Grand Strategy? What does that do for me?
23 Jul 2012|

Grand strategy is a big idea back in fashion as a useful way to think about and address important issues. But many grand strategic schemes advocated are complicated, incomplete, inappropriate and use arcane terms that perplex policymakers and non-experts alike.

Over the next few posts we’ll build a simple, minimalist framework for thinking more clearly and concisely about grand strategy. We’ll then apply the framework to thinking about two challenges Australia faces; withdrawing from Afghanistan and managing China’s emergence.

Why bother devising a grand strategy though? What does it do that something else doesn’t? Grand strategy is a way to try to get somewhere that you want to go. That may seem simple but can be better understood when compared against two well-known alternatives: opportunism and risk management. These are approaches that await events; they respond to other’s actions. They’re reactive but they can be useful.

Australia is good at opportunism, with notable examples (PDF) in both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars of jumping on board the American grand strategy and exploiting it for our own benefit. We’re also adroit at risk management; our last two Defence White Papers took a risk management approach of building up an armed force just in case a carefully chosen, particular risk eventuated. An insurance policy against a house fire if you will—and hope there’s not a flood, as it might not pay out! Both approaches depend on others and react to their activities. With opportunism you go where others take you, and Australia becomes a player in another country’s project. In risk management you sit down to await the hope-this-doesn’t-happen event. As the old saying goes, ‘hope is not a strategy’, and neither are opportunism and risk management.

Grand strategy is the opposite. A country uses a grand strategy to try to go where it wishes. It might or might not succeed, but the intention is clear. A grand strategy may fail but if you don’t attempt it, someone else chooses your destination for you. Grand strategy tries to make the future how we would like it. It’s a big, hairy, audacious idea.

Even so, isn’t this strategy? Strategy and grand strategy are both all about ends, ways and means where the ‘ends’ are the objectives, the ‘ways’ are the possible courses of actions and the ‘means’ are the instruments of national power. What then makes strategy ‘grand’?

Firstly, while grand strategy is also concerned with applying the means, it also crucially includes the development of the ‘means’ used. Strategy neglects the resources—the people, money and materiel—needed but grand strategy includes these as an integral part of its implementation—an important matter in this age of austerity. Secondly, grand strategy directs the full array of the instruments of national power, rather than like strategy focusing on a single type of instrument. A grand strategy directs all the national means, including diplomatic, informational, military and economic. More than simply whole-of-government, it’s whole-of-nation.

Grand strategy then involves developing a comprehensive set of means and applying these in a way that makes a particularly desirable future. You can see why strategic thinker Colin Gray says that ‘all strategy is grand strategy’. Without grand strategy a ‘strategy’ is alone and unsupported, and may work against what others are also trying to do. Without care, Australia’s approach to China could be like that. Some want a military strategy that hedges against growing Chinese military strength while at the same time embracing an economic strategy that engages China as a close trading partner. Such a ‘trading with the enemy’ hybrid is somewhat incoherent. It is to identify and fix such contradictions that grand strategy is most useful.

Having discussed what grand strategy is for, my next post talks about how to influence others.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW.