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Grand Strategy and Morality

Adam Elkus had two brief but thoughtful posts on grand strategy at Rethinking Security that I woulld like to highlight and use as a foil to promote further discussion. I encourage you to read both in full:

Basil Liddell-Hart, Grand Strategy, and Modern Grand Strategy

….This, however, is not the understanding of “grand strategy” we have today. Starting with Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (Luttwak has written a new book about the Byzantine Empire), grand strategy has been used in books to refer to the overall method of a state for producing security for itself or making itself powerful. Paul Kennedy’s edited compilation Grand Strategies in War and Peace and Rise and Fall of the Great Powers explicitly uses this framework. The William Murray and MacGregor Knox edited compilation The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War also pioneered it. And the Clausewitzian Colin S. Gray has written a great deal on grand strategy as well.

So, what to say? First, the better works on the subject do not treat grand strategies as linear plans but a coherent or at least related set of practices over a long period of time. This is a good approach to take, as it emphasizes that rulers did not instinctively seek to craft a Seldon Foundation-esque master plan for eternity but discovered, through trial and error, a set of practices, ideas, and concepts of operations that worked for a given period of time. Perhaps a very important question (and one that has been alluded to) is what kinds of political cultures tend to produce these sets of practices, and whether they are imposed top-down, generated in a mixed fashion, or come emergently from below


Strategy and “Strategy”

Diplomatic historian Walter McDougall recently wrote this:

The most a wise statesman can do is imagine his ship of state on an infinite sea, with no port behind and no destination ahead, his sole responsibility being to weather the storms certain to come, and keep the ship on an even keel so long as he has the bridge.

I write this after an interesting Twitter conversation with Gunslinger of Ink Spots, which he later excerpted in his own reflections on strategy in America. Gunslinger points out a recurring dynamic. The upper layer of policy and strategy is thin and operational art, the solid bottom foundation, is filling in the void. The problem, however, is that operational art provides a narrow viewpoint to see the world. It is good as a cognitive ordering device for some things, but poor for others. When we try to use it as a strategic device, it magnifies our confusion because the blurs outside of our finely tuned vision are all the more distressing, frightening, and alien to us

Adam is right. Operational excellence is strongly desirable but by itself, insufficient. It is a sword, not a map. Still less is it a crystal ball or moral code. 

Grand strategy is not, in my view, simply just “strategy” on a larger scale and with a longer time line. Strategy is an instrumental activity that unifies ends, ways and means. While grand strategy subsumes that aspect, it also provides ordinary strategy with a moral purpose, perhaps even in some instances, an identity.  Grand strategy explains not just “how” and “for what”, but “why we fight” and imparts to a society the supreme confidence in itself to sustain the will to prevail, even in the face of horrific sacrifice. Grand strategy brings into harmony our complex military and political objectives with the cherished, mythic narrative of a “good society” we conceive ourselves to be, reducing “friction”, “pumping up” our resolve and demoralizing our enemies. Grand strategy is constructive and energizing.

A simple but profound moral argument is a critical element of a grand strategy, to a great extent, it frames the subsequent political and military objectives for which war is waged. Here is one example:

….We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security

Or another:

….I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim?

I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

War is not a game of chess. Without a moral purpose – an Atlantic Charter, a Gettysburg Address, Pope Urban II’s sermon, the Funeral Oration of Pericles – to lend sanction to strategy, a war effort is hamstrung and civil society is left unengaged, perhaps indifferent or even hostile to military action. In the American Civil War, there was a world of difference between the morale and determination of Union states of 1861-1862 and that of late 1864-1865. This turnaround was not solely due to Generals Grant and Sherman, the former of whom was being castigated in the newspapers as a “butcher” up almost until the moment where he was deified in victory, the change pivoted on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address which welded battlefield sacrifice to a higher cause.

Naturally, actions that violate the moral purpose – of the grand strategy or a society’s sense of self – are incredibly, incredibly, damaging. This is why Abu Ghraib was utterly devastating to the American war effort in Iraq. Or why accusations or evidence of high treason are bitterly divisive. They contradict the entire raison d’etre for having a strategy and paralyze a society politically, energizing competing centers of gravity while giving heart to the enemy.

Oddly, highly sophisticated American leaders seem to be blind to this but Osama bin Laden, fanatical and ignorant in his half-baked, obscurantist understanding of Salafi Islam, is keenly aware. His entire “fatwa” declaring al Qaida’s jihad on America, despite being riddled with lies, is a painstaking plea to his fellow Muslims as to the righteousness of his cause, the worthiness of his objectives and the iniquity of the American infidels. Osama may be an evil barbarian, but Bin Laden has far more clarity of purpose and moral certitude  than many USG senior leaders who cannot bring themselves to say who the enemies are that United States is fighting and why ( other than “9/11” – which is like saying we fought Nazi Germany because of Pearl Harbor). Too often they have an indecent haste to cut checks to governments who are allied to our enemies

They are halfhearted and timid in America’s cause while our foes brandish their convictions like they were AK-47’s.

10 Responses to “Grand Strategy and Morality”

  1. YNSN Says:

    This reminds me of what Harold Macmillan said when asked what the greatest challenge to his term as Prime Minister would be:  "Events, my dear boy.  Events." 

    I agree with you, as Grand Strategy seems most often as something you can’t ‘do’.  It is something intangible.

    In looking at public opinion and our government itself.  I can’t help but wonder if systemically, we are not unable to have leaders to provide the moral context for this war. The last 10 years has seen an effort to compartmentalize the wars from the American people.  The results of which are becoming clear.   This is a war of moral attrition, not Oversea’s Contingency Operations.

  2. slapout9 Says:

    Well let’s see….what is the mission of America? A long time ago we created the greatest Grand Strategy Document that has ever existed and then  we ignore it. The USA has 6 Mission areas that if we ever fulfill them would keep us safe and prosperous. It has nothing to do with Capitalism or Communism or Socialism……it is about Americanism and creating the proper Systems to achieve our mission, when we learn that(or remember it) we may just start to get somewhere.

    From the preamble of the Constitution:
    1-Form a more perfect union.
    2-Establish justice.
    3-Insure domestic tranquilty.
    4-Provide for the common defense.
    5-Promote the general welfare.
    6-Secure the blessings of liberty for now and fututre generations.
    We don’t need to read anybody else’s theory or book, we need to practice the one we wrote!

  3. morgan Says:

    Bullseye, Slapout–Semper Fi

  4. Duncan Kinder Says:

    The Soviet Union had a Grand Strategy.

    Despite which, it collapsed.

    And yet the Communists survived in China.  Even though any Grand Strategy China may have is, at best, obscure.

  5. onparkstreet Says:

    @ slapout – Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of "mission creep" since then….
    – Madhu

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Duncan,

    The Soviet Union had a Grand Strategy.Despite which, it collapsed."
    Very true. A poor grand strategy may be worse than not having one at all. OTOH, the Communists went from a obscure faction of Russian intellectual malcontents in 1917 to expand rapidly to briefly dominate something over a third of the planet by 1970 right before the Soviet economy began to contract and ultimately implode.
    Kinda like Attila and the Huns

  7. T. Greer Says:

    If I may, I point to a distinction I made in an earlier post over at my place, "Dreaming Grand Strategy." To quote the relevant material:

     In  Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History Frederick Merk states that the defining feature of the American polity has been its "sense of mission." Americans, says he, have always been invested in the idea that their Republic served a great purpose. They could never delegate their destiny to the realpoliticking of the upper echelons of power. In times of crisis it is this sense of of purpose that has sustained the Republic, and in achieving national goals it is this sense of purpose that has acted as the unconscious guide of American statesmen and citizens alike. Strip away America’s mission, and you have stripped away America. And in doing so you have stripped away our grand strategy as well.

    You will be hard pressed to find a strategy articulated and pursued by American statesmen that was not embedded in a larger sense of American purpose. The isolationism of the early 1800s was rooted in the conviction that America was creating “an Empire of Liberty”, untouched by the despotism of the old world. 50 years later the nation fulfilled its “Manifest Destiny” to “Extend the Area of Freedom” by expanding to the Pacific coast. Before Roosevelt could put “Germany First”, he needed to declare that his country was “The Arsenal of Democracy”.  Kennan’s policy of containment was reliant on the assurance that America was the true and only “Leader of the Free World.”
    Phrases like "Manifest Destiny" and "Arsenal of Democracy" were not merely the rhetorical flourish used by canny politicians to justify the exercise of power. They were the reason power was exercised in the first place. These phrases were, in essence, bit-sized distillations of the mission and purpose Americans claimed for their nation. Containment only worked because the American populace believed that it was America’s mission to act as the Leader of the Free World. Cold War grand strategy was an outgrowth of this mission – a means to maintaining the mission’s end.


    Purpose provides America with a vision. It prioritizes our interests, informs us of our enemies, and tells us what position we seek to hold on the international scene. A nation without a purpose is a nation without a grand strategy to achieve it.


    Grand Strategy, I submit, does not provide us with a moral purpose. Rather, grand strategy is the means we use to satisfy the demands of this purpose. You cannot have grand strategy without the purpose – but they are not one and the same. Purpose transcends individual statesmen. It is the work of peoples, not politicians. As I state later in the piece:

    Our purpose is just as much a feeling as it is a nuanced thought process; it is decided not by the brilliance of an essay or a memo, but by the collective hopes, fears, and experiences of the entire nation. It is something we all take part in, and it is something we will all help create.

    (In the post I go on to further suggest that America’s lack of a national ethos is the root cause of our inability to formulate a lasting purpose, and thus, grand strategy. But that, I think, is only tangential to the discussion here.)

  8. J. Scott Says:

    YNSN, I hope sincerely that you are wrong. If this is "a moral war of attrition" we will no survive. One of our major problems as a nation has been our rejection of morality in the name of fairness to the immoral. We have effectively litigated common sense from our political discourse. How do we credibly claim the moral high ground when Hollywood exports products and visuals that are offensive to many Americans, but truly offensive to a people less accustomed to the base nature our our "entertainment"? So bin Laden is credible when he complains that one of our major exports is immorality—which resonates with his followers; rightly or wrongly, the images reinforce the notion that their cause is just—and illustrates precisely what Zen mentioned in "sacrifice to a higher cause."

  9. slapout9 Says:

    The Inaugural address of John Quincy Adams. Pay attention to how he was elected… after an election in which there was no clear winner, and how the Consitution provides for such and event.

    Link to how he intended to pursue the Grand Strategy of the Constitution.


  10. zen Says:

    Hi T. Greer,
    Just caught your comment this a.m. 
    Decided it is worth a post in it’s own right, a Part II. to this one, which may take a day or two….

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