July 21, 2024
The word strategy gets overused. People have a strategy for getting fit. They have a strategy for dealing with relatives during the holidays. They have a strategy for getting out of debt. You get the idea. At the U.S. Army War College, when speaking of strategy, the goal is to elevate the conversation to the concept of a grand strategy. Tom Bruscino offers a brief primer on the history of the grand strategy and what it really means. His aim is to highlight to military strategists the importance of understanding the concept and their role in developing and executing their portion of the nation's grand strategy.

The idea of “grand strategy” that is so important to national security must also be important to military professionals.

For decades, the security studies community has argued that America needs a “real,” “new,” or at least “good” grand strategy, and the debate shows no sign of slowing down. The idea of “grand strategy” that is so important to national security must also be important to military professionals. But before military strategists can do their work within the context of “grand strategy,” they should be clear about what the term “grand strategy” means, which is particularly tricky because policymakers and theorists alike often combine and confuse its two main meanings. The purpose here is to offer a guide to both meanings and their significance to military strategy.

Wartime Grand (or National) Strategy

The earlier meaning of grand strategy focused on the overall national and coalition approach to winning a specific war. Often called “national strategy” by Americans, this version of grand strategy came “not from the military chiefs but from the war cabinets and their advisers, above all the Prime Minister or President”(vii). B.H. Liddell Hart called this sort of grand strategy “war policy,” a “higher strategy…to co-ordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war” (335-336, 366).

For example, the military leadership of the United States in the Civil War launched multiple mutually supporting army campaigns and blockaded and attacked key southern ports with the navy, while the government mobilized troops and materially support forces in the field, developed policies for emancipation of slaves and mobilization of freedmen, and continued diplomatic efforts to prevent foreign recognition of and aid to the rebellion.

The Civil War generation even used the term “grand strategy” to describe these activities. General William Sherman wrote two essays on the subject of “The Grand Strategy of the War of the Rebellion,” explaining how President Abraham Lincoln developed a vision for the overall conduct of the war. This vision took until 1864-65 to come together because it required the coordinated efforts of his cabinet chiefs, his chief-of-staff, and Commanding General Ulysses Grant to design and execute the vast military approach.

Little changed in the general use of the term between the Civil War and World War II. A chapter in Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s memoirs titled “The Army and Grand Strategy” dealt with unified allied command and the major decisions of World War II. The British agreed with the usage: The official histories of the United Kingdom in the Second World War included a six-volume series on wartime Grand Strategy.

New Grand Strategy

The second meaning of grand strategy goes beyond war—becoming akin to overall security policy. This meaning, which became common after World War II, differed from, but originated in, the first. Liddell Hart pointed toward the change in emphasizing that wartime grand strategy also involved “the prolongation of that policy through the war into the subsequent peace” (366). As Edward Meade Earle argued in his introduction to the first edition of Makers of Modern Strategy, the scale and complexity of modern industrialized war required grand strategy as “not merely a concept of wartime, but…an inherent element of statecraft at all times” (viii).

For historians, this newer version of grand strategy entailed studying and evaluating examples of “the capacity of the nation’s leaders to bring together all of the elements, both military and non-military, for the preservation and enhancement of the nation’s long-term (that is, in wartime and peacetime) best interests” (5). Those examples tended to be a mix of the older and newer definitions—grand strategies in specific wars and grand strategies guiding peace and war policies.

Valuable as such studies have been in providing familiarity with the broad security approaches of nations, they have been less helpful in providing a generalizable definition for the newer grand strategy concept. For that, political scientists have done better. To paraphrase Barry Posen: grand strategy is a polity’s theory about how to provide for its security and prosperity all the time, in peace and war.

There have been many debates over the specifics of the definition, but most people using “grand strategy” today mean something like Posen’s theory for security, which is meant to guide peacetime and wartime policies.

This simple concept of grand strategy, however, can quickly become confusing. First, security professionals often mix grand strategies with international relations theories such as realism and liberal internationalism, which themselves are a mix of descriptive and prescriptive ideas. Second, many observers try to describe or propose an American grand strategy, which is difficult given America’s vast and complicated power, reach, and interests.

When making important foreign and military policy choices, Australia’s leaders try to balance their interests with American interests, which makes for hard decisions.

With other polities the concept becomes more accessible. Australia, for example, has tended to follow a grand strategy of what political scientists call “bandwagoning.” That theory means that given resource constraints, Australian leaders align their foreign and military policies with a likeminded great power—previously the United Kingdom and now the United States. The application of this grand strategy is not simple. When making important foreign and military policy choices, Australia’s leaders try to balance their interests with American interests, which makes for hard decisions. For example, how much of an Australian contribution to American military operations is enough to not overextend itself while still maintaining U.S. support for Australia? That dilemma played out in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and has led some Australians to consider adopting a “balancing” grand strategy, whereby their policies seek more of a middle ground among great regional and global powers.

