Thomas P. Cavanna

Thomas Cavanna recently published a chapter on US grand strategy for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia. This study explores the history of America’s grand strategy since 1789 and the seminal debates of the literature on grand strategy.

In its most general sense, grand strategy can be defined as the overarching vision that shapes a state’s foreign policy and approach to national security. Like any strategy, it requires the coherent articulation of the state’s ends and means, which necessitates prioritizing vital interests, identifying key threats and opportunities, and (within certain limits) adapting to circumstances. What makes it truly “grand” is that it encompasses both wartime and peacetime, harnesses immediate realities to long-term objectives, and requires the coordination of all instruments of power (military, economic, etc.). 

Although American leaders have practiced grand strategic thinking since the early days of the Republic, the concept of grand strategy itself only started to emerge during World War I due to the expansion and diversification of the state’s resources and prerogatives, the advent of industrial warfare, and the growing role of populations in domestic politics and international conflicts. Moreover, it was only during World War II that it detached itself from military strategy and gained real currency among decision-makers. The contours, desirability, and very feasibility of grand strategy have inspired lively debates. However, many scholars and leaders consider it a worthy (albeit complex) endeavor that can reduce the risk of resource-squandering, signal intentions to both allies and enemies, facilitate adjustments to international upheavals, and establish a baseline for accountability. 

America’s grand strategy evolved from relative isolationism to full-blown liberal internationalism after 1945. Yet its conceptualization and implementation are inherently contentious processes because of political/bureaucratic infighting and recurrent dilemmas such as the uncertain geographic delimitation of US interests, the clash of ideals and Realpolitik, and the tension between unilateralism and multilateralism. The end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, China’s rise, and other challenges have further compounded those lines of fracture.

            This analysis proceeds in four sections. First, it explores the steady accretion of America’s continental power from 1789 to 1865. Second, it discusses how US leaders came to reckon with growing international sources of instability till the second World War. Third, it investigates Washington’s Cold War grand strategy, which is often perceived as a “golden age.” Finally, it discusses the relative disarray that has characterized US grand strategy since 1989. All along, the analysis emphasizes the key principles of grand strategy and sheds light on the complexity of statecraft. 

            The article also contains a literature review. The field of (US) grand strategy is divided in numerous chronological, thematic, and methodological clusters. However, it revolves around three seminal questions: what is grand strategy (and does the concept itself have any analytical value)? What are the causes and ultimate ends of grand strategy? What kind of grand strategy should the United States pursue in the 21st century? This analysis covers the debates that have divided scholars on those questions, with an emphasis on the conversation between the proponents of deep engagement and those of a more modest approach (restraint, offshore balancing, etc.).

            Finally, the article features a brief section on the collection and use of primary sources.

Thomas Cavanna is writing a book and recently published on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its implications for US Grand Strategy ( He also teaches a course entitled “Grand Strategies in History: from the Ancient Greek City-States to America’s 21st Century Hegemony”. You can find his article on US Grand Strategy in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia (free access till April 22, 2020):

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