The Absence of Grand Strategy: The United States and Persian Gulf (1972-2005), by Steve A. Yetiv
It is easy to assume that the most powerful nations pursue and employ consistent, cohesive, and decisive policies in trying to promote their interests in regions of the world. In fact, international relations theory emphasizes two such grand strategies that great powers may pursue: balance of power policy or hegemonic domination. This book shows that such assumptions about how great powers behave are misleading and, in this respect, it challenges a cottage industry of conventional thought.
Analyzing the evolution of the United States' foreign policy in the Persian Gulf from 1972 to 2005, Yetiv explores American strategies toward the Gulf region. Ten cases-from the policies of the Nixon administration to George W. Bush's war in Iraq-reveal shifting, improvised, and reactive policies that were responses to unanticipated and unpredictable events and threats. In fact, he shows that the distinguishing feature of the U.S. experience in the Gulf has been the absence of grand strategy.
Dr. Yetiv introduces the concept of "reactive engagement" as an alternative approach to understanding great power behavior. He finds that great powers are far more likely to react to events than to engage according to the theories of grand strategy that scholars and others sometimes ascribe to them, albeit grand strategic theorizing can have its benefits. The book represents one of the most comprehensive tests of grand strategic theorizing, and in particular of external balance of power theory to date, through an involved methodological examination.
The book seeks to explain the evolution of US foreign in the Persian Gulf, and to illuminate how and why the United States became enmeshed in the region, but it also illuminates a larger point for the study of foreign policy and history: scholars and students of international relations sometimes tend to see grand design in the events that they observe, but The Absence of Grand Strategy demonstrates in a real world set of cases that randomness all too often parades as design. The behavior of states, even great powers, is not only shaped by a mesmerizing mix of complex factors within the "black box" of decision-making, but also by behavior that often reflects a lack of careful preparation, inconsistency (even in key beliefs), and reactivity in lieu of grand designs. It may be that while all great powers have an appetite for grand designs, they end up with a mouthful of reality.
"This book makes an original contribution and is a welcome relief from much of the polemical writing on the subject of American foreign policy. The scholarship is excellent. It will be essential reading for those in securities studies and international relations."
- Patrick James, Director, Center for International Studies, University of Southern California
"Yetiv, author of other books on US foreign policy and the Persian Gulf, aims here to make sense of that policy in terms of international relations theory. The title tells all: US policy toward that critical region since the 1970s, under six presidents, has been characterized by "the absence of grand strategy." Examining ten episodes, Yetiv finds that US policy was not guided by balance of power or hegemonic strategies, but was essentially improvised in response to changing situations and interests. Indeed, he coins the term "reactive engagement" to characterize it. Specifically, balance of power considerations were not prominent, balance of threat was more common but not consistently applied, and balancing of any kind declined over time. This case study of changing great power behavior in a strategic region of the world offers a coherent analysis of international theory, political ideology, and foreign policy. Theoretically guided but not heavily theoretical, Yetiv's book is well conceived and clearly presented. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
- J. P. Smaldone, Georgetown University, Choice
"The book is...a very creative and innovative methodological tour de force...It should be required reading for all graduate students contemplating a doctoral thesis in international relations theory."
- David E. Long, Middle East Journal
"Theoretically guided but not heavily theoretical, Yetiv's book is well conceived and clearly presented . . . Highly recommended."
Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH)
MESH invites selected authors to offer original first-person statements on their new books-why and how they wrote them, and what impact they hope and expect to achieve. Steve A. Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University. His new book is The Absence of Grand Strategy: The United States in the Persian Gulf, 1972-2005.
From Steve A. Yetiv
I have always been interested in the interplay between theory and empirics and have been curious about the extent to which our prominent theories offer useful guides to understanding reality. Given my empirical work in American foreign policy and international security, I've become especially interested in theory as it relates to great powers. To what extent do great powers pursue grand strategies, chief among them balance of power policy and hegemonic design?
The Absence of Grand Strategy reflects this ongoing interest in theory and empirics, with a focus on the United States. It is an intellectual outgrowth of my earlier book, Explaining Foreign Policy (2004). In writing that book, it became clear (at least to me) that we should be cautious about assuming that states act in line with the assumptions of the rational actor model. In particular, I tried to show that we would be misled if we assumed that the United States made decisions in line with the rational actor model during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis. I developed an integrated approach for using multiple models and showed how and explained why it was important to draw upon them, including the rational actor model, for understanding how states make decisions.
The Absence of Grand Strategy has emerged from this work. It follows a similar metatheoretical theme, but with a very different goal. Unlike my earlier book, this new book is not about decision-making models, but rather about foreign policy actions beliefs and actions. The book cautions against assuming that states use single, grand strategies and suggests that they may not use any grand strategy at all. In this sense, they do not pursue and employ consistent and cohesive policies over time in trying to promote their interests in regions of the world.
I hope that The Absence of Grand Strategy can contribute in several ways. It seeks to illuminate the evolution of U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf, by analyzing ten cases from the policies of the Nixon administration to George W. Bush's war in Iraq. In so doing, it paints a picture in sharp contrast to that of a state pursuing grand strategy. Rather, it reveals that the United States clearly exhibited significantly shifting, improvised, and reactive policies that were responses to unanticipated and unpredictable events and threats.
While the book finds that the United States did not practice grand strategy in the Persian Gulf, it does not claim that grand strategies are not at play elsewhere (although it holds out that prospect). Nor does it intend to impugn the study of grand strategy. Such study is vital. It frames the big questions; it forces us to assess and examine the larger picture; it sketches cause and effect; it may help use see things that we otherwise would have overlooked, and it serves as a foil for weighing how states do behave. In addition, understanding different grand strategies puts multiple tools in one's intellectual kit. These tools can then be used as cuts on reality. In doing so, we may draw on aspects of different grand strategies to paint more accurate pictures of how states behave.
However, The Absence of Grand Strategy does put forth a different conception of how the United States behaved in the Gulf, which I call "reactive engagement," and which may apply elsewhere. At a minimum, I hope that thinkers consider "reactive engagement" against the precepts of grand strategic theorizing in thinking about how best to explain international outcomes. It may well be that the best explanation of foreign policy actions results from using multiple approaches.
At the end of the day, however, my sneaking suspicion is that randomness all too often parades as design and serendipity belies control. The behavior of states, even great powers, seems to be a messy affair. It is shaped not only by a mesmerizing mix of complex factors within the "black box" of decision-making, but also by behavior that often reflects a lack of careful preparation, inconsistency (even in key beliefs), and reactivity. It may be that while all great powers have an appetite for grand ideas, they end up with a mouthful of reality.