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Book Review: The Shaping of Grand Strategy

The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War by Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich and James Lacey (Ed.)

As readers of this blog know, grand strategy is an important and timely subject that speaks directly to the difficulty American leaders have had in navigating the ship of state in the waters of the international arena. The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War by Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich and James Lacey (Ed.) and contributing authors Colin S. Gray, Marcus Jones, Jeremy Black and John A. Lynn III postulates what grand strategy is and explain from historical case studies how statesmen struggled to fashion one in peace and war.

The Shaping of Grand Strategy has a number of strengths to recommend it to the serious student of history or strategic practitioner:

Focus: The case studies are all anchored in the Westphalian state system starting with the early modern period of European absolutism and apex of “national” monarchies and transitions through a Bismarckian 19th century to finish with the West’s cataclysmic 20th century battle with totalitarianism. This gives the chapters by different scholars a sense of cohesion and chronological succession.

Balance: The Shaping of Grand Strategy gives scholarly treatment from both the theoretical, strategic studies perspective as well as the historical case study. I learned some things about Louis XIV’s Europe and the Great Britain of the Pitts and the Hanoverian dynasty of which I was unaware. Theory bookends history in this tome.

Nuance: Each scholar gives his subject an adult treatment. Controversial points are interesting rather than shrill and each author engages an impressive synthesis of historiographic material as they cover a broad ground in investigating grand strategy. Each chapter is sound and engaging.

Limitations, such as they are, to be considered:

Absent: Powerful non-Western case studies. The ancient world.  Revolutionary war (French, Soviet or Islamist insurgent) as a grand strategy. Geoeconomics asnd political economy as a foundation for grand strategy. 

Weak: Insufficient treatment of the impact of nuclear weapons and deterrence on grand strategy, which frankly deserved a chapter of it’s own.

If you are composing a syllabus for a class on grand strategy or strategy, The Shaping of Grand Strategy would serve as an excellent generalist core for the course, supplemented by cognate, specialist or subtopical readings.

Some things that struck me while reading The Shaping of Grand Strategy:

  • Colin Gray’s distillation of the strategic dilemmas faced by Truman and an almost Boydian implicit explanation of what grand strategy is and why it needs a compelling moral power:

High policy does not emerge in a vacuum, though it can be invented in a hurry without much forethought when necessity presses. Policy requires a North Star for guidance that can inspire, yielding to would-be leaders the fuel they require to recruit and satisfy their followers

  • James Lacey’s realistic and granular treatment of the relationship between military strategy and grand strategy in the WWII Anglo-American Alliance and his generally admiring assessment of FDR as a strategist vs. a critical treatment of George Marshall.
  • Marcus Jones’ emphasis of the importance of the strategist himself and the uncertainty of decision making in his chapter on Otto von Bismarck.
  • The drawing of historical parallels with today  by John Lynn and Richard Sinnreich as well as the investigation of the reasons for grand strategic failure of British appeasement by Williamson Murray.

The Shaping of Grand Strategy is a tight, concise and focused academic book that furthers the discussion of grand strategy by providing coherent and detailed examples as well as a readable an interesting analysis from which both the professional or the the student can profit.

Strongly recommended.

6 Responses to “Book Review: The Shaping of Grand Strategy”

  1. Gulliver Says:

    Absent: …  Revolutionary war (French, Soviet or Islamist insurgent) as a grand strategy.
    Can a sub-state group have a "grand strategy," or is that the sole province (heh) of states by definition?

  2. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Zen, Very good review. Concur that a modern treatment of strategy absent the impact/consequences of nuclear weapons is incomplete; particularly when we consider our often-observed and criticized relationship with a nuclear armed Pakistan—a relationship where nucs have enormous import.

  3. L.R. Blyth Says:

    Absent: Powerful non-Western case studies.

    Read Pekaa Hamalainen’s _The Comanche Empire_.

  4. purpleslog Says:

    Gulliver…I don’t see why not.

  5. L.R. Blyth Says:

    Gulliver & purpleslog,

    Certainly, but a non-state group’s grand strategy will not look like a state’s grand strategy.  While a state will attempt to balance its interests and capabilities, means and ends, a non-state group will simply attempt to exist or maintain a prefered life-way.

    Hamalainen’s book lays out this argument for the Comanche.  To exist on the Southern Plains they needed access to horses and European material goods, especially guns, to hunt buffalo.  So they forced the Plains Apache off the plains (who retreated to the mountains as Jicarilla, Mescalero, and Lipan Apaches) and established control of a trading center on the Upper Arkansas.  They raided Spanish New Mexico for horses, or traded slaves taken from low plains tribes for them.  These they turned around and traded for guns or more slaves from tribes with French and British connections further east.  Over time the Comanche shifted further south, closer to the fertile raiding grounds of Texas and northern Mexico, but the need for guns and horses never went away.  Comanche grand strategy was based upon living upon the High Plains, which meant you needed to hunt buffalo, and the best way to do that was with a horse and a gun.

    Or take the Navajo.  They wanted (and still do) to live with sheep.  Any pastoral people need land, labor, and livestock: land to graze upon, labor to watch the livestock, and livestock to replace losses and harvested animals.  And most pastoral peoples find the best way to get these necessities are to take them from their neighbors.  Navajo raided to take sheep and captives to work as slaves and mounted brutal attacks on New Mexican settlements on their borders to drive them away, opening more land for grazing.  Again, a grand strategy based upon a prefered life-way.

  6. קידום אתרים בגוגל Says:

    קידום אתרים בגוגל…

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