21 July 2011

A new grand strategy for the war on terrorism


Stephen M. Walt

Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs
Harvard University

Since September 11, 2001, the global war on terrorism—recently renamed the “global struggle against violent extremism”—has been the defining focus of U.S. grand strategy. In addressing this danger, the United States has adopted a broad definition of “terrorism” and pressured other states to support its various counter-terrorist initiatives. As President Bush put it shortly after 9/11: “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”1 Any group employing terrorist methods has been seen as an enemy, and any state facing a terrorist challenge is a potential ally.

In fashioning a grand strategy for dealing with global terrorism, the United States faces a basic choice. One option is to try to eradicate terrorists through aggressive offensive action. In addition to taking defensive measures (border security, domestic surveillance, etc.), the United States would use its power—and especially its military power—to attack terrorist bases, capture or kill suspected terrorist leaders, and coerce or overthrow governments whose policies were either deliberately or inadvertently facilitating terrorist operations. In its most extreme form, the United States would invade and occupy areas from which terrorist threats emanated, both to dismantle existing networks and to prevent these areas from being used as safe havens in the future. A second option, by contrast, seeks to reduce the threat from terrorism by addressing the grievances that give rise to such movements. Thus, a nationalliberation movement might be offered autonomy, a disenfranchised minority might be granted greater political rights, or an authoritarian government might take steps to allow its citizens greater freedom. Such steps might not win over the most hard-core extremists, but they seek to defeat the enemy by “draining the swamps” where terrorists are spawned. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive—one can go after existing terrorists while simultaneously addressing their alleged grievances—but the emphasis placed on each option is a basic strategic choice.

For the past four years, the Bush administration has generally favored the first approach. It has gone on the offensive against known terrorist organizations and “rogue states” like Syria, Iran, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It has emphasized the need to “preempt” potential terrorist attacks and used the potential threat of WMD terrorism to justify a preventive war against Iraq. The administration has also launched a broad campaign to promote democracy in the Arab and Islamic world, in an attempt to eliminate the social and political conditions that it believes are fomenting Islamic extremism. Although the United States has welcomed support from other countries, it has generally ignored allied advice in pursuing this strategy and placed scant reliance on existing international institutions.

This approach has been widely criticized at home and abroad, but its underlying logic contains a certain prima facie plausibility.2 By responding forcefully after 9/11, Bush & Co. sought to disrupt Al Qaeda’s existing infrastructure and diminish its capacity to prepare new attacks. By toppling Saddam Hussein, the United States sought to eliminate an alleged source of WMD, encourage democratic change throughout the Arab and Islamic world and consolidate U.S. influence in a key strategic area. And by demonstrating America’s unmatched power and global reach, the Administration hoped to compel potential enemies to aid U.S. anti-terrorist efforts and forego their own WMD ambitions. In sum, the Bush strategy assumed that the energetic use of U.S. military power would isolate Al Qaeda, force hostile governments to “bandwagon” with the United States, and spark a far-reaching process of pro-American democratization. Unfortunately, events since 2002 have exposed the basic flaws in this approach. Although the United States experienced an outpouring of sympathy in the immediate aftermath of September 11, its decision to view all terrorist groups as more-or-less identical and its rhetorical emphasis on preventive war (erroneously labeled “preemption”) alarmed many countries and cast doubt on U.S. judgment. Threatening adversaries with regime change did not reduce their WMD ambitions; on the contrary, it increased their desire for an effective way to deter U.S. pressure. Instead of reinforcing an image of U.S. omnipotence, the invasion of Iraq ultimately revealed the limits of U.S. power. The failure to find WMD damaged U.S. credibility and reinforced doubts about the feasibility of preventive war, and the postwar occupation was badly bungled. Instead of a democratic triumph, the United States soon faced a resilient and lethal insurgency. The war also facilitated terrorist recruitment, provided a new training ground for the next generation of jihadis, and tarnished America’s global image. In particular, the various abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guatanamo, and in Afghanistan damaged America’s reputation and strengthened the extremists’ claims that the United States was fundamentally hostile to Islam. The subsequent bombings in Madrid and London may have been a vivid reminder of the common danger, but they also reinforced doubts about the wisdom of following America’s lead. Whatever the merits of the current strategy in theory, it has been a failure in practice.

This paper presents a grand strategy for the war on terrorism that is fundamentally different than the one the United States has followed since September 11. Instead of trying to eradicate terrorism primarily through military means (preemption, regime change, targeted killings, etc.) it focuses on reducing the grievances that facilitate terrorist recruitment and are being used to justify terrorist attacks, while making it easier for other states to cooperate closely with the United States.

This alternative strategy rests on several assumptions and propositions.

