Americans suspect grand motives behind foreign policy. We sense our innate exceptionalism as the world's oldest and most successful multinational economic and political union, but we're reluctant about spreading that example, believing it smacks of imperialism.
As a result, most of America's strategic choices are driven by the decisions of others. Our preference for reaction over initiative now blinds us to the enormous strategic opportunity staring us in the face - namely, the consolidation of globalization's rapid advance in the form of a radically expanded world middle class.
Think about what made America the world's most stable and prosperous democracy for almost a century and a half: the middle class ideology that emerged when we knit together our sectional economies into a continental juggernaut following the Civil War. That class consciousness wasn't born when the victorious North imposed itself on the prostrate South but when the ambitious East integrated the frontier West.
Today's globalization echoes American experience as West networks East and East integrates South, reducing global poverty at speeds never before seen in human history. This international liberal trade order, modeled on our "uniting states," is America's greatest gift to the world.
That's why I've spent years arguing for a globalization-centric American grand strategy, meaning one focused on extending the global economy's reach while shaping the progressive agenda that naturally arises with its expanding middle class.
The problem is the time required, as people must be enriched before they can be empowered - Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Such strategic patience is difficult for an America that idealizes its own tumultuous political history.
Just glance over U.S. presidential doctrines, and you'll typically find a precipitating event - as in some foreign power did something unacceptable, and we generated a new "law" in response. The Bush Doctrine was classic cause and effect: 9/11 begetting pre-emptive attacks against state sponsors of terrorism.
Bush's war on terror was always doomed to a half-life of seven years. Absent another 9/11-like strike, it won't survive his presidency. No new president wants his administration defined by the last one's strategic mea culpa. The "war" will naturally continue but inevitably suffer a bureaucratic downgrading, upstaged by some new presidency-defining event - another calamity - that in turn generates the newest doctrine.
When it comes to grand strategy, it's easier for Americans to be against something than for something. A democracy naturally fears going overboard, so we prefer a strategy that sets a clear floor rather than a ceiling.
For some, global warming emerges as a preferred counter-narrative to the war on terror, but its utility as grand strategy is limited because its connections to security seem remote and there's no apparent limit to the implied responsibility. Plus, while battling it would take decades, it's inevitable that some new crisis would once again grab our strategic attention - to wit, Russia's invasion of Georgia.
Now America faces the great temptation to swap out the frustrating "war on terror" for the more familiar dynamics of cold war with Russia. What disturbs me most about that choice? The war on terror accurately targets extremist opponents of globalization's advance, while strategic brinkmanship with Moscow's oligarchs does not.
Pursued with our usual demonizing tendencies, a "league of democracies" combating rising great power autocracies will result in globalization being fenced off into a cluster of armed regional camps, replete with destructive trade protectionism.
Russia's economic ambitions are as understandable as its penchant for brute force is unacceptable, but Moscow doesn't seek to overthrow our international liberal trade order nor does it dream of civilizational apartheid like radical Islam. The same is true of autocratic China.
Before we hasten down this familiar pathway, so certain that military confrontation is our primary tool for behavior modification, America must think long and hard about the strategic opportunity aborted.
As a great Broadway lyricist once opined, "The opposite of war isn't peace. It's creation."