war on the rocks

The Strategist’s Ultimate Mission

April 6, 2015

What is a strategist? We have many definitions for grand or national strategy, but despite having a community in the United States defined as “strategists,” there is little understanding of who our strategists are, and what they do. At the always thoughtful War Council Blog, Army Major Matt Cavanaugh tackled this important question. He recognizes, as did Hew Strachan, that the word “strategy” is so overused that it’s lost all meaning.

Cavanaugh decided to promote a discussion about what strategists actually do by laying out a concise but quite potent Mission Statement:

To skillfully select and balance achievable ends, available means, effective ways, and acceptable risk to exploit some degree of control of the enemy and environment to secure military objectives, desired political outcomes, and strategic narratives consistent with national interests [emphasis mine].

Given criticisms by recent studies at RAND by Linda Robinson about U.S. strategic competence, which are reinforced in books like Lt. Gen. Dan Bolger’s Why We Lost, it appears that part of our problem in applying strategic theory is not just understanding what strategy is; we may not recognize or appreciate what strategists actually do. So I found Cavanaugh’s offering fascinating and commendable.

Let me make three or four general comments on his bold proposal. I have italicized each element of the defined mission statement that is discussed in the foregoing comment. The definition implies that strategists “select” ends and do so “skillfully.” I don’t think “select” is an appropriate verb as it sounds like something drawn from a menu or checklist. Usually policy makers define aims, desired ends or outcomes, not the strategist. Furthermore, there is little “art” in skill, which implies something trainable by anyone rather than acquired by dint of a rigorous education and the experiential practice required to master strategy which has far more art to it. I subscribe to Bernard Brodie’s construct of the art and science of strategy, but emphasize the art. So instead of “select” I would propose “design.”

Second, I think “balance” is also soft. “Balance” is useful but not optimal and doesn’t connote the inherent logic of a strategic option. I prefer “coherently link” to ensure that the ways/means are the proper method relative to a desired outcome. I emphasize the “link” per Colin Gray’s concept of the role of a strategist on the proverbial Strategy Bridge, bridging or linking policy and operations, or the policy community with military planners and operators. Gray has emphasized the heroic difficulty of this bridging or linking function to what a strategist must focus on.

Coherence is an essential element that any definition of strategy should incorporate. Designing a strategy is more about coherence and linking the basic problem to a solution via a logical method/way. The Ends/Ways/Means triptych can be in balance and ultimately irrelevant to the problem at hand. But if they are coherently linked, they are tied to generating a solution to the problem that has been framed.

I totally agree with Cavanaugh that we need to incorporate an aspect that stresses the role of strategy versus a thinking adversary instead of inanimate matter. As War on the Rocks contributor Adam Elkus has recently noted, we tend to overlook adversaries in strategy. This is also central to the notion of competitive strategies in peacetime, as recently promoted by Thomas Mahnken. For that reason, I have included competitive as a fundamental consideration of strategy and the role of the strategist.

Thus, I would excise “some degree of control” as it leaves me quite cold.  The noted American strategist Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s concept of power control is not without merit, but “exploit some degree of control over the enemy…” is more limited than “to generate and exploit a competitive advantage.” The notion of environment is not irrelevant but it may be redundant, as holding critical infrastructure or some geostrategic position is often the ultimate high ground. However, the environment is inherent to defining the context of a competitive advantage in time, space, or opponent. Thus, I think the ultimate goal for a strategist is to create a competitive advantage over an enemy that efficiently secures desired political conditions (or effects). This advantage also has to be sustained since our adversary has the option to learn and adapt too. As Williamson Murray has urged, strategy is not just a document but “a constant adaptation to shifting conditions and circumstances in a world where chance, uncertainty, and ambiguity dominate.” The job of a strategist does not end with the approval of a single product; it continues. Including the idea of a “sustained” effort seeks to reinforce this task into the strategist’s job description.

Efficiency is also important so I would modify “available resources” to “allocated resources” to inject the notion of constraints. Strategists rarely get all the available or even desired resources they would like to have. The notion of limited means and constraints is a reality faced by experienced planners and strategists.

Finally, a few small “tweaks” are offered. I would leave out strategic narratives from the definition as a means not an end.  As Emile Simpson has demonstratively shown, narratives are critical to execution. The narrative should be considered a component or derivative of the strategy. But it is not clear that the strategist must build that narrative. I would like to hear others chime in on this point.

Next, I was concerned with the positioning of “military objectives” in front of political outcomes, which may imply that strategy only deals with military objectives and means. Is the military instrument the only tool that has objectives? Cavanaugh clearly was oriented on explicating on his role as a military strategist. My proposed changes would offset the perception that this is a military officer’s definition of what strategy is and what strategists do, or the notion that only military strategists are truly strategic.

Thus, my counter-proposal:

To artfully design and coherently link achievable ends, allocated means, effective ways, with acceptable risks to generate, exploit and sustain a competitive advantage against an enemy to secure desired political effects and outcomes.

So with a tip of the cap to Cavanaugh for his initiative. I offer mine above to continue the conversation in our pages. The inclusion of art, coherence, limited means, and competitive advantage are worth considering. They represent the critical elements of strategy and the ultimate test of what a good strategist has to create and sustain.


F. G. Hoffman is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks and a member of the Board of Advisors at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He current works at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University, and is completing a PhD in War Studies at King’s College, London. This comment does not reflect the views or position of the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery