The United States and its allies are in a strategic quagmire. Buffeted along the full spectrum of hybrid warfare by peer, near-peer and nonstate adversaries, they are losing ground diplomatically, technologically, militarily and economically.
Inasmuch as they are the guardians of the liberal world order, that order is losing ground to an illiberal, authoritarian alternative. The possible end states to the current trajectory range from gradual decline and descent into a 21st century version of the “second world” to defeat and subordination under authoritarian conquerors.
Our efforts to counter our adversaries on this complex, modern battlefield are ad hoc, feckless and not very effective. There is a path out of this quagmire, but it will demand resolute conviction and a seriousness of purpose not shown by American policymakers in many years: We need a grand strategy for navigating the national security challenges of the 21st century.
The consequences of failing to have one are evident in the current Ukraine crisis, which is being dealt with piecemeal rather than within a framework that identifies and clarifies our broad strategic goals. Such a framework should rationalize our policies not only toward Russia and Ukraine, but toward China, the Western alliance and the rest of the world.
One way to accomplish this and create such a framework is convening a new bipartisan Project Solarium that forges a new grand strategy designed to purpose for today’s global threat environment. Bipartisanship will be essential for this new solarium to succeed and to ensure the durability of the grand strategy it produces. A grand strategy forged with input and support from both parties must be able to survive regardless of which party controls Congress or even if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House.
The more perilous the global security environment, the more critical consistency is for deterrence against our adversaries and credibility for our allies and partners.
What is the Solarium Project?
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized that the United States lacked a grand strategy for combating communism. Behind his grandfatherly public demeanor, Ike was a hard-nosed, practical intellectual who personally knew the key players in the international arena and grasped their worldviews. He scoffed at the idea of coexistence with communism. He wanted to defeat it. A hands-on executive, he recognized the need for a grand strategy.
To meet that challenge, Eisenhower initiated Project Solarium, named for a room in the White House. He created three task forces. Each received the same information and intelligence. The task: Present recommendations for a grand strategy to defeat communism.
Ambassador George F. Kennan’s team argued for a policy of containment. A second team took a tougher view that relied less on allies and more on nuclear capabilities. The third team advocated positive action to roll back Soviet power by any means available. The teams presented their arguments to 60 highly informed individuals.
Ike opted for Kennan’s approach: containment.
Project Solarium was farsighted and wise. We’ve seen the consequences of not having a grand strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan or dealing more effectively with the current Ukraine crisis, which President Joe Biden himself has said will likely produce armed conflict. The administration needs a grand strategy that looks beyond potential sanctions and asks what elements comprise a posture that protects the security interests of the West and Ukraine, while satisfying Vladimir Putin’s desire to leave behind a legacy that in his mind makes Russia great again. It’s not easy, but it is achievable.
Issues a new solarium should address
Policies have a greater chance of running off the rails when dealt with as tactical or operational problems. Crises like Ukraine and Syria, and how we deal with Russia and China, require a grand strategy.
For example, the broader issue that Ukraine raises is not necessarily just how we might respond to a Russian attack on Kyiv (although that’s a key element because while public discourse views a Russian invasion as a two-step punch and counterpunch, you can be certain that every action will provoke a counter-reaction). The dangers of rapid escalation are evident. Anyone who doubts this is possible needs only look back to the outbreak of World War I, where miscalculation ignited a sudden, undesired chain of events.
A grand strategy should clarify what relationship we desire with Russia that is achievable. Is the goal stability in Europe? Is it preserving democracy in at least western Ukraine? Is it motivating Russia to avoid joining China in an alliance against the U.S. and the West? Russia may not be our friend, but need it be an adversary? What is plausible in forging a relationship with Russia that advances our security interests and satisfies mutual interests?
Should we treat China as a competitor/rival, or an opponent/adversary? What end state with China do we believe satisfies our security concerns and is achievable? How do we counter China’s 2049 vision for global economic supremacy or its rejection of an international rules-based order that supports democracy and freedom of expression? What ways and means should we employ to achieve that end?
Different experts have proposed diverse answers, yet the Biden administration has yet to offer its own grand strategy. Unfortunately, the quadrennial national security strategies and their derivative products are mere amalgams of observations and desires from various parts of the national security architecture and are indeed anti-strategic. Designed according to the same bureaucratic methodology as recent national security strategies, it is unlikely the imminent version will be much of an improvement.
Every administration confronts serious challenges. But taking a leaf from Eisenhower, the U.S. government — for both this or any succeeding administration — would profit greatly by assembling the kind of large, diverse, bipartisan team that made Ike’s Project Solarium a strategic milestone on the road to strengthening our national security and paving the way for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. We need a new solarium now, more than ever.
James P. Farwell has advised U.S. Special Operations Command and the Defense Department. He is an associate fellow at King’s Centre for Strategic Communication at King’s College in London, and he is the author of “Information Warfare.” Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at the National Defense University and the editor-in-chief of its journal PRISM.