New Grand Strategy Uses Lofty and Material Desires

<i> G. John Ikenberry is professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution</i>

The real news coming out of President Bill Clinton’s trip to China has been lost in the media spectacle of the White House’s traveling road show. It is good news: This administration has slowly but surely developed a post-Cold War foreign policy for the United States. The strategy is to engage actively dynamic and potentially unfriendly and unstable countries by integrating them into the U.S.-centered system of open markets, rule of law, accountable government and multilateral institutions. This approach to taming and transforming the world’s trouble spots may or may not work--it invites a serious debate--but it is a grand strategy.

Critics have been complaining for years that U.S. foreign policy is adrift in the post-Cold War world, devoid of strategy or intellectual compass. Containment, America’s grand strategy for 40 years, ended with the Cold War, leaving the United States bereft of a coherent vision. But in a year of almost constant foreign travel, the Clinton team has erected a big billboard and spelled out their vision in bold letters. The United States will work with the “forces of history” to gradually bring potentially troublesome and unstable countries, such as China, Russia, North Korea and even Cuba, into the economic and institutional structures of the great democratic-capitalist order.

The strategy is sometimes called “constructive engagement,” but it might better be labeled America’s “liberal grand strategy.” It has always been a part of the U.S. foreign-policy tradition, at least since President Woodrow Wilson, and it is grounded in a sophisticated reading of history, economics and politics. It is a strategy built around three elements of engagement: “opening up,” “tying down” and “binding together.”

“Opening up” means channeling the great forces of trade and investment, cultural exchange and transnational society into the closed hierarchy of statist polities. “These linkages bring with them powerful forces for change,” Clinton explained last October. “Computers and the Internet, fax machines and photocopiers, modems and satellites all increase the exposure to people, ideas and the world beyond China’s border.”


Call this “strategic interdependence.” The idea is to create realms of wealth and autonomy within the economy and society that encourage political pluralism and erode the iron-fisted control of the monopolistic ruling party. Expanding trade and investment also creates new and more vocal “vested interests” in closed societies that want to maintain continuous and stable relations with the outside world.

“Tying down” means encouraging involvement in international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Here the idea is to subject state elites to the expectations and obligations that flow from membership in regional and global institutions. Political conditionality for gaining membership in these organizations can itself create leverage, but the expectation is also that, once inside the institution, government officials will slowly be socialized into embracing its principles and norms. Standards of behavior are established.

Even if a government only cynically endorses the principles, such as when Leonid I. Brezhnev signed the 1975 Helsinki Act, they can nonetheless be a powerful tool for governments and private activists. The Soviet leader had no intention of abiding by the human-rights declaration, but his signature on the parchment became a rallying focus of the world’s human-rights movement. Later, many of the advisors around Mikhail S. Gorbachev were also influenced by the “new thinking” coming out of international organizations and progressive transnational movements. It is precisely because Soviet elites were not “contained” that new principles and ideologies of foreign policy could be implanted in Soviet officialdom.

“Binding together” means establishing formal institutional links among countries that are potential adversaries, thereby reducing the incentives for each state to compete against the other. This is the security component of a liberal grand strategy, and it has its origins at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and its fullest expression in the postwar Franco-German relationship.


Rather than responding to a potential strategic rival by organizing a counter-balancing alliance against it, the threatening state is invited to participate in a joint security association or alliance. By binding to each other, surprises are reduced and expectations of stable future relations dampen the security dilemmas that trigger worst-case preparations, arms races and dangerous strategic rivalry. Also, by creating institutional connections among potential rivals, channels of communication are established that provide opportunities to influence actively the other’s evolving security policy. For example, the binding logic of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allowed France and the other Western partners to acquiesce to West Germany’s military rearmament in the Cold War.

Even today, the United States and its European and Japanese partners ward off rivalry among themselves by maintaining their security alliances. It is the binding logic, more so than the response to external threats, that makes these institutions attractive today.

China, Russia and other transforming countries may not be ready for alliance, but the benefits of binding can be achieved in more modest institutional relationships, such as annual meetings of Chinese and U.S. defense officials; the NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed in 1997, that institutionalizes a new relationship between Russia and the Atlantic alliance; bilateral agreements on nuclear nonproliferation, and expanded participation in regional security forums.

This vision of liberal engagement is so compelling to Clinton that it has even crept into his thinking on Cuba. When asked in Hong Kong how the United States could engage China but remain committed to the containment of Cuba, Clinton hinted at a more active policy of prompting change in Cuba, including efforts to increase “people-to-people contacts in Cuba, to empower the church more with our support as an instrument of civil society and to send a signal that I do not want the United States to be estranged from the people of Cuba forever.”


Behind the Clinton strategy is a profound optimism about the appeal of American ideas, culture and way of life. The lofty version is the Western enlightenment belief that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are universal aspirations and that the opening up and engagement of closed and authoritarian countries will unleash these irresistible political impulses. The more prosaic version is that poor and repressed people living in traditional and transitional societies want a piece of the action’: popular music, blue jeans, Hollywood, fast food. It’s the globalization of consumer culture, not the spread of Jeffersonian ideas, that are “forces of history” working to U.S. advantage. Either way, these lofty and material aspirations, lying in wait in villages and factories around the world, are what Clinton wants to unleash.

America’s liberal grand strategy is not new. It was pursued quietly during the Cold War among the industrial democracies, and with remarkable if unheralded success. Promoting economic interdependence, institutional cooperation and binding commitments are this country’s secret weapons for creating a stable world political order. It allows the United States to unleash the thousands of eager multinational companies, transnational organizations and governmental representatives that stand ready to envelope a country and bring it into the globalizing liberal democratic order.

Clinton’s grand design may be flawed. It may depend more on the “forces of history” to move China, Russia and other transforming countries in a favorable direction than history ultimately will. Wilson had this problem: He expected a democratic revolution to sweep Europe. But 1917 turned out to be a high-water mark rather than the beginning of a rising tide: The conservative coalitions returned to postwar Britain and France, and Russia’s Bolsheviks proved to be anything but democratic. The strategy does not work well with truly revisionist states bent on military expansion at any cost. But China and Russia--and most of the world--are not revisionist in this sense.

What are the alternatives? Historically, the two other U.S. grand strategies have been isolationism and containment. Both are impossible. It is understandable, after 40 years of Cold War, that many observers equate strategy and vision in foreign policy with containment. It has a simplicity that makes it easy to sell to the public and organize government planning around. But the United States has a different grand strategy now, and it is as intellectually serious and coherent as containment, if more messy in its implementation. Clinton’s trip to China has finally made the strategy more visible, if people will look.