Lecture Notes: Grand Strategy

I’ll be putting up some lecture notes from time to time here at OFB. Here’s the first one. Bon Appetit.

Grand Strategy Lecture


How do we know grand strategy when we hear it? The difference between grand strategy and military strategy sounds something like this:

In a meeting with General Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, presidential candidate Obama said

‘My job, if I have the honour of being commander in chief, is going to be to look at the whole picture. I expect you, as the commander of our forces in Iraq, to ask for everything you need and more to ensure your success. That’s what you owe the troops who are under your command. My job is…I’ve got to choose. Because I don’t have infinite resources.’

That’s it right there, and with that we can probably knock it on the head for an early lunch. But I probably should run out the clock with some details.

Bottom line up front: Grand strategy is a vision, not a plan. We tend to think of it nowadays as something institutionalised and  grandiose, written down in solemn declaratory documents, thrashed out by committees, created by new layers of bureaucracy. The word is rampant in public life. But just because we institutionalise and declare strategy, doesn’t mean we do it. Grand strategy is not necessarily the product of grand structures.

In fact, it might not be that at all. Systematic attempts to codify strategy often don’t work. The Princeton Project, for instance, which gathered a gang of experts on foreign policy, came up with an elaborate world view that was not very strategic, because in all the political gravitas and seriousness they forget to do the most important thing: prioritise, balance power and interests, give us an idea to organise around, and note how and where our power is limited. Committees and structures can be the enemies of strategic thought. They take ideas and disfigure them beyond all recognition. Just ask George Kennan, whose idea of containment – non-universal, pragmatic, selective – was in his own words ambiguous and lent itself to misinterpretation. It become militarised, universal and crusading.

So instead of thinking about the institutional home of strategy – the National Security Council, or the NSS – I want to return to the core of this discipline, of strategy not as a system but as a sensibility. t is a set of basic ideas and instincts about relationship between power and goals, strong enough to give us a sense of pattern in the chaos, but elastic enough to respond to crisis.

For all the theoretical literature on the subject, Grand strategy is not a formal doctrine but a practical thing and must take place in the real world and in the long haul. It should steer us between the extremes of ad hoc random reactions, and grandiose doctrine/artificial ironclad theory that cannot survive contingency (the stuff that just happens) shock or chaos.

This lecture is in five parts. It explains what grand strategy is, why we need it, introduces two historic cases to show its dynamics, talks about typical dilemmas, then finally it surveys the prospects of a superpower (the US) and a middle power (Australia). This will be followed by another lecture, ‘Why is modern strategy difficult?’

1. Concept

2. Why we need Grand Strategy/Power and its Limits

3. Peaceful Rise: China and America

4. What’s Happening Now/ America: Rise and Fall?

5. Australia


Grand strategy is a vision, not a plan. It is not a fixed blueprint with iron laws that tells us what to do next. It is an overarching and ecological view of the world that relates all the parts to the whole. To survive and succeed, it will help if we have a basic idea of how to relate our power and resources to our goals and interests.

Grand Strategy asks simple questions: what are our interests? What threatens those interests? How do we integrate the means of our power to advance and protect our interests? What is really important, and what is merely desirable? What is our role in the world? What are the limits on our power and domain?  These are existential questions, that take place at a higher political realm. With the help of this intellectual discipline, we define problems before leaping to solutions, and create a dialectic between what we want and what we are willing to pay for. As well as asking how we preserve or increase our power, it asks ‘what is our power for?’

Grand strategy is the orchestration of ends ways and means in the context of actual or possible armed conflict, in pursuit of the nation’s core political interests in the long term. It is not the same thing as policy, desired outcomes (purely aspirational), or operations/military activities.

Two theorists offer us the outline. Edward Mead Earle wrote during the renaissance in American strategic thinking during World War Two when the US waged coalition war, combat across a range of theatres and within the constraints of public opinion and alliance politics, when it synchronised and prioritised mobilisation and military campaigns, thrashed out agreed war aims with its allies and planned for a post-war world. Thus strategy had to be higher, broader and deeper:

  • Controlling and utilising resources of a nation/coalition
  • Promote vital interests
  • Against enemies actual, potential or presumed
  • In order to make war unnecessary, or undertake it with maximum chance of victory

Basil Liddel Hart stretched the concept again:

  • Purpose: a better state of peace
  • The desired peace must shape conduct of war
  • Narrow focus on military victory with little thought of desired end – could be exhausting and breed further war
  • Victory: must be either a quick result or long effort to be economically proportioned to national resources – end must be adjusted to means
  • Use of multiple instruments to weaken opponent’s will and avoid damage to future state of peace

So to strategise is to relativise. Through the lens of grand strategy, what seems like a bad military failure or withdrawal can be a prudent cutting of losses. An expensive investment and diversion of resources by one generation can be a valuable asset for the next.

