This is a follow-on post to my earlier one
concerning JFC Fuller's original concept of 1923. The military historian Professor Hew Strachan
has published an article on grand strategy entitled, Strategy and Contingency
. It is his usual high level of insight combined with thoughtful historical analysis, and worth a careful read. I think this subject very current given the level of turmoil
in the world today directed particularly at the US and US policies.
What I am attempting with this post is to introduce some of Strachan's insights along with some of Fuller's original concept of "grand strategy". This placed within a post Cold War historical context, but especially since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. That is a hybrid concept of grand strategy: that is my own (hopefully adequate) synthesis of Fuller's original concept with Strachan's insights along with some thoughts and comments of my own. What this will indicate is that we have become prisoners of not only our ideological assumptions, but also our political dysfunctions. The two interact, precluding any worthwhile analysis at the policy level.
Let's start with a recap of Fuller's concept of grand strategy. This is laid out in Fuller's own detailed style in his The Reformation of War
from 1923. Fuller starts with a pyramid of military forces comprising land, sea and air forces which together constitute "a very complex and unstable organization", in all force results from the integration of all three, so a political community could still extert force without air or naval forces, although this application of force would be of a more limited scope. The base of this pyramid rests on "the moral of the civil population and the commercial and industrial resources at their disposal". Fuller likens this base to "fire" with the military forces being "earth", the naval forces "water" and the air forces "air". These four elements together produce a fifth which Fuller describes as the "national will to exist" and "the driving force of all military activities". This "national will to exist" includes an ideological component
including the soldierly virtues present in society ("integrity, honour, justice and courage"). I would include with this something that Fuller assumes, that being best described as the German term Opferbereitschaft
, or the willingness of the individual to sacrifice themselves in the interest of the political community. Fuller concludes, "This control and direction of the will to win and all the means whereby this will may be expressed I will call grand strategy."
Before getting to what Hew Strachan has to say, let me point out one more very important point - for Fuller, this grand strategy is contingent. The totality of moral and material elements exerts force which is then resisted by the enemy, who have in turn their own totality of elements that resist. It is the interaction of force and resistance which characterizes the war in question, making each war unique. So while at the abstract level of theory, general principles apply (this makes Fuller clearly a Clausewitzian), in actual cases they provide an approach, but no formula for normative action.
Strachan naturally enough starts with a definition. "Grand strategy" or "national strategy" concerns the long term, 15, 20, even 30 years into the future. "The grand strategy, as we would define it, is looking at the world today as it is going to be in 2030 or 2040 and deciding what Britain's place in that world is
", Chief of the Defense Staff General Sir David Richards to the House of Commons, in 2010. He also provides a second definition from Thomas P M Barnett
which also includes "enhancement" in addition to "stability":
As far as a world power like America is concerned, a grand strategy involves first imagining some future world order within which our nation’s standing, prosperity, and security are significantly enhanced, and then plotting and maintaining a course to that desired end while employing—to the fullest extent possible—all elements of our nation’s power toward generating those conditions. Naturally, such grand goals typically take decades to achieve, thus the importance of having a continuous supply of grand thinkers able to maintain strategic focus.
Of course Grand Strategy has been a buzzword in US strategic thought for some time. Yale University has been teaching a grand strategy course since 1998 inspired in turn by Barnett
's tenure at the US Naval War College where he taught from 1998 to 2005. Barnett also served in the Pentagon under Bush from 2001 to 2003, writing The Pentagon's New Map
in 2004. So what does Strachan think about all this grand stratergizing
If the wars to which the United States has committed itself over the past decade are part of a grand strategy that is oriented towards some distant future, then grand strategy is in danger of proving to be delusory. The presumption within grand strategy is not just that it is oriented towards such a distant future, but also—at least if it is to have purchase in policy—that it is designed to avert decline, and even that it can make the future better. Emerging states have less need of grand strategy as they forge their empires than do satiated states anxious to hold on to what they have acquired. It is not at all clear that China, let alone India or Brazil, has a grand strategy.
