Colin Gray: The Strategist’s Strategist

Colin Gray: The Strategist’s Strategist

In February of this year, Colin S. Gray, the most consequential Anglo-American strategist of our time, died after a decades-long struggle with cancer. He was the teacher of two generations of U.S. and British defense experts. He was my friend and mentor.

Educated at Oxford and the University of Manchester, Colin worked in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom in both government and academia. Among other posts, he served from 1982 until 1987 in the Reagan administration’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. He taught at the Universities of Hull, Lancaster, and York, in the UK and at the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia in Canada. He retired most recently from the University of Reading. Over his fruitful career, he authored some 30 books and countless articles on strategy, arms control, nuclear policy, and geopolitics.

Gray’s somewhat Victorian style of writing was not to everyone’s taste. His prose could be dense. But close attention to his arguments yielded vast rewards because of the quality of his insights, especially in the areas of international relations, geopolitics, strategy and strategic thinking, and strategic culture.

The Scourge of “Strategic Happy Talk”

Some years ago, I coined the phrase, “the era of strategic happy talk” to describe the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union and the American victory against Iraq in 1991. During that period, far too many U.S. policymakers came to accept a vision of the world that accepted the “end of history” narrative, which argued that liberal democracy had triumphed as the universal ideology. While conflict might continue on the peripheries of the liberal world order, the trend was toward a more peaceful and prosperous world. The economic component of the end of history narrative was “globalization,” the triumph of liberal capitalism.

The end of history narrative was complemented by that of the “technophiles,” the technological optimists who contended that the United States could maintain its dominant position in the international order by exploiting a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) based on information dominance. The rapid coalition victory over Saddam Hussein that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait led some influential defense experts to argue that emerging technologies and the RMA had the potential to transform the very nature of war.

Some combination of the end of history and technological optimist story lines exerted a great deal of influence over the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Of course, advocates of strategic happy talk predated the 1990s and include Immanuel Kant, Norman Angell, and today’s “liberal internationalists” who argue that conflict is not necessarily the default position of the international political system.

Gray was a consistent critic of such thinking. He was a “realist,” stressing the importance of power and military security in international affairs, the role of the state as the most important actor in the international arena, and relative power the most important goal. Most modern realists are “structural realists” who believe that the competitive character of international politics arises from the nature of the international political system (IPS)—that is, anarchy. But unlike many realists who contend that all states in the IPS essentially act in the same manner, Gray argued that state behavior is based on the nature of the regime and geography: national style and strategic culture.

Gray was a consistent critic of those who believed that economic interdependence and cooperation had replaced competition in international affairs. Indeed, he noted that the last time the world was as “interdependent” as it is was in the 1990s was on the eve of World War I.

In his memoir, The World Crisis, Winston Churchill mocked the fatuous optimism of the time as it manifest itself during the Agadir crisis of 1911, which although it was peacefully resolved, marked another milestone on the road to Armageddon:

[War] is too foolish, too fantastic, to be thought of in the 20th Century. . . . Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, liberal principles, the Labour party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong.

Gray’s critique of strategic happy talk is anchored in his understanding of human nature as it has operated throughout history. He accepted “the terse judgement” of Thucydides that “fear, honor, and interest” are the motivating factors driving international behavior and that a polity acts on one or a combination of these things to further its own interests.

The Permanence of Geography

A standard feature of the era of strategic happy talk was the idea that international cooperation arising from economic interdependence, “globalization,” and the spread of technology, had diminished the importance of geography. A case in point was Thomas Friedman’s influential 2005 book, The World Is Flat, which argued that interdependence and cooperation had replaced competition in international affairs and that the result would be more or less spontaneous peace and prosperity.

Friedman and others advanced the idea that the role of geography was moribund, and that the pursuit of power in its geographic setting had been supplanted by economic cooperation. For many, the process of globalization was autonomous and self-regulating: Advocates of globalization mocked international relations realists, especially those who suggested that geography possessed any explanatory power in an economically interdependent world.

Gray was a critic of the denigration of geography. Indeed, he played a major role in the rehabilitation of classical geopolitics, having interpreted and publicized the major works of Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, among others, in numerous articles and books such as The Geopolitics of Super Power, in which he stressed the central role of geography, the physical setting of human activity, whether political, economic, or strategic. He agreed with Nicholas Spykman who observed, “Geography is the most fundamental factor in foreign policy because it is the most permanent.”

The geographic setting imposes distinctive constraints on a nation’s foreign policy and strategy while at the same time providing distinctive opportunities. As Gray remarked, in his 1996 Orbis article, “The Continued Primacy of Geography,” geography at a minimum defines the players in international relations, the stakes for which the players contend, and the terms by which they measure their security relative to others.

Geopolitics as Gray presents it makes certain claims: there is an international pecking order, determined by who has power and who does not; power is rooted in the physical nature of the world itself; the power of the modern state has some relation to the territory that it occupies, controls, or influences; resources and strategic potential, the sources of state power, are unequally distributed worldwide; and power is ephemeral—possession is no guarantee of its permanent retention, and therefore states must take steps to ensure its retention.

The geopolitical perspective in international relations has given rise to spatial “pivotal binaries,” categories that shape how we look at the world and that suggest strategic steps to enhance state power. The most enduring of them include: “sea power” and “land power;” “maritime” and “continental;” and “heartland” and “rimland.” Accordingly, adherents of geopolitics contend that the study of the international scene from a spatial viewpoint, by which one better understands the whole, has strategic implications. The main directions of proper strategy may be deduced from an understanding of the overarching spatial relationships among political actors: by discerning broad geographical patterns, one may develop better strategic options by which a state can assert its place in the world. In Gray’s view, geography was a major factor in the “strategic culture” of a given polity.

The Ubiquity of Strategy

Gray’s most important contribution to the theory and practice of national security has been in the area of strategy and strategic thinking. Although much of what he has written seems commonplace today, it is only because his insights have completely suffused and shaped the study of strategy. In his 2013 book, Perspectives on Strategy, he examines what he calls the “whole house of strategy” in all of its inclusivity, complexity, and unity. A holistic understanding of strategic phenomena requires that we examine them through “windows:” conceptual, ethical, cultural, geographical and technological.

Gray acknowledges that the term strategy is often misapplied, overused, and poorly understood. Ultimately, strategy describes how means will be applied to achieve ends, in light of assumptions. Thus, Perspectives is in theory about (neutral) strategy as “direction and use made of means by chosen ways in order to achieve desired ends;” grand strategy as “the direction and use made of any and all among the total assets of a security community for the purposes of policy as decided by politics;” and military strategy as “the direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy and decided by politics.”

Although strategy can be described as the conceptual link between ends and means, it cannot be reduced to a mere mechanical exercise. Instead, it is “a process, a constant adaptation to shifting conditions and circumstances in a world where chance, uncertainty, and ambiguity dominate.” It is a mistake to attempt to reduce strategy to a single aspect, although it is not unusual for writers on strategy to try. Clausewitz dismissed as simplistic the reduction of strategy to “principles, rules, or even systems,” because, on the contrary, strategy “involves human passions, values, and beliefs, few of which are quantifiable.”

Strategy, properly understood, is a complex phenomenon comprising a number of elements. Among the most important of these are geography; history; the nature of the political regime, including such elements as religion, ideology, culture, and political and military institutions; and economic and technological factors. Accordingly, strategy can be said to constitute a continual dialogue between policy on the one hand and these other factors on the other.

Strategy is both a process and product. As such, it is dynamic. It must adapt to changing conditions. A strategy that works under one set of conditions may not work under different ones. To develop and execute a strategy requires that one be able to comprehend the whole and be able to bring the right instrument to bear at the right time and in the right place to achieve the object of the war. Risk assessment is always a part of strategy, both in terms of development and execution. Strategy making in practice requires prudence and adaptability and the recognition that strategy is a “work in progress.”

In his books, The Strategy Bridge and Strategy and Politics, Gray, following Clausewitz, stresses the inextricable link between strategy and politics. Strategy requires direction that only the political process can provide, while the policies generated by the political process cannot be implemented in the absence of strategy. Strategy cannot be understood in the absence of political guidance. Politics needs strategy to implement policy. Strategy always and everywhere has a political meaning.” Strategy is a bridge between political ends and means to achieve them. It is also a bridge between the present and future. If the bridge is competently constructed, it is likely that the ends will be achieved.  As he writes in The Strategy Bridge:

Strategy functions as the only purpose-built bridge connecting political ends with the methods and means for their attempted achievement, most especially the military tools. While the basic function of this metaphorical bridge necessarily is to connect, say, policy and army, the purpose for which this key task is performed is to achieve some degree of control over the polity’s security context. Those holding the strategy bridge are charged with the planning and higher orchestration of the policy instruments that in threat and action should impress themselves upon the bodies and minds of those who ought to be concerned by such behavior. The strategist needs to be able to influence enemies, allies, and neutrals, which means influencing minds and actions, foreign and domestic.

To be successful, strategy making must be an interactive process that takes account of the interplay of all factors. An inflexible strategy may be worse than no strategy at all, as the Germans discovered in 1914 and the French in 1940. As Gray noted, “Strategy is the product of the dialogue between policy and national power” in the context of the overall international security environment.

Real strategy must take account of such factors as technology, the availability of resources, and geopolitical realities. The strategy of a state is not self-correcting. If conditions change, policymakers must be able to discern these changes and modify the strategy and strategic goals accordingly. When strategymakers do not adapt to changing conditions, serious problems can result. As Jakub Grygiel demonstrated in his 2006 book, Great Powers and Geopolitical Change, a failure to adapt strategy to geopolitical change led to the decline of Venice (1000-1600), the Ottoman Empire (1300-1699), and Ming China (1364-1644). Each actor faced changing circumstances, but made wrong strategic choices.

It is also the case that strategy is difficult. It is one thing to theorize about strategy; it is another to apply it in practice. As Gray wrote in a 2003 article for Joint Forces Quarterly, “True wisdom in strategy must be practical because strategy is a practical subject. Much of what appears to be wise and indeed is prudent as high theory is unhelpful to the poor warrior who actually has to do strategy, tactically and operationally.” Recalling his time as a contributor to the Department of Defense’s Defense Guidance in the early 1980s, he noted that its basic direction for the U.S. Armed Forces could be reduced to “be able to go anywhere, fight anyone, and win,” sardonically noting that “to those who do not have to do strategy at the sharp, tactical end of the stick, the bounds of feasibility appear endless.”

Different writers have stressed different aspects of strategy. Clausewitz identified five strategic elements: moral, physical, mathematical, geographical, and statistical. Sir Michael Howard laid out four “dimensions of strategy”: the operational, logistical, social, and technological. In Modern Strategy, Gray, building on the foundation established by Clausewitz and Howard, offered a comprehensive list of 17 factors divided into three broad categories. While some might accuse him of a failure to apply “Occam’s razor” to the problem of strategy, Gray’s exhaustive list demonstrates the complexity of the strategic enterprise.

Gray’s first category is “People and Politics,” in which he treats factors that contribute to strategic culture, such as people, society, politics, and ethics. His second and third categories correspond to Clausewitz’s division of the art of war into two categories, “preparation for war” and “war proper.” The former includes economics and logistics, organization, military administration, information and intelligence, strategic theory and doctrine, and technology; the latter military operations; command; geography; friction, chance, and uncertainty; the adversary; and time.

Gray makes it clear that the development of a coherent strategy is absolutely essential to national security in times of both war and peace. In the absence of a coherent strategy, non-strategic factors, such as bureaucratic and organizational imperatives, will fill the void to the detriment of national security.

Strategic Culture and National Style in Strategy

Gray has been both a proponent and critic of “strategic culture,” the idea that history, political and social structure, and geography shape the strategy and strategy-making process of a state. By applying the notion of strategic culture, analysts attempt to illuminate continuity and change in national security policies, thereby creating a framework that can explain why certain policy options are pursued by various states.

Strategic culture can be described as the distinctive body of beliefs and attitudes of a polity regarding the use of force, which, although persistent over time, can alter, either fundamentally or piecemeal, at critical junctures in its history. More narrowly, strategic culture can be seen as the traditional practices and habits of thought by which a society or polity organizes and employs its military force is in the service of its political goals. Strategic culture is related to but not the same as “national style,” or “a way of war.”

In Out of the Wilderness: Prime Time for Strategic Culture, a study written for the U.S. Department of Defense, Gray wrote:

Culture is of the utmost importance. It functions at, indeed as, the engine of thought and behaviour. Clausewitz tells us that war is a contest between two wills, and the will of a belligerent is the product of moral factors which can be summarized as culture. Sun-tzu was right in insisting on the importance of self knowledge and of knowledge of one’s enemies. Cultural comprehension meets that insistence.

But in Perspectives on Strategy, Gray warned that “although strategy is cultural, it is so only to a variable degree because there is far more to strategy than culture.”

Nonetheless, “customs, beliefs, and behaviours” matter. If one is to understand strategy in practice, one must pay attention to its cultural aspects because the “values and customary practices” of a society, “carry over to its strategic thought and behavior.”

What about American strategic culture? In a watershed 1981 article in International Security, “National Style in Strategy: The American Example,” Gray identified some characteristics of American thinking about nuclear strategy in particular that placed the United States at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. These included a U.S. strategic style that was managerial rather than strategic, a failure to think of nuclear war as war, acquiescence in the loss of strategic superiority, an arms control illusion, and a tendency to misunderstand the nature of the Soviet Union.

Gray was a longtime friendly critic of America’s strategic sense—or lack thereof. In The Strategy Bridge, he wrote of “a black hole where American strategy should reside.” In his 2004 book, The Sheriff (which I reviewed for the fall 2004 issue of the CRB: “Have Gun, Will Travel”), Gray raised questions about the ability of American strategic culture to enable the United States to do its job as a global hegemonic power, for instance, the U.S. penchant for attempting to expand democracy, the emphasis of the American defense establishment on technology as the cornerstone of military “transformation,” and the “risk-averse” character of much of the U.S. military’s uniformed leadership. In Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy, he wrote, “The socio-cultural context [of strategy] . . . has been, and remains, the prime area of strategic weakness in the behavior of the U.S. superpower.”

One of the charges often brought against American strategic culture is that it confuses technological superiority with strategy itself, often treating technology as a strategic panacea. What I have called “technophilia” was a central element of the era of strategic happy talk. While some individuals looked at the RMA as a process, other, less prudent people saw it as an outcome, contending that emerging technologies and “information dominance” would eliminate “friction” and the “fog of war,” providing the military commanders nearly perfect “situational awareness,” thereby promising “the capacity to use military force without the same risks as before.” The U.S. position was therefore akin to what economists call “barriers to entry.”

But Gray criticized such technological optimists for pursuing a “technological El Dorado, a golden city of guaranteed strategic riches” and seeking to avoid the sharp end of war. He writes in Perspectives on Strategy that although “technology is everywhere, all the time . . . it does not directly move history onwards.” Ultimately, the influence of technology is elusive and variable; it may enable strategy, but it should never be confused with strategy itself.

Indeed, as he showed in Strategy for Chaos, many of the most important revolutions in military affairs were not technological in nature. The levee en masse of the French Revolution changed the character of war, paving the way for Napoleon. He was skeptical of the claims of the 1990s RMA advocates, contending that an RMA has to be examined as a form of strategic behavior, meaning that it must “work” as strategy works.

Another factor shaping strategic culture is, of course, geography. Herodotus noted the effect of geography on the peoples he studied, most importantly the Egyptians, Scythians, and Persians. Those who take geopolitics seriously also observe that sea powers and land powers have tended to approach politics and security differently. One notes the similarities among Athens, Great Britain, and the United States on the one hand as compared to Sparta, Germany, and the Soviet Union/Russia on the other.

Gray makes the case for the strategic advantage of sea power. In one of his most important books, The Leverage of Sea Power, he examines the historical confrontations between land power and sea power, from the Peloponnesian War; the defense of the Byzantine Empire; the rise and fall of Venice; the protracted Anglo-French wars (1688-1815); to World War II and the Cold War; he concludes that in modern times, sea power has prevailed over land power because control of the seas confers global mobility. Gray argued that the primary purpose of navies is not to engage in deep-water battles, but to maintain oceanic dominion as an “enabling agent” of victory. The indirect nature of sea power was captured in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s comment about the role of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic War: “Those far distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world.”

Master of Strategy

Of course, Gray has his critics, most of whom reject his contention that war continues to be an appropriate instrument of policy. Most of his critics are standard liberal internationalist who take issue with his realist perspective on war and security. But others have criticized him based on the claim that the very study of strategy itself contributes to war.

Thus, Martin Shaw writes in a 2002 review of Modern Strategy that the

historic perspective defines a critical difference between Colin Gray and his mentor. Clausewitz was a revolutionary thinker, who brilliantly grasped the meaning of war in the light of the new phenomena of his times. He defined a tradition of thinking about war that dominated, for good or ill, for more than a century. Gray is the defender of that tradition now that its time is slowly passing. Converting historic truth into truism, he misses the emergent truths of our times.

And the emergent truth of our time is that if mankind is to survive, we must recognize that war is an instrument whose time has passed, and that as an enabler of war, “that strategy has come to contribute to slaughter on a scale unimaginable even in the bloody era on which Carl von Clausewitz reflected.”

But war and conflict persist. Interwar periods may emerge, but they are not permanent. Experience teaches us the folly of believing that they are. As Gray has written, “Bad times return.” One can either plan for bad times or trust to chance and uncertainty. Sir Michael Howard once remarked that war plans rarely get the future right. However, they must endeavor to ensure that they not get it too wrong. This is the essence of the study of strategy, and there is no better guide to this study than Colin Gray.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.