The Heroic Difficulty: Matching Power and Purpose


Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.


Colin Gray, the acclaimed strategic theorist of his generation, said the duty of a strategist was “to try to match purposeful military effort and its consequences with the country’s political interests expressed as policy. This can be a mission of heroic difficulty, even to the point of impossibility.”

Strategy may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Strategy, both the process and the product, is essential to spanning the gap from policy aims to achieved strategic effect. It translates aspirations to implementable plans designed to obtain specific goals with modes and means most likely to obtain the desired end state. Strategy must be more than mere fluff; it cannot be founded upon an inadequate diagnosis or a mere list of goals. Numerous scholars find flaws in the structure and process by which U.S. policymakers think about developing and applying the various instruments of American power. Some wonder if the United States actually has or is capable of producing and executing a unique national strategy in today’s complex strategic environment marked by the diffusion of power and the proliferation of actors.

Strategy remains the mechanism by which political goals are tightly bound to diplomatic action and military efforts. It is neither an illusion nor an exercise in futility; rather, it is essential for rationalizing the purpose, costs and means of foreign policy and war. As Columbia professor Richard Betts has observed, “without strategy, there is no rationale for how force will achieve purposes worth the price in blood and treasure.” Yet, strategy in process or product is often flawed or studiously ignored. Too often, there is a gap in the strategy bridge — the conduit for the two-way traffic that animates action and provides a continual feedback between ends, ways and means.

The United States is not alone in encountering this gap. In his latest book, Professor Hal Brands of Duke University notes:

The history of international affairs is replete with examples of leaders who have fallen short in this regard-those who confuse core with second interests, pursued contradictory strategic ideas and principles, failed to ration resources or combine them synergistically, or fundamentally misjudged the effects of action or inaction.

Identifying this shortfall in international affairs, Brands offers a profound, but mercifully succinct study of American strategic experience over four different U.S. presidential administrations. In What Good is Grand Strategy?, Brands provides a masterful evaluation of the practice of grand strategy in the United States by Presidents Truman, Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush. The author gives high marks to the Truman administration, whose tenure he credits with the construction of an enduring Cold War grand strategy, as well as the corresponding tools and machinery required to manage the complexity of U.S. foreign policy. His take on the Nixon era is less salutatory, while acknowledging the bleak position that President Nixon inherited and the bold, imaginative agility with which he and Henry Kissinger steered. While appreciative of their strategic design and their outreach to China, Brands comes to a scorching assessment of that pair’s conduct of the American negotiated withdrawal from Vietnam. Instead of a triumph, it was a flawed agreement that barely lasted two years:

In Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger ended up with the worst of both worlds, four more years of fighting at a cost of over twenty thousand American deaths, and immense political divisiveness at home, followed by just the outcome they had hoped to avert.

The author admires their vision and realpolitik but finds their conspiratorial and secretive nature counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating. The pair concentrated power to abet their bold vision. In the process, however, they created a dysfunctional government and climate that generated resistance, failing to bring to bear the collective insights and diversity of views required for a sustainable strategy.

In contrast, the author finds much to admire in the statecraft applied by Ronald Reagan who, he argues, recognized the inherent weaknesses of the Soviet Union and applied the entire arsenal of U.S. government in a comprehensive and competitive plan. This plan was focused on applying pressure to reverse the tide of the Cold War and to establish a more stable superpower relationship. Reagan’s aim was not to force the collapse of the Soviet Union as much as capitalize on America’s competitive advantages vis-a-vis Moscow. Brands focuses on the Administration’s evolving relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, but also notes shortfalls in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The author’s harshest chapter is reserved for “Bush 43.” In it, Brands reveals the differences between simply articulating a comprehensive grand strategy and successful implementation. In Brands’ assessment, “The administration encountered immense problems relating means to ends, overcoming unexpected obstacles, reconciling its various goals with one another, and otherwise turning its bold ideas into workable, day-to-day courses of action.” Brands makes it clear that the post-9/11 strategic shifts were failures resulting partly from inadequacies of planning, and “partly from inherent flaws within the grand strategy itself.”

In his summative chapter, Brands distills a number of insights from his cases. One of his most original is the contradictory tension involved in strategy development and execution:

Indeed… the very concept is beset by a number of fundamental tensions—between the quest for coherence and the reality of complexity; between the need for foresight and the fact of uncertainty; between the steadiness and purpose that are necessary to plan ahead, and the agility that is required to adapt on the fly.

Brands’ concluding chapter offers invaluable guidance to policy-makers and budding strategists:

  • Start with first principles
  • Invest in planning
  • Invest in the “how” not just the “what”–it is not enough to just define the ends of strategy
  • Think of strategy as a continuous process, not a blueprint
  • Policymakers must foster an atmosphere in which taking stock, via reassessment and self-scrutiny, can occur
  • Embrace rather than control the political messiness of strategy building to build consensus
  • Do not consider the bureaucracy the enemy of good strategy, something Williamson Murray stressed in The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War

This is a solid list of key insights to which I would add a prioritization of not just first principles, but greater clarity over core interests—something Professor Lawrence Freedman has noted in War on the Rocks. The clear prioritization of national interests is of paramount importance in both crisis management and strategic planning. I would also add the need to effectively communicate this strategy, a component of grand strategy identified in my own recent research.

What Good is Grand Strategy? provides invaluable insights on just how hard the challenge of strategic implementation can be, and should be a valued source for seasoned practitioners and scholars alike.

Some contend that we can we opt out from making strategy or that it’s a Mission Impossible.    “Refusing to do grand strategy will not allow the United States to escape the dilemmas that make that task so difficult,” Brands insists. Moreover trying to abdicate this effort, he argues, “will only exacerbate the confusion and contradictions within American policy.” Brands offers solid advice on the central question about making strategy during periods of opacity and complexity. The more difficult the circumstances, Brands argues, the greater the need and the payoff for systemically evaluating the environment, discerning first principles, aligning ways/means to desired ends, making priorities, and adapting to fleeting opportunities and swirling storms. He writes, “Grand strategy is neither a chimera nor an elusive holy grail, but rather an immensely demanding task that talented policy makers have still sometimes managed to do quite well.”

For those in search of the Holy Grail of Grand Strategy, Professor Brands has produced an enormously practical book at a perilous time in the conduct of international affairs. His timing is as impeccable as his scholarship. Our margin for error is shrinking, the result of a combination of increased challenge and reduced resources. We can no longer afford to throw resources at every problem. We need policymakers capable of piercing the fog of uncertainty, bureaucratic friction, and the competing tensions of strategy. We need talented officials who possess both the audacity to take big bold risks, and the technical competence to turn ideas into reality.

While the United States remains quite powerful in some areas such as our overwhelming military forces, relative decline presents serious problems. These can be offset with better strategy implementation to preserve order and advance our interests. This book will soon become a standard in graduate schools, and is enthusiastically recommended for senior policymakers of today, and tomorrow’s masters of strategy.


F. G. Hoffman is a Contributing Editor of War on the Rocks, and serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University. These are his own views and do not reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense. 


Photo credit: U.S. National Archives