Power and the Strategist’s Mission


What is power, and; what force produces the movement of nations? – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Two recent pieces by Major Matt Cavanaugh and Frank Hoffman initiated a much-needed discussion on the role of the strategist within the Department of Defense.  However, both of these keen observers fall short in addressing the need for the strategist to understand the nature and exercise of power vis-à-vis an array of competitors and friends.

In 1938, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell noted,

[T]he fundamental concept in social science is power in the sense in which energy is the fundamental concept in physics. Like energy, power has many forms, such as wealth, armaments, and influence on opinion. No one of these can be regarded as subordinate to any other.

Although Russell would likely be aghast by the use of his definition in a discussion of military strategy development, it illustrates the point that generating, exploiting, and sustaining competitive advantage suggest an aptitude for the use of power in all of its forms.

For something so vital to our understanding of social phenomena, absence of power and what it means to exercise it leaves the mission statements offered by Cavanaugh and Hoffman incomplete. Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane defined power best in their groundbreaking 1974 work Power and IndependenceIn it, power is simply the “ability of an actor to change the behavior of another at reasonable cost.” Power conceived in this way subsumes the search for competitive advantage into a larger discussion about the forces, ideas, constraints, and dynamics at our disposal which may drive or otherwise condition particular desired behaviors in our object.

Because the object of any strategy is to reliably change the behavior of others, the exercise of power through strategy must account for a very wide range of activities from the assurance of friends, the deterrence of certain behaviors by adversary, and if necessary, the coercion and compellence of enemies through violence and destruction.

Focusing on maximizing changed behavior is perhaps the most important – yet overlooked – factor governing the successful design and execution of strategy within U.S. strategic culture. Bringing power into the strategist’s mission statement in this way sets changed behavior in direct and immediate counterpoint to Hoffman’s notion of “coherence,” and further reinforces the importance of the costs incurred when exercising the many economic, military, and social tools at our disposal. The use of power in the mission statement accounts for the limits and tradeoffs at play in designing a strategy, and emphasizes the careful selection of ways and means.

The United States could have adopted a policy of physically destroying the Soviet Union as a possible competitor given its nuclear superiority in the early 1950s, but viewed the potential cost of such a course as unreasonable relative to the potential gain. Likewise, some claim the United States is physically capable of eliminating the Iranian nuclear program if it chose to do so with the nuclear means at its disposal.  However, the naked use power in this way would incur moral, ethical, and other costs to its “soft power” – its ability to attract and convince – that far outweigh the expected benefits.

Being good strategists, I suggest that the potential strategist’s mission statement can be made more accessible and useful by mirroring the “end/ways/means” triptych within the construction of the mission statement itself. As such, the mission statement should begin with our goal (changed behavior at reasonable cost), the ways in which we pursue goals (the artful design and coherent linkage), and the resources at hand to pursue them (achievable ends, effective ways, allocated means).

Here, then, is my mission statement:

To change the behavior of others at reasonable cost in order to secure desired political effects and outcomes through the artful design and coherent linkage of achievable ends, allocated means, and effective ways.

Together, Cavanaugh and Hoffman have provided defense strategists a service by sharpening our sense of the problem and bringing a credible and useful answer to the paired questions of what strategists must do and be.  But the intellectual weight of nearly 100 years of structured thinking behind the notion of power should be at the center of our articulation of how strategy might best be approached.


Jeff Becker is a defense analyst in Virginia.  He is currently the chief futurist in the Joint Staff J7 Joint Concepts Division. The opinions expressed here are his own.


Image: The Death of Omoxesisixany, by Paul Kane (WikiArt)