United States Grand Strategy in Post Cold War Era


During the Cold war, Containment of the Soviet Union had been the main policy. This policy of Containment was carried out under the nuclear overhang where both sides tried to out-produce each other in terms of number of nuclear weapons giving rise to nuclear strategies such as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and Flexible Response. The end of the Cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole super power of the world. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union caught the US foreign policy makers by surprise and the abrupt shift from a Bi-Polar world to a unipolar world took some time to realign the overall US global strategy. Left with no real military challenger, the US policy makers and strategists concluded that they could now employ their power at will and that any and every problem in the world could be tackled unilaterally. Thus, through the 1990s and early 2000, the US Naval strategy shifted from Containment to expeditionary warfare with the proclamation of the Strategy of Forward – From the Sea. According to this strategy, the US navy could carry out power projection anywhere in the world solely by deploying its assets at sea. To carry out the logistics functions for Forward—- From the Sea, the US navy invested in Maritime Pre-positioning ships, which were basically huge container ships carrying all military supplies required for successful prosecution of the war obviating the need for a land base. The US Air force likewise tailored its force structure to provide quick reaction military airlift capability to a complete airborne division in 48 hours anywhere on the globe. The army too tailored its heavy Cold war formations to smaller more mobile groupings and composite formations which could be air deployed or moved by ships at short notice.

The unipolar moment in global affairs was just a short pause. The smaller nations realizing that they could not possibly match the US overwhelming military superiority shifted their balance to develop asymmetric capabilities. The attack on USS Cole and the 9/11 attacks brought to home the dangers of asymmetric warfare to the US military. To counter the events of 9/11, the US embarked on a Strategy of Pre-emption by invading Afghanistan and later Iraq. This strategy of pre-emption however, had its limitations as state and non-state actors further modified their strategies to face up to the US might. Islamic fundamentalism grew at an alarming pace and terrorist found safe havens in as diverse a region as Africa, Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand to name a few. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly bogged down the US military which now faced an unenviable situation of having to commit a sizeable strength of forces to these two theatres and be left with no capacity to deal with problems elsewhere. The other countries sensed this strategic weakness and have embarked on exploiting it. One just has to look at the Iranian support to terrorists in Iraq, Syrian support to Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel and the covert games being played by a resurgent Russia and China in Iran. The US policy makers yet again realized the dangers of Overstretch. They also understood that the Global war on Terror was not winnable alone and that the US required international support to counter it. This forced a landmark shift away from the unilateralist strategy of pre-emption and Forward – From the Sea. The latest strategy unveiled by the US maritime forces has been called The Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century Seapower. This combined strategy of the US navy, Coast Guard and the Marines readily acknowledges that to make the world a safer place requires cooperation from all the like minded navies and nations of the world. The US Army too realizing that the present war on terrorism had no short term solutions, has changed its conventional strategy to what it calls The Long War Strategy. The basic precepts of this strategy states that the US army acknowledges that the war on terrorism is going to be of a long duration probably decades and that a realignment and restructuring of the US army is required. The emphasis in this strategy is to shift away from heavy armor formations to formations which can quickly react to short sharp conflicts.

While these have been strategies aimed at the global level, country specific strategies have not been forgotten. The meteoric rise of China is a threat which the US clearly factors in its country specific strategy dovetailed into the overall global strategy. In respect to China, the US, since the days of the Shuttle Diplomacy in the 1970s has been predicated on Engagement. The logic behind this engagement strategy has been quite sound. China is too large a country with too great an economic potential to be antagonized. The Chinese quite early on had very clearly demonstrated their intentions to practice an independent foreign policy away from the Soviets. So while the Chinese gratefully accepted all Soviet help, they had their own aspirations which the American policy makers quickly understood. Thus a friendly China or even a neutral China was calculated as a great help to the United States to fight the Soviets. Despite the demise of the Cold war, this Engagement policy is very much in place. China now however, is emerging as a serious challenger to American power. Therefore the United States has now embarked on an Engagement Policy coupled with a Hedging Strategy against China. To counter the spread of Chinese influence in Asia and the Pacific, The United States has identified India; another rising regional power has a possible countervailing force against China. This combination of Engagement and Hedging is likely to dominate US Strategy against China for some foreseeable future. The threat from China exists not directly towards Continental United Sates but on peripheral issues, the most important one being the unification of Taiwan with mainland China. An attack on Taiwan by China may become the most likely cause for the United States to go to war with China. China remains a strategic threat to the Unites States on account of its growing influence in the world. The frantic Chequebook Diplomacy unleashed by China to buy friends across South East Asia, South Asia, Middle East and Africa point toward China’s long term plans to challenge American power. It is therefore not surprising to note that all nations inimical to the US are Chinese friends.

