Grand Strategy as Co-Evolution: Being and Becoming

In considering grand strategy, historically, except for the Romans during their golden age, state actors, even vast empires like the Soviet Union or Great Britain, never approximated a closed system that could operate without reference to rivals who could potentially present an existential threat, singly or in combination. While the Pax Romana represents the rare outcome of a successful grand strategy, most great powers wrestled with imposing their will on both their rivals – but also on the geopolitical environment or “system” in which they operated.

What do I mean by the “system”? The explicit and implicit cultural and diplomatic rule-sets; the “rules of the game” by which powers interacted; the geoeconomic structures and patterns that were larger than any particular political entity and imposed constraints upon them, even the chance-based variables of natural resources and technological level which had a determining effect upon formulation of policy and strategy. The relationship between the architect of a grand strategy, his rivals and the world in which all were forced to operate consisted of a multiple variable feedback loop, not a diktat with a binary set of possible results.

I woud now like to make two points. 

First, to use an analogy from the biological sciences, grand strategy enunciated by a great power is a process of geopolitical co-evolution. There is an effort in grand strategy to impose over time one’s political will upon others to shape the “battlespace”, the sphere of influence, the hegemonic dominion to a state of affairs favorable to the state actor. Often, this is done by military force in times of crisis but over the long term, economic and diplomatic factors, all of DIME really, weigh heavily on the outcome. The process is never a one way street, even for actors who are considered to be largely triumphant. It is coevolutionary. If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.

The early Roman republicans, much less Cato the Younger, would have been viscerally appalled by the Empire of Late Antiquity with its’ Teutonic Masters of the Horse in place of citizen- Praetors and Imperators. The Founding Fathers would be amazed by the condign dominance of the United States as a global titan but dismayed by the truckling servility, the lack of economic independence and the sheepish passivity of Americans whose citizenship is largely nominal. Ancient Chinese sages might feel much the same about hybrid capitalist-communist China of 2010.

Secondly, sustaining the national or group identity is a critical component of grand strategy that makes it a different, more expressly political/cultural  exercise than crafting strategy as Clausewitzians use the term as being driven by policy. Grand strategy should guide policy formulation because it is not just a set of concrete structural ends, or a laundry list of “vital interests” but a constructive, values-laden, attractive, motivating, civilizational narrative. An ideal or cultural identity for which men and societies are willing to go to war, to stand, fight and die. As Thomas P.M. Barnett once put it, for a “Future worth creating“. Grand strategy is a defiant clarion call of civilizational supremacy, marshalling those who will fight for that which is not, but could be.

But if you gain the whole world, while losing oneself, have you won? Or lost?

A victorious grand strategy shapes others while preserving – or expanding the reach of – the core identity of cultural-political community engaged in the struggle for autonomy for itself  and dominion over the environment. Some changes though are inevitable despite the best of intentions. Exercising power carries with it a price and the piper must be paid.

Following Boyd, the more attractive our vision, the “noble philosophy” we offer up to others and the more consistently we practice that which we preach, the greater our reach while remaining true to ourselves – thus demoralizing our adversaries. The more we trade on our souls, compromise our principles, turn away from threats and contradict our professed ideals, the less we have. Power is useful but it is transient. The exercise sweet, but the cost dear.

Power runs through our fingers like water. What did we give for it? What did we gain? Who are we now?

That is grand strategy.

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7 comments on this post.
  1. historyguy99:

    Mark, Adam,

    Excellent post that in many ways serves as a templete for the course for the next half century. This comes right as the referred too, Thomas Barnett is proposing such an agreement between presidents as was noted in the Atlantic Charter reference.

    http://globlogization.wikistrat.com/globlogization/2010/12/20/the-final-version-of-the-sino-american-grand-strategy-term-s.html

  2. onparkstreet:

    But we don’t know what we want to be when we grow up, Zen. Some people want to stay in on a Saturday night and pay attention to our bills and our laundry, and others want us to go out to a play or for dinner or to have a drink and kick-butt if necessary….
    .
    Middle age is confusing for a country.
    .
    – Madhu

  3. zen:

    Hi HG,
    .
    Thank you! I need to blog on Tom’s strategic iteration re: China. I have been badly tied up the past month but I am now freer to blog! 🙂
    .
    Doc Madhu,
    .
    Ah, wonderful metaphor on your part. Wish I had thought of that while writing the post. Our Founders tended to take the view of Polybius that decay in any constitutional regime was inevitable. They crafted a "mixed" constitution to retard the onset of decay, but they expected that their newborn empire of liberty would have a childhood, an apex and a decline. Gibbon, of course, was very much on their minds as well, being a contemporary.

  4. T. Greer:

    Secondly, sustaining the national or group identity is a critical component of grand strategy that makes it a different, more expressly political/cultural  exercise than crafting strategy as Clausewitzians use the term as being driven by policy. Grand strategy should guide policy formulation because it is not just a set of concrete structural ends, or a laundry list of “vital interests” but a constructive, values-laden, attractive, motivating, civilizational narrative. An ideal or cultural identity for which men and societies are willing to go to war, to stand, fight and die. As Thomas P.M. Barnett once put it, for a “Future worth creating“. Grand strategy is a defiant clarion call of civilizational supremacy, marshalling those who will fight for that which is not, but could be.

    .

    That is quite eloquently said! I will have to remember to quote your words next time I try to discourse on the relation between cultural cohesion, national purpose, and grand strategy. Very well done.

  5. zen:

    Much thanks T.Greer!
    .
    I think this is the very important part of grand strategy that is lost when the conversation is dominated by folks with military-centric and national security/technocratic priorities, without the narrative, the poetry, the vision, grand strategy is a dessicated policy corpse – a realpolitik zombie lumbering on autopilot. Von Moltke needed a von Bismarck to steer the ship of state or the excess of Prussian military overreach  would have reaped the whirlwind.

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