The State of Strategy

Who's next?

Who produced the greatest strategists of all time, dead and alive? America or Europe?

Before wading into that minefield, we need some criteria, some points of orientation. The key should be a body of strategic theory, writings of general nature. Just making history or writing about it doesn’t count here. That excludes two sets of people who might otherwise be considered strategists or military writers: great military historians — like Hans Delbrück or Douglas Porch — and exceptionally gifted commanders, such as Napoleon or perhaps Petraeus.

First the old strategists of Europe. Most would go by one name only: Clausewitz, Jomini, Ardant du Picq, Hubert Lyautey, Joseph-Simon Gallieni, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, Frank Kitson, Basil Liddell Hart, Robert Thompson, C.E. Callwell, Roger Trinquier, André Beaufre, David Galula, T.E. Lawrence, Giulio Douhet, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Helmuth von Moltke, Engels, Lenin — to be fair in this little contest, we should not include those thinkers who predate the United States, such as Thucydides or Machiavelli.

Contrast this with America’s greatest classic writers of strategy: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, and Samuel Huntington. (I hesitate to count John Boyd; he really didn’t write enough.)

Certainly I missed great men, and perhaps a woman? But historically, it seems, Europe churned out far more strategic thinkers than anybody else. Well, in a way that’s what you would expect from a continent that has produced both the enlightenment and literary achievements of breathtaking scope — and more wars and more bloodshed than any other patch of earth on the planet. An interesting note: given that France lost most of the time, they’re doing pretty well in terms of strategists. Compare that to Russia or Italy.

You think this is a Euro-centric view? It is. The West’s intellectual, economic, and military dominance made it a bit difficult for non-Western strategic writers: they’re either very old, such as Sun Tsu, or former insurgents, like Mao, Marighella, or Che Guevara. (The jihadists’ outstanding writer, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, is really not that impressive. A dumb ideology is unlikely to produce brilliance.) For the time being, we’re still waiting for China and India to come forward with great thinkers, not just tall buildings and cheap cars.

So how about living strategists? Given that America eclipsed Europe in terms of geostrategic weight some time in the first half of the 20th century, and given that the United States attracts the best brains in all fields, you would expect strategic tomes adorned with stars and stripes all over the place. But no.

Among the great living military thinkers in the United States are Peter Paret (born in Berlin and partly raised in France), Edward Luttwak (with Romanian, Italian, and English roots), Eliot Cohen, and of course perhaps the most impressive, Thomas Schelling.

Europe — or rather the UK — has Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Michael Howard, Hew Strachan, Colin Gray, and a few on the continent, among them Gérard Chaliand in France and perhaps Herfried Münkler in Germany. If we liberally count in Israel, there’s at least Martin van Creveld and Shimon Naveh to add to the list.

Again, the list is certainly not comprehensive, and perhaps it tilts too much into history. But whatever the metric, Europe is doing pretty well, then and now. Although it clearly seems we’re past our prime. The same cannot be said about the United States, which is probably still near the height of its power. For that, the strategic record is surprisingly thin. One thing to note is that — if I’m not mistaken — there are only two American goyim among the strategy heavy-hitters, either dead or alive, Alfred Thayer Mahan (a commander also known for crashing ships into stationary objects) and Thomas Schelling (who since veered off into economics). Better do something. Importing promising new strategists from Australia, of all places, is a good start.

But on a more serious note, this brief comparison raises a more pressing question. Why the dearth of strategic writing in recent years? A veritable strategy book should have a half-life of more than a few years, or even decades. Describing events in a historic or journalistic fashion doesn’t do the trick. Merely crunching numbers and explaining some dependent variable also won’t cut it. The academy’s incentives, it seems, are bad for strategy. But strategic thought really should be more interesting that just history or political science: after all it is the art of shaping realities — yours and your enemy’s — not just describing and explaining them, constructivist or whatever.


109 thoughts on “The State of Strategy

  1. Olaf says:

    “For the time being, we’re still waiting for China and India to come forward with great thinkers, not just tall buildings and cheap cars.”

    This is a nice piece to start from: Giri Deshingkar (1998), “Startegic Thinking in Ancient India and China: Kautilya and Sunzi”.

    Also, a look into Jacques Gernet’s (1996), “The Chinese World” is worthwhile.

    You are right that Asian strategic-thought-literature is not easily available, but this is partly due to language barriers.

    Accessible in English, as a more recent example, is Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui (1999), “Unrestricted Warfare”.


    • Thomas Rid says:

      Who, in your view, has not been translated, perhaps from the Chinese, but should be? I’d be curious.

    • Olaf says:

      There is a huge body of military and strategic writing with every dynasty, be that Shang, Song, Tang, or Qing. Some of these texts are collections, a kind of textbooks, which are not clearly attributable to a single author. Wu Zi is one (translated) example.

      But regarding particular authors, I have never found a translation of Wui Jing Zong Yao by Zeng Gong Liang, or the Wu Bei Zhi by Mao Yuan Yi. Perhaps the lengths of these books make it just impossible to edit them.

