The Master Strategist is Still a Myth


Where is the master strategist we have all been waiting for?

In an article last week, Daniel Steed took issue with a point I made in my book Strategy: A History. The relevant chapter, entitled “The Myth of the Master Strategist”, comes at the end of the section on military strategy. Here I take on a position associated with Colin Gray in Modern Strategy and Harry Yarger in Strategy and the National Security Professional in which they require more from a strategist than I judge to be either possible or desirable. They presented strategy as a professional calling demanding a remarkably wide range of expertise and holistic vision. My view, however, is that strategies are rarely developed by professional strategists. More often, strategies come from leaders trying to impose their will on a perplexing reality who struggle to appreciate the full consequences of their actions. These leaders cannot be expected to grasp all the second and third order effects of their actions, nor can they comprehend the dynamic complexity of the system of which they are a part. The situations they face may require urgent attention, with aspects that are hard to discern. They lack the time to run alternative courses of action through a number of iterations and so must make decisions based on the best information available. So my warning was against a counsel of perfection that demanded extraordinary prescience, a grasp of a range of key factors and careful planning able to take account of all eventualities. Gray had, I noted, already accepted the risk of expecting too much from the strategist in his book The Strategy Bridge.

Steed agrees with me that it is extremely difficult to set out with confidence steps that are sure to reach long-term goals, but he does not consider it impossible. He summarizes my argument as, “Ultimately, due to the sheer difficulty of the pursuit and the impossibility of comprehending all relevant factors, strategic man cannot exist.” Yet he argues that this form of strategic thinking has been done in the past and can conceivably be done in the future. Indeed, he warns, my concern may by a symptom of liberal democracy, that nations such as the United Kingdom and United States might well be caught out by countries whose systems better support strategic thinking at the top. “Finding strategic man is daunting, yet it can be achieved; and here I shall argue that strategic man has existed in the past, can exist in the present and will exist in the future.”

Yet I do not talk of “strategic man” (and not only because of the gender problem). The phrase does make an appearance in my book when I recall Hedley Bull’s sharp observation about U.S. strategic thought in 1961. This, he said, assumed the “rational action” of a kind of “strategic man” who “on further acquaintance reveals himself as a university professor of unusual intellectual subtlety.”

I certainly spend a lot of time challenging the sort of rational actor model favored in the contemporary social sciences. Any such person who met such demanding criteria and was in a position to make far-reaching decisions would certainly be a really super strategic actor, highly rational and capable enough to crunch all data, say like Robert McNamara. Vietnam was described as “McNamara’s War”. This was hardly a strategic master class. It is fair to note that McNamara served two Presidents who actually made the key decisions. This then raises the question of the office held by the “strategic person.” Is the master strategist an adviser to the powerful or the powerful one? Machiavelli or the Prince? Only an adviser would have the time to engage in the necessary diagnostic work. Yet the examples Steed chooses are of political leaders.

This problem of functional separation, a feature of the specialization of contemporary life, is relevant to the problem of strategy-making. It might be much easier to propose a bold and imaginative strategy when you are not going to be held accountable if it all goes wrong. There are other forms of functional separation. Steed takes seriously the problem of the regular disconnect between the political from the military, which I highlight. I was citing this as a problem with the classical tradition, associated with Jomini and Clausewitz, which focuses on decisive battle as the source of political victory. I dealt with this in a recent War on the Rocks article. This divide between generals and politicians has become a matter for concern among a number of contemporary writers, including Hew Strachan. But the problem goes wider, as can be seen in laments about the separation of planners from doers in large businesses. Steed and I can agree that there is a real challenge when it comes to translating the language and concerns of the military into terms that the politician will grasp. Conversely, it is equally difficult to give the military an appreciation for the real, and often contradictory, pressures that a politician faces. But even if structures are improved, there will always be distinctive interests and perspectives. A succession of rounded strategic people is unlikely to develop.

To demonstrate that the political/military divide can be bridged, Steed offers up Alexander the Great, “without doubt the greatest strategist in history.” Using Alexander he describes what we want from strategic man.

He who can perceive the whole in a shifting, dynamic environment; communicate complex matters to those he must lead, both militarily and politically, in order to inspire them to feats beyond what was thought possible; master a vast array of technical and tactical challenges in real time, against diverse adversaries; one who understands the ethical dimension in strategy and the need for political humility; and ultimately, when the time comes, holding the ability to defeat those who challenge him through force of arms quickly and decisively.

There is no doubting Alexander’s effectiveness, although it helped that he inherited an empire and, of course, his career lasted barely 13 years. His achievements were not sustained by his successors, so one wonders what his reputation might be like if he had lived another few decades. Timing, after all, is everything when it comes to reputation. In some absolutely vital respects, for example, Winston Churchill was a superb strategist. In others he was terrible. If he had died in the 1930s he would have been remembered as a brilliant failure possessing flawed judgement. Napoleon and Hitler also brought together political and military strategy in one person. Each was considered amazing in his time until he over-reached and was defeated.

As a contemporary example let us consider Margaret Thatcher, mentioned by Steed as someone who was politically effective in a number of campaigns. Let us take first the 1982 Falklands campaign. She did not expect the Argentine invasion. When it came, her first priority was to save her government, which could well have fallen had not the First Sea Lord Sir Henry Leach pointed out that a task force could be sent in short order to the South Atlantic. His second piece of good advice was that the task force should take whatever it could because nobody could be sure what it would need to do when it got there. In the first instance, the task force was sent to support a negotiating strategy. The negotiations failed, but not because of Thatcher’s intransigence (despite what is commonly assumed). At one point, she accepted that her core aim of returning the Islands to British administration might not be possible. If the Argentineans had shown more acumen in negotiating as well as in their military planning, we might now be looking back at a humiliating failure. During the conflict, Thatcher held her nerve but she was never reckless and was prepared to compromise. The point is that she had paid little attention to the developing conflict and she made her early moves without any clear idea about how it would all end.

Her policy towards the Soviet bloc in the 1980s, possibly one of her greatest achievements, involved an element of serendipity in the development of her relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, but she used it effectively. However, the process she helped set in motion went further than she expected or wanted. Hence her alarm as it led inexorably to German unification. At this point in European history, her strategic judgment left her and she lost the influence over affairs her earlier achievements warranted. Incidentally, given Steed’s suggestion that more should be done to educate political leaders in the ways of the military, I recall (circa 1984) listening in while officials were trying to persuade her to get involved in the next NATO WINTEX command post exercise (conducted every two years from 1968 to 1989). “Didn’t I bomb Cuba last time?” she asked, explaining why she thought it a waste of time.

“Strategic man”, says Steed, “does not need to resemble the Supreme Being, they need only be good enough.” This is a relief, but how do we know what is good enough? He cites Ronald Reagan’s aggressive Cold War strategy, but I am not sure how well Reagan would have scored on the qualities attributed by Steed to Alexander, such as “perceive the whole in a shifting, dynamic environment.” If anything, Reagan’s strength lay in the simplicity rather than the complexity of his vision. His success in this case also depended on seeing out three gerontocrats and then being able to deal with a Soviet reformer. Circumstances helped in a way that they did not help with his far less impressive Middle East policy.

We may do better, therefore, looking for good strategy rather than worrying about great strategists. What fascinates me about good strategy is not that it comes from people who are uniquely qualified, but that it can be generated by fallible human beings working through imperfect organizations operating in conditions of great uncertainty. People can be propelled into challenging roles (Harry Truman and Clement Attlee in 1945) and then do surprisingly well. Neither of them would have been identified as putative Alexanders. In general I would encourage those preparing for some major strategic decisions to think about how to diagnose situations and focus on the problem at hand, and manage a degree of empathy with their opponents as well as with their partners. The will need to think ahead, forge coalitions and hold on to long-term objectives. As they appreciate the importance of chance and unintended consequences, they should stay pragmatic, changing course when one does not work and shifting goals as new opportunities arise and others are closed off. But in practice it may turn out that an actual situation will really suit somebody who is stubborn and bloody-minded, autocratic rather than consultative, narrowly focused and ruthless, and so able to act as a force of nature and push aside all obstacles.

There are thus three problems with our search for the masterful strategic person. First, the qualities needed are very demanding. Second, they need appropriate circumstances before they are able to come into play. Third, these circumstances will pass. Consistently high strategic performance is extremely hard. Even those who perform well for a while rarely sustain their performance over time. Great strategists emerge in relationship to great situations. Meanwhile, rather than worry about whether such exalted people can be prepared for their great tasks, it may be more helpful to encourage good strategic thinking wherever it might need to be found.


Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. His most recent book is Strategy: A History (OUP, 2013). He is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.