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American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy

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American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy by  Paul D. Miller. Georgetown University Press, 2018 (2016 original), 283 pp.

Paul D. Miller’s American Power and Liberal Order covers a range of concepts in the realm of international relations. Currently a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Miller himself served in the Bush and Obama administrations, in the CIA, and at RAND and as an Army Reserve officer. This breadth of experience clearly shows as the book—while clearly a contribution to the international relations body of literature—engages regional conflict, homeland security, grand strategy, military power, political theory, and even diplomatic history. Importantly for the readers of Strategic Studies Quarterly, this work values practicality, relevance, and accessibility over esotericism.

While the book was originally published before the election of President Trump, this review is of the 2018 paperback version that includes a new author preface to help contextualize the book in a world of President Trump’s foreign policy. Alongside the original central debates of internationalism versus restraint and (after siding with internationalism) liberal versus conservative notions of what internationalism should look like, Miller’s new preface includes a brief discourse on the relationship between nationalism and conservative internationalism, offering that though not necessarily reinforcing, neither are the concepts mutually exclusive. Both tend to see the world through a threat-based prism, and each is willing to employ military force where it might effect change.

As the lengthy title implies, at its core this is a book about grand strategy. Specifically, it advocates for an American grand strategy that is internationalist and tied to the liberal world order, but conservative in both form and function. Conspicuously, Miller avoids characterizing strategy as some combination of means employed in specific ways to achieve desired political ends. In lieu of the formulaic model, Miller instead frames grand strategy as “the observed patters of state behavior and, therefore, the inferred goals toward which the state is moving.” According to Miller, these two aspects of grand strategy—as an organizing concept and a pattern of behavior—allow one to identify and evaluate a state’s strategy over decades, rather than trying to chase the “grand strategy” of a given political administration.

Theorizing that observed patterns and inferred goals compose grand strategy allows Miller to sift the historical record for trends and from these trends himself infer how they represent past and future US policy goals. Miller concludes that since the late nineteenth century the United States has largely pursued a consistent grand strategy designed to “defend the US homeland from attack, maintain a favorable balance of power among the great powers, champion liberalism, punish nonstate actors, and invest in good governance” [emphasis added]. I emphasize champion liberalism because through this work Miller strives (successfully) to demonstrate that the international norms embodied in the liberal internationalist order are the glue that binds US strategy. They empower cooperation and security among the United States and allied nations while simultaneously dissuading potential aggressors from operating outside the liberal norms, precisely because doing so antagonizes the system and does more harm than good to the antagonist’s own economy and state.

Miller is not the first to argue for the combination of realism and liberalism when looking for pragmatic (vice dogmatic) approaches to international conflict. Like Rudra Sil and Peter J. Katzenstein’s Beyond Paradigms, Miller’s American Power and Liberal Order understands that combining complex international conflicts with academic reductionism is a recipe for disaster. That said, Miller does not blend the two, but rather appears to favor a realist and limited (conservative) grand strategy that is firmly embedded inside the liberal international world order. His grand strategy is not the offspring of realism and liberalism, but the continuation of nearly two centuries of building a liberal internationalist order that facilitates American power (realist) generally and in specific instances when using force (conservative).

A slight tautology runs throughout Miller’s framework. The Cold War is used as an example of how realist instincts and liberal ideals can craft a successful grand strategy that lasted several decades across a variety of ideologically inclined presidential administrations. In the following chapter, however, Miller argues that democratization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were not examples of strategic overreach (which would fail to adhere to the conservative aspect of the framework), but rather a failure to provide the necessary ways and means to accomplish the objectives. Even if the conclusion regarding Iraq and Afghanistan is correct, simply by asserting that the operations did not violate his understanding of conservative internationalism, Miller opens himself up for the critique that case studies that fit the framework are valid but those that might challenge the framework are outliers or misapplications of the framework.

Ultimately, this work is absolutely one that the SSQ audience should read, reflect on, and discuss. A considered analysis of American strategic theory, this is a book that military leaders, defense experts, and pragmatic academics should all enjoy. Much like Thomas Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map was required reading at war colleges a decade ago, Miller’s contribution needs to be read by those responsible for employing the force necessary to gird American grand strategy. Most importantly, Miller’s style and approach make this book accessible and useful across the academic spectrum. It could be read in an undergraduate class on international relations as well as a graduate school class on security studies or grand strategy. Currently a backlist product, American Power and Liberal Order demonstrates the quality of Georgetown University Press’s security studies products and is well worth the read.

Lt Col Kevin McCaskey, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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