Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 4  /  

Explaining Strategic Theory

Explaining Strategic Theory Explaining Strategic Theory
To cite this article: Smith, M.L.R. and Stone, John, “Explaining Strategic Theory”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 4, Fall 2011, pages 27-30.

The term ‘strategy’ must be one of the most commonly used terms in public discourse. It is employed to refer to anything from state policy, business plans, to personal choices. Yet few appreciate what this term really means, and what it implies as an approach to the study of social phenomena.

The notion of Strategic Theory as a method of analysis has permeated into the wider domain of International Relations and Political Studies via the work of scholars like Bernard Brodie and Thomas Schelling, and has been increasingly employed as a tool to assist in the comprehension of decision-making, particularly with respect to the use of military power. One of the best statements of the utility of Strategic Theory is provided by Harry Yarger: ‘Strategic theory opens the mind to all the possibilities and forces at play, prompting us to consider the costs and risks of our decisions and weigh the consequences of those of our adversaries, allies, and others’.[i]

What, then, is Strategic Theory, and how does it help open the mind? Working from first principles, we aim to provide a concise understanding of what Strategic Theory encompasses in its essentials. As will be shown, to achieve this understanding it is important to appreciate what Strategic Theory is not, as much as what it is. In the process, we hope to show that Strategic Theory is a simple, parsimonious, yet elegant, way of clarifying complexity.

Before proceeding it is necessary to appreciate how the term ‘theory’ is being used in this context. Plainly, in any study of the infinitely varied scale of human conduct, Strategic Theory cannot aspire to achieve any hard scientific understanding that survives experimental testing under exactly replicable conditions. However, it does constitute a theory, in the broader sense, which advances a set of propositions that, if true, can be held to explain certain facts or phenomena. In this regard, Strategic Theory reveals itself less as a set of hard and fast rules, and more as a series of purposive assumptions, or rules of understanding, that guide analysis; though as we shall endeavour to suggest in the conclusion, these rules do ultimately enable us to posit a plausible, all encompassing, definition of Strategic Theory.

Rules of Understanding: The Key Features of Strategic Theory

1) The study of ends, ways and means

Strategy is concerned with the ways in which available means are employed in order to achieve desired ends. Analysis using Strategic Theory therefore involves the study, in Michael Howard’s words, of the ‘use of available resources to gain any objective’.[ii] Here, the term ‘resources’ (the ‘means’) refers not simply to the tangible elements of power, but also to the many intangible factors that might impose themselves on a decision-maker – most notably the degree of will that an actor can mobilize in the pursuit of its goals.

2) Interdependent decision-making

A second key feature of Strategy Theory is that decision-making is influenced by the existence of a wilful adversary (or adversaries) set on achieving its (or their) own ends. This in turn means that the quality of strategic decision-making must be measured not against any fixed standard of efficacy, but in light of the response it can be expected to elicit from an adversary. It is this feature – along with the uncertainty it engenders – that distinguishes strategy from administrative behaviour, and it is the consideration of how interdependent decisions are reached in a fluid environment that provides Strategic Theory with a great deal of its richness. Many of the key insights provided by thinkers like Carl von Clausewitz and Thomas Schelling, for example, are predicated on the proposition that strategic decision-making is dependent on the choices and actions of others in the political system.[iii]

3) The study of the political actor as the central unit of analysis

Principally, strategic theorists concern themselves with the calculations of what are termed ‘unitary’ political actors, be they states, sub-state entities, or any other social grouping. Strategic Theory analysis is interested in describing the choices available to such actors and evaluating the quality of their decision-making. Thus, strategic theorists will invariably attempt to trace the line of thinking of a particular political entity to comprehend how it seeks to achieve its objectives.

4) Understanding value systems and preferences

Evaluating decisions in light of the responses they elicit from an adversary implies a requirement to understand the relevant actors’ value systems and preferences – in the interests of minimizing uncertainty. Strategic theorists are, in other words, concerned with understanding what motivates the actors under consideration. They are concerned with asking how actors construct their interests in light of their ideological motivations, how these interests translate into specific objectives and how they shape the choice of means employed to achieve them.

