The Myth of Grand Strategy

Summary: What would a grand strategy for America look like? This critiques our current policies and Barnett’s proposals in terms our limited wisdom and power. It ends with recommendations for design of a modest but functional strategy for America.

Grand Strategy


  1. Introduction
  2. What is grand strategy?
  3. Primal Strategies
  4. Grand Strategies are a Chimera
  5. Barnett’s Grand Strategy
  6. Why do Grand Strategies Fail?
  7. America’s Need for a Humble Grand Strategy
  8. Nature of Grand Strategy
  9. For More Information about Grand Strategy

(1)  Introduction

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’ 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.

(2)  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.
  • — From Patterns of Conflict, slide 139.

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 substantially more compelling than health or wealth. They were the core of life.”
— From The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

Here we will 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.

(3)  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 do not.

(4)  Ambitious Grand Strategies are a Chimera for a Global Power

We can envy these primal strategies, but find it difficult to emulate them.  History shows that mature state often try, vain attempts to recapture a lost element from its past.  Several factors make it difficult for us to adopt primal strategies.

  1. The people of a developed western state seldom have a widely agreed goal and the willingness to sacrifice for its achievement.
  2. Developed states have wealth, income, and security — leading to risk-adverse thinking.
  3. They have complex societies, whose elements have a wide range of goals and viewpoints.
  4. Their leaders and people have a large degree of cynicism.

But even if adopted, primal strategies seldom work for developed states.  Europe’s last attempt was burnt out of its culture in the fires of WWI.

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

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 religious dynamics. Plus economic, military, and political factors. 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.

(2)  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 current strategies is that they did not prevent success. Neither our friends nor our foes consider us to be brilliant strategists.

(5)  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 but not yet “integrated”), 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 is a simple little plan to conquer the world, which I am sure any politician or militarist would delight in.
— From 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. We quickly floundered due to lack of accurate information. Our preconceptions, based on reports from exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi, proved erroneous. Our plans repeatedly proved specious, either unworkable or counterproductive. 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

(6)  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.

(7)  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.
  4. 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.
  5. Firmness in response to clear threats.

Game theory shows “tit for tat” to be the most effective strategy in many games. 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.

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“, 29 October 2004)

(8) The Nature of Grand Strategy

Tom Polhaus: Heavy. What is it?
Sam Spade: The stuff that dreams are made of.
— “The Maltese Falcon” (1941 film)

(9) For More Information

See other posts about Grand Strategy here. Of special note:

  1. The Fate of Israel , 28 July 2006 — The limits of grand strategy
  2. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  3. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  4. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  5. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  6. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  7. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  8. Look at America’s grand strategy. Why do we believe this nonsense?,



6 thoughts on “The Myth of Grand Strategy”

  1. Boyd’s criteria for a “sensible grand strategy” (Patterns of Conflict, slide 139), which is intended to connect the destructive elements of tactics and strategy with the constructive purpose of a national goal, doesn’t specify uncommitted states, just “the uncommitted.”

    This could be an important distinction when examining state-vs-nonstate conflict.

  2. Grand strategy does not need to be ambitious or aggressive.

    Estonia’s grand strategy is the integration into the Western community to gain security against Russian annexation that they couldn’t gain otherwise.

    British grand strategy for affairs in Europa was for centuries the balance of power; to not allow a single power/alliance to gain hegemony. They achieved this by siding with the weaker alliance every time to prevent that the wannabe-hegemonic power reached the critical mass for (persisting) continental domination. The other part of the grand strategy was to keep itself protected against invasion by having a strong fleet since the mid-17th century and by supporting allies with small army contingents, but lots of subsidies.

    Saudi-Arabian grand strategy seems to be to avoid decisive conflicts to keep its fragile economic and social system intact. The Sauds are the keepers of the holy cities Mekka and Medina – this alone almost suffices to prevent aggression against their state. The other part of their grand strategy is to befriend the USA to master all troubles that they couldn’t master as easily on their own (and to secure a safe haven just in case they’d lose power).

    The USA could easily adopt a non-aggressive and friendship-oriented grand strategy; the conditions are excellent with a very easily defensible geographic location, powerful and diverse allies/friends and so far no (other) major power forcing an arms race or invading countries.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree on all points.

  3. An admirable essay, Fabius! Would that such a vision could permeate a few minds in Congress.

    However, playing devil’s advocate, I would ask what kinds of actions or interests would be included in a “defensive” strategy? Would not access to critical resources around the globe — like oil, or copper or uranium — be considered part of a “defensive” strategy?