It would seem that the US and UK don't have a grand strategy either, at least based on the events of the last ten years. Here is where Strachan's analysis really starts with "three sets of observations" concerning Barnett's definition. First, "while long-term in outlook, it is also opportunistic". This is connected with "risk management" which is the normal role of the military. Instead of limiting risk, the US approach since 2001 has been to exploit it, to use extensive military force to deal with essentially low-risk situations.
The assumption behind this imo is that force is seen as the preferred method of dealing with security issues, even seemingly negligible ones. Now, assume further that the US is a satisfied great power benefiting from the current global system which the US has also done the most to implement. How does engaging in foreign military adventures promote the stability of the balance of power/status quo? How does financing these very expensive "wars of choice" with borrowed money promote the US's long-term financial stability? We see here how notions of US exceptionalism, or basically that the US is "too big to fail" interacts with the preferred use of force.
Strachan's second set of observations has to do with ideology:
Second, for the United States in particular, such an application of grand strategy confronts it with a logical absurdity. As Barnett’s definition makes clear, Americans still see themselves as the democratic and progressive power par excel- lence. This creates a tension between its domestic self-definition and its external status. Its use of strategy today supports an agenda that is conservative, not least because it recognizes that change may not be in the national interests of democratic powers dependent on the workings of the free(ish) market. Unable or unwilling to shoulder the full burden of global responsibilities itself, it looks to allies to do more of that work for it. But America’s friends have already had to handle their own decline, and now have less appetite for thinking in terms of grand strategy at all: indeed, they have been told by some Americans that mid-ranking states cannot craft grand strategy, since—in Williamson Murray’s words—‘grand strategy is a matter involving great states and great states alone’.
This is about as good an explanation for US policy confusion during the Arab Spring as one could care to find. We are trapped by the assumptions of our own ideological view of ourselves, that being the "foundation of democracy" or something like that along with "freedom" . . . So once the masses are "free", how could they not want to be "just like us"? The rub of course is 50 odd years of supporting authoritarian Arab regimes which enjoyed dubious legitimacy, not to mention our waging of "wars of choice" against Muslim populations. Then of course imo there is our at times self-defeating support
of Israel which has led to an quasi-assimulation of what some Israelis see as existential threats
. Nice touch at the end by Strachan, reminding his readers of all the Rumsfeldian chest thumping back in 2003. He also mentions that it is precisely mid-ranking states that need grand strategy in order to best utilize limited resources. The context here is worth recalling: the Brits have got burned - as have the Germans, Dutch, Spaniards and others - following the US since 2001 and their appetite for any more military adventures is low to non-existent. Funny enough, their experience doesn't seem to have soured the French on military adventures, who missed out on Afghanistan and Iraq, while seeing intervention in Libya and now Syria as in their, that is solely French, not necessarily US at all, interest. This seemingly paradoxical French response I would see as yet further proof of US decline.
Strachan's third set of observations has to do with linking military means with political ends:
Third, establishing too close a relationship between strategy and the very long term does not allow for the unexpected—for the 9/11 attacks in 2001 or ‘the Arab Spring’ ten years later. Of course, prudent and intelligent men and women, like the authors of Strategic Trends or of the JOE, anticipate this criticism. The former has a section devoted to what it calls ‘strategic shocks’. . .
The possibility of ‘strategic shocks’, the unexpected appearing in short order, is part of the stock-in-trade of policies designed to give effect to grand strategy. No defence white paper or its equivalent produced in the western world is deemed to be complete without a reference to the ‘uncertainties’ (invariably increasing) in a rapidly changing and tautologically ‘globalized’ world. The driver in much defence policy is that procurement is a long-term process intended to deliver insurance against an uncertain future. It is also accepted that equipment is increasingly likely to be used in roles different from those for which it was first designed. Ironically, therefore, one of the pressures in the escalation of equipment costs is the very need to produce equipment flexible enough to cope with the expectation of the unexpected. So the tail wags the dog.
I think Strachan has a good point here, but misses another. Not all "strategic shocks" are of the same magnitude, that is to say "strategic". The Libya intervention was such an unanticipated military operations but within the capabilities of the US to perform. What seemingly held the US back were more domestic political considerations. Nine-Eleven was more an actual strategic shock and the military forces in place at the time were adequate to invade and overthrow the Taliban government, although in retrospect it's questionable whether "going to war" was the proper response at all
Distinguishing between operational military "shocks" and actual "strategic shocks" would help. The US has a history of both. The failure to anticipate command and control difficulties in a mass army in 1918 and the surprise German attack in the Ardennes in 1944 were both operational military shocks, which were rectified in time. The attack on Pearl Harbor, China's entry into the Korean War in 1950 and 9/11 were strategic shocks. In each of the strategic shocks there were numerous indications that such an attack/intervention could in fact occur, but too often reacting to these indications played against political considerations held prior to the attack, inducing a strategic blindness among US political leaders. Regarding 9/11 there were security procedures put in place at the Genoa G8 conference that July to deal with Al Qaida crashing highjacked aircraft into buildings, not to mention numerous warnings
of an Al Qaida attack in the US. These same political considerations inducing strategic blindness influence the formation of grand strategy, which gives us an indication of how far our current notion of "grand strategy" has drifted from conventional strategy which is essentially both military-focused and contingent.
This leads us to the final point in Strachan's paper I wish to bring out:
Strategy as it was understood by nineteenth-century generals was not vulnerable to any of the three observations entered in relation to current US definitions of grand strategy. It was not reactive, but proactive; it was about changing the status quo, not preserving it; and because it was applied in war, it flourished specifically in the realm of uncertainty.
Here we see Strachan's main point, which is a confusion of terms/concepts. This due to the simple fact that strategy deals with two actual political communities in conflict and not "maintaining states or conditions of being" - that is dealing with any potential conflict - as our current grand strategy implies. Thus there is an inherent tension between the current notion of "grand strategy" and what we define as "strategy" proper. This confusion has roots in how strategy and strategic theory have been conceptualized and taught in the US, and the irrational (from a Clausewitzian perspective) desire to come up with a positivist or normative theory of strategy that will fit all sorts of potential conflicts. In other words, what those writing grand strategy today wish for is a "cook book" with a recipe for any strategic situation which could arise. This explains the common presence of various types of (sometimes barely coherent) doctrinal speculation or what Alexandre Svechin described as "charlatanism" in US strategic thought today.
Here I leave Strachan's very interesting paper to provide my conclusion to this post. I recommend Strachan's article and my brief introduction does not begin to do it justice. Please read it for yourself and feel free to comment here.
If we look back at Fuller's original concept we see that grand strategy was impossible to formulate without a clear advisory. It was precisely the interaction between the hostile intentions, and the moral and physical characteristics that formed the potential or actual conflict in question. Thus for Fuller, even grand strategy to be worthy of the name, was contingent. What we have experienced in the US since the end of the Cold War is a confusion as to what strategy actually is and how it functions. When we say "strategy" what we actually mean is "plan" or "wish list", not the contingent interaction of two or more opposing wills over time.
As a comparison, here is my own definition of strategy:
Focused and contingent adaptation of divergent sources of power assisted by control over time in pursuit of a political purpose through methodological theoretical construct (strategic theory) with the aim of creating strategic effect/a strategic dynamic greater than the sum of the individual power sources. For the strong political community, strategy can be an option, for the weak it is a necessity.
"Contingent" here means both in terms of time and specific advisory.
US policy, such as it is, has been since 1992
to maintain dominance, period. 9/11 imo provided our political elite with the golden opportunity to exercise unrestrained military force in the ME/Central Asia and to impose ever tighter restrictions at home. It seems that our elite finds it best to promote an atmosphere of constant and unending war in order to maintain dominance, both at home and abroad. The moral sprit of the nation to defend itself, the "fire" in Fuller's formulation, is stoked by means of domestic propaganda, with the nebulous enemy, "terrorism", which is not an enemy but a method, projected as a serious, even existential threat. This however does not stand up to serious questioning. In all, this situation of continuous wars, or a series of wars to undo the strategic consequences of the previous war (as with Iran) indicates a political community in crisis. This may be called various things, but "strategy" or "grand strategy" it is not.