How to overhaul the dismal trade of strategy
9 Sep 2016|

There’s no shortage of dark, pessimistic visions out there, including a revisionist Russia, an assertive China, the end of globalisation, a declining America and an endless war on terrorism. A strategist might tell you that today is the worst of times, but will add ‘don’t worry it’ll get worse’! Andrew Carr recently put forth some sound counterarguments that things aren’t really that bad in the world, but I’d like suggest that we might all gain from reimagining this assumed ‘dismal’ trade.

Strategists often like to think of themselves as realists, which is actually a complex international relations school of thought that encompasses many, often conflicting, perspectives. Fundamentally though, strategists cherry pick from realism the idea that they see things as they truly are—perceiving that conflict is endemic in human affairs. Strategists don’t dream of endless peace but instead have nightmares of forever wars. In its simplicity it has an appealing clarity—and for academics and think-tanks, it’s one that attracts outside attention and (most importantly) external funding.

The oft-quoted realist E.H.Carr was however alarmed at the intrinsic barrenness of the concept. He decided that international relations ‘…is the science not only of what is, but of what ought to be.’ In this view, strategists should aim to provide visions of preferred futures derived from an understanding of current realities.

Art Lykke famously described (PDF) strategy as being about ends, ways and means. Strategy is the ‘way’ that the ‘means’ are used to achieve desired ‘ends’. Strategists however often focus on the ‘means’, particularly, due to a sometimes narrow focus on making war, on the qualitative and quantitative aspects of military forces. That’s an understandable trap; “boys’ toys” exert a magnetic attraction, including for this author, but that view is far too limited.

One of the major lessons of the post-9/11 wars of Iraq and Afghanistan was that military power alone was insufficient to achieve desired outcomes. Great means—and American military power is massive—don’t necessarily produce great ends. Strategists today need to consider employing not just military means but the full suite of capabilities of the state.

Accordingly, strategists need to think about desirable ends and diverse means but recall that strategy is actually the ‘way’. The key outcome of strategists should be an explanation of how the ‘means’ available can be best used to most effectively achieve desired ‘ends’. In this, as Lawrence Freedman observes, strategy is ‘about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest’. In language a strategist might approve of, good strategy is a force multiplier, a shrewd ‘way’ that magnifies the impact of the ‘means’.

A concentration on nightmare visions of failed world orders is therefore at its core a failure of strategic thinking. A focus on one’s fears isn’t the task of a strategist (though it might make for a good novel). Instead, the trade of the strategist is to focus on how to make better futures rather than map the descent routes into bad ones.

In this it should be admitted that strategists, and the academic discipline of strategic studies more generally, today often try to avoid discussing ‘ways’. For example, there has been little debate about how Iraq and Afghanistan might have been ‘won’ (depending on how ‘won’ is defined). What comment there has been tends to equate ends with means; if greater means had been used greater ends would have naturally resulted, allowing discussions of alternative strategies to be avoided.

It must be noted of course that my critique is in many respects only a criticism of Western strategists. Chinese strategists have been diligently making themselves a better future in the South China Sea. Russian strategists have been making a better Russian future, too. Western strategists haven’t been able to produce a strategy as successful as those of Chinese and Russian strategists, but that’s a failing of Western strategists, not of the trade itself.

It’s long been observed that the victors rest on their laurels but losers redouble their efforts. Now well after the Cold War ended in victory for Western strategy, this is what is happening in the inherently competitive world of strategists. Chinese and Russian strategists are perhaps as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar observed of Cassius: he ‘has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous’.

So the dark visions rampant in the minds of contemporary strategists shouldn’t be the final word. Strategists need to work out how to favourably shape future events. Our strategists shouldn’t be pessimistic or optimistic, rather they should be focused on making better tomorrows. A noble calling surely.