First, like the current U.S. strategy, the new strategy begins by recognizing the reality of American primacy. Despite the setbacks in Iraq and a mounting trade deficit, the United States remains in a position of power unseen in recent history. The U.S. economy still produces 20-25 percent of gross world product, and is nearly 60 percent larger than its nearest rival. U.S. defense expenditures are over 40 percent of the global total, and it is the only country in the world with a global military capability. The United States enjoys disproportionate influence in key institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, and its educational, cultural, and media institutions cast a broad shadow over the rest of the world. It is also in a remarkably favorable geographic position, with no great powers near its borders. The United States is not omnipotent, of course, but its position is one that many states might envy but none can match.3 Unlike the current U.S. strategy, however, I do not assume that primacy allows the United States to do whatever it wants. America’s overwhelming power worries both friends and foes alike, which means that U.S. leaders must go to even greater lengths to use power judiciously and to reassure others about their benevolent intentions.

Second, the United States does not face imminent security threats to its vital interests from other great powers or “peer competitors.” Although a number of countries are concerned about U.S. primacy, none of them is likely to attack the United States or its vital interests. Even rogue states such as North Korea are far too weak to threaten the United States, and could not use any WMD they might acquire without triggering devastating retaliation. America’s wars will continue to be “wars of choice,” rather than wars fought to defend U.S. territory itself.

Third, terrorism is a tactic, not a movement, and the organizations that use it are not a unified monolith with a common objective. Most terrorist organizations are motivated primarily by local grievances (as with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Free Aceh movement in Indonesia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Palestine), and many are not overtly anti-American, although some terrorist groups do cooperate on occasion. Furthermore, the use of suicide terrorism is usually a tactical response to perceived foreign occupation (e.g., Israel’s presence on the West Bank, Russian control over Chechnya, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, etc.) and not a manifestation of religious or ideological extremism per se.4

Fourth, provided that anti-American terrorists do not acquire WMD, the danger of international terrorism is manageable. Since January 2000, international terrorist attacks have killed approximately 18,000 people and injured roughly 36,000 more.5 These losses are tragic, and the use of the tactic is reprehensible, but violence at this level does not pose a serious threat to the American way of life. Suicide terrorism and other forms of insurgent violence may thwart certain US foreign policy goals (most notably in Iraq), but terrorist groups such as al Qaeda do not pose an existential threat to the United States or its vital interests so long as their capabilities are based on conventional means.

Fifth, the greatest danger in the near-to-medium term is the possibility that an anti-American terrorist group will acquire weapons of mass destruction, and especially nuclear weapons. If armed solely with conventional explosives, terrorists can cause hundreds, and perhaps thousands of deaths. If armed with WMD, however, terrorists could threaten tens of thousands if not millions, and could obliterate entire communities. The human, economic, and political costs could be incalculable. Although it is impossible to gauge the probability of such an attack with any precision, the potential damage is enough to warrant a vigorous response.6

It follows that U.S. grand strategy should concentrate on the danger of WMD terrorism. This focus does not mean abandoning other foreign policy goals, but it does provide a set of priorities. In particular, it suggests that US foreign policy and grand strategy should be conducted in a way that maximizes international support for a broad counter-terrorism campaign, and that minimizes the appeal of terrorism as a strategy of political change. The United States wants to enlist as many people as it can in the effort to identify, locate, neutralize, and delegitimate terrorist activity, and we want to reduce the incentives that lead individuals to join terrorist organizations and take up arms against us. At the same time, the United States should take energetic steps to prevent any terrorist group from acquiring nuclear weapons.


Unfortunately, the current U.S. is not doing enough to achieve these goals. To be sure, the Bush administration can claim some genuine successes: a number of key Al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed, the ouster of the Taliban has eliminated a valuable safe haven in Afghanistan, and genuine progress has been made in coordinating counterterrorist activities with a number of other countries. Yet these successes have been accompanied by equally prominent failures: Osama bin Laden remains at large, Al Qaeda has “morphed” into a less-centralized collection of smaller but still lethal affiliates and imitators, global support for the U.S.-led war has declined steadily, and efforts to halt the spread of nuclear technology have failed in North Korea and are failing in Iran.

The most obvious symptom of strategic failure is the rising tide of anti-Americanism and the declining global support for the war on terror. In January 2005, for example, a BBC Worldnews survey of twenty-one countries found only five where a majority of citizens had “positive” views of the United States— India, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, and South Korea. Solid majorities held negative views in Argentina, Germany, Russia, Canada, Mexico, France, Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile, and Great Britain. In June 2005, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey reported that majorities in all fifteen countries surveyed now “favor another country challenging America’s global military supremacy.” Indeed, citizens in Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom now hold more favorable views of China than of the United States.7

Meanwhile, the Pew Survey also reports that support for the U.S.-led “war on terror” is declining on every continent. Fewer than twenty percent of Americans think the war on terrorism is being waged to “control Mideast oil,” “protect Israel,” “target Muslim governments,” or “dominate the world,” but between 40 and 60 percent of foreigners surveyed attribute U.S. policy in part to one or more of these ulterior motives. And though the London bombings in July 2005 reminded Europeans of the continued threat of Islamic terrorism, a survey by the British newspaper The Guardian found that two-thirds of Britons also believed there was a link between British involvement in Iraq and the terrorist attacks.8

