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Answering Ronfeldt’s Question About the Nature of Strategy

RAND emeritus scholar and co-author of the classic Netwars and Networks, David Ronfeldt asked an astute question in reaction to my post proposing a grand strategy board:

I almost always see strategy defined as the art of relating ends and means.  It’s defined that way time after time, often but not always with a few extra criteria added here and there.  Usually something about plans or resources.  But I’ve long felt that I’d prefer to define strategy as the art of positioning.  That presumes a consideration of ends and means, but in my view, it’s not as abstract a definition, and gets to the core concern right away.  In looking around for who else may favor such a definition, the best and almost only leader I find is Michael Porter and his writings about corporate strategy.  He’s says explicitly that strategy is the art of positioning – apropos market positioning in particular.  maybe in some long-forgotten moment, that’s where I got the notion in the first place.  Meanwhile, i’ve been told that, of military strategists, Jomini emphasizes positioning the most.  This is not my area of expertise.  I’d like to know more:  is the “ends and means” view so accepted, so basic, so adaptable, that it’s not worth questioning?  What’s to be gained, and/or lost, by the “positioning” view?  Is there any strategy that isn’t about positioning? 

This is a great question, because it is a clarifying question about fundamentals.

I am not familiar with Micheal Porter’s work, but Chet Richards pointed out in his excellent Certain to Win that there are some significant differences in applying strategic thinking to business compared to using strategy in war. While war and the market both represent dynamic, competitive environments which require actors to adapt to survive, war is a destructive enterprise while business is ultimately transactional, cooperative and constructive, though you may have to overcome competition and conflict first. Conflict and competition on which the state and society place tight legal constraints to which buyers and sellers must conform.  Arguably, this explains the drift toward oligopolistic competition in regulated capiltalist economies: the constraints of rule of law which govern market actors would tend to give an even greater emphasis to “positioning” in peaceful economic competition than in warfare.

What about “positioning” and strategy generally?

Strategy is indeed defined by most experts as the alignment of Ends -Ways -Means. In my opinion, it is the most practical starting point for people of any level of strategic skill to consider what is to be done in the short or medium term within a known framework ( a theater, region, an alliance system, nation-state etc.). “Positioning” falls within this trinity under “ways” – for example, something as simple as seizing the high ground or as complicated as maneuver warfare theory is, in essence, an effort to acquire a comparative advantage over your opponent. Having comparative advantages are always good but they are usually transitory rather than being something that can be “locked in” permanently ( though man has tried – ex. the Great Wall of China, Constantinople on the Dardanelles, the age of fortresses in 16th-17th C. Europe, Mercantilist Policy, Massive Retaliation etc.). Normally, you have to keep moving, tactically adjusting your position in response to your opponent’s efforts to re-balance.

Positioning also exists outside the trinity of Ends-Ways-Means as the initial starting conditions that shape subsequent strategy. The phrase “Where you stand depends on where you sit” conveys the lesson that our perspectives, our premises, are deeply affected from where we begin. Geopolitical theory is rooted in this idea but positioning can be something other than physical location – politics and culture are positional because they are embeded with values and what we value to some extent determines what our Ends are going to be and how we perceive and define the problem for which we will employ a strategy to overcome.

The latter kind of positioning can be *very* problematic because ideological concerns inflame passions, distort our rational calculus of matching means to ends and generally introduce ever larger amounts of irrationality into strategic decision making at the expense of empirical observation. Boyd would call this a “mismatch” with reality from a corrupted OODA Loop and a textbook example would be the behavior of Imperial Japanese leaders in WWII. Launching an unwinnable war with the United States and prosecuting it almost to national annihilation was driven to a demonstrable extent by Japanese cultural norms related to honor, debt (on-giri), the “Imperial Will” and dysfunctional constitutional arrangements that made extricating Japan from a strategic cul-de-sac politically impossible. To a lesser extent, American prosecution of the war in Vietnam and the occupation of Iraq share similar irrationality derived from a priori ideological positioning.

A final observation:

When time horizons are very long and/or the problem is ill-defined and the framework boundaries vague or unknown or uncertainty high, the cognitive requirements for strategic thinking shift and it may not be possible to move beyond speculating as to Ends to the point where action should or even can be taken effectively. More information may be required. 0r greater means than exist. The problem may only be a hypothetical potentiality, rather than an actual problem. This point is one that is likely to be disputed as even being in the realm of strategy and could belong in that of theory or politics, depending on your perspective.

Many readers here are students of strategy or even professional strategists. In the interest of brevity, I’ve avoided getting into the specifics of schools of strategic thought or Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu or Jomini, but I’d like to invite readers to weigh in on Dr. Ronfeldt’s question or my response as they wish.

21 Responses to “Answering Ronfeldt’s Question About the Nature of Strategy”

  1. Phil Ridderhof Says:

    Could it be that while ends, ways and means are the component parts of strategy, “positioning” describes the actual action of strategy? Strategy is a constant effort to “position” in order to mitigate negative events/phenomena and take advantage of positive events/phenomena. “Positioning” connotes the continual character of strategy. While we pursue ends, we never really achieve them—and most strategic ends are really environments or conditions that require constant action to maintain, or that themselves spur development of new ends.

  2. Lexington Green Says:

    "…it may not be possible to move beyond speculating as to Ends …"  This circles back to the idea that Grand Strategy, which deals with the highest ends available to a politically organized community, is harder and harder as the community gets bigger and more diffuse and diverse, where the decision-making community gets bigger and more diffuse and diverse.  Where you are even sitting becomes unknowable.  Existential threats have the benefit of creating unanimity as to ends:  Survival is a goal most can agree on.  Positioning in terms of ideology, which creates the criteria for choosing ends, gets harder and harder in the face of lesser challenges.  Positioning yourself during more "normal" times requires either subterfuge by the decision-making elite, or relying on the voting public not paying attention.  Similar to public choice problems in budgeting, stakeholders will rebel loudly against positional moves that may be part of a web of strategy, without regard to the supposedly larger benefit.  Greek- and Armenian-American ethnic outrage against efforts to work closely with Turkey, for example.  Or, an important historical case, Irish-Americans being intensely hostile to attempts at Anglo-American cooperation before World War I, where closer cooperation may have deterred World War I entirely.  Similarly, changes the focus of military purchases may have a positional dimension — acquiring a Blue Water navy by the USA or by China a century later, for example — will create constituencies for the purchases, and opposition from the people who have to pay for it, either directly, or by the reduction of their existing budgets and influence.  So, "positional" play is hard because any change in course will provoke some kind of opposition by disrupting existing bases of support.  It is very, very hard to turn the ship.  

  3. slapout9 Says:

    Here is what Boyd actually said (from a tape recording I received)
    "Create a mismatch between what he perceives he should respond to, as opposed to the actual reality he should respond to in order to survive."

    Also from the tape recording, Boyd DID NOT believe in a focus of effort, he believed in multiple thrusts like Warden’s parallel attack.

  4. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Looks to me like positioning has far too many possible meanings to be useful. Mark enumerates some of them. Better to say some of what he says than use an ambiguous and confusing word. Ronfeld doesn’t make his meaning clear.

