Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 4  /  

Constitutional stability versus strategic efficiency: strategic dialogue in contemporary conflict

Constitutional stability versus strategic efficiency: strategic dialogue in contemporary conflict Constitutional stability versus strategic efficiency: strategic dialogue in contemporary conflict
To cite this article: Simpson, Emile, “Constitutional stability versus strategic efficiency: strategic dialogue in contemporary conflict”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 4, Fall 2012, pages 13-17.

Executive Summary

The orthodox view of the boundary between ‘policy’ and ‘operational’ matters in the context of armed conflict is that it demarcates two exclusive domains: policy makers should stay out of operational matters, which are best left to professionals; conversely, those professionals, military and civilian, should stay out of policy making. The orthodox view is informed by two rationales: first, a constitutional argument that only those who are democratically accountable should make policy; second, a strategic argument that for policy makers to interfere in operational matters is to micro-manage, with harmful consequences. The orthodox view is challenged in this article.

It is submitted that in general terms, during the Cold War both these rationales made sense, so the orthodox view was stable and legitimate. Today the constitutional rationale remains valid, but the strategic rationale is problematic. When conflicts are highly politicised down to the tactical level – as contemporary conflicts tend to be – there is a requirement to incorporate the views of policy’s executors, including relatively junior officers, on policy; conversely, policy makers should be encouraged to engage in the political dimension of operational matters, not be shut out. A failure to do this as a consequence of the retention of the orthodox view, has led to strategy that evolves erratically, often in response to failure, rather than through proper dialogue between desire and possibility. In short, if a solider, for example, can plainly see at the operational or tactical level that there is a policy problem, but finds that for him to engage in discussion of policy is seen as wrong, the feedback mechanism to correct policy can ironically be (and in the twenty first century, typically has been) the actual occurrence of the strategic failure, or its imminent approach, that the soldier had anticipated.

Strategic Dialogue

The process that produces strategy is a dialogue between desire and possibility; policy and operations; say and do.[i] This article terms this process ‘strategic dialogue’. Does one start with what is desired, or what is possible? This is a chicken and egg problem: each much reciprocally inform the other as a circular system, and the abstract idea is not necessarily the start point. Admiral J. C. Wylie argued that the plan produced by strategy is not only ‘a vehicle for conversion of an idea to a deed’, but also a dynamic process: ‘the link between a thought pattern and reality’.[ii] Indeed, the notion of the strategic process as the ‘expression of an idea’ speaks to strategic dialogue being a circular process, because policy is both the origin, and the destination, of strategy; thus, like any plan, the abstract aim is continually adapted to take into account what realistically is possible; the end (a policy aim in the abstract) must be kept in check by anticipation of the end-state (a policy aim achieved).

Policy is usually seen as the start point in the ‘levels of war’ model, which is often presented as: policy-grand strategic-strategic-operational-tactical. There is nothing wrong with this model, so long as it is understood that it is circular, not a ‘one-way road’ that starts with policy and ends with tactics. Strategic dialogue is thus a dialectical relationship between the desire of policy and the possibility of its execution as operations. Strategy itself, the product of strategic dialogue, is the articulated synthesis of that relationship, connecting operations and policy. In practice, states differ in terms of how they are configured to conduct strategic dialogue; their strategies will vary accordingly. The key variables in terms of how the state organises its strategic dialogue are constitutional and strategic.

The constitutional and strategic rationales for the ‘orthodox’ policy-operational distinction

When the levels of war model is (mis)understood in the sense of being a one-way road from policy to tactics, the concept of the strategy making process as dialogue is frustrated, as dialogue logically requires two-way flow. This misunderstanding, it is posited, derives from a conflation of a constitutional argument;: that policy is the start point, in the sense that it identifies the point of state authentication in a circular strategic process, with a strategic argument, that policy is necessarily the sequential start point in a linear, one-way, levels of war model.

In Book Eight of On War (written 1816-1830) Clausewitz deals with ‘war plans’, in which he discusses what today could be rendered as decisions taken at the policy / national strategic level. Clausewitz stated that ‘policy is nothing in itself … we can only treat policy as representative of all the interests of the community’.[iii] Clausewitz does not expect to find in reality a situation in which all the interest of the community are reconciled in a clear policy aim; especially the further one moves away from absolute war, as the concentrating effect of an existential threat is often replaced by a host of potential policy ideas amongst those on one’s own side, which may indeed compete with, and possibly contradict, one another.

