Strategy in Postmodern Times

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After the fall of the Soviet Union, many intellectuals and politicians saw the climax of modernity itself. From now on, many thought, western democracy and capitalism would lead humanity into a golden future. No one conveyed this idea more elegantly than Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man. The nations of the second and third world simply had to follow their western idols to become part of this paradise. Two decades later, we are healed from such glorious illusions. The Western World itself has changed (and keeps changing). The truths of modernism had to make room for postmodern doubt and new evolving dogmata. This does not change the core of what strategy is, but it makes things more complex and quite different for the strategist.

Strategy is the art of reaching attainable goals with limited resources. The success of a strategy depends on five factors:

  1. A thorough understanding of the strategic environment can only be achieved through correct analysis of the given circumstances, especially factors such as the determination of the strengths and weaknesses of all parties, economical situation, and the will of the people to fight. Obviously, this is a challenging intellectual endeavor, depending on the quality of intelligence and the intellectual resources to analyze it correctly.
  2. 2. Based on that analysis, clear, desirable, and attainable goals have to be established. A strategy is not simply a list of policy goals that could (or should) be achieved. Instead, they must be examined for feasibility as well as desirability so as not to become a utopian fantasy. Strategies mustn't be confused with visions.
  3. No objectives, regardless of the amount of resources thrown at them, can be realized without an acceptable method to achieve them. Accordingly, the ways of turning the determined goals into reality must be formulated concisely. It is important to find a compromise between overly general tasks on the one hand and overly detailed formulae on the other.
  4. All participating forces, politicians, and other stakeholders must commit themselves to the strategy. Without the appropriate level of resources, to include forces and political will, the potential success of the strategy is severely restricted. Also important is that all important stakeholders understand the strategy thoroughly and are able to act accordingly in an autonomous manner.
  5. Finally, strategists must prepare for contingencies. Obviously, a strategy can be as clever as possible, the generals can be as committed as possible, yet it may still fail. That’s part of the unchanging conditio humana that defines.
"Napoleon's Retreat" by Vasily Vereshchagin (Wikimedia)

These admittedly idealistic factors make strategies at the same time complex and straightforward. The depth of the chaotic world in which we live makes analysis hard. Outside of games such as chess or Go, games with strict rules, we cannot foresee the future development of things. Therefore, strategies can only offer us leading principles. This, in combination with the given circumstances that directly influence the options available, leads to deceptively simple strategies. The Russians, for instance, could not best Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812 by employing the means of regular warfare. Instead, they chose to trade space for time—creating the conditions in which the French forces were punished by weather, sickness, hunger, and relentless attacks on their logistics. Ultimately, Napoleon had to flee Russia, and his visible weakness led to his Prussian and Austrian allies changing sides. The initial positions became exchanged; now Napoleon had the smaller, weaker army with little hope of overpowering the united might of his enemies. He could, however, not play for time like the Russians, and eventually there was only one strategy left to him: using interior lines and destroying the opposing armies one by one. The strategy was sound, but in the end he lost, and this is a good example for the fact that a well developed strategy may be conditio sine qua non for success but cannot guarantee it. The example shows that strategies tend to be the result of a complicated process and can also, paradoxically, be described simply. Arguably, this may mislead leaders (and scholars) into thinking it’s similarly easy even for laymen to formulate a sound strategy.

Another point that makes things complex is the (also rather simple) truth that a strategy has no value if there is no commitment to pursue it. Again, history gives a good example. Not unlike the Russians in 1812, the Romans in 218 BC could not overcome Hannibal’s invasion through open battle. He could only be defeated by the strategy of Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator—namesake of the Fabian strategy. He avoided open battle, attacked Hannibal’s logistics, and punished cities that defected to Hannibal’s cause. However, not all Roman generals were happy with this strategy. The second in command to Fabius, the magister equitum Marcus Minucius Rufus, attacked Hannibal and almost lost all his legions. Later, he died in the Battle of Cannae—the most devastating loss in Roman history. The Romans had to lose significant blood and treasure before they returned to the Fabian strategy that would prove successful.

In a sense, a good strategy serves as the focal point that combines all forces to fulfill a specific objective. Without it, the particular forces aim in diverse directions; they can even cancel each other’s efforts. This problem is as old as time, but it seems to become more and more important in postmodern times.

