#DEFINESTRATEGY. On Grand Strategy

In this #DefineStrategy entry, Edouard Cousins offers his thoughts on grand strategy and the bridge between military strategy and policy.

Grand strategy is the light on the horizon that provides an aiming mark for the nation, guiding it towards its best interests through turbulent seas.

Ed Cousins

“A grand strategy is a purposeful and coherent set of ideas about what a nation seeks to accomplish in the world, and how it should go about doing so.”

– Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy?

“The crux of grand strategy lies therefore in policy, that is, in the capacity of the nation’s leaders to bring together all the elements, both military and non-military, for the preservation and enhancement of the nation’s long-term (that is, in wartime and peacetime) best interests”.

– Paul Kennedy, Grand Strategies in War and Peace

Building on these definitions, I see grand strategy as the light on the horizon that provides an aiming mark for the nation, guiding it towards its best interests through turbulent seas. This light is not fixed, but rather responds to circumstance in a dynamic manner. Changes in relative national power, the actions and reactions of other actors, and changes in the natural environment (like a global pandemic) drive changes in direction.

Kennedy describes policy as the “crux” of grand strategy; in my metaphor, it is the framework imposed to drive movement towards the light. Bands describes foreign policy as the “sum total of a government’s interactions with the outside world…”

So if grand strategy provides the aiming mark, and policy provides the framework to enable movement towards it, how do strategy and operations relate?

Betts describes strategy as the bridge between policy and operations. This accords with Hew Strachan’s statement that “strategy is designed to make war useable by the state, so that it can, if need be, use force to fulfil its political objectives.” Similarly, Grey states that the strategist must relate military power to the goals of policy.

With these definitions in mind, it is easy to view these four terms as strictly hierarchical in nature; grand strategy enabled by policy, bridged by strategy to military operations. This is what Betts describes as the linear model of war. But this ignores the interrelated nature of these four terms – operational activity can have unintended strategic consequences and affect the political objective. The linear model also fails to recognise the dynamic nature of grand strategy – a constantly evolving cognitive framework guiding a nation to its best interests. This then leads to the idea of the circular model outlined by Betts.  But this too has dangerous limitations, for the requirements of successful military operations could overtake the primacy of policy direction. Successful military operations in themselves are worthless if they don’t build towards a coherent political objective; merely violence for the sake of violence.

I also like definitions that include empathy as a key element. To achieve the political objective, you need to be able to empathise with other stakeholders to understand how they might react in their own interest. Once you understand this, only then can you build that bridge… noting that the bridge always changes…

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