  5. Paul Vebber Says:

    Most Western views of the nature of strategy are analytic. You decide what your desired end-state is, then you determine the ways in which you can apply your available means to achieve it. We assume that we know the causal connections betwee means, ways and ends. This is exemplified in how Chess is often the game of choice for teaching strategy in the West. Capturing the King is the goal, and the correlation of forces is deconstructed as the game goes on. In terms of military strategy, we look at problems that way. You analyze what is between you and the enemy centers of gravity (CoGs) and you employ your means as directly as possible to the enemy CoGs. In general he defends those CoGs so you have to defeat that protection first. Very analogous to Chess. Eastern thinking on strategy is much more synthetic. Rather than starting with a deliberate endstate, there are desirable attributes and undesirable attributes to the state of things. The strategist employs means in ways that maximize the possibility of the desirable and minimize the possibility of the undesirable. You build opportunites that are attractive, you don’t destroy barriers to specific desires. This is demonstrated in the preferred strategic Eastern strategy game Wei Qi or Go. Rather than start with all the pieces on the board and analytically fight to remove them, Go stars with nothing on the board and stones are added, each representing possibilities – "shih" – constructing opportunity implicit in the arrangement of influences. It is synthetic – the correlation of forces is constructed through co-evolution with the adversary and each player may have very different interpretaitons of the ‘shih’ implicit in a given ‘hsing’ (actual power – correlation of forces – or number of stones on the board). To me strategy must be about both – analsis and symthesis – Boyd’s "destruction and creation". Its more than just "action of strategy" the difference between playing Chess and Wei Qi are more than about differences in ways, its about fundamental strategic philosophy. A chess player and Clauswitzian approach strategy in a fundamentally different way than a Wei Qi and Sun Tzu-ist does.

  6. slapout9 Says:

    Paul Vebber is that you man?

  7. Paul Vebber Says:

    The bad spelling gave me away – see you back at small wars journal 😉

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Paul:  After reading your comment, as someone very interested in games I find myself wondering two things: Chess has differentiated pieces / moves, whereas a given side’s Go pieces are fungible and thus more "abstract".  Do you think that the higher level of abstraction is a virtue, and if so, what is the corresponding drawback (for purposes of learning strategic thinking) of the kinds of highly differentiated war games now available on the open market or played in military academies?What would a game that was designed to foster both analytic and synthetic strategic thinking look like? Two other questions that are on my mind and may be related in some way to the above:

    What kind of game would best teach us the connectivity of a complicated / complex world? What kind of game would best teach us the kind of thinking that would encourage the goal of  (mutually favorable) conflict resolution rather than "winning"? And to wrap up all of the above — should we, perhaps, be playing a range of games with different aims and emphases, to develop flexible rather than goal-driven thinking?

  9. Paul Vebber Says:

    Different games teach us different things about strategy. Chess, with its different pieces give a more varied set of means with limitations in ways they can be employed. This complicates the analysis required compared to what might be a simpler game (like checkers). Since Chess is an analytic game, those additional capabilities and constraints improve its ability to teach those lessons. Go, being more synthetic is more about managing investments (stones commited to various regions of the board) and top level go players ( I am not by the way, just mediocre but a student) of certain styles would say that it only "degenerates" into an analytic game of capture when a mistake is made. A "perfect game" is one where both sides lose no pieces and victory is achieved by maximizing one’s stragetic investmentss moreso than one’s opponent. A new Go player will often get caught up in capture of enemy stones in one area, while the opponent writes them off and busily establishes dominant positions over the other 3 quadrants of the board. He loses one battle, but wins the war. The drawback of chess is its lack of focus on the synthetic (it has some, but is overwhelmingly analytic); Go is the opposite, some analytics, but overwhlemingly synthetic. The paper chit and hexmap wargames are typically derivative of chess far more than Go. They add the element of planning beyond that of Chess by entering new forces as he game goes on, and adding uncertainty as to the outcomes of battles. The "strategy" of such games takes on synthetic elements in the ablity to plan in such a way as to take advantage of "lucky dice rolls" or being prepared for the opponent getting them. Like go, one can often lay traps for the overly opportunistic, who overreaches or overcommits to an area in order to "win big" locally, yet weakens other postions precipitously. They also focus thought on the military correlation of forces and rarely provide sufficient context, leading to wargame players being far more aggressive risk takers than real world generals. What kind of game teaches us the lessons required of a complex world? Well, its tough, because games that teach us hard lessons are not necessarily fun. There are some lessons that should be learned that make us uncomfortable in our "strategic philosophy" regarding cause and effect. The more we learn about how truely ‘complex’ of ‘wicked’ some situations are, the moe we have to give up notions of simple cause and effect, and with them our preferred analytic "plan mechanistically back from the endstate" mindset (withits attendant metrics to act like the software installation "thermometer" telling us how long until victory. We learned a lot of hard lessons about hte dangersof that sort of thinking in our recennt wars (or should have). So games should not always present us with a set of dials and levers that always result in the same outcome when we input the same settings. the enemy always gets a vote – which is why two or more players are so important in games. The new crop of "deck building games" (e.g. google on "Dominion") where you have sythetic aspects of constructing a collection of ways and means (a card deck) that you must then analytically employ (by playing specifc cards from your hand). You build probabilities of ways and means into your deck, based on the overall strategy you are trying to achieve, but you still must analyticall play them right when you get them. In the end, playing a wide variety of games teaches a wide variety of strategic lessons – among them the importance of "the opportunities implicit in an arrangement of influences" – bringing it back to "shih" or what I enterpret Mr. Ronfeld to mean by position.  

