Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 3  /  

Strategy and Security

Strategy and Security Strategy and Security
To cite this article: Gray, Colin S., “Strategy and Security,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3, spring 2015, pages 11-15.

© Scaramax | – American Soldier Smiling Photo

There can be little disagreement with the proposition that security is a basic human need and therefore has to be of fundamental importance to the high business of state. But it can be almost embarrassing to ask seriously what it is. If a simple and straightforward answer to the question about its nature is hard to obtain, one is right to ask sceptical questions in follow-up mode that may reveal a troublesome void in official thinking. In addition to desiring to know just what security is, and therefore also (logically) is not, we would like to know how we buy it; indeed, can we buy it? From whom or what do we buy security? Is there a usable common currency to meet security concerns? And, probably most important of all, how will we know that we have bought it successfully and therefore should judge ourselves to be sufficiently secure?

As scholars we cannot evade the elementary question, ‘how do we study security in order better to understand it’? To be blunt, what do we study with respect to security? You will discover readily enough that this basic question is not answered in the current literature and debate and you may well begin to suspect it is not answerable. This is the quite unremarkable reason why, over many years, I have refused the title of professor of Security Studies, and have resisted as best I could occasional institutional efforts to associate me with a Centre or Institute for Security Studies. The problem is not that the concept of security lacks meaning, but rather that it carries too much meaning that is thoroughly undisciplined. Alas, there is excellent reason for this unhappy condition. What we have in the concept of security is a boundary-free, not merely-‘lite’, idea. And this potent idea is overflowing with meaning to everyone, both individually and collectively. If I want to study security, what does that imply? What either does or might promote insecurity? I suggest that security is a feeling measurable by human and institutional agents on little reliable empirical basis. And even if we can agree on potentially relevant facts, it is very likely that we would disagree on what the verifiable facts mean. This is a reality disturbing to many people; frank recognition that security/insecurity is a feeling and therefore is liable to influence by personality and mood swing chemistry and consideration of circumstances, but scarcely at all reliably by empirical data.

The beginning of wisdom on security is understanding that the concept is so generously inclusive as to be boundary-free. This is both fortunate and unfortunate. It is good news because it is prudent to be inclusive regarding what we should worry about. But it is bad news because the pervasive subjectivity that reigns over and within security debate means in practice that the sponginess of the concept, together with its positive public acceptance, renders it utterly open to abuse by politicians and other would-be opinion influencers. Alas, because security is about everything that does or might worry us, as a consequence it is really about nothing usable with prudence.[i]

Particular geopolitical or other metrics of potential alarm are not hard to invent for any state, but the problem is that they will lack integrity, even when they are developed honestly. Again, what can tell you how secure you really are? Indeed, is security an either/or condition, or is it a matter of more or less? Obviously, indeed unarguably, security is an important, perhaps the most important, concept in statecraft, but it is unmanageable. Can I measure national security and show it in a graph. I may be compelled to admit that at one time, when I was much younger, and therefore more credulous, I used to attempt to do this metric miracle with regard to the strategic nuclear forces of the United States. But, some greater wisdom did come with age.

The Theory and Practice of Strategy

All strategic practice reflects some theory, even if it is ill understood or, more likely, ill chosen. Strategic theory literally is unavoidable, no matter how hostile you are to abstraction or to academic pontification and pretension. After all, the primary value of theory simply is explanation. Unless you can act strictly with a flow of expressive doings that have inherent and incontestable significance, you will find it impossible to avoid the (possibly malign) influence of particular meaning. We theorize in order to make sense of our subject, whatever it happens to be. It is impossible to frame and develop a sensible argument hostile to theory per se. Of course, it is all too easy to be antagonistic towards particular theorists and/or particular theories. Important though it certainly is to comprehend the basic function of theory — which is to provide persuasive explanation — it is no less essential to understand that theory, including strategic theory, is fundamentally incomplete, indeed is impossible, in an absence of respect for the practice of strategy. Strategic theory only has meaning and value for its contribution ultimately to strategic practice. The theory does not yield explanation that is useful as understanding for its own scholarly sake. It must yield useful knowledge. Strategic theory is not pursued as a fine art that can be judged with no reference to practical utility.

