American grand strategy under Obama: competing discourses

American grand strategy under Obama: competing discourses Georg Löfflmann's book recasts grand strategy, using critical geopolitics ‘as a knowledge practice, where the hegemonic definition of a world political role and corresponding national security performance constitute a discursive nexus of power/knowledge’ (p. 17). American grand strategy under Obama interrogates the manifestations and representations of different visions of grand strategy in popular culture, discusses debates around and representations of grand strategy in academia and think-tanks, looks at how grand strategy is formulated and represented in national security and defence policy documents, and finally, in chapter seven, focuses on the Obama doctrine. Löfflmann's main argument is that grand strategy is a ‘set of identity performing discourses’ and the Obama doctrine, with its rhetorical and practical contradictions, represents ‘an unresolved, internal identity conflict over America's role in the world’ (p. 10). He further argues that intertextual interdependence of identity-performing discourses from popular culture and the ‘everyday’ to academic discourses and politico-military documents, show that ‘the role of grand strategy, then, is politically and culturally much more expansive than an equation of means and ends and goes beyond a coherent and consistent vision to produce security externally’ (p. 10). In other words, grand strategy operates ‘as a decidedly political worldview that divides world politics into legitimate and illegitimate concepts of security and power, identity and order’ (p. 207). It ‘functions both as a guideline for national security policy and as an internal, hegemonic discourse that reconfirms established notions of geopolitical identity’ (p. 206). Löfflmann writes clearly and with minimal jargon, which will be welcomed by readers who are not embedded in the critical geopolitics literature or working with critical discourse analysis. The chapters on the production and reproduction of dominant grand strategy narratives in popular culture are perhaps the most interesting sections of the book. The author makes a reasonable case that Hollywood, working closely with the national security apparatus of the United States, ‘reproduces a strategic vision [of] liberal hegemony as common-sense knowledge’ (p. 37) and that such reproduction is crucial for the legitimization of such a vision for domestic and foreign audiences. The chapters on academic debates and think-tanks accurately portray, albeit in a simplified manner, the existing struggle to conceptualize grand strategy, both intellectually and institutionally. Löfflmann's assessment of Obama as a doctrinal juggler, trying to incorporate ‘a set of competing and mutually exclusive discourses’ (p. 197) on grand strategy, while attempting to develop a strategic vision for an upcoming post-American world, is surprisingly in line with more mainstream analyses of Obama's doctrine, even if it is a little more favourable than average. The book, however, has three major weaknesses. First, Löfflmann explicitly ‘reject[s] the epistemological and ontological conditions of positivism’ (p. 19) and does not engage in any meaningful way with the substance of the vast literature on grand strategy that is largely based on ‘analytical rationalism and ontological materialism’ (p. 19)—beyond labelling it, for example, ‘liberal hegemonic’, ‘off-shore balancing’ and ‘realist’. In doing so, he misses an important opportunity to open up an intellectual space for dialogue between critical geopolitics and traditional international security and grand strategy studies, which largely ignore each other. In this way, Löfflmann reproduces the hegemonic practice in academia where everyone speaks to their own tribe. Second, American grand strategy under Obama criticizes, sometimes in a simplified and condescending way, the ‘conventional wisdom’ or the ‘consensus’ about American grand strategy—especially with regard to the centrality of American leadership in maintaining a liberal international order. However, Löfflmann fails to demonstrate why the ‘consensus’ should be regarded as problematic, apart from an implicit moral judgement on the ‘perpetuation of status quo’ (p. 209). He also fails to offer, let alone defend, alternatives to the conventional wisdom. Lastly, Löfflmann, in the final analysis, does not take ‘grand strategy as statecraft’ seriously. He trivializes and dismisses the notion that grand strategy is fundamentally about how a nation should use the totality of its power—military, political, economic and cultural—to achieve its desired ends, despite the fact that this is central to most scholars writing on grand strategy and to policy-makers who engage in the practice of grand strategy. Löfflmann privileges a conception of grand strategies as performative discourses about national identity contestation, production and reproduction. However, in doing so, he ignores the existence of both actual and real threats to states' interests in international politics and the need for decision-makers to navigate and negotiate their way in international relations in the face of incommensurable preferences and limited resources. Thus, readers are left with a volume that is well written but aimed at those who already buy into the premises of a Foucauldian, critical geopolitics perspective, and has little to say to—and probably will attract little attention from—those who see grand strategy as ‘the highest form of statecraft’ (p. 3). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png International Affairs Oxford University Press