Rather, Clausewitz employs policy as a ‘representative’ value to mark the point at which the state authenticates the aim of policy in the abstract – the pole of desire in strategic dialogue: ‘the aim of policy is to unify and reconcile all aspects of internal administration as well as of spiritual values, and whatever else the moral philosopher may care to add” (his Prussia was a monarchy, but the idea is the same). Following this statement, Clausewitz stresses that the process of constructing policy must move in both directions. That is, strategy’s role is not just to translate the intention of policy into operations, but also to adjust policy in light of operations.

The cabinet must listen to military advice on policy: ‘nor indeed is it sensible to summon soldiers, as many governments do when they are planning a war, and ask them for purely military advice’;[iv] indeed he argued that the head of the army should have a place in the cabinet.[v] Conversely, the military should not seek to keep policy, and politicians, out of military matters in war: ‘when people talk, as they often do, about the harmful political influence on the management of war, they are not saying what they really mean. Their quarrel should be with the policy itself, not its influence’.[vi] This dialogue between the desire of the state (policy in its abstract form) and the possibility of its operational accomplishment on the ground (policy in its expressed form), is a dialectic whose output is sound strategy.

Critically, the notion that the policy level serves a ‘representative’ – an essentially constitutional – function, is distinct from a view that sees the policy level as the exclusive location at which policy issues are considered. Clausewitz’s point is that sound strategy requires policy’s executors to have a say in policy too, even if they are not constitutionally responsible for it.

The temptation, however, is for those at the policy level to confuse their constitutional role as the exclusive authenticators of state policy with the idea that they must necessarily be its originators. The consequences of such temptation can be witnessed in terms of policy that is overly abstract, as the views of those who are best placed to understand how practically possible the policy is on the ground are shut out. This is not what Clausewitz envisaged. For strategy to balance ends, ways and means, there needs to be proper strategic dialogue.

When Clausewitz argues that the military should allow policy to have an influence on war, he reacts against what is identified here as the ‘strategic rationale’ for maintaining a strict distinction between policy and operational matters. This is the argument that operational matters are a professional area that policy makers should stay out of to avoid harmful and inept micro-management. It encourages, from an alternative justification, the notion of policy as the start of the one-way road to tactical execution in the sense that once policy is set, policy makers should let its operational executors get on with it. In this manner, the strategic rationale is easily confused with the constitutional rationale: they are mutually supporting arguments because they both maintain the same policy-operational boundary, albeit from distinct premises.

John Shy has argued that it was Jomini who popularised the idea that ‘interference’ by strategically naïve political leaders led to military failure.[vii] In his Précis de l’art de la guerre (1838), Jomini argues that the political and military commander are ideally united in one man, such as Frederick the Great or Napoleon.[viii] When this is not possible, however, the political leader should resist the temptation to interfere in operational matters, not only because he did not have technical knowledge, but also that geographically distant operations were best not micro-managed.[ix] Both of these reasons seem perfectly reasonable, and remain so today in the sense of policy makers not interfering in specifically military decisions (and, extending the argument to a contemporary setting, to those areas of technical proficiency of the soldier’s civilian counter-parts on operations).

However, Jomini clearly recognises the requirement for interaction, not isolation, between policy and operations. The first page of the Précis states that there are five branches of the art of war that are purely military: strategy [in the sense in which Jomini uses the term, this is more akin to the operational level of war today], grand tactics, logistics, engineering and combat tactics. However, he then goes on to argue that there is a further ‘essential’ aspect which he claims has been excluded in the study of war thus far: la politique de la guerre.[x] He claims that while this has more to do with human science than the warrior’s science, ‘since the time at which it was thought to separate the toga and the sword, we cannot deny that, if it [is] useless to a subaltern general, it is indispensable to all generals who are commanders-in-chief: it enters into all forms of war that might be carried out, and into all operations’.[xi]

He devotes the first two chapters of the Précis to the subject. The first chapter ‘De la politique de la guerre’ identifies that there is a connection between a war’s political aim and the operational means that are required to achieve it.[xii] Jomini states that this domain (which he alternatively titles ‘philosophie de la guerre’): ‘does not belong exclusively to strategy [the operational level of war], nor to diplomacy, and is not less than of the highest importance in the plans of the cabinet, as it is in those of a commander-in-chief of the army’.[xiii] The second chapter, ‘De la politique militaire’ includes extensive discussion of how to configure civil-military relations in wartime.[xiv] While he discussed a number of possible variations, his recommendation for a leader ‘un prince’, at the head of his armies but not fully confident in his own political and military skill, was to appoint two generals; one known amongst ‘hommes d’execution’, that is, operational experts, and one from amongst the ‘chefs d’etat-major instruit’, that is, an ‘educated’ member of the chiefs of staff, in this context, meaning versed in policy matters. Jomini actually calls this configuration the ideal ‘trinity’.[xv] So Jomini recognised that the political dimension of operations was very much the concern of the policy maker, and conversely, that there was a political dimension to operations that was the concern of the most senior generals.

Thus in Jomini’s (and Clausewitz’s) time, the political dimension of operational activity was only dealt with at the pinnacle of the chain of command. Thus when Clausewitz wrote that politicians should consult with military officers on policy he meant that they should get “ground truth” – situational assessments from where political and military factors meet – from generals commanding armies, not majors commanding companies.

Yet in contemporary conflict, it is common for many more choices at the operational and tactical levels to involve an element of political choice. In Afghanistan, for example, where to build a road, whether to deal with a given insurgent group violently or not, which areas to recruit the local police force from, to whom to award contracts, where to eradicate poppy, where to stress women’s rights, and a host of other issues, involve an element of political choice. These are not military decisions, but political decisions, and they are taken on a daily basis at a micro level by relatively junior officers. The issue is therefore the discretion they have to make these political choices. In the orthodox view they have none. Yet without such discretion a policy will frequently fail to have purchase on the ground because it can’t respond to local circumstances, a key factor when the consent of the population is the campaign centre of gravity, as it was at one point in Afghanistan. This is one of the reasons why it took so long in Afghanistan to tone down the more idealistic aspects of policy that were unrealistic.

It is submitted that Jomini’s view, extended to contemporary conflict, should encourage a policy maker, while remaining out of decisions of a military nature, to engage with the political dimension of operational activity, and thus also receive policy advice from those at the operational, and potentially also at the tactical level. The key evolution is therefore the extension of strategic dialogue from discussion between policy makers and the commander-in-chief to incorporate the views of those lower down the chain of command.

This has not, however, been the conventional interpretation of the policy-operational distinction in the post-Cold War world. For example, in an article on the operational level of war, Hew Strachan has cited a comment by General Tommy Franks to Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defence at the Pentagon during planning for the 2003 Iraq War: ‘keep Washington focused on policy and strategy. Leave me the hell alone to run the war [emphasis original]’.[xvi] The result was that ‘there was no strategy that united the military and the civilian, the operational to the political, with the result that the operational level of war also became the de facto strategy, and its focus meant that a wider awareness of where the war was going was excluded’.[xvii] How did we arrive at this? The final part of this article posits that the answer lies in the retention of the policy-operational orthodoxy beyond its legitimating Cold War context.

The retention today of the Cold War ‘orthodox’ view of the policy-operational distinction

In the Cold War, the idea that the military should stay out of policy made both constitutional and strategic sense. This was the argument posited by Samuel Huntington in The Solider and the State (1957), a seminal reference point in the theory of civil-military relations since 1945.[xviii] The arguments advancing a clear distinction between policy and the execution of war were already established in US military thought prior to the Second World War. Huntington cites a US Command and General Staff School publication of 1936: ‘Politics and strategy are radically and fundamentally things apart. Strategy begins where politics ends. All that soldiers ask is that once policy is settled, strategy and command shall be regarded as being in a sphere apart from politics…The line of demarcation must be drawn between politics and strategy, supply, and operations. Having found this line, all sides must abstain from trespassing.’[xix]

Huntington’s constitutional concern was a response to the Second World War, in which he saw a radical departure from this pre-war principle. He argued the Joint Chiefs became so powerful that they were in their own words effectively ‘under no civilian control whatsoever’.[xx] He took issue with the fact that by 1945 the War Department was enmeshed in US foreign policy. By the end of the war more than half of the papers of the Operations Division of the General Staff were devoted to matters that went beyond the US army’s traditional military domain.[xxi]

Huntington’s strategic concern was that the military should keep their finger off the nuclear button; his key reference point was Korea, particularly the stand-off between General McArthur and President Truman over the expansion of the war and the use of nuclear weapons. In the later part of the Cold War, the symmetry between constitutional and strategic arguments was reinforced by the way operational art developed in the 1980s, which as Hew Strachan argues, could take its geo-political and strategic context for granted, and so focus on battle: ‘although presented as a bridge between strategy and tactics, the orientation of the operational level in the late 1980s was towards tactics, not strategy’.[xxii] General Frank’s 2003 statement above exemplifies the retention of this perspective beyond the Cold War.

In contemporary conflict liberal powers retain a Huntingtonian constitutional configuration of civil-military relations: the military are theoretically a-political. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, an expert in British constitutional law, in a debate at Oxford University in 2010 on how far the military should contribute to policy making, argued that:

The distinction between policy questions and operational questions is not an easy one to observe, and perhaps especially difficult in military matters. Nevertheless, the chiefs of staff ought to do all they can to maintain it. It is important for the processes of democratic accountability that the dividing line is not blurred.

