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Does Strategy Work?

By: Jeremy Black
November 26, 2018

oes strategy work? In Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy. How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy, Ionut Popescu, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas State University, asks whether following a coherent grand strategy is the key to achieving outcomes in American foreign policy. In doing so, he picks up an aspect of a broader crisis in the concept today. Strategy, like war, has become a widely defined term, used as much in relation to “gaming” a dinner-party as a conflict. The function of strategy, as the relationships between ends, ways, and means in power politics, is not necessarily military. Today, “strategy” refers to the full range of human activity, and serves as adjective, noun, and verb.

The ambiguities of the use of strategy in the field of military history throws light on the issue of its usage in other fields. In practice, strategy, whether military or non-military, and, in the former case, whether focused on war or not, is a process of defining interests, understanding problems, and determining goals. It is not the details of the plans by which these goals are implemented by military means. The latter are the operational components of strategy. The more the operational dimension is emphasised—as is common in modern war studies—the further strategy is “pushed back” or reconceptualised toward goals rather than means.

There is currently an attempt to separate out strategy from politics, as part of a drive by the military to ensure autonomy, but also to achieve a greater precision in concepts. It can, however, be too easy to mistake precision for analysis—and precision is not necessarily a prelude to successful analysis.

Indeed, as strategy is contextual, so are its definitions. Rather than thinking in terms of clearly-defined systems, we should focus on institutional-practical ways of acting, while keeping in mind judgments about fitness for purpose. For military purposes, as Popescu shows, the differentiation of strategy from policy is less valid and practical than often suggested.

Even if we hold to a means-versus-ends distinction discussing strategy and policy, ends are mostly set in relation to means, whereas means are conceived of, and planned, in light of ends. Thus, distinguishing the two for analytical purposes has its limitations. In addition, strategy was, and is, often conceptualised in light of both world affairs and domestic political culture. Views on these provide a key feature of policymakers’ belief-systems, as well as their psychological drives. To separate out these factors is not only unhelpful as an account of the past, but also assumes a precision that is ahistorical as a description of the past, and at most aspirational for the present and future.

A lack of strategic coherence might not be a flaw, but, rather, an appropriate response to complexity. Imprecision in our understanding and practice of strategy is, in part, a reflection of the variety of environments in, and towards which, policy is pursued.

There is a problem with the idea of optimum grand strategies, advanced by Popescu and others. A lack of institutional structures might affect the efficiency of devising such strategies, but the very existence of such an optimum is open to debate.

Popescu is sceptical about the formulation and implementation of long-term grand strategy. Instead, he favors incremental actions based on short-term considerations. He analyses American policy from the start of the Cold War to the present and assesses our various successes or failures, as well as present strategic prospects. The speed of events is such that his analysis of Obama hangs in the air, and his section on “Strategy Design and Emergence in the Trump Era” contains no considered assessment of the start of the Trump administration. That is understandable, but also contributes to a somewhat unfinished feel to the book. There is no conclusion; the text finishes “It would indeed be almost ironic, if it were not tragic, that the biggest failure of this administration would not be caused by the lack of a grand strategy or by its incremental style, as its critics often stated at the time, but rather by Obama’s adherence to his initial views on the use of force and his failure to learn and adapt while in office”

Responding to events may appear the obvious course given the challenges to long-term strategy presented by such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1990), and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington (2001). But understanding events requires an understanding of longer-term strategic concepts and policies. Moreover, the unexpected can be “normalised” by the long-view.  The Sino-Soviet split, for example, arguably the key strategic novelty of the 1960s, was normalised in terms of the pre-existing strategy of the containment of Communism. Conversely, the end of that split was the central strategic development of the 2000s, and a process, rather than an event such as those listed earlier. American strategy worked for the Cold War because of the focus on containment, with “roll-back” restricted to more particular contexts, although it became more significant in the 1980s in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split. Subsequently, the emphasis has been on resisting revisionist forces. It has not always been easy to devise the means, both military and diplomatic, to do so, but the key context—that of the Sino-Soviet rapprochement—is an element of grand strategy.

Focusing on events is not too helpful as a guide to procurement policies for the military, the pursuit of alliance strategies, or the crucial strategic goal, and means, of prioritisation. These points can lead the reader to pause and ask whether Popescu’s valuable book does not work. It may be interesting in its guide to the past, but is too short to offer a thorough grasp of the historical contexts? Popescu is also, at times, weak in the range of the theoretical literature he covers. He fails to assess the concept of strategic culture at length, for example, a concept developed to help the United States adopt an effective China strategy. Nor does he consider sufficiently the extent to which the irruption of events occurs within the contexts of what may be termed grand strategies.

These are not intended as criticisms, but rather as invitations to debate. The vexed nature of American strategy at present would clearly benefit from a public debate across the political spectrum in which objectives, priorities, and means are all addressed. The chance of that may well be limited, but blundering to glory is not much of a strategy, and it has many costs—and often scant glory.