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The Policy-Strategy Distinction: Clausewitz and The Chimera of Modern Strategic Thought

The Policy-Strategy Distinction: Clausewitz and The Chimera of Modern Strategic Thought The Policy-Strategy Distinction: Clausewitz and The Chimera of Modern Strategic Thought
To cite this article: Elkus, Adam, “The Policy-Strategy Distinction: Clausewitz and The Chimera of Modern Strategic Thought”, Infinity Journal Special Edition, Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, February 2012, pages 24-27.

The policy-strategy distinction is one of the most important issues in the neo-Clausewitzian canon.[i] “The political object is the goal,” Clausewitz notes, and “war is the means of reaching it.”[ii] Clausewitz further notes that strategy is the “the use of engagement for the purpose of the war.”[iii] This essay explains policy and strategy and argues for the importance of a sound understanding of their complex relationship in modern strategic thought and practice.

While this debate is primarily intellectual, it also has manifold policy implications. Tactics and strategy are frequently mistaken for policy, and policy mistaken for the strategies needed to execute them. Widespread ignorance of policy-strategy in, among others, America holds back a sound analysis of modern security threats and retards the development of intellectual tools needed to cope with them.

Policy and Strategy 101

To put it simply, policy is a condition or behavior. Strategy, in turn, is an instrumental device that is given meaning by the policy. Policy is that which a government decrees, and strategy is a highly technical set of steps to accomplish it. Operations and tactics are the building blocks of strategy, the process by which lofty strategic dreams become reality. While politics and policy sit on top of a military hierarchy, the relationship between these various components should be understood as dynamic and nonlinear. A strategy cannot be executed without tactics and operations. Bad strategy can lose a war even if the policy is sound. The idea that “amateurs study strategy, while professionals study logistics” is not helpful, since while logistics enables strategy, logistics loses all meaning without a strategic aim.[iv]

A government or governing entity formulates policy through an often-fractious political process and then seeks to institute it over another entity. Policy can be the superb distillation of a guiding statesman’s strategic insight, a messy cobbled-together compromise brokered between competing domestic political elites, or both. Moreover, while Clausewitz is clear that the political object is what determines the military objectives and the methods by which they are reached, the object cannot be used as a sole standard of measurement to evaluate a war’s progress. War is not an abstraction, and the political object can only be used as measurement in the context of two mutually opposed forces at war with each other.[v]

While this sounds simple enough, it is significantly more difficult in practice. Take, for example, the case of the “AF-PAK” conflict. It is the policy of the United States that terrorism against its citizens must be prevented. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, this ostensibly translates into a strategy (mislabeled as a policy) to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qaeda.

Notice, however, that the actual focus of American tactics and operations in the region has been to build the authority of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan — which does not necessarily relate to the expressed policy aim. These divergent tactics can be explained by the adoption of a different policy and corresponding strategy. While Gian P. Gentile has written soundly on counterinsurgency’s “strategy of tactics,” it may be said that there actually was a strategy in Afghanistan. This strategy served a policy aim of building a pro-Western, democratic, and stable state.[vi] The same political process that produced the initial AF-PAK policy aim generated a different policy, and thus a different strategy. As the previous example indicates, those seeking to understand the neo-Clausewitzian paradigm should not expect that policy is rational, or that strategy will always serve the policy. Policy is the product of a political process, the fractiousness of which can vary by political culture. However, one should not assume that the policies of authoritarian nations are more coherent than democracies. Authoritarian governments merely bring the endemic domestic political battles of democracies within the Politburo, substituting the covert sniping of courtiers and bureaucrats for multi-party electoral conflict.

Clausewitz, perhaps because of the difficult translation of politik from the original German, does not argue that war is an abstract expression of direct policy. Rather, he states the obvious: war is an outgrowth of existing political dynamics that manifest themselves in purposeful violence. And just because a given policy goal has been determined does not mean that the task of the strategist is easy — the strategist faces enormous difficulties in coping with fog, friction, and the purposeful actions of the enemy.[vii]

Second, it is important to qualify what policy and strategy are not. Strategy is not another word for a military doctrine or activity. There is no such thing as a distinct counterinsurgency “strategy” because there is also no such thing as a counter-sniper or anti-aircraft strategy. Strategy is also not an aspiration or an idea, as recent grand strategy debates suggest. Without a policy, there can be no strategy. A strategy only has meaning within the context of policy. Without policy, strategy is simply the political-military equivalent of a vestigial organ. Similarly, strategy is often mistaken for policy. There is no such thing as a policy of using unmanned aerial vehicles to attack terrorist militants, although different military engagements can form the core of a strategy that accomplishes a policy.[viii]

Perhaps the most important lesson of the policy-strategy nexus is that impeccable strategy can still fail to realize a delusional policy. When the Pentagon screened the film The Battle of Algiers after the September 11, 2001 attacks, they curiously missed the film’s central point. The policy of the French government was that Algeria would continue to remain a French possession. But it is difficult to see how better strategy would have dealt with the political problems inherent in the policy: a sizable chunk of Algerian citizens did not wish to be part of an inequitable colonial system. Any strategy that accomplished such a policy would inevitably rely on overwhelming force, and such force proved so disruptive to French domestic politics that Charles DeGaulle eventually chose to let Algeria go in order to save France. Unfortunately, the lesson that some took from this experience was that a better counterinsurgency strategy that avoided the use of torture could have compensated for a poor policy.

