Grand Strategy Is No Silver Bullet, But It Is Indispensable

May 19, 2020

Is grand strategy too “grand” to be good? Criticisms of the concept are not new, but in recent months, several articles have sounded the death knell. Particularly concerning is that the diagnosis comes from the United States and the United Kingdom — countries with overlapping strategic cultures and where grand strategy has, to varying degrees, succeeded in the past. Far from a wasteful or futile undertaking, however, the practice of grand strategy is a worthwhile endeavor. But crucially, for it to be effective, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way in which it is understood and what is expected of it.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Daniel Drezner, Ronald Krebs, and Randall Schweller come to “bury” grand strategy. For these self-proclaimed undertakers, it is not simply that the concept is “dead,” but rather that the domestic and international environment is no longer conducive to any attempt at its use. Grand strategy, they claim, “works best on predictable terrain — in a world where policymakers enjoy a clear understanding of the distribution of power, a solid domestic consensus about national goals and identity, and stable political and national security institutions.” In place of grand strategy, a more ad hoc and “case-by-case” approach to policy is now needed, they argue — ideally one based on the way in which “smart corporations” decentralize and incrementalize their innovation and decision-making processes.

Though the article is only the latest in a line of critiques, its arguments are somewhat striking, both for their idealized version of the past and their narrow conception of the purpose and essence of grand strategy. The idea that grand strategy requires entirely “predictable terrain” is a limitation built on illusion. Rarely, if ever, do the international system, domestic political debates and a complex network of bureaucratic institutions align to give policymakers an ideal canvas on which to craft a grand strategy. Indeed, the concept itself is most useful — and often most necessary — in moments when national populations, feeling the international order to be shifting in new and unpredictable directions, begin to question their own first-order assumptions about the nature of the international system and their country’s place within it.



Now is not the time to “bury” grand strategy altogether, but to understand that its practical application rests in a humbler and less rigid understanding of the concept: one which sees it more as a habit of mind and a way of thinking, rather than the deliverable product of an all-encompassing blueprint or road map for policymaking. Vital to this conception is an understanding that the term itself represents a practice with a long intellectual and historical lineage, aspects of which must be grasped in order for policymakers and the public to find value in the concept going forward.

To reconnect policymakers and the policy-minded with this vision of grand strategy, we offer a number of historical antecedents in 19th and 20th century British statecraft, arguing that certain aspects of this tradition of grand strategic thinking, while undervalued in the present day, should be revitalized going forward. This is no silver bullet, of course. It takes time to look beyond the recent past, and time to process its significance. But thinking carefully about history is not an esoteric indulgence. It is a humble recognition that the past offers something to the present, and is a smart investment of time for a policymaker seeking to build a robust and innovative toolkit to tackle the daunting challenges of the coming decade.

Too Grand to be Good?

It is hard not to question the merits of grand strategy. The very adjective “grand” does it no favors, as many conjure up images of beard-stroking elites hovering over quills and maps. The academic attention on grand strategy in recent decades has been expansive but at the same time, has produced a cacophony of conceptual frameworks. Talk to policymakers today and many look at those who advocate grand strategy as out-of-touch academics, ignorant of the bureaucratic processes of government and the reality that much of what constitutes a day atop the policymaking establishment is filled with “fire-fighting” and leaping from one crisis to the next. In a world of rapid communication, 24-hour news cycles, lone-actor terrorist attacks, volatile financial markets, and now a global pandemic with profound social, economic and demographic consequences, events demanding government response are more plentiful and challenging than they ever have been. Diplomacy operates at a level of complexity scarcely imaginable a hundred years ago. Sitting back and thinking about — much less planning for — all-encompassing strategies of how countries can achieve a range of medium- and long-term domestic and international objectives might seem unnecessary if not impossible under modern circumstances.

It is their perception of the daunting complexity of this environment which leads Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller to question the contemporary relevance of grand strategy — or more specifically, to question the capacity of the United States to engage in effective grand strategy and maintain its global preeminence under conditions so different to the world in which that preeminence was first achieved. Interestingly, the past decade has also seen a similar process of questioning on the other side of the Atlantic. A British parliamentary inquiry in 2010 — originally titled “Who Does UK Grand Strategy?” — concluded that the term “grand strategy,” though seen by some as “hubristic,” remained “a concept intrinsic to good governance” and synonymous with national strategy. However, the “profoundly disturbing conclusion” of the committee was that such “strategic thinking has atrophied.” Ten years later, the National Security Advisor at the time of that report, Lord Peter Ricketts, wrote that the British foreign policymaking establishment had “lost the art of grand strategy:”

I am sceptical about the capacity of modern governments to produce grand strategy… amid the maelstrom of contemporary politics and the new media. …Today’s pressures push ministers to short-term crisis management. Policies are sound-bite simple, while deferring awkward choices has become a more tempting option. The distinction between campaigning and governing has all but disappeared, reducing the space for longer-term thinking.

