The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought

The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought
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The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought. Lukas Milevski. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

For at least one of its practitioners, grand strategy is a fiction. Confiding to his long-time associate and former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, President Bill Clinton insisted that the link between grand strategy and policy was tenuous at best. Rather, Clinton argued, grand strategy’s role was one of political communication, a means of signaling to allies and adversaries alike what the U.S. was doing in the world. Policy itself was not driven by any particular grand strategic formulation, the president concluded, because “strategic coherence ‘was largely imposed after the fact,’ and that successful leaders like [Harry S.] Truman and [Franklin D.] Roosevelt had ‘just made it up as they went along.’”[1]

President Clinton would likely find Lukas Milevski sympathetic to his argument on the role of grand strategy in statecraft. In an impressive new book, Milevski argues that grand strategy is a conceptual nomad, an idea whose course has been driven solely by immediate historical contingency, with little theoretical grounding or guidance. Over the course of nearly two hundred years, writers on grand strategy have demonstrated a curious case of presentism in their approach to studying and refining the idea. Spurred by the necessity of solving immediate problems, grand strategy has been pushed in one direction after another, whipsawed by the emergence of new contingencies. Along the way, the concept of grand strategy hasn’t so much evolved as it has changed. Today’s grand strategy cannot really be understood by tracing its historical and theoretical development. Rather, the conceptual content of any particular grand strategy is explicable only by reference to its own narrow geopolitical context. Without a firm grounding in any sort of accepted theory, grand strategy is inchoate because every scholar or practitioner is incentivized to interpret the term as he or she sees fit. Many ships are passing in the night.


Milevski traces the path of this wandering construct by identifying the emergence of “grand strategy” and its subsequent employment. The purpose of this “…semantic or semiological approach is to illustrate how ‘grand strategy’ never referred to a single concept or even necessarily described a single function.”[2] Perhaps it is fitting that Milevski notes the first use of grand strategy in the English language came in 1834 by an anonymous American author who saw fit not to provide a definition of the term. Nevertheless, that reference to grand strategy at least suggests a recognition that another concept was needed apart from “strategy” which itself was only introduced a generation prior. From the start, grand strategy was used to serve some intellectual purpose. As conditions changed so did the purpose, and along the way, the meaning of grand strategy itself.

Milevski’s examination of the evolution of grand strategy is divided into two parts. The first concerns the origins of the term and its Anglo-American development before the Cold War. As with many things, grand strategy was born out of the Napoleonic experience. Embedded within French military literature was, first, the idea of maneuver, or the necessity of making war on a map. Related to this was the emphasis on striking the decisive point, preferably against the enemy’s rear, but ultimately at a point discernable only by a gifted general’s coup d’oeil. Third, grand strategy was seen as serving political ends, factors which gave meaning and purpose to armed combat. The final characteristic of this nascent concept, originating in the U.S. Civil War, was one of perspective: the conduct and management of war within and across theaters, the recognition that geographic expanse implied a new level of strategy.

The next phase in grand strategy’s conceptual trajectory was the emergence and refinement of the “British School” of grand strategic thought. This view had its origins in naval strategy, and was honed by the experience of World War I. For Alfred Thayer Mahan, the purpose of naval power was to protect and extend commercial activity, the lifeblood of states geographically positioned to capitalize on global economic opportunities. It was the conjoining of war, commerce, and peace that carved out (grand) strategic space for human agency in a domain riddled with deterministic outcomes. After all, only certain geographic, economic, and political endowments would enable states to become sea powers. For Julian Corbett, naval power offered important avenues of securing victory in large wars. Naval powers tended to have resources that continental powers lacked, and with them the ability to escalate and limit war on land and sea. Such cross-domain synergy would give Britain a broader strategic purview and more diverse resource base in wars against continental powers. From the sea, Britain (and eventually the U.S.) could exploit the periphery to influence the course of war on land with the objective of achieving an economically efficient peace.

The peace of 1919 cost Great Britain dearly, however, and the question of how the nation could survive total war became a live one. J.F.C. Fuller saw this as a matter of preserving civilization. With the stakes in war now so high, grand strategy could no longer be confined to the military realm, nor could it be considered strictly a wartime phenomenon. With the goal of preserving a state’s economic and moral base in the event of major war, Fuller advocated for national policies that put Britain in a powerful position in peacetime (i.e., replacing mass infantry with tanks) and for wartime strategies aimed at counter-command and control that would limit the cost and duration of war. Though less concerned with the fate of civilization, B.H. Liddell-Hart was just as determined to limit war through grand strategy. His emphasis was on deterrence, putting Britain in the best position to dissuade another state after the current war from mounting yet another challenge. Should deterrence fail, then all strategic emphasis must be placed on the “indirect approach” of avoiding the enemy’s strengths while attacking its vulnerabilities, so as to preserve the economic and military foundations of the country. In sum, the British School of grand strategic thought wove together geographic and economic matters through nimble strategy in order to limit the scale and scope of modern war. These points of emphasis were offered to preserve Britain at a time when escalation could threaten its existence. It was not, however, a grand strategic perspective intended for universal adoption.


