#DefineStrategy. Coloring In the Gray Zones: On Colin S. Gray’s Definition of Strategy

In this #DefineStrategy entry, Philip Dolitsky provides his observations on Colin S. Gray’s definition, contrasted with comments from Hew Strachan on Clausewitz.

Strategy is the employment of force and the threat of force in a dialectical battle with an adversary to compel the enemy to do our will for the ultimate purpose of securing a better state of peace

Philip Dolitsky

Much of international Relations and its subordinate disciplines are plagued by the problem of definitions. In a recent course lecture, my classmates and I spent considerable time hashing out the many possible definitions of “regional” in regional governance. To think about “realism” is to engage with the plethora of adjectives that scholars have placed before that noun in a never-ending quest for understanding the international order and its actors. “Strategy” is another such word whose true meaning and definition is the source of perpetual debate[1]. When The Chesterfield Colonel announced this series on Twitter, I jokingly responded that I would simply submit a picture of all the books I own that have the word “strategy” in its title. I’m only 23 and my ever-growing library of books on war includes two dozen such titles; there are many more.

Trying to grasp at the core of Strategy, however, is made easier when we realize that it is something people do. In fact, “doing Strategy” is an experience that countless men and women have enjoyed. This is key in understanding what Strategy is because, as Antulio Echevarria II notes “[a]lthough historically people have defined military strategy, or strategy, in various ways, the principal task of the strategist has remained virtually the same” (Echevarria 2017). Clausewitz, Jomini, Hart, and Gray all have different definitions of Strategy but they would likely feel comfortable practicing their craft in the others’ generation without much difficulty.

Finding a definition of Strategy that describes what strategists do is quite challenging. The one that gets close but perhaps falls a bit short is the one Colin S. Gray laid out in his book The Strategy Bridge. For Gray, “Military strategy is the direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics” (Gray 2010). Gray complimented this definition with a metaphor, noting that “strategy is the only bridge built and held to connect policy purposefully with the military and other instruments of power and influence” (ibid).

Gray spent much of his scholarly life devoted to defending his conception of the Strategy Bridge and being unapologetically Clausewitzian in his definition. There are, however, at least two problems with grounding a definition of Strategy in Clausewitz’s famous dictum that “war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.” First, Clausewitz employed the German word Politik, a word vague enough to either mean “policy” or “politics.” The difference, as Hew Strachan notes, is quite large:

Politics are inherently adversarial, and in this respect at least are like war. Policy has a more unilateral thrust. Governments have policies to tackle problems. They may adapt and refine those policies in the light of circumstances and as they implement them. (In this respect of course war shapes policy, not the other way round.) But a policy, at least in its idealised form, remains a statement of one government’s intent (Strachan 2013).

Furthermore, the relationship between war and politics/policy isn’t as clear cut in On War as Gray makes it seem. Commenting on that famous line from On War, Strachan writes:

Over the last thirty years western military thought has been hoodwinked by the selective citation of one phrase from Carl von Clausewitz’s own introduction to his unfinished text, On War, that ‘war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.’ That is the statement about how governments might use war; it is not a statement about the nature of war, as a reading of what follows makes clear. On War is a book, as its title self-evidently indicates, about war, not about policy. Clausewitz says very little about the relationship between war and policy, and even less about policy itself. By arguing that a second introductory but undated note, in which Clausewitz said that he regarded book I, chapter 1 of On War alone as complete, was written in 1830, shortly before his death, Michael Howard and Peter Paret have privileged that opening chapter over the rest of the text, and so elevated the nostrum concerning war’s relationship to policy over many other – often competing and sometimes contradictory – ideas advanced by Clausewitz (ibid).

He continues with how other scholars have viewed Clausewitz’s statement:

The pre-eminent German Clausewitz scholar of modern times, Werner Hahlweg, believed that the note was written in 1827, and if he was right it belongs at the beginning, not at the end, of what we know to have been a very productive period for Clausewitz’s thought. In other words, there is a good case for saying that book I, chapter 1 should not be alone in receiving canonical status, and that a great deal else in On War can be regarded as the fruit of the ‘late’ Clausewitz. Much of the rest of the text, and especially book VIII, says different things about the relationship between war and policy, and about the nature of war (ibid).

The second issue with grounding a definition of Strategy in political terms is that it doesn’t truly capture the experiential side of doing Strategy. Policy and politics often change quickly as war goes on precisely because of the war itself. War’s nature, comprised of chance and friction, will shape policy more frequently than policy will dictate the course of war. Here again, Strachan proves invaluable:

The actual outcomes of the war, even if still desirable from the point of view of at least one of the belligerents, are likely to have been very different from the objectives entertained at its outset. The Second World War is a case in point, the current war in Iraq even more so. As one Iraqi exile, Sami Ramadnai, has written: Bush and Blair ‘allegedly launched the war at first to save the world from Saddam’s WMD, then to establish democracy, then to fight al-Qaida’s terrorism, and now to prevent civil war and Iranian or Syrian intervention.’ There could be no more graphic illustration of war’s reciprocal effect on policy (ibid).

Yet, the job of the strategist remains unchanged as the political leaders shift their policies. The strategist, by contrast, remains focused on one task: employing force and the threat of force to compel the enemy to do our will. It is this phrase from Clausewitz which, I argue, best illustrates how the strategist relates to his task.

As such, the definition I prefer of Strategy is thus: Strategy is the employment of force and the threat of force in a dialectical battle with an adversary to compel the enemy to do our will for the ultimate purpose of securing a better state of peace[2]. This definition accomplishes a few important things. First, it accurately describes what strategists do. It is precisely the experience of defeating an enemy that has remained timeless to the strategist’s profession. Second, it accounts for Strategies that are not solely military in nature. Lastly, my adding of B.H. Liddell Hart’s quip that “the object of war is a better state of peace,” serves to counteract a view of war that was popular in antiquity, that victory in war was an end unto itself, and adds a uniquely moral imperative to the strategist’s job. The study and practice of Strategy, especially nuclear strategy, has long been seen by many as amoral at best, immoral at worst. But for war to ever be justified, be it offensive or defensive, the parties involved must be seeking a better tomorrow. And that better tomorrow must be secured by moral means. An adversary that pursued victory by destroying an enemy’s population, for example, would not be employing Strategy so defined here. War is chaotic, to be sure. But the world should not be left in a more chaotic state once the arms and coats are hung up.

Removing politics from a definition of Strategy is not to deny that the two are related in important ways. What that relationship is, however, is unclear and has changed over times. Strachan’s (indirect) criticism of Gray’s definition of mixing politics with Strategy is too convincing for this author to ignore. The definition I present here can hopefully serve as a springboard for further reflection on what it is that we in this series are all obsessed with.


[1] For arguably the best history of this debate, see (Heuser 2010)

[2] If a metaphor could be useful, I tend to think of war as a child’s seesaw. Left alone, a seesaw will exist in a state of harmony and balance. When one child sits atop the seesaw, a drastic shift takes place, throwing an opposing side off balance and into a state of chaos. It is the job of the strategist to use force and the threat of force to counter the other’s power and return the seesaw into a state balance and peace. Indeed the relationship between war and peace (and even warlike peace) is arguably more important to the study of war than the relationship between war and politics/policy. Gray himself elaborates on this relationship in his War, Peace and International Relations.

Gray, Colin S. 2010. The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heuser, Beatrice. 2010. The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

II, Antulio J. Echevarria. 2017. Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Strachan, Hew. 2013. The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s