Probably the single most important aspect of strategy that is known, indeed is uncontested, is the universal and eternal fact that strategy is always made by, in, and for a political process. It does not much matter which variety of political system is our focus of current attention, politics and political process both reign and rule. Decisions about strategy are made by individuals, usually acting in the name of some collectivity. There may well be, or at least appear to be, a process of analysis preceding strategic decision, but nearly all of the larger decisions in strategic history are made on the basis of the conviction and will of the most senior players in the politics of strategy making. The greater questions pertaining to significant strategic choice essentially are indeterminate. Because the future has not happened and never comes, how can you determine what should be bought, and by which dates? There is no magical mathematical formula that can enable future military adequacy to be calculated. Of course, this small problem of futurology in physics does not stop us from trying to pretend that the future is foreseeable, which it is not and never will be. We do defence planning anyway, and sometimes we try to persuade ourselves that this is something other than historically educated, or inspired, guesswork. There are methods for looking over the horizon at the great stream of future time, but do not believe anyone who tries to persuade you that any scientific, let alone social scientific, method can help you much — it cannot![ii] To clarify: scientific knowledge is certain knowledge whose reliability is capable of being tested empirically. Since there can be no data from the future about the future, its scientific study is technically completely impossible, not merely challenging or difficult. Next time you run into that gloriously aspirational official concept, the “foreseeable future”, be sure to ask its perpetrator where he buys his or her crystal ball. Off and on over the past forty years I have worked for and directly with some brilliant scientists who were at RAND for many years. If there were reliable ways to conduct future defence planning without resting unduly upon guesswork, I think I would have come across them.

There needs to be a general theory of strategy that is not specific to time, place, and technology. Moreover, obviously, it probably makes much sense to consider employing as a key concept the idea of strategic effect, though there are hazards in such expedient usage. Overall, it is sensible to think of strategic effect as being the strategists’ distinctive product.[iii] I need to try to aid clarity by insisting that we should protect the concept of strategy, and especially its adjectival employment, from inappropriate, indeed seriously inherently unsound, captured by contemporary fashions in weaponry. What is important is to preserve due respect for the eternal and ubiquitous truths in strategy’s general theory, while not hindering comprehension of the probable meaning in new military instruments or of the occasional need to change the focus and content of current strategy. In that regard, it is prudent to think about strategy and seapower, rather than seapower strategy or maritime strategy. The major point here is the need not to forget that seapower is, or should be, subordinate to strategy, not vice versa. We have become used to referring to airpower strategy and naval strategy. From time to time such usage has encouraged theorists to exaggerate the relative potency of the chosen physical agent, at the cost of some discounting of the weight that should be allowed to general strategic theory.

Strategy: Questions of Nature and Character

Many scholars are confused about the core of the subject of strategy. Although I believe that strategy, the function, is eternal and universal, apparently not everyone agrees. Some scholars, especially historians, prefer to believe that strategy is a relatively modern invention, indeed is one that has been migrating in meaning since it first emerged in French, English, and German in the 1770s. I must say that I find this belief in the modernity of strategy to be close to absurd. However, I have test-driven the view that strategy is a modern invention or discovery at gatherings of senior American historians, who, I must report, found the thesis to be ridiculous.[iv] The view that we could not have strategy ‘before the word’, was rejected almost out of hand. The point is that strategy as a function has always been understood and attempted, regardless of the availability or otherwise of a neat enough concept in the contemporary language of choice. Experience does not always require language that today we find to be conducive to appropriate thought. Over the course of the Twentieth Century, strategy substantially migrated from the Clausewitzian focus upon the use made of battle for the political purpose of a war, towards the paying of greater attention to the value of military power for the ends of policy, whatever they may be. The change was modest, but noticeable, in its post-Victorian deemphasising narrowly of battle as a principal engine of strategic history. We in the West became somewhat disenchanted with the strategic promise of and in battle by the grim protracted events of 1916 and 1917 in particular. We humans have always sought to behave strategically, in good part because there is not, and has never been, any practicable alternative. Functionally, the Greeks did strategy, as also did the Romans. The fundamental abstract architecture of strategic theory applied in all climes and circumstances. Just four words express the core of the matter — (Political) Ends, (Strategic) Ways, (Military) Means, and the Assumptions that inform and can well drive action.

