Think Out Loud

How a grand strategy can help prepare us for the next pandemic

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 20, 2021 1:04 a.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, May 20

The United States has been willing to lead the world in large-scale strategic planning in the past. The creation of the United Nations, or the fight against HIV/AIDs are good examples. A new book edited by Oregon State University’s Christopher McKnight Nichols makes the case that “grand strategies” do not have to be military in nature. In fact, Nichols argues that global strategic planning, led by powerful nations like the U.S., will be necessary to forestall future pandemics. Christopher McKnight Nichols and Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar College and contributor to the new book, join us to discuss the history and future of grand strategy.


Dave Miller: I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to what political scientists and historians call grand strategy. For much of the last century, it’s been seen primarily as an issue of military power and high level diplomacy. But now, with a global pandemic still raging, and climate change accelerating, a group of historians are arguing that we need to take a broader view of grand strategy. One that encompasses a wider range of social, cultural, economic and environmental considerations. Christopher Knight Nichols is one of those historians.

He’s the director of the Center for the Humanities and an associate professor at Oregon State University. He is one of the co editors of the new book, Rethinking american Grand Strategy. He joins us now along with one of the scholars who wrote a chapter in this new volume, Elizabeth Bradley is the president of Vassar College and the founder of the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute. It’s great to have both of you on Think Out Loud. Good to be here. Thank you. Thanks, Chris, first, traditionally, how has grand strategy been defined by people like you, by historians and political scientists?

Christopher Knight Nichols: So, grand strategy has traditionally been viewed in terms of military terms, sort of formal statecraft. You can think of what secretaries of state do or presidents do. And very often in terms of measuring what we say, calculated the  relationship between means and ends. And generally speaking, that’s been thought of in terms of how armies or economic resources are mounted, to achieve certain kinds of goals. The traditional example of this, the best one for listeners to consider is containment: the policy of containing soviet expansionism during the Cold War. I gave a very short version of this,

Dave Miller:  But what was your guiding principle or one of your main goals in assembling the chapters in this new book? How did you want to expand the notion of what grand strategy encompasses?

[Nichols] So I think that that definition that we just heard, that I just put out there, is a perfectly good one, but it’s too limited. And if you look at the historical record, you find figures from diverse array of different kinds of, say, non governmental organizations, say the women’s Internationally for Peace and Freedom. The first two women who won the Nobel Peace Prize Jane Adams and Emily Bulbs. People like that were trying in the 1920s and 1930s to prevent future wars, outlaw war and had grand strategies. You can see this in the rule of Black internationalists, you can see this in the realm of missionaries trying to transform the world and convert people to their particular religious causes and belief systems. So there’s lots more things that should count. And one of the big things here that Betsy Bradley, when she came to our conference at Oregon State in 2016, was pushing us to think about, and that I had been thinking about, in terms of the 1918 flu pandemic, was how does public health factor in here? And as you expand what counts as grand strategy is, you think about not just what nation states do, but what other kinds of organizations do, say the UN and the World Health Organization or NATO and collective security organizations. You really need to take account of other factors like climate change, like technology, like race and gender and reproductive rights. And here we are living in a pandemic, global public health.

Miller: I[Unintelligible ???] was Bradley. There’s a lot to get to in terms of what the pandemic looks like through this lens. But I, one of the things that I was wondering about, is if you expand the umbrella of grand strategy to include all kinds. I mean some of the things that, that Christopher Nichols just mentioned, but even more of them does it collapse on its own weight? I mean, if you put together everything a country is doing in terms of foreign policy and domestic policy, is it a cohesive strategy or is it just an immense and messy series of decisions based on whatever is happening in the world at that time?

Nichols: Well, Dave, I think you have touched exactly on what a grand strategist is able to do. Take the ecology of everything, all the messiness that’s there, and create a coherent path forward towards a pre-identified or predetermined national interest or goal could be a global interest. And I don’t think that fully what grand strategy is, I think it just is a realistic view, that to be truly strategic, you have to think of everything.