In the United States, grand strategy also developed in response to the experience of the world wars. Due to its distinct geographic and economic endowments, American grand strategic thought differed from the British School. Edward Mead Earle, for example, put forward the idea that “…the highest type of strategy—sometimes called grand strategy—is that which so integrates the policies and armaments of the nation that the resort to war is either rendered unnecessary or is undertaken with the maximum chance of victory.”[3] Underlying this notion was the conceptual blending of the peacetime and wartime phases of conflict which, while entailing different means, ultimately served the same objective: security. The implication was that American security required a holistic approach to policy and the ability to maneuver at the highest levels of statecraft.

However subtle and powerful Earle’s contribution was, his ideas would ultimately succumb to the weight of the nuclear revolution. Milevski argues that during the first half of the Cold War, nuclear strategy and limited war theory attained hegemonic status in American statecraft. Nuclear strategy usurped grand strategy due to the seamless organizational transition from air power to nuclear power, and the immediacy of the threat posed by weapons of such lethality. Thomas Schelling, Bernard Brodie, and Robert Osgood all understood that mutually assured destruction notwithstanding, limited warfare remained a distinct possibility. The challenge was to devise schemes that blended coercion and restraint in an effort to keep wars limited. In the process, grand strategy as a concept virtually disappeared from political and strategic discourse. With the limited war imperative firmly in place, little intellectual capital was devoted to grand strategy, or to the argument that American foreign policy should be guided by a more diverse set of considerations.


Until the Vietnam War, that is. From the second half of the Cold War to the present, grand strategy has received a significant amount of scholarly attention. Throughout, the perennial themes of grand strategic thought were taken up and refined: the political utility of force, the idea of grand strategy as maneuver, the importance of identifying the decisive point, as well as grand strategy’s multi-theater perspective. Barry Posen, Edward Luttwak, Paul Kennedy, John Lewis Gaddis, and others reinvigorated the study of grand strategy, but in Milevski’s reading, to little substantive effect. “Grand strategy remains a standardless, incoherent concept, whose popularity surge after the end of the Cold War multiplied the lack of rigour with which it was employed…as has been the case for the entirety of the history of grand strategic thought, [scholars’] independent efforts are leading them in divergent directions.”[4]


What accounts for the paucity of grand strategic thought? Milevski’s explanation is that writers on grand strategy have engaged their subject with (almost) the singular objective of solving the most pressing immediate problem. Little attention is ever given to previous treatments of grand strategy. “The result is that grand strategic thought has been predominantly ahistorical.”[5] It is true that Clausewitz was motivated to understand Napoleonic warfare, but “…On War remains relevant because the nature of continually recurring war remains recognizably the same; definitions of grand strategy are transient because they reflect only their own particular geopolitical conditions.”[6] Without a grounding in strategic theory, grand strategy will remain rudderless. But the situation is even worse, Milevski insists, because strategic theory itself has moved away from its anchor—war—and has become merely an internal logic devoid of a subject. Without war, strategic theory is vacuous; without strategic theory, grand strategy is nomadic.

Milevski offers a carefully crafted, subtle, and in many ways compelling critique of grand strategic thought. Yet his treatment is ultimately focused on the “grandness” of grand strategy; the “strategic” element of the concept is not systematically explored. In other words, Milevski’s concern is less with the question, “What does strategy look like at the highest levels?” and more with “What differentiatesgrand strategy from the other forms strategy?” This analytical choice is necessary to restrict the scope of the inquiry, giving focus to certain aspects of an immensely complex subject. But this narrowing forces Milevski to hold constant the meaning of strategy. To the extent that “strategy” is a given, it quickly becomes a problem because strategy itself has always been an ill-defined and contested concept. For example, in his magisterial Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman writes,

So the realm of strategy is one of bargaining and persuasion as well as threats and pressure, psychological as well as physical effects, and words as well as deeds. This is why strategy is the central political art. It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.[7]

This definition, or description, of strategy is evocative but difficult to operationalize. The reason is that power has multiple meanings.[8] The nature of the strategic arts will necessarily differ depending on the meaning one attaches to power.

To get a sense of how “strategy” is conceptually contested, it is useful to briefly consider its many different constitutive elements. Over the course of its development, strategy has emerged a concept with at least seven characteristics, some of which are mutually exclusive. Strategy can be considered to be:

  • Intentional: objectives, or ends, are sought that are not possessed in the present.
  • Future oriented: achieving objectives takes time; time horizons may be long or short; the longer the time horizons, the more complex the environment, and the more difficult it becomes to act intentionally.[9]
  • Logical: certain resources must be possessed and particular actions must be performed in order for objectives to be achieved. Acting strategically entails combining means (capabilities), ways (policies and plans), and ends (objectives) in a coherent fashion. Logical coherence is necessary because strategic actors—states—entail large bureaucratic organizations. To act, organizations must solve numerous internal coordination problems, orchestrating the actions of potentially hundreds of thousands of people.[10] Thus, the logical linkage and presentation of means → ways → ends may be a necessary evil to facilitate inter-organizational coordination.[11]
  • Rational: in the contexts where strategy is necessary, the environment is never static and is often deadly. An actor may not be able to achieve its objectives with the means available, or in the ways that were planned. Rationality means making trade-offs when the costs or benefits entailed in a course of action adversely change, or when a course of action becomes too risky. Often actors need to adjust their ends, change their ways, or find different means in order to get ahead.[12]
  • Clear-eyed: strategy requires a constant search for, and assessment of, information originating from outside and inside the state. Only by acquiring as complete an understanding of the world as possible, of the opponent, allies, and the state itself, can the rational criteria of strategy be met.[13]
  • Adaptive: by combining the rational with the clear-eyed, adaptation (or, flexibility) becomes possible. Adaptation is necessary because strategy is not a game against nature where rules are fixed. Rather, strategy is a game against a powerful, willful, and crafty opponent who holds strongly antagonistic objectives. As such, violence may be used or threatened. Not knowing how the opponent will act in the future, the strategic actor must exhibit flexibility to capitalize on opportunities and to avoid calamity.[14]
  • Nonlinear/paradoxical: the interaction between two adaptive actors employing or implying violence will result in nonlinear dynamics and paradoxical logics. In this world, the “good” becomes “bad” and the “bad” becomes “good,” strengths can become weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and patience and impulsiveness interaction in curious ways. The implication is that the linear logic (the necessary evil required to help organizations function), can end up being the actor’s undoing.[15]

This partial list of strategy’s characteristics is offered simply to highlight the incommensurable nature of the concept. To some, the nonlinear domain is most significant; to others, the logical structure of strategy is critical. To the extent that strategy is a contested and evolving concept, the implications for grand strategy are significant. As our understanding of what constitutes strategy changes, there will necessarily be conceptual implications across the levels of war, including grand strategy. Thus, not only can the grandness of grand strategy be affected by historically contingent events, but it can also be affected by the very meaning of strategy. And, the conceptual causal effects can flow in the other direction: as our understanding of what constitutes the highest level of strategy changes, so can this affect our understanding of the characteristics of strategy. In sum, grand strategy is a composite term, a conjunction of two distinct and disputed concepts. To understand the evolution of grand strategy, it is necessary to grapple with the co-evolution of “grand” and “strategy.” Lukas Milevski has taken a big step on the right path, but there is much further to travel.

Of course, this assessment applies to all good works on topics of vital importance.  The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought will be of interest to scholars of grand strategy, primarily.  Nevertheless, professional strategists should grapple with this slim monograph because of its underlying message: concepts help us understand the world, our place in it, and the possibilities available to us change it for the better.

Spencer Bakich is an associate professor political science at the Virginia Military Institute and the author of Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars.


[1] Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (New York: Random House, 2002), 133-134.

[2] Lukas Milevski, The Evolution of Grand Strategic Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 8.               

[3] Quoted in ibid., 69.

[4] Ibid., 141.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Ibid., 146.

[7] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), xii.  Emphasis added.             

[8] On the differences between force and power, see Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century CE to the Third, revised ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 223-228.

[9] Jean-Marie Guehenno, “The Impact of Globalisation on Strategy,” Survival, 40 (Winter 1998-99), 5-19.

[10] Graham Allison and Philip Zellikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed. (New York: Pearson, 1999), ch. 3.

[11] Alan G. Stolberg, How Nation-States Craft National Security Strategy Documents (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2012), 2-3.

[12] Robert Jervis, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 282-295.

[13] Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare, Roger T. Ames trans. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 113.

[14] On Moltke the Elder’s system of expedients, see Arden Bucholz, Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 77-78.

[15] Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, revised ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

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