Strategy is both singular, as a function including any and all purposive behaviour, and plural as in the strategies pursued in particular cases. Just as strategy has to be appreciated in the singular and the plural, so also it requires registration as both constant in nature, but ever liable to change in character as strategic history marches on. While we can recognize a general theory of strategy, and strategies of diverse character for individual cases, also it appears to be true to claim that particular general theory is appropriate for each reasonably distinctive character of military power (landpower, seapower, airpower, cyberpower, possibly nuclear weapons, and even special operations). I should mention that I spent several decades worrying at the issues raised by nuclear armed forces, while at the present time I am seeking to make sense of the relationship between strategy and tactics in Special Operations.

Strategic theory educates for understanding; it does not train for effective action. Clausewitz, in particular was admirably clear on this.[v] Moreover, while scientific theory should explain what can be verified as truth, social science and the arts do not and cannot. I deem it important to preserve in a disciplined way what is understood to be scientific, as opposed to that which is not. The critical litmus test for scientific truth should be empirical knowledge verifiable by testing. It is necessary to identify that which we know for certain to be true, and know we know (or, at least, think we know that we know), from that which is not certain knowledge. Former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was nearly correct when he said:

Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because as we know, there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are some things [we know] we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — this means we don’t know we don’t know.[vi]

I would like to add a fourth category to Rumsfeld’s admirable three, which would refer to that which we believe we know, but which transpire to be erroneous when more and better evidence is available and applied.

I need to emphasize the importance of adding recognition of the importance of Assumptions to the sacred three strategy elements identified as Ends, Ways, and Means.[vii] A remarkable assembly of items belongs in the Assumptions box. Actually, relatively little about strategy, especially for the future, of course, is known to be true — and such ‘truth’ turns out to be distinctly variable on ever closer examination. An assumption can be understood best as a ‘working’ and just possibly temporary truth that we choose to regard as being good enough for our needs now. But, as a matter of definitional discipline, we know that an assumption is categorized as such precisely because we lack certain knowledge as to its ‘truthyness’. Assumptions are not well understood, which may be a pity because, obviously, they have to dominate our planning for the future. More usefully, I should point out that we ourselves tend to be unclear about what is known to be true and what is only believed to be true enough, and therefore is an assumption. Assumptions are absolutely critical to our security and are unavoidable. However, there is much to be said in precautionary mode about the probable value in paying greater attention to the belief and assumption category of knowledge. A government cannot be criticized for not knowing what is unknowable by any method of data collection and analysis. But it will be at fault if it is unwilling to admit, albeit privately, the variable fragility of understanding that has to be speculative about all aspects of the future.

Thoughts on General Theory

It is useful and probably essential for aspiring strategic theorists to understand just what it is that good theory should bring to the table of understanding. Former ‘Green Beret’ Professor Harold Winton has offered the most helpful guide to military and strategic theory that I have found to date. Winton identifies four key tasks for theory.[viii] He argues that theory should

1. Define the field;

2. Break the field into constituent parts;

3. Connect the field to other related fields;

4. Anticipate (not predict) the future.

This is simple, but not simplistic, and it is plausible and doable. The purpose of applying general theory is education and not training, as noted already. Winton’s fundamental approach accommodates the whole of strategy’s domain, while enabling us to retain some grip on its integrity as a unity.

The general theory of strategy can best be located, I believe in the writings (in several languages) of ten theorists, with dates of composition extending over the course of 2,500 years. I choose to identify four categories of general theories, as follows in descending order:

Category 1: Carl von Clausewitz, Sun-tsu, Thucydides

Category 2: Niccolo Machiavelli, Antoine Henri de Jomini, Basil Liddell Hart, J. C. Wylie, Edward N. Luttwak.

