Suggested Changes to U.S. Grand Strategy

International Relations

Suggested Changes to U.S. Grand Strategy
Dealing with Proliferation through Neo-Isolationism


North Korea’s unpredictability, Pakistan’s domestic instability, and Iran’s increasingly aggressive push to weaponize its nuclear program all pose significant concerns for U.S. security interests both at home and abroad. All three states, but especially Iran threaten to spur nuclear proliferation more quickly than it has since the Cold War, with neighboring Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, all having the economic and domestic capabilities to begin their own weapons programs. A highly nuclear Middle East threatens our economic interests as well as national security. Much of the debate about U.S. grand strategy centers on whether selective engagement or an isolationist policy should be pursued. Current U.S. strategy has three main considerations with respect to proliferation: (1) reducing the nuclear arsenal, (2) strengthening the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and (3) strengthening the NPT by holding nations more accountable for their actions, sharing the major tenets of selective engagement. This strategy has done little to deter North Korea or Iran from continuing to pursue its programs, and I would argue has only increased their feeling of insecurity and bolstered their resolve to press on. A neo-isolationist strategy on the other hand, would serve three primary objectives that allow it to effectively deal with proliferation dangers: it would decrease the feeling of insecurity felt by a country like Iran, it would put more pressure on countries to follow international norms with respect to weaponizing and proliferation, and it would remove the threat of American troops or bases abroad becoming the target of a nuclear attack.


Selective Engagement and Current U.S. Strategy

The current U.S. strategy of selective engagement has, on the surface been a success. Proliferation has come to a virtual standstill – the U.S. has been a leading voice in the fight against “rogue” states such as Iran and North Korea. The greatest strength of the strategy lies in the nuclear umbrella in Japan and Germany and forward deployed American forces. As a result of U.S. strategy, proliferation is much more likely to be stopped before it can happen; selective engagement is, by definition, preemptive in its approach. The overall lowering of nuclear arsenals worldwide is another point of success of the American strategy. However, because of the realities of today’s world, the ways in which proliferation can harm U.S. interests has fundamentally changed. The Cold War threat of a large-scale nuclear confrontation of great powers has fossilized. The real proliferation threat lies in the possibility of nuclear weapons being acquired by irrational actors or terrorist organizations. Robert Art points out that the motivations of terrorist organizations have shifted, making them more likely to use a nuclear weapon without rationally considering responses or consequences. Further, because terrorist organizations are spread out and there are no central locations of leadership as there are in conventional states, responding to such an attack becomes even more difficult. Based on this argument, the U.S. selective engagement strategy should be even stronger.

A more realist approach, outlined by Waltz, suggests that this concern is largely overblown, that even terrorist organizations have long term goals and using nuclear weapons would be too costly. Waltz further outlines a world in which proliferation increases global security. When response considerations change from how many lives will be lost to how many cities will be permanently leveled, actors are more likely to work together on a peaceful compromise to any potential conflict. Ultimately however, the major weakness of selective engagement is that it serves a counter-productive purpose. In seeking to stop proliferation, the U.S. has created a system in which insecurity is heightened, further motivating a country like Iran to seek the acquisition of a nuclear weapon. The U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan under the pretext of regime change and neighboring, increasingly hostile Israel is also a nuclear power. Iran’s rational course of action would be to increase its sense of security, and since conventional military power cannot act as a deterrent against nuclear weapons, its only option is to become a nuclear power itself.


The Benefits of Neo-Isolationism

The next strategy to consider is neo-isolationism. Unlike selective engagement, which is preemptive in nature, neo-isolationism is more reactionary. Critics of this strategy point to the fact that military action would be made more difficult because of the withdrawal of forward-deployed troops. The U.S. would be less likely to respond quickly enough and to stop an attempt at nuclear proliferation. Further, action taken by the U.S. in the unlikely event of a nuclear attack might come too late to prevent the major loss of life. However, delving deeper into a carefully planned strategy of neo-isolationism reveals several key factors that make it a more preferable strategy to selective engagement. The first factor is flexibility in action – under selective engagement the U.S. is tied to several defense pacts and institutions. The U.S. is essentially bound to treating all proliferation as bad. An isolationist strategy allows the U.S. to treat cases more subjectively – to be able to determine where proliferation is a threat and take action, or where it might not be a threat and remain indifferent. As Waltz and other scholars have argued, there can be real, fungible benefits to proliferation. Further, as North Korea and Iran have shown, there are cases in which proliferation cannot be deterred; current U.S. strategy fails to provide any measure for how to deal with a state that continues to ignore sanctions and pressure.

A second benefit to a neo-isolationist policy is the removal of an aggressive American posture in the Middle East. The perception of the U.S., especially in the Middle East, is that of a meddling power seeking to dominate the region’s resources. A country such as Iran uses this to its advantage, seeking a nuclear weapon to increase its security against the perceived imminent threat of a joint U.S.-Israeli attack. The withdrawal of U.S. forces and the lightening of its stance would not only make Israel less of a threat to the Arab world and Iran but it would eliminate one of the primary motives for Iran developing a nuclear weapon, increased security. As a result, the U.S. gains leverage against Iran and can more easily convince the international community that Iran’s weapons program is purely for aggressive purposes if it opts to continue. Further, Iran is a rational actor and the removal of an imminent security threat would likely result in less aggressive posturing and more a more cooperative attitude in the international arena.

Third, U.S. geographic distance from possible danger zones coupled with the inferior nuclear technology possessed by ‘problem’ states such as Pakistan and North Korea (the states that are the most likely to allow a nuclear warhead to fall into the wrong hands) make it unlikely that a direct attack on American soil will take place. Here, the counter-intuitive nature of selective engagement is made most clear – by committing to forward deployed troops in military compounds around the globe, the U.S. makes itself more vulnerable to a direct attack. A neo-isolationist strategy however, removes threat locations by sending American troops home. A neo-isolationist policy also keeps the door open for military intervention if it is deemed necessary.



A policy of neo-isolation would better allow the U.S. to deal with the dangers of nuclear proliferation than the current grand strategy. The most pressing danger today is undoubtedly Iran’s drive to build a nuclear weapon. Based on current U.S. strategy, Iran has a very rational and realist pretext for desiring a warhead – to protect itself from threats in its backyard. A neo-isolationist strategy removes this motivation, which will put Iran in an untenable position if it continues to attempt to weaponize. The threat of a nuclear attack on American soil is increased dramatically by the hundreds of American military compounds abroad and the thousands of troops that are currently stationed therein. A neo-isolationist strategy solves this problem as well: by removing American troops, the amount of potential U.S. targets decreases.

Opponents of a neo-isolationist strategy might contend that the removal of U.S. troops and forward-deployed nuclear umbrella would act as a sign of weakness and embolden the aggressiveness of Iran. This is where international institutions will play a major role. If there are no American troops or direct American interests at stake, there is no reason for the U.S. to play the role of world police – the UN can act to deter unfettered Iranian aggression. Further, if necessary, the U.S. can play a role in a joint coalition against either country without needing a constant troop presence. Ultimately however, despite the toxic rhetoric of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, its actions have generally been calculated and rational and it can be expected to act as such even in the wake of a removal of U.S. troops in the region. A neo-isolationist strategy, in addition to being better able to deal with proliferation dangers, would have the added benefit of being praised domestically for bringing American troops home.


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