On a Definition of Grand Strategy

7 December 2010


Month before last, in October 2010, Dr. Patrick Porter of The Offshore Balancer posted Lecture Notes: Grand Strategy, which was a nice summary of strategic thinking. Dr. Porter opened with an interesting quote, which I now quote, along with Dr. Porter’s immediately preceding and immediately following paragraphs:

In a meeting with General Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, presidential candidate Obama said

‘My job, if I have the honour of being commander in chief, is going to be to look at the whole picture. I expect you, as the commander of our forces in Iraq, to ask for everything you need and more to ensure your success. That’s what you owe the troops who are under your command. My job is… I’ve got to choose. Because I don’t have infinite resources.’

That’s it right there, and with that we can probably knock it on the head for an early lunch. But I probably should run out the clock with some details.

This is an elegantly simple way of formulating a central dilemma of grand strategy. I’m not sure if we can call this a definition, sensu stricto, nor do I know if it was intended as a definition (it doesn’t seem to have been intended as such), but it clearly gives us an initial orientation within strategic thought, and Dr. Porter thought that it captured the essence of strategy so well that further elaboration might be desirable but is not strictly necessary.

While the above-quoted formulation is illuminating, I think that it misses something of the first importance, and I will try to explain what this is. I will attempt my explanation indirectly, starting with something that I hope is a little more familiar and, if I may say so, something more personal — even something that individuals may respond to on a visceral level, which is unlikely to be the case with grand strategy, which seems a bit remote and maybe even forbidding. Therefore I will begin with the moral life of the individual.

In the moral life of the individual, intensely personal concerns find themselves confronted by large and abstract principles. It may seem to be prima facie in my interest to murder my neighbor and take his possessions as my own, and so legal institutions are created in order to assure that I will not do so, as I will be made to personally feel the consequences of my actions. Thus a political entity embodies the abstract moral principle and makes it as concrete for the individual as his personal interests. I may choose not to murder my neighbor because I feel that it is wrong, but if I lack this internal check upon my impulses, some political entity may serve as an external check (if it exists; and even if it exists, it still may fail in this function).

To formulate moral and legal imperatives in terms of checks on an individual’s behavior comes naturally, to a certain extent, and it is rather common to think of moral codes as being a list of one “thou shalt not” after another. Thus arises the idea of a moral code as a purely negative imperative, forbidding certain actions and classes of actions. This is superficially plausible, but moral codes do not consist entirely or exclusively of interdictions on behavior, but may involve as many or more injunctions to act as to desist from acting.

In the past I have come across some great examples of morality formulated as a purely negative enterprise, forbidding actions without enjoining actions, but I can’t remember the sources as I write this; I rely on the breadth of my reader’s experience to verify this, as I believe most people have, at one time or another, run across this idea. A little more serious thought, however, should make it possible to see the ways in which moral codes not only forbid actions, but also spur us to action, as when we feel we have a moral obligation to help others in distress.

I am also very interested in the more subtle ways that moral codes shape our thinking about the world. In addition to explicitly forbidding or enjoining certain actions or classes of actions, thinking in moral terms makes some actions “unthinkable” while it makes other actions, which under other codes might be unthinkable, possible. Thus what I am saying is that a system of moral thought plays a role in facilitating certain forms of thought and action, and in so far as certain forms of thought and action are conceived as possible, they become live options for practical deliberation. I would like to write more about this, but I haven’t fully formulated my position. I hope that this sketch is sufficiently clear.

All of this is to point out that grand strategy, despite its reputation as amoral realpolitik, is much like morality, at least in structural terms. If we present grand strategy as being the role of prioritizing limited resources toward unlimited objectives, we will think of grand strategy in strictly negative terms, and this is what the above formulation seems to do. Grand strategy is not only choosing what not to do because of finite resources, it is also choosing what to do. Certainly we must distribute our finite resources among multiple objectives according to our priorities, but we may also choose to undertake some novel and unanticipated objective, even if it means depriving existing objectives of resources.

Grand strategy, like ethics, not only both forbids and enjoins certain actions and classes of actions, but it also shapes our thinking, making certain options unthinkable while making other options possible. Alternative grand strategies may pick out different courses of action as unthinkable or possible. We recall that throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, all-out nuclear war was often simply referred to as “the unthinkable,” but there were people who did not see things that way at all. Castro is supposed to have urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike, even if it meant the annihilation of Cuba, rather than back down in the Cuban missile crisis. For Castro, at this point in his life, nuclear war as in no sense unthinkable (I have read somewhere recently that he has since changed his mind).

A fine-grained account of the possibilities and impossibilities the world presents to us in the light of our doctrine of grand strategy must await a more thorough formulation of the ethical framework sketched above. I will continue to think about this, and will post again on the topic if I can arrive at any improved formulations.

. . . . .

I have further elaborated on the above definition in Choke Points and Grand Strategy.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: