Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 8, Issue 4  /  

A Quintessential Factor in Strategy Formulation: The Unequal Dialogue

A Quintessential Factor in Strategy Formulation: The Unequal Dialogue A Quintessential Factor in Strategy Formulation: The Unequal Dialogue
By U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Harris - Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons
To cite this article: David, Arnel P., “A Quintessential Factor in Strategy Formulation: The Unequal Dialogue,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4, spring 2023, pages 11-15.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect any official capacity or position.

“At the summit, true strategy and politics are one.”

—Winston Churchill[i]

Strategy formulation requires the full engagement and involvement of political authority to bound policy effectively. Policy frames objectives, but the constant interplay of myriad forces create strategy. Strategy remains the mediating implement to connect national instrument (diplomatic, military, informational, economic) objectives to political ends. What has been described as an “unequal dialogue” is a quintessential factor in developing strategic ends (i.e., a nation’s policy).[ii] In the U.S., elected leaders solicit input across the interagency and the military to determine the nation’s ends, but ultimately, civilians make the final decision. The dialogue across the national security apparatus is both essential and, purposefully, unequal. This article argues the relevance and critical relationship of Carl von Clausewitz’s theory of war with Cohen’s unequal dialogue to illustrate how a republic can create an environment where strategy emerges from the interactive participation of its leaders. Historical and contemporary examples are woven throughout to support this argument.

Analyzing On War, Brodie describes Clausewitz’s desire of statesmen to understand the language of war to ensure its proper execution.[iii] Expressed this way, it is political leaders, who must influence the direction of war. There has been a negative perception that political influence in war is wrong. Set the policy and let the generals fight the war some have said.[iv] If there are issues, military leaders have wrongly argued, it is the level of political influence to blame.[v] However, it is not the statesman’s influence but the policy itself requiring a re-examination. This responsibility is not the statesman’s alone; repeated attempts to divorce war from its political primacy have been costly. Take the experience of Vietnam, for example.

Books on Vietnam remind of this error where military professionals did not judge the true character of the war, articulate it to civilian decision-makers, and offer appropriate strategies to iterate on.[vi] Remembering this lesson, Casper Weinberger developed a doctrine aimed to guide future policy on war, to forever leave behind the specter of Vietnam.[vii] He argued that US forces should only be used to achieve clear policy objectives and he went so far as to make additional conditions that were not very Clausewitzian.[viii] Weinberger argued, and Colin Powell would later enforce, that military forces should not deploy without overwhelming force and the ‘exit strategy’ must be crystal clear.[ix] Powell, using this script, would later evoke this doctrine to argue against the use of military forces in Bosnia.[x]

Madeleine Albright pointedly asked, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”[xi] She was right, and if Clausewitz were alive, he would surely agree since strategy in practice requires a dialogue to inform policy. The U.S. military declaring ultimatums like the Powell doctrine betrays the very nature of war and ignores its political dimension. Dialogue and engagement are necessary to craft strategic options in which elected leaders decide upon. A wartime president, Abraham Lincoln, initially struggled with his military leaders to foster a challenging yet necessary dialogue.

Lincoln’s longest-serving commander, General McClellan, was reluctant like Powell, to use the military. This aversion to act affected the overarching strategy to employ multiple simultaneous concentrations to strike against the Confederate Army.[xii] Lincoln once remarked, “if General McClellan did not want to use the army… [he] would like to borrow it.”[xiii] Eventually, Lincoln found a suitable general in Ulysses S Grant and they maintained a healthy dialogue to manage the Civil War strategically. Lincoln lacked extensive military experience, but through self-study and discipline, he fought a war and saved the union.[xiv] Lincoln had an inquisitive mind, and he asked the hard questions, eliciting best military advice to inform policy and align strategic ends. Churchill struck a similar chord in World War II when handling his military leaders.