The U.S. image is especially bleak in the Arab world. Although many Arabs hold surprisingly positive attitudes towards U.S. science and technology, popular culture, and even the American people themselves, a 2004 Zogby poll reported that fewer than 10 percent of those surveyed in Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates expressed favorable views of U.S. policy toward the Arabs, the Palestinians, the war on terrorism, or Iraq. Indeed, when asked to identify their “first thought” when America is mentioned, the most frequent response in these states was “unfair foreign policy.” Osama bin Laden’s popularity has outpaced President Bush’s by over forty percentage points in Pakistan, Morocco, and Jordan, and majorities in predominantly Muslim countries now “express concern that U.S. military power may ultimately be turned against them.”9

Defenders of U.S. policy argue that extremist violence is primarily a response to our values and not to our policies. As President Bush declared in 2002, “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon of freedom. . . in the world.”10 There may be a grain of truth in this view, but it explain the sharp decline in the U.S. image since 2000, the intense antipathy directed at President Bush himself, and the vocal opposition to specific actions like the 2002 National Security Strategy, the invasion of Iraq, or President Bush’s close embrace of the Sharon government in Israel.

This view also ignores what terrorists themselves say. Although some terrorist leaders may be inspired by visions of a radical Islamic revival, anti-Americanism is primarily a reaction to specific U.S. policies. For example, Osama bin Laden has made it clear that his hatred is fueled by opposition to what he regards as unjust U.S. policies in the Middle East, just as his earlier activities in the 1980s were motivated by opposition to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.11

More generally, the 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that “antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically.” A 2004 study by the Defense Science Board concluded that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,” but rather they hate our policies,” and an earlier report by the State Department’s Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy found that “Arabs and Muslims. . .support our values but believe our policies do not live up to them.” And even if some jihadis are motivated by the far-fetched goal of restoring the caliphate and rebuilding a global Islamic ummah (community), it is U.S. policy that provides them with potent recruiting tools and an undeserved degree of legitimacy within these societies.12

These trends underscore one of the main failings in the current U.S. strategy for countering global terrorism. When foreign populations disapprove of U.S. policy, their governments are less likely to support Washington’s initiatives, and less likely to pursue them enthusiastically even when we do obtain a grudging endorsement. The steadily eroding “coalition of the willing” in Iraq is but one symptom of this broader problem. Rising anti-Americanism also increases the number of people who are willing to use terrorist methods against U.S. forces overseas, against key U.S. allies, or against the U.S. homeland.

Last but not least, U.S. efforts to contain WMD proliferation remain unsatisfactory. As noted above, the Bush administration’s attempt to compel “rogue states” to dismantle their WMD programs has not worked in the two most serious cases—North Korea and Iran—and efforts to secure world-wide nuclear stockpiles remain under-funded and incomplete. The administration’s effort to interdict clandestine nuclear shipments through a multilateral ”Proliferation Security Initiative” is a positive development, but its opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, proposals to fund a new generation of US nuclear weapons, and overt acceptance of India’s nuclear programs have weakened the overall effort to strengthen the global nuclear regime.

Taken as a whole, therefore, U.S. strategy in the post-9/11 world has been seriously flawed. Despite a number of positive achievements, the United States has for the most part failed to capitalize on the opportunities that its position of primacy presents, and squandered the good will it enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The question is: how might it do better?


A different approach to US grand strategy begins by remembering what we are trying to accomplish. In the near term, the primary goal of U.S. grand strategy should be denying terrorists access to WMD. Over the longer term, the United States should seek to retain its current position of primacy for as long as possible, and discourage the rise of new “peer competitors.” Should new peer competitors emerge, the United States will want to enlist other states to help it keep its new rival(s) in check.

Thus, America’s short, medium, and long-term goals all require the United States to obtain active, enthusiastic, 24/7 cooperation from as many countries as possible. To do this, the United States needs to address the main causes of anti-Americanism and strive to make its position of primacy palatable to others. The question is how. Offshore balancing

Instead of trying to eliminate terrorism by garrisoning the globe or reshaping whole societies, the United States should return to its traditional grand strategy of offshore balancing.13 Offshore balancing assumes that only a few areas of the globe are of strategic importance to the United States (i.e., worth fighting and dying for). Specifically, the vital areas are the regions where there are substantial concentrations of power and wealth or critical natural resources: Europe, industrialized Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Offshore balancing further recognizes that the United States does not have to control these areas directly; it merely needs to ensure that they do not fall under the control of a hostile great power and especially not under the control of a so-called peer competitor. Offshore balancers rely on local actors to uphold the regional balance of power and intervene with their own forces only when regional powers are unable to keep aggressors in check.

How would offshore balancing work in practice? First, the United States would remain in NATO, but would drastically reduce its military presence in Europe. Most of Europe is now reliably democratic, and faces no significant external military threats. Although far from united on matters of foreign policy, the EU countries have the political and economic wherewithal to deal with the modest security challenges that they are likely to face in the foreseeable future. Small U.S. contingents would remain in Europe for training purposes and as a symbol of America’s transatlantic commitments, but the United States would no longer play the leading security role there.

