The Consistent Incoherence of Grand Strategy

The Consistent Incoherence of Grand Strategy

War on the Rocks

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 withproto-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.

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