Underlying both the 2010 parliamentary report and Lord Rickett’s recent article is a nostalgia for a past excellence in grand strategy — something lost along the way. But what exactly was this art, and crucially, is it recoverable?

Towards a Humbler Conception

Much of the problem with grand strategy is that, as a concept, it suffers from people over-claiming what it can achieve — it is often thought of as a “silver bullet,” “master plan,” or a “road map to match means with ends.” Seeing it as such a panacea for policymaking only sets it up for failure, since no fixed, tidy, and decided plan on the scale required could ever withstand the unpredictable onslaught of international politics.

Instead, grand strategy is best understood not as a process (leading to the production of plans) but as a habit of mind: a conscious attempt to look beyond the confines of short-term requirements of national defense or day-to-day, immediate foreign policy, and to the pursuit of national interests in a more systematic and synchronized way. It remains conscious of first-order assumptions and first-order principles within a nation’s policymaking culture, and importantly, the ways in which these should be altered in the context of a changing international order. As David Morgen Owen writes in the Strategy Bridge, “grand strategy is a concept rooted in the demands of making strategy in the real world.” Indeed, an appreciation for the nature and pace of change in the international environment, and a country’s place within that system, is central to grand strategic thinking. In formulating such a position, it creates what Hal Brands refers to as “the intellectual architecture” from which more detailed policies flow.

At no other time is grand strategic thinking more useful than in moments when the international order seems to be shifting in unpredictable directions. To suggest that grand strategy is only possible in predictable and harmonious environments is short-sighted. It is difficult to think of many periods in the past two hundred years when statesmen and women anywhere in the world have enjoyed such conditions. Their worlds, like ours, were of ever-increasing interaction and complexity. The planet today is not the first “disordered, cluttered, and fluid realm” that has challenged policymakers, and it would come as quite a surprise to certain statesmen and civil servants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, to be told otherwise.

Understanding Rooted in History

It is well known that the term “grand strategy” was first used in the mid-19th-century Britain to describe the scale of the military activity during the Napoleonic Wars, and has evolved since then through thinkers such Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett, who used the term in the context of maritime strategy, eventually coming to mean something bigger and more all-encompassing than the military sphere. As Basil Liddel Hart described it, grand strategy was a way of thinking that “looks beyond the war to the subsequent peace.” Others, including the historian Michael Howard later spoke of grand strategy as not simply being about “war fighting” but “war avoidance.”

Yet this approach to statecraft — what is essentially a way of thinking about the international system and a country’s place within it — had been in practice for much longer. One could look to Castlereagh, Canning, or Palmerston and find that for them, good statecraft meant conceiving of national interests in a more systematic and synchronized way than the day-to-day business of foreign affairs. Despite their individual differences, all shared an understanding of British national interests as being both shaped by the international environment, and — with good leadership — constitutive of it. They did not set down strict rules of conduct or “roadmaps” to achieve this, but reflected, in broader terms, about the international context in which the state operated and the type of environment that was best suited to its pursuit of prosperity and security. Good statecraft for them, in other words, meant taking the time to think grand strategically. At the core of this was what might be called a “historical sensibility” — an understanding of the nature and pace of change in the international environment — and an effort to craft a foreign policy around the big picture and the long term.

Similarly, when the Fifth Marquess of Lansdowne became Foreign Secretary in 1900, he found the British Empire in danger of being subsumed by a rapidly changing international environment, and rather than retreat into incrementalism, he advocated a strategy suited to present realities. The fallout from the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Fashoda Incident with France in the Nile River Valley, and the Spanish-American War were indicative of an international order that was edging towards an uncomfortable reset. The increases in naval power among the French, Russians, Germans, Americans, and Japanese led the Director of Naval Intelligence to remark that British superiority in the West Indies, Pacific, and Atlantic had “passed away.” As one journalist wrote, “The Empire stripped of its armour, has its hands tied behind its back and its bare throat exposed to the keen knife of its bitterest enemies.” Within this context, the Boer War, which began in 1899, was becoming both a highly public humanitarian catastrophe and an embarrassing quagmire for the country, which exposed an under-trained and ill-equipped military. Thus, Lansdowne did not inherit a “shared worldview among key political constituencies,” which Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller consider a requirement for grand strategy, nor even a shared understanding of the nature and purpose of the empire. Both within and without parliament, the government was challenged by strong opposition to the Boer War and by fierce debates about the future of the imperial project. Was Britain a “benign hegemon” or an illiberal imperial behemoth which needed to be restrained or even dismantled? And what did this mean for the policy of non-alignment which had served the country well for decades? The Cabinet was deeply divided, riven by debates that questioned the first-order principles governing national strategy. In this context, Lansdowne reflected on the precariousness of world order, and the startlingly high stakes modern policymaking had created: “In these days, war breaks out with a suddenness which was unknown in former days, when nations were not, as they are now, armed to the teeth and ready to enter on hostilities at any moment.”

Yet these conditions did not paralyze grand strategic thinking — instead they catalyzed it. The “prejudice against alliances,” which for so long had existed in the highest ranks of British foreign policy, would have to be replaced by a more innovative approach, one based on repairing and developing strategic partnerships. For Lansdowne, the pace of armament and the frequency of international conflicts meant that Britain’s traditional approach — which some referred to as “splendid isolation” — was no longer viable. The remedy, in his view, was a dramatic break with the policy of non-alignment in order to develop a strategic alliance with Japan, and by the end of 1905, Britain’s position on the high seas, as Paul Kennedy has noted, was “more favorable than it had been for the previous two decades.” Closely related was Lansdowne’s desire to repair relationships considered to be of strategic value to the United Kingdom. The Anglo-French agreement of 1904, known as the Entente Cordiale, helped lay the foundation for a cross-channel alliance which would develop in later years, one which had profound effects on the course of World War I. Added to this was an understanding that an agreement with France, as Lansdowne put it, “would not improbably be the precursor of a better understanding with Russia,” a country which was France’s alliance partner and viewed by some in the British government as the preeminent long-term threat. Further afield, Lansdowne initiated a rapprochement with the United States — our “brothers across the ocean,” as he worded it — which resolved longstanding differences between Washington and London concerning the construction of an Isthmian canal and the boundary of the Alaskan territory. The agreements provided a “clean slate,” as Lansdowne put it, which would give way to a “new chapter” in Anglo-American relations.

Nearly four decades later, British statesmen and diplomats, in a fashion similar to their predecessors at the turn of the century, engaged in efforts to assess and shape the country’s place in a future international order. Should Britain — as Secretary of State for India Leo Amery argued in 1942 — forego any interest or commitment on the European continent and instead focus on the Empire? Or would the future international order be structured around regional systems and overseen by a “supreme world council” made up of the great powers, as Minister for Aircraft Production Sir Stafford Cripps outlined in a paper? The Atlantic Charter was fundamentally a product of debates such as these, on both sides of the Atlantic, taking place not from a position of unified strength or certainty, but from its exact opposite. For Britain, grand strategy in these years was not viewed as some kind of intellectual exercise or a form of starry-eyed idealism, but a way of breaking out of thinking about the immediate urgencies of the war in order to ensure the state was able to muster some kind of international influence and relevance in a post-war period in which all but the most optimistic (or deluded) knew Britain would occupy a significantly diminished global role.

Indeed, the history of British foreign policymaking during World War II is one in which diplomats in particular, as products of a historic strategic culture, thought about the future in grand strategic terms. Importantly, this did not mean that documents outlining a “grand strategy” littered the inbox of the Foreign Secretary or Prime Minister. Instead, grand strategic thinking was on display in official and personal correspondence and even in the margins of documents, as diplomats exchanged views, sometimes heatedly, on first-order principles which should guide their policymaking. The goal, as one senior official laid out, was to formulate a “grand strategy of peace.” Among the individuals taking up the task was Orme Sargent, one of the most senior officials within the Foreign Office, who, during a debate in 1940 over a response to Hitler’s announcement of a “New Order” in Europe, wrote that,

Whatever may be the future evolution of modern civilisation, I am convinced that it is essential that we now should stand forth as the champions of individual liberty in thought and action as against the tyranny of the state, economic autarky and totalitarianism.

Or there was Frank Roberts (later George Kennan’s British counterpart in Moscow), who, in commenting on a paper, wrote that “If we are to regard ourselves purely as a European nation, we cannot possibly hope to maintain ourselves even as the first among equals.” British power, he believed, would be ensured by maintaining an overseas empire and acting as “a bridge” between the United States and Europe. Such thinking, far from a beard-stroking intellectual exercise, constituted day-to-day business. As such, grand strategy was not the product but the essence of foreign policymaking.

Crucially, the idea that senior policymakers, even during wartime, would allow international politics to run their course was anathema to those responsible for British diplomacy. When one official warned that the United Kingdom was becoming “a nation somewhat devoid of vision, or of courage for the future of our civilisation,” colleagues responded in turn. Arguably the most consequential diplomat of the period was Gladwyn Jebb, who went on to play a crucial role in the founding of both the United Nations and later NATO. Britain, he wrote in 1942, needed to be “inspired with a sense of its own importance in any world order” and plan proactively to prevent a wholesale abdication of influence within the international system. “What above all we want to avoid is creating the impression that we are a sort of ramshackle Empire … devoid of ideas, and overcome by the difficulties inherent in every proposal,” he said. “Only by making up our minds as to what it is that we really want can we hope to be the master and not the victim of events.”

Long Live Grand Strategic Thinking

The concept of grand strategy has come a long way since it was first used to describe events during the Napoleonic Wars. Originally understood as a way to think about military strategy on a large scale, it came to be seen as a way of thinking about the nature of the international system, a nation’s place within that order, and the way in which national resources might be aligned and utilized to achieve desired ends.

But in recent decades, scholars and practitioners have, at times, over-stated its capabilities while driving at ever-more complex theories about its definition and application. As a result, policymakers have come to think of it as too grandiose and too ambitious for practical purposes. Indeed, if we are to think, as Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller have argued, that grand strategy requires a “common national narrative” uncomplicated by the politics of multicultural states or postcolonial legacies, and if it can only succeed on “predictable terrain” then, by this characterization, the concept should be buried.

Grand strategy, however, is recoverable as an essential practice of statecraft provided that two fundamental changes occur. First, the term should not be thought of as a noun, or a product. It is a way of thinking about the world that amounts to much more than the writing of elaborate strategic blueprints or the search for neat “containment”-esque slogans easily packaged for public approval. Instead, grand strategic thinking should be the very essence of foreign policymaking, an approach that emphasises the need to first reflect on the nature and pace of change within the international environment and a country’s place within that system, and second, to act in a way which values initiative and innovation, as opposed to reaction and listlessness. Its crucial ingredient is a “historical sensibility” — that is, an informed understanding of the nature and pace of change in the international environment — because only with this deep foundation is it possible to craft a set of durable policies that are suitably responsive to the changeability of any present set of conditions, but without being thrown off long-term goals by the gusts and eddies of short-term crises.

Second, and crucially, senior policymakers, especially those who are elected, must see value in the process of grand strategic thinking. The realities of modern policymaking which Lord Ricketts has highlighted — crisis management, the focus on campaigning rather than governing, and the rapid and devolved state of political communication — must not negate the benefits which come from longer-term thinking.  Importantly, to forego such focus and replace it with “incremental” or “decentralised” approaches is to sacrifice a degree of agency which, for leading countries such as the United States, will subject its foreign policy to the will of other powers. It was a logic which British statesmen and diplomats of the past — from Castlereagh to Lansdowne to Jebb — understood at their core. Perhaps more consequential, however, was an innate understanding that at no time is an abdication of influence more dangerous for a leading power than in moments of perceived upheaval, when the sands of international order begin to shift in uncertain directions. Thus, for commentators and policymakers alike: bury grand strategy if you choose, but understand that, in doing so, you bury with it the very essence of statecraft.



Maeve Ryan is Lecturer in History and Grand Strategy and Co-Director of the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London. 

Andrew Ehrhardt is a postdoctoral fellow with the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London.

Portions of this article have been adapted from a forthcoming chapter by John Bew, Maeve Ryan and Andrew Ehrhardt titled “Tracing the Origins of British Grand Strategy” in the Oxford Handbook of Grand Strategy, edited by Thierry Balzacq and Ronald R. Krebs.


Image: Public Domain