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Grand Strategy and Morality II.


After I wrote the post Grand Strategy and Morality, blogfriend T. Greer had a serious objection:

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:

Greer cites his erudite essay on the subject, Dreaming Grand Strategy for the full explanatory argument ( here is Greer’s excerpt but you should read the whole thing):

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.

I’m very sympathetic to much of what is in this post at Scholar’s Stage because we are grasping toward the same point: the relationship between grand strategy and moral purpose. Having reflected on T.Greer’s argument and my own prior post, here is my response:

  • While moral purpose is a constant variable in grand strategy generally, in specific historical cases it’s importance will vary significantly.
  • At times, Greer is right that grand strategy is embedded in a prexisting moral purpose. I certainly agree that that civilizational values and mores govern the nature of the grand strategies that societies will construct.
  • Greer’s essay, albeit persuasive, is too American-centric. The US among a handful of nations ( France, the former USSR, Imperial Japan, etc.) that requires a more explicit and rhetorically robust moral-ideological justification for a grand strategy than is typical. Some states only need a grand strategy that does not flagrantly contradict national moral principles, while other states require a grand strategy that champions them. Americans want America to be the “Citty on a hill”; others just want their country to survive with honor.
  • At other times, when realpolitik reigns, a successful grand strategy can ignite or act as a catalyst for a resurgence of moral purpose rather than be driven by it. Bismarck’s successful articulation of grand strategy went against prevailing elite opinion in the German states that was weighted heavily against Prussian domination of a united Germany, the military arguments of von Moltke’s grossgeneralstab and the preferences of Bismarck’s own monarch, King Wilhelm of Prussia. Bismarck’s wars of choice against Denmark, Austria-Hungary and France made Wilhem Kaiser and unleashed a ferocious dynamism of German nationalism whose consequences were to shake the world. 

My preference would be for strategic theory to be neat and clean, but history is a messy business.

18 Responses to “Grand Strategy and Morality II.”

  1. Joseph Fouche Says:

    I agree with T. Greer that the explicit or formal culture of these United States plays an important role in undergirding the moral element of our strategy. However, we’ve had a difference of opinion over the strength of America’s tacit or informal culture, especially in its contemporary incarnation, and its contribution. I have a stronger belief that the tacit culture of America, an influence that is only rarely acknowledged, has a stronger role in the formation of past and present strategy. If the explicit formal state, the United States of America, was swept away tomorrow, the tacit informal nation, America and its constituent sub-nations, would survive. Any successor polity or polities would have recognizably American tacit and explicit cultural characteristics. The trauma of state disintegration in fact, may result in tomorrow’s tacit America becoming stronger than today’s explicit United States.The moral dimension of strategy must have roots in a polity’s culture and its politics. It is its expression through these mediating layers that impacts strategy for good and for ill. The incoherence of U.S. strategy is a result of political results evenly divided between parties whose ideological extremes are polar opposites and who overlap only in their equal devotion to looting the commonwealth for their partisan base. If a U.S. political party achieved a decisive, generation long victory over its competitors, U.S. strategy would immediately become more coherent. Irrational coherence maybe but coherence nonetheless.

  2. T. Greer Says:



    Thanks for the link!


    Regarding points 3 & 4:

    I agree, my post is centered upon America and her past strategies.  I ought to have ventured further afield, and if I had I would have made a further distinction that I have thought much about but nowhere articulated. Allow me to remedy this below.


    We declare that ours is a rule "of the people, by the people, and for the people." If any political unit is to compete successfully its decision making apparatus must work in harmony and with long term consistency. For America, the decision making apparatus was always the demos.  As such, it is difficult for a coherent American strategy to evolve if the demos is not itself coherent. A state shipped by the people requires a national ethos capable of uniting the people into one cohesive working body.


    Few kingdoms of man’s history have operated under such restrictions. Bismark’s Prussia is a case in point. There was no demos for Prussia. Even the Prussian aristocracy had little influence on the kingdom’s foreign policy. There was only Bismark. And by extension, the purpose of Prussia was the purpose Bismark chose for it. His purpose did not need to be overtly ‘moral’ —  it was not forged by the shared experiences of the masses, but by the calculations of one man.


    I think this general principle can be extended to all political systems. The ‘purpose’ is not the purpose agreed to by the entire population of a kingdom or state; it is the underlying vision that unites the efforts of whatever man or grouping of men decides affairs of states. In some polities the purpose is decided by dictator. In others it is the fruits of aristocratic consensus and self interest. And in others still it is the ethos of entire peoples.


    As a final thought, I should note that my original post did not describe this idea of "purpose" in explicitly moral terms. All of the American examples are so – but this is because Americans have had a knack for moral indignation since the founding. Perhaps a substitute for "purpose" would be "end goal." Or even "self-selected role." The idea is for decision makers  to have some kind of common picture or unifying vision as to what role  their state should play in the world, what the end goal of all their efforts should be.


     The state is built as an instrument. But an instrument for what? It is only when the decision making class has reached a consensus on this matter the crafting of grand strategy can begin.   


  3. Duncan Kinder Says:

    The need for a moral purpose explains why the priestly caste dominates the warrior caste in most societies.

  4. democratic core Says:

    T. Greer’s comments about Bismarck actually do apply to the US in the case of the Mexican War.  Daniel Walker Howe’s outstanding book What Hath God Wrought makes a case for the conclusion that the war was largely the implementation of the vision of one man, President Polk.  The election of 1844 was one of the closest in US history and Polk won largely because of a fluke: the Liberty Party siphoned off votes from Clay in upstate New York and the nascent Democratic machine in NYC generated enough fraudulent votes of Irish immigrants to put NY in the Democratic column.  There was no vast public support for either annexation of Texas or war with Mexico, the pillars of Polk’s campaign.  Nor is it clearly the case that Polk was simply serving the interests of the "slave power" by promoting the war, as abolitionists argued.  Polk’s key motivation for pushing for a war with Mexico had less to do with the annexation of Texas, which was basically a fait accompli before the war started, than with the annexation of California, something with which Polk was obsessed.  California was never viewed as a likely slave state, and ironically, it later became the backbone of the Republican Party in opposing westward expansion of slavery.  After the war started, again, primarily because of provocations Polk created, public support for the war remained highly divided with little of the country expressing much enthusiasm for the war.  The two highly competent generals responsible for winning the war, Scott and Taylor, were outspoken Whigs and were personally opposed to the war.  Hard to see that demos or anything other than Polk’s personal nationalistic vision had much to do with this war.

  5. T. Greer Says:


    The funny thing about your statement is that I developed my ideas while examining the Mexican-American war. I wrote a 12 page essay on the topic, and came to the conclusion that the expansionism of the 1840s, though directed by only a few men, was built around (and would have been completely impossible without) a national ethos that demanded  expansion. As it was quite lengthy, full of footnotes,  and written in a more formal tone, I did not place it on my blog. I would be happy to e-mail it to any one interested in the matter.

  6. democratic core Says:

    I wasn’t talking about "expansionism" in some vague sense.  I was talking about the Mexican War specifically.  Again, expansionist slaveholders were interested primarily in the annexation of Texas, which as I pointed out, was basically accomplished before the war started.  Notably, the war did not command uniform support among slaveholders, as best exemplified by the fact that even Calhoun did not support the war.  None of the territory ultimately acquired in the Mexican Cession was particularly suited to slave-based agriculture.  Northern expansionists were more interested in settling the boundaries of the Oregon Territory than pursuing a war with Mexico.  The election of 1844 did not provide a mandate for war with Mexico, and the war remained extremely unpopular while it was being fought.  This also shows that there was not really any broad consensus in favor of "expansionism" in general.  Nationalists like Clay, who lost the election by the narrowest of margins (and arguably won it) were more in favor of development of the territory that the US already had rather than expansion into additional territory.  The Mexican War succeeded not because of national enthusiasm for the war, but primarily because two very competent generals placed duty to civilian authority ahead of their personal partisanship.  So again, I think that the decision to pursue the war was largely Polk’s alone, having nothing to do with national ethos.
    In general, I am unpersuaded by your national ethos argument.  One thing you learn from the study of history is that it is very complicated, particular events are highly fact-specific, and generalizations rarely work.

  7. slapout9 Says:

    Seems to me that any Grand Strategy should have two parts that are designed to work together in order to be effective. The two parts are an effective domestic policy that aligns with an effective foreign policy, if either one are unbalanced or are absent entirely we will get into trouble. Kinda like what is happening now.

  8. slapout9 Says:

    Link to the one and only "Billy Jack" on how America has lost it’s moral purpose.


  9. T. Greer Says:


    As my response to your position is fairly large and only loosely related to the point of Zen’s post, I have written up a new post on the matter over at my site. Please feel free to respond to it there.