Miller:  Chris let’s turn to some recent history. You have argued in a recent op ed that George W. Bush’s approach to the world post 9 -11 became the last really clear, grand strategy put forward by an american president. Why is that? Why was it the last?

Nichols: Right? Well, so far, we could say with some caveats, that wasn’t exactly a good one to be diplomatic, but that the kind of post 9-11 Bush administration’s embrace of a strategic vision to stop Islamic terrorism, to cut it off in its tracks. Whatever problems, moral, ethical, international may have been entailed in that, did entail an effort to try to match somewhat limited means to aspirational ends, right? Ending terrorism in the world, and they were corollary elements there about democracy, promotion, etcetera. When you shift and you look forward, then you go to the Obama administration, or even the Trump administration, what you see is efforts to eschew grand strategy in some ways, to do the kinds of in the Obama administration, policy planning, that they argued were absent from some of the Bush administration. So that is to say, have a good end strategy,know exactly what they want out of the war in Iraq, for instance, or when to pull out troops from Afghanistan, which is only now, really happening under the biden administration, very likely around the symbolic date of September 11th. So, you know, if you look to the last few administrations, you find efforts to either embrace grand strategy or move beyond it. But what you don’t see is what, exactly Betsy was describing, this kind of effort to think wholistically in an interconnected way, incorporating both the instruments of the nation state and outside of it. so nongovernmental organizations and international organizations, to achieve particular ends.

Miller: So let’s move to some specific examples. You make the case in your chapter, in the new book and co written with the academic Lauren Taylor that President George W. Bush’s emergency plan for AIDS relief in Africa, known as PEPFAR can be seen as its own grand strategy. Can you just first remind us what the plan was?

Bradley: Yeah, PEPFAR, the plan that George W. Bush really championed, was an effort to try to reduce and prevent future cases of AIDS. And he was facing, not only American prevalence in AIDS but certainly tremendous prevalence in Southern Africa,

also, during the Iraq war, really was facing a moment of needing to show the humanitarian side of what America really stood for in his mind. So PEPFAR was a bipartisan, huge bill that came out to spend, you know, the likes of $6, 7 billion on really stopping AIDS and HIV. The reason this becomes a grand strategy, is it had a very strong end in mind. He knew exactly, it targets exactly how many lives, exactly how many infections would be prevented.


And, then used a tremendous political strategy to get both sides of the aisle to agree to this. Now, getting both sides of the aisle to agree to this, turns out to have required us to take, you know, some values like abstinence, and put it in the PEPFAR and appropriations, which probably wasn’t the best public health strategy in the world, but it did get the votes to make it happen. So he just had a way to bring people to a circle on this. The one thing I would say in caution, before we get too excited that this is the best grand strategy ever, you know, a wonderful grand strategy really looks at the root causes of the problem that’s trying to be solved to reach the end goal. And when we look at the root causes of HIV, you know, it’s all kinds of things like prevention, sorry, like poverty, you know, poor education, gender related issues and those things really weren’t dealt with PEPFAR, what PEPFAR dealt with is we are going to try to provide necessary medication. And so, as we do in the United States a lot, it was a very medicalized approach to what would be a more public health problem. Nonetheless, looking at all of his work, it was, it was a pretty grand accomplishment, we think saving about 18 million lives by now.

Miller:  Chris,  one of the things that we just heard there is the meeting point between this broad strategy and domestic politics, in this case, getting money from Congress and then the strings that would be attached, based on what Republicans and what Democrats wanted to see in a policy. What’s the big connection between grand strategy and domestic politics?