From Semantic to Strategic Confusion

Examples of confusion about policy and strategy are commonplace in modern strategic thought and discourse. Much as barbed wire trapped World War I soldiers seeking to climb over trenches and evade deadly fire, confusion over policy and strategy holds back strategists and policymakers seeking to provide solutions to security problems. Without clear definitions of policy and strategy – which Clausewitz did provide – it is difficult to make accurate critiques of current security problems or think rigorously about future policies, strategies and operations.

Take Frederick Kagan’s description of grand strategy, for example: “Grand strategy is the use of all of a state’s resources to achieve all of its objectives. It is not a plan, but a process of evaluating the global situation; developing clear objectives; understanding available resources; recognizing enemies, threats, and challenges; and then putting resources against tasks in an iterative fashion, adjusting objectives, approaches, and resource allocation as appropriate to the changing situation.” What Kagan describes is a mishmash of policy (the “why”) and strategy (the “how). It is also something essentially impossible for any one government to actually formulate, which at least partially explains the spate of articles decrying the lack of grand strategy since the Cold War.[ix] Grand strategies are the creations of historians, analytical devices useful only in retrospect for thinking about an accumulation of best practices over an extended period of time. Strategy does not have meaning without policy, making grand strategy an artful exercise in constructing a bridge to nowhere. Certainly, strategy on a large scale can be “grand,” but this is distinct from the ideational — sometimes wholly ideological — way grand strategy is described in strategic debate.

But confusion is unfortunately not limited to the writings of grand strategists, as evidenced by the perennial issues surrounding formal American national security strategies (NSS). The NSS is rarely ever a “strategy” in that it makes choices about the allocation of resources or matches them with capabilities. Is it policy, then? Unfortunately the document is more a reflection of the political process than a clear or useful statement of policy priority. The NSS is an extended campaign speech — in reality the budget is truly policy.[x] Semantic quibbling? Given that all defense planning documents flow from the guidance set by the NSS, imprecision has actual operational costs.

When it comes to counterinsurgency, policy-strategy confusion is truly endemic. Admiral Mike Mullen’s comments that the US could not “kill [its] way to victory” in counterinsurgency operations defies strategic logic on multiple levels.[xi] If the United States, like France in Algeria, could not use force to achieve a policy goal, then the policy goal itself should have been questioned. Armed forces exist primarily to fight. Instead of re-examining the policy goal, Mullen’s comments implied that the US would still pursue the same unachievable goal, except this time substituting development projects and other forms of political engagement for the M4 rifle and the precision-guided bomb.

David Galula’s favorable quotation of Mao Zedong that a revolutionary war is 80% political and 20% military also misunderstands the meaning of the “political.” Both Vladimir Lenin and Carl Schmitt, though diametrically opposed in ideology, inverted Clausewitz by claiming that war is not political intercourse with the addition of violence, but politics itself. Mao was essentially expressing an ideal of all-out warfare that fused ideas, organizations, and weapons together into an organic and lethal assemblage. Had Galula better understood the policy-strategy distinction, he might have understood the problems with this ideal. The phrase is both banal — war, revolutionary or not, always privileges the political — and dangerous in its paradoxical acceptance of ontology rooted in a doctrine of ideological total war.[xii]

We similarly find confusion when thinking about Israel’s so-called “policy” of targeted killing. As A.E. Stahl and William F. Owen have observed, a policy cannot be an action. Israel has a policy of continued national existence, which implies the defense of its citizens from terrorists. Israel has a strategy of targeted killings to accomplish this aim. Similarly, given the United States has a policy that terrorism against its citizens not be tolerated. Targeted killings by drone, manned aircraft, or a team of Special Forces is a strategy designed to accomplish this policy aim.[xiii]

By mistaking strategy for policy, critics of targeted killings make the error of assuming that the means are indistinguishable from the policies that give them purpose. Given that the respective policy goals — the existence of Israel and the continued safety of American citizens — are universally agreed upon — the debate is precisely over the strategies used to achieve them. As Dan Trombly argues, the unfortunate fact that Yemen’s government uses American counterterrorism to benefit itself does not invalidate the use of force against al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. A different strategy, which bypasses the Yemeni government to independently develop targeting information, may achieve the same aims.[xiv]