    ~T. Greer

  10. Dave Schuler Says:

    I think I disagree with both positions.  Grand strategy and moral purpose are both reflections of national character.

  11. J. Scott Says:

    Since this post and the one previous speaks about national character/morality, do we have any idea "what" our perceived national character is among world players these days? I believe an answer to this question is essential; and the answer(s) are not simple, and often not flattering.

  12. Dave Schuler Says:

    do we have any idea "what" our perceived national character is among world players these days? .Mostly a Urie Bronfenbrenner-style mirror image, I’m afraid. So, for example, I suspect that the citizens of most Arab countries believe we’re involved in exactly the same sort of machinations their own governments are up to their ears in.

  13. Seerov Says:

    On the surface the current American grand strategy appears to be to stopping the rise of any Eurasian power (or group of powers) from being able to challenge America’s global hegemony.  This is carried out by installing, supporting, and maintaining pro American regimes.  This is accomplished by using all aspects of political activity such as trade deals, usury, color revolutions, and armed conflict.  The rhetorical campaign currently is "democracy."  Before political correctness, the rhetorical campaign was "manifest destiny." 
    However,  this is only part of the picture. The fact is, America doesn’t truly have a "national" grand strategy anymore.  Instead, the resources of the US are used to meet the goals and desires of the transnational elite(TNE).  This elite comes mainly from Western nations, and the grand strategy I described above is generally used within the developing world, or what we once called the 2nd and 3rd world.
    The TNE also have a grand strategy for the developed wold (or 1st world).  Here the strategy is stopping the rise of a new elite, who could potentially challenge the TNE’s power.  This is carried out by mass immigration/forced diversity (for the purpose of destroying communities), political correctness, speech codes (mostly in Europe and Canada but soon to come to America), growth of the managerial state, government intrusion/spying, and heavy indoctrination in the information spheres (news, entertainment, education).  The rhetorical campaign is "tolerance" and multiculturalism. 
    The TNE have an away game, and a home game, and like most grand strategy the only real "morality" is this: That which increases power and influence is "good," and that which decreases power and influence is "bad." 

  14. J. Scott Says:

    DS, I read your mirror image paper and three things jumped out with respect to my question: the proclivity for distortion in perception, secondly is “the dichotomy of good and bad,” and lastly, the “self-confirming” nature of respective biases. (The psychologist, Gary Klein has written about the first and the last in a book called Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Key to Adaptive Decision Making.) I wish I had time to give this post the attention deserved, so I’ll be brief. Having travelled in the former Soviet Union (FSU) in the early 90’s, I had experiences similar to those of the writer; there was a certain “relativistic” tone with my conversations, but the evidence of the ravages of Soviet communism overpowered the rhetoric—I continue to be amazed that a nation could build such rockets and live in such squalor. The first Soviet arms control inspectors visiting the US thought US supermarkets were “set-up” just for them, and could not believe the choices and abundance. I use these two visual examples because the visual has the power to destroy any preconceived notion—the inspectors thought everyone stood in line for bread and found bread in abundance and no line, we were told the “worker’s paradise” standard of living was on par with ours in the West—and nothing could be further from the truth. The point is what we saw changed the distorted view. The USA rushes to the scene of calamities and natural disasters and provides assistance and hard currency—we are a compassionate people; but from a national character perspective this is but a data point. The images the world sees coming from America come primarily from Hollywood and our entertainment industry—and the image portrayed is not flattering. I’m not suggesting censorship or the like, but if we’re considering strateegery, we need consider “what” we project to the world besides military force and increasingly worthless $100 bills. Those stories and images are just as much a part of our national portrait as a chopper dropping supplies to refugees—and a helluva lot more lasting. The nations of the world (particularly in the Middle East) are paying attention to what they see, not just rhetoric, and what they see is inconsistent with their traditions and “confirms” the many preconceived biases they may have of a “free Nation.” Just a thought.

  15. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "The need for a moral purpose explains why the priestly caste dominates the warrior caste in most societies."

    I am not sure why that is true, other than the priestly caste builds potential energy through the collecting, storage, and distributing of information, while the warrior caste releases kinetic energy that distributes resources and builds wealth (possibly for the priestly caste). Potential energy is distance and force specific, while kinetic energy is mass and velocity specific. In that case the pen is mightier than the sword, because time, in the velocity of the warrior, works in the favor of the priestly caste.