Second, the United States would maintain a significant military presence in Asia (primarily air and naval forces) and continue to nurture cooperative partnerships with its Asian allies. In addition to helping support counterterrorist operations against al Qaeda affiliates in several Asian countries, a visible U.S. presence in Asia also lays the foundation for a future effort to contain China, should that become necessary.14

Third, the United States should follow to a balance-of-power policy towards the rest of the world, and especially the Middle East and Persian Gulf. As discussed above, the United States has no need to control these regions; it just needs to ensure that no other state is able to do so. Trying to dominate other regions generates anger and resentment, and entangles the United States in events and processes that it cannot easily control. The United States should declare that it is committed to maintaining the territorial integrity of every state, and that it will oppose any acts of aggression that threaten to result in any one state exercising hegemony over the others. But it will do in classic balance-ofpower fashion: relying primarily on local allies and intervening only when necessary.

This strategy also implies that the United States move quickly to withdraw its forces from Iraq. Although the United States bears some moral responsibility for Iraq’s current condition, and has an interest in preventing Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, the U.S. presence there is fueling terrorist recruitment and training and doing little to foster the emergence of an effective Iraqi government. It is one thing to “stay the course” when there is a plausible path to victory, but quite another to soldier on without any clear idea how to make things better. Iraq is not a country we can or should want to control, and the sooner we are out of there, the better.15

Interestingly, the Bush administration initially embraced several key elements of an offshore balancing strategy without fully committing to its underlying logic. Bush & Co. recognized that Cold War deployment patterns were no longer appropriate and they have therefore begun to reposition U.S. forces and acquire lighter, more mobile units that can be deployed where they were needed and return when they are done.16 The United States tends to be more popular when it is willing to go home, and reducing the U.S. military “footprint” would almost certainly reduce the current level of anti-Americanism.

As the world’s only superpower, the United States also has the luxury of playing “hard to get.” Instead of insisting that it is the “indispensable power” that can solve all global problems and bending over backwards to convince others that it is 100 percent reliable, U.S. leaders should want other states to bend over backwards to convince us that they deserve our help. If other states are not entirely sure that Uncle Sam will come to their aid, they would be willing to do more to ensure that we would. America’s Asian and Persian Gulf allies illustrate this dynamic perfectly: whenever they begin to fear that the U.S. role might decline, they leap to offer Washington new facilities and access agreements and go to greater lengths to conform their foreign policy to ours.

Offshore balancing is the ideal grand strategy for an era of U.S. primacy. It husbands the power upon which U.S. primacy rests and minimizes the fear that U.S. power provokes. But it is not isolationist. The United States would not withdraw from world affairs, and it would retain military forces that were second-to-none. But offshore balancing would maximize America’s freedom of action, encourage others to do more for us, and make it less likely that we would be drawn into unnecessary conflicts. Over time, this strategy would make it less likely that the United States will face the hatred of radicals like bin Laden, and thus give us less reason to intervene where we are not welcome. Mailed Fist, Velvet Glove

If Americans want their power to attract others instead of repelling them, then they must take care to use it judiciously. In particular, the United States should use military force with forbearance, and abandoning the doctrine of “preemption” contained the 2002 National Security Strategy would be a good place to start. The United States always has the option of using force to protect its vital interests, but putting preventive war at the heart of U.S. national security policy made us seem overly eager to use force. This policy was alarming to many countries—including some close allies--because no state could be entirely sure that they would not end up in America’s crosshairs, or be confident that their interests would not be adversely affected by a unilateral U.S. decision for war.17

To illustrate this point, consider how much the United States would have gained had it followed this approach towards Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Had the Bush administration rejected preventive war and chosen instead to continue the U.N.-mandated inspections process, it would have scored a resounding diplomatic victory. The Bush team could have claimed—correctly—that the threat of U.S. military action had forced Saddam Hussein to resume inspections under new and more intrusive procedures. The UN inspectors would have determined that Iraq didn’t have any WMD after all. If Saddam had balked after a few months, then international support for his ouster would have been easier to obtain, and the United States would have shown the world that it preferred to use force only as a last resort. This course would have kept Iraq isolated, kept most of the world on our side, undermined Osama bin Laden’s accusations about

U.S. hostility to Islam, and enabled the United States to focus its energies on defeating al Qaeda. Even more important, this policy of “self-restraint” would have avoided an unnecessary war, thereby saving billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and avoiding both the current quagmire and the embarrassing revelations of Abu Ghraib.

