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The Mythology of Grand Strategy

The Mythology of Grand Strategy The Mythology of Grand Strategy
To cite this article: Milevski, Lukas, “The Mythology of Grand Strategy”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 1, Winter, 2012, pages 29-33.

Grand strategy means different things to different people. Its meanings range from Robert Art’s restricted definition that “a grand strategy tells a nation’s leaders what goals they should aim for and how best they can use their country’s military power to attain these goals,”[i] to most major foreign policy analysts’ view “that ‘grand strategy’ and ‘foreign policy’ are not synonymous. Grand strategy, the conceptual framework, is necessarily broader than foreign policy, the political actions of the state in international relations.”[ii] As one astute observer noted,

[g]rand strategy, it turns out, is one of the most slippery and widely abused terms in the foreign policy lexicon. The concept is often invoked but less often defined, and those who do define the phrase do so in a variety of different, and often contradictory, ways. The result is that discussions of grand strategy are often confused or superficial. Too frequently, they muddle or obscure more than they illuminate.[iii]

Most definitions, however, hold to a particular shared set of myths about grand strategy. These misconceptions are generally either factually incorrect or distinctly arguable, yet they are largely taken on faith by today’s grand strategic literature.

Two particular misconceptions will be treated herein. The first is merely factual, reflecting a relative lack of historical awareness within a segment of the literature. The second concerns the value of the trajectory of the evolution of grand strategic thought and thus, being subjective, may be argued either way. The first misconception is the common idea that Basil Liddell Hart invented the concept of grand strategy. The second subjective myth is that the post-WWI and especially post-Cold War expansion in the meaning of grand strategy benefits strategic studies or international relations, in theory or in practice. The aim of this article is not to establish a proper meaning for grand strategy, nor to condemn the existence of the idea as unnecessary or counterproductive to theory, or practice, but rather to indicate that the grand strategic literature lacks appreciation of its own history, of how the concept has developed over time. Any serious attempt to define grand strategy within, or remove it from, wider strategic theory must be founded upon a full understanding of its evolution first and foremost.

The Liddell Hart Myth

The notion that Liddell Hart introduced the concept of grand strategy to strategic studies is prevalent.[iv] Liddell Hart first mentioned grand strategy in his 1925 pamphlet Paris, or the Future of War, by suggesting that “the function of grand strategy [is] to discover and exploit the Achilles’ heel of the enemy nation; to strike not against its strongest bulwark but against its most vulnerable spot.”[v] This initial formulation was swiftly followed by a more familiar one:

As tactics is an application of strategy on a lower plane, so strategy is an application on a lower plane of ‘grand strategy.’ If practically synonymous with the policy which governs the conduct of war, as distinct from the permanent policy which formulates its object, the term ‘grand strategy’ serves to bring out the sense of ‘policy in execution.’ For the role of grand strategy is to co-ordinate and direct all the resources of a nation towards the attainment of the political object of the war—the goal defined by national policy…Furthermore, while the horizon of strategy is bounded by the war, grand strategy looks beyond the war to the subsequent peace. It should not only combine the various instruments, but so regulate their use as to avoid damage to the future state of peacefulness, secure and prosperous. Little wonder that, unlike strategy, the realm of grand strategy is for the most part terra incognita![vi]

Yet, this elucidation is where Liddell Hart’s development of grand strategic theory ends. His paragraphs concerning grand strategy are repeated nearly unchanged through numerous publications, even to the third edition of his magnum opus, Strategy. In 1967, 28 years later, “the realm of grand strategy is for the most part terra incognita—still awaiting exploration, and understanding.”[vii]

The sudden lurch in Liddell Hart’s definition of grand strategy between 1925 and 1929 notwithstanding, he never developed any momentum for exploring grand strategy, which itself raises questions as to whether he truly did introduce the concept to strategic studies. He confidently maintained that grand strategy was largely unexplored, without ever pushing the further boundaries of understanding himself. This is not the behavior of a theorist eager to impress upon his audience the worth of an important idea. “Liddell Hart was a corsair…He did not sift evidence discriminately to see what would turn up; he ransacked it thievishly and bagged what he could find.”[viii]

Throughout the 1920s, Liddell Hart had a close working relationship with an older military theorist, John Frederick Charles Fuller, who overawed even Liddell Hart at first. Indeed, it has been suggested that “[s]o profoundly impressed was he [Liddell Hart] with the book [Fuller’s The Reformation of War] that he simply plagiarized it almost lock, stock, and barrel in his own first important book, Paris, or the Future of War (1925).”[ix] As a corsair, Liddell Hart may simply have stolen the idea of grand strategy from Fuller, who had actually been using the term with familiarity during the First World War, not bothering to define it even in a 1917 report to his superiors entitled “Projected Bases for the Tactical Employment of Tanks in 1918” as if it already had some sort of currency with practitioners at the time.[x]

The notion that Liddell Hart introduced the idea of grand strategy being thus disproven, the task yet remains to indicate just how old the usage of ‘grand strategy’ is. “The earliest citation to strategy in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1810.”[xi] The first identified use of the term grand strategy to date follows surprisingly soon thereafter. The term was used with familiarity as early as 1834,[xii] but the lack of an explicit definition may imply an even older usage and currency. The development of such a term and attendant concept was probably inevitable. Bernard Brodie noted that “[s]o dynamic and pregnant a word [as strategy] was bound to be applied also to numerous other kinds of competitive situations”.[xiii] That it happened so quickly is noteworthy, even though the actual earliest origins of the term remain obscure. The real origins may be important to the history of grand strategic thought, to why a separate form of strategy developed, or they may not be. Without knowing, the importance of the ultimate origin is impossible to gauge.

Whether or not the actual meaning of grand strategy, so early in Anglophone strategic theory is recognizably grand strategic today is not only immaterial, but indeed leads directly to the second misconception. This misconception is that there is a single proper meaning to grand strategy, or at least that it rightly belongs to a certain family of concepts – foreign policy – rather than to strategic studies.

The Trajectory of Grand Strategy

The mythologized history of grand strategic thought as framing foreign policy is a conflicted one, torn between two competing interpretations. One interpretation states that “[t]he concept of grand strategy has recently regained prominence among international and diplomatic historians. It evolved from the study of military strategy and history, where the idea has an old pedigree… But the term itself, as employed today by international historians, is a recent invention. It has been broadened to encompass a country’s foreign-policy outlook in war and peace.” Yet this very same exposition also reveals the second interpretation of the mythology, for “[c]lassical realists – intellectually closer to political philosophy and history – understood the value of the concept of grand strategy to the study of foreign policy.” There indeed was an allegedly “classical concept of grand strategy in international relations”, despite its “recent invention” by certain luminaries in the field. The conflicting interpretation concerns the history of grand strategic thought, of how and when the prevailing modern concept originated. Within the space of three pages, this source promotes both of these conflicting interpretations.

This conflict reveals a segment of the relevant scholarship that appears insecure with itself. The broadened interpretation of grand strategy, as a framework for foreign policy, is eminently arguable: was it necessary or appropriate, is it actually strategy, and so on. The new breadth was never really justified as filling any appropriate need in the field, whether the field be strategic studies or international relations. Thus on the one hand, scholars wish to recognize their contemporaries who have contributed significantly to the modern development of grand strategic thought, to those who have defined the direction it has taken in the past twenty years. On the other, the advocates of grand strategy as foreign policy framework have attempted, deliberately or not, to legitimize their novel use of the term by placing it within a mythologized continuity of meaning.

To examine the second trend first, one may often see assertions of the timelessness of the foreign policy framework interpretation of grand strategy. “We don’t have, per se, a grand strategy in the sense that we don’t have what people historically mean by grand strategy,” followed by allusions to diplomats such as Talleyrand and Bismarck as having had proper grand strategies.[xv] To unpack this tendency, to reach so far back into history to legitimize modern conceptions of grand strategy, one must appreciate how the Cold War influenced the form of grand strategic thought.

