The Asia-Pacific rebalance cannot be “strategy”

August 26, 2013

In a recent article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, Rear Admiral Michael E. Smith lays out what he calls a “framework” for the “detailed roadmap” that he believes the Navy must develop to effectively support the presidentially-directed “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.” Admiral Smith, the director of the Navy’s staff section for policy and strategy, examines his service’s role in the rebalance in terms of the ends, ways, and means so familiar to students of strategy.

But strategy was born of war; when unmoored from the violent, competitive, and deeply uncertain context that characterizes that phenomenon, the language of strategy does more to muddle and mislead than to explain. Here it becomes a sort of comfortable folk remedy in which familiarity masks a lack of clear thinking about how action relates – or doesn’t – to consequence.  Policy has a responsibility to specify what it wants, but those developing “strategies” or implementation plans to satisfy those goals have a responsibility to specify how their action translates into effect.

In Admiral Smith’s formulation, the Navy’s “unique tools” (means) are applied through “well-defined lines-of-effort” (ways) in the service of “our national ‘ends’,” which are given as follows:

  • Maintain peace, stability, the free flow of commerce, and U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region
  • Maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely
  • Build a healthy, transparent, and sustainable U.S.-China defense relationship that also supports a broader U.S.-China relationship.

Admiral Smith is right to call for thoughtful, outcomes-focused consideration of the military’s role in implementing the President’s guidance. Such planning efforts are obviously necessary. But they do not constitute strategy—and neither does the rebalance itself. That this is true should be evident from the very label we use to describe the policy: “rebalancing” is about resource allocation, an activity that is unilateral and not contested by external actors.

The rebalance is a policy directive from the President: “Defense Department, rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.” Aye aye, sir.

This directive requires certain actions be taken to satisfy the expressed intent of higher authority: posture changes, capability development, tailoring of force structure, training of personnel, and so on. Executing those actions effectively without jeopardizing other priorities requires thoughtful planning and budgeting. But this isn’t strategy.

Strategy is a theory of purposive action in war—the violent contest of opposing wills. Successful strategy is iterative, reflective, and flexible. It is the ceaseless process through which we develop, implement, and revise a realistic idea of the choices that must be made and the actions that must be taken to translate the threat or fact of physical violence into desired political conditions. Because of the many uncertainties inherent in its violent, bilateral context, strategy will nearly always be speculative to some greater or lesser degree. But its root, its logical foundation, is hard and incontestable: if we destroy the enemy, he can no longer resist the imposition of our will.

The connective tissue of strategy, that which allows action to be translated into effect in war, is violence. (Raymond Aron, interpreting Clausewitz, described combat as “the building material of strategic artists.”) Admiral Smith’s appropriation of strategy’s conceptual framework and vocabulary to describe planning, programming, budgeting, and execution elides the important qualitative distinction between the use of force and all other steps a government may take to support, prepare itself for, or try to avoid that act.

This is a semantic problem, yes, but one with deeper implications. Admiral Smith’s formulation lacks any meaningful connection between means and ends, because his means conflate the performance of tasks with their desired effects—the ends. “Strengthen alliances” and “empower regional institutions” are not ways; strong alliances and powerful regional institutions are objectives! These are not simply actions to be taken, but conditions we hope to create—reasons for the rebalance, not just elements of it. Achieving these political ends will also require action that is intentional and purposive, but which differs from strategy for the absence of violent opposition.

To conceive of the rebalance through a framework of ends, ways, and means is to falsely apply the logic of time- and space-limited conflict to the unilateral, “steady state” pursuit of open-ended (and often purely negative) national preferences. Strategy is competitive. Even if we’re willing to adopt a more mainstream, modern interpretation and apply “strategy” beyond violent conflict, the competitive element is absolutely essential to its meaning. True, the U.S. is competing with China diplomatically and economically in the Asia-Pacific region, but neither the rebalance nor AirSea Battle nor anything else in Admiral Smith’s article is explicitly structured around that competition.  Without reference to the objectives, intent, and capabilities of an active, opposing will – the actor we’re trying to influence, persuade, coerce, manipulate, or, barring that, destroy – “strategy” is a nonsense. What remains is simply planning.

Take, for instance, the first of three “ends” that, in Smith’s formulation, Defense Department officials have associated with the Asia-Pacific rebalance: “Maintain peace, stability, the free flow of commerce, and U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region.” Is this really an “end-state” (even if we stipulate that the expression has useful meaning)? If the Asia-Pacific region is currently peaceful, stable, permits the free flow of commerce, and is susceptible to U.S. influence, then presumably we can do exactly nothing today and wake up tomorrow having accomplished our supposed end-state. Is this the end of strategy?

Maintain peace, stability, the free flow of commerce, and U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region” is not an end-state, but rather a policy preference and a statement of intent. From time to time the U.S. government will need to apply the various tools at its disposal – including, on occasion, military power – in order to enact or enforce this preference, by which we really mean disposing of whatever barrier exists to the status quo. By which we really mean changing the will of whatever actor interferes with our preferences. This, then, will require a strategy.

Similarly, Admiral Smith identifies “capabilities” as one available “means” for achieving the ends of the rebalance. “Capabilities,” however, are not means to be employed through “strengthen[ing] alliances” in the service of our objectives. Rather, they are employed through fighting, destroying, denying, deterring. This is why the conceptual framework of strategy does not translate to the conception and execution of unilateral policy. In place of the concrete logic of action and consequence that relates means and ends in war, we’re forced to rely on magical thinking and crossed fingers. By contrast, the “ways” through which war’s means operate require very little explanation.

I recognize that many may find this subject tiresome—the arcane ramblings of a Clausewitzian dinosaur who should just recognize that the meaning of words can evolve. But misappropriation of these words can obscure real conceptual errors, and I think that’s what’s happening here. The ends/ways/means arm-waving is being used to hide the fact that no one has any clear idea of how posture changes or the development of Air-Sea Battle capabilities will contribute to a peaceful and constructive relationship with China. Meanwhile, the gloss of superficial rationality created by this “strategic” language helps to justify what the service has already determined it’s going to do.


Christopher Mewett is a military analyst, strategist, and support contractor to the U.S. Department of the Army. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent those of his employer or any agency of the U.S. government.