Play “Divide and Conquer”

Dominant powers should try to keep adversaries divided, because they can only be checked if others unite against them. Accordingly, the United States should resist the tendency to see potential enemies as part of a single unified monolith and eschew policies that encourage adversaries to make common cause. Lumping North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and other states together as a set of rogue states or announcing a global crusade against any political groups that employs terrorist methods, ignores the critical differences among these various parties, blinds us to the possibility of improving relations with some of them, and encourages them to cooperate with each other more actively. To label Iraq, Iran and North Korea an “axis of evil,” for example, made these regimes less likely to moderate their anti-U.S. policies and led key U.S. allies to question America’s judgment. Similarly, viewing al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas as essentially identical ignores their different origins, aims, strengths, and potential vulnerabilities, and makes it harder to fashion the best policy for dealing with each one.

As Libya’s decision to abandon its WMD programs reveals, the United States will do better pursuing a strategy of “divide-and-conquer.” The Clinton and Bush administrations persuaded Libya to change course because they employed carrots and sticks (primarily economic sanctions) that were specifically tailored to Libya’s particular aims, circumstances and vulnerabilities. Indeed, the Libyan example provides a model for dealing with the most difficult and recalcitrant regimes, including hard cases like Iran and North Korea.18 

Making U.S. Primacy Legitimate

U.S. power is most effective when it is seen as legitimate, and when other societies believe it will further their interests as well as those of the United States. As a result, America’s enemies will try to undermine it by portraying the United States as a morally questionable society whose actions are harmful to others and inherently evil.

In addition to waging the familiar forms of geopolitical competition, therefore, the United States must also do more to defend the legitimacy of its position and its policies. As President Bush declared after September 11, “we’ve got to do a better job of making our case.” Unfortunately, U.S. efforts at public diplomacy remain weak, half-hearted and ineffective. A Council on Foreign Relations task force concluded that “public diplomacy is all too often relegated to the margins of the policy process, making it effectively impotent.” As a result, the task force concluded, “anti-Americanism is on the rise throughout the world.” Similarly, the 9/11 Commission noted that “Bin Laden’s message . . .has attracted active support from thousands of disaffected young Muslims and resonates powerful with a far larger number who do not actively support his methods.”19

To overcome this message, the United States should launch a broad-based public information campaign, using every instrument and channel at its disposal. In addition to preparing diplomats to engage on a regular basis with local media outlets such as al Jazeerah, the United States must increase its own Arabic-language broadcasting and develop sophisticated and appealing Arabic websites to reach the growing population of Internet-savvy Arab youth. A major effort to train fluent Arabic speakers is also essential, so that we can engage Arabic and Islamic news agencies on an equal footing.20

The good news is that the United States possesses formidable assets in this sort of ideational competition. Not only is English increasing the lingua franca of science, diplomacy, and international business, but the American university system remains a potent mechanism for socializing foreign elites.21 Students studying in the United States become familiar with U.S. mores, while simultaneously absorbing mainstream U.S. views on politics and economics.22 Among other things, this also means that the United States should not let its post-9/11 concern for homeland security interfere with the continued flow of foreign students to our colleges and universities.

Public diplomacy is not just a question of “spin,” however; it also requires a good product to sell. If U.S. foreign policy makes global problems worse while

U.S. personnel trample on human rights, and if no senior officials are held accountable, then no amount of adroit public diplomacy is going to restore the nation’s image.23 Americans may dismiss these accusations as false or exaggerated, but the real issue is not what we think, it is what others think. An insensitive and overly aggressive foreign policy has drained the reservoir of goodwill that makes U.S. primacy acceptable, and it will require a sustained and serious effort to restore it. Returning to an offshore balancing strategy will help, but it must be accompanied by a sustained effort to explain our policies to others.

A New Approach in the Middle East

An important part of any effort to rebuild America’s global image would be a new approach to the Middle East itself. The combination of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and America’s one-sided support for Israel is not the only reason why “the bottom has fallen out of support for America in most of the Muslim world,” but it is a key part of the explanation. U.S. Middle East policy is also widely condemned in many other countries, including close U.S. allies such as Great Britain. And it is one of the main reasons why terrorists want to attack the United States, and it helps makes criminals like bin Laden look like prophets and heroes.

Reversing this situation requires two steps.

First, the United States should use its considerable leverage to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end. While reaffirming its commitment to Israel’s security within its pre-1967 borders, the United States should make it clear that it is dead-set against Israel’s expansionist settlements policy (including the land-grabbing ‘security fence’) and that it believes this policy is not in America or Israel’s long-term interest.24 This approach means going beyond the moribund “road map” and laying out America’s own vision for what a just peace would entail, probably along the lines of the “Clinton Parameters” of December 2000.25 If Israel rejects this solution, then the United States should terminate its economic and military support. This policy also means challenging the stranglehold that the Israel Lobby currently maintains over U.S. Middle East policy, largely by pointing out that current U.S. policy is neither morally defensible nor in America’s strategic interest.26

Second, the United States should reject the quasi-imperial role that the Bush administration has tried to play in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The United States does have important interests in the Middle East—including access to oil and the need to combat terrorism—but neither objective is well-served by occupying the region with American troops. To repeat: because U.S. interests are served as long as no single state controls all (or even most) Persian Gulf oil, the United States shift its weight as needed to make sure that no one state is able to dominate the others. The United States pursued this policy successfully from 1945 to 1990, and it is still the correct approach today.