The United States and the West had a constancy of purpose for nearly fifty years, i.e. containing the Soviet Union. The policy of containment arched over all other, less important, US foreign policies and, as necessary, over the developed, implemented grand strategies for war. Ever since the end of the Cold War; however, the United States has been putatively adrift, unsure of what to do and what to strive for in the world. Since then many have proposed grand strategies for interacting with the world, including neo-isolationism, selective engagement, cooperative security, and primacy.[xvi] Yet, interpreting grand strategy in this manner reveals a fundamental misreading of the character of Cold War containment. Containment was never a generic policy for interacting with the rest of the world. Rather, it always had a very specific end, the internal collapse of the Soviet Union, and so was a specific policy to achieve that specific end, which only happened to accrue global dimensions because it was a policy concerning how one global superpower interacted with another.

By advocating particular manners of interacting with the rest of the world, advocates of any form of grand strategy are conflating ends with ways. One does not act in a particular manner merely for its own sake–and a country should do so even less –but because it is anticipated to contribute toward the achievement of a particular desired outcome. Given a particular end to achieve, ways can be discussed meaningfully, but without a given end, merely become hollow exchanges among various ideologies. Some international relations theorists have recognized this, noting that “[g]rand strategies are not nearly as important as grand strategists like to think, because countries tend to be judged by their actions, not their words”.[xvii] The idea of grand strategy throughout its use has moved continuously away from strategy in its classical sense, reaching the stage where it is frequently not even associated with purposeful action at all, but merely with the expression of purpose or posture. The current understanding of grand strategy, as framing foreign policy has but weak foundations, necessitating a long, legitimizing history to shore it up.

Besides occasionally pointing to notable and successful practitioners of diplomacy, such as Talleyrand and Bismarck, the mythology also emphasizes particular theorists whose writings may be construed to contribute to the expansion and separation of the term from its military past. Two theorists in particular have eminent places in the mythology of grand strategic thought. The first and preeminent is its erstwhile originator, Liddell Hart, who is given pride of place due to his contribution as the supposed originator of the term. The second theorist is less recognized, and more frequently by Americans than by others: Edward Mead Earle. Despite this possible neglect, one scholar asserts his importance by suggesting that “[i]n the twentieth century, the subject of grand strategy as a topic for rigorous historical examination first appears in serious form in Edward Meade Earle’s classic, Makers of Modern Strategy”.[xviii] Paul Kennedy has attempted to define both men’s places in the history of grand strategic thought, suggesting that

if Liddell Hart’s ideas about British strategy remain debatable, his contribution to the study and understanding of grand strategy as a whole was very important. What he and, slightly later, Earle were arguing for was a substantial broadening of the definition of the term, to show what a complex and multilayered thing proper grand strategy had to be—and thus to distinguish it very firmly from the strictly operational strategy of winning a particular battle or campaign.[xix]

This is debatable. Liddell Hart’s definition of grand strategy was hardly as broad as has been implied. He equated grand strategy with the policy governing the conduct of the war, and particularly with its actual implementation. “While practically synonymous with the policy which guides the conduct of war, as distinct from the more fundamental policy which should govern its object, the term ‘grand strategy’ serves to bring out the sense of ‘policy in execution’.”[xx] By tying war policy to the condition of the subsequent peace, Liddell Hart was only emphasizing the continuity of politics from peace to war to peace. He merely reiterated and extended Clausewitz’s position that “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”[xxi]

Edward Mead Earle argued in 1942 that “[t]he highest type of strategy—sometimes called grand strategy—is that which so integrates the policies and armaments of the nation that the resort to war is either rendered unnecessary or is undertaken with the maximum chance of victory.”[xxii] This definition does broaden grand strategy, but primarily only within the mythology of grand strategic thought, made possible by ignoring the writings of JFC Fuller. Fuller had suggested as early as 1923 that grand strategy was primarily a peacetime activity. “Paradoxical as it may seem, the resting time of the grand strategist is during war, for it is during peace that he works and labors. During peace time he not only calculates the resources in men, supplies and moral forces of all possible enemies, but, having weighed them, he, unsuspected by the enemy, undermines them by a plan.”[xxiii]

