-view strategic thinking is anathema to entertainment.

    The greatest fault lies very clearly with your party, James.

  3. Wayne says:

    Sorry Michael you have it backwards. It is the Democrats that cannot behave rationally. Their idea of a compromise is do it their way. They hold Republican and Conservatives to one standard while holding the Democrats and liberals to another. Their heads are so far stuck up in their fantasy world that they won’t even admit to some very basic facts. They want everything handed to them while sacrificing nothing. They complain that Republicans spend too much but their solution is to spend even more. They are the irrational ones.

  4. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Not buying the ‘political paralysis’ thesis.

    Back in the 1980’s and in the early-1990’s we were as politically paralyzed as we are today. Tip O’Neill vs. Reagan and Dole. ABSCAM. Iran-Contra. George Mitchell vs. George H.W. Bush. Yet we won the Cold War without firing a single shot and in so doing liberated half a continent. Then we cobbled and held together an Arab military coalition vs. another Arab country, despite the latter using the straw man of Israel as a target, and thus prevented Saddam from becoming a world oil baron, all the while suffering a few score casualities of our own. Not too shabby.

    The dumbing down of the populace, however, especially over the past 15-20 years, is a grave concern and along with our demographic problems and the moribund economy we’re faced with severe risks to the country at large and by extension to the free world.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: He was in high school at the outbreak of WWII, then entered West Point, graduating in three years in 1947. He broke his back in a training incident very early in his career and spent the rest of it as a staff officer, rising to 3-star rank. I’d call that a pretty solid military career.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: There’s a lot wrong with the Republican Party right now. But it’s also the party of Scowcroft and Gates. My hope is to make their brand of Republicanism the core again.

  7. Liberty60 says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    a grave concern and along with our demographic problems

    ¿Que “demographic problems”?

    ¿Qué “problema demográfico” quiere decir eso?

  8. MBunge says:

    1. I think the country as a whole is a little tired of the “Great Game” garbage these folks have built their whole lives around.

    2. If the current party in power is “frozen in place”, it’s not because of complexity. It’s because of the political reality that they can’t count of the minority party for ANYTHING except blind, reflexive resistence to and criticism of everything they do. This is a situation that none of these wise men ever faced and I don’t think they really appreciate what it means.


  9. Moosebreath says:


    “But it’s also the party of Scowcroft and Gates. My hope is to make their brand of Republicanism the core again. ”

    As one of the leasing agents in my office says, “I’d like to be 25 and blonde, but it ain’t gonna happen.”

  10. de stijl says:

    We should be wary of grand strategies – they can completely misguided, harmful and wasteful.

    The Bush Doctrine comes to mind.

  11. Liberty60 says:

    Or as they say it in my neighborhood:

    Những gì vấn đề nhân khẩu học?

    Then again my next door neighbor Daouod might ask-

    هغه څه چې دموګرافيکی مشخصات راټول کړی ده؟?

  12. PD Shaw says:

    Its hard not to read these statements as self-serving. They would like a return to a period of time (a roughly two generation period from 41 to 88) when foreign policy was considered an element of self-survival, and foreign policy experts were given a largely free hand. Politicians only engaged the issue to demagogue whether we were spending enough on guns.

  13. Liberty60 says:

    @de stijl:

    You aren’t impressed by the Friedman Doctrine, I guess:

    “Suck. On. This.”

  14. de stijl says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Yet we won the Cold War without firing a single shot…

    Except for Korea and Vietnam.

  15. Dave Schuler says:

    As Walter Russell Mead pointed out in his book, Special Providence, U. S. grand strategy has been tremendously persistent and consistent over a significant period of time. However, since U. S. grand strategy is an emergent phenomenon, nearly everybody finds it unsatisfying, particularly would-be grand strategists. In this regard, note that U. S. grand strategy, with modifications most recently by Presidents Bush and Obama, continues in recognizeable form to this day. Unlike those of, say, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

    There’s also relevant info in this post over at FP.

  16. Console says:

    Not so sure if I care whether or not the US has a grand strategy in foreign policy. These guys want to envision more strategic thinking because that’s what they get paid to do. Not because having some grand hegemonic goal makes us better. The US had a grand strategy during the cold war, but all that did was cause us to do lots of stupid things that never mattered in the long run and somethings that came back to bite us in the ass.

    But outside of that I don’t mind what they had to say.

  17. casimir says:

    @michael reynolds: the fault dear brutus lies not within the parties but in oursevles, to paraphrase.