Selectively Engage, America!

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Mohandass Kalaichelvan's picture

1. The Need for an American Grand Strategy

The US needs to evaluate and refocus its grand strategy in the foreign policy arena. Over the last few years, the Obama administration has consistently changed the outlook for American foreign policy from being interventionist to oddly isolationist in certain key world events such as the Russian invasion of Crimea. Due to this muddled image of the US, there are many voices in the world calling for US retrenchment because they believe that America’s “unipolar moment” is over; it just does not possess the willingness and capabilities to influence world events. However, this paper asserts that the US has tremendous resources available at its disposal and it would be immensely naïve for the US to completely retreat into its corner of the world. Instead, detractors to the current foreign policy front only exist because the current administration has not laid out a consistent, coherent and sensible foreign policy agenda for action. Hence, it is pertinent that the US moves forward with a clear grand strategy in mind; a focused approach will consolidate America’s position in the system and its national security.

What exactly is a grand strategy? Colin Gray provides a concise definition: “Grand strategy is the direction and use made of any or all the assets of a security community, including its military instrument, for the purposes of policy as decided by politics” (Gray 2013, 13). This paper asserts that having a viable and coherent grand strategy creates two main benefits for the US. First, it creates a mutual understanding between differing domestic factions about the most important security concerns in terms of interests and dangers. By creating focus, it allows differing factions to come together to discuss the costs of security. Second, it ensures that there is “coherence between ends, ways, and means – a logic that must constantly assessed in a dynamic security environment but absolutely necessary to obtain desired policy aims at an appropriate cost of scarce resources” (Hoffman 2013, 22).

2. Four Grand Strategy Options for the US

In terms of a coherent grand strategy, Hoffman outlines four possible options: (1) Strategic Restraint, (2) Offshore Balancing, (3) Selective Engagement and (4) Assertive Interventionism. First, the “Strategic Restraint” doctrine advocates solely for homeland defense and calls for the retrenchment of all US forward-deployed troops around the world. Second, the “Offshore Balancing” doctrine is very similar to the “Strategic Restraint” doctrine in that it also calls for the culling of most US forward-deployed troops. It also involves the forgoing of most formal security alliances. However, this doctrine still asserts that there are certain areas in the world which would require American presence in the form of forward deployed naval troops which would be crucial to “maintaining access to key regions, preserving the global commons, and securing critical checkpoints” (Hoffman 2013, 23). The third option, “Selective Engagement”, recognizes that it would be unwise for the US to retreat from the world. Instead, it preaches that certain areas in the world require a significant troop presence for US national security interests. However, this doctrine is still relatively narrow in focus and understands the importance of not “overstretching”. Last, Hoffman explains the “Assertive Interventionism” doctrine which is the most aggressive option out of the four. This doctrine is focused on achieving American primacy through vigorous military use. Hoffman also mentions that this doctrine “generates the greatest amount of military power, a higher degree of unilateral action, the highest propensity to use military forces, and seeks to dissuade competitors from challenging U.S. interests” (Hoffman 2013, 23).

3. Benefits of the “Selectively Engaged” Doctrine for the US

This paper believes that the “Selective Engagement” doctrine is best suited for the US. In this section, the paper will explain the four components of the “Selective Engagement” doctrine that make it applicable to the US. First, this paper believes that the US should not retreat and adopt a reactive strategy to world events. On the contrary, the US should adopt a “proactive strategy that seeks to shape events, not simply react to the actions of others” (Hoffman 2013, 28). Second, the “Selective Engagement” doctrine allows the US to be more discerning in terms of identifying relevant and important security concerns, instead of having to intervene in everything which leads to entrapment risks. The doctrine is also more applicable to a post-war, militarily-weary and fatigued US since it “stresses interests over universal values, and holds that waging war is reserved for vital and highly important interests rather than humanitarian intervention or civil wars unless US strategic interests are directly threatened” (Hoffman 2013, 29). Third, this paper asserts that a “Selective Engagement” doctrine is more beneficial to the US as it encourages more multilateral action through cooperative action with its allies. Allies are also more likely to make a larger effort to maintain their own security interests without overreliance on the US. A US that is selectively engaged is more likely to cut down on unilateral action, consult with allies and foster multilateral cooperation. Fourth, this paper asserts that such a doctrine will not make the US a sitting duck in the face of real threats to national security. This doctrine understands that real national security concerns must be dealt with very seriously. A selectively engaged US is not afraid of engagement; rather, it is more focused on what actually is of concern and can devote time and energy to solve those security concerns without entanglement.