In the Cold War the argument that the military were ‘a-political’ both in the sense that the military should stay out of politics (the constitutional argument) and policy (the strategic argument), pointed in the same direction, and so made sense. The legitimating Cold War context today left behind, only the constitutional aspect remains valid. Conversely, the strategic argument is problematic: the result of keeping the military out of policy are inflexible strategies that are lethargic in their response to ground truth, with the resultant risk of failure. Indeed, the failure to correct the conflation between the two significations of the military as ‘a-political’ since the Cold War’s end has led, and may continue to lead, to campaigns that are excessively driven, particularly in their early phases, by strategies that look back to abstract concepts, not forward to their achievement in reality. In short, the question ‘should we do it’ is not balanced by ‘can we do it’. This anterior fixation, for strategy by default to look up, rather than up and down, for its inspiration (note the constant complaints of there being ‘no strategy’ coming from the top), confuses the legitimate idea of state authentication at the policy level – Clausewitz’s idea of ‘representation’ – with the strategic idea, problematic today, that sees policy as the start of a one-way road that ends in tactical action.


Liberal democracies are not constitutionally configured effectively to fight contemporary conflicts. For the military and their civilian counter-parts, including relatively junior officers, to contribute to policy but keep out of party politics is a fine line; but it seems the only solution to encourage genuine strategic dialogue within current constitutional arrangements. Conversely, policy makers should keep as close as possible to the political pulse of the conflict on the ground, rather than stay out of operational issues. Counter-intuitive, yes; radical, no: proper strategic dialogue would keep policy grounded in reality.


[i] Captain Wayne Porter of the US navy and Colonel Mark Mykleby of the US marines have argued that the US needs to close the ‘say–do gap’: a convincing strategic narrative means consistency in words and actions across the globe. Captain Wayne Porter, USN, and Colonel Mark Mykleby, USMC, with a preface by Anne-Marie Slaughter, A National Strategic Narrative (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars paper, 2011), p. 10.
[ii] J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (New York: Rutgers, 1967), p. 78.
[iii] Clausewitz, On War, Book 8, ch. 6B, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 606-7.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] There is an issue of translation here. See Clausewitz, On War, p. 608 footnote 1.
[vi] Clausewitz, On War, Book 8, ch. 6B, p. 608.
[vii] John Shy, ‘Jomini’, in Peter Paret (ed.), Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 161.
[viii] Antoine-Henri Jomini, Précis de l’Art de la Guerre, (Éditions Perrin, 2001), p. 109.
[ix] Ibid. p.96 Jomini here states that a general micro-managed from a distant capital will be at a disadvantage to one who has freedom to act.
[x] Jomini in a footnote states that very little has been written about this, citing a few eighteenth-century authors (Hay du Châtelet, Joly de Maizeroy, Henry Lloyd), but he does not mention Clausewitz. As Bruno Colson argues, following Azar Gat, in his introduction to the text, the Précis was partially a response to the challenge posed by Clausewitz, so it is perhaps not surprising that Jomini marginalises his rival’s views. Ibid. Introduction, p.15, 49; cf. Azar Gat, The Origins of Military Thought. From the Enlightenment to Clausewitz (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp.124-125.
[xi] Ibid. Introduction, p.49. All translations of Jomini in this article are the author’s own.
[xii] Ibid. pp. 51-88.
[xiii] Ibid. p. 53.
[xiv] Ibid. Particularly in Ch 2, Article 14 ‘Du commandement des armées et de la direction supérieure des operations, Ibid. pp. 109-119.
[xv] Ibid. pp. 89-125.
[xvi] Strachan cites Tommy Franks, American Soldier (New York: Regan Books, 2004), p. 440.
[xvii] Hew Strachan, ‘Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal, and the Operational Level of War’, Survival, 52:5 (2010), p. 166.
[xviii] Huntington reports that in 1945 Admiral Leahy, the Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief (President Roosevelt), and effectively (though not in title) the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could ‘quite frankly and truthfully say’ that ‘The Joint Chiefs of Staff at the present time are under no civilian control whatsoever’. Samuel Huntington, The Soldier and the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap Press, 1957).
[xix] Ibid. p. 308. Huntington cites Command and General Staff School, Principles of Strategy, pp.19-20; USNIP, XLVI (1920), pp. 1615-16.
[xx] Ibid. p. 336; Huntington cites Hearings before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs on S.84, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. (1945), p. 521.
[xxi] Ibid, pp.322-5.
[xxii] Hew Strachan, ‘Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal, and the Operational Level of War’, Survival, 52:5 (2010), p. 160.
[xxiii] ‘Military experts, not political amateurs, should decide whether we go to war’, Oxford University debate, 2010,