Nichols: This is one of the big takeaways of the conference that led to the book,and I think it was a little surprising to us, to see this in the historical record, some of the best US grand strategies and grand strategies coming out of other nations and groups, have really entailed a close synergy between domestic and foreign. That is, you know, you need domestic public opinion, supporting the policy makers who are pushing for the kinds of elements of a grand strategy to be successful, and to achieve the sorts of things that we just heard, some kind of bipartisan consensus requires compromise, even in this intensely polarized and partisan universe, that still seems somewhat possible. But also that you have to think about the interconnection of domestic and foreign, and here, you know a great example of immigration right. Immigration is neither perfectly domestic nor perfectly  international, right?  Borders are areas where people’s groups and ideas flow across. They inherently do. Also pathogens do, of course, like viruses. And so as we think about the politics of immigration, migration, citizenship, those are questions that are very much grand, strategic and blending of domestic and foreign. And I would also add that immigration opens up a way to think about questions of race and racism, to which, in US History have been really crucial to understanding successful foreign policies because US Foreign policy is, at its most basic, about embodying American ideals in diplomacy, and when on the home front, those ideals don’t seem to be being bought into by the nation state, when citizens are systematically disenfranchised, like African Americans have been lynched in high profile actions, such as in the early Cold War, it hinders or absolutely undercuts the ability of the US to achieve its goals in foreign policy. And you can say the same is true today, with Black Lives Matter and police brutality, and some of these other kinds of concerns.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Elizabeth Bradley and Christopher Mcknight Nichols, she is one of the contributors and he is one of the co editors of a new book called Rethinking American Grand Strategy Elizabeth Bradley is the President of Vassar College and the founder of the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute; Christopher Mcknight. Nichols is the director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, where he is an Associate Professor of History. So let’s turn more squarely to the pandemic, and that the two of you wrote a recent op ed specifically focused on the pandemic and the ways in which globally and as our own country in the US, we are not adapting an effective grand strategy, either so far, or in terms of the future. So Elizabeth Bradley, first, just looking in terms of the last couple of years, last two years, how might this pandemic have gone differently if more countries had taken a more cohesive and strategic approach to public health?

Bradley: Well, we could have really changed the face of this and probably saved trillions of dollars at the bottom. But I think what we want to talk about is how do we really get that cohesive strategy across the globe? And most historians, I believe, and Political Scientists would say, if you’re going to have a cohesive strategy across the globe, about dangers that cross borders like viruses and other pathogens, you really have to have leadership. Where do you get leadership, without the United States at that table? You just don’t get the necessary leadership to coordinate across the globe. It’s not like everybody can do it except the United States. And what we see based on our history is the United States is very hesitant to, I guess, to collaborate, to compromise, to sacrifice its own, what it thinks might be its own national interests in order to collaborate across the globe. A lot of good reasons for that obviously, related to our very founding. Nonetheless, the impact of that, makes it very hard for the globe to coordinate. And I would say concretely, what we could have done early is really centralize the data collection, centralize the communications, centralize the signals of what had to happen, the WHO knew in january, what should happen and had testing kits. But because of this fragmented and you know, if you would, self- centered approach that, I think many countries have fear of collaborating, we missed opportunities to really present, prevent this tremendous tragedy of the Covid pandemic.

Miller: We can look around the world and see some countries that fared better than others in terms of their case rates or fatality rates. What is less clear to me is the metrics of success if you look at all the different nations in terms of collaboration ability, who’s doing this well if anyone?

Nichols: Yeah it’s a good question, and you know your first premise that we can see who’s done well with the case rates. I mean it’s tough. Even Taiwan, they were doing fabulously for a while and then not so well. I mean, we could look at New Zealand as a huge success case, but a very unusual country, small, easy to cordon off. So which are the countries that are doing well in the collaboration? You know, it’s a tough one that Scandinavia is really known for usually in these global efforts really leading, Germany currently is leading on creating a hub of data warehousing for the WHO. So they’re sort of stepping up, but I have to say neither China nor the United States, the two that need to lead, are really stepping up to it.

Miller: So what would you like to see what efforts should the U. S. And other powerful countries, and smaller ones are pursuing right now in preparation, say for Covid 23, or the next strain of the avian flu that jumps to humans?

