Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 4  /  

Can Grand Strategy be Mastered?

Can Grand Strategy be Mastered? Can Grand Strategy be Mastered?
To cite this article: Milevski, Lukas, “Can Grand Strategy be Mastered?”, Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue 4, Summer 2017, pages 33-36.

© Sadık Güleç | – US Army Soldiers check at Checkpoint in Mahmur


“Above all, strategic theory is a theory for action”, wrote Bernard Brodie. After all, “[w]hat could strategic theory possibly be for if it were not meant to be transferable to the world of action?”[i] This same query may easily be posed of grand strategy, on which much has been written, often without significant effect. The conceptual terrain owned by grand strategy has expanded over the course of the evolution of the idea since the early 19th century. What was once a strictly military concept now often involves the myriad non-military instruments of national power or places grand strategy in a privileged position above policy itself.[ii] Lawrence Freedman has suggested that it is not worth worrying about this conceptual expansion, but his reassurance, although welcome, is not necessarily heartening.[iii]

This article seeks to consider one vital question. Is grand strategic theory as it stands today transferable to the world of action, or have grand strategists, broadly understood as those who write about grand strategy, defined themselves out of a position with actual practical relevance?


Two Characteristics

Modern scholars who employ the concept of grand strategy most often latch it onto one or two primary characteristics. The first is that grand strategy necessarily encompasses non-military as well as military instruments. The second characteristic is that the role of grand strategy is to guide policy and policy-making, sometimes over the course of decades or centuries, rather than to be its subordinate, as strategy itself is classically understood.

The first characteristic evolved as a result of the development of naval and maritime strategy, particularly through the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Stafford Corbett. As Mahan argued, “[t]he diplomatist, as a rule, only affixes the seal of treaty to the work done by the successful soldier. It is not so with a large proportion of strategic points upon the sea.”[iv] This opened the door for the use of other, non-military instruments. The influence of maritime strategy broadened grand strategy—a pre-existing term—from being purely a military concept to one with far-reaching responsibilities and the addition of non-military instruments. Successive strategic thinkers such as JFC Fuller, Basil Liddell Hart, Edward Mead Earle, Edward Luttwak, and Colin Gray, among others, have all emphasized this characteristic.

The second characteristic of guiding policy emerged and gained traction as the Cold War drew to a close. A subsidiary element of this characteristic, only sometimes explicitly mentioned, is the extended timeline over which grand strategy is meant to be practiced. Paul Kennedy provided the first popular definition which embraced both primary and secondary aspects: “a true grand strategy was now concerned with peace as much as (perhaps even more than) with war. It was about the evolution and integration of policies that should operate for decades, or even centuries.”[v] Over the course of the 1990s, this approach to conceptualizing grand strategy crystallized into a number of types of grand strategy, of ways by which the United States in particular could and should interact with the rest of the world: neo-isolationism, primacy, selective engagement, and cooperative security.[vi] The primary focus of these various schools of grand strategic preference revolves around the question of how, how often, and for what reasons the United States should employ military force. In subsequent decades, neo-isolationism would be replaced by retrenchment, and off-shore balancing would also emerge as an option. Most often when grand strategy is employed without definition, this characteristic of placing grand strategy conceptually above policy is the assumed meaning.

These two are very divergent characteristics. The former maintains strategy’s subordination to policy, merely expanding the instrumental purview of the concept through the appellation of “grand”. The latter conceptualization of grand strategy promotes the subordinate to the level of the overall director. The very nature of the grand strategist’s task changes with this promotion. To return to the fundamental question, one must inquire into the transferability of either characterization of grand strategy into the realm of practice.


Grand Strategy and the World of Action

These two broad interpretations of grand strategy are not uniformly transferable to the world of action. One is, in principle, more transferable than the other. Transferability is not to be measured in terms of prescriptive value, the rather Jominian beliefs of modern political science notwithstanding.[vii] Rather, following Clausewitz, “[t]heory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material and plowing through it, but will find it ready to hand and in good order. It is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield”.[viii]

The first conceptualization of grand strategy, broadening the concept to include all instruments of national power and not simply the military, may arguably be quite useful. Policy-makers and strategists all should understand how military power fits in with non-military power, and vice versa, to achieve desired effects. They must understand the assumptions which implicitly underpin each form of power and how they integrate and contradict among themselves. As Lawrence Freedman argued in 1992, “[t]he view that strategy is bound up with the role of force in international life must be qualified, because if force is but one form of power then strategy must address the relationship between this form and others, including authority.”[ix]

The use of non-military power against an adversary in war is clearly not simple diplomacy, but also is not encompassed within classical definitions of strategy. Grand strategy may or may not be an appropriate term for it; in recent decades the British have labeled it the comprehensive approach. Yet, given how many authors have paid lip service to the variety of forms of power inherent in this interpretation of grand strategy, the amount of attention actually dedicated to the non-military forms of power has been startlingly low. As Everett Carl Dolman suggested in a somewhat blasé manner, “[a] worthy grand strategist will consider all pertinent means individually and in concert to achieve the continuing health and advantage of the state.”[x] Yet one may reasonably ask, ‘but how?’ To make connections among categories and among distinct fields and disciplines is one of the primary purposes of theory, yet this has simply not been done in the grand strategic literature even when this task is implicit and inherent in the definition of the concept itself.[xi] Furthermore, without the achievement of this difficult scholarly work, grand strategic theory which adheres to this form of the concept will never fulfill Clausewitz’s appreciation of theory.

The failure of this type of grand strategic theory is perhaps unsurprising. The task is huge and difficult. To connect foreign disciplines together is not an easy achievement. Yet actually to integrate the knowledge and wisdom of a plethora of various competencies and disciplines into a single concept, the ultimate ambition of this interpretation of grand strategy, is a colossal challenge. Nevertheless, the goal remains within the realm of instrumental logic not far removed from that of strategy itself. In the context of war, questions of adversariality, of currency conversion from a particular means to an unlike political end, and so forth, would remain as relevant for non-military instruments as for military force. These alternate instruments do, however, still bring with them unique assumptions of their own, which condition their individual utility in war’s climate of danger and uncertainty.

In principle, grand strategy, conceived along the lines of incorporating multiple instruments beyond the military, can indeed be mastered. However, there is no theory yet which may guide those who desire to master grand strategy in this manner. Practice in the world of action may, of course, still take place without theory—or at least academic theory. Yet without proper guidance, chaos among the various military and non-military instruments is inevitable. They will not work properly together; they may even achieve contradictory effects; and so forth. The comprehensive approach, as practiced in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not been particularly successful.

The second conceptualization of grand strategy, as being placed above policy in a hierarchy of ideas and duties, along with the subsidiary characteristic of enduring over lengthy periods of time, is less transferable to the world of action. Each aspect of this second understanding of grand strategy contributes individually to limiting the transferability of the concept.

First, placing grand strategy above policy disconnects it from even the loosest understanding of strategy. If one defines strategy as matching ends, ways, and means in the most generic sense, even without specific regard for classical definitions of strategy, this type of grand strategy is not strategic. Rather, grand strategy becomes self-referential, conflating ends and ways. The grand strategies which were conceived after the Cold War, which were to act as a framework and a guide for American foreign policy, reflect this self-referential character. Neo-isolationists wished for America to withdraw from the world, because they did not wish to expend American power engaging with, and seeking to solve, global problems. Primacists wished for the United States to act across the globe, as this was the purpose of American power.

Grand strategy became conceptualized “as a dominant ‘big idea’ instead of the steps that translate high concept into action”, a role which had belonged to policy in classical strategy.[xii] However, there are crucial differences. Policy can only ever be contingent upon an inevitably messy and continuously on-going political process, whereas grand strategy is seen to be above that process, to discipline and guide it. “The natural inclination is to view strategy as supporting policy, rather than the reverse…But strategy is more than this: it is the grand design, the overall mosaic into which the pieces of specific policy fit. It provides the key ingredients of clarity, coherence and consistency over time.”[xiii] Or, as another observer suggested, “it should be clear to the reader that ‘grand strategy’ and ‘foreign policy’ are not synonymous. Grand strategy, the conceptual framework, is necessarily broader than foreign policy, the political actions of the state in international relations.”[xiv]

At this high level, having broken out of the political process, grand strategy is simply political guidance which is not open to discussion—it is ideology. One may be a good ideologue, but that does not usually translate into good policy or good strategy. As one historian has written,

[t]o my mind, one of the main problems with the idea of grand strategy is that it places a premium on a certain kind of intellectualizing. It is never enough just to call for a particular course of action; one has to justify the strategy by rooting it in a certain theory about what is at the bottom of international politics, or at least what is at the heart of the situation one is trying to deal with. Since the strategy needs to be simple and all-encompassing, there is a tendency for the theory to be framed in rather grandiose terms—that is, for the theory to overdefine or to misdefine the problem, and in any case to misdirect attention away from the real issues that policy should focus on.[xv]

Simply put, in dissecting this idea of grand strategy one finds that there is nothing to master.

The other characteristic of this conceptualization of grand strategy, its undefined or sometimes decades- or centuries-long duration, also impedes mastery of this type of grand strategy. It is not realistic to expect a grand strategy conceived in any particular year to be still relevant a century later, or possibly even a decade or two later. Change is endemic in international affairs for any number of reasons and in any number of forms, most of them significant for the success and sustainability of any particular grand strategy. As Lawrence Freedman noted regarding the military history of past decades, “[t]he military history of the 2000s was nothing like that of the 1990s, which in turn was quite different from the 1980s. Why should we expect to be able to predict the 2010s? Indeed, this decade has already begun with a reluctant intervention in Libya.”[xvi] This is true of the entire twentieth century. There is little reason to believe that it will not also be true of the future. Such incessant change can only have significant effects for any long-term grand strategy, and to disregard its inevitability by fixating on crafting an enduring grand strategy is imprudent statecraft.

Some may disagree with the idea that a long-term grand strategy acting as a framework for foreign policy is implausible to conceive, and would undoubtedly raise George Kennan and the containment of the Soviet Union as their counterpoint. Kennan managed, after all, to conceive of what is usually labeled a grand strategy which endured myriad changes in domestic and international politics for over forty years. Yet what Kennan offered was not a framework into which foreign policy could nestle, but rather a way of defeating the Soviet Union. The idea which guided Western foreign policy-making throughout the Cold War was not containment, but the recognition that the Soviet Union could not be allowed to prevail. Kennan, through his knowledge of Russian history and the Soviet regime, was able accurately to pinpoint containment as the way in which this could be achieved, simply because he perceived the Soviet Union to be weak. The Soviet Union was a problem which would fix itself through self-inflicted dilapidation to ultimate collapse, given enough time.[xvii]

The goal—defeating the Soviet Union—was widely accepted in the United States. The fundamental way—containment—was also widely accepted, although militarized beyond Kennan’s intentions after NSC-68. The constraints of the other factors, such as the prevalence of nuclear weapons and the corresponding desire never to use them, derailed every option other than containment. Rollback was never a serious option until the Soviet Union itself gave up its power. Grand strategists who seek a new framework for US foreign policy and point to containment as an example of the success of this concept of grand strategy have fundamentally misunderstood containment. It was never a framework in the manner which they believe. It was just one identified way of achieving the desired goal, which happened to be consistently employed over forty years due in part to the confluence of external factors.

What these grand strategists have mistaken as authority over policy was actually a normal mutual feedback loop between the desired political end and the chosen ways to achieve that end within an ever evolving geopolitical context. What these grand strategists have mistaken as a four decade-long grand strategy was simply a constancy of purpose within an international environment which constrained the action realistically suitable for achieving that purpose to a single option. Thus when the post-Cold War grand strategy debate picked up steam, the participants all submitted idiosyncratic ways of engaging with the world without regard for any specific policy ends. This turned a mere way into a framework for all foreign policy because there was no end to limit that specific way of international engagement—in breadth, in duration, or in orientation. Containment ended when the Soviet Union collapsed because the end, i.e. the goal, had been achieved. In the new generation of grand strategies being proffered there is no end date because there is no end goal. The new grand strategies have no end state but exist purely for their own sake. Such a concept of grand strategy cannot be mastered because there are no criteria by which such a grand strategy could be understood to be conclusively successful.