Taken together, these two steps would also facilitate the long-range goal of helping various Arab and Islamic states move toward more pluralist forms of government. At present, U.S. efforts to encourage democratic change in the Arab and Islamic world are undermined by America’s one-sided support for Israel and its occupation of Iraq. Why should Arabs believe the United States is committed to freedom when its money and its power are used to deny these rights to millions of Palestinians and when its policies in Iraq have led to thousand of civilian deaths, a simmering civil war, and prolonged economic hardship? History also warns that trying to run the entire Middle East is a fool’s errand: a large U.S. military presence will merely fuel anti-Americanism and make our terrorism problem worse. By adopting a balance-of-power strategy and a more evenhanded position vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine, the United States will eliminate the most potent justifications for jihadi violence and make it easier for governments in the region to embrace our counter-terrorism efforts.

A “Grand Bargain” on Nuclear Terrorism

Nuclear terrorism is the most serious near-term threat to U.S. national security. Recognizing this, a number of experts have called for: 1) redoubled efforts to secure loose nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, 2) a global “clean-out” of nuclear research reactors and other unsecured materials; and 3) enhanced measures to block nuclear smuggling. Such measures are certainly worthwhile, and if implemented quickly and effectively, they could substantially reduce the risk that nuclear weapons or the materials to make them could fall into hostile hands.27

The risk of nuclear terrorism will also increase as more countries acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Accordingly, the United States should give states such as North Korea and Iran strong incentives to give up their nuclear weapons programs, work to shut down black-market nuclear technology networks, and take concrete steps to improve the global regime against the spread of nuclear arms is also necessary. In particular, the United States should 1) press for the revision of Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which currently gives all signatories access to the full nuclear fuel cycle, 2) support an even more ambitious “Proliferation Security Initiative” to intercept illegal shipments of nuclear materials and missile technology, and 3) make a coordinated, multilateral effort—using both carrots and sticks but mostly the former—to persuade Iran, North Korea, and other likely proliferators to abandon their nuclear ambitions.28

Unfortunately, although the United States wants to discourage other states from acquiring nuclear weapons and enlist other nations in a broad set of anti-nuclear initiatives, it still insists on having a nuclear arsenal that is far larger than it needs to deter any possible adversary.29 Thus, Mohamed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, likens the United States to “some who have continued to dangle a cigarette from their mouth and tell everybody else not to smoke.”30 These policies send the clear message that whatever U.S. leaders say, they really think that having lots of nuclear weapons is very desirable. If the world’s strongest conventional power thinks nuclear weapons are essential for its security, why is it surprising that weaker and more vulnerable states have reached the same conclusion? For that matter, why are we surprised that other states do not want to embrace a global nuclear regime that “locks in” U.S. conventional and nuclear superiority?

If the United States is serious about reducing the dangers of nuclear terrorism (and it should be), then it must offer the rest of the world a “grand bargain.” In exchange for a more reliable non-proliferation regime (accompanied by an aggressive effort to secure existing stockpiles of loose nuclear materials) and the verifiable abandonment of nuclear ambitions by countries like Iran and North Korea, the United States would simultaneously agree to: 1) abandon current plans to build a new generation of nuclear weapons; 2) significantly reduce its own nuclear arsenal (while retaining a few hundred warheads as a deterrent against direct attacks on the United States itself), and 3) take concrete steps to reduce the threat that it presents to so-called rogue states, including a willingness to sign some sort of non-aggression agreement with them.31 Critics may see this proposal as a form of appeasement that would undermine

U.S. advantages and threaten its long-term national security. This view is shortsighted. The United States will be the strongest country on the planet for the next several decades, and its primacy will not be altered whether it has 5000 nuclear warheads or only a few hundred. Nor does this approach entail giving into threats; it is simply the most obvious way to reduce other states’ own incentive to take measures that are not in the U.S. national interest.

De-emphasizing U.S. nuclear weapons programs may not alter the calculations of a North Korea or Iran, whose nuclear ambitions are well-advanced, but it would strengthen anti-nuclear advocates in countries where the nuclear option is still being debated. Equally important, other states are also reluctant to embrace a more stringent non-proliferation regime, because the United States has yet to fulfill its own obligations to the existing Non-Proliferation Treaty.32 As the abortive NPT Review Conference in May 2005 demonstrated, trying to get other states to accept new constraints on their conduct without offering parallel concessions in return is simply not going to work. The grand bargain sketched here would also make the United States look less hypocritical—thereby facilitating its efforts to make U.S. primacy more legitimate in the eyes of others—and help persuade other states to implement a more robust and reliable non-proliferation regime.