  10. david ronfeldt Says:

    many thanks, zen.  wow, what an array of interesting comments — and interesting commenters too. 

    i’d like to stick with advancing my incipient notion about strategy as the art of positioning.  maybe porter has provided adequate elaboration.  i don’t know, and i’m not going to check now.  here are my own further thoughts:
    i don’t have a precise definition of “positioning” to try out, but i’d prefer an expansive notion.  what’s getting positioned might range from resonant ideas (soft power) to operational capabilities (hard power), maybe for real or maybe just as a ploy, but all as part of some plan, i suppose. 
    analytically, i’d lay out two dimensions for thinking about strategy from a positional perspective.  one is the standard ends-means (and -ways?) dimension.  let’s keep it.  but it’s so standard i won’t dwell on it.  i doubt i have anything new to add. 
    the second dimension is of keener interest to me:  i call it the space-time-action dimension.  it overlaps with the ends-means dimension, and it’s just as big and vague, but it calls for dissecting matters differently.  by space, i refer to how people see their identity in relation to others, and how they perceive objects as being structured, arrayed, and linked.  by time, i refer to how people discern past, present, and future.  by action, i mean whether and how people think they can affect matters.  i’d like to elaborate, my comment gets too huge if it try.  so i’ll just posit that i’d treat this as a key dimension (and cite a post about STA at my blog back in february 2009).
    in my view, both the ends-means and the space-time-action dimensions should be carefully assessed and aligned before settling on a strategy, be it a positioning strategy or a strategy by some other name.
    mark:  you raise an important question that different domains may require different views of strategy.  yet, i still think positioning makes as much sense for military and grand strategy as it may for business strategy.  where i’d wonder more is in regard to cyber strategy.  but here too, many matters turn out to be positional (e.g., firewalls). 
    paul:  i quite agree!  as you can see, i keep the ends-means view embedded above.
    lex:  hmmm, sometimes a good positional strategy may be to avoid being seen as taking a position.  future flexibility may ensue.
    slapout:  aha, boyd’s “multiple thrusts” sounds positional to me.
    cheryl:  ow, but ok; i’ve tried to step a little further in the direction of clarity in this comment.  in any case, it still seemes to me that the standard ends-mean definition of strategy is as fraught with inclarity.
    paul:  yes, that’s a good restatement about westerners playing chess while easterners play go.  lots of positional aspects in your discussion.  and it explains why arquilla and i put a go board on the cover of our rand study on swarming (2000), and observed the following in our book on networks and netwars (2001, p. 46):  “Thus, major transformations are coming in the nature of adversaries, in the type of threats they may pose, and in how conflicts can be waged.  Information-age threats are likely to be more diffuse, dispersed, multidimensional, and ambiguous than more traditional threats.  Metaphorically, future conflicts may resemble the Oriental game of Go more than the Western game of chess.  The conflict spectrum will be molded from end to end by these dynamics … “
    charles:  good points and questions.  i hasten to note that “connectivity” is a positional reference.  chess and go offer different kinds of connectivities.
    paul:  yes, i quite agree — different games inspire different approaches to strategy.  as an aside, i’d mention that someone i know who has had to deal with depressing problems used to spend a lot of time playing the solitaire game called klondike,.  it’s an okay way to take your mind off your mind, but it is entirely dependent on luck and rarely offers a win — too fateful.  i got her to shift to the solitaire game called free-cell, where winning is always a possibility in every deal, though it takes a lot more thought.  i think this little shift helped her disposition toward life a bit.
    anyone:  hmm, is it better to think of the operation against bin laden as the outcome of an ends-means or a positional strategy?  as a more chess-like or go-like strategy? 


