Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the term du jour was "post-Cold War world." But this spoke more to what the world wasn't than what it was. Sept. 11 did its own redefinition with terrorism central, but crowded out so much else going on globally.

Today, while we don't need a "next Kennan sweepstakes," we do need a greater sense of the big picture of our era and what U.S. "grand strategy" should be. This isn't some off-the-shelf instructional manual or full bullet-pointed action plans. Rather, it is a framework providing coherence and cohesiveness while being sufficiently flexible to meet whatever particular challenges arise.

With Pennsylvania Avenue now partisanly divided and the 2016 presidential election season ready to launch, we'd do well to avoid three common tropes if this is to be a productive debate.


One is lamentations about "declinism." This "yes we are/no we're not" discourse is a highly self-indulgent way of talking about ourselves among ourselves, fostering "denialism" of how profoundly the world has changed and the attendant implications for U.S. power and influence.

Another is American leadership. Republicans and Democrats alike reflexively invoke it. The 21st century world needs it. But on any number of issues and with any number of countries — be they allies, adversaries or competitors — international politics keeps showing itself to be a lot more complicated and contentious than we lead, others follow or get out of the way.

Lastly, American exceptionalism. "City on the Hill" and other such images are understandably resonant amidst these times of uncertainty and shaken confidence. But they tend to be used more as anesthetic than stimulant, to soothe more than energize. Patriotism and pride need to be tapped in ways that draw inspiration from the great achievements of the past, but help Americans look forward to what it takes to succeed in today's world.

In more substantive terms, three schools of thought are emerging: retrenchment, reassertiveness and recalibration.

Retrenchment is advocated by those who see limited global threats on the one hand and prioritize domestic concerns on the other, be they the budget-cutting of the Tea Party right or the nation-building-at-home of the progressive left. While many dismiss such views as isolationist, respected policy analysts and scholars make substantive arguments. Proposals include less defense spending, fewer overseas bases, less use of military force and generally pulling back from overextension. But it falls back on the "vital interests" formulation, which in theory sounds fine but in practice often ends up contextual and contingent. Recall Afghanistan, written off as no longer strategically consequential after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, only to become the source of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Whereas retrenchment has the United States doing too little in the world, reassertiveness pushes for it to do too much. Neoconservatives and other "reassertive-istas" have a bullish stock-taking of U.S. power. They contend that it still is both in our national interest and that of world order for the United States to be the dominant nation. This, though, sees the world more the way it was than it is. It falls into the distractions and distortions of what Hans Morgenthau, the intellectual godfather of modern U.S. power politics, called "residues of formerly adequate modes of thought and action now rendered obsolete by a new social reality." While retrenchment overestimates the extent to which the United States can stand apart, reassertiveness overestimates the extent to which it can sit atop.

Recalibration entails staying deeply and broadly engaged but based on a reassessment of U.S. power, reappraisal of U.S. interests and repositioning of a leadership role geared to the geopolitical, economic, technological, civil society and other dynamics driving this 21st-century world. American power remains formidable. To underestimate it would be the mirror-image mistake of reassertiveness's overestimation. But the stock-taking of "counting" power is less important than the influence-strategizing of how to most effectively use it — militarily, diplomatically, economically, politically — be it to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, balance and engage China in Asia, or stabilize the Middle East.

U.S. economic power needs its own recalibrating. History shows that while excessive debt and smothering taxation need to be avoided, national power requires sufficient state financing to build productive domestic capacities for international competitiveness. At the same time, the advantages that have come with the dollar's dominant international position are being diminished.

As pressing as interests like counterterrorism are, they have to be managed in ways that limit the risk of being so close to repressive regimes that anti-regime sentiments also become anti-American ones. This is not about democracy purism; it is very much security pragmatism. At the same time, the security agenda needs broadening with issues like climate change and global public health no longer confinable to "soft security" or shuffled out of the inbox over to the "when we have time" file. For all our concern about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the "DMD" threat (diseases of mass destruction) carries its own staggering potential toll.

As to leadership, how the United States plays its leadership role — when it pushes, when it persuades, when it recognizes that Washington is not the font of all wisdom or the exemplar of all policy effectiveness — should be based more on what solves problems rather than what resonates rhetorically.

Undergirding this must be the domestic capacity to forge policies that reduce our vulnerabilities, enhance our competitiveness and cultivate a shared sense of purpose.

Polls show the American public, while not reverting to isolationism, is prudent about what commitments it will support and what role the U.S. should play. Some fluctuation reacting to immediate events is natural. The more confidence that leaders have an overall strategy, the steadier and more resilient public support will be.

Jentleson is professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Follow him on Twitter @BWJ777. This column draws on his essay "Strategic Recalibration: Framework for a 21st Century National Security Strategy," published in The Washington Quarterly in spring 2014.