Military Strategy Magazine  /  "The Strategy Bridge"  /  

Relativity and Negotiation: Core Elements of a General Theory of Strategy

Relativity and Negotiation: Core Elements of a General Theory of Strategy Relativity and Negotiation: Core Elements of a General Theory of Strategy
To cite this article: Finney, Nathan K., “Relativity and Negotiation: Core Elements of a General Theory of Strategy”, Infinity Journal, The Strategy Bridge Special Edition, March 2014, pages 22-25.

Few modern intellectuals have had as large an impact on military strategists as Colin Gray. From articles that reluctantly (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I believe) describe strategists as heroes for struggling to overcome the innumerable issues with creating purposeful strategy, to treatises on the strategic effectiveness of air and cyber power, Gray has covered practically every aspect of strategy and its place in the modern world.[i] The most far-reaching of his works, in both ambition and scope, is his 2010 magnum opus, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice.[ii] I only half-jokingly refer to this book as the “strategist’s bible”, as much for its ambiguity that can provide for diverse interpretations as its sound analysis and the provided dicta inherent to strategy. Akin to Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, another work that can be considered the “strategist’s bible”, The Strategy Bridge provides some key concepts that strategists must understand. Foremost among them are the relativity of strategy and the primacy of negotiation in strategy development.

I came to Gray through his previous works, particularly his writing on strategic history.[iii] Having been designated a US Army Strategist (a lofty title, particularly for a young captain that had only worked in the defense/military realm for half a dozen years), I began voraciously reading all I could get my hands on that provided a better understanding of the many facets of strategy. Gray came highly recommended, particularly his books War, Peace, and International Relations and Modern Strategy. These were fantastic works that provided context and more than passing knowledge of the importance of strategy and strategic history. But it was the publication of The Strategy Bridge a few years into my exploration of strategic studies that opened my eyes to the true implications of my appointment as a strategist; its prose described the sheer complexity and nuance of my new discipline, most especially the difficulties in creating purposeful strategy. While he comes at the issue from the realm of academia as opposed to as a military practitioner, Gray is not unlike his predecessor, Carl von Clausewitz, in that he tightly packs decades of knowledge into an ambitious book, of which the content and language is capable of losing the reader in a single sentence for minutes…a chapter for hours.

This similarity to the classical texts of strategy, most apparently On War, is no accident. Where Clausewitz endeavored to articulate a general theory of war, Gray is attempting in The Strategy Bridge to articulate a complementary general theory of strategy. I believe Gray is as successful as his intellectual progenitor. While there are myriad insights in this book that drive forward a general theory of strategy, the two largest contributions Gray provides to such a theory are an understanding of strategy’s relative nature, and the process of dialogue and negotiation inherent in strategy development.


It’s All Relative

Strategy, the method of employing the instrument of war to achieve desired political effects, is a contest of opposing forces, dependent upon the interaction between them. Clausewitz described war as a duel in which combatants attempt to compel the other to their will. In such a duel one is not required to have the most effective force or best strategy to be successful, just be subjectively better when relative to adversarial actors and the strategic context at the time. Success in strategy is continuously relative, based within the time in which it is developed and employed and dependent on historical context, the cultures and personalities of the players, and the capabilities available and how they are employed to create strategic effect. More than this, the belligerent that is more effective at translating tactical action into political effect will be in a relatively better position for success than adversaries.

In the end, strategy is a contest in which the exclusion of the opponent in strategic calculation is likely to result in failure. Despite the lip service most modern military forces give to the complexity and nonlinearity of war, acknowledging Clausewitz and those that have addressed this aspect of conflict, much of the contemporary discussion on military concepts and strategies today largely has removed the mental and moral calculations of “the other” from their own calculations, instead focusing on discrete capabilities that threaten our own military means. In so doing, these discussions are missing vital considerations needed to provide meaning and clarity; they sanitize the endeavor, removing the interactive nature of strategy between belligerents.

The importance of Gray’s work, particularly as a major element woven throughout his general theory of strategy, is to re-focus the reader on the relative nature of strategy; particularly to the fact that strategy is a human activity that takes place in a strategic context to achieve purposeful change in behavior. There are others that have made this distinction, but in The Strategy Bridge Gray focuses on the obstacles and problems that the strategist faces in creating purposeful strategy while avoiding prescriptive solutions; he is educating his readers in how to think about strategy development, not providing replicable processes for it.


It’s All Negotiation

The second, and most potent, contribution to a general theory of strategy codified in The Strategy Bridge is the dialectic nature of strategy-making between civilian and military stakeholders. While not an ironclad rule, strategy is typically developed through the dialogue and negotiation of actors spanning the policymaking and policy-enforcing functions. Rarely is there a Huntingtonian dynamic in which politicians independently develop a policy then pass it off to military professionals who execute military operations independently, only handing the reins back upon war termination.[iv] Instead, there is a constant and iterative negotiation in which each of the “negotiators will express the interests of their organizations as they and their staffs perceive them.”[v]

While to some this may seem intuitive, the value of how it is addressed as a part of Gray’s general theory of strategy is in the elaboration of obstacles and considerations that the strategist, who provides the function of acting as the bridge between policy and tactics, must understand. The difficulties in the required human interactions of personalities with differing goals and motivations are not the least of these. As such, the outcome of these interactions is rarely perceived as a rational process:

Unfortunately for the theorist, and hence the practitioner in need of assistance from his ideas and way of thinking, strategy-making is not the product of rational choice reached through debate over the strategic merit of alternatives. Instead, it may well express the balance of power in an exercise in bureaucratic politics.[vi]

Like war, strategy is ultimately about politics. Therefore, the best analysis or most effective approach given the strategic context can be less relevant than the “culture, biology, personality, and historical context”[vii] at play in the negotiation between stakeholders. Not only must the strategist contend with the adversary’s strategy, but internal divisions as well. There are interactions within bureaucratic systems involved in strategy development that must be understood, addressed, and frequently fought over.

Because of the human dynamics of a negotiated solution, stakeholders will approach the dialogue focused on their own personal or organizational concerns. Politicians will likely be focused on domestic politics that affect the accomplishment of their political agenda, their management of the political process, their own cognitive biases, and/or the various factors that most influence the security of their own power base. Military leaders, on the other hand, may tend to focus on current tactical and operational issues that affect their forces, as well as the administrative necessities to recruit, train, equip, and manage their services. These stakeholders rarely come together in a strategy development process until a specific foreign policy issue rises to the level that may require some element of military attention. Just as it is dangerous for those attempting to create purposeful strategy to forget the relative nature of strategy and focus on internal imperatives instead of the external imperatives determined by the enemy as discussed above, “[w]hen politicians and military commanders focus unduly, even exclusively, upon their own problems at the expense of the appreciation of the enemy’s difficulties, their strategic performance is certain to be impaired.”[viii]

During the creation of particular strategies, and in between the pressing issues that drive civilians and the military together into the development of purposeful strategy, there exists a strategic function to be performed and actors that facilitate such a function. This is where Gray employs the analogy of a bridge. The bridge, from which his book derives its title, is a representation of the function of translating and facilitating the negotiation between policymakers and the military, both through dialogue and analytical support during the development of strategy and by translating desired political effects into military objectives that can achieve them. This bridge straddles the gulf between those interested in their domestic base of power (and the effect that the use of the military will have on it) and those desirous of the resources and operational control to militarily achieve tactical effectiveness.[ix] Strategy, being a human endeavor, requires actors – specifically strategists – to enact the bridging function, which brings personalities and agendas into the equation.

Even when there is little friction between the involved actors, the creation of purposeful strategy can be equated to the duel Clausewitz attributed to war between two actors external to the state, though devoid of the use of force. In the same way belligerents interact in war based on their strategic context, and through that interaction create new contexts, stakeholders in strategy development give and take according to their desired interests – withpolicymakers desiring to achieve political effects and the military attempting to threaten or use force to achieve tactical successes that can be used for political effect. It is the interaction of two forces that drive outcomes, just as in the actions of two belligerent forces on the battlefield. As Hew Strachan is quoted, “the principle purpose of effective civil-military relations is national security; its output is strategy.”[x]

The Strategy Bridge provides important insight as to the considerations that must be taken into account to better understand the function of strategy as a bridge so that stakeholders, particularly those strategists that maintain the expanse, can create more effective strategy. Even though strategy is relative and a strategist must simply be better than his opponent in the end, the only possible way to better ensure superiority is to develop more effective strategies that make appropriate use of military means to achieve political ends.


