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Research Questions

  1. What major-power shifts and realignments have occurred around the world during the post-Cold War period? How might the United States adapt?
  2. What long-term policy issues and organizational, financial, and diplomatic challenges will confront the next Administration?
  3. How can the U.S. government improve anticipation, deterrence, and resilience, three areas for policy attention that will be increasingly necessary in managing national security in this turbulent era?
  4. What strategic options would align the level of U.S. international engagement with its national defense, security, economic, and climate policies, and what resources will be necessary for each option?

This report is the last in the six-volume Strategic Rethink series, in which RAND explores the elements of a national strategy for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in a turbulent world. This final overview report analyzes how the United States moved from the triumph at the end of the Cold War to the stalemate of today, and the major-power shifts and realignments that have occurred around the world.

The report reviews the country's strengths and weaknesses, and suggests strategies for adapting to this new era of turbulence and uncertainty. It analyzes how to improve the U.S. government's capacity for anticipation, deterrence, and resilience, three areas for policy attention that will become increasingly important in a period of rapid change. It presents three plausible U.S. strategic concepts and evaluates their underlying assumptions, costs, risks, and constraints. It also offers thoughts on how to choose among alternatives. It concludes that the United States is in many ways in an enviable position compared with its rivals, and continues to benefit from the liberal international order that it built over seven decades. However, a coherent international strategy will be difficult to pursue without a greater degree of domestic political consensus. Domestic political dysfunction is the greatest obstacle to effective U.S. global leadership.

Key Findings

Americans Ambivalent and Divided

  • For more than seven decades, the United States and its friends and allies built a liberal international order that ushered in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Today, after 15 years of inconclusive wars, widespread disenchantment with the country's economic performance, and a polarizing presidential election, Americans are mistrustful of their government and divided over their country's role.

Major Global Realignments Will Require U.S. Attention

  • Major-power shifts and realignments have occurred around the world. The next administration will need to deal with Russian and Chinese military modernization and aggressive postures, yet seek their cooperation on global security and economic issues. This will require deft "Rubik's Cube" diplomacy: multi-dimensional thinking and the ability to manage ambiguous relationships with governments that have both shared and conflicting interests.

Slow Growth, Trouble in the Labor Market, and Federal Debt Will Be Challenging

  • U.S. growth prospects are better than those of any other major developed country, and the country is better positioned than any of its rivals to address problems, including debt, jobs, dislocation and demographics. Slow global growth, domestic labor market weakness, and record debt-to-GDP ratio will be challenges.

Nuclear Weapons, Biological Threats, and Climate Change Are Potentially Existential Threats

  • The United States faces no certain existential threat. But U.S. leadership will be required to address potentially existential threats from Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons, emerging biological threats, and rapid climate change. Reducing these supranational threats is a core U.S. interest that must remain a constant focus.

Recommendations

  • Think deeply not only about which strategic concept and policies to choose, but also about how to choose them. In a world of limited resources, choices are required. Failure to make decisions is also a choice, and often not a wise one. Six criteria are offered for decisionmaking in the face of uncertainty:
  • Scrutinize assumptions: Faulty assumptions are the cause of many dangerous blunders; in this period of intense partisanship, policymakers should redouble efforts to separate ideology from assumptions, the unknown from the unlikely, and the truth from the tendentious.
  • Seize opportunities: America's opportunities exceed its limitations. The report identifies areas of opportunity and the investments that might be needed to realize them.
  • Uphold U.S. commitments: Maintain the friendship and trust of America's most important allies. America's greatest strength is its ability to develop and maintain friends and partners across the globe. No other competitor has this advantage; to surrender or squander this advantage would be a catastrophic strategic failure.
  • Play both the long and the short games: Distinguish the challenge of the moment from the fundamental policies and structures needed to secure the future.
  • Align U.S. interests with values: While interests and values can be in tension over particular matters, they must ultimately align to secure support from the American people. The report offers three criteria to aid in reconciling differences.
  • Limit regret. Take all reasonable efforts to secure the American people and territory from serious harm, most of all from nuclear weapons, biological threats, or rapid climate change.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Part One

    Current Challenges

    • Chapter Two

      From Triumph to Stalemate: The Loss of American Consensus

    • Chapter Three

      Is the World Falling Apart (And How Would We Know)?

    • Chapter Four

      Leveraging U.S. Strengths, Dealing with Vulnerabilities

    • Chapter Five

      Anticipation, Deterrence, and Resilience

  • Part Two

    Strategic Choices

    • Chapter Six

      About Strategy — Grand and Otherwise

    • Chapter Seven

      Option I: "Come Home America": Domestic Renewal, International Restraint

    • Chapter Eight

      Option II: "The Indispensable Nation": America as Promoter of World Order

    • Chapter Nine

      Option III: "Agile America": Adapt and Compete in a Changing World

    • Chapter Ten

      How to Choose

  • Coda

    The Challenge of Leadership: Aligning Vision, Values, Interests, and Resources

  • Appendix

    Excerpts from the Conversation on Grand Strategy

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