Interpreting these explications as supporting a broader definition of grand strategy lacks the one crucial element that would confirm the broader definition. No writer on grand strategy has ever justified his own definition. Rather, all the early writers who employed the idea of grand strategy–including Julian Corbett, Fuller, Liddell Hart, and Earle–merely assert their individual definitions of grand strategy. There was no attempt by any of them to compare his concept of grand strategy against any other, even to those of contemporaries or close associates, nor to discuss the merits of his own interpretation. Definitions of grand strategy to date have always been arbitrary, starting points for analysis rather than the result of reasoned examination. The reason Liddell Hart and Earle are remembered, but Corbett and Fuller frequently are not, let alone the usage of grand strategy dating from the 19th century, is because of the state of grand strategic thought today. As Brodie noted, “[i]t is characteristic of our convictions, in strategy as in all affairs of life, that we tend to regard them as natural and inevitable.”[xxiv] The mythology of grand strategy is a form of historical cherry picking which conforms to the current structure of grand strategic thought by imposing an ahistorical, relatively unchanging meaning onto the term ‘grand strategy.’

There never was a golden age of grand strategic thought, one when consensus on its meaning existed. Consensus still does not exist today. It did not exist between the wars. At about the same time that Earle’s Makers of Modern Strategy was published, so too were two other books. A Study of War by Quincy Wright defined grand strategy as “[t]he management of operations so as to determine the times, areas, and results of campaigns in order to win the war”.[xxv] Grand Strategy, by Henry Antony Sargeaunt and Geoffrey West, by contrast, defined the role of grand strategy as dealing “with the connections between war and the rest of the society or civilization in which war occurs.”[xxvi] During the 19th century, grand strategy was frequently worse, even more ill-defined, if defined at all, and in some cases there appears to be little difference between it and strategy. Grand Strategy secures those combinations, which will assure the highest possible advantage in the employment of military force. It deals with the theatre of war, its character, resources, topographical features, inter-communication, and all substantial difficulties to be overcome in the way of success.’”[xxvii] Moreover, as with strategy itself, grand strategy swiftly found application beyond the fields of strategic studies and even of international relations.[xxviii]


How, then, does one attempt to understand grand strategy fully and conscientiously? The answer is: historically, first and foremost. Brodie’s comment on our human tendency to consider our own convictions natural and inevitable continues:

However, if we examine the history of ideas contained in these convictions, we usually find they have evolved in a definitely traceable way, often as the result of the contributions of gifted persons who addressed themselves to the needs of their own times on the basis of the experience available to them. Our own needs and experience being different, we are enabled by our study to glimpse the arbitrariness of views which we previously regarded as laws of nature and our freedom to alter our thinking is thereby expanded. Where new circumstances require fundamental adjustments to our thinking, such aids to adjustment may be useful.[xxix]

Grand strategy must be treated historically. Indeed, the history of grand strategy as an idea must be delineated and explored: how the idea evolved; what the strategic and geopolitical circumstances were which led to its evolution; how it fits in with other ideas; how it came to be differentiated from military strategy; and so on.

Establishing grand strategy within broader strategic history, and within the history of ideas, will require jettisoning cherished myths. Observing the changes in the meaning of grand strategy, in their historical context, not only will allow one to ascribe purpose to each step in a messy succession of ideas but also to fit it within wider strategic theory. This will allow measurement of the utility of the successive and parallel ideas of grand strategy, both in theory and to the particular strategic contexts in which they were born. A mature understanding of the history of the concept is the first step to a mature understanding of the idea itself–of what it should comprise, of what questions it should seek to answer and what issues it should strive to address, and even whether the concept itself is necessary at all, or whether it merely distracts attention from or dilutes more useful concepts. Once strategic studies has an understanding of how and why individual ideas on grand strategy as theory were developed, it may then proceed to develop the next iteration of the concept, or to excise the idea entirely.


