Home / Articles / “Fifty Shades of Gray”: A Tribute to Colin S. Gray (1943–2020)
Colin S. Gray, a prolific Anglo-American scholar and strategist, died last week after a decades-long contest with cancer. A renowned scholar of geopolitics and nuclear strategy, Professor Gray worked in the United States and the United Kingdom and retired from academia after years at the University of Reading. He authored 30 books and mentored many junior scholars, including myself. Some of his books were complex if not dense, but his insights were invariably profound. He was insufferable to the unprepared and the ill-informed, yet invaluable to the curious student willing to work hard and answer his incessant challenge, “So what?” Undoubtedly, St. Peter has now met his match and been treated to a lecture by Dr. Gray on improving strategic theory inside Heaven’s gates. His scholarship, penetrating mind, and sly wit will long be remembered.
Dr. Hoffman delivered the below remarks at the University of Reading in 2013 at a conference commemorating Dr. Colin Gray’s career and scholarly contributions. An extended version of his remarks was published as “Grand Strategy: Fundamental Considerations,” Orbis (Fall 2014).
My presentation today is titled “50 Shades of Gray.” My selection of this title is not simply to stimulate your attention or our honored guest, as I trust this audience finds the subject of strategy exciting enough. I did so because Professor Gray has impressed upon me a crucial lesson––that strategy is created and conducted in a world of ambiguity, deception and uncertainty; all shades of gray.
My title is also an indirect tribute to Colin and his peculiar propensity to create useful lists, including his noted “17 dimensions of strategy” and my favorite book Fighting Talk: 40 Maxims on Strategy. I sincerely wish that Dr. Gray’s books were as commercially successful as the best-selling E. L. James’s series. There was not a bookstore in London or a train station on my trip that did not prominently display one of her popular volumes. Had Dr. Gray spiced up his theories, he could have retired much earlier. More importantly, we would all be much safer if our civilian leaders had a level of strategic literacy gained by Dr. Gray’s products on the best seller lists. But, alas, the strategic theory is too dry to seduce the general public and our strategy priesthood too cloistered to generate the attention strategy deserves.
Fear not, I do not intend to discuss my amalgamation of Colin’s lists, all 50 shades of gray that make strategy so difficult. Instead I will limit these remarks to eight considerations in the making and employment of grand or national strategy. These considerations represent critical components that both Clausewitz and Colin Gray have sought to teach aspiring strategists as they struggle to obtain their nation’s policy and security interests. It is these eight elements that collectively comprise a holistic understanding of strategy, something our honored colleague has always endeavored to help us appreciate.
1. Context and Culture. The first and principal consideration is a firm grasp of the strategic environment and context in which one’s strategy is to be conducted. Professor Gray has appropriately referred to the sovereignty of context, to highlight its importance. Our comprehension of the strategic context frames our understanding of our adversary and the particular environment in which strategy will operate within. I think it goes without detailed explanation that shortfalls in strategic performance over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan partially comes from shortfalls in our comprehension of the particular context and culture we sought to change. As Bernard Brodie noted two generations ago, good strategy presumes good sociology and anthropology. Both are apparently in short supply today.
2. Compromise and Councils of War. This consideration deals with the development of strategies, and the essence of strategy as a process. What Eliot Cohen once called the “Unequal Dialogue” occurs in these councils. It also addresses the proverbial strategy bridge function in which policy aims and operational options are integrated. The discourse required to create and refine strategies are generally achieved by committees or councils of war. Ultimately policymakers “must weigh imponderables through structured debates that pare away personal, organizational, and national illusions and conceits.” They must squarely face the parochial interests of bureaucracy, accurately discern strategic options, and make choices with imperfect information.
Military strategists must also accept, as Clausewitz stressed with emphasis, that politics more than intrudes in strategy and war. The strategist, who holds the proverbial bridge between policy and military means, must accept the historical fact that purely rational methods are not the norm in crafting strategy. Strategy’s natural spawning grounds are the confluence of politics, complexity, uncertainty, and constraints. As Colin notes in his lucid definition, national strategies are developed to support the attainment of “policy as determined by politics.” This is the best definition as politics influences policy and thus impacts strategy as well.
3. Competitive Strategies. Strategy must be competitive. This is a consideration that Andrew Marshall and others like Dr. Gay have argued for. To be Competitive means that the strategist recognizes that any strategy operates in an interactive and adversarial setting or at least in an environment in which other parties seek their own interests. A competitive strategy respects the choices and options that the opponent can pose. It reflects the reality that war is a reciprocal duel, an interactive exercise of action, response, counteraction. This consideration is the part of strategy making where one considers the relative strengths and weaknesses of one’s self as well as one’s opponent. American strategies do not always give credit to this consideration. Future U.S. national strategies will have to seek relevant and enduring competitive advantages under constrained resources.
4. Coherence. This is the essence of the strategy function, whereby the strategist exploits the comprehension generated from context and cognitively creates a strategic concept and logic that promises to attain policy ends within the means allocated and the constraints laid upon him or her. A good strategy must have an internal logic that ties policy to both ways and means to create desired strategic effects. That logic is a continuous thread of thinking that provides strategic intent and informs ways, and creates linkages in strategic design that then drives operations. Creating and sustaining coherence is the art of strategic practice where the strategist earns his keep and applies his/her creativity and experience.
Coherence reflects the balance and internal logic in the enduring formula of ends/ways/means. Adapting one part automatically alters the logic of that “formula” and the resultant strategy. In another direction, coherence must be sustained across all instruments of national power. The strategic concept divined by the strategist should establish this logic and coherence, and he or she must strive mightily to keep them connected. Colin rightfully calls this the heroic duty of the strategist.
5. Constraints. Strategy is made and executed in the real world, an environment that ultimately deals with constraints. The most obvious of these are time, information and resoruces. War in general, and operations more particularly, are competitive and decisions have to be made in a context that rewards timely decisions and actions relative to the opponent. There are advantages to getting strategy good enough, as Colin would put it, and fast enough to outcycle one’s opponent in the temporal dimension of strategy. By anticipating, deciding and acting with time as the most precious resource, one can create and sustain advantage.
The same is true with information, strategy relies upon intelligence and knowledge of the other side, but as our honoree has stressed the future is not foreseeable and strategy is laid on a foundation of assumption, guesses and genius. The essence of strategy is the resolution of choices, tradeoffs and risks produced by uncertainty.
6. Contingency. This consideration reflects the role of chance in human affairs. We do not fight inanimate objects and real people with ideas and will of their own. I do not need to belabor Clausewitz’s emphasis on friction with this audience, but it exists at more than the operational and tactical level. It exists at all levels, and thus Colin Gray’s emphasis on the need for prudence in risk taking and for adaptability in strategic thinking cannot be overestimated.
Recall the words from another Anglo-American with a strategic flair:
Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations—all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war.
Since we have an MP here, it should not go unnoticed that he failed to list “poorly educated civilian policymakers” in that list, but he was certainly the all too rare Statesman that was deeply read in history and statecraft.
7. Communication. Several speakers have mentioned the importance of narratives in explaining national purpose, myths and goals. It is fairly well understood that creating and sustaining support for a national or grand strategy is fairly well recognized. Strategies need to be sustained by support, and to be sustained, they must be explained. A good strategy is an inspiring document, painting a compelling narrative of a better future and how to get there.
Even if it looks too far out in range or is too airy, it should inspire the subordinate agencies and instruments of power to develop the next more detailed level of sub-strategy. But one of its critical purposes is to establish a narrative that resonates and motivates its principal audience. It is also critical, especially in a democracy, to be able to explain and justify the application of the nation’s purse to gain the strategy’s goals. If you cannot explain a strategy, you cannot sustain it over time.
8. Continuous Assessment and Adaptation. The confluence of contingency and competitiveness produces the need for an additional component—that of constant
evaluation of ongoing operations and continuous measurement of progress. Since strategy is an evolving contact sport, one should avoid what Lord Salisbury called the most common error, “sticking to the carcass of dead policy.” Thus, strategies should be thought of as adaptive in nature. As Henry Mintzberg has stressed, the making of strategy is an iterative exercise that is dynamic, irregular, discontinuous, with learning and synthesis. Likewise, Professor Gray stresses the role of adaptability to deal with uncertainty.
I think that this framework provides the gist of the holistic grasp of strategy that I have learned over the years from Professor Gray. These are the essentials passed on from his prodigious study, with some insistence and urging. The set of eight elements offers a useful guide as well as a set of criteria by which one might critique the formulation of U.S. strategy over the last decade. We have been well advised by our noted and shared Anglo-American strategist, and while I think we’ve been diligent students we might appear to be Sorcerer’s Apprentices in the real arena where strategic performance is all that counts.
The design and use of strategy is rarely a clean cut case of rational choice. It is messy and as Colin stressed often all too difficult. Yet it must be done, but just better and faster than our opponents. As Clausewitz said, in war the simple is not clear or easy. The same is true for strategy. The ability to challenge conventional wisdom, to see through the chaffe and discern the essence of a problem, to uncover illusion or conceit, and craft a strategy that advances security is real work. But it is the best antidote for strategic poverty and the best insurance against catastrophe.
These 8 considerations, what might be irreverently termed the Curmudgeon’s Catechism, provide an overview of what is needed to best design and apply a national strategy. All of these elements are the fundamental considerations I have learned from Professor Gray’s many erudite studies. A proper appreciation of these components will increase the likelihood that national level strategies will have a better chance of success in the coming years.