This essay is not intended to be solely a rebuttal of Mark Gilchrist’s recent essay on “The Great Game” which was published by “The Strategy Bridge” (a blog on national security affairs) where he argues in essence that the United States needs to revamp its geo-strategic efforts against Russia and China while simultaneously making part of those efforts the reconsideration of America’s position on Pakistan. Rather, this essay is also a taking stock of sorts regarding what the United States is pursuing in the foreign policy realm and a determination of whether there really is a resolute “grand strategy” on the part of American leaders and policy makers at the moment.
To determine strategy, one must first determine context. Strategy and context, one can argue, are inseparable. Joseph Nye, in a book titled “The Future of Power”, stated that strategy changes with context. In the latter part of the 20th century, American leaders and policymakers had the luxury of possessing a clear “grand strategy” and strategic context, which was to contain or dissolve the former Soviet Union through the employment of military and diplomatic measures aimed at galvanizing a global response to what Americans perceived as a Soviet threat during the historic Cold War. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO expanded into Eastern Europe and after the commencement of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in 2001, NATO established a presence in the heart of Asia, namely Afghanistan.
Those same nations that Gilchrist is calling for the United States to challenge in Asia, namely Russia and China, never objected to a NATO presence in Afghanistan in 2001. The only country that objected to a NATO presence in Afghanistan both covertly and overtly is Pakistan, and sadly this is the one country that Gilchrist wants us to look at in a positive light. The main lesson we ought to have learned from our counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan in recent years is that bolstering Pakistan while maintaining a critical foothold in what Gilchrist referred to as the “heartland” of geopolitics is mutually exclusive actions. You cannot bolster Pakistan and expect the United States and the Western world to maintain a foothold in Asia.
Pakistan and its proxies, namely the Taliban and ISIS, want the United States out of Afghanistan and thus the “heartland” that Gilchrist refers to in his essay. We cannot give into the delusion advanced by Gilchrist that Pakistan will stand up to Russia and China if we were to change our position on Pakistan. At this critical juncture in history, if we were to change our position on Pakistan and abandon a Western-backed Afghan government, regardless of how corrupt it is, the heartland of Asia and thus geopolitics would fall into the hands of international terrorists who are sustained by an illicit drug trade. Morally, it would also be a travesty to change our position on Pakistan, because a change in position would be a tacit endorsement of terrorist groups that are staunchly opposed to the West and are based in Pakistan.
The Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) became the core, if not the entirety, of what is known as a “grand strategy” of the United States after the Cold War. According to Nye in “The Future of Power”, a “grand strategy” is a theory or story about how to provide for the security, welfare, and identity of a nation. Sir Basel Liddle Hart called “grand strategy” the achievement of a “better peace.” As mentioned before, a “grand strategy” changes with context, and GWOT changed the grand strategy of the United States in 2001 in the sense that U.S. grand strategy became an issues-based strategy rather than a geopolitical strategy that Gilchrist calls for in his essay on “The Great Game.” In reality, “The Great Game” should not and fortunately has not become a preoccupation of American foreign policy and national security strategy. If we want to understand the essence and objective of the British “Great Game” of the past, Peter Hopkirk does it best when he wrote that the objective of the British during the “Great Game” of the 18th and 19th centuries was the use of Central Asia and Afghanistan as a platform to conquer India, which at that time was considered the “Jewel” and prized possession of Colonial Britain.
To my understanding, and hopefully to the understanding of other Americans who deal with foreign policy and national security, America holds no machinations to conquer India. In fact, during the Obama Administration, the United States made wise and highly significant diplomatic overtures to India in an effort to strengthen ties between the two nations whose interests are aligned when it comes to combating international terrorism. There are ways to capture India’s market aside from using Pakistan and their terrorist proxies. As I mentioned before, grand strategy is no longer exclusively geopolitical. Rather, grand strategy is now largely issues-based. Today’s issues pertain to collective security on a global scale in age of globalization where transnational threats such as pandemics, poverty, and war are affecting every nation. Terrorism, nuclear weapons, climate change, food security, water scarcity, and poverty are perhaps the issues that top the list. In fact, Odd Arne Westad, in the conclusion of “The Cold War: A World History” wrote that in a post-Cold War context, the main issue is the issue of haves versus have-nots.