Ends/means balance: language of the balance sheet – Walter Lippmann:  ‘An agreement has eventually to be reached when men admit that they must pay for what they want and that they must want only what they are willing to pay for.’

An important thing that powers good grand strategy, often overlooked: need to avoid self-defeating behaviour. Consciousness that we can be our own worst enemies as our own behaviour hurts their own security. Adjustment failure can take many forms, such as overextension (expansion that weakens military/economic strength) and self-encirclement (when state’s behaviour provokes confrontation with opposing coalition).

One problem with UK’s NSS 2010: little sense of self-restraint. The document is premised on uncertainty and nonlinearity, but only in relation to stressing external threats. However, it abandons this sense of complexity and nonlinearity when it deals with the UK’s own behaviour abroad. ‘Our’ behaviour is treated as obviously well-intentioned, with logically forseeable results flowing from rational actions. It loses sight of the probable danger of unintended consequences, moral hazards and blowback. We have an innocent portrait of a benign sherriff in a malign landscape, and a highly selective vision of chaos. Action trumps restraint.

The best grand strategies anticipate failure and chaos. They survive a degree of failures lower down the chain. They offer ‘an equation of ends and means so sturdy that it triumphs despite serial setbacks at the level of strategy, operations, and campaigns.’

Where do we find grand strategy? In a document, or a meeting or institution? Not necessarily.

It is a repertoire of ideas and practices. Rather than a declaratory genre. It is something states ‘do’, not necessarily something they intellectualise or theorise in depth. This is important, because we sometimes become too logocentric and look for the elaborate, Clausewitzian text for evidence that a society ‘does’ strategy. The US produced few such theorists in its first century, but its Monroe Doctrine, rise to hemispheric dominance and drive for cheap expansion without major war suggests that an instinct for statecraft existed.

Why we need it

Doing grand strategy and getting it right is important for three reasons.

First, we need it to translate our resources into power or strength into security. Strategy is a theory about how to ’cause’ security for ourselves and classically, to translate strength into political outcomes (distribution, use of power). There is a difference between our control of resources, the aggregate resources at our disposal, and our ability to control outcomes. Just because a state has the largest economy and the most powerful military, and a high productive capacity of wealth, population and technology, does not mean it can get everyone to do everything it wants all the time. To translate our means into the ability to achieve ends, it isn’t enough just to aggregate our resources:

  • The gap between military strength and political outcomes is a fundamental difficulty. 20th century Germany and Imperial Japan bid for overseas empires and fought world wars with excellent general staffs backed by supportive regimes, nationalistic populations and won stunning triumphs. But these wars brought ruin. They wrongly assumed that sufficient operational success at the military level could transform realities at the level of grand strategy.
  • Paradox in our own time: mismatch between American strength/wealth and diplomatic leverage. The Camp David talks brokered by President Clinton in 2000 did not result in a settlement of the Palestine/Israel question, despite America’s mammoth relative wealth and military muscle at that time. Creating power takes not just might but political will and skill, doctrine, and ideas. Grand strategy can help bridge that gap.

Second, we need it to give us a compass when shocks and contingencies happen (not a rigid plan, but a compass). To guard against incoherent or random behaviour. We need a decent grasp of what our interests are, how we pursue them, and an ability to adjust if the landscape suddenly shifts. Shock on its own is not necessarily educational. The experience of sudden painful change can prompt humans to act rashly and harm themselves, to put tactics over strategy. So we need a prism through which to interpret shock , to tell us what we most care about, the limits of our horizons and our power. Otherwise we could fall prey to the chaos danger, of just making it up as we go along, and the opposite ‘autopilot’ danger of flying the plane into the ground because the computer coordinates tell us the plane is on course.

Third, grand strategy is the highest form of ethics. Without it, war is killing without purpose. Armed force and the preparation for war is only justifiable if it unites the military with the political, and as much as possible subordinates and limits war to political direction.

There are only a few tools available to us and each of those is limited.