One must admit, to adapt anthropologist Leslie A. White’s observation about culture, that “[g]rand strategy is not basically anything. Grand strategy is a word concept. It is man-made and may be used arbitrarily to designate anything, we may define the concept as we please.”[xviii] The same is, of course, true of strategy itself as well. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ definitions of strategy. Nevertheless, although such concepts can never be wrong per se, they can still be more or less useful.

Therefore, the question should be asked: can grand strategy be mastered? Can theories of grand strategy as they exist today be transferred into the world of action? Answering such questions depends on how grand strategy is understood. Today, two main interpretations of grand strategy exist. First, that grand strategy incorporates more than the military instrument alone. Second, that grand strategy sits above and directs policy, often for decades if not potentially for centuries.

The first interpretation of grand strategy, despite its breadth, remains locked within the generic strategic logic of matching ends, ways, and means. By virtue of this feature alone, it is a concept which allows for mastery in the realm of action. However, due to the sheer breadth of the concept, the difficult work of integrating the various relevant disciplines together has yet to be achieved. Grand strategic theory has thus far failed Clausewitz’s requirement that it act as a guide for self-education so that each student not have to start from scratch. There is potential in this interpretation of grand strategy, regardless of whether this label or another is most suitable.

The second interpretation of grand strategy surpasses the fetters of even the most generic strategic logic to become ideology itself, a guiding idea for interacting with the rest of the world for its own sake, to last as long as it can within the marketplace of ideas. Such a concept of grand strategy not only cannot be mastered, but generally results in empty words which create much heat but little light.

Not all interpretations of grand strategy are practically useful. In the evolution of modern grand strategic thought, grand strategic concepts have become less and less practical over the years, and grand strategists have been defining themselves out of jobs with real practical relevance. Grand strategy has become a morass, and only with clear thinking and sharp eyesight may the safe and practicable way through be discovered.


[i] Bernard Brodie. War & Politics. (New York: Macmillan 1973), 452, 453.
[ii] See Lukas Milevski. The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought. (Oxford: Oxford UP 2016).
[iii] Lawrence Freedman. “Capsule Review of The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought”, Foreign Affairs (January/February 2017).
[iv] Alfred Thayer Mahan. Naval Strategy compared and contrasted with the principles and practice of military operations on land. (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company 1911), 123.
[v] Paul Kennedy. “Grand Strategy in War and Peace: Toward a Broader Definition” in Paul M. Kennedy (ed). Grand Strategies in War and Peace. (New Haven, Yale UP 1991), 4.
[vi] Barry R. Posen and Andrew L. Ross. “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy”. International Security 21/3 (Winter 1996-7), 5-53.
[vii] See for example Stephen M. Walt. “The Relationship Between Theory and Policy in International Relations”, Annual Review of Political Science 8 (2005), 23-48.
[viii] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton UP 1984), 141.
[ix] Lawrence Freedman. ‘Strategic Studies and the Problem of Power’ in Lawrence Freedman, Paul Hayes, & Robert O’Neill. War, Strategy, and International Politics: Essays in Honour of Sir Michael Howard. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1992), 290.
[x] Everett Carl Dolman. “Seeking Strategy” in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds). Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press 2016), 9.
[xi] On the purposes of theory see Harold R. Winton. “An Imperfect Jewel: Military Theory and the Military Profession”, Journal of Strategic Studies 34/6 (December 2011), 855.
[xii] Adam Elkus. “Must American Strategy Be Grand?”, Infinity Journal 3/1 (Winter 2012), 24.
[xiii] Gregory D. Foster. “Missing and Wanted: A U.S. Grand Strategy”, Strategic Review 13 (Autumn 1985), 14.
[xiv] Braz Baracuhy. “The Art of Grand Strategy”, Survival 53/1 (February-March 2011), 151.
[xv] Marc Trachtenberg. “Making Grand Strategy: The Early Cold War Experience in Retrospect”, SAIS Review 19/1 (Winter-Spring 1999), 36.
[xvi] Lawrence Freedman. “The Counterrevolution in Strategic Affairs”, Daedalus 140/3 (Summer 2011), 22.
[xvii] George Kennan. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, Foreign Affairs 25/4 (July 1947), 566-582.
[xviii] Leslie A. White. The Concept of Cultural Systems: A Key to Understanding Tribes and Nations. (New York: Columbia UP 1975), 4n.