  11. slapout9 Says:

    David Ronfeldt, don’t really think it is postioning but more like maintaing the initiative by fooling your opponent.  Bin Laden was plain old detective work, following the Family,Friends and Finances by Boots on the ground, Eyes on the people and Mind on the Mission. 

  12. seydlitz89 Says:

    Interesting thread.  There is much I could say, but I’m thinking about a post on a recent Hew Strachan article which covers a good bit of ground, so will only mention a couple of points.

    From a strategic theory perspective, strategy has to do with only collectivities, not individuals.  You can of course use the term "strategy" to describe what individuals do, but from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective, and I would say from a strategic theory perspective in general, we are talking about collectives or rather political communities only.  This of course is a whole different level of complexity.  The actions of individuals from this perspective would never rise above the level of tactics, unless we are talking about heads of state/supreme commanders.  This is something that separates us from the schools of Boyd and Sun Tzu, although the latter includes a good mixture of daoist philisophy as well (essentially a subjective way of life).

    "Positioning" seems to be an interesting concept.  I liked especially Zen’s inclusion of "assumptions" in it.  It comes across to me similiar to the Sun Tzu concept of "Shih" or "strategic configuration of power" as describes towards the end of chapter 5 in the AOW.  Still the trinity of "ways, means and ends" allows for various perspectives of analysis, does "positioning" offer the same advantages?  Also is "Shih" more the nature of a "stratagem" or a component of "strategy"?

  13. zen Says:

    Hi seydlitz,
    "You can of course use the term "strategy" to describe what individuals do, but from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective, and I would say from a strategic theory perspective in general, we are talking about collectives or rather political communities only.This of course is a whole different level of complexity.  The actions of individuals from this perspective would never rise above the level of tactics, unless we are talking about heads of state/supreme commanders"
    Generally I think this is correct. Strategy in the original sense is meant to apply to states and their armies. However, as with all rules and generalizations, I think there are exceptions. It is also possible to take concepts and extrapolate them, strategy being no exception. What do you think of these?:
    Individual squaring off in a conflict against a collectivity/community/state – i.e. the lone wolf  terrorist (Unabomber, DC Sniper) or hypothetical superempowered individual.
    Wargames and games of strategy like the adept discussion above by Vebber on Chess vs. Go.
    Properly employed special operations – "stay behind" SPETSNAZ cells, assassination teams, sabotage of logistical choke points, symbolic terrorism etc.
    Musashi, in The Book of Five Rings, excelled in providing examples of tactical actions that also illustrated strategic principles. For example, the discussion on length of one’s sword and the radius of effective attack/safety implied and how to close is a consideration of the effects of distance and comparative advantages between opponents.
    Moving farther away, competitive team sports where the object is to defeat your opponent,
    Games and sports are, of course, bound by artificial rules that if they are not followed, change the game.  Change the rules of chess and it is no longer chess. War also has artificial rules ( ex. Laws of War) and habits of strategic culture ( ex. close order drill, MAD -deterrence etc.) that when abandoned do not make war less like war but rather move the war to a purer state of violent conflict.