There are other examples. For most of the modern era, Great Britain followed a more complicated theory involving maintaining control of the seas, first around the British Isles and then along paths to overseas possessions. Their theory also required keeping a balance of power on the European continent so no one power could dominate European land commerce or become militarily strong enough to cross the English Channel.

The specific application of this theory (large main battle fleets, control of chokepoints, direct vs. peripheral wartime strategies, etc.) and the policies derived from it (colonies, mandates, or commonwealth relationships with overseas possessions; financial, material, or direct military support for weaker European powers in peace and war; bilateral or multilateral engagements on the continent; etc.) varied greatly over time. But this grand strategy tended to be the guide for British action until the Cold War.

American Grand Strategy

What is American grand strategy in the second meaning? Rather than propose a new American grand strategy, here is a brief look at American historical patterns of security decisions and actions that together constitute a theory for how the United States has provided for its security:

1. Starting with the Monroe Doctrine and continuing to the present day, American policymaking has been driven by preserving western hemispheric autonomy from external great power influence.

2. American policymaking has in general sought free sea, air, and increasingly cyber and space lanes for commerce—preferably for everyone, but at a minimum for Americans.

3. American policymaking has maintained freedom of decision making and action, originally by acting unilaterally in the world. The United States has increasingly worked with friendly and likeminded powers, but almost exclusively in coalitions and alliances where the United States is the lead or where the agreements are not so binding as to challenge American sovereignty.

4. When the United States has militarily intervened in foreign lands, whatever the cause, the policy for post-intervention conditions in those lands has trended heavily toward reinstituting or emplacing more liberal and democratic systems of government, regardless of difficulty.

There have been additional approaches—containment of communism, for example—and no doubt there will be others in the future. However, these persistent patterns offer a description of American grand strategic theory that has guided American security policies in the past and seems to be behind many policies of the present day.

Now What for Military Strategists?

Military strategists must distinguish between these two definitions of grand strategy—both of which are valuable—as they go about fighting and winning the nation’s wars.

The older meaning describes how national leadership considers the use of all of its resources—diplomatic, information (psychological), military, economic, financial—toward winning a war and securing a more favorable peace. Military strategists—in developing, distributing, and applying the military means toward victory—must try to fit their work into the larger grand strategy for war, even as they do not have the lead in crafting that grand strategy.

When it comes to the newer meaning, military strategists also have a limited role in developing grand strategy as a nation’s theory for security. Instead, their job is to understand. If the theory that is grand strategy animates policy and war is a continuation of policy by other means, it follows that the theory influences the why, for what, with what, and how the United States fights specific wars. Understanding such a theory is essential for military strategists seeking victory in any war.

Thomas Bruscino is a Professor in the Department of Military, Strategy, Planning and Operations at the U.S. Army War College and the Editor of the DUSTY SHELVES series.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of PxHere

8 thoughts on “GRAND STRATEGY: A SHORT GUIDE FOR MILITARY STRATEGISTS

  1. Nice job, Tom – you should consider a short book to help make issues like this understandable and far less complicated than other books have made them. Thanks.

  2. ..Thanks Tom….After noting on my calendar a political party meeting I want to attend I read your article…And it made me think….
    If I was a moderator of presidential debates I would ask the candidates what their polittical and miltary strategies would be?….
    The answers would be interesting…and important for voters to know…
    Thanks…

  3. An excellent synopsis which demonstrates what happens when writers, soldiers and politicians use terms inappropriately or redefine them for their own use. For instance, Posen’s use of the word “strategy” to be a “theory”, which is incorrect and misleading.

    I address this issue (and others) in my book, Strategia: A Primer on Theory and Strategy for Students of War.

  4. As related to grand strategy — in some exceptionally important way — might we consider that:

    a. BEFORE the Old Cold War, the greatest threat to the traditional social values, beliefs and institutions of the peoples, countries and cultures of the world (to include our own), this was the political, economic, social and/or value changes posed by such things as capitalism. (As to this such suggestion, see the Robert Gilpin quote provided later below.) That:

    b. DURING the Old Cold War, the greatest threat to the traditional social values, beliefs and institutions of the peoples, countries and cultures of the world (to include our own), this was the political, economic, social and/or value changes posed by such things as communism. And that:

    c. NOW that the Old Cold War is over, the greatest threat to the traditional social values, beliefs and institutions of the peoples, countries and cultures of the world (to include our own), this — one again — has become the political, economic, social and/or value changes demanded by such things as capitalism. (See Gilpin immediately below.)

