The Compass

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Can the U.S. Bring Order to an Unruly World?

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Patrick Doherty is worried about the current trajectory of global politics:

Abroad, Washington's post-Cold War pattern of episodic adventurism and incremental crisis management only creates further uncertainty, and rising powers will not lead. Other major economies have little appetite for altering the global order and hence are doubling down on the old system, exacerbating trade imbalances and driving record resource extraction. As commodity prices rise, global powers are hedging ever more aggressively -- stockpiling resources and increasingly becoming entangled in conflicts in resource-rich areas. As the global economy falters, unrest rises and the great unresolved conflicts of the 20th century -- the Middle East, South Asia, North Korea, Taiwan -- grow increasingly enmeshed in the power dynamics of this new era.

Simply put, the current U.S. and international order is unsustainable, and myriad disruptions signal that it is now in a process of collapse. Until the United States implements a new grand strategy, the country will face even more rapid degradation of domestic and global conditions.


Doherty goes on to outline his view of what a workable U.S. strategy should be and I encourage you to read it in full. But here I just want to put in a kind word for "incremental crisis management."

It's very popular in foreign policy punditry circles to call for a grand strategy, or complain that a given administration lacks one (or lacks a good one). I've done it myself. But there is also something to be said for "incremental crisis management," particularly when the alternative is untenable, as I suspect Doherty's might be.

Any global strategy advanced by Washington is going to encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of variables that cannot be predicted or adequately controlled for. A year before 9/11, almost no serious "grand strategist" would have argued for the complete realignment of the U.S. national security bureaucracy to chase some guys in a cave in Afghanistan. (The Bush administration spurned the poor guy who proposed a more vigorous effort against al-Qaeda in the pre-9/11 months.)

In other words, efforts at concocting a very elaborate grand strategy are one unexpected crisis away from being rendered laughably obsolete.

But incremental crisis management has something going for it, particularly in the world that Doherty describes. Translated from bureaucratic speak, it simply means responding to events as they occur in a manner that may not "solve" a problem, but does enough to mitigate the worst harm to the United States. In other words, it's about being flexible and not having a rigid template. In a world that is being beset by a series of challenges -- some envisioned, others not -- with the global distribution of power and influence in flux, it's not a bad idea. In such an instance, a new global order will emerge on an ad-hoc basis -- which it is likely to do anyway, no matter what strategy Washington pursues.

(AP Photo)