Against a resurgent Russia, The US strategy is still grounded in the vestiges of some old cold war precepts. The possible reason for this mismatch in strategy is because after the decline of the Soviet Union, America, along with its European allies sought to quickly embrace all the erstwhile Warsaw pact countries into its fold without strategizing a plan for accommodating Russia. Through the 90s and early 2000, Russia watched in impotent rage as it saw its backyard being decimated by the US and the EU. The American plan to base the Anti Ballistic Missile Defense systems in Poland (ostensibly to counter Iranian missiles) is seen by Russia as a direct threat to its sovereignty. Riding on high oil prices, the Russians hit back with vengeance through a multi-prong strategy combining its gas and oil power along with some old fashioned conventional action in Georgia and covert help to the Iranian regime and Middle East players such as Syria. Russia also sought to limit the Western advance into the Central Asian Republics by launching the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is a grouping of Central Asian republics, China and Russia with India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan as observers. Recently, the Russians also signaled their intention to take the challenge out to sea by sending its fleet across to Venezuela, which some strategists have likened to the exploits of the Great White Fleet in 1907-1909. The American response to Russian aggression has so far been muted as a coherent strategy against Russia has yet not been crystallized. This lacuna has been because of the initial promise that Russia held out, on embracing democracy that it would join up with the western bloc. However, the shape of democracy that took hold in Russia points more towards an ‘enlightened dictatorship’ as exemplified by Vladmir Putin who has managed to stay at the helm of Russian affairs by simply shifting his post from the President to the Prime Minister of the country.

Amidst all these strategies, nuclear deterrence still remains a valid concept. Along with the five De jure Nuclear powers, are the three De Facto nuclear powers namely India, Pakistan and North Korea and one undeclared nuclear power, Israel. Therefore, managing the Global Nuclear balance has become a lot more complicated. While the principles of Deterrence had been practiced with resounding success since 1945, which is underscored by the fact that there has been no conflict involving a nuclear weapon till to date after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the same cannot be guaranteed for the newly emerged nuclear weapons states. North Korea is an unstable state ruled by an equally unpredictable dictator, while Pakistan is in throes of rabid fundamentalism whose future as a state cannot be predicted with any reasonable assurance. The chances of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir valley are a possibility which has many believers. To prevent any possibility of a nuclear exchange in South Asia, the US has embarked on a Strategy of engagement and coercion. Realizing that India would never sign the NPT or the CTBT, the US embarked on engaging India by signing the Indo-US nuclear deal. Whatever may be said by the non-proliferation Ayatollahs, the Indo-US Nuclear deal has put many limitations on Indians ability to maneuver. The terms and conditions of the 123 agreement when read in conjunction with the Hyde Act almost ensures the entry of the NPT and the CTBT through the backdoor. To curb Pakistani nuclear adventurism, the US has given entire command and control training and nuclear weapons handling philosophy to the Pakistani nuclear establishment. This ensures that western ideals of nuclear conflict management are firmly embedded in the Pakistani Nuclear Command and Control structure.

In the overall threat perceptions, The United States will be faced with Terrorism as the main threat for the foreseeable future. Terrorism cannot be defeated by military force alone, so the global strategy to combat terrorism hinges on Cooperative Engagement of all like minded nations. China and Russia may become potential threats through proxy wars but not direct conventional threats. Iran could become a major threat if it acquires Nuclear Weapons, for which the US will have no option but to resort to its preemptive strategy on gaining hard intelligence.

