America’s Strategic Blindness

MADRID – The recriminations over US spying activities, triggered by the revelations of the former American intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden, have now reached fever pitch. Questions abound – about what President Barack Obama knew and when, about the legitimacy of eavesdropping on friendly foreign leaders’ conversations, about the future of transatlantic relations, and even about the meaning of the term “ally.”

But the current firestorm, like other recent diplomatic crises for the United States, reflects a more fundamental problem: the lack of strategic vision in American foreign policy. Until the US is able to establish an overarching, purpose-oriented framework through which it relates to the world, a reactive approach is inevitable, with high-intensity incidents such as we have seen this month continuing to be the norm.

For more than 40 years, the Cold War policy of containment of Soviet influence provided America its strategic framework. Though US tactics were debated and shifted from administration to administration, the overarching approach remained consistent, because it was broadly supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. Of course, an overarching national-security strategy provided no guarantee against problems or even major disasters in countries like Vietnam and Nicaragua. Nonetheless, in hindsight, containment infused an order and organization on US foreign policy that is absent today.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the necessity that had been driving containment disappeared. The US, inebriated by victory, saw in the triumph over the Soviet bloc another sign of its exceptionalism, and found itself taken in by the mirage that its Cold War success was itself a strategy.