American grand strategy under Obama: competing discourses

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Publisher
The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0020-5850
eISSN
1468-2346
D.O.I.
10.1093/ia/iix267
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Georg Löfflmann's book recasts grand strategy, using critical geopolitics ‘as a knowledge practice, where the hegemonic definition of a world political role and corresponding national security performance constitute a discursive nexus of power/knowledge’ (p. 17). American grand strategy under Obama interrogates the manifestations and representations of different visions of grand strategy in popular culture, discusses debates around and representations of grand strategy in academia and think-tanks, looks at how grand strategy is formulated and represented in national security and defence policy documents, and finally, in chapter seven, focuses on the Obama doctrine. Löfflmann's main argument is that grand strategy is a ‘set of identity performing discourses’ and the Obama doctrine, with its rhetorical and practical contradictions, represents ‘an unresolved, internal identity conflict over America's role in the world’ (p. 10). He further argues that intertextual interdependence of identity-performing discourses from popular culture and the ‘everyday’ to academic discourses and politico-military documents, show that ‘the role of grand strategy, then, is politically and culturally much more expansive than an equation of means and ends and goes beyond a coherent and consistent vision to produce security externally’ (p. 10). In other words, grand strategy operates ‘as a decidedly political worldview that divides world politics into legitimate and illegitimate concepts of security and power, identity and order’ (p. 207). It ‘functions both as a guideline for national security policy and as an internal, hegemonic discourse that reconfirms established notions of geopolitical identity’ (p. 206). Löfflmann writes clearly and with minimal jargon, which will be welcomed by readers who are not embedded in the critical geopolitics literature or working with critical discourse analysis. The chapters on the production and reproduction of dominant grand strategy narratives in popular culture are perhaps the most interesting sections of the book. The author makes a reasonable case that Hollywood, working closely with the national security apparatus of the United States, ‘reproduces a strategic vision [of] liberal hegemony as common-sense knowledge’ (p. 37) and that such reproduction is crucial for the legitimization of such a vision for domestic and foreign audiences. The chapters on academic debates and think-tanks accurately portray, albeit in a simplified manner, the existing struggle to conceptualize grand strategy, both intellectually and institutionally. Löfflmann's assessment of Obama as a doctrinal juggler, trying to incorporate ‘a set of competing and mutually exclusive discourses’ (p. 197) on grand strategy, while attempting to develop a strategic vision for an upcoming post-American world, is surprisingly in line with more mainstream analyses of Obama's doctrine, even if it is a little more favourable than average. The book, however, has three major weaknesses. First, Löfflmann explicitly ‘reject[s] the epistemological and ontological conditions of positivism’ (p. 19) and does not engage in any meaningful way with the substance of the vast literature on grand strategy that is largely based on ‘analytical rationalism and ontological materialism’ (p. 19)—beyond labelling it, for example, ‘liberal hegemonic’, ‘off-shore balancing’ and ‘realist’. In doing so, he misses an important opportunity to open up an intellectual space for dialogue between critical geopolitics and traditional international security and grand strategy studies, which largely ignore each other. In this way, Löfflmann reproduces the hegemonic practice in academia where everyone speaks to their own tribe. Second, American grand strategy under Obama criticizes, sometimes in a simplified and condescending way, the ‘conventional wisdom’ or the ‘consensus’ about American grand strategy—especially with regard to the centrality of American leadership in maintaining a liberal international order. However, Löfflmann fails to demonstrate why the ‘consensus’ should be regarded as problematic, apart from an implicit moral judgement on the ‘perpetuation of status quo’ (p. 209). He also fails to offer, let alone defend, alternatives to the conventional wisdom. Lastly, Löfflmann, in the final analysis, does not take ‘grand strategy as statecraft’ seriously. He trivializes and dismisses the notion that grand strategy is fundamentally about how a nation should use the totality of its power—military, political, economic and cultural—to achieve its desired ends, despite the fact that this is central to most scholars writing on grand strategy and to policy-makers who engage in the practice of grand strategy. Löfflmann privileges a conception of grand strategies as performative discourses about national identity contestation, production and reproduction. However, in doing so, he ignores the existence of both actual and real threats to states' interests in international politics and the need for decision-makers to navigate and negotiate their way in international relations in the face of incommensurable preferences and limited resources. Thus, readers are left with a volume that is well written but aimed at those who already buy into the premises of a Foucauldian, critical geopolitics perspective, and has little to say to—and probably will attract little attention from—those who see grand strategy as ‘the highest form of statecraft’ (p. 3). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

International AffairsOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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