On Strategy: Building the Whole House

January 16, 2014

Colin S. Gray, Perspectives on Strategy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Harry Yarger of the Army War College once noted that policy is supposed to ensure that strategy pursues appropriate aims, while strategy informs policy of the “art of the possible.” Reduced defense resources in the next decade will force American strategists to consider how to redefine exactly what is possible and how to better inform policy. This new book offers insights on just what constitutes a comprehensive approach to that challenge.

It’s terribly hard to keep up with the prolific output of Colin Gray, the Anglo-American scholar at the University of Reading.  Each year he somehow manages to release a new book on the subject of strategy and international relations, invariably chocked with keen insights from a lifetime of both theoretical study and consulting.  Strategic Perspectives is his 25th book, and its release should prove to be propitious given the emergent changes in U.S. security strategy and budgets.  The American policymaking community is in the process of redefining U.S. national security strategy and defense objectives, with fewer resources and a smaller margin for error.

Perspectives on Strategy offers a framework for studying the different elements or framing factors of strategy.  This new work takes a notably holistic view of strategic phenomena, which serves as a master framework for a detailed examination of strategic history and theoretical issues.  Strategic thought and performance are explored and explained from the perspectives of concepts, ethics, culture, geography, and technology.

Each of these perspectives has generated its own persistent scholastic debate and has also influenced strategy development and implementation over the ages.  American strategic culture has been accused of overemphasizing technology, and Michael Howard has notably criticized American conduct of the Vietnam War for forgetting the Social Dimension. But the explicit purpose of Perspectives on Strategy is to warn both the theorist and the practicing strategist that to isolate a single variable and think of it as independent is a flawed view when approaching strategy.  As Gray warns:

It is not sound to conceive of strategy as being essentially, or even primarily, a conceptual, moral, cultural, geographical, or technological project (inter alia); it is all of these combined, even fused, albeit in combinations with historically widely varying relative weights. Strategy is a single enterprise. Theory and practice have to be considered as one whole project.

Despite that profound insight, Gray does a deep dive and devotes a full chapter to each element.  In his culminating chapter he then brings them together into a single enterprise, as Clausewitz suggests: in strategy “here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.”

Professor Gray’s characterization of what he calls “the whole house” of strategy (see Joint Force Quarterly) is instructive.  The whole house has to be designed first by a trained professional “architect.”  Dr. Gray’s five factors represent an overview of the macro-level variables of strategy, and the intellectual foundation that any architect must start with.

The chapters on culture and geography represent a classical perspective.  Culture can frame how a society sees its interests and how it frames responses to the challenges posed in the world.  Geography, like culture, is not determinate but shapes expectations and demands for strategic behavior.  Physical geography can influence one’s sense of honor, interest and identity.

Gray approaches technology in a balanced way, having studied and commented on American dominance in this dimension for many years.  In Perspectives on Strategy, he still cautions regarding technology’s effect in altering strategic history and our approach to thinking about strategy:

Some technologies claimed to be game changing for warfare have proved to be right so labeled. Gunpowder weapons, the railway, motorization, aircraft, nuclear weapons, spacecraft, and computers, to cite but a handful…have changed the ways in which war could be or actually needed to be fought.  But, have war, strategy and warfare ceased to be what once they were?  The answer has to be a resounding ‘no.’

But central to the holistic enterprise of strategy is the conceptual dimension, and accordingly Professor Gray makes this his first chapter.  The conceptual idea is the core formulation of a winning strategy, and the essence of strategy, where any strategist truly earns his pay.

Despite its importance, this chapter is the least satisfying due to its subtlety.  The conceptual or central idea inherent to a strategy should be considered as a plan to gain and sustain advantage, leading to a desired endstate.  As Gray no doubt recognizes, strategy must be developed and deployed in a competitive context relative to an adversary.  Strategies, either grand or simply military, should be based on the need to define, create and sustain a competitive advantage relative to the opponent or the environment.  To craft a strategy that is competitive recognizes that strategy must operate in an adversarial setting and reflect the simple reality that war involves an interactive series of action, response, and counteraction.  A strategy must be prepared for this reciprocal relationship, and a good one will seek to identify, create, and sustain a logic of advantage that comes closest to securing assigned policy aims within the constraints of policy and available means.

The Pentagon’s Andrew Marshall and other strategy gurus like Richard Rumelt have long stressed this point.  A “competitive” strategy seeks to frame the contest to our advantage rather than playing by someone else’s rules.  It also seeks to impose costs during peacetime and war to shape the contours of any contest in one’s favor.  A competitive logic is the keystone for creating desired strategic effects.  That logic is a continuous thread of thinking that provides strategic intent and informs ways, and creates linkages in strategic design that drives the application of means via military operations.  It is often absent in policy-dominated decision-making where the listing of objectives tends to be mistaken for strategy.  Dr. Tom Mahnken’s edited volume, Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century, is relevant and suggested reading on this issue.

U.S. grand strategy since 1991 has not been built upon an explicit competitive logic of action, save a preponderance of power and resources.  Those conditions may no longer exist.  Future U.S. national security strategies will not be blessed with the same surplus of funding and must creatively focus on achieving ends with greater efficiency and increased levels of risk.  In short, the Master Architects of American strategy in the 21st century will have to seek relevant competitive advantages with fewer resources.  Greater discipline in aligning ends, ways, and means will be needed.  Gray’s “whole house” approach, including the notion of a competitive concept, will be critical to securing our security interests in a more insecure future.  As means become limited, greater demands are placed on the strategist to contrive creative ways to overcome these limits.  It also places greater pressure on the strategist to keep policy continuously informed about “the art of the possible” so that policy does not demand more than can be delivered – as Harry Yarger observed.

The new strategic environment makes Perspectives in Strategy both timely and particularly salient.  It would be of great value in civilian graduate schools and senior military educational institutions.  Thus, it is recommended with enthusiasm for students of strategy and architects of our tomorrow.


Frank Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University, and a graduate student in the War Studies Department at King’s College, University of London.  This review represents his own position and not that of the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Will Scullin