Churchill masterfully balanced politics and the interplay of conflicting forces. Churchill held steady through the chaos and friction of war, avoiding rigid plans and dogmatic process.[xv] He knew Clausewitz’s timeless trinity and stirred his nation through its darkest hours. Clausewitz’s trinity in war is a dynamic and unstable interaction of the forces of violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation on all sides.[xvi] In his maxims on war, Colin Gray explains that the rationale or reason is primarily associated with government and he argues this is “vitally significant” since policy is “shaped, reshaped, and driven by the dynamic verdicts of the battlefield.”[xvii] This describes the reciprocal relationship between war and policy which requires a permanent dialogue across the enterprise to form strategy properly.

Churchill was ruthless with his “unsparing interaction with military subordinates about their activities.” For example, he made difficult decisions to preserve a fragile alliance by ordering his generals to avoid civilian casualties in France from air bombardment.[xviii] Churchill decided not to use metal chaff to confuse German radar which would save bomber crew lives. He instead balanced risk and determined that it was more important to not give away these countermeasures in order to inflict greater damage on the Germans.[xix] This same level of restraint and wisdom was exercised in Bletchley Park whereas ships were sacrificed at sea not to give away the fact that the Enigma cipher code had been cracked.[xx] These political calculations and the audit of military judgment during war informed and improved strategy. It was not a detailed blueprint or fully laid out plan but rather a continuous dialogue that was not equal. It was strategy-making.

The unequal dialogue is unpacked and further codified in Supreme Command by Elliot Cohen.[xxi] He advocates for competitive views, which may be contentious but adheres to Clausewitz’s dictum of civilian leaders’ unambiguous final authority.[xxii] Churchill was criticized for his political interference in war, but Cohen argues it was necessary. British strategy benefited from the seemingly interrogative behavior and unequal dialogue. This was no easy feat, and Cohen illuminates Churchill’s “unremitting attention and effort” to “absorb vast quantities of technical, tactical, and operational information” to make difficult but required decisions in war.[xxiii] Contemporary examples show where this dialogue went wrong, and generals may have abused their reputational power.[xxiv]

Years after the Bosnia debate on troop numbers, Colin Powell returned to the oval office to advise the nation’s first black president.[xxv] Obama set out a series of strategy sessions designed to create the dialogue needed for a new reset of the nation’s policy on Afghanistan. His national security apparatus had conflicting views, and Obama wanted Powell’s advice. General Petraeus, on the other hand, influenced his agenda through the media and various back-channel interlocutors to support a decision to send more troops for his desired counterinsurgency campaign. Then-Vice President Biden crafted an alternative strategy with his national security advisor, Antony Blinken, to counter the McChrystal assessment and Petraeus troop surge, called “counterterrorism plus.”[xxvi]

President Obama was leaning toward Biden and Blinken’s strategy which would focus the military on targeting and eliminating terrorist vice the expensive nation-building and troop intensive counterinsurgency. The president was upset with the uniformed leaders backing him into a corner to send large numbers of troops. Powell told the president, “This is the decision that will have consequences for the better part of your administration. Mr. President, don’t get pushed by the left to do nothing. Don’t get pushed by the right to do everything. You take your time and you figure it out.”[xxvii] With time and tremendous experience behind him, Powell finally found the value in the unequal dialogue with civilian masters. Unfortunately, with publicly popular generals driving a strong narrative, coupled with leaks to the public, Obama was led down a road where he decided upon a troop increase of 30,000.[xxviii]

The president placated the military leadership, but his direction was clear, the military was not to do counterinsurgency operations or nation-building.[xxix] Ignoring the president’s political direction, generals continued to push their own agenda and mission creep set in. The military gravitated to counterinsurgency operations and more and more troops flowed into Afghanistan despite the initial intent to minimize a large ground presence. Ironically, it is President Biden who returned to office with a conviction to end the war in Afghanistan. Aside from the abrupt and chaotic withdrawal, much of the blame for this strategic failure in Afghanistan harkens back to multiple administrations and scores of military general officers. Strategy formulation suffered from the absence of an unequal dialogue.


