Flanagan on Popescu, 'Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy'

Ionut C. Popescu
Owen Flanagan

Ionut C. Popescu. Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. 248 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-2377-7

Reviewed by Owen Flanagan (Independent Scholar) Published on H-FedHist (January, 2021) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55987

In Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy, Ionut Popescu, an assistant professor of political science at Texas State University and an officer in the US Navy Reserve, ponders whether following a long-term strategy is more likely to lead to successful policy results than reliance on adjustments and emergent learning. Through the detailed analysis of seven US presidential administrations, Popescu argues that a strategy that takes a more adaptive approach and is based more on learning and consistent reassessment of goals (Emergent Strategy) can lead to more successful policy results than an overarching and enunciated long-term plan laid out by policymakers (Grand Strategy). A well-researched and enjoyable monograph highlighted by numerous interviews with US government officials, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy is a powerful work.

Scholars of both the Grand and Emergent Strategy paradigms will appreciate Popescu’s ability to bring the subject matter to life so colorfully. While aligning himself with the Emergent Strategy paradigm, Popescu is careful not to dismiss the presence and success of Grand Strategy in areas of presidential policy. This is highlighted by his coverage of George H. W. Bush and free trade in the post-Cold War world, a policy stemming from the Grand Strategy paradigm that carried over into the Clinton and Obama administrations. However, Popescu effectively underscores his argument by pointing out both contradictions and shortcomings of Grand Strategy policy decisions in each administration from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. Popescu’s methodology compounds his argument, as he spends an appropriate amount of time highlighting an administration’s policy in terms of Grand and Emergent Strategy. Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy is consistent throughout, from Truman and the Truman Doctrine to Dwight Eisenhower and the military-industrial complex and the Third World to Richard Nixon and detente to Ronald Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the abolition of nuclear weapons to Bush and the Gulf War. Popescu avoids the potential trap of losing his narrative by not getting lost in the cornucopia of detail surrounding presidential policy. This makes for a gripping account of political history, as Popescu never loses sight of his original argument. Popescu continually challenges long-held views of Grand Strategy proponents by pondering whether administrations could have been more successful if they had utilized methods of Emergent Strategy while in office.

During the opening chapters of Emergent and Grand Strategy, Popescu points to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO as evidence of the effective nature of Emergent Strategy. Popescu does not dismiss George Kennan and his Grand Strategy-oriented theory of Containment, but powerfully uses the policies of the Truman administration to highlight Emergent Strategy, somewhat at Kennan’s expense. Going further, Popescu uses NCS-68 to acknowledge that, while NSC-68 (assisted by the Korean War) can categorically be considered Grand Strategy due to the military buildup between 1950 and 1954 and the global fight against communism, elements of Emergent Strategy had their successes (in Taiwan and Japan) as well as a tragic misfire (Indochina/Vietnam). The chapters covering the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies impressively feed into Popescu’s argument that the Grand Strategy paradigm was not as effective in Cold War strategy as is typically highlighted in the scholarship.

As Popescu marches on through the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush (he omits JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter from this work based on his assertion that none of the administrations hold much theoretical weight in relation to the subject matter), he really does a beautiful job of highlighting the successes and failures of both strategic paradigms. This is most evident in his chapter “George W. Bush and the War on Terror,” when Popescu examines the short- and long-term implications of Bush’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq following September 11. Popescu points to further initiatives in foreign policy such as Reagan’s diplomatic relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, George H. W. Bush and the Gulf War, Clinton and the Balkan War, and George W. Bush’s early response to September 11 as examples of Emergent Strategy success. Popescu is consistent in his writing, as he also spends a fair amount of time pointing to the successes of Grand Strategy in foreign policy, highlighting the opening to China from Nixon’s detente, Reagan’s SDI, and the expansion of free trade agreements in the post-Cold War era.

Popescu concludes by ascertaining that his coverage of presidential administrations, while not entirely vindicating either strategic paradigm, provides more support to the Emergent Strategy model. Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy puts a ribbon on its argument nicely when Popescu writes, “The case studies also highlighted how strategic success comes from learning on the job at least as much as it does from advanced planning” (p. 168). Popescu briefly touches on the Obama and Trump administrations in his conclusion, although he concedes that studies relating to the strategic paradigms of both these presidents are in their infancy. Appropriately, Popescu leaves off on an optimistic note, hoping that future administrations will rely less on implementing grand strategies and more on adapting to unfolding global events.

Citation: Owen Flanagan. Review of Popescu, Ionut C., Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55987

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.