    (Re: the capitalist “greatest threat” — noted at my “a” and “c” above — consider the following from the first page of the Introduction chapter to Robert Gilpin’s book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century:”

    “Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.”)

    Grand strategy — thus in some exceptionally important way — this must be considered from the perspective of:

    a. During the Old Cold War, PREVENTING the political, economic, social and/or value changes associated with and demanded by the communists and communism. And, from the perspective of:

    b. Both before and after the Old Cold War, ACHIEVING the political, economic, social and/or value changes associated with and demanded by the capitalists and capitalism?

    (Herein to note that — while the “conservatives”/the “traditionalists” of the world would be our “natural allies” in the “preventing revolutionary change” scenario noted at my item “a” immediately above — the “conservatives”/”the traditionalists” of the world would be our “natural enemies” in the “achieving revolutionary change” scenarios noted at my item “b” immediately above.)

    1. From the section of this article entitled American Grand Strategy:

      “4. When the United States has militarily intervened in foreign lands, whatever the cause, the policy for post-intervention conditions in those lands has trended heavily toward reinstituting or emplacing more liberal and democratic systems of government, regardless of difficulty.”

      As to this such suggestion, would it not be more accurate to say that when the United States has intervened — not just in foreign lands (foreign policy) but also here at home (domestic policy) — and not just in times of military conflict and post-conflict but also in times of peace:

      a. The policy for intervention conditions in these lands (again, both here at home and there abroad), this has:

      b. Trended heavily toward reinstituting or emplacing more liberal and democratic systems of government there, regardless of difficulty?

      Thus, not just in times of war and immediately thereafter but also in times of peace — and not just in foreign lands but also here at home — history notes that the threat (of a more liberal and democratic system of government) posed to those who depend on the status quo for much of their power, influence, control, status, privilege, safety, security, etc., (or the status quo ante; this, if too much liberal and democratic change is thought to have already taken place), THIS is what actually causes such things as September 11, 2001 and January 6, 2021 to occur and, thus, helps us to better understand such things as the true meaning of the “regardless of difficulty” item found (a) both at the end of my paragraph immediately above and (b) at the quoted item that I provided — early on — from our article here?

      1. Or should we consider that American peace-time grand strategy, American peace-time foreign policy and American peace-time domestic policy — these had nothing to do with such things as September 11, 2001, January 6, 2021, etc., etc., etc.?

  5. The final paragraph of our article above states:

    “When it comes to the newer meaning, military strategists also have a limited role in developing grand strategy as a nation’s theory for security. Instead, their job is to understand. If the theory that is grand strategy animates policy and war is a continuation of policy by other means, it follows that the theory influences the why, for what, with what, and how the United States fights specific wars. Understanding such a theory is essential for military strategists seeking victory in any war.”

    While we note that the word “war” is used three times in the paragraph above, what is the role of the military strategists in times of peace — i.e. — in times when intervention short of war (either here at home, there abroad or both) is called for?” In this regard, let me attempt to modify the paragraph above; this, so as to help us deal with this such question:

    “When it comes to the newer meaning, military strategists also have a limited role in developing grand strategy as a nation’s theory for security. Instead, their job is to understand. If the theory that is grand strategy animates policy (for example, domestic and foreign policy designed to allow that the states and societies of the world, to include our own, might become liberal and democratic/even more liberal and democratic) — and if interventions short of war are seen as a continuation of these foreign and/or domestic policies by other means — then it follows that the theory influences the why, for what, with what, and how the United States (via its military, etc.) might intervene in times of peace. Understanding such a theory is essential for military strategists — seeking to adequately support United States foreign and domestic policies — and American Grand Strategy — in peacetime.

    (Probably not the best modification possible here, but maybe it can get us started in addressing the military strategists role — in peacetime — as relates to both American domestic and foreign policy — and American Grand Strategic theory.)

    1. As to the matters that I raise above — re: what is the role of the military strategist in times of peace — here, possibly, is a foreign policy example that we might use to work with:

      “a. An IDAD (Internal Defense and Development) program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires change to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn, promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place.” (Item in parenthesis above is mine.
      See Joint Publication 3-22 and, therein, Section II, Internal Defense and Development Program and Chapter 2, Construct.)

      Given that the above would seem to be more “intervention” than “war” (or, intervention short of war?) — and that “victory,” accordingly (in the traditional sense?) would not seem to be what was being sought — then what would be the role of the military strategist in these such (oh so very much more common than war?) circumstances?

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