Category 3: Bernard Brodie

Category 4: Thomas C. Schelling

While in taxonomic mode I need to confess also that I have found it possible and desirable to reduce the general theory of strategy to 23 Dicta (I have migrated from 21 to 23 over the past five years).[ix] I do not claim to have found everything that can be found, but I believe that my 23 dicta accommodate all that it is necessary to understand about strategy today. I must emphasize that in my version general theory is not vulnerable to technological obsolescence, and it could have been employed with little need for cultural amendment in a Greek or Roman staff college, had polities then indulged in such! The general theory has to be invulnerable to any and all real-world changes that have a distinctive temporal flavour.

As a helpful aid to competent strategic thought and behaviour, I will specify what I believe should be ‘the strategist’s questions’.

  1. What is it about? What are the political (and other) stakes? How much do they matter?
  2. So What? What will be the (strategic) effect of the behaviours we might do?
  3. Will our chosen strategy meet its political goals?
  4. What are the limits of our power to influence and control the enemy’s will?
  5. How can the enemy thwart us?
  6. What are our alternatives? What are their costs and benefits?
  7. How reliable is our home front?
  8. How well does our strategic choice today fit with the education we can (glean) derive from history?
  9. What have we overlooked?

Conclusion: The Practice of Strategy

The theory of strategy may appear complex, but it is not hard to understand. What is fiendishly difficult is the real-world attempted practice of strategy. There are two problems for strategy which render this subject extraordinarily challenging, and both are fundamental issues pertaining to the necessity for currency conversion between categories of effort. First, the strategist needs to wage warfare by ways and with means highly likely to lend themselves to conversion as strategic effect from the fuel provided by tactical military action. Second, the strategist needs to be able to serve his state’s political ends with strategic effect converted from the coin of operations and tactics. In other words, the strategist is required by the nature of his job to provide/convert the real tactical ‘stuff’ of warfare that is needed ultimately in and as political coin. Bearing in mind that all strategy has to consist fundamentally of tactical action, it is apparent readily enough that the strategist needs to understand both tactics and politics sufficiently in order to render, if not himself perform, the essential currency conversion duty.

Although all strategy is political in effect, and is decided by means of political process, nonetheless strategy and politics do not fuse into one. Warfare is always political in meaning, but it is not merely politics in overtly violent form. Although technical expertise is necessary as a part of the basis for strategy, there is no evading the persisting reality that strategy is produced by political choice, disciplined by tactical commands. I will leave this paper with four potent thoughts:

First, it has been said that ‘strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat’.

Second, ignorant people like to argue that strategy is easy, but tactics and especially logistics, are very difficult. In fact, ‘tactics and the logistics that enable them comprise the doing of strategy’.

Third, although technical expertise is essential for strategy, the choices are political, though they are disciplined by tactical commands that typically take due notice of feasibility (i.e. can it be done?)

Fourth, for a luminous half-truth it would be hard to beat the words ascribed to an outstanding Roman general (Gnaeus Domitus Corbulo) in a recent popular novel: ‘It is swords which will bring victory now, not strategy’.[x]

The fourth thought may serve to remind us that all strategy has to be built on a tactical foundation. If the troops can’t or won’t do it, strategic effect must be negative. There is a truly inalienable unity about this subject that needs full appreciation lest we stray inadvertently into the realm of unduly distinctive categories of thought and actions.


[i] Raymond Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 585.
[ii] Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: the Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986).
[iii] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), ch. 5.
[iv] Beatrice Heuser, ‘Strategy Before the Word: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World,’ The RUSI Journal, Vol. 155, No. 1 (February/March2010), pp. 36-42).
[v] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed., Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1832-4; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 141.
[vi] Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknowns: A Memoir (New York: Sentinel, 2011), p. xiii.
[vii] T. X. Hammes, ‘Assumptions — A Fatal Oversight’, Infinity Journal, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 4-6.
[viii] Harold R. Winton, ‘An Imperfect Jewel: Military Theory and the Military Profession’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 34, No. 6 (December 2011), esp. pp. 854-8.
[ix] Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy (Cambridge: Polity Press, forthcoming 2015), ch.3.
[x] Douglas Jackson, Avenger of Rome (London: Corgi Books, 2013), p. 423.