The U.S. has entered the twenty-first century with key strategic failures to learn from. Indeed, it is vital for the republic to reflect and learn from these recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid repeated mistakes. Good strategic thinking and an unequal dialogue are needed to ensure the nation can prepare and strategize for the vexing challenges ahead. Historical case studies are useful to illuminate examples of where dialogue and strategic alignment did or did not work. The theoretical conventions of Clausewitz’s theory of war and Cohen’s unequal dialogue remain helpful to navigate the complexity of war and strategy in case studies. The reciprocal relationship between war and policy is essential to the conduct of war and strategy creation. It should be taught at more educational institutions. Leaders, especially in the military, need to subordinate egos and parochial matters to the nation’s interests, and appreciate the unequal dialogue with elected civilians. They must marshal appropriate evidence to support their best military advice in this unequal dialogue, but when the policy direction is set, translate those ends into military strategy and win the nation’s wars.


[i] Quote is taken from Nobel Prize in Literature book by Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1915, Vol 2 (New York: Rosetta Books, 2013), 11.
[ii] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (New York: Anchor Books, 2003) 12 and see recommendations in Nathan Freier, At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Army War College Press. 2017), 93-101.
[iii] Bernard Brodie, "A Guide to the Reading of On War," in Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, 705.
[iv] Helmuth Graf Von Moltke, Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Edited by Daniel J. Hughes (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 8-9 and in Jehuda Wallach, Kriegstheorien, Ihre Entwicklung im 19. Un 20, Jahrhundert (Frankfurt am Main: Bernard & Graefe, 1972), 84.
[v] This has been a strong argument by historians with an orthodox view on Vietnam. See the preface in Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), xi-xix.
[vi] Harry Summers, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Presidio Press, 1995) and H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (New York: Harper Collins, 1998).
[vii] Casper Weinberger, Fighting for Peace: Seen Critical Years in the Pentagon (New York: Warner Brooks, Inc., 1990) 433-445.
[viii] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 19-20.
[ix] Strachan, The Direction of War, 19-20
[x] Strachan, The Direction of War, 19
[xi] Colin Powell, with Joseph Persico, My American journey (New York, 1996, 1st Ed 1995), 576.
[xii] John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 183.
[xiii] James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin, 2008), 52.
[xiv] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (New York: Anchor Books, 2003).
[xv] Eliot Cohen, “Churchill and his Generals: He made their lives miserable, but could they have won the war without him?” The Quarterly Journal of Military History 9, no. 1 (Autumn 1996).
[xvi] Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War. Translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976) 89.
[xvii] Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims of War, Peace, and Strategy (Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2009) 29
[xviii] Cohen, Eliot. “Churchill and his Generals: He made their lives miserable, but could they have won the war without him?” The Quarterly Journal of Military History 9, no. 1 (Autumn 1996): 48.
[xix] Cohen, “Churchill and his Generals,”48
[xx] David Kahn, Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-boat Codes 1939-1943 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012).
[xxi] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (New York: Anchor Books, 2003).
[xxii] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War. Translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).
[xxiii] Cohen, Eliot. “Churchill and his Generals: He made their lives miserable, but could they have won the war without him?” The Quarterly Journal of Military History 9, no. 1 (Autumn 1996), 48.
[xxiv] Manuel Fischer and Pascal Sciarini, “Unpacking Reputational Power: Intended and Unintended Determinants of the Assessment of Actors’ Power,” Social Networks 42 (2015): 60–71,
[xxv] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 168.
[xxvi] Woodward, Obama’s Wars, 102, 159-60, 166, 219, 234-35.
[xxvii] Woodward, Obama’s Wars, 168.
[xxviii] Woodward, Obama’s Wars, 278.
[xxix] Woodward, Obama’s Wars, 285.