Causes of the Vietnam War

The end of the Second World War led to the formation of two main blocs – the Western Bloc led by the US and the Eastern Bloc led by the erstwhile Soviet Union. Both Blocs wished to propound their respective ideologies throughout the world. The rapid spread of Communism through East Asia and onto South East Asia alarmed the US policy makers. The entire policy of Containment of the Soviet Union hinged on stopping Communist ideology from spreading all over the world. North Vietnam was a Communist Country backed by the Soviets while South Vietnam was backed by the US. When North Vietnam attacked South Vietnam along with strong Soviet backing, the weaker South Vietnamese forces could not withstand the onslaught. So to prevent further spread of Communism, America entered the war. Thus it can be said that the first cause was the Ideological cause. The next cause was the Strategic cause. The US policy makers feared that with the fall of Vietnam, the rest of South East Asia and Asia would fall like ‘Dominoes’. This Domino theory was the chief reason why the US government decided to halt Communism in its Southwards spread. The third cause was the Military cause. North Vietnam had militarily attacked a US ally who had to be defended and hence America entered the Vietnam War. The Strategic cause seemed most important at that point in time because Communism as an ideology was spreading rapidly throughout the world actively supported by the Soviet Union.

Major Mistakes Committed by the US in the Vietnam War

The first major mistake that the US policy makers committed during the Vietnam War was that they did not adequately prepare their own people to support the war. In a democracy, domestic support is absolutely vital for the successful prosecution of any war. In this the US government failed miserably. The next mistake was at the Strategic Level. The US military misread the nature of war in the Vietnam theatre of operations. The US military was trained for fighting conventional set piece battles but not a guerrilla war and thus while they never lost a single battle against the North Vietnamese, ultimately they lost the war. The US military underestimated the Duration of War, thinking that the North Vietnamese would capitulate soon in face of superior US firepower.

The Americans underestimated the resolve of the Vietnamese people. They thought that a poorly armed; rag tag militia could not possibly hold out for long and would soon sue for peace, something which did not happen. American Military planners also underestimated the extent of Soviet help given to the Vietnamese to continue the fight. At the operational and tactical levels, the Americans were slow to adapt to the enemies’ guerilla warfare and thus suffered heavy casualties. The proclamation of Conscription was yet another mistake committed by the policy makers. By doing so, thousands of ill trained American youth went to their deaths that could have been avoided. Maintenance of Morale in the field was also not taken seriously by the military leaders, which also was a contributory cause to the American defeat. The last but by far the most serious mistake of the Vietnam War, was that the US government took too long to decide on withdrawing from the war. When to order a Strategic Withdrawal is an art which the Americans did not practice and after 10 years of fighting, billions of dollars spent and thousands of dead and injured, the mightiest nation in the world had to beat an undignified retreat.

Structure of International System According to Waltz

Waltz adopted a ‘Systems approach’ to explain the structure of International system. According to Waltz, domestic political structures are determined by three important characteristics, firstly, by the principle by which the system is ordered. Secondly, by the functions that each unit fulfills and thirdly what is each unit’s capacity or the ability to act. Waltz states that anarchy, or the absence of central authority, is the ordering principle of the international system. In anarchy, states remain like units and each state is governed by the principles of ‘self survival’. Whenever this principle is violated or the nation feels that it is likely to be violated, it may resort to war. States for their survival may bandwagon with others, i.e., the weaker states may align with stronger ones for self protection. Therefore, there are instances of internal balancing and external balancing. When both the balancing acts are in equilibrium, peace is the likely outcome. When the equilibrium is disturbed, war may become the only option. Because the governing principle of the International system is anarchy, each state has its own grievances and ambitions. Since there are no laws to actually govern the behavior of states, states may opt to act in their own interests which are likely to clash with others leading to war. Waltz’s postulates on neo-realism states that the world is Independent, just as markets are independent from the wishes of the buyers and sellers, the world is an independent system with each unit doing as it wishes.

