Strategic Dissonance? American Grand Strategy in the Immediate Aftermath of the Cold War

The decline of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and dissolved the relatively stable bipolar international system. The United States emerged as a hyperpower without a peer competitor or a renewed grand strategy to guide its course in an uncertain international security environment. Presidents George H. W. Bush and William Clinton debated the utility of the United States as a global leader but ultimately continued to embrace this role in an attempt to capitalize on a post-Cold War unipolar opportunity to advance the American-led world order established after the Second World War. The Bush and Clinton administrations, however, generated strategic dissonance through the incoherent application of grand strategies focused on cooperative security, primacy, and selective engagement. Grand strategic coherence aligns ways across time, space, and scale to achieve ambitious and aspirational end-states with limited and disparate means.[1] A nation places its legitimacy and strategic objectives at risk without a coherent grand strategy to discipline and maximize the utility of its diplomatic, military, and economic power.

Debating the Security Environment and America’s Role in the Post-Cold War World

Franacis Fukuyama (Wikimedia)

The failure of communism and the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States without a rival ideology or well-defined adversary against which to guide American grand strategy.[2] Scholars seeking to establish a foundation for an evolved grand strategic design contemplated America’s threat landscape in the absence of a near-peer strategic competitor. Francis Fukuyama postulated that the downfall of communism signaled the efficacy of liberalism and, therefore, the end of humankind’s ideological evolution.[3] Samuel Huntington predicted future conflict would arise not from ideological forces but fissures in cultural fault lines dividing civilisations. In “Jihad vs McWorld,” Benjamin Barber believed a coming retribalisation would clash with the effects of globalisation.[5] John Mearsheimer thought the end of the Cold War would spawn a multipolar world with various power dyads creating the potential for increased conflict.[6] This evident lack of consensus regarding the future of the international system, coupled with the extensive scope of potential and realized threats, crippled the development of a coherent grand strategy throughout the 1990s.

Scholars also debated America’s leadership role in the world. Paul Kennedy postulated the idea that the United States risked “imperial overstretch” from an improper balance of guns and butter and far-reaching global commitments.[7] Richard Haass called on the reluctant United States to act minimally in favour of its interests.[8] Charles Krauthammer argued that the transition between a bipolar and multipolar world created an immediate unipolar moment that necessitated America’s leadership.[9] Henry Kissinger called on academics and practitioners to find a middle ground between alternative grand strategies focused purely on cooperative security and those absorbed entirely by the desire to assert American primacy.[10]

The Bush and Clinton administrations sought to advance an American-led world order established after the Second World War that ensured no hostile power emerged to dominate a critical region of the world and that the principles of democracy, free-market economics, and the rule of law governed the international system.[11] The absence of an existential threat in the uncertain and diffuse security environment of the 1990s, however, decelerated the development of a coherent grand strategic design to guide America’s global leadership.[12] The lack of congruence concerning America’s global leadership role also paralleled the failure of the Bush and Clinton administrations to implement a cogent grand strategy. Nevertheless, the advancement of these persistent and ambitious strategic objectives required a calibrated grand strategy to advance the American-led world order into the twenty-first century.[13]

Strategic Dissonance: Cooperative Security, Primacy, and Selective Engagement

Barry Posen (MIT)

In 1996, political scientists Barry Posen and Andrew Ross argued that there were several directions for American grand strategy in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. They termed these directions cooperative security, primacy, and selective engagement.[14] The first strategy, cooperative security, rested on the idea that strategic interdependence vindicated collective action against aggression in a broad conception of American interests.[15] The second strategy, primacy, proclaimed that the United States would assert its national power alone to outcompete any competitor that sought to disrupt its enduring interests.[16] Finally, the strategy of selective engagement presumed resources were scarce and justified involvement only in areas that would energize great power conflict.[17] Presidents Bush and Clinton responded to challenges in an uncertain security environment through decisions framed by each of these grand strategies.

In the early 1990s, President Bush articulated a desire to move beyond containment to capitalize on emerging geopolitical shifts in the post-Cold War world.[18] The unilateral military invasion of Panama, a continuation of precepts espoused by the Monroe Doctrine, showcased an assertion of American primacy to promote democracy through low-cost and decisive military engagements.[19] Diplomatic astuteness facilitated German unification and Russian integration into the global economy, two historical competitors for European dominance, under the auspices of selective and cooperative security. The Gulf War showcased a discriminate American-led multilateral military operation to inhibit regional and great power competition in the Persian Gulf.[20] This rapid success, enabled by selective and collective action against Saddam Hussein’s transgression into the sovereign nation-state of Kuwait, served as the impetus for President Bush’s articulation of a new world order which revealed a mechanism for the utilisation of American power instead of the establishment of a unique order.[21] Intervention in Somalia in 1993 and the United States’ reluctance to act in Yugoslavia subsequently illuminated the futile nature of this prescript absent a prioritized and harmonized framework for engagement.

