Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 2  /  

Choosing Strategy: Meaning, Significance, Context

Choosing Strategy: Meaning, Significance, Context Choosing Strategy: Meaning, Significance, Context
To cite this article: Milevski, Lukas, “Choosing Strategy: Meaning, Significance, Context” Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2, summer 2018, pages 15-18.

Choosing to practice strategy, the initial unilateral resort to armed force, is generally a deliberate act. The explicit decision to push inter-actor relations in this direction and risk an equal response leads to Clausewitz’s definition of war as the continuation of politics with the addition of (but not wholesale replacement by) other means. As Clausewitz notes, “[w]e deliberately use the phrase ‘with the addition of other means’ because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different.”[i] Making this choice for strategy inherently diverts the tone and tenor of the inter-actor relationship in a certain direction, from which there is no necessarily easy path of return.

The choice to practice strategy, to resort to violent means, has inherent meaning and significance. It is not intended as “signaling”, of actors trying to show resolve, or intent, to one another as some Cold War-era strategists, particularly game theorists, imagined strategy to have become under the aegis of nuclear weapons and the notion of war as bargaining. Thomas Schelling was one of the classic advocates of this perspective. “Thus strategy – in the sense in which I am using it here – is not concerned with the efficient application of force but with the exploitation of potential force.”[ii] As he continued:

To study the strategy of conflict is to take the view that most conflict situations are essentially bargaining situations. They are situations in which the ability of one participant to gain his ends is dependent to an important degree on the choices or decisions that the other participant will make. The bargaining may be explicit, as when one offers a concession; or it may be by tacit maneuver, as when one occupies or evacuates strategic territory. It may, as in the ordinary haggling of the market-place, take the status quo as its zero point and seek arrangements that yield positive gains to both sides; or it may involve threats of damage, including mutual damage, as in a strike, boycott, or price war, or in extortion.[iii]

At least within strategic studies, this particular perspective on war and strategy largely perished as discredited during the Vietnam War, although it remains unfortunately prevalent beyond strategic studies.

The inherent meaning and significance of deciding to embark upon war is reflected in real political will, real determination, and the decision-makers’ own real perception of the inter-actor relationship—regardless of whether the opponent notices and understands these factors or not. Even without any specific reciprocal recognition, the choice still has meaning. This is just as true for overly optimistic decisions made without full appreciation of the levels of will and determination needed to achieve one’s goals through force, which can change with the tides of war, let alone of the enemy’s own level of resolve.

This article examines the meaning and significance of choosing strategy deliberately and in context. It establishes politics as the fundamental context for strategy and war and considers how the character of politics is reflected in the choice for strategy. The influence which strategy and war themselves have upon politics is then considered. Concluding reflections upon the intended final impact of strategy upon politics indicate that the underlying meaning of having made the choice for strategy matters, because it influences the viability of the opponent’s own policy options.

Politics: The Fundamental Context

The fundamental context for choosing strategy is necessarily politics—in Harold Lasswell’s words, who gets what, when, how—since it is from the political milieu that the seeds of conflict arise.[iv] Politics is often negligible, often cooperative, often competitive, sometimes even conflictual, but not usually openly adversarial within the context of all existing political relationships. When defined through contact, it can be negligible if two parties rarely interact despite a political relationship between them, which largely lies dormant and unnoticed. Politics can be cooperative, competitive, and conflictual because all political actors have goals, some shared and others not, which they may achieve together or separately through a variety of measures. The pursuit of policy satisfaction may even lead directly to disputes between or among parties employing diplomatic means or even coercive methods short of war, such as the threat or actual imposition of economic sanctions. This all constitutes relatively normal politics, with the increasing presence of coercive measures representing more extreme interactions.

To choose strategy implies political interests which the responsible decision-makers believe to be incompatible with the other party. As Dan Reiter has noted,

War is about politics, and politics, especially in this context, is essentially about the allocation of scarce goods. Goods are phenomena valued by political actors. Goods are scarce if there is not an optimal or infinite supply of the good, meaning that all actors cannot simultaneously consume or possess an optimal or infinite supply of the good. Territory, natural resources, and the composition of a national government are all examples of phenomena viewed by international actors as scarce goods.[v]

Reiter also highlights one feature about “scarce goods”: the issue of divisibility. Can this scarce good be simultaneously shared, or not, by the involved parties? However, he then suggests that “[i]n practice, issue indivisibility is unlikely to play a central role in war initiation or war termination.”[vi] This conclusion seems partially inappropriate. The question of divisibility necessarily plays a role when actors are competing, even conflicting, over a particular valuable. Even in division, decision-makers may be dissatisfied with their relative share. Moreover, in history one may identify wars fought, at least in part, over issues considered divisible. France desired to regain Alsace-Lorraine during the First World War, not merely part of Alsace-Lorraine. Similarly, Germany hungered after an expansive lebensraum carved out of the Soviet Union in 1941, not just the bit of geographical space afforded by the conquests of Poland or even of half of European Russia.

The choice of strategy therefore is a reflection of two particular features to which decision-makers adhere when in competition or conflict over an issue. First, strategy reflects a determination to settle the issue in one’s own favor – albeit not necessarily at any cost, if cost is considered at all in the heat of the decision (as the outbreak of war often coincides with an outbreak of optimism regarding the future wages of war). Optimism itself may poison one’s strategic perspective and decision-making and lead to a misperception of one’s own ultimate resolve to make the needed sacrifices for whatever is to be gained through war.

Second, strategy reflects the belief that the involved parties cannot or will not find any acceptable degree of compromise. This denotes competing political priorities resulting in a zero-sum appreciation of the political interaction in at least one actor. Whether the zero-sum perception is shared by all involved parties, just one, or some other subset of the whole, it is necessary for only one to make the choice in favor of strategy to change the tenor of the shared relationship for all involved as well as possibly even for those not directly involved. War, after all, is an act of force to impose one’s will upon the enemy. If the other party can be brought to accept one’s will short of violence, then war is unnecessary. If decision-makers believe this to be impossible, then violence is one of the few remaining practicable choices.

Strategy and War Influencing Zero-Sum Politics

The choice of strategy reflects not only pre-existing political beliefs, whether fully grounded in reality or not. It may also feed into and exacerbate the zero-sum political understanding. This is especially true if the choice to practice strategy actually leads to war, which is not always the case, for, as Clausewitz reminds us, “[t]he aggressor is always peace-loving (as Bonaparte always claimed to be); he would prefer to take over our country unopposed”. Analytically speaking, the defender is responsible for the initiation of war.[vii] The meaning of strategy is inherent in the choice for strategy, but the exacerbation of the zero-sum mentality derives predominantly from the consequences of engaging with a defense and actually waging war. One must therefore distinguish between the two.

The initial choice in favor of strategy reflects not only a zero-sum appreciation of the immediate political situation on the part of the aggressor. It also reflects his political determination to achieve his goals, which involves an initial acceptance of certain potential means, methods, and the costs associated with them. Any aggressor may, like Napoleon, claim to be peace-loving, but no aggressor can safely assume that his choice to practice strategy will proceed in peace because that decision is in the hands of the party which is aggressed. By choosing strategy he must assume that he will be waging war, practicing its actual violent means and methods, and accepting their actual costs, not just the prospect of such costs, such as body-bags returning home. Although relatively rare in strategic history, armed invasions not leading to war are not unknown. One can at least identify the Anschluss of Austria by Germany in 1938, the Soviet invasions of the three Baltic States in 1939-40, the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, all involving overwhelming military might on one side only. The invaders were prepared for the worst, for war, yet in these cases this contingency never occurred. Nonetheless, the meaning of strategy remains the same – the determination to succeed in a real or perceived zero-sum political situation, even at some cost from military action, existed in each instance, but was not tested by the defeated and therefore did not exacerbate the zero-sum aspect of politics. Even without exacerbation, the meaning inherent in choosing strategy suggests that less coercive means on the part of the aggressed will be ineffective at changing the intentions of the aggressor.

In a sense, once strategy has been chosen, the only effective choice is to reciprocate in kind – as long as one values the issue at stake more than the potential costs of war, not all of which are foreseeable, and as long as one possesses the capability to resist. Not all do, which affects political decision-making. The Baltic republics in 1939-40, for example, did not wish to suffer the costs of war which would have occurred had they tried to resist Soviet invasion; they hoped that through acquiescence to Soviet demands they might preserve national, political and other structures. That this was a miscalculation does not detract from the logic that they valued peace over political autonomy, even though ultimately they got neither and lost the symbolically meaningful gesture of having resisted. The choice for or against the practice of strategy is ultimately a political decision beyond the realm of strategy and strategists.

The decisions made during the Russian annexation of Crimea as well as the later campaign in the Donbas are indicative of the inherent meaning of strategy. Russia invaded Crimea with ambiguously uniformed troops and took the initiative to place Ukrainian army bases on the peninsula under siege while not actually attacking, thereby putting the political and strategic onus for violent escalation of the situation upon Ukraine. This was a rather Moltkean operation, combining the strategic offensive (invasion) with a tactical defensive, further leavened by an imaginative understanding of the political meaning of action. The Russians were politically and tactically prepared for Ukraine to react violently, but ultimately Ukraine did not. Moreover, nothing short of force could or would have dissuaded the Russians from their goal of annexing Crimea. The West’s barrage of diplomacy, of words, had no chance of achieving any revision of Russian intentions, actions, or ultimately results.

The outcome of the Crimean campaign contrasts with that of the Donbas campaign. Here again the West employed diplomacy, and went further to impose sanctions upon Russia in response to the downing of MH17, when Russian-backed separatists and mercenary proxies shot down a Malaysia Airlines airliner with a Buk surface-to-air missile, killing 298 passengers and crew, including 193 Dutch citizens. These courses of action had little, if any, effect upon the Russians, their ambiguous interveners and mercenaries, or their separatist proxies. Instead, the critical variable which changed the outcome is that, in the Donbas, Ukraine fought back – although in truth we cannot truly know what the Russian endgame regarding the Donbas was, whether it was to establish a frozen conflict or whether there were grander geopolitical ambitions which were sent awry by Ukrainian resistance. Nonetheless, in each case the Russian recourse to strategy reflected the political will and determination to achieve some desired result which could not be swayed by anything short of reciprocal force. The West as a whole either did not appreciate this, or made the political choice to pursue objectives which did not require the necessary level of escalation to reverse Russian ambitions. Ukraine chose similarly in Crimea, but reversed course and made a much stronger political decision later, in the Donbas.

The resort to war is distinct from the resort to armed force; the latter is merely unilateral whereas the former is reciprocal and determined by the victim of aggression. Recourse to war to reciprocate an aggressor’s choice of strategy, unlike the aggressor’s initial commitment to strategy, clearly exacerbates the zero-sum appreciation of politics because that appreciation is now shared by both parties. Since analytically speaking the defender starts the war, the decision to defend cements the zero-sum element in the political relationship between adversaries because both attacker and defender now share, and are acting upon, this understanding with mass organized violence. The initiation of outright hostilities thereafter engages more strongly the numerous forces in war discussed by Clausewitz: his wondrous trinity, particularly the irrational element inherent in passion, enmity, and hatred, and reciprocal violence with its prospect of both potential and real escalation in war.

Reason plays a major role as a source of adversariality and zero-sum political thinking which lead to the choices for strategy and war. Yet reason is only one element of Clausewitz’s trinity. A second facet, chance and probability, may play an uneven but fundamentally neutral role. The third, however, has the capacity easily to exacerbate zero-sum thinking by infusing it with emotion – this is the primordial aspect of passion, enmity, and hatred. Although this element always exists to some degree, as do chance and reason, the violence inherent in war itself escalates the passionate engagement. As Clausewitz notes, “[e]ven where there is no national hatred and no animosity to start with, the fighting itself will stir up hostile feelings: violence committed on superior orders will stir up the desire for revenge and retaliation against the perpetrator rather than against the powers that ordered the action. That is only human (or animal if you like), but it is a fact.”[viii] As violence escalates, the zero-sum political thinking derived through reason is reinforced by sheer emotional hostility, further separating the strategic actors involved from negotiations and a compromise solution.

The ultimate recourse to war introduces the final new factor, the question of reciprocal violence and its potential escalation. When violence is reciprocal, the involved parties fall into a true adversarial situation with its unique thinking emphasizing how one may hurt or damage the other, and how the other may do so to oneself. “So long as I have not overthrown my opponent I am bound to fear that he may overthrow me. Thus I am not in control: he dictates to me as much as I dictate to him… If you want to overcome your enemy you must match your effort against his power of resistance… But the enemy will do the same”.[ix] Strategists strive for victory and fear defeat; they strive to overcome the resistance of their opponents and are wary of the potential ways in which the adversary can retaliate to break their own resistance. This represents the very depths of zero-sum thinking. One cannot negotiate or compromise, only win or lose, impose one’s own will or be imposed upon by the enemy. The adversarial competition is, or is considered to be, all or nothing.

Once a situation dominated by such factors emerges due to the interaction of opposing strategies in war, two competing political determinations are displayed. Negotiation and compromise were not considered possible by at least one party prior to war, but once caught in the dynamics of war, they are no longer even a consideration. Each belligerent is trying to break the opponent’s will through force. Almost nothing short of violence can alter this state of affairs. When violence is being actively and reciprocally employed, words are all but useless as agents of change. The political stakes and determination, the reciprocal strategic engagement, and the emotions stoked by violence all prevent weaker methods of coercive potential from exerting much influence. Battle, the violent engagement, becomes the central focus for the belligerents. Yet despite its centrality battle is not the only concern: other forms of power retain some relevance and utility in strategy, but only inasmuch as they may influence battle itself, in the future if not in the present.

The Syrian Civil War is another example of how strategy reflects a level of political determination, which is then exacerbated further by the reciprocation of violence and engagement of enmity and hatred. Bashar Assad’s original recourse to violence to put down the peaceful protests represented a political will to survive which could not be swayed by Western denunciations. The escalation into outright civil war cemented reciprocating determination, fueled by both reason and emotion, that there could be no compromise and the desire to impose one’s own will upon the enemy. The result has been a long and grinding war of attrition among Assad’s regime, supported by Russia and Iran; innumerable rebel groups, some of which are variably supported by the United States; and ISIS, which has been universally identified as a target for everyone. Nothing short of violence has been able to sway Assad in his determination to preserve his regime, and the force which has been arrayed against him has thus far proven insufficient to the task.

The Intended Final Impact of Strategy on Zero-Sum Politics

Some scholars suggest that strategy continues forever. Everett Dolman argues that “[t]he strategist can never finish the business of strategy, and understands that there is no permanence in victory—or in defeat.”[x] Although the latter half of his statement is true, it has no bearing on the first half, which is not. Even this journal implies in its title, and explicitly states in its tagline, that strategy is eternal. Yet to the contrary, strategy is in a certain sense unsustainable, and when classically understood, is not meant to be otherwise. The active recourse to battle by belligerents cannot endure forever, nor should any strategist wish for this. For strategy to persist without end is a sign of failure, an augury portending that the strategist is unable to impose his will upon the enemy, that he is unable actually to achieve the basic function of strategy.

Ultimately, the whole purpose of strategy as classically understood is to negate itself, to bring about a situation in which it is no longer necessary – whether one calls that victory, peace, justice, or some other term – because one belligerent has successfully imposed his will upon his opponent, who has acceded to terms of some sort, even if those terms may be unconditional. The choice of strategy reflects, and through subsequent war exacerbates, the belligerents’ zero-sum perspective on the political issue at hand. Yet, perhaps ironically, the purpose of strategy as an activity and as a function in war is to destroy the zero-sum understanding of the opponent.

This nexus is where most discussion and consideration of strategy occurs. It is, after all, strategy proper. Here people debate endlessly the relative virtues of attrition, annihilation, exhaustion, maneuver, sequential and cumulative operations, and so forth. This is the “how” of strategy, of imposing one’s will, of control, of forcefully breaking the adversary’s zero-sum outlook upon the conflict. These are all various ways of saying the same thing – how to convince the enemy, through violence as that is the only language to which he is paying attention during war, to give up the fight and settle. The settlement itself is usually achieved with, through, and ultimately by words, but without the necessary violence to break the enemy’s will none of those words matter.

This is where the non-linearity of war and strategy are felt most keenly. Belligerents embark upon war with an understanding of their own resolve as well as that of their enemy. However, one or both appreciations of political will and determination to succeed through violence may be inapt. Such mistakes do not invalidate the original meaning of choosing strategy, but instead merely condition the durability of that meaning in the face of the costs of war, especially if the results of war are poor. Strategy succeeds therefore only when it more quickly changes someone’s mind (or fails, if one’s own mind is changed) about the viability of achieving policy results through war versus peace, or at least of limiting the damage received by returning to peace.

The choice for strategy has inherent meaning because it reflects a particular zero-sum understanding of the political situation, which causes all attempts to change the strategist’s mind short of reciprocal armed force to pale in significance. Yet strategy itself must necessarily be finite, as its purpose is to break through the analogous zero-sum appreciation held by the enemy and force him to recognize that his interests will be better served by returning to a more peaceful state of interaction rather than continuing to rely upon war.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton UP 1984), 605.
[ii] Thomas C. Schelling. The Strategy of Conflict. (Cambridge: Harvard UP 1980), 5.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Harold D. Lasswell. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. (New York: Meridian 1972).
[v] Dan Reiter. How Wars End. (Princeton: Princeton UP 2009), 8.
[vi] Ibid¸ 49.
[vii] Clausewitz, On War, 370.
[viii] Ibid, 138.
[ix] Ibid, 77.
[x] Everett C. Dolman. Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in the Space and Information Age. (New York: Frank Cass 2005), 11.