Postmodernity arguably led to highly subdivided nations in the West. Instead of more or less homogenous classes with interdependent political parties and movements, today’s society is increasingly based on certain groups who feel a togetherness through one particular quality. This quality can be gender, race, ancestry, sexual orientation, religion, ideology, or almost anything else. Most individuals are associated with various identity-groups. Therefore, they are not sheer replacements of the old classes, but a new phenomenon of a more and more diverse society. The last few U.S. elections have shown the growing importance of identity politics, and both parties played this card. One of the main developments of modernity was the creation of nation-states and the homogenization of ethnic differences. Postmodernity tends to weaken the identities of nations. Often, the members of various identity-groups have more in common with members of their identity group in other nations than with their fellow citizens. Common beliefs (and, therefore, aims for the society and the state) are increasingly hard to find. Examples for this can easily be seen in today's Europe, where not only members of the far right feel such strong contempt for their liberal compatriots that they stand together with the far right groups in other countries against them without feeling unpatriotic. Business elites and scholars, to name another example, have often more in common with their colleagues in other nations than with their countrymen, too. These examples hint at the difficulty of developing successful national strategies.

The rising importance of social media intensifies this process. Ironically, more people than ever can voice their opinion publicly, but they do so more and more in ideological echo chambers. These echo chambers and identity groups are often interdependent in one way or another.

The postmodern sub-dividedness of the nation is clearly a weak point. Nothing shows this better than the ongoing Russian attacks on the West. In Europe, the Russians support groups on the political right just as they support those on the left. This support has no ideological rationale—the Cold War is over, after all; t is rather about weakening the social footing of European nations. Additionally, the Russians try to set different ethnic groups in the European countries at odds. In 2016, Russian television broadcast news about a 13-year-old German-Russian girl that allegedly had been abducted and raped by Arabs in Berlin. Although police quickly debunked the stor, German-Russians organized demonstrations via social media while the Russian foreign minister Sergej Lawrow spoke of a cover-up through the German public authorities. So far, the greatest success in this information war was certainly the interference with the recent presidential election in the United States.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen in 2015. (DPA)

Postmodern wars will not be fought on battlefields alone. Strategic actors employ information warfare, aiming at the footing of societies and their will to hold their ground. They will also employ economic warfare. There are covert ops and wars by proxy (Russia in Ukraine, the U.S. in Syria), war through the means of organized crime (the Islamic State, North Korea), and, of course, terrorism abroad and in the West. Lastly, there are ongoing cyber wars. These are just ideal types, on an empirical level we will find reams of variations.

What does this mean for the future of strategy? Analysis will no doubt become yet more difficult. All spheres must be considered, not only the strictly military ones. Therefore, strategies must not be restricted to operational needs alone. There will be an ever increasing need for joint strategies between quite different organizations like law enforcement, political communicators, and cyber experts, for example. The military will need to professionalize and foster the knowledge of different spheres in its own ranks. Arguably, the structure of modern armies is outdated. Artur Varanda makes a good case in this regard. In conflicts with blurry lines and little response time, the personal competence and expertise of every soldier is, and will continue to become increasingly, essential. Therefore, strategies will need to be voiced not only in the staff rooms but must be made clear to every soldier and other involved agents. In this sense, the postmodern general needs to be quite a competent public relations manager. This way only he will be able to secure the crucial commitment of his soldiers and other parties.

However, communication is not needed inside the military and other agencies alone. Social media has become a powerful tool of influencing the political situation of a nation. All strategists—be they soldiers, politicians, or business leaders—have to take notice of the societal atmosphere, and must not rely only on mainstream media. A successful shooting war is not a success if it leads to social disruptions. More than ever, soldiers have to keep in mind that their job is not only a military one—but political, too.

The best way to protect strategies from foreign information warfare attacks and to strengthen the support of a subdivided society may be the creation of strong narratives that give the strategies an important significance beyond the sphere of sheer power politics. All representatives of states will need to communicate the chosen narrative congruently. At the same time, it must be formulated in a way that speaks to as many groups in society as possible. This will not always be as easy as in the case of a group like Boko Haram, who—representing what is widely seen as evil—could not hope to find any form of solidarity in the West. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign is a good example how strong narratives can be created through social media.


Considering strategy and postmodernity, one thing seems clear: The strategists of the future truly need to be masters of many subjects. They will need to analyze carefully, take the measurements of the realm of possibilities (and impossibilities), take the many trade-offs between the different spheres into account, consider the numerous interests and internal logics of all relevant agencies, and win and ensure the continuous commitment of all stakeholders. While doing all that, they have to deal with a divided people and enemies that try to use their own people against the strategy. One could say, that the postmodern strategist has not only to win in a power game, but to tell a story well, a story as old as humanity about why and how we fight, what we aspire to, and what we fear. Long-term strategies will only work when they are carried and supported by strong narratives that reach and convince a significant fraction of a gradually (in the worst case inexorably) divided people. Therefore, the postmodern strategist needs to find his way in the jungle of different agencies as well as to identify the latest political and societal trends.

Julian Koeck is an historian interested in the mechanisms how ideas change (or do not change) societies. His dissertation is about the ideological concepts of the German Right in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

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