This policy is also entirely consistent with a grand strategy of offshore balancing and a less threatening U.S. military posture. Once the United States stops trying to run the world and abandons the preventive war doctrine contained in the 2002 National Security Strategy, other states will have less reason to want to deter us and be less inclined to seek WMD of their own. Instead, they will be more likely to support our shared interest in halting or slowing the spread of these technologies, thereby reducing the risk that the most dangerous extremists will acquire them.

The grand bargain does involve making certain compromises, but it does so from a clear sense of strategic priorities. Nuclear terrorism is the most worrisome danger that the world’s only superpower now faces, and a grand strategy centered on the U.S. national interest would focus on the biggest problems and subordinate other goals in order to address them.


In the near-to-medium term, counter-terrorism will be the main focus of U.S. grand strategy, with nuclear terrorism receiving particular attention. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, an aggressive “forward strategy” against Al Qaeda and the Taliban made sense, along with an energetic policy to enlist support from many other countries. Over time, however, the United States has relied too heavily on aggressive counter-terrorist operations—most notably by waging preventive war in Iraq—and placed too little emphasis on broader political efforts designed to marginalize terrorist organizations and reduce their sources of future manpower. Excessive reliance on the unilateral use of force has also undermined America’s standing with a number of valuable allies. Not only does America’s declining global image undermine the war on terrorism, but it may also hinder subsequent efforts to recruit allies for other purposes. There is little to be gained from policies that alienate others, and much to be lost.

Accordingly, a better strategy for dealing with terrorism would follow the broad outlines sketched here. A strategy of offshore balancing will encourage other states to welcome the use of American power, rather than encouraging them to look for ways to tame it. These policies will not win over Bin Laden, his followers, or his imitators, but they will help make “Bin Ladenism” a fading phenomenon, dampen the rising tide of anti-Americanism, and ensure that global terrorism remains a regrettable but manageable problem.


1 George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” Washington, D.C., September 20, 2001, downloaded from www.whitehouse.gov.

2 For intelligent critiques, see Edward Rhodes, “The Imperial Logic of Bush’s Liberal Agenda,” Survival 45, no. 1 (Spring 2003); and G. John Ikenberry, “America’s Imperial Ambition,” Foreign Affairs 81, no. 5 (September/October 2002).

3 See Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005); William C. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security 24, no. 1 (Summer 1999); and Barry R. Posen, “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundations of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security 28, no. 1 (Summer 2003); and Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (New York: Oxford, 2002).

4 See Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005); Fred Kaplan, “It’s Not Who We Are, It’s What We Do,” salon.com, July 20, 2005.

5 Based on data found on the Terrorism Knowledge Base, at www.tkb.org.

6 See Graham T. Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Henry Holt, 2004).

7 See http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/BBCworldpoll/html/bbcpoll011905.html; and Pew Global Attitudes Project, “U.S. Image Up Slightly, But Still Negative,” June 23, 2005, at http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=247.

8 Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Mistrust of America in Europe Ever Higher, Muslim Anger Persists,” March 16, 2004; “U.S. Image Up Slightly, But Still Negative,” and “Two-Thirds Believe London Bombings Linked to Iraq War,” Guardian Online, at www.guardian.co.uk/attackonlondon/story/0,16132,1531387,00.html

9 See “Impressions of America 2004: How Arabs View America, How Arabs Learn About America,” (Washington, D.C.: Zogby International, June 2004); Pew Global Attitudes Project, “U.S. Image Up Slightly, But Still Negative.”

10 See George W. Bush, “Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation,” September 11, 2001, at www.september11news.com/PresidentBush.htm.

11 See Osama Bin Laden, “Declaration of War Against the Americasn Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places [Saudi Arabia], Al-Quds al-‘Arabi, February 23, 1998; “Excerpts: Bin Laden Video,” BBC News World Edition, October 29, 2004; and National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (The 9/11 Commission), “Outline of the 9/11 Plot,” Staff Statement No. 16, June 16, 2004. See also Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam’s War Against America (New York: Random House, 2003), pp. 106, 117, 121.

12 See Pew Global Attitudes Survey, “What the World Thinks in 2002,” pp. 61, 69; Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, U.S. Department of Defense, September 2004), p. 40, available at www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/2004-09-Strategic_Communication.pdf; and Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 2003).

13 See John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), especially chap. 7; and Christopher Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy,” International Security 22, no. 1 (Summer 1997).

14 See Mearsheimer, Tragedy of Great Power Politics, chap. 10, and idem, “Better to Be Godzilla than Bambi,” Foreign Policy 146 (January/February 2005).

15 See John Deutch, “Time to Pull Out, and Not Just From Iraq,” New York Times, July 15th, 2005.

16 See “Bush Tells Veterans of Plan to Redeploy G.I.'s Worldwide,” New York Times, August 17, 2004; “The U.S. Global Posture Review,” IISS Strategic Comments 10, no. 7 (September 2004), pp. 1-2, downloaded from www.isss.org/stratcom.

17 It is worth noting that the publication of the 2002 National Security Strategy and its trumpeting by key administration spokesmen (including President Bush), did not convince Saddam Hussein to leave power voluntarily so as to avoid a U.S. attack.

