Want Better Strategists? Start With a Better Definition of Strategy

July 09, 2020
Want Better Strategists? Start With a Better Definition of Strategy
U.S. Navy Photo by CPO James Foehl
Want Better Strategists? Start With a Better Definition of Strategy
U.S. Navy Photo by CPO James Foehl
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A strategy is a theory of success. Other definitions of strategy abound but are unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons. Several recent essays call attention to why we need a clear, consistent definition of strategy and why other definitions of strategy are inferior to the theory of success definition. Regardless of whether the authors are attacking, defending, or reinterpreting strategy, they share the common characteristics of misunderstanding the nature of strategy and lacking an analytically useful definition of strategy.

These pieces and the associated debate come at a juncture when strategy is increasingly important for the United States and its position in the world. China uses military expansion, economic coercion, political subversion to exert its influence, and challenges the U.S. position in the world. Recognizing this threat, the U.S. is posturing itself for the new era of great power competition. Militarily, it shifts resources to theatres like the Indo-Pacific to contest Chinese aggression and counter China’s predatory economic practices through tariffs and other means.  The U.S. has repurposed foreign aid and launched the International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) to push back on the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Even as the United States deploys “strategies” to guide aspects of its economic, military, and diplomatic domains, it lacks a common understanding for—and definition of—strategy.  This plays into the hands of our adversaries, China, Russia, and Iran chief among them. Therefore, a more productive way to advance the debate around strategy would be to push the U.S. to develop a realistic, actionable definition of and approach to developing strategy. Here, we critique the above referenced recent pieces, pull out the most useful aspects, and offer a way ahead.

Strategy is unavoidable

The current debate highlights that the academic and policy communities lack, and very much need, a common definition of strategy. One striking aspect of a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Daniel Drezner, Ronald Krebs, and Randall Schweller asserting grand strategy's irrelevance is that the authors do not feel compelled to offer a definition of strategy or grand strategy despite the centrality of this concept to their argument. The closest they come to offering a definition is: "Grand strategy rests on a security narrative that sets out the main protagonists of global politics, tells a story about what those actors have done and will do and depicts the global backdrop against which events will take place." In other words, a grand strategy involves actors, the behaviors of those actors, and the global context. This as true as it is trivial, and it certainly is not a definition or a description of the nature of strategy. The central failing of Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller is the assertion that a country can somehow avoid having a grand strategy. If we define grand strategy, or more preferably, national strategy, as a theory of national success, we can quickly see that all countries have leaders some vision of what success looks like and how it should be achieved. There will necessarily be considerable contestation over these ideas, but that does not negate their existence.

A clear statement of a theory of national success is unusual, but that simply means the theory is tacit rather than explicit. Even intellectually-challenged leaders will have a theory of national success, and their policy decisions will tend to cluster around this theory. Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller paint themselves as true pragmatists for accepting the death of grand strategy; however, in truth, they are profoundly unrealistic in their belief that national strategy can somehow be avoided. There is much to say in favor of Francis Gavin and James Steinberg’s response to Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller, but Gavin and Steinberg miss the chance to make the essential point that strategy is a theory of success and that all countries have a national strategy, or theories of national success, regardless of whether they are officially stated. The real problem is in convincing the leadership of a country to explicitly state their theory of national success to enable better debate and testing of the theory.

Strategy is a thing and not a process

Jim Golby’s recent War on the Rocks essay has a promising argument, and we agree with several points of his analysis, however, like Drezner, Krebs, Schweller, Gavin, and Steinberg, he misunderstands the nature of strategy. Golby‘s discussion of strategy results in a general definition: “Strategy is thus an interactive process of influencing other actors or groups to advance one’s priorities.” There are two main problems with this definition. First, strategy is not a process, it is a thing. You have a strategy, you do not do a strategy. A few sentences later, Golby uses the term “strategic process,” which is a perfectly good way to refer to the iterative process of creating a strategy. As an analogy, a book is a thing, writing and editing the book is a process. A strategy is a statement that can be written down and spoken aloud and used to coordinate action. Golby recognizes there is a thing, and he calls it a “strategic plan,” which unfortunately leads to more confusion. As Golby himself notes, a strategy is not a plan, so why does he think putting the word “strategic” in front of “plan” is a good idea? It is not a good idea. Golby’s main critique of strategy as theory is that “a static plan or theory is rarely sufficient when dealing with other actors.” We agree. A strategy must be refined through the strategic process or strategy-making process.

Let us end this confusion. A strategy is not a process, it is a theory of success. This is not the only way to describe it, but we believe it is the clearest, most generally applicable, and useful definition. Thinking along similar lines, Hal Brands defines grand strategy as “the theory, or logic, that guides leaders seeking security in a complex and insecure world.” Lawrence Freedman recently defined strategy “as a story told in the future tense.” Colonel P.J. Maykish suggests, “Strategy in its most basic form is an idea about how to succeed.” The commonality among all these definitions is the view that strategy is a thing and not a process.

Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller make this same mistake. Their idea of muddling through at the middle-management level is also a process view of strategy. They view the processes of decentralization and incrementalism as the answer to the challenges of national strategy. But a process cannot take the place of a strategy. As Gavin and Steinberg note, a strategy provides focus, prioritization, and coordination across agencies and branches of government. Gavin and Steinberg also make the crucial point that grand strategy fosters democratic debate about the direction of American foreign policy.  

Strategy is not just military strategy

The second main problem for Golby is his narrow use of the word strategy. Apparently, he means military strategy or possibly national strategy when he uses the term, his precise reference point is unclear. Admittedly, Golby’s essay is about professional military education and, therefore, directly about what officers need to become good strategists. However, conflating the terms strategy, military strategy, and grand or national strategy is not useful for military officers or anyone else.

This problem goes beyond Golby’s essay. Even as widely respected a figure as Colin Gray makes this mistake, and his proposed definition of strategy points out the danger of assuming all strategy is military strategy. In the forward of the recently released Strategy: A Primer, published by the Army University Press, Gray argues, “strategy can best be understood as the threat or use of force for political purposes.” This is a highly limited view, even of military strategy. It assumes the only tool in play is the use of force. Even in situations where military force will clearly play the major role, diplomacy and other tools of national power play major roles. The defeat of ISIS was always going to be a military-centric mission, but it also required the creation and maintenance of a coalition. The same argument can be applied to most places where the United States provides targeted counter-terrorism support, to include deploying special operators. At best, these highly qualified military staff will weaken the intended enemy. To arrive at a sustainable solution where, for example, Boko Haram is no longer present in Nigeria, it also requires the United States applying diplomatic pressure for the host government to keep up its end of the bargain—militarily, by effectively using its own forces, but also using economic development and quashing corruption to address the root causes that led to Boko Haram’s rise in the first place.

Strategy and theory

Golby comes close to our preferred definition strategy with his concept of “theory of influence.” He also seems to agree with previous work by one of us that strategy is a theory and that theories can and should be tested and revised using the scientific method. Golby’s definition follows a distinguished pedigree, echoing the argument of J.C. Wylie: “the aim of any war is to establish some measure of control over the enemy. The pattern of action by which this control is sought is the strategy of the war.” However, we maintain that “theory of success” is superior to “theory of influence” for two reasons. First, the former definition focuses the mind on achieving goals. To say strategy is a theory of influence distracts from the need to achieve your goals. The goal is not to make friends and influence people for its own sake, the point is to achieve something through that influence. Therefore, the strategist needs a theory of how a particular type of influence will cause specific desired effects. Second, any actual strategy will need to be more specific than just a generic theory of influence. If your strategy is to contain China by building a container of allies, then your strategy requires a theory of alliances. To say that a theory of alliances or alliance building is a theory of influence seems unhelpful, and perhaps distracting.   

National Strategy for the United States

So, what does this debate mean for U.S. efforts to develop strategy? We have two recommendations.

First, grand strategy matters and should be the guiding framework for everything the United States does. In their essay, Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller state: “Crafting a durable successor to containment is neither important nor possible for the near future. Improving U.S. foreign policy performance is.” Crafting a grand strategy and increasing effectiveness are not mutually exclusive, in fact, they are mutually reinforcing. Grand strategy articulates the high-level goals—and theory for achieving them—while foreign policy—how the United States interacts with other states to achieve finite objectives—is guided by and helps achieve broader grand strategy. The authors’ assertion that crafting a grand strategy is “not important” is particularly misguided. China poses a threat to U.S. security and economic prosperity.  Beijing has articulated a vision for achieving interests regionally and globally and, through various mechanisms, started working toward actualizing that vision.  The U.S. response cannot, and should not, be ad hoc in its coordinated decision-making. Grand strategy is not easy. That doesn’t mean it should end.

And second, the United States should adopt a common definition of strategy and associated components across branches of government. This is commonsensical and essential, especially now. We can no longer assume that officers from the departments of Defense and State sitting in policy coordination committee meeting in the White House mean the same thing when they call for a “strategy” to solve a given problem. One staffer’s strategy is another’s “plan” or “process.” It was only in 2018 that the U.S. government adopted a single definition of “stabilization,” this after more than a decade of attempting to stabilize Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. The follow-on benefit has been to provide State, USAID, and DoD with a common understanding of what they are trying to do. Clearing up the confusion in nomenclature around what is a “strategy” would help ensure U.S. strategies are just that, strategies (theories of success), and those responsible for executing them have the best chance of being effective, since all involved share the view of what is (and is not) a strategy and what should (and should not) be an element thereof.


Jeffrey Meiser is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Global Affairs at the University of Portland. Previously, he served as Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University, where he was the Director of the South and Central Asia Program. He can be found on Twitter at @jwmeiser.

Patrick Quirk is Senior Director for Strategy, Research, and the Center for Global Impact at the International Republican Institute (IRI) and a Non-resident Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program of the Brookings Institution. Previously, he served as a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff.



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