What’s strategy?
12 May 2014|

ThinkerThe debate between Peter Jennings and Robert Ayson over whether DFAT does ‘strategy’ has opened up a rich vein of thinking. In essence, the debate has been less about what DFAT does or doesn’t do, and more about ‘what’s strategy?’ Peter believes strategy is a long-term enterprise, typically codified by some sort of formal document that attempts to define a grand objective for policy and identifies a means for getting there. Rob says that strategy is sequentialism—it’s the art of the next step, there are no final objectives, and who cares if it’s written down? Strategy, he says, is a state of mind, an intellectual climate.

The problem, of course, is that the word ‘strategy’ has many meanings. I don’t want to become trapped in an arid debate about whether one definition is more correct than another. For about the last decade I’ve found the best definition of grand strategy to be Walter Russell Mead’s. Mead described US grand strategy as ‘the US project for the world’, which strikes me as a nice way of freeing the concept of strategy from both its military strait-jacket and its usual academic prison. Mead accepts the ‘project’ isn’t written down. And I’m similarly unaware of anyone writing down the Australian project for the world. No-one writes it down for the simple reason that it isn’t the property of one person. Nor, I suppose, is it ever fulfilled, so there’s no sense of the objective’s being reached.

Strategy at the grand level changes only slowly—indeed, too slowly to be much use to a group of foreign policy or defence planners. Mead says American grand strategy hasn’t changed in 200 years because the US really wants a liberal, prosperous US in a liberal, prosperous world. I suspect most Western countries could just substitute their name at the appropriate points of that sentence and have a shorthand grand strategy of their own. Australia certainly could. But I don’t get the feeling that Peter wants DFAT merely to write that sentence about grand purpose and go back to its normal chores. He wants it to figure out how, when, where and why it sees opportunities to pursue the liberal prosperous world; how it judges the vectors of the current global and regional orders; where shaping and hedging can each be pursued to best advantage; and how Australia can define, pitch and fulfil its role as a strategic player in Asia consonant with the constraints of our limited wealth, democratic political system and declaratory settings.

This is where Rob’s theory of sequentialism leaves me unsatisfied. In most situations, there’s a choice of next steps. And the reason that some seem better than others has largely to do with where we want the world to go. Similarly, I’m not attracted to the notion that strategy is a state of mind. That sounds altogether like the advice that’s sometimes written on wrappers: ‘Please dispose of this wrapper thoughtfully’. We could, of course, have inscribed over the portals of DFAT ‘Please dispose of Australia’s interests strategically’, but would that do much good?

Half of Rob’s criticism of Peter is that strategy isn’t just about planning. That’s perfectly true. I don’t think a strategic plan has to be linear and rigid, but ‘let’s just wing it’ isn’t a strategy—it’s a counsel for inspirational spontaneity. When commentators say they want DFAT to have a closer connection with strategy, they typically mean they want the organisation to think hard and long about Australia’s interests and how the department can best promote them.

But I disagree with Peter that this is solely a DFAT failing. Peter says DFAT doesn’t do strategy, while Defence does it diligently. Personally, I think they’re both pretty bad. Government as a whole struggles with strategy. If strategy was as dominant in our Defence Department as Peter says, the Strategic Policy Branch would be a key driver of policy. It isn’t. I’m happy to admit that within the senior ranks of Defence there’s a small cadre of people who we could call strategic thinkers. But the institution as a whole doesn’t like strategic thinking. Indeed, I suspect many in the department—a department where the doers outnumber the thinkers—like the white paper process as a means of corralling ‘the vision thing’, safely imprisoning ideas in relatively lengthy documents that few people read. Rob’s right that Defence does planning much more than it does strategy.

There’s a simple test for whether writing more white papers would be good for DFAT: did the department make a better fist of advancing Australia’s national interests after the 2003 White Paper than it has done recently? I think the evidence is marginal. That doesn’t mean there’s no virtue in writing white papers—just that there’s less virtue than some might imagine. Writing white papers shouldn’t be a substitute for what DFAT and Defence both need to do: grow the pool of talented strategic thinkers. That’s harder to do than it sounds. Promoting those thinkers to positions of influence is then a whole separate challenge. Interestingly, I think Peter and Rob both want to see strategy become a greater influence on policy-making on a daily basis. On that point I wholeheartedly concur.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Brian Hillegas.