5) The assumption of rationality

Strategic Theory assumes the existence of rational actors. To be considered rational, actors must exhibit behaviour that is consistent with the attainment of their desired end. The assumption of rationality does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or that all decisions always produce the ‘correct’ or maximum outcome for the actor. It is merely a presupposition that an actor’s decisions are made after some kind of cost–benefit calculation that results in a decision to employ means so as to optimize a desired end in accordance with an actor’s values.[iv] It is in some degree a problematic assumption (how do we know if a cost-benefit calculation has been undertaken for instance?), but Strategic Theory would lack analytical purchase without it.

6) The observance of moral neutrality

Strategic Theory is intellectually disinterested in the moral validity of the means, ways and ends of any actor. Commentary is confined to evaluating how well the chosen means are used to achieve stated ends. This understanding includes and applies to all instrumental acts of violence. This may seem clinical, even cold blooded, but it is a logical concomitant of any dispassionate attempt to understand strategic decisions. As Schelling elucidates, this is for two reasons. First, strategic ‘analysis is usually about the situation not the individuals – about the structure of incentives, of information and communication, the choices available, and the tactics that can be employed’.[v] Second, Strategic Theory ‘cannot proceed from the point of view of a single favoured participant. It deals with situations in which one party has to think about how the others are going to reach their decisions’.[vi]

The Application of Occam’s Razor

These six features comprise the core of Strategic Theory. We contend that it is a precise and economical tool because it applies the principle of Occam’s Razor. That is to say, it incorporates as few postulates as possible in its operation.[vii]

Of course, what has been presented so far is only a basic framework. What these key assumptions also provide is a point of entry into many other interesting questions, such as: how is it possible to gain an appreciation of another’s value system (through serious historical or anthropological research); and how might we be able to discern when an actor has attained its objectives, or has reached a point where it has maximized its potential with its chosen means (a matter of judgment based on knowledge of the actor’s value system)?

With its focus on understanding value systems and their interaction with other actors in the wider environment, Strategic Theory might be considered a form of constructivism avant la lèttre. Strategic Theory, however, avoids the problematic nature of constructivist approaches as they have evolved within the field of contemporary International Relations. This latter brand of constructivism tends to come with normative ‘bolt-ons’ to the effect that, because identities and interests are not permanently fixed, they must be manipulated towards some set of universal humanitarian values. This, we contend, is an unduly ethnocentric enterprise that (for reasons provided earlier) Strategic Theory avoids.

Additionally, Strategic Theory does not fall into the hole that American political scientists often manage to dig for themselves by perceiving a contradiction between the fact that identities and interests may be constructed from contingent historical and social experiences (rather than given by immutable structures in the international system), and the fact that once interests are formed they are often pursued with great realist vigour – particularly on the part of major state actors on the international stage. Strategic Theory perceives no such contradiction.

What Strategic Theory Is Not…

Strategic Theory avoids many of the pitfalls that have afflicted International Relations because, in disciplinary terms, the two are unrelated. Its modern origins derive from public choice economics. It is an analytical tool that is sometimes brought in to investigate issues and problems in the realm of International Relations, but it is not intrinsically of International Relations. Unfortunately, some scholars do consider it a branch of International Relations, and this leads to misunderstanding and confusion. Thus it is worth mentioning briefly what Strategic Theory is not. This, in itself, also helps to clarify the nature and value of our approach.

1) Strategic Theory is not just the study of military power

It is true that the term ‘strategy’ derives from the Greek word strategos, meaning the ‘art of the general’, but the way strategy is defined (the application of means to ends) implies no inherent link with military power and war. The majority of self-described strategic theorists probably do study the use, or threat of use, of armed force in politics. Fundamentally, though, Strategic Theory has universal application across the sphere of human activity as Thomas Schelling, himself a political economist, demonstrated in much of his work.[viii]

2) Strategic Theory is not Strategic Studies

It is important to make a distinction between Strategic Theory and Strategic Studies. Strategic Studies emerged as a field of academic enquiry after World War II. It was concerned with the study of military power in international politics. As such it is unsurprising that Strategic Theory played an important role in shaping the methodological basis of Strategic Studies.[ix] On the other hand, the substantive concerns of Strategic Studies were more historically contingent. The realist focus on states and material power needs to be understood as consequent to the abandonment of interwar idealism, whilst the focus on deterrence arose due to the advent of nuclear weapons. Thus, although the end of the Cold War brought with it new conditions that challenged the relevance of Strategic Studies, the same cannot be said in relation to Strategic Theory with its commitment to more fundamental issues.

