Grand strategy cannot be adjusted easily, a serious liability in a fast-changing world. Washington should instead pursue a doctrine of flexible response, developing tailored plans on a case-by-case basis and assuring that they can be changed quickly if the need arises. Doing so requires greater flexibility in policymaking and coordination, and a healthy appreciation for the need to have a plan B and even a plan C. Of course, some grand strategic thinking does not hurt, and some planning is vital to advancing American interests, but grand strategies are largely a counterproductive illusion in this complicated world of ours.
Political pundits and scholars alike love to talk about grand strategy as if it were an aristocratic sport. Scholars often interpret how major states behave in terms of two basic grand strategies: “balance of power” strategy, which requires action chiefly to prevent any one country from becoming too strong and which largely ignores moral considerations; or “hegemonic” strategy, which calls for dominating others as a means of creating stability either regionally or globally. Washington, the argument often runs, should embrace one or the other of these grand strategies, or else formulate some other type of approach. Advocates appear to believe that a grand strategy, whatever it is, can help organize America's foreign policy, allow it to plan and prioritize, link its means and ends, deter or dragoon its enemies and enhance U.S. credibility.
Perhaps grand strategy can accomplish some of these goals sometimes, and all foreign policy has some grand strategic characteristics. But thinking in strictly grand strategic terms is no longer the best approach for U.S. foreign policy in a complex, globalizing world whose power structure is unlike that of previous centuries, when just a handful states dominated global affairs.
The Middle East, in particular, illustrates how grand strategies, or even mini-strategies, often crash into events and disintegrate. For example, the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington were all unexpected, and each derailed American plans. The idea that broad foreign policy plans can survive most contingencies is a chimera. Unexpected events usually shape outcomes.
Second, grand strategies, or even minor ones, are hard to execute because U.S. goals shift over time in response to individual, domestic and international factors. My book “The Absence of Grand Strategy” showed that America pursued neither balance of power nor hegemonic grand strategy in the Persian Gulf over the past several decades as scholars have argued. Rather, it reacted in improvised ways to events in what I call "reactive engagement." Washington's goals shifted dramatically from one event to another. For instance, the U.S. engaged Tehran and even sold it arms in the 1985-1986 Iran-Contra affair, but afterward went back to trying to undermine and contain Iran.