Anne-Marie Slaughter is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. She served as director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011.
First terms are about justifying your place in office. Second terms are about justifying your place in history.
Remember Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which he eschewed specific plans and policies and instead reminded Americans of their most fundamental aspirations and urged them to turn toward the light of peace, even in the darkness of war. When a president stands on the Capitol steps and takes the oath of office for a second time, he’s thinking less about his next four years and more about his legacy.
And he has plenty of help. In Washington, the period between an election and an inauguration is a fertile time for big, ambitious ideas, reports and essays. Foreign policy wonks are partial to laying out “grand strategies”: sweeping statements of the means through which the United States should achieve its goals in the world. Veterans of the White House efforts to craft a National Security Strategy, as commanded by Congress, typically shake their heads at these lofty pronouncements. But articulating a basic approach to the world can provide a starting point from which to tackle a wide array of challenges. Complete consistency is impossible, but a good grand strategy can increase the coherence of an administration’s decisions.
Obama’s choice of a grand strategy for his second term could help drive a more proactive foreign policy, defining a legacy that is more than the sum of responses to crises.
The iconic grand strategy was George Kennan’s “containment” — the proposition that the United States should not try to roll back communism but instead should contain the Soviet Union until it imploded on its own. Kennan, an American diplomat, laid out this view in his famous 1946“Long Telegram” from Moscow, and his ability to sketch the future of U.S. foreign policy in one word has haunted strategists ever since.
There have been other efforts. In the 1930s the grand strategy, which Franklin Roosevelt pushed steadily against, was isolationism, the view that the United States could best safeguard its interests by staying out of other countries’ affairs. In the first Clinton administration, national security adviser Anthony Lake tried to replace containment with enlargement,a grand strategy of steadily expanding the community of democracies. The concept drove President Bill Clinton’s decisions to support the growth of NATO and the European Union.
Or take primacy, the notion that America can best advance its interests by being so much more powerful than any other country that other nations are deterred from competing. President George W. Bush explicitly adopted a grand strategy of primacy in his first term, a posture that informed both his disdain for international institutions and his doctrine of preventive war.
Obama’s first grand strategy, incorporated in the National Security Strategy of 2010, described the U.S. approach to the world as one of domestic renewal and global leadership. The need to rebuild at home means ending the wars we have been in and keeping our troops out of new ones. And when we do get involved in a foreign conflict, the intervention in Libya exemplifies how.