18 For a bipartisan proposal for a more nuanced U.S. policy towards Iran, see Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates, Co-Chairmen, Iran: Time for a New Approach, Report of an Independent Task Force, Council on Foreign Relations (New York, 2004).

19 See “President Holds Primetime News Conference,” Washington, D.C. October 22, 2001; available from www.whitehouse.gov; Peter G. Peterson, chairman, Finding America’s Voice: A Strategy for Reinvigorating U.S. Public Diplomacy (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2004); and The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004), pp. 56, 362.

20 According to the State Department’s Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World: “Transformed public diplomacy can make America safer, but it must be sustained for decades, not stopped and started as moods change in the world.” The Advisory Group also noted that only 54 State Department employees were fully fluent in Arabic, and that “only a handful can hold their own on television.” See Changing Minds, Winning Peace, pp. 17, 27.

21 There were nearly 600,000 foreign students studying in the United States in 2002, roughly double the number from two decades previously. See Institute of International Education, Open Doors 2003, summarized at www.opendoors.iienetwork.org.

22 This tendency is especially pronounced in U.S. law, business and public policy schools, which emphasize the U.S. commitment to competitive markets, democratic institutions, and the rule of law.

23 As the State Department’s Advisory Commission on U.S. Public Diplomacy put it, “’Spin’ and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer. Foreign policy counts. . . .[W]e were struck by the depth of opposition to many of our policies. Citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing, and they are genuinely distressed by the situation in Iraq. Sugar-coating and fast-talking are no solutions, nor is absenting ourselves.” See Changing Minds, Winning Peace, p. 18.

24 Israel is far more secure now than it was when it first occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1967. In 1967 Israel’s defense spending was less than half the combined defense expenditures of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria; today, Israel spends roughly 30 percent more than these four states combined (and Iraq is occupied by Israel’s main ally). Israel’s adversaries used to get substantial military aid from the Soviet Union; today, the Soviet Union is gone and Israel’s ties to the United States have grown. Israel had no nuclear weapons back in 1967; today it was dozens. Iit is only the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that creates a serious security problem for Israel, in the form of terrorist violence.

25 Israel and the Palestinians will also have to agree on the rights of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes. Allowing this “right” to be exercised in full would threaten Israel’s identity and is clearly infeasible, but the principle is a matter of justice and one the Palestinians will not compromise except as part of a final settlement. To resolve this dilemma, Israel must acknowledge a “right” of return and the Palestinians must agree to give up this right in exchange for compensation. The United States and the European Union could organize and finance a generous aid program to compensate the Palestinians, which would be formally acknowledged to end all claims for the physical return of Palestinians into Israeli territory.

26 The American people would be amenable to this shift: a 2003 survey by the University of Maryland found that over 60 percent of Americans would be willing to withhold aid to Israel if it resisted U.S. pressure to settle the conflict, and the number rose to 70 percent among “politically active” Americans.

27 See in particular Matthew Bunn, Anthony Weir and John Holdren, Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials: A Report Card and Action Plan (Cambridge: Managing the Atom Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2004); Matthew Bunn, The Next Wave: Urgently Needed New Steps to Control Warheads and Fissile Material (Cambridge: Managing the Atom Project. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2000); and Allison, Nuclear Terrorism.

28 For a good summary of possible steps, see George Percovich et al, Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004) at http://wmd.ceip.matrixgroup.net/UniversalCompliance.pdf

29 On the Bush administration’s nuclear weapons proposals, see “The Nuclear Posture Review, IISS Strategic Comments 8, no. 3 (April 2002); Walter Pincus, “Nuclear Plans Go Beyond Cuts, Bush Seeks a New Generation Of Weapons, Delivery Systems” Washington Post, 19 February 2002 ; “Faking Nuclear Restraint: The Bush Administration's Secret Plan For Strengthening U.S. Nuclear Forces,” Washington, D.C.: National Resources Defense Council, at http://www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/020213a.asp. Excerpts from the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review can be found at www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/policy/dod/npr.htm.

30 El-Baradei’s full statement is worth quoting at length: “Unless [the eight nuclear weapons states] send a strong message that they are really committed to move to a nuclear disarmament. . . nuclear weapons will continue to be very attractive for others, you know, as a sense of deterrent, as a sense of power, as a sense of prestige. See Mohamed El-Baradei, “Transcript of Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations,” May 14, 2004, downloaded from www.cfr.org on September 21, 2004.

31 For an authoritative bipartisan statement on the feasibility of deep reductions, see Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997). See also John Deutch, “A Nuclear Posture for Today,” Foreign Affairs, 84, no. 1 (January/February 2005).

32 In Article VI of the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the signatories agreed “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Although strategic nuclear arsenals have been reduced, a remaining arsenal of over 7000 weapons and plans for a new generation of weapons hardly constitutes “cessation of the arms race at an early date” or “general and complete disarmament.”

This paper draws upon my book Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., September 2005).


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