3) Strategic Theory is not the same thing as Security Studies

For reasons outlined above, Strategic Studies has become subsumed into a much broader field of academic endeavour since the end of the Cold War. States and nuclear weapons are no longer the only things on the agenda when academics talk of ‘security’. Such things remain important, but they now jostle up against a much greater range of concerns embraced by the new Security Studies.[x] Indeed, security – defined in terms of the absence of threats to welfare – is becoming so broad a term that neither of us is really quite sure what its study now amounts to. But this does not worry us over much: just as Strategic Theory is not Strategic Studies, nor is it Security Studies.

4) Strategic Theory is not the study of ‘strategic culture’

Strategic culture is a problematic concept, and is not necessary to sustain coherent strategic analysis. Strategic Theory, as has been emphasized, routinely involves the study of how value systems shape the character of choices in relation to ends and means. If this is what people mean by the study of ‘culture’ then Strategic Theory is, ipso facto, concerned with the study of cultural variables. Academic notions of strategic culture go back a long way. More recently it has attracted interest amongst constructivist-minded International Relations scholars who are concerned to challenge the dominant Realist paradigm in their field by demonstrating the importance of ideas for explaining the behaviour of political actors.[xi] Realists have succeeded in mounting a spirited counter-offensive.[xii] Nevertheless, the whole debate would hardly have been necessary had greater attention been paid to the insights available from the literature on strategic theory.

5) Strategic Theory is not Game Theory

Just as Strategic Theory has no need to engage with problematic notions of culture, neither does it connote the opposite fallacy of a value-free understanding of rational-actor behaviour as embodied in Game Theory. By no means have all strategic theorists found value in Game Theory. Brodie, for example, did not believe it as directly valuable.[xiii] Schelling did employ it, but the most influential and enduring aspects of his work derive not from his mathematical formulations, but from his profound qualitative understanding of the interdependent character of human relationships.

A Brief Case Study – Using Strategic Theory to Define Terrorism

Now that a set of statements has been advanced about what does, and does not, constitute Strategic Theory, let us turn to the question of what they all add up to. At the beginning of this piece we made the claim that Strategic Theory was a precise and efficient method that can help simplify and clarify social phenomena. Let us provide a brief example that will hopefully elucidate what we mean.

In recent years the term ‘terrorism’ has vexed International Relations scholars, with one lamenting that over 200 definitions have been put forward. The received wisdom is that terrorism ‘is nearly impossible to define’,[xv] and that consequently no stable basis for study has been possible.[xvi] With our previous claims in mind, we would want to reject such a view. Indeed, we consider that the term is easy and unproblematic to define. One may employ Occam’s Razor. Simply put, terror is an abstract noun that denotes fear, and thus terrorism can be defined quite adequately as the creation of fear for a purpose.[xvii] In this way, terrorism reveals itself as a technique, a tactic. This is a perfectly stable basis for study. If you are seeking to generate fear for instrumental reasons then you are practising terrorism: and you are therefore liable, accurately, to be called a terrorist. If you are not explicitly trying to generate fear, then you are not a terrorist.

The self-inflicted problem for many in International Relations and Political Science is of course that they insist, without any clear reason, in attaching moral valuations to the term terrorism (with people who use terrorism deemed to be bad). Strategic Theory practises intellectual disinterest towards the moral validity of the cause, along with the means, ways and ends of political action. It holds that terrorism, like any tactic, can be used in good or bad ways for either good or bad purposes.[xviii] As a parent, one might consider it appropriate to instil fear (albeit of a mild kind) in one’s children for a whole variety of laudable reasons. Sub-state actors sometimes (but not always) employ the tactics of terror to achieve their political goals. The IRA, for example, sometimes resorted to terrorism, but it also applied violence with other strategic effects in mind.[xix] States, of course, are also perfectly capable of employing terrorist tactics. Although strategic theorists are dedicated to evaluating correlations between ends, ways and means, we make no automatic value assumptions about the intrinsic moral worthiness of the actor or its cause merely on the basis of the tactics it chooses to employ at any one point in a campaign to attain its political purposes.

