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:
….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
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
….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.