  14. zen Says:

    Hi David,
    "the second dimension is of keener interest to me:  i call it the space-time-action dimension.  it overlaps with the ends-means dimension, and it’s just as big and vague, but it calls for dissecting matters differently.  by space, i refer to how people see their identity in relation to others, and how they perceive objects as being structured, arrayed, and linked.  by time, i refer to how people discern past, present, and future.  by action, i mean whether and how people think they can affect matters."
    Time is an important and understudied variable; actually, that’s wrong, Time is usually studied as a component of logistics rather than strategy but Time becomes of greater strategic importance as the distances considered increase. This is because distances impose penalties of cost and increase the complexity of calculation because both speed and cost must be taken into account. The higher the speed, the greater the cost, whether you are the Wehrmacht invading Russia or the Huns attempting to fight the Western and Eastern Romans simultaneously.
    Time is also a key for planning and a frame for grand strategy which should be plotted out over years and decades.

  15. seydlitz89 Says:


    The "Unabomber" and "DC Sniper" are criminals by definition, they have no legitimacy.  That comes by being a recognized member of a political community and offering oneself in the interest of the community’s goals, "for the cause".  As to the famous "hypothetical superempowered individual" of yore, they (and we) would only know (maybe) if that was the case some time after the fact.  Gavrilo Princip? or Timothy McVeigh? . . . When dealing with collectivities quite different rules apply, which is my point.

    Games are essentially between individuals, whereas competitions are between groups, but we call it "game theory" don’t we? 

  16. zen Says:

    hi seydlitz,
    Agree with you on the DC sniper. Not sure on Ted Kacyzinski.
    You raise a very interesting question with "legitimacy", an inherently political characteristic that arises in diplomacy and within polities but one that is extremely elusive and defies an easy definition. Like pornography, we know legitimacy when we see it and criminal actions are inherently illegitimate.
    States are most threatened by actions that challenge their legitmacy – insurgency, political dissent, moral self-sacrifice. Think of the Buddhist monk setting himself afire in South Vietnam or Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia. The Soviets were not threatened by black marketeering gangs or Refuseniks but Sakharov’s moral protest and Solzhenitsyn’s uncompromising condemnation of Soviet Communism unnerved them badly. Most revolutions, begin as an effort to assert traditional-mythic norms – colonial Patriots demanding the Rights of Englishmen, early French revolutionaries admiring Henri IV, the IRA looking way back to Wolfe Tone, the Meiji Restoration and so on. States and insurgents both construct strategies to defend or attack the legitimacy.
    Did Kacyznski have normal criminal motives? Not really.  He had a warped eco-ideology that he took to the extent of it determining his bomb designs and while clearly suffering from mental illness, he had enough coherence to realize such a designation would cause his political motives to be dismissed and he protested against being so categorized and his terrorism was designed to facilitate his manifesto being disseminated. Was Kacyznski a criminal or merely a poor strategist as a terrorist?

  17. seydlitz89 Says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    I’m referring to Max Weber’s concept of legitimacy as how a political community accepts the coercion of the state/rulership.  This is quite a flexible concept and very compatible with Clausewitz btw.  Extending this to the individual we see that under normal political conditions, legitimacy will tend to support the state, whereas in extraordinary political conditions it will tend to support resistance to the state/established political system.  There is also the social action element here (another Weberian type of theory which imo provides a theoreitical framework for the "impressionistic" elements of Clausewitz’s general theory). 

    For instance in 1989 the German Democratic Republic enjoyed very limited legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, the political community it claimed to represent.  When the probability of Soviet coercion/force to support its hold on power was removed, it essentially collapsed during the crisis of the summer/fall of 1989.  Thus we have a collapse of state legitimacy (notice the emphasis on the moral/social action element) along with a time of extraordinary politics as the community struggles with forming/implementing a new political structure.  Resistance to the GDR was considered legitimate by the clear majority of the political community in question.  The question as to whether violent resistance is called for would depend on the political conditions.  In the GDR it was considered as counter-productive, whereas in Romania at the same time .  .  .