    As for morality, it is a judged movement through time of an orientation’s ethics and contains elements of distance, force, mass and velocity.

    In that case, the pen and sword would be equally moral or unmoral depending on how its use was judged, but the warrior caste only has a limited amount of time to work in and generationally favors tactics over strategy.

    The warrior caste would probably just rather leave the morality of something like the Manifest Destiny for someone else to judge.

    On the other hand, the warrior caste may have judged it to be immoral, but who knows? Morality is the judgment of an orientation’s ethics and is orientation specific. Perhap the warrior is even from a different orientation.

    While immoral, because it is outside of judgment, the priestly caste would be able to use 5GW over many generations, while the warrior caste would not be able to because of the "time" factor.

  16. seydlitz89 Says:

    I’ve printed out T Greer’s essay and will have a read. 

    A couple of questions come to mind.  First, what Zen is talking about seems to me to be a mix of Grand Strategy and Strategic Culture.  Are we better off making a distinction between the two? 

    Second, all the talk of "morality" in connection with strategy seems to be very Boydian in the limiting sense, that is Boyd’s adaptation of the moral sphere from the early JFC Fuller.  Fuller later seemingly abandoned the concept, seeing it as simply a means of manipulating the citizenry of a state.  Values and morality are associated with culture and not necessarily tranferable.  While this may serve to enhance domestic cohesion and support for military action, it most likely isn’t going to have much effect on the other side.  In fact the moral purpose of one side may be an existential threat to the other. i.e.  Manifest Destiny and the Native Americans.


    Your view seems very simliar to that of Alain Joxe.  Have you read him?

  17. zen Says:

    hi seydlitz89,

    No, I had to google Joxe. Postwar France is not a strong suit for me – it looks like some of his writings are in English so I will check out The Empire of Chaos.
    My use of "moral" is very loose and Boydian, so I don’t really mind Dave Schuler’s objection upthread on behalf of "national character". Grand strategy requires a long term commitment and sizable resources, motivating society to do so is critical. Is this manipulative? Yes, but it is also a constraint. A successful strategist is unlikely to boldly seek ends or use ways that his own society would declare to be reprehensible, blasphemous etc. They would be unlikely to think outside that box to begin with unless they themselves were a weird social outlier, itself an impediment to rising high enough to exercise that kind of power in normal times. Abnormal times though, yield Napoleons, Lenins, Hitlers, Maos who will make drastic breaks with the strategic status quo.
    "First, what Zen is talking about seems to me to be a mix of Grand Strategy and Strategic Culture.  Are we better off making a distinction between the two? ".
    That’s a great question. I think some of  the difficulty here is that historically, not every nation really *has* a grand strategy, lacking the means to carry one off and among those that do, they come by it through a mixture of conscious, deliberate, planning and inheriting an ad hoc set of institutional practices, informal customs and widely held beliefs – the "strategic culture" – which requires time, effort and harsh experience to change. Where realpolitik dominates or after some shock (perhaps a calamitous defeat) when influential people are most open to radical change,  it is easier for a strategist to write on a blank page and separate grand strategy more clearly from from strategic culture (or reform that culture).
  18. seydlitz89 Says:

    Hi Zen-

    Seems that perhaps grand strategy and strategic culture are two sides of the same coin, perhaps in Clausewitzian terms grand strategy is the "subjective" element as in specific to a certain time/leadership cadre/political context, and strategic culture is the "objective" element as in the actual result of long-term tendencies and experiences of the political community in question.

    Read T. Greer’s essay which brings up many interesting questions.  I would only point out that his characterization of "realist" as seeing the survival of the state as being the only function of the state is actually "neo-realist".  The exclusive emphasis on such instrumental rationality and the narrow view of "political man" does not take into consideration the important "cultural" as in value rational aspects concerning political communities. 

    Classical realism on the other hand sees the need for justice to balance interest in order to allow for a balance of power since hegemony is normally unsustainable over the long run.  It also believes in the basically tragic nature of humanity.  This is the view following the thought for instance of Thucydides/Clausewitz/Weber/Morgenthau.

    I would also mention that Joseph Fouche’s questions that T Greer quotes, namely "1. What is America?" and "2. What is America for?" can be answered respectively by Andrew Bacevich’s credo and sacred trinity as presented in his recent Washington Rules, as I have mentioned in my latest blog post.  This sadly brings us back to square one . . .

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