  • Armed force: can be decisively effective or futile, and depends heavily on the political context in which it is used. Like an axe, it cuts more effectively against a tree that is rotten and yielding than one that is strong and resistant. In our time we have seen force applied effectively, boldly and swiftly (Maliki and Charge of the Knights in Basra, Russia in Georgia, United Nations in Gulf War One, Sierra Leone), and less effectively and at costs that outstripped the gains (Iran-Iraq war, our own Iraq war).
  • Wealth and economics: the foundation of power and the ability to generate military strength, and a weapon of coercion in its own right. In a global economy trade partners can reduce access to foreign markets, exchange rates and capital flows can be manipulated for coercive ends, and the states that underwriter government debt have coercive leverage too. But like oil embargoes, this weapon can harm the user as well.
  • Allies: an important task for the strategist is to create allies for oneself, minimise enemies, deny them to opponent. Hostile coalitions can overwhelm militarily advanced states. Diplomacy skilfully applied can limit a rival’s room to manouevre (eg basing or air space rights), drain their legitimacy (mobilising dissent/opposition), or purchase time. Allies can also be a constraint, either by widening local wars into larger wars, or forcing us to compromise/change war aims. And soft power needs hard foundations: we tend to listen most carefully to states with the biggest battalions/treasuries, while rhetoric alone is not usually enough to change politics of a situation unless it accords with lived political realities (Obama’s Cairo speech only had limited and temporary healing effect on US relations with Arab-Islamic world).
  • Opinion: in the West, used to be God – divine sanction. Since French Revolution and age of mass politics, new element of the People. As potentially powerful political force (nationalism, mobilisation, consent), a tax base, a source of manpower. Ideological contest fundamental to the Cold War, ultimately failure of a political-economic system that ended the conflict. Hard to control, can be a liability as well as an asset. Can make compromise hard to accept, introduce violent passion into conflict making it harder to stop, or tempt state to seek ‘victory on the cheap’ and thus disfiguring ends-means balance.

Grand Strategy in motion

Grand strategy is a more concrete subject if we watch it as well as abstract it. Let’s consider the examples of two revolutionary states trying to rise without collision:

  • China today: aims for a peaceful rise. It wants to secure its territorial integrity, a sensitive subject for a state with a history of colonial occupation and subordination, with long and vulnerable borders. It wants regional dominance after a history of being the target of predatory wars, and to widen its defensive perimeter with a blue water navy. And it needs to modernise and grow its economy in order to sustain is ability to feed a billion people. But to secure these things it needs to develop its military and its ruling party seeks to sustain consent of its population with the tool of nationalism. All this places it at risk of colliding with the current dominant power in the Asia-Pacific, the US with allies and forward-leaning military presence, dislike of multipolar challenge. The fragile economic interdependence of both states complicates the issue further. China therefore seeks to balance its growth as a serious geopolitical player with the need to avoid confrontation with US forces. It needs time and a ‘free hand’ to grow without drawing too much counter-balancing or attention to itself or driving itself into isolation, and without catastrophic showdown. Thus China carefully combines competition (military internal balancing, modernise economy, and refusing to help shut down the Iran issue to keep America occupied and tied down) and cooperation.
  • USA in early republic: as articulated in George Washington’s Farewell Address, America’s overriding interest after the War of Independence was to preserve itself from foreign interference. It needed a ‘free hand’ and time to rise. Therefore it calculated that it must do everything possible to keep the peace for twenty years, until which time its position would become stronger. In this, the distance from Europe was an advantage. Hence the vision of avoiding entangling or permanent alliances (while recognising that the US might need temporary alliances), and hence general presumption against intervention (while intervening when threatened, for example naval war against Barbary pirates of North Africa). Mostly achieved expansion without being embroiled in others’ wars, opportunistic businesslike moments (Louisiana Purchase, seizure of California)

In common: these grand strategies involve simple ideas; they are mindful of the danger of self-defeating behaviour; they allow for both internal balancing while fostering benign external environment; they are flexible and can respond to contingency (America with Barbary pirates, China’s backdown over Taiwan in 1996). Everything related to a broader vision and subordinated to it. They are about restraint and where to stop.

What’s happening now

Again, a story about America and China, and possible re-emergence of a nineteenth century polycentric world. Living possibly in a dangerous transitional moment in world order.

US has natural advantages on traditional metrics: favored geographical position, raw military strength and abundant continent. Then emerged from ww2 as a superpower: the world’s greatest creditor, greatest exporter, industrial-economic powerhouse, two thirds of the world’s gold reserves, military reach and punch unrivalled (nuclear monopoly, carrier task forces and marine corps divisions,  worldwide demand for American loans, ingenuity, protection.

