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.