President Clinton replaced containment and the rhetorical pronouncement of the new world order with the notion of democratic enlargement to expand and protect the reach of market democracies and to accelerate the growth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.[22] The threat of trade sanctions against Japan opened key Asian markets to the United States in a demonstration of selective American economic primacy.[23] Although Clinton arguably sought to emphasize the economic and diplomatic tools of statecraft over the use of military force, national advocacy pressured him to capitalize on the effects of military power in crises abroad.[24] The lack of humanitarian military assistance during the Rwandan genocide, however, revealed a selective approach to American military intervention in the Clinton administration. Clinton sought to narrowly employ force only to inhibit the rise of competition in areas of vital concern to the United States. Bilateral operations with the United Kingdom, executed in an attempt to obliterate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, demonstrated his commitment to selective engagement in concert with a propensity for primacy and minimal cooperation. Nevertheless, the subsequent American-led NATO operation against Yugoslavia highlighted a rapid turn away from primacy to the selective use of military force functioning under a multilateral cooperative security umbrella to safeguard stability and democracy in Europe.

This engendered strategic dissonance in the application of American power as each grand strategy, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, championed different mechanisms to respond to unique challenges, which ultimately produced an array of consequences.

Presidents Bush and Clinton tended to apply the logic of cooperative security, primacy, and selective engagement separately and concurrently. This engendered strategic dissonance in the application of American power as each grand strategy, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, championed different mechanisms to respond to unique challenges, which ultimately produced an array of consequences. The diffusion of liberal democratic and economic values for an interdependent and permanent peace that undergirded the logic of cooperative security fostered the growth of a strategic alliance network and paradoxically supported the emergence of new strategic competitors. NATO expanded as an abutment to European geopolitical conflict as Russia assimilated, while Japan grew as a bulwark for competition in the Indo-Pacific against a thriving China. Hegemonic assertions of primacy risked the erosion of international institutions on which cooperative security depended. Variances within and between the Bush and Clinton administrations during multilateral, bilateral, and unilateral military operations in the Middle East and Europe demonstrated this struggle. American intervention in Somalia, an eventual engagement in Yugoslavia, and an unwillingness to act during the Rwandan genocide revealed how the absence of a convincing and well-prioritized foundation for commitment could undermine the national character and reputation.


The United States disjointedly applied grand strategies centered on cooperative security, primacy, and selective engagement in the immediate security environment of the post-Cold War. The application of these grand strategies promoted distinct and competing frameworks that, when misaligned across time, space, and scale, generated a strategic dissonance that jeopardized the furthering of the American-led world order established after the Second World War. Arguably, the United States is now at the end of the interval between two precarious world orders because of America’s strategic incoherence throughout the 1990s.

The implementation of a coherent grand strategy in the absence of an existential threat to America’s democratic experiment is difficult but possible. Inconsistent and opportunistic approaches to crises will likely continue absent public consensus on the nature of the threat and a unified and coherent strategy to transcend it.[25] Assuming the mantle of global leadership in the furtherance of American interests will always require a domestic and international legitimacy that stems from the consistent and disciplined application of America’s diplomatic, military, and economic power. Inconsistency jeopardizes the legitimacy of American leadership, and it will cause the world to look elsewhere. Grand strategic alignment guarantees the efficacy of American power and maintains the credibility required to successfully confront the challenges to the continuance of the world order led by the United States in the twenty-first century.

Jason Spencer is an officer in the United States Navy and a student of War Studies at King’s College London. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.

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Header Image: Allies grand-strategy conference in N. Africa. Adm. E. J. King, Mr. Churchill; President Roosevelt; Standing, Maj. Gen. Sir Hastings Ismay; Lord Louis Mountbatten; and Field Marshall Sir John Dill. (American Photo Archive)


[1] John Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (Penguin Books, 2018), 21-22.

[2] Jeremi Suri, “American Grand Strategy from the Cold War’s End to 9/11,” Orbis, no. 53 (2009): 614.

[3] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3-18.

[4] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 22-49.

[5] Benjamin Barber, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” The Atlantic, March 1992.

[6] John Mearsheimer, “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War,” International Security 15, no. 1 (1990): 14.

[7] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Vintage Press, 1989), 514-535.

[8] Richard Haass, The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War (Council on Foreign Relations, 1997), 137-140.

[9] Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1990): 23, 33.

[10] Henry Kissinger, Does America need a Foreign Policy? (Simon and Schuster, 2002), 17-31.

[11] Henry Kissinger, “Continuity and Change in American Foreign Policy,” Society 35, no. 2 (1998): 185.

[12] Suri, “American Grand Strategy from the Cold War’s End to 9/11,” 614.

[13] John Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (Oxford University Press, 2005), 53-86.

[14] Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” International Security 21, no. 3 (1996-1997): 3.

[15] Ibid., 21-23.

[16] Ibid., 30.

[17] Ibid., 15-17.

[18] Jeffrey Engel, When the World Seemed New (Houghton Mifflin, 2017), 136-139.

[19] Meena Bose and Rosanna Perotti, From Cold War to New World Order (Praeger, 2002), 175-182.

[20] Posen and Ross, “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” 17.

[21] Engel, When the World Seemed New, 419.

[22] Douglas Brinkley, “Democratic Enlargement: The Clinton Doctrine,” Foreign Policy, no. 106 (1997): 114.

[23] Ibid., 124.

[24] Samantha Power, “Bystanders to Genocide,” The Atlantic, September 2001.

[25] Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy? (Cornell University Press, 2014), 1-16.