Defining Strategy: Theory and Dimensions
Big, broad words that cover many specific situations ultimately pay the price for their notoriety. They collect meanings the way a windshield picks up grime, degrading visibility. Big common interest words become placeholders for people’s many private understandings. Strategy is such a shapeshifting concept. For some, strategy is a definite course of action [i]; for others, a bag of tricks.[ii] Strategy can be tied to ideal goals, lacking bite, or can become a vague roadmap. Strategic education suffers enormously from these two semantic pitfalls. The premises, the expectations, and the skills associated with strategic thinking and doing are ambiguous, confusing, or lacking.
A good concept demands a sound definition. Definitions must be rigorously formulated, containing the necessary conditions that make the concept unique and unchanging in time and space.[iii] Furthermore, the conditions are not simple verbal crutches; they are the concept’s core dimensions. These features should be turned into specific differentiating factors that give the concept individuality. Factors are not only theoretical; they should be employed in practice. Differentiating factors should be turned into competencies that can train anyone in any context. However, the differentiating factors need to be necessary and sufficient. Because of this, they should be derived from a theoretical model of international actor behavior.[iv] This model should flow from a core premise, grounding the factors. Only after proposing a model and deriving core dimensions can we advance specific learning objectives, competencies, and methods for training strategists.
Smith and Stone preceded us in the pages of this magazine by offering a dimensional definition of strategy.[v] The components of any good strategy proposed by them and relevant to our article include matching ends with means, interdependence in decision-making, and assumption of rationality. As shown below, the dimensions are validated by our process-based perspective and general theory. Other dimensions, however, such as Smith and Stone’s call for moral neutrality,[vi] should be considered in a more nuanced way.
We propose that strategic practice and a set of necessary competencies should be anchored by a theory of international order that rests on three overarching assumptions. [vii] One, international actors aim to preserve or enhance their autonomy. Two, international norms or laws are the product of this desire. Norms prevent the stronger actors from imposing their will on the weaker while providing the former enough leeway to counter. Third, the balance of power periodically adjusted by conflict is intrinsic to the dynamic of international order [viii]. The theory predicts that strategy always creates net effects in the world, a perspective shared by Gray, as well, including in this magazine.[ix] Strategy is not a vague plan or description of ideal end states[x] but the aggregated means to change a specific state of the world to one’s advantage.[xi] Strategy is a series of concatenated decisions that lead to effects that require more decisions.[xii] It is a means to change the world by working off effects-of-effects. These requirements demand that strategies should include a forward-looking, anticipatory perspective.
Strategy is also conducted against opposition, which often demands alliances. Thus, strategy is a network problem. To achieve the goals of containing or defeating adversaries while maintaining robust allies, strategies must be built on a solid foundation of strategic empathy with multiple partners or their second-degree partners.[xiii] This, however, is not a call to feel-good generosity. It is necessary to understand all actors from the perspective of their core values. Alliances are required to effectively counter the enemy’s strengths and exploit its vulnerabilities while bolstering the strengths of allies. Identifying strengths and weaknesses of friend and foe requires an in-depth understanding and the ability to analyze the situation accurately. A critical outcome of this process is the alignment of means to the desired end-state, identifying the necessary trade-offs required to achieve the goals.
The World War II allied leaders, especially Churchill, displayed, for the most part, excellent strategic empathy. While Churchill had no illusions about Stalin’s grand strategy and his status as a “enemy friend,” he understood where and when interests converged. Continuing the British Lend and Lease program in 1942 when the British were hurting in North Africa was such a moment of strategic empathy.[xiv]
Strategy has a communicative aspect, as well. It should include both actions that can be disclosed and actions that need to remain confidential. Furthermore, a certain amount of pre-emptive misdirection of the adversary’s perception should be included in any strategy, introducing an element of surprise to augment the results of one’s actions. Finally, strategy should include an ethical dimension. However, ethics has two facets, one reflecting the values of each actor and the other global, human ethics. The challenge in formulating an ethical boundary around strategies is balancing the two. Ethics is an essential facet of any strategy if the results should be justifiable in the long run.
Returning to the core assumption of our theory, it is worth re-emphasizing that these necessary aspects of strategy are anchored by the fact that actors want to protect their autonomy and self-interest. Actors always aim to create favorable net effects that enhance their position.[xv] However, working against opposition, strategic analysis, and empathy typically advise adopting a balance of power behavior that requires alliances and trade-off thinking.
Building on these factors that give strategy identity, we propose that the necessary preconditions for any strategy can also be seen as competencies practiced by strategists, which all educators should employ as learning objectives and metrics for their strategy courses. Competencies, in this context, are “knowledge sets in action”.[xvi] They combine theoretical with procedural knowledge demonstrated both in analytic and actional terms. From the theoretical perspective and the assumptions named above, we can propose a set of necessary and, within the context, sufficient competencies. These are:
- Analytic thinking (discriminant definitory skills)
- Systems thinking
- Tradeoff optimization
- Effects-of-effects iterative planning
- Indirect thinking
- Strategic Foresight
- Strategic Empathy
- Ethical balancing of interests
The eight competencies are derived from the realist theory of international relations already described.
- Analytic thinking is deduced from the need to rigorously understand friend and foe before asserting autonomy, a core requirement of realist theory.
- Systems thinking is demanded by the holistic nature of any strategic problem and the natural entanglements that surround any attempt to induce a net effect in the state of the world.
- Tradeoff optimization is demanded by the need to balance our approach to influencing our friends’ strengths and limiting their weaknesses while denying the strengths and amplifying the weaknesses of our enemies. According to our realist theory, the goal is, again, to maximize one’s freedom of action and mastery of the environment.
- Effects of effects planning result from the intrinsically dynamic nature of strategic action.
- Indirect thinking is the product of selective communication and the misdirection of the enemy’s attention.
- Strategic foresight involves long-range anticipatory thinking and the ability to create a range of plausible futures derived from continuously updating assumptions and understanding the changing landscape.
- Strategic empathy is derived from the need to understand both enemies and friends regarding their views and principles without giving in to identification with those views. The goal is to avoid wishful thinking.
- Ethical balancing of interests refers to infusing the strategy and shaping its outcomes to satisfy the actor’s values while keeping them balanced with fundamental, universal human values.
These strategic competencies are necessary and sufficient not only theoretically but practically. This is a cyclical process that follows a straightforward logic:
The first step of the strategic process involves resourcing, identifying the material and human factors that can be used to affect the needed change. Resourcing is not just a matter of identification but also of accounting and trading off one type of resource against another. In effect, resourcing is a type of budgeting requiring a solid understanding of economic and human resource principles. Naval powers, such as Venice, the British Empire, and later the United States, learned this lesson well, even when the war took them unawares, as was the case for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although caught on the wrong resourcing foot, fielding an insufficient carrier force in the Pacific, despite vast commitments, the US made up for this shortcoming with a vengeance. Starting the war with a dozen aircraft carriers, the US Navy finished it with over 100 and a completely different force structure.[xvii]
More than the nation’s resources are needed for creating large-scale, grand strategy net effect changes in the world. Alliances and preventing counter alliances should be continuously negotiated. Domestic support should also be obtained via political negotiations. Thus, the must-have negotiation stage. Negotiations and alliance formation are distinct features of modern war, starting with the first global conflict, the Seven Years War (1757 – 1763), and its sequel, the American Revolutionary War, to the Great Coalitions that defeated Napoleon,[xviii] Hitler,[xix] or Saddam Hussein.[xx]
The strategic process continues with the deployment phase, within which the resources and assets are positioned for maximum effect. Deployment is not a mere logistics exercise. It is a strategic decision of its own, by which threats and inducements are used to funnel the adversaries’ actions and facilitate future actions.
Competencies and the strategic process
Once set in place, strategic assets are put in motion to affect the net change necessary to achieve the strategic goals imposed by the policy in the operational stage. Momentary choices and thinking in terms of longer-term consequences are continuously balanced. Operations may take short or long periods; however, they are bound by the requirement to reach an expected result. Once this is achieved (or not), the strategist needs to reconsider the options that have opened and or that have been lost. The conclusions will help realign future policy and strategy goals. A new cycle of resourcing, negotiation, deployment, and operations will start, keeping the strategic process fresh and relevant.
An effective strategist stands out by using the right competencies at the right time in the strategic process. While strategic competencies are generic enough to be relevant in most contexts, their usefulness is maximized and employed in a particular order of priority. The strategic competency matrix below indicates which competency is most needed at a given stage of the strategic process.
The dark blocks indicate where each competency is primarily developed and utilized. Grey blocks indicate where a competency may be used, but it is not as essential. White boxes indicate stages where the competencies can be used “as needed.” Across the board, we first notice that the competency most necessary and constantly present in the strategic thinking and doing process is systems thinking. Every phase of the strategic process should be imbued with the understanding that there are no local decisions or outcomes. All decisions have system-wide implications, and all outcomes will be impacted by how strategists employ systems thinking. Second, negotiation is the phase of the strategic process that necessitates the highest number of competencies. All grand strategies die or live by the strengths of the alliances and promises made (or deftly broken) to the adversaries. A good strategy needs to negotiate its terms by limiting the adversary’s degrees of freedom.
This article proposes that strategy is a method, not a definite plan, to achieve a political goal: to create net effects in the international order that promote the interests of a given actor. The method uses tradeoff analysis to limit uncertainty. Policy defines strategic objectives, which are always relative to the aims of the opposing side. National self-interest drives all policies, which hinge on maximizing autonomy. When executing a strategy, nations aim to achieve their national goals while preventing any given country from becoming an overwhelming global ruler. Finally, while systematic and rigorous, strategies are not predictable in a deterministic way. Any given strategy does have a starting point and goal, but it can take multiple courses. These are imposed by the competitors’ responses and the need to surprise the enemy. Feints, surprise, and deceit are necessary elements of a successful strategy. Because of this, it is worth repeating that a good strategy is not a recipe. It is a plan working against necessity with practicality while not forgetting to secure national survival primacy.
At the same time, this article points out that strategic thinking and doing can be rigorously defined as a set of competencies used in a prioritized manner within the five stages of the strategic process: resourcing, negotiation, deployment, operations, and re-alignment. These competencies refer to analytic and situation management abilities originating in theoretical knowledge: analysis, system thinking, tradeoff optimization, effects-of-effects planning and timing, indirect thinking, strategic empathy, and ethical balancing of interests. A matrix-based method suggests that the competencies should be used selectively within the five stages of the strategic process. Contextual needs determine the selection of the competencies.
In developing the matrix and the process, we did not simply state the obvious. The competencies we propose are rigorously developed from a specific realist strategic theory. They are parsimonious, covering only the essential requirements of sound strategic planning and action. The competitive nature of great power competition drives the strategic process. The strategic matrix is adapted to specific use, planning, and doing in adversarial conditions, avoiding generic coverage of all possible nuances of strategic engagement.
We should also distinguish between the strategic competencies defined above and strategic analysis. We know that strategic analysis writ large is a meta-theoretical approach derived from game theory[xxi] and public choice theory.[xxii] Its application to international relations is, ultimately, a particular case of a broader domain of inquiry. Thus, our theory, applications, and competencies may be seen as domain-specific applications of strategic analysis. Connecting them with higher-level theory might lead to more rigorous analytic methods for future strategists. After all, the human choice dilemmas identified by strategic analysis are revealed in crisper detail by the struggle for power in international relations.
The methods developed for defining and utilizing competencies in context should not be used dogmatically. The refrain of this paper is that strategy is not a recipe. Strategies require creative thinking and practical use of competencies to map variable means onto fixed ends.[xxiii] Using indirect thinking at the resourcing phase, by which false capabilities are touted and real ones hidden, can be a very appropriate means to gain strategic advantage. The only limit that can be imposed on strategic thinking and doing is staying true to its goals while following the original policy. Like a jazz musician, a good strategist can shift the tune and vary the register but should obtain the same predictable artistic effect.
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[i] Watkins, “Demystifying Strategy.”
[ii] Tzu, The Art of War.
[iii] Cassidy, “Aristotle on Definitions.”
[iv] Smith and Stone, John, “Explaining Strategic Theory.”
[v] Smith and Stone, John.
[vi] Smith and Stone, John.
[vii] Craig, Glimmer of a New Leviathan: Total War in the Realism of Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and Waltz.
[viii] Britannica, “Balance of Power | Definition & Examples.”
[ix] Gray, The Strategy Bridge; Gray, “Can Strategy Be Taught?”
[x] Elkus, “Beyond Strategy as a Means to an End.”
[xi] Gray, The Strategy Bridge.
[xii] Luttwak, Strategy.
[xiii] McMaster, Battlegrounds.
[xiv] Hill, “British Lend Lease Aid and the Soviet War Effort, June 1941 June 1942.”
[xv] Gray, The Strategy Bridge.
[xvi] Gervais, “The Operational Definition of Competency-Based Education.”
[xvii] Hone, “Replacing Battleships with Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific in World War Ii.”
[xviii] Parker, The Military Revolution.
[xix] Churchill, The Grand Alliance.
[xx] Rapp-Hooper, Shields of the Republic.
[xxi] Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict; Schelling, Choice and Consequence.
[xxii] Hanania, Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy.
[xxiii] Elkus, “Beyond Strategy as a Means to an End.”