Nichols: I think there are two things. The first is, the WHO does have a treaty that has begun to be negotiated by about 23 countries. If China and the US signed on to that, it would change,  it would really change the horizon of what could be possible. And the second is the data hub that Germany is starting with the WHO. Again, it can’t  just be Germany, it has to be a coordinated effort. Again, if the U. S. and China would collaborate on that on a scientific basis, I think we could be much better prepared. The last thing I would say is nationally, in the United States, in the White House, you know, pandemic preparedness under Obama was a official task force and funded etcetera and was taken apart under the Trump administration, that need, I think President biden is putting that back together. We have to invest in that, even nationally.

Miller: Chris, does President Biden have either an explicit or an apparent grand strategy, in your mind?

Nichols: I think we’re beginning to see it. So we’re beginning to see it in terms of this blending of domestic and foreign. you saw this from the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan who’s been talking about this and a number of others, so that so that there’s a creation of a foundation within the US on questions like infrastructure, pushing forward with protections of democratic rights, for instance, which we’re seeing debated in Congress right now as a means, a kind of platform to move forward with a global vision there. You can see this in terms of public health with releasing the US Astrazeneca stockpile, which is a small but symbolic effort along the lines that we were just talking about. You know, I think leading on global public health is a must. And we heard that from the very beginning that Biden’s first and central concern was dealing with that. He’s modeled himself on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, literally in the White House. That’s the portrait that sits across from the resolute desk and he’s dealing with one of the epochal challenges in US history. And I would hasten to add the most immediate reference isn’t Roosevelt, but it’s Wilson. And after the flu pandemic of 1918 and after World War, what happened? And this gets it exactly what Betsy Bradley just said. The U. S. did not join the League of Nations. The US Did not participate in the League of Nations Health Organization in formal ways. And the U. S. Was not a part of global leadership on preventing future epidemics and pandemics. And that absolutely has to change. And Biden has signaled that he’s learned those historical lessons.

Miller: I want to go back to what we were talking about at the beginning though in just two minutes that we have left,because Chris, you had said that post George W. Bush’s war on terror as a unifying grand strategy, President Obama was much more reticent,  and then there was sort of the America first rhetoric with some policies from president trump that wasn’t truly unified in terms of a strategy. But I guess what I’m stuck with is doesn’t our country have an implicit grand strategy, for 100 years now of basically maintaining an american empire with you know, 200,000 US troops overseas and something like bases in 70 countries and making sure that Nike and Google and Coca Cola can do business wherever they want around the world. Don’t we have an implicit strategy, that’s always just rolling along under the surface,

Nichols:  I suppose um that you might say that that’s a trend line or a pattern, not a grand strategy. So that’s the kind of intersection of formal and informal government, cultural and commercial practices and other things that have led to kind of what we in the biz would call US hegemony, in some significant form. But what it isn’t, is a cohesive grand strategy, right? It isn’t containment. So from 1947 to 1989, 90, 91, the whole series of policies flowed from that economic, military, cultural, to try to contain the Soviet Union. Then I think you’d have to argue that in the Clinton years, Clinton was groping towards a kind of new grand strategy. What came to be called something unwieldy like democratic enlargement, That was quite different from it, because the Soviet Union was no longer the main adversary on the global stage. I think what you’re pointing to though, is that the US. Has tended to have adversaries over the last 100 years, and those have helped to define what those bigger strategies might be. And one question that’s open for us now to think about, the Biden administration but also the pandemic is China. Some folks want to say that there’s this great power competition aborning with china. The US should reallocate its resources for possible military conflict with china.]

But others, you know, and we’re arguing in our pandemic op ed, that the US needs a global pandemic public health strategy. We would argue that the US  needs to be cooperating more closely with China and not be vilifying them in the kind of language that we heard President Trump say, calling it the China virus, right? Because viruses certainly have no nation state origin in the way that that kind of language would suggest.

Miller: Christopher, Knight Nichols and Elizabeth Bradley. Thanks very much. Thank you. Thank you. Kristen Mcknight. Nichols is the director of Oregon State University Center for the Humanities. Elizabeth Bradley is the president of Vassar College.

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