The Myth of Grand Strategy

Part one in a series of articles about grand strategy in a 4GW Era

By Fabius Maximus

January 31, 2006

The world is in turmoil. America has wealth and power like no previous nation. We only lack a grand strategy to guide us. Fortunately we have no lack of Grand Strategists recommending that America exert its strength to reshape the world, and providing a vision to guide us.

Since the end of the cold war, the United States has been trying to come up with an operating theory of the world — and a military strategy to accompany it. Now there's a leading contender. It involves identifying the problem parts of the world and aggressively shrinking them.

Introduction to "The Pentagon’s New Map”, Thomas P. M. Barnett, Esquire, March 2003

Barnett adopted this view. Note the beginning of the Preface to the book version of The Pentagon’s New Map:

An Operating Theory of the World

… Over time, senior military officials began citing the (my) brief as a Rosetta Stone for the Bush Administration’s national security policy. …

These are perfect, action-oriented synonyms for the academic term “grand strategy.” It’s a theory to direct our operations, a Rosetta Stone translating our inchoate dreams into concrete plans.

What is grand strategy?

The late American strategist Col. John Boyd (USAF) said that a grand strategy focused our nation's actions – political, economic, and military – so as to:

  • Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.

  • Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.

  • Strengthen our allies' relationships to us.

  • Attract uncommitted States to our cause.

  • End conflicts on favorable terms, without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.

In his essay on grand strategy, DNI editor Chet Richards quoted Boyd as recommending a "unifying vision":

 A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances -- yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems. Such a unifying vision should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things. Patterns of Conflict, Chart 143

As one of Boyd’s closest associates, Chuck Spinney, summarized Boyd’s concept:

grand strategy … is the art of pursuing national goals in a way that improves our nation's fitness to shape and cope with the conditions of an ever-changing international environment. A nation's grand strategy is about its organic vitality and growth ... or in Sun Tzu's words, it is the "road to survival or ruin" over the long term.

Perhaps these views of a grand strategy are too grand. In these the grand strategist resembles Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman, who from nothing creates the beliefs that make a People – or as we would say today, a culture.

Moses, overpowered by the obscure drives within him, went to the peak of Sinai and brought back tables of values; these values had a necessity, a substantiality more compelling than health or wealth. They were the core of life.

The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

Here we’ll consider a modest view of grand strategy, is defining it as a State’s collective policy with respect to the external world.

From a Trinitarian perspective, a state’s grand strategy focuses and coordinates the diplomatic and military efforts of its People, its Government, and its Army.

Primal Strategies

We often see something like a grand strategy in the early years of some societies, when the people have a “single-minded” commitment to a goal, often just a drive to grow. A “primal strategy” is an expression of this people’s core beliefs. It is non-intellectual, with no need for theories and plans.

Rome conquered the Mediterranean world, driven by self-confident belief in their fitness to rule others.

Men like Pizzaro and Cortes conquered much of the world for Spain and Christ.

The British Empire was built by men like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, whose acquisitive drive and energy brought India into the British Empire – often without instructions or even against their government’s wishes.

Nineteenth century Americans felt it was their manifest destiny to extend America from ocean to ocean.

We can describe these as “grand strategies”, but to do so has an element of falsity. Such intellectual analysis, based on theory, had no place in the hearts of these peoples. History also suggests than leaders cannot manufacture a “primal strategy.” You either have it, or you don’t.

Ambitious Grand Strategies – a Chimera for a Global Power

We can only envy these “primal strategies.” The people of a developed western state seldom have a widely agreed goal and the willingness to sacrifice for its achievement. History shows that a mature state often tries to imitate a "primal strategy," a vain attempt to recapture a lost element from its past.

Developed states have wealth, income, and security. They have complex societies, whose elements have a wide range of goals and viewpoints. Their leaders and people have a large degree of cynicism. All of these make a “primal strategy” difficult to achieve. Europe’s last attempt was burnt out of its culture in the fires of WWI.

Even if the people of a developed State could agree on a goal, an ambitious grand strategy remains a chimera for a global power.

  1. It is hubris to believe that any person or small group has sufficient information to develop a plan on a global scale. There are too many complex, unknowable factors. Social factors, such as ethic and religiousdynamics. Plus economic, military, and political factors.

  2. We lack the understanding to process the data into accurate patterns – a plan. That requires a science of sociology developed to the degree of modern chemistry, so that we could reliably predict results of our actions. Unfortunately sociology is at the stage of chemistry in the Middle Ages, when it was called alchemy. In fact, the yearning for a grand strategy is the equivalent to the search for the Philosopher’s Stone.

  3. We lack the tools to implement such a plan, as our institutions are inadequate for such a task.

America emerged victorious, almost unopposed, from the 20th Century due to its industrial might, the bravery and energy of its people, and its superlative internal cohesion. The best that can be said of our strategies is that they did not prevent success. Neither our friends nor our foes consider us to be brilliant strategists.

Barnett’s Grand Strategy

Barnett provides a test for this simple checklist of failure for grand strategies.

Barnett developed his “Operating System” between 2000 and 2003; the Iraq War is its first test.  Note the opening words to “The Pentagon’s New Map” from his March 2003 Esquire article.

LET ME TELL YOU why military engagement with Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad is not only necessary and inevitable, but good. When the United States finally goes to war again in the Persian Gulf, it will not constitute a settling of old scores, or just an enforced disarmament of illegal weapons, or a distraction in the war on terror. Our next war in the Gulf will mark a historical tipping point — the moment when Washington takes real ownership of strategic security in the age of globalization.

Later he expands on this theme.

The only thing that will change that nasty environment {the Middle East} and open the floodgates for change is if some external power steps in and plays Leviathan full-time. … Freedom cannot blossom in the Middle East without security, and security is this country's most influential public-sector export. By that I do not mean arms exports, but basically the attention paid by our military forces to any region's potential for mass violence. We are the only nation on earth capable of exporting security in a sustained fashion, … Until we begin the systematic, long-term export of security to the Gap, it will increasingly export its pain to the Core in the form of terrorism and other instabilities.

At the end of his Esquire article Barnett lists those nations in the Gap, the “non-integrating” part of the world:

Haiti, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, former Yugoslavia, Congo, Rwanda/Burundi, Angola, South Africa, Israel-Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Indonesia.

Two Gap nations invaded (but not out), and only 16 more to go!

Looking forward, he lists candidates for possible future action, the “new/integrating members of Core I worry may be lost in coming years:”

China, Russia, India.

As Carl Sagan would say, there are bil-li-ons and bil-li-ons of people waiting for us to liberate them from their culture. Barnett is, of course, not the first to imagine the big plans for the US military.

With that out of the way, man has turned to the only challenge yet. Conquering other men. … That’s our problem. If you knew, you could defeat any army in the world today with a smaller army. You might say it’s a simple little plan to conquer the world, which I’m sure any politician or militarist would delight in.

The Destroyer # 2, Death Check, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy, page 46

The Iraq War demonstrates the folly of Barnett's ambitious grand strategy.

  1. We quickly floundered due to lack of accurate information. Our preconceptions, based on reports from exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi, proved erroneous.

  2. Our plans repeatedly proved specious, either unworkable or counterproductive.

  3. Our major tools, the State Department and Department of Defense, demonstrated an impressive degree of institutional incompetence.

Barnett’s vision failed in Iraq in many ways, but perhaps mostly in his assumption that they wanted to be like us. Liberating them from Saddam was good, but the recent elections demonstrate that most of the Iraqi people(s) reject our economic and cultural systems.

Is there a plan to conquer the world? Yes, of course. You could conquer the world with 150,000 men. Provided, the rest of the world wanted to be conquered. Hah. You see, it takes the cooperation of the losers. … A brilliant plan that was impossible. Generals like those sort of thing.

Death Check, page 510

Why do Grand Strategies Fail?

General Semantics also sees the world in terms of maps. It is a science of applied epistemology invented in 1933 by Alfred Korzybski. The “ABCs” of General Semantics explain why grand strategies tend to fail, and greater ambition increases the odds of failure.

A. The map is not the territory.

A map is an abstraction drawn from our experience and knowledge. The wider the scope of a grand strategy, the more abstract – the less granular-- its map. Which makes it less reliable. Maps like Barnett’s include the world’s religions, political structures, and economies. No single person or small group has the necessary knowledge necessary to do more than a cartoon sketch of our complex and changing world; and even that will be riddled with errors.

B. The map doesn't cover all the territory.

As Secretary Rumsfeld said so aptly, we face unknown unknowns – significant factors of whose very existence we’re ignorant. These can be like demographics, factors so large and slowly developing that they remain invisible to most of us. Or they might be of a dimension completely unknown to us, like the lead in Rome’s water and wine that robbed them of the IQ margin needed for survival.

C. The map reflects the map maker.

We all have biases, prejudices, and parochial views. These limit our ability to see and think broadly enough to shape a global grand strategy.

America’s Need for a Humble Grand Strategy

The point of this essay is not to compare our performance with an impossible perfect ideal, but to suggest that humility is appropriate when conceiving a grand strategy.

Because, of course, we always have a grand strategy our collective policy with respect to the external world either by design or default.

Perhaps we should consider building our grand strategy on lower, more solid ground. Consider these four principles as the foundation for our grand strategy.

  1. Respect for other peoples, their values and beliefs. We speak of multiculturalism, but often act to impose our “universal values” (aka human rights).

  2. Reluctance to use our power and awareness of our limited wisdom.

  3. Defense in preference to offense.

Defense is inherently the stronger posture, and more appropriate for a hegemonic state like America. A kinetic and unpredictable hegemon disturbs other States – both friends and foes – exacerbating the natural tendency for other States to ally together against a it.

As William Lind said, “So long as we are on the grand strategic offensive, threatening to impose our ways on every one else through military force, we will be defeated regardless of how many battles we win. Like Germany in both World Wars, we will generate new enemies faster than we can defeat old ones” (“Election Day”, October 29, 2004)

  1. Firmness in replying to a clear threat.

Game theory shows that “tit for tat” is generally the most effective strategy. Our system of international law, going back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, justifies military action only in response to an attack by another state not preemptively. The Iraq War is another lesson in the wisdom of that policy.

The remaining articles in this series will discuss these issues in greater detail:

  • Grand Strategy and the Doom of Israel

  • A Grand Strategy for America

A Final Thought on the Nature of Grand Strategy:

 Tom Polhaus: Heavy. What is it?

Sam Spade: The stuff that dreams are made of.

The Maltese Falcon (film, 1941)

Other articles by Fabius Maximus:

“Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq”

“Forecasts for the American Expedition to Iraq”

“Women Warriors” (26 KB PDF)

“The Rioting in France and the Decline of the State”

“The Plame Affair and the Decline of The State”

“Militia: the dominant defensive force in 21st Century 4GW?” (93 KB PDF)