The Consistent Incoherence of Grand Strategy


Lukas Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (Oxford University Press, 2016). 


The importance of grand strategy should be evident today as the United States finds itself at a transition point.  In a world of rising powers, revisionary but systemically declining states, rogues with nukes, and violent extremists with proto-state status, the need for clear direction is manifest.  If there was ever an age in which a disciplined appreciation of threats, clearly prioritized goals, and the corresponding recalibration of the various instruments of national power were required, this is it.

The notion of grand strategy, albeit terribly hubristic sounding, is a decidedly practical art and a necessity for powers great and small.  Such strategies are applied by accident or by deliberate rationalization in the pursuit of a country’s best interests.  Yet, there are few agreements about what constitutes a grand strategy and even what the best definition is.  In this new book, a young scholar, Lukas Milevski seeks to map out what he concludes is a muddled conception of strategic theory.  Early chapters examine thinking on strategy from the Napoleonic era up to and through the two world wars of the 20th century.  The back half details the fall and rise of grand strategy, through the Cold War’s emphasis on nuclear theory to today’s re-emerging interest.  The author of this terse book begins his project by noting, “Few employed grand strategy, fewer employed it meaningfully and with definition, few associated themselves with it in practice, and few saw utility in the term.”

To Milevski, our ideas about grand strategy are “scattershot” and ahistorical. Ironically, I am partial to the definition postulated by Dr. Colin Gray, who defined it in The Strategy Bridge as “the direction and use made of any or all the assets of a security community, including its military instrument, for the purposes of policy as decided by politics.”  This definition is not limited to states per se, is mute on its relevance to peacetime competition or wartime, and explicitly refers to all of the power assets of a community, rather than just its military services.

This book is a wonderful and concise treatise that in some ways will remind readers of Edward Mead Earle’s original Makers of Modern Strategy, which was published at the end of World War II.  But Milevski, a former PhD student supervised by Professor Gray at the University of Reading, adds critical context and comparative analysis.  While Earle focused on the key figures of strategy, Milevski’s focus is narrower, uncovering the context and tracing the historiography of the term “grand strategy” over the past two centuries.

The author captures the varied insights among the giants (Mahan, Corbett, Edward M. Earle, Kahn, and Brodie) that have enriched our understanding of the apex of strategy.  At the end of his journey, he incorporates the insights of major recent contributors to the literature and our basis for theory today: Edward Luttwak, Barry Posen, John Collins, Paul Kennedy, John Lewis Gaddis, and Hal Brands.  The book’s core achievement is how it captures the subtle shifts in scholars’ thinking about grand strategy in a very succinct format.  Milevski’s scope is far more constrained than Lawrence Freedman’s tour de force Strategy: A History.  Whereas Freedman demonstrated an expansive breadth on strategy writ large, the latter has a laser focus on published and archival writings on grand strategy.

This is clearly a book for serious academics and students of strategy.  It is sparse, but never cursory, about the intellectual foundation of our tenuous grasp of a complex subject.  It is not a cook book about translating theory to practice.  Readers who want to study strategic practice and have a stomach for sausage production should look at The Making of Strategy.  Nor does it incorporate the insights from major practitioners, like Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Brent Scowcroft, etc., who actually applied their concepts to the critical problems of the day.  These men would have something to say about conceptual clarity, on strategic culture and its influence on the elements of strategy, and about the integration of these elements and the civil-military dynamics inherent to strategy at the national level.  Milevski is best at tracing the path of how scholars have defined the theory, but not in how they mastered its application.

The American sage Yogi Berra once quipped:“In theory, there is not a difference between theory and practice.  In practice, there is.”  The same is true for strategy, where implementation, assessment, and adaptation are often required.  Readers who seek to get to the next level and examine the execution of strategies should examine The Shaping of Grand Strategy and especially Wick Murray’s introductory chapter. Readers seeking more modern cases can examine Hal Brands’ Making the Unipolar Moment or the stinging critique of current American strategy in Dueck’s The Obama Doctrine.  Readers who seek to examine how the other instruments of power influence grand strategy, like the economic dimension of strategy, should consider the recently published study of economic statecraft in War by Other Means.

In his conclusion, Milevski expresses frustration that the concept of grand strategy appears so consistently incoherent over the ages, with numerous gaps and little concurrence on even its definition.  He should not despair, as strategy is not a science with agreed truths or even rigid principles.  Strategy at the summit remains more art than a defined discipline, with admittedly more alchemists than true strategists.  Grand strategy has meant different things to different scholars who have faced the unique problems of their day with the peculiar mental paradigms imposed by distinctive cultures and disciplines.  The lack of common ground is noted.  But all strategy is a contextual interpretation of a problem and a compromised rationalization of a solution.  There are no formulas to the inherent tensions imposed by uncertain intentions, faulty assumptions, unknown capabilities, and vaguely calculated risks.  As Gray wrote in Joint Force Quarterly long ago, doing strategy is no mean feat, rather it is a heroic difficulty.

Even if we cannot precisely define it, or agree on its constituent parts, we should understand the practical value of strategy.  As Brands concluded in What Good is Grand Strategy?, ignoring the importance of a coherent grand strategy does not make threats go away, and “will only exacerbate the confusion and contradictions within American policy.”  To Milevski, our confusion begins with our misunderstanding of what grand strategy is and how we can best incorporate other forms of national power aside from military force.  His call to rehabilitate our grasp of policy, politics, and strategy could be an important step forward in addressing calls for enhanced strategic competence.

Do not be deceived by the short length of this book.  It is a highly compressed distillation and is an ideal product for graduate schools and the leading educational programs that promote strategic thinking.  With little doubt, this book will take a distinctive place in the strategic studies field.  No program dedicated to educating tomorrow’s generation of leaders on this topic should overlook this mapping of the conceptual history of the art of grand strategy, despite the author’s quixotic desire for consistency and clarity.


Dr. F. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University, Washington DC.  His research portfolio includes national strategy and defense policy issues.  He is also a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.  This review reflects his own perspective and does not represent the views or position of the U.S. government.