Strategies of Unusual Size
May 6, 2022
I wrapped the 2022 edition of my undergraduate “Grand Strategy” seminar this past Tuesday.
I like teaching the class. I really do. But I have significant reservations about “grand strategy” as a classroom subject.
I’m not at all convinced that grand strategy is a thing. Yes, plenty of people advocate for a preferred “grand strategies.” Not a few of them would love to become the ‘next George F. Kennan,’ which leads to some truly eyeroll-worthy titles.
It’s one thing to point to a proposal, such as containment or offshore balancing, and say “this is a grand strategy.” The problem comes when we try to develop consistent standards – ones that allow us to agree that “yep, that’s a grand strategy” or reply “no, that’s merely big tactics.”
Here we’re talking about prescriptive grand strategies. Things get much harder once we move into the domain of descriptive grand strategy: of books like The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, The Grand Strategy of Philip II, and The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire.
Consider some recent high-quality efforts to make sense of the concept.
First, Nina Silove’s “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of “Grand Strategy” points to “grand strategy as a plan,” “grand strategy as an organizing principle,” and “grand strategy as a pattern of behavior.” In many respects this is a useful typology. People do identify grand strategies with plans, with organizing principles, and with patterns of behavior. But it remains unclear what makes for a grand-strategic plan, organizing principle, or pattern of behavior.
Second, Rebecca Lissner’s “What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield” also offers a tripartite schema:
The “grand strategy as variable” camp seeks to develop analytical arguments that explain the origins of states’ grand strategies and account for their change over time. The “grand strategy as process” camp sees the strategic planning process as the essence of grand strategy and focuses on the improvement and/or generalization of such processes. Finally, a “grand strategy as blueprint” camp outlines prescriptive broad visions for grand strategy, particularly in the United States.
Again, useful. But I’m less convinced by Lissner’s argument that, despite vociferous debate, there’s a working consensus about the meaning of grand strategy.
…two complementary definitions are cited by nearly every major recent study of grand strategy… Paul Kennedy and draws on earlier work… to contend, “The crux of grand strategy lies therefore in policy, that is, in the capacity of the nation’s leaders to bring together all of the elements, both military and nonmilitary, for the preservation and enhancement of the nation’s long-term (that is, in wartime and peacetime) best interests.” …Barry Posen… draws on a similar strategic tradition and offers an even more succinct definition: Grand strategy is “a state’s theory about how it can best ‘cause’ security for itself.”
She argues that these definition fit well together, and quotes Hal Brands:
At its best, then, a grand strategy represents an integrated scheme of interests, threats, resources, and policies. It is the conceptual framework that helps nations determine where they want to go and how they ought to get there; it is the theory, or logic, that guides leaders seeking security in a complex and insecure world.
I can’t think of a single real-world grand strategy – whether descriptive or prescriptive – that comes close to meeting the first definition. Posen’s phrasing is certainly pithy, but I don’t see how it provides much guidance. Brands’ formulation rules out grand strategy as a pattern of behavior – a mistake, in my view, as most work historical work on grand strategy engages in retrospective reconstruction of ‘emergent’ or ‘immanent’ logics.
Third, in the Oxford Handbook of Grand Strategy, Thierry Balzacq and Ronald R. Krebs don’t even bother to offer a common definition. They write that “In short, a unified concept and theory of grand strategy continue to elude us. This surely frustrates those who wish knowledge would neatly cumulate.”
So why do I keep teaching the course? The short answer is that the material makes for good undergraduate discussions. I think that it's useful from a pedagogical perspective; the students find it relevant.
Well, mostly. I’m not a fan of the kind of highly stylized, slightly smug case studies that show up in standard grand-strategy readers. I can never decide what to do with them. I oscillate between “Students should read this material because it functions as background knowledge for some participants in these debates” and “Nope. Absolutely not.”
(This year we didn’t read much of this kind of stuff, in part because I adjusted the course a great deal after Russia invaded Ukraine.)
But enough complaining. I only started writing this because I wanted to share what happened on the last day of class.
I asked the students to identify the most important threats faced by, variously, the United States, China, Russia, or the government of another other important powers.
They all listed collective threats: climate change, pandemics, water scarcity, nuclear proliferation, etc. This is a far cry from the topics that dominate standard grand-strategy syllabuses – including my own.
It’s also almost certainly correct.
I think that the "grand strategy as a blueprint"/"grand strategy as an organizing principle" approach may have some utility in making hard choices easier at the margins by offering an overarching visions that can push back at the margins at the parochial and inertia driven factors that drive much of decision making and even, as Lissnser notes, grand strategy as a process often falls victim to these same parochial and inertial factors.
That said, readers should certainly take the word of a think tanker making this argument with a sizeable grain of salt, as I have strong institutional self-interest reasons to believe this to be the case. I'd think the most banal measurable form of this would be buzzword adoption, which may just be a change of vocabulary with no change in behavior. A more robust test would be to see if say branding the idea of the pivot to Asia began to shift priorities more robustly than had been happening in the lead-up.
For a less flattering to think tanks version of this observation, see Cohen and Zenko's Clear and Present Safety ( https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-america/2012-02-21/clear-and-present-safety ) which offers an argument for why grand strategies produced by think tanks and elsewhere have a propensity towards threat inflation, which could contribute why fewer grand strategies focus on the issues raised by your students.