Terrorist groups like the Taliban and ISIS capitalize off of this vulnerability in the international system and then seek to challenge the status quo which is the international state system led and created by the United States after World War II. The Taliban and ISIS would like to wish away the existence of states and global order. If the international system of states and global order were to continue, it would threaten their existence by cutting off their main source of funding, which are illicit activities like drug trafficking and human trafficking.
Why we are failing in our efforts to combat terrorism and the rest of the aforementioned transnational issues is our failure in diplomacy with other major powers. As I mentioned before, Russia and China had no objections to a U.S. presence in the Asian Heartland in 2001. The objections began after our focus on Iraq, and Pakistan capitalized off this shift in American focus and resources. Pakistan is beyond the point of American salvation if we read Steve Coll’s “Directorate S”, where Coll reveals that the top brass of Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus have subscribed to the vehemently anti-Western ideology of their terrorist proxies.
What is deeply concerning is our weak response to Pakistan’s sponsoring of international terrorism. The United States should not make the issue of Pakistan and international terrorism a divisible issue. The issue of Pakistan is one of “issue indivisibility.” We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that Pakistan and international terrorism are separable, which is what we are doing now in the midst of peace talks with the Taliban. Although one should remain optimistic that peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban will render a positive outcome, one should be realistic about the prospects of failure. In the event that the peace talks fail, America will have to choose between support for the Afghan government or the Taliban.
Moreover, the ability of the United States and the international community to defeat irregular forces like the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan should have never been hindered. It is hard to imagine how the world’s most powerful military in the United States cannot defeat irregular forces like the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan. Our inability to eradicate irregular forces like the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan stem from our inability to forge a consensus with other major powers like Russia and China on the purpose of international relations, which arguably is the establishment of global order. “Mutual Assured Destruction” between America, Russia, and China means we must look elsewhere to construct a vision for what global cooperation or conflict would entail in the months and years to come.
If myopia has in fact set in and our ability to recall history has deteriorated, this is a reminder that the United States has in fact set up a global security system under the purview of both Kissinger and Brzezinski that is functional and can only collapse if we resort to the type of games that Gilchrist is pushing us to play. Brzezinski finalized what is known as the “Trans-Eurasian Security System” (TESS) and refers to it in a book titled “The Grand Chessboard”. Brzezinkski was cognizant of the fact that Russia wanted to talk, and that China wanted to make money while having a keen interest in cooperation on solving transnational issues. TESS enables both activities to occur, by establishing a U.S. military presence in Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Asia. America’s presence in Europe oversees a gradual Russian integration into the European Union (EU), and America’s presence in East Asia deflects China’s attention westward, so that it can in fact pursue economic projects like the “Belt and Road Initiative” and turn attention away from conflicts that may arise with its East Asian neighbors like South Korea and Japan.
There is a rhyme and reason behind everything that Kissinger and Brzezinski accomplished, yet all of those accomplishments and achievements are in jeopardy and the global security system they worked to set up is on the brink of disarray and dissolution. There were reports that Steve Bannon and General H.R. McMaster ended up in a fistfight while debating over the issue of whether Russia and China are the biggest threats to American national security, or whether international terrorism stemming from places like Pakistan is the biggest threat. Both are now out of the White House, and in came John Bolton, who decided that America would fight both.
The problem, as always, is that aspirations now exceed capabilities. America needs partners, regardless of whether they were once our adversaries, and if we are to take the threat of international terrorism seriously, America must invest in diplomacy even with adversaries like Russia and China whose interests are aligned with the United States when it comes to the issue of international terrorism. Recently, at a summit of Caspian Sea Nations, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev acknowledged that international terrorism is a collective security issue that should be addressed by all nations.
To bolster Pakistan and its Taliban proxy at the expense of the Afghan government at this time would also mean the perpetuation of wars and conflicts in a region of the world that is already volatile. While maintaining its military prowess, the United States must also adopt a diplomacy paradigm for its foreign policy. This paradigm would entail the forging of peace deals between East Asian nations heretofore in conflict, crafting of trade deals between Asian nations that would spur global connectivity in an age of already increased connectivity, as well as the creation and maintenance of regional cooperation organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that Gilchrist referred to in his essay. Pakistan would be a hindrance to all these productive peace-building measures if the purpose of propping up the Taliban and Pakistan is to act as a thorn to the side of Russia and China.
Pakistan has repeatedly obstructed air and trade corridors between Central Asia and India, and has also sought to dislodge the United States, who is an observer or participant in all Asian regional cooperation organizations, from the heart of Asia. Gilchrist also argues that Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan. Quite frankly, Pakistan’s utility has now expired. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russia no longer plans on occupying foreign countries. India is now a rising power that is attracting foreign direct investment, and a heavy emphasis on Pakistan in our foreign policy design would alienate India. One should ask: what would be the benefit of alienating India? Is it not possible to work constructively with Russia and China on transnational issues while co-opting new allies and partners like India, who is set to be the third largest economy in the world?
The perception should not be such that calls for the United States to snatch Pakistan out of Russian and Chinese hands. Rather, the perception should be such that the United States should be snatching Russia and China out of Pakistan’s hands. The way to snatch Russia out of Pakistan’s hands is by integrating Russia into the European community the way Brzezinski planned. The way to snatch China out of Pakistan’s hands is to ensure China’s access to international markets and a resolution over Taiwan as a trust-building measure that would encourage the Chinese to work with the United States on establishing global order.
At this point, no single country can uphold global order; thus, the establishment of global order must be a collective effort on the part of major powers like the United States and China. Moreover, all of the different dimensions of global order (industrialization, law, diplomacy, militarization, politics, and strategy) pertain to two basic elements, namely, the security and economic elements, both of which can be sustained only through cooperation between the major powers. It may be convincing to many people that if everyone were to pursue their individual security and economic interests, it would add up to the overall welfare of the world. But as history has shown, that approach has often times led to a clash of interests and thus the outbreak of war and social strife on a global level.
Engaging Russia and China does not mean the United States should balk on its military standing. It is impossible to do so, given that there is no military that matches the prowess of the United States and that the security umbrella the United States provides to regions of the world such as Europe, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia is critical to the preservation of global order. What is possible is an acknowledgment of the grand strategy that transpired in the United States in 2001 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as well as the truth of the matter, which is that American grand strategy has evolved into one that is now constructive and issues-based in nature rather than remaining as a strategy that is based solely on geopolitics and realpolitik as suggested by Gilchrist in his essay.
2 thoughts on “Waking Up To An American Grand Strategy”
Your assessment about Pakistan is superb.
India was conquered in 17th century after Ahmad Shah Baba defeated Sikhs. Then queen Victoria proclaimed India as part of England. Brits from India tried several times to conquer Afghanistan but failed. I believe that favoring Pushtuns against Tadjiks rooted from that moment.
Apparently, after 1919 war with Afghanistan Brits left but by creation of Pakistan in 1947 they have instituted a proxy government to do their dirty work via ISI’s activities. Pakistan to Brits is as Israel to USA. Pakistan terrorizes India and Afghanistan and supported by China and Brits and probably recently by Russians. If we succeeded to shorten the hand of China from Pakistan which would be difficult most of the problem in that geopolitical area will be resolved.
Thank you Dr. Saib for the history lesson! We underestimate the parallels between past and present but history exists simply for that purpose, which is to show how the past is so relevant to current affairs. I’m glad you concurred with my viewpoint about Pakistan. People are beginning to wake up to the truth about Pakistan.