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Grand Strategy Board II, UK Edition


Aaron Ellis at Egremont, the blog of the Tory Reform Group, has taken a liking to my previous post, Time for a Grand Strategy Board? and decided that the time might be right for Britain:

Should the UK institutionalise its Wise Men?

Ever since the end of the Cold War, this country has found it hard to think strategically. A parliamentary report last year stated, “We have simply fallen out of the habit”. It has also befallen the United States and both our foreign policies have suffered from similar problems. The ‘Big Picture’ is being obscured as policies such as humanitarian intervention and promotion of democracy take the place of grand strategy.

Governments have also found it hard to implement their chosen policies because of the lack of proper strategy – the sort that links ends, ways and means. This has been the case for military action, as we are witnessing in Libya.

The lack of any overarching ideas about our role and our interests has led to an incoherent foreign policy, as competing departments pursue contradictory policies even within the same country.

The problem is partly institutional. Jim Scopes, a former director of strategy at HM Revenue & Customs, has written that current reward and promotion mechanisms in the Civil Service “favour reactive (problem-solving) behaviour rather than proactive (strategic) approaches.” The Public Administration Committee has found that “the ability of the military and the Civil Service to identify those people who are able to operate and think at the strategic level is poor.” As I wrote last month, the makeup of government institutions is not the only factor in making strategies but it is an important one. The world is so unstable right now that it is essential for policymakers to understand the global environment if they are to form a sensible foreign policy – yet the structure of governments influences how they see the world.

If governments are filled with officials more comfortable with solving immediate problems then foreign policy will be reactive and short-termist. We need people to take the longer view…

Read the rest here.

There’s an interesting symmetry here, in the effort to improve the strategic capacity of respectively the United States and the United Kingdom, that derive from the differences in their Constitutional arrangements and national security cultures.

Britain has operated for centuries with an unwritten Constitution and Cabinet government. While these phrases are much more historically complex than meets the eye, the power relationships of Monarch, Houses of Parliament, electorate, peerage, bureaucracy and Party having evolved considerably over time, we can simplify things by stating that the cardinal virtue of the British system was flexibility, to adapt to circumstances. In a crisis, power could rapidly flow to the minister best suited to deal with the trouble at hand and the lack of institutional structures helped ensure that once the crisis had ebbed, concentrated power would just as rapidly dissipate.

The United States, by contrast, has a written Constitution and a Federal government, which while also undergoing historical evolution, is characterized by restraint. Friction is engineered into the American system to thwart or deter concentrations of power and circumscribe it’s exercise within defined parameters . Except in rare instances of overwhelming national consensus, new activities by the US government require the Congress to establish formal institutions that will then fall within the natural gridlock of checks and balances that is the American system.

Ironically, in remediating the lack of strategic vision on both sides of the Atlantic, a Grand Strategy Board would represent an institutionalization of strategy by the British, whose flexible system is in need of a long term, disciplined, focus and a strategic advisory lobby for the Americans, whose more rigid political system periodically requires blue ribbon commissions, panels, study groups and boards to break our habitual political deadlocks.

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