Strategy and weather share a common limitation: People constantly talk about both yet, in today’s environment, little can be done to affect either.

Above all, strategy is about setting achievable and understandable aims. Sadly, politics and process have made that impossible today.

A bitterly divided Congress and the failure of the Obama administration through substituting process for establishing real priorities mean that strategy is more cliche and sound bite then unmistakable policy direction.


The United States has had explicit strategies in the past that won World War II and then contained the Soviet Union keeping that conflict cold, ultimately contributing to the demise of that empire.

The star-crossed Richard Nixon indeed had two major and related strategic thrusts. First was the Nixon or Guam Doctrine in which the U.S. provided strategic deterrence against the Soviet Union with partners or allies assuming greater responsibility for regional security. Second was the opening to China meant to exploit the Sino-Soviet split that would cajole or convince Moscow to pursue detente with the United States.

The combination led to the 1972 arms agreements limiting both offensive and defensive weapons and a general improvement in East-West relations as well as enabling American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1974.

Since then, U.S. strategy has too often avoided substance. When clearer cut strategies arose, principally in George W. Bush’s administration, ideology was the driver. Hence, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said that the freedom agenda and establishing democracies in the Middle East and South Asia through the use of force to remove unfriendly regimes were the best strategic means of bringing peace and long-term stability to chronically dangerous regions. Tragically, the Bush doctrine was irretrievably flawed.

The United States, of course, prepares a plethora of strategic documents beginning with the overarching National Security Strategy extending to the military, diplomatic, intelligence and economic components that keep the lumber and paper manufacturing businesses employed in perpetuity. The fundamental shortcoming in drafting these tomes is that the aims and objectives of the strategy are either so broad or cliches about preventing conflict and instability to be useless in practice.

For example, defining who the enemy is and what instruments of policy are essential in countering that adversary are imprecise in the extreme as opponents in the main possess no armies, navies and air forces to be defeated and are driven by ideological or political forces that cannot be defeated by military means alone. Unfortunately, the non-military tools to address the causative reasons underlying the motivations of potential adversaries have not been given the necessary resources to enable them to work if they could in the first place.

As a result, success in Iraq and Afghanistan, however defined, rested in establishing workable governance and sufficient economic development to provide populations with incentives crucial to producing a modicum of political stability and reducing violence. These tools are part of a comprehensive or whole of government approach in dealing with failed or failing states — a process that has been still born.

If government were capable of taking bold and imaginative steps, and currently ours is not, what might a new strategy look like? Assume that the aims of strategy were to ensure economic viability; create a more secure and stable environment; and reduce the potential destabilizing and destructive effects of what is called terrorism.

A starting point is to stand the Nixon Doctrine on its head. Russia, not China becomes the key. While the Obama administration has pushed the “reset” button with Russia, far more needs to be done. Missile defense is the major irritant. Hence, how relations with Russia can be improved and Russia brought into the embrace of Europe forms the heart and principal aims of this strategy.

At the same time, the United States must take on the Taiwan-Mainland China impasse by declaring that while it will protect Taiwan from Beijing’s encroachment, a statement of independence from China by the Taiwanese government will end any American guarantees. This will contain Chinese neuralgia over Taiwan that in turn will lead to greater collaboration and cooperation.

Russia and China are critical in achieving success in Afghanistan and vis-a-vis Iran to prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons. Regional approaches that also include India, Pakistan and Turkey must be part of these relationships. Military force, while often necessary has proven insufficient to achieving aims of stability, must be buttressed by diplomacy and greater cooperation based on advancing shared interests while minimizing differences where possible.

From that foundation, sub-strategies can be fashioned to deal with individual issues from economic access to countering proliferation and terrorism.

Ideas count. So does political courage. Regrettably, for the time being, the United States lacks both.

Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.