"The War on Terror in American Grand Strategy"

Michael John Boyle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


The 9/11 attacks made the war on terror the central plank of American grand strategy. Yet despite its importance in shaping US policy choices, there has been considerable confusion over how the war on terror relates to foreign policy goals. This article attempts to locate the war on terror within American grand strategy and makes three claims. First, it argues that the Bush administration's approach to the war on terror rests on a false analogy between terrorism and fascism or communism. This has led to misinterpretations of the goals of the war on terror and to a persistent misuse of American power. Second, it suggests that the central purpose of the war on terror should be to de-legitimize terror as a tactic and to induce states to assume responsibility for controlling terrorists within their borders. American grand strategy should be focused on creating a normative anti-terror regime with costly commitments by linchpin states-defined as great powers and crucial but endangered allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia-rather than on conducting regime change against rogue states on the margins of the international system. Success in the war on terror should be measured not by the perceived legitimacy of discrete US policy choices, but by the number of these crucial states who accept the de-legitimation of terrorism as a core foreign policy principle and act accordingly. Third, it argues that bilateral enforcement of an anti-terror regime imposes high costs for US power and puts other elements of American grand strategy- including the promotion of democracy and the promotion of human rights-at risk. To reduce these costs and to preserve American power over the long-term, the US should attempt to institutionalize cooperation in the war on terror and to scale back ambitious policy choices (such as achieving a democratic revolution in the Middle East) which increase the risks of state defection from the anti-terror regime.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)191-209
Number of pages20
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2008




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