Components of Nuclear Deterrence

Nuclear deterrence comprises of two parts, Firstly, The Deterrence policy and secondly the means to carry out that policy. Deterrence policy means the strategy of letting your adversary know that if he resorts to any nuclear adventure; it will be met with an equal if not more damaging nuclear response from your side. The Deterrence may be built by having a First Strike Policy or a Second Strike Policy or a No First Use Policy. The First Strike Policy posits that a country will use its nuclear weapons if the existence of that country is threatened by whatever means, through Nuclear, biological or chemical weapons of Mass destruction. In some cases, countries such as Pakistan have also declared that they would use nuclear weapons if the economy of their country is strangled. The Second Strike Policy states that after having carried out a first strike and having been attacked by the adversary, the nation still has the capability and the capacity to carry out another strike.

Second Strike capability is typically resident in nuclear ballistic missile submarines which are almost impossible to detect when deployed. A No first use policy states that the country will not be the first one to use nuclear weapons but if attacked will then retaliate to cause unacceptable damage. During peace time Nuclear Deterrence is achieved through Nuclear Signaling which is basically a show of force of own weapons, policy statements by the political leadership to either assure or threaten the adversary to explain that the country has the requisite capability to strike back. The means of Nuclear Deterrence are achieved by having a survivable triad of nuclear weapons. This means having Air, Surface and Subsurface delivered weapons and delivery platforms. Deterrence is achieved by making it difficult for the adversary to target own weapons. This is done through camouflage, concealment, hardening of silos and dispersion. On land, having rail mounted or truck mounted mobile launchers are examples of dispersion. At sea, an SSBN once deployed is a great deterrent for any nation.

Main Elements of US Sea Power

The main elements of US Sea Power are the 12 aircraft carriers who exemplify the might of the US navy. These aircraft carriers deploy in Carrier Task Forces the world over and are able to project power onto adversary lands expeditiously. Aircraft carriers are used for Power Projection, Sea Control and for mounting expeditionary operations. A Single US Aircraft Carrier group has more power than a regular sized Navy of other countries. The Aircraft carriers of the US navy not only ensure sea control but can literally allow the US Navy to Control the Seas. Protecting the Carriers are a screen of powerful Aegis equipped destroyers, some of which today even have Anti-Ballistic missile capability, which means they can shoot down missiles in space. These destroyers and frigates can be used by the US Navy for a wide range of purposes such as Anti air Defense, anti-shipping, anti-warship, and carrying out land attacks with land attack missiles such as the Tomahawk. Protecting the carrier from enemy submarines are the Los Angeles class nuclear attack submarines or SSNs. These not only protect the carrier but are also used for sea denial missions.

These submarines can destroy an adversary’s fleet or lay in wait outside its harbors and destroy their shipping, in other words deny the adversary the use of the sea. The US navy’s deterrence capability is based in its SSBNs – the nuclear ballistic missile submarines. To ensure that all US naval forces have adequate supplies, the US navy has a Military Sealift Command that has specialized replenishment ships to fuel and give other logistics. To be able to mount an offensive in far off places the US navy has LPDs, LPH and other amphibious ships for carrying out expeditionary operations. Since many adversaries and likely adversaries now have diesel submarines and nuclear attack submarines, having robust antisubmarine warfare capability is a prime requisite. It must be remembered that likely adversaries like Iran have purchased Kilo class submarines from Russia. These ultra quiet boats are difficult to detect and thus high performance sonars, Towed array sonars, Magnetic anomaly detectors, and a host of submarine detecting equipment is required to detect the submarines. After having detected the submarine, US forces need to destroy them with anti submarine weapons which come in the form of antisubmarine torpedoes, mines, and depth charges. Putting all of it together requires a robust Command and Control network. The US navy has the world’s most sophisticated communication network consisting of defense satellites, VLF stations, HF,VHF and UHF communications all integrated over a seamless communications backplane.