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American Grand Strategy and Its Contradictions

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This chapter provides the reader with a picture of US grand strategy in order to help the reader navigating through Obama’s and Trump’s foreign policy in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6. This task is achieved by exploring the history of US grand strategy, the debate on the US empire and the tension between economic and security interests. The chapter argues that US grand strategy is best conceptualized as a global sphere of influence that conflates global geoeconomic openness and national geopolitical primacy, and that different administrations will seek a different balance between these two interests. However, a crucial limit of the global sphere of influence is that it cannot function without integrating other national economies into the Liberal International Order. This dynamic leads to blowbacks such as the rise of geopolitical rivals which have to be contained. From this viewpoint China represents a formidable challenge to US grand strategy.

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  1. 1.

    ‘The United States was founded on the revolt against British colonialism. The founders saw themselves as the makers of the first constitutional state, balancing popular sovereignty against the rule of law. This republican model required carefully constructed rules about the conduct of representation and the limits of government intervention. It also necessitated breaking with the dynastic tensions and balance-of-power politics of eighteenth-century Europe’ Agnew (2003, 872).

  2. 2.

    The specters of a European-fashioned government had to be fought with ‘eternal vigilance against enemies from within and constant expansion without’ Stephanson (2005, 260). However, the Jeffersonian mantra was de facto rejected at the turn of the century by two highly significant events. In 1901, the Supreme Court’s Insular Cases—a series of verdicts on the status of territories acquired in the Spanish-American War—determined the distinction between ‘incorporated’ and ‘unincorporated’ territories Stephanson (2005, 263).

  3. 3.

    Adams was still Secretary of State when he made his most valuable and intellectually significant contribution to American grand strategy.

  4. 4.

    Andrew Jackson led an attack against West and East Florida—controlled by Spain—in what is known as the First Seminole War (c. 1816–1819). Florida was subsequently annexed by the United States.

  5. 5.

    Besides, it took a good part of the nineteenth century for the Monroe Doctrine to be acknowledged by other powers. British and French had violated it several times Ferguson (2005, 42).

  6. 6.

    It is at this time that both President Harrison and Secretary of Defense Benjamin F. Tracy allowed Alfred T. Mahan ‘leisure’ for writing his seminal work on naval power.

  7. 7.

    Yet, Roosevelt had to acknowledge Japanese pre-eminence in East Asia and abandon all aspirations with regard to China Hunt (2009, 132).

  8. 8.

    This move led to the resignation of Secretary of State William J. Bryan who considered Wilson’s warnings to Germany to be too belligerent.

  9. 9.

    Recently, Emma Ashford recognized that ‘[w]as America an empire? Undoubtedly. Is America today still an empire? It’s much harder to say’ Ashford (2019). Yet, it was noted that the United States continued to operate as an empire even then thanks to its ‘exercise of effective control’ across a different array of issues and interests Immerman (2010, 11–2). However, one question to be asked is, did it continue to be a territorial empire? Ashford pointed out that the US empire, ultimately, ‘is not territorial’ Ashford (2019).

  10. 10.

    The Washington Naval Conference de facto became a contest of the great powers. It established that each country was to maintain a set ratio of warship tonnage: the United States and Britain 500,000 tons, Japan 300,000 tons and France and Italy each 175,000 tons. The treaty sanctioned the rise of the United States to great power status and one of its principal aims was to contain Japanese naval power in the Pacific.

  11. 11.

    This was due to several reasons, such as the presence of Hitler’s violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Japan’s presence in the Axis, German U-boats actions in the Atlantic against US and Japanese intentions to expand territorially in Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and Singapore.

  12. 12.

    George Kennan in 1965 admitted that everyone knew the Soviets did not want to launch military attacks ‘across frontiers.’ Indeed, ‘it was not the Kremlin that was on the offensive in 1945–1947,’ but the White House Lens (2003, 346).

  13. 13.

    Trotsky added that ‘[i]t is not very likely that the bourgeoisie of all countries will consent to be shoved into the background […] Military conflicts are inevitable. The era of “pacifist” Americanism that seems to be opening up at this time is only a preparation for new wars of unprecedented scope and unimaginable monstrosity’ Trosky (1926a).

  14. 14.

    This kind of imperialism was used to stabilize and influence countries, relying mainly on CIA-led plots, proxy wars, the use of drones, economic coercion and multinational corporations Colás (2008).

  15. 15.

    According to Stokes, ‘the US remains a structurally advantaged hegemon in a number of very important areas. These include the continued use of the dollar as a global reserve currency; the global security regimes in which it predominates, which provide it with leverage over other states’ geopolitical and economic choices; and the still overwhelming command capacity of the American economy, most notably in its continued preponderance in global foreign direct investments (FDIs)’ (2018, 134). Drawing on Kautsky, instead, Hudson pointed out that ‘superimperialism’ is the best phrase for describing American grand strategy. In his view, it is the ‘seignorage’ of the US dollar that is a distinguishing feature of this empire (2003, ix). He maintained that the United States is not anymore a creditor but a debtor country (2003, 23–4). See also Robert Wade on the ‘invisible hand’ of the American empire (2003).

  16. 16.

    This is what Ashford calls a ‘subtler network of informal control’ that perpetuates American political, economic, and even cultural influence Ashford (2019).

  17. 17.

    Of the three pillars of American hegemony, for Bromley, military asymmetry is only one of these, while the other two are the ability of remaining ‘a pole of attraction’ and ‘hegemonic leadership’ (emphasis in original; 2008, 67).

  18. 18.

    The argument that world orders are dominated by successive forms of ‘international historic bloc’ is at odd with the economic emulation, interdependence and at the same time, hegemonic competition between the United States and China Gill and Law (1993, 96). In fact, in the US-China relation one finds two competing models of regional (political) governance despite the fact that both countries resorted to a similar regime of (economic) accumulation. Instead, Gramsci’s idea seems more interesting that in international politics ‘the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is “national”—and it is from this point of departure that one must begin’ quoted in Merrington (1968, 149).

  19. 19.

    However, for Colás US imperial grand strategy faces two limits, one geographical and the other political. While geographically the United States does not have direct control of territories, its political power has to be mediated by local authorities. This makes it easily subject to local social and political challenges Colás (2008, 620-1).

  20. 20.

    Many others have used the adjective imperial relating to the first George W. Bush Administration and neo-Conservatism Chomsky (2004); Dorrien (2004); Landau (2008);Newhouse (2003); Reus-Smit (2004).

  21. 21.

    ‘[W]e must sufficiently respect the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order’ Wolfowitz (1992, 44).

  22. 22.

    Military-political protectorates played an important role in American grand strategy. Institutions like NATO or the US-Japanese security relationship were ‘the institutional expression of that reality’Gowan (2002, 9–10).

  23. 23.

    Hamiltonian advocated for a grand strategy based on power politics; Wilsonian for promoting democratic institutions and peace; Jeffersonian for avoiding interaction with morally corrupted, imperialist Europe; and Jacksonian for disregarding foreign policy while maximizing power to strengthen national security. On Hamilton’s realpolitik and Jefferson’s continuing revolution see Cha (2015, 750–1). Nowadays, Jackson is often portrayed as a caricature. A closer historical observation demonstrates that he was not as isolationist as often described.

  24. 24.

    Neo-isolationism, selective engagement, cooperative security, and primacy.

  25. 25.

    Pfaff has described American grand strategy after the Cold War as ‘[a]n implicit alliance [of] … international liberals, anxious to … federate world’s democracies, and unilateralist neo-conservatives, who believe in aggressive American leadership for the world’s own good’ (2001, 221). Martel, instead, argued that American grand strategy develops through ‘a particularly delicate balancing act’ that seeks to avoid ‘a leadership role based on too much involvement’ but also ‘a foreign policy of minimalism.’ If an over-interventionist approach would ‘antagonize’ other states, isolationism would fail to control ‘the sources of disorder’ (2015, 361). For Gavin, American grand strategy has sought to ‘Contain, Open, and Inhibit’ simultaneously (2015, 12–19). Mann, instead, observed that there have been different phases in the use of military power, from softer forms of informal empire to tougher gunboat diplomacy Mann (2008, 13–45).

  26. 26.

    Others have referred to the ‘liberal internationalism’ and ‘imperialism and military adventurism,’ ‘[t]hesis’ and ‘[a]nti-[t]hesis’ of the American creed, ‘Atlanticism’ against ‘Continentalism’ or ‘[u]nionist’ versus the ‘nationalist/imperialist’ paradigms, exemplarists and interventionists Cha (2015, 746); Barreto and O’Bryant (2014, 179–180).

  27. 27.

    As demonstrated by the importance that Information Technology (IT) industries have had on both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trump’s trade tariffs. Meanwhile, there was a ‘determination’ of several countries ‘not to let globalization become the same thing as Americanization,’ as evidenced by the opposition of Germany and France to intervention in Iraq in 2003 Smith (2005, 193).

  28. 28.

    For Bush’s initial military rebalancing maneuvers, see also Christensen (2015), Cronin and Kaplan (2012, 12) and Ali (2012, 3–9).

  29. 29.

    There was certainly a change in Bush’s second term, as demonstrated for instance by war simulations carried out to prepare to face China—which was developing armaments that could challenge US supremacy along the Chinese coast (Etzioni 2013, 38–9; QDR 2006, 29). However, the first step in building Air-Sea Battle capabilities began when the Obama Administration was already sworn in Etzioni (2013, 41).


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Correspondence to Zeno Leoni .

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Leoni, Z. (2021). American Grand Strategy and Its Contradictions. In: American Grand Strategy from Obama to Trump. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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