The point is that deciding what constitutes a morally good or bad purpose is a wholly separate intellectual task from describing and evaluating the utility of a particular tactic. Mixing up an attempt at description with a moral judgment is what philosophers of language call a category mistake.[xx] To give an example, the much-quoted phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ is a classic category mistake. For a strategic theorist, one part of the phrase – ‘terrorist’ – alludes to the description of a tactic (someone who seeks to create fear for a purpose), whilst the other – ‘freedom fighter’ – is a positively loaded moral judgment. To fuse together these different intellectual standpoints is illogical. Strategic Theory thus succeeds in revealing that the slogan ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ is meaningless, not least because if one thinks about it, one can, depending on how the contingent moral environment is evaluated, be considered to be both at the same time.[xxi]


Strategic Theory offers a concise and coherent basis for investigating the social behaviour associated with conflict, that is, in situations where actors are endeavouring to secure their interests and values against the interests of other political actors. It routinely reaches out to other areas of academic endeavour, but it is not intrinsically of any other area. Its fundamental concerns are not indissolubly linked to a particular historical, ethical or other context. On the contrary, it is defined in such a manner as to help the theorist to extricate him or herself from situational bias.

In outlining these crucial elements it is finally possible to posit a concise definition of Strategic Theory: in its irreducible essence, Strategic Theory is the theory of interdependent decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. As such, it possesses considerable advantages for the analyst, facilitating, as it does, the disentangling of efforts to evaluate instrumental behaviour from efforts to impose arbitrary moral valuations on it. In this manner, Strategic Theory facilitates clarity of understanding. Strategic Theory is, thereby, mind opening and intellectually liberating.


This article is based on an earlier version that appeared in e-International Relations (April 2011). We are grateful to the editors of e-IR for agreeing, and indeed, encouraging the revision and re-publication of the original ideas set out there.
[i] Harry R. Yarger, Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006), p. 2.
[ii] Michael Howard, The Causes of War (London: Counterpoint, 1983), p. 86.
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, tr. J.J. Graham (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004), pp. 1-19; Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 83-118.
[iv] .F. Lopez-Alvez, ‘Political Crises, Strategic Choices and Terrorism: The Rise and Fall of the Uruguayan Tupamaros’, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1989), p. 204.
[v] Thomas Schelling, Choice and Consequence: Perspectives of an Errant Economist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 198-199.
[vi] Ibid., p. 199.
[vii] M.L.R. Smith, ‘William of Ockham, Where Are You When We Need You? Reviewing Modern Terrorism Studies’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2008), p. 322.
[viii] See Schelling, Choice and Consequence, passim.
[ix] See, for example, John Garnett, ‘Strategic Studies and Its Assumptions’, in John Baylis, Ken Booth, John Garnett and Phil Williams, Contemporary Strategy: Theories and Policies (London: Croom Helm, 1975).
[x] For the development of security studies see David Mutimer, ‘Beyond Strategy: Critical Thinking on the New Security Studies’, in Craig A. Snyder, (ed.), Contemporary Security and Strategy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 34-59.
[xi] See David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith, ‘Noise But No Signal: Strategy, Culture and the Poverty of Constructivism’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 24, No. 6 (2001), pp. 485-495.
[xii] For example, Michael C. Desch, ‘Culture Clash: Assessing the Importance of Ideas in Security Studies’, International Security, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1998), pp. 141-170.
[xiii] Bernard Brodie, ‘Strategy as a Science’, World Politics, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1949), p. 479, n. 13.
[xiv] Richard Jackson, ‘Why We Need Critical Terrorism Studies’, e-International Relations, 8 April, 2008, at accessed 25 April 2010.
[xv] Dipak K. Gupta, ‘Exploring the Roots of Terrorism’, in Tore Bjørgo (ed.), The Roots of Terrorism: Myths Realities and Ways Forward (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 17.
[xvi] Jackson, ‘Why We Need Critical Terrorism Studies’.
[xvii] Peter R. Neuman and M.L.R. Smith, The Strategy of Terrorism: How It Works and Why It Fails (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 7-8.
[xviii] Smith, ‘William of Ockham’, pp. 322-123.
[xix] See M.L.R. Smith, Fighting For Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 95-98 and 152-166
[xx] See Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 16. A category mistake is defined as mistaking facts or ‘things of one kind are presented as if they belonged to another’, Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 58.
[xxi] M.L.R. Smith, ‘Holding Fire: Strategic Theory and the Missing Military Dimension in the Academic Study of Northern Ireland’, in Alan O’Day (ed.), Terrorism’s Laboratory: The Case of Northern Ireland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1995), pp. 228–33.