Ideology and confidence:

‘now the United States had emerged as a hegemonic power with a new worldwide role to play. American leaders – moved by a traditional missionary impulse, convinced of their global responsibility, full of the self-confidence that comes of success, fundamentally unhurt by war in a wounded world – eagerly reached for their mandate of heaven.’

During and after Cold War, as dominant power saw itself as guardian of world order:

  • underwrites security of East Asia and Western Europe with a chain of cold war alliances
  • spreads ‘Open Door’ system of worldwide capitalism and liberal democracy, with help of institutions created in wake of ww2, while simultaneously forming alliances with illiberal regimes: according to the theory that a world remade in America’s image would be safest for the Us, and that the US should pay considerable costs to produce such a world
  • forward leaning military presence and network of bases: provide security assurances, protect sea lanes and large consumer markets
  • prevent re-emergence of dangerous competitions and rivalries, and of other rival powers
  • hold the ring in Asia: peaceful economic growth of Japan under US oversight – order dependent on preventing another arms race that would destabilise region
  • partly a European idea: empire by invitation – NATO, shield and security, and dampen down rise of Europe as a rival pole of power

What are the prospects for this giant? Is the party over?


  • One difficulty: the US never quite had the hyper-muscle people thought it did.
  • Declinism has a poor history – not a straight arrow. Paul Kennedy’s prophecy of imperial overstretch – greater overstretch of the Soviet Union, financial meltdown of Japan and IT-led boom of US economy – return to unipolarity against declinists’ predictions. Forecast post-American world used to speak with a Russian, Japanese or German accent, outmuscled by superior economic strength.
  • But if we have wrongly cried wolf before, doesn’t mean the wolf isn’t there. Nothing is forever: top dogs always fade eventually, whether classical Rome, 16th century Spain, 19th century Britain.
  • Economic foundations of its strength eroding. Declining share of world product. Losing technological dominance.  Economic base – once a powerful, creditor economic superpower, but now debtor, fiscal deficits, per capita debt, dependence on foreign investment– fragile – underwritten by Chinese savings
  • Commitments exceed its power. Fatal interaction of war and debt. Sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, and the mounting cost of servicing a mountain of public debt. Accelerating crisis: Since 2001, in the space of just 10 years, the US federal debt in public hands has doubled as a share of GDP from 32 per cent to a projected 66 per cent next year. continuing deficit finance could mean for the burden of interest payments as a share of federal revenues – up to 85 per cent in 2050.
  • America’s legitimacy and appeal/charisma of its ideas more fragile – soft power has to have hard foundations
  • Like to remain a heavyweight unrivalled in its ability to project power, but co-exist with other heavyweights in a more multipolar world.
  • Not necessarily one new overdog: but US could struggle to stand up to collective opposition of other major powers
  • Absence of one challenger who could seize role of global guardian – more 19th century, polycentric world

Dangerous transitional moment: in the Asia-Pacific

One trend line: world slowly coming into balance

States facing largest declines in relative power have history of being targeted but also launching preventative wars to strengthen their positions and curtail rising challenger: measured in terms of world product, US relative decline of roughly 32%, China rise of 144%

Self-reinforcing spiral – extract more military security from declining economic base, crowds out productive investment

Makes it harder to sustain military presence on three continents, and shakes capacity to fight two major regional wars

Dangerous period of new confrontations

US has the choice: between continuing pursuit of world of dominance (described in its QDR, on back of $12 trillion debt,  “Extending a global defense posture comprised of joint, ready forces forward stationed and rotationally deployed to prevail across all domains, prepositioned equipment and overseas facilities, and international agreements.”)

Or different kind of world order: burden shift, allow for emerging multipolarity, spheres of influence, powerful offshore player

Negotiate this transition moment, this change in the landscape, without fatal collision

Can’t know the future.

But can consider two important questions: for those of us who rely on this empire, how should we prepare for its passing (burden shift of military responsibility to Europe)? and for the US, should it continue to hold on to a world of dominance? Or embrace something almost forgotten about – a world order based on balance?


  • Must learn to walk among giants
  • Balance economic relationship with China, with military-strategic US alliance
  • Tradeoff: maintain reliance to lower costs or raise costs to develop capability to respond independently (Beowulf, rip arm off giant)
  • Without creating security dilemma, combine deterrence with reassurance
  • Reassurance: confidence building fora with Asian nations, Asia-Pacific Community concept: common interests
  • Carry a big stick while learning how to speak softly
%d bloggers like this: