Politics and the American Way of War (and Strategy)


What makes a good strategy?  One of the U.S. Army’s most distinguished scholars, Tony Echevarria, Jr., recently questioned the way we conceptualize and teach strategy. In an op-ed entitled “Is Strategy Really a Lost Art?” he noted:

One theme is constant: we call strategy an art, but approach it as a science. We praise creative thinking, but assess our strategies with formulae: strategy = ends + ways + means (the ends we want to achieve + the ways or concepts + the available means). This formula is as recognizable to modern strategists as Einstein’s equation E=mcis to physicists.

Echevarria’s spot-on commentary is critical to enhancing our conceptions of strategy making and implementation.  Far too often, American strategists, particularly those in uniform, think of strategy as a product of doctrinal process or formulaic conceptions in the physical domains.  In doing so, they ignore the influence (much less the near primacy) of politics.

Colin Gray notes that strategies exist to support the attainment of “policy as determined by politics.”  This is a lucid definition of national strategy, because it acknowledges that politics are infused in policy, and influence strategy as well.  Any good Clausewitzian must accept that politics does more than intrude in strategy and war.  Domestic party agendas, bureaucratic seams, competing economic and political interests, and the media all play a part in policy formulation, among many others.  Strategists cannot escape the role of democratic politics in the formulation and conduct of strategy.

However, American strategic culture, including its form of government, makes strategy particularly complicated. Our policymaking community must “craft and implement national strategy within a political system in which power is shared, authority is fragmented, and strategic consensus only rarely achieved.”  This two-decade old assessment from David Jablonsky is especially poignant given recent events in our nation’s capital.

This is a complication, but it should not be an excuse for artificially trying to isolate politics from policy and strategy development.  No true Clausewitzian would or should accept that. Yet as General David H. Petraeus wrote in his Princeton dissertation, “Though most military officers quote flawlessly Clausewitz’ dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means, many do not appear to accept fully the implications of his logic.”

Petraeus is correct: many who profess adherence to the great Prussian’s creed often overlook the implications of his most profound observations.  As Sir Lawrence Freedman notes, one finds among American military thinking that “politics is often treated [by]…military theory as an awkward exogenous factor, at best a necessary inconvenience and at worst a source of weakness and constraint.”

As Freedman suggests, the U.S. military has displayed a historical aversion to both policy and politics, especially its domestic aspects.  During World War II, General Marshall chaffed at Presidential guidance that shaped operations in North Africa that he felt were framed by U.S. electoral cycles.  In Operation Just Cause, American planners failed to appreciate the political conditions for establishing a legitimate government once Noreiga was taken down.

But strategy is spawned at the nexus of politics,  intelligence and constraints  – something that should be obvious to any disciple of Clausewitz.  This aversion to politics breaks Gray’s proverbial “strategy bridge.”  The strategist, who serves as bridge between policy goals and military ways and means, must accept the historical fact that purely military or rational methods are not the norm in crafting strategy.  Strategies are iterative, whereas policy creation is usually the product of negotiation and compromise. And these compromises are hammered out in the discourse and dialogues of councils of war – in other words, in the realm of politics.  Military strategists cannot escape this by withdrawing into what Oxford University Professor Hew Strachan has identified as the American military culture’s embrace of the operational level and a “politics-free” mindset.

While the military may too often distance itself from politics, and therefore from the essence of policy and strategy making, the “black hole” where American strategy should reside is not entirely the fault of U.S military culture.  On the other side of the bridge, the civilian side, our civilian policy community sometimes distances itself from the realities and limitations of force, or avoids asking hard questions about how proposed “ways” relate to desired ends.  That question is the essence of strategy development, or what Echevarria aptly describes as the policy/strategy dialectic.  Only then will better strategies and better results be generated.

To be clear, the American form of government is not to blame for this disconnect.  Democratic states actually do strategy better than autocracies, over the long haul.  As Hal Brands has noted, one should embrace the messiness of democracy in strategy, for its downsides are far outweighed by the dynamism of plural perspectives. To ignore politics, believing one operates in a pure apolitical realm of strategy, is naïve at best, and dangerous at worst.

The aversion to politics is understandable: politics, like other human factors, is nonlinear, while military strategists often cling to rational and linear processes.  To return to Echevarria’s formulation, rigid adherence to the military’s doctrinal thinking about the best way to employ military force reinforces the “science” of war at the expense of the “art.”  Politics may introduce an element of non-rationality to a military strategist, or significantly alter the essential logic of a “way” within a strategy.

Yet the design and use of strategy is rarely a clean-cut case of rational choice or linear processing.  It is messy, permeated with shades of gray, and impregnated with politics.  For this reason, as hard as many strategists try, they cannot escape the influence of politics on strategy and strategic performance. The challenge for the modern strategist is not to eschew politics entirely, but rather to ensure that the competitive logic or victory mechanism of a proposed strategy is sustained despite the influence of politics, and that strategic coherence is maintained.

Echevarria is correct – we need less physics, and more creative thinking.  The simple construct we have long embraced for strategy – “Ends x Ways x Means” – may be obsolete, or perhaps our strategic short-hand needs elaboration.  Our theories and professional educational programs need to explore and resolve this challenge (although I know at places like the Eisenhower School at NDU the limitations of the simplistic formula approach are well recognized).  Strategy is an art, but planning may lean more towards science. Our understanding of the distinction is worth some further research.  The critical question that modern-day Clausewitzians have to answer is whether war’s logic can be understood and applied by a formulaic concept based on the belief that strategy can distance itself from the driving logic and constraints of policy, and the dynamics of applied strategy, which are inherently political in nature.


F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Defense Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University (NDU). These represent his own views and not necessarily those of NDU or the U.S. Government.


Photo credit: Katie Harbath