It matters little whether counterterrorism or counterinsurgency is an intrinsically better suite of tactics and operations. Rather, the question is whether the tactic, operation, or strategy accomplished the policy. Many, for example, failed to understand the point of William F. Owen’s piece “Killing Your Way to Control,” because they mistook his strategy and tactics of using force to quell insurgencies for a policy of Roman annihilation. The difference is not trivial — a correct understanding of Owen’s writing reveals he is talking about using lawful force against opponents to support a (presumably correct) policy. With an incorrect policy, force is an empty device. Understood wrongly as policy, the article was cast as a retrograde relic of an era before the new science of using force in the new “complex adaptive” era of military operations.[xv]

Sometimes the consequences of ignoring the policy-strategy distinction can prove fatal. The Prusso-Germans, who believed war to be truly autonomous from policy, eventually subjugated the entirety of the state to the purpose of the war. War must serve war, Field Marshall Erich Ludendorff decreed. German strategy in the age of machine warfare not only killed millions, but also perpetrated the harmful dolchstoss mythology of military victory and political betrayal.[xvi] The result? A divided Germany, millions dead, and a ruined Europe.

Towards a Better Understanding

The strategist, unfortunately, cannot control how language evolves. Policy and strategy have different meanings to different professional communities. Colloquial meanings also increasingly abound. There may be even aspects of external strategic thought that military-strategic thinkers may find cause to emulate and ponder, as the influence of business strategy on the discipline of Net Assessment attests. However, it is vitally important to have a clear understanding of policy and strategy in war.

The pedant, unfortunately, must be given his due. When even informed commentators mistake tactics or strategies for policy, both discussion and practice of national security revolves around an endless discussion of technical ways and means to accomplish objectives rather than the objectives themselves. Likewise, when policies or aspirations are mistaken for strategies, documents are produced in which strategic goals are proclaimed with little of the “how” needed to actually turn them into reality. Endless calls for new strategies are issued, without deep thought about whether or not the policies they support are fundamentally realizable.

The policy-strategy distinction deserves the attention lavished on other neo-Clausewitzian dualisms such as war’s grammar and logic. Ignoring the significance of the distinction or dismissing it as a semantic issue robs military analysts of the ability to tell tactics, strategy, and policy apart. Clausewitz is remarkably clear on the difference between the political object and the violence needed to institute it upon an unwilling opponent, but strategically incoherent military concepts and government documents reject this admirable simplicity. While Clausewitz cannot cure all of the 21st century’s “wicked” problems, his elegant depiction of the complex relationship between policy, strategy, and tactics can help future strategists overcome the conceptual confusion that currently characterizes modern strategy.


[i] By this, I mean the string of Clausewitzian thought stretching from Carl von Clausewitz himself to latter-day interpreters and strategic theorists such as Antulio Echverria, Colin S. Gray, Edward Luttwak, and others.
[ii] Carl von Clausewitz, Peter Paret (trans), and Michael Howard (trans), On War, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, 87.
[iii] Clausewitz, 128.
[iv] For an explanation of this, see Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, primarily 15-54.
[v] Clausewitz, 81.
[vi] See Gian P. Gentile, “The Death of American Strategy,” Infinity Journal, No. 3, Summer 2011, 14-16.
[vii] Colin S. Gray, “The Strategist As Hero,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 62, 3rd Quarter 2011, 37-45.
[viii] David Ignatius, “The Killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi: The White House’s Drone Attack Policy,” Washington Post, September 9, 2011,
[ix] Frederick Kagan, “Grand Strategy For The United States,” in Michele A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley (eds), Finding Our Way: Debating Grand Strategy, Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, June 2008, 63.
[x] Richard Fontaine, “The Non Strategy of the NSS,” Foreign Policy, May 28, 2010,, and Dov Zakheim. “The Budget Is Policy,” Foreign Policy, February 15, 2012.
[xi] Mark Thompson, “Military Mission: To Kill, Or Protect,” Time Magazine, July 5, 2011,
[xii] Cited in David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, New York: Praeger, 2005, 89.
[xiii] A.E. Stahl and William F. Owen, “Targeted Killings: A Modern Strategy of the State”, Michigan War Studies Review, July 2011.
[xiv] Daniel Trombly, “Shadow Wars and Shoddy Policy,” Gunpowder and Lead, February 16, 2012.
[xv] William F. Owen, “Killing Your Way to Control,” British Army Review, Spring 2011, 34-37.
[xvi] Michael Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” in Peter Paret (ed), Makers of Modern Strategy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, 528-529.