4. Arguments against the “Selectively Engaged” Doctrine

Although this paper strongly advocates for the US to be selectively engaged, there is some notable opposition to this school of thought. First, some critics have argued that American presence in only certain areas opens up the rest of the world for potential aggressors who might feel emboldened by the lack of American presence. Hoffman mentions that “the chances for miscalculation regarding U.S. interests and response are much higher in this strategy” (Hoffman 2013, 31). Second, although the US will be saved from unnecessary entrapment in non-core security areas, this approach does not exactly render the US a global leader in the world system. One of the key aspects of being a global hegemon is about having the capabilities and willingness to intervene globally. A selectively engaged US will have the capabilities to intervene globally but will ultimately lack the willingness to do so. Third, scholars such as Brooks, Ikenberry and Wohlforth argue that the budgetary savings from being selectively engaged are debatable and that “there is little evidence to suggest that an internationally engaged America provokes other countries to balance against it, becomes overextended, or gets dragged into unnecessary wars” (Brooks et al. 2012, 2). These scholars also argue that a deeply engaged US would “reduce competition in key regions and act as a check against potential rivals” (Brooks et al. 2012, 3).

5. Counterarguments

Although the above arguments are valid in certain aspects, this paper would like to stress the importance of the US adopting a “Selectively Engaged” doctrine. First, this paper does not believe that potential aggressors will run riot once they find out that the US has chosen to be selectively engaged. There are other checks and balances in the system to prevent this from happening. A selectively engaged US will render other states more responsible for their own security problems. Second, potential aggressors will know that if they somehow tread the line and become a concern for US national security, they will be next on the radar. Third, it would be fair to say that the US will not be the universal leader of the system in a way it was in the 90s if it adopts this doctrine. This phenomenon is just a reflection of the relative decline of American power after failed wars and a financial crisis to boot. America must nurse its wounds and only choose key goals during this period, instead of overstretching itself. Fourth, in responding to the arguments advanced by Brooks, Ikenberry and Wohlforth, this paper asserts that American intervention will most certainly lead to counterbalancing and competition in key areas. Posen argues that American activism is one of the main reasons for such hard balancing. “China has worked assiduously to improve its military, and Russia has sold it modern weapons, such as fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, and diesel-electric submarines. Iran and North Korea, meanwhile, have pursued nuclear programs in part to neutralize the United States' overwhelming advantages in conventional fighting power” (Posen 2012, 117). Hence, taking these arguments into consideration, a selectively engaged US is best for itself and the world.


1) Brooks, Stephen, G. Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth. "Lean Forward." Dec 2012. Council on Foreign Relations. Nov 2014.>

2) Colin S. Gray. Perspectives on Strategy. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

3) Cronin, Audrey Kurth. "U.S. Grand Strategy and Counterterrorism." Orbis56.2 (2012): 192-214. Web.

4) Hoffman, Frank. "Forward Partnership: A Sustainable American Strategy."Orbis 57.1 (2013): 20-40. Web.

5) Posen, Barry R. "Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy." Foreign Affairs 92, no. 1 (January-February 2013): 116-128

6) Sagan, Scott D. "Policy: A Call for Global Nuclear Disarmament." Nature487.7405 (2012): 30-32. Web.

7) Waltz, Kenneth. "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb." Jun 2012. Council on Foreign Relations. Nov 2014.



Hi Mohandass,

Thanks for the informative writing.

I'd like to ask you, if US follows the strategy of "selective engagement", which regions do you think it should focus on the most? I'm asking this because with the shale revolution, American interest in ME seems to be depleting fast (and if you disagree, please do let me know). If America disengages from there, where do you think it should focus most of its resources?

Besides, I think this strategy, though clearly the least of all evils, is a very difficult one to follow. It is easy to drag the US into any conflict even in a egion which is not its top priority. Bin Laden was a master at it, though now it's possible by doing something as trivial as taking an American life on camera (I don't mean to trivialize the life lost. I only mean this in the larger geopolitical sense). How do you think US should deal with this?