It’s All in the Effect

Just as strategy depends on tactical actions being translated into political advantage to be considered effective, a grand design for creating a general theory of strategy, as is the purpose of The Strategy Bridge, depends on the ability of those practicing the art to find practical value in translating theory into application. Clausewitz was most concerned not with an academic, ethereal theory of war, but on theory’s ability to inform and support its application in actual theaters of war. Gray is equally as focused upon the practical use of this mechanism in his general theory of strategy. This does not mean he prescribes processes or approaches that must be used for more effective bridging of tactical success to political effect, thereby resulting in more relatively successful strategy development. The Strategy Bridge is above all a conceptual primer to support strategists in their education in how to think about strategy, not what to think. From twenty-one dicta that help describe the nature and character of strategy, how to make and execute it, and its consequences, to practical considerations in the practice of strategy, this work is invaluable to the education of a strategist.

Beyond a deeper understanding of the relational aspects of strategy and the nature of negotiation in its practice, strategists get an insider’s experienced view of the difficult nature of performing as a strategist through Gray’s work. The reader is quickly disabused of the notion that strategy is easy or can be done by everyone. In fact, acting as an effective bridge takes particular skills and personality that cannot be accomplished through training alone.

In the case of military officers, they must be proficient in the use of tactics and simultaneously be able to intuitively grasp the necessary skills and traits inherent to politics. Additionally, largely out of a strategist’s personal control, military institutions or individuals of influence must be available and willing to protect them when they pursue unorthodox and/or unusual career paths. Rarely have effective strategists trod traditional paths to advancement within the military bureaucracy. Frequently, those with the education and personality for strategy do not end up in the positions of influence required to affect the development of purposeful strategy. The same can be said of those in the political realm. Politicians rarely break out from a fairly typical career path that is largely devoid of military service, particularly at the level of strategy. Eisenhower was an anomaly that is unlikely to occur in the near future.



What is clear from The Strategy Bridge is that there is a general theory of strategy that can be distilled empirically from history and experience to complement Clausewitz’s general theory of war. It is also clear that it may be easier to capture in a thoughtful work than to actually implement it. Clausewitz’s theory of war requires men of “genius” with coup d’œil to achieve success. Similarly, though he does not state it explicitly, Gray’s concept of strategy requires strategists of “genius” that can intuitively see the strategic context and effectively provide a bridge in the negotiation between politics and tactics. As such, Gray’s bridge does not necessarily require commanders, but conductors that can translate the relativity in the contemporary strategic context and manage civilian-military relationships, for “the principal core competency of the strategist is the ability to direct armed forces in war, not necessarily to command and lead them.”[xi]

The Strategy Bridge has completed the yeoman’s work toward a general theory of strategy, but even it is not completely above reproach. While an understanding of the relative nature of strategy and the negotiation inherent in its development is critical in understanding strategy’s nature, Gray provides little substance on how this comes into play in reality, or how to navigate the incredibly complex architecture of government for the production of strategy. Additionally, while The Strategy Bridge admirably covers the daunting number of challenges inherent to developing strategy, little is addressed as to the equally numerous challenges to enacting strategy. The lack of these elements is one of choice; Gray explicitly acknowledges that this book is one directed at explaining theory, not a medium for explaining any civilian academic views on the practice of force.[xii] A general theory of strategy would be greatly bolstered by a robust discussion on these challenges and approaches for navigating them, however.

Such criticisms do not detract from the significant value in what The Strategy Bridge does provide – in fact, these two criticisms are similar to those that could be leveled at Clausewitz himself. Both On War and The Strategy Bridge address crucial aspects of genuine theory, but in the process largely do not take into account just how taxing it is to translate their theory from the page into practice.

In the end, strategists are admirably served by the work done by Gray in The Strategy Bridge. Contemplation on his insights, particularly the relativity of strategy and its development through negotiation, will improve the knowledge and conceptual tools available to those interested in strategy development. This will allow them to better provide the necessary bridging function between politics and military action, a necessary function for the development of purposeful strategy.


[i] For example, see Colin Gray, “The Strategist as Hero,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 62, 3rd Quarter 2011, pages 37-45; Colin Gray, Making Strategic Sense of Cyber Power: Why the Sky Is Not Falling (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2013); and Colin Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 2012).
[ii] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[iii] For example, see Colin Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations (New York: Routledge, 2012) or Colin Gray, Modern War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
[iv] For more on Huntington’s model of civil-military relations, see Samuel P. Huntington, ‪The Soldier and the State‬: ‪The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).
[v] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 151.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ibid, 128.
[ix] For more on domestic politics and foreign policy/strategy, see Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and David Lalman, War and Reason: Domestic and International Imperatives (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 3-24.
[x] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 149.
[xi] Ibid, 99. Also, see Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2005) for more discussion on strategy as a “symphony”, as opposed to design.
[xii] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 196-197.