    In an unequal world, where wealth is unequally divided, maintaining the status quo seems to those on top to be purely defensive, but to those at the bottom, it’s otherwise. As between Russia, China and the US, currently, are there any defensive actions which are not at the same time offensive?
    Fabius Maximus replies: maintaining good relations is perhaps the best way to obtain access to resources. After all, resources have no value unless they are sold. The relationship is symbiotic — the opposite of a zero sum game.
    Many of our actions seem threatening to Russia, intrustions into its zone of influence (should not the Monroe Doctrine apply to them as well?).
    As for China, the tensions are imo almost entirely one-sided. They have done nothing that threatens us, unless (as we do) the rise of competing powers is itself a threat. This attitude puts us in the position of fighting the future, the inevitable future. That is one of the few guaranteed to lose strategies.
    Minding our own business is defensive. Welcoming other nations to the club of Great Powers, assuming they act in a benign way, is defensive.

  4. Another way of dealing with competing interests is international law, dispute mechanisms, international courts, etc. Basically the same way we deal with these things within our own countries. A way to settle disputes sensibly, with compromise and basic justice behind it. Legitimacy is the key.

    Another left of field way (not in the political sense but in the “different but can help” way) is NGO’s. Some of which are superb in their grasp of local knowledge and their ability to put limited dollars into real outcomes, far more effectively than many (most?) ‘official’ organisations.

    Humans are like dogs in many ways, but we are worse in that conflict can happen because we are poor at communication (sounds weird doesn’t it). Watch 2 dogs meeting each for the first time, a classic response is going up to each other, heckles risen but the tails wag rapidly .. signal “you can’t dominate me but I dont want to fight”. Then the sniffing and walking round each other. Eventually they settle down and then they will play or totally ignore each other. They have worked out their boundaries. Now how long does that take for humans? Boy we are so superior (ironical smile here). Plus our great imagination takes over, because we don’t communicate, we then start to imagine all sorts of weird stuff about the “other” (despite the fact we are almost exactly the same). How many people know about the great skiing in Iran?

    Fortunately humans are also not very conflict oriented, proven by the amazing way we can cram into very small areas without killing each other (now if we were Kilingons or Kzinti the population would be a -lot- lower). Probably because we are so weak (an adult chimp is 3 times stronger than we are), we tend to be backstabbers, opportunistic killers, killers of the weak.

    There will always be competition, but competition does not have to mean conflict. A human strength is the ability to learn from someone who is out competing you, then catch up (a US speciality by the way). Cutting the corner so to speak.

    So building international cooperation, essentially forcing communication, plus good sensible laws are the way to go.

    So a smart ‘Grand Strategy’, if you are confident you can compete reasonably well, is about building and strengthening these links and systems.

    Keeps conflict down, we have a dispute about something then we have a forum to sort it out in (ref WTO, DOHA, Law of the Sea, etc). Oh and a lot cheaper as well in both lives and money. Stability means more investment in real things (instability mean more speculation, get a quick dollar now), yes I can invest in a 20 year project with a good chance that it will come to fruition and I’ll make some money out of it.

    And yes, freedom is a key component. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean Anglo Saxon style representative ‘democracy’, just a non oppressive, listening, adaptive system (there are many designs possible). Just basic freedoms. All systems face, at times extreme perturbations, the one’s that survive are the adaptive ones. In human systems it means that there is available a pool of adaptive, creative people to do things, lead, invent, etc. If you jail (brainwash, etc) them all, then, when it all turns to custard then you are in trouble.

    Because whoever is in authority today will not be able to deal with the new problems and challenges of the future, so you must have turnover in people. And you must never, ever, oppress those who have different views …. because they might not be right today, but they might be right tomorrow. Diversity IS strength, provided it has a common goal.

    Take the USSR, all the people who could have saved it were dead or in jail or had sold out and given up. So it deserved to die, the fate of all non adaptive systems.

  5. Old Skeptic, I must say that liberals turn for their first, second, and umpteenth recourse to the polite fiction of international institutions. Where nations agree to agree in them, they are already unneeded. Where they are needed is where they will never work. The deceptions by many parties in the other fiction, arms control, should teach you that. When the major Continental combatants in WWI were not only led by kinsfolk, but had elites who knew each other personally, you had better look to your Thucydides for answers. Fear, honour, interest make up the deadly witch’s brew for war, and geographic reality.

    As for NGOs, their record of retarding actual progress in the places where they meddle excuse me help makes me think that they are useful perhaps for local knowledge, but little else.

    Clausewitz recommended defense as greatly superior to offense. As with Sun-tzu we ought to have a massively wider and deeper education in other cultures, so as at least not to blunder horribly if we must strike. I suggest that both humility and resolve come from a hard-edged understanding of what makes up a “vital interest’. George Kennan laid these time and again in his books.

  6. Pingback: Analyzing the Grand Strategy of ISIS | Saif Katana

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