[i] Robert J. Art. A Grand Strategy for America. (Ithaca: Cornell UP 2003), 1.
[ii] Braz Baracuhy. “The Art of Grand Strategy”, Survival 53:1 (February-March 2011), 151.
[iii] Hal Brands. The Promise and Pitfalls of Grand Strategy. (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute 2012), 1.
[iv] Examples include Colin Dueck. Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy. (Princeton: Princeton UP 2006), 9; Peter Lahn. “Grand Strategy” in Randall B. Ripley & James M. Lindsay (eds). US Foreign Policy After the Cold War. (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press 1997), 185; and Richard Rosencrance & Arthur A. Stein. “Beyond Realism: The Study of Grand Strategy”, in Richard N. Rosencrance & Arthur A. Stein (eds). The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy. (Ithaca: Cornell UP 1993), 3.
[v] Basil Liddell Hart. Paris, or the Future of War. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co 1925), 27.
[vi] Basil Liddell Hart. The Decisive Wars of History: A Study in Strategy. (London: G. Bell & sons 1929), 150-151.
[vii] See Basil Liddell Hart. Strategy. (New York, NY: Meridian 1991), 321-322, quote 322.
[viii] Alex Danchev. “Liddell Hart’s Big Idea”, Review of International Studies 25 (1999) , 44-45.
[ix] Azar Gat. A History of Military Thought. (Oxford: Oxford UP 2001), 665.
[x] J.F.C. Fuller. Memoirs of an Unconventional Soldier. (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson 1936), 122-124.
[xi] Jeremy Black. “Strategic culture and the Seven Years War” in Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich & James Lacey (eds). The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2011), 64.
[xii] “Academy at West Point”. The American Quarterly Review 16/32 (December 1834), 371.
[xiii] Bernard Brodie. Draft of “Strategy” for International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, 1965, Folder 6, Box 19, Bernard Brodie Papers, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, 1.
[xiv] Baracuhy, “The Art of Grand Strategy”, 147-149.
[xv] Walter Russell Mead. “US Grand Strategy - from Theory to Practice”, Rethinking US Grand Strategy and Foreign Policy seminar series (10 December 2009: Johns Hopkins University, unpublished). JHU has published the video,, direct quote begins at 0:02:42.
[xvi] One early review of the literature is Barry R. Posen & Andrew L. Ross. “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy”. International Security 21/3 (Winter 1996-7), 5-53.
[xvii] Daniel W. Drezner. “Does Obama Have a Grand Strategy? Why We Need Doctrines in Uncertain Times”, Foreign Affairs 90/4 (July/August 2011), 58.
[xviii] Williamson Murray. “Thoughts on grand strategy” in Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich & James Lacey (eds). The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2011), 7.
[xix] Paul Kennedy. “Grand Strategy in War and Peace: Toward a Broader Definition” in Paul M. Kennedy (ed). Grand Strategies in War and Peace. (New Haven, Yale UP 1991), 4.
[xx] Basil Liddell Hart. Strategy. (New York, NY: Meridian 1991), 321.
[xxi] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton UP 1984), 87.
[xxii] Edward Mead Earle. “Introduction” in Edward Mead Earle (ed). Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler. (New York: Atheneum 1966), viii.
[xxiii] J.F.C. Fuller. The Reformation of War. (London: Hutchinson & Co 1923), 220.
[xxiv] Bernard Brodie. Strategy in the Missile Age. (Princeton: Princeton UP 1959), 19.
[xxv] Quincy Wright. A Study of War. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1942), volume 1, 292.
[xxvi] Henry Antony Sargeaunt & Geoffrey West. Grand Strategy. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company 1941), 1.
[xxvii] Henry B. Carrington. Battle Maps and Charts of the American Revolution with Explanatory Notes and School History References. (New York: A.S. Barnes & Company 1881), 4.
[xxviii] See, for example, Durant Dapont. “New Orleans and Ship Island Ship Canal”, Debow’s review, Agricultural, commercial, industrial progress and resources 6/1 (January 1869), 21-29; and William Patten. The Grand Strategy of Evolution: The Social Philosophy of a Biologist. (Boston: The Gorham Press 1920).
[xxix] Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age, 19.

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