    So, was the Unibomber operating during a time of extraordinary politics?  Were his actions acknowledged by individuals within the political community he claimed to represent as legitimate (if violent) resistance?  It is not up to the individual, but rather the political community he supposedly represents and the political conditions said community experience as a group.  This is all, as in most social interactions, highly contingent.

    Princip, on the other hand seems to fit these criteria, as does to some extent Jesse James . . .

  18. david ronfeldt Says:

    i’ve searched a bit further into michael porter’s approach to strategy in the business world.  it is indeed loaded, more so than for any other strategist of any type that i have found so far, with points about “positioning.”  especially about “strategic positioning.”  and about the importance of doing things differently, more than doing things better, in order to make one’s position “unique and valuable.”  all this for the sake of competition in a world where comparative advantages matter.  
    all that seems supportive of my inclination to consider strategy as the art of positioning.  but i’m not sure what to do with porter.  he likes to lay out five forces that affect positioning: rivals, customers, suppliers, potential new entrants, and substitute products.  okay, but that’s not quite pertinent here.  (also not pertinent, but possibly deserving a parenthetical aside, is that porter was a co-founder and participant in the monitor group, which has attracted criticism for its consulting services for the gaddafi regime.)
    much as i like porter’s emphasis on positioning, his emphasis on competition is too narrow.  zen, as you observe in your intro remarks up front, and as other strategists have noted in other forums, the spectrum of concern to strategists now spans conflict, competition, and cooperation/collaboration.  moreover, an actor’s relations with another actor may not fit just one part of that spectrum, but include a mix of all three parts, to varying degrees, and involve nonstate as well as state actors.  matters may be not only multipolar and multilateral but also multiplex.  as i’ve tried to observe before (in an old post about strategic multiplexity), “We’re operating in a world that is both multiplex and multipolar, where out-competing increasingly depends on out-cooperating (and vice-versa).”  as others have noted better than i, strategic relationships may involve competition in one area, collaboration in another, and a potential for serious conflict in yet another.  in some situations, as two network analysts wrote, “The goal of competition cannot be to vanquish your opponent lest you harm your collaborator on a different project."  in our era, comparative advantages depend on one’s cooperative as well as competitive advantages.  
    all this can be handled analytically by viewing strategy as the art of relating (or aligning, as mark wrote) ends and means and ways.  but i’m still thinking that viewing strategy as the art of positioning gets to the cruxes in a better way.
    indeed, terms for grand strategies resonate best when they sound not only purposeful (as to ends / means / ways) but also positional in terms of space and time.  thus, classic terms like isolationism, containment, and enlargement all sound good; but a recent term, sustainment, does not.
    slapout:  good points.  by now, i feel that my question wasn’t a good one.  
    seydlitz:  i’ll have to look further into the concept of “shih” that you (and paul vebber) raise.  i’ve forgotten what little i maybe used to know about it.  it sure sounds appropriate.  
    zen:  yes, there’s quite a view that strategy is ultimately logistics.  to persist with my frame, i’d treat logistics as a matter of temporal and spatial positioning, for reasons you indicate.  
    anyway, many thanks again for opening up this discussion.  

  19. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » “Trust, but verify” and Pakistan: III Says:

    […] Ronfeldt said something in a recent comment here on strategy that to my mind maps very nicely — like one of those zooms in films from a very long view of […]

  20. Sean Mordan Says:

    I’ll be honest, I’m a little confused. But good post.

  21. larrydunbar Says:

    Strategy isn’t about positioning. 

    Take the Wall of China as an example. Its position as well as design is simply tactical. The strategy is one of isolation. This is the same strategy used in Iraq while deploying the tactic of the Surge.

    Our forces isolated both sides in a civil war that enabled both to survive in the same environment. Isolation along with subversion (giving the enemy our lunch money so they don’t kill us) was the strategy(s) we used to win in Iraq.

    After all we went into Iraq as if we were fighting friends–it wasn’t until after we left that we found out how much they hated us.

    But that is the problem with strategy–it is all flawed, even winning strategy.

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