      Since 1696 strategy, tactics (use of the bow), history, and martial arts (boxing) where taught at the He Bei academy. They too must have used some literature.

      I only suspect that there is much more behind the language curtain. Just a guess.


    • Part of the problem with reading (or trying to read) Chinese theorists in English is that most translators insist upon using the archaic and indeed ludicrous Wade-Giles spelling. (My daughter, who was an East Asian Studies concentrator, claims that Mr Wade and Mr Giles got drunk as skunks one afternoon while working out their system. “This sounds like a B, so we’ll spell it as P! Yeah, yeah, and let’s do T for the D sound!)

      The other part is their odd choices of English equivalents. I long wondered what Master Sun had in mind when he urged commanders to attack the “vacuous.” Those opponents who looked out with a vacant stare, perhaps? Well, it turns out that the word being sought is actually “void” or “gap.” So why didn’t Mr. Sawyer say so?

      Blue skies! — Dan Ford

    • Formerly Grant says:

      They deliberately avoided strategists who existed prior to the United States for comparison purposes. I will admit that the lack of Asian writers in my knowledge could be due to Western-centric bias, but to date the only Asian RMA I can think of would be for insurgencies.

      On Unrestricted Warfare I will agree that it deserves a glance, but I suggest that readers be careful not to fall into the trap of attributing all sorts of stereotypes to Chinese leaders such as ‘they have an inherent sneakiness or a natural ability for traps’. It doesn’t work that way, and thinking it does only serves to prejudice people and suggest that Westerners can’t be clever as well.

  2. Formerly Grant says:

    Not to denigrate, but in my view the established military is inherently conservative. That is to say, until a doctrine has been proven insufficient (and sometimes not even then) the military will continue to use it. Look at how long it took the U.S air force to start using unmanned* planes in combat despite apparently having the technology for decades.
    For the United States, its army did not exactly win the Revolutionary War in a revolutionary fashion. Yes, it’s true that the British army could never hold all of the territory and some justifiable comparisons have been made to insurgencies. However it was several (fortunate) conventional battles and the exceptionally generous support of the French** that gained the colonies independence. In it’s early days the U.S couldn’t be expected in its early days to produce a great revolution in thinking because the military wanted to be European in nature. While the incredible difficulties of fighting the First Nation tribes did cause some short term study and we had Rogers Rangers, those never stuck in the military culture. In contrast, in Europe the constant wars of the 19th century meant that doctrine and technology was constantly being challenged and rethought, with the victors being imitated and losers willing to try risky ideas.
    To put it another way, while the U.S did have constant fighting against first British, then tribes, then Mexicans, then each other before going global, it remained fixed in trying to be European in manner. Perhaps if the South had been victorious in the American Civil War it might have prompted new thinking, but probably not.
    In the 21st century where Europe seems much less likely to get involved in large military matters I think we can expect a shift to South America, Asia and the United States where being European in military matters is less attractive.

    *When will they stop calling it that? Whenever I hear it I think ‘horseless carriages’
    **We’ve done our best to forget it, but for the majority of the war the rebels didn’t do well and without French help I doubt we would have gotten independence.

    • Gunrunner says:

      ”*When will they stop calling it that? Whenever I hear it I think ‘horseless carriages’”

      Actually, the US Military is working on that. The new term for UAV is in flux but will be something like Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) or Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA).

      The reason for dropping ”UAV” was best said by Major General Marke Gibson, USAF Director of Operations; ”We’re dealing with a lack of understanding and knowledge about (UAVs). Because they are unmanned, there is a negative connotation that they are out roaming around like ‘machine sharks,’ but, in fact, they are remotely controlled by a qualified pilot who is in control.”

      General Deptula, HQ AF/A2, supports strongly the name change, as does the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. We are now seeing the name change becoming more accepted and used more frequently–but old habits die hard.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      Actually that is even more irritating than the phrase ‘unmanned’. I’m not trying to be contentious, my point is on the importance of language, and how the words used suggest what the military is thinking.

      With the use of ‘unmanned’ we are primarily saying there are no humans physically within the vehicle. That’s fine, after all the pilots are not in the vehicle. However, the secondary use of unmanned is to imply that this is somehow different, and that the normal fighters are ‘manned’ with pilots in the vehicle. I don’t like it because it suggests the same cultural resistance that we had to cars with the phrase ‘horseless carriages’, where we ignored a superior mode of transportation in favor of something simply because it was what we had always done.

      You would of course think that I would like the change to ‘remotely piloted’ or ‘remotely operated’ because they are more accurate. Indeed, the changes do give a somewhat more accurate description of the future of aerial combat. I am convinced that in the space of a few generations the U.S air force will be comprised almost entirely of such things.

      However, this opens up a new problem. The words ‘operated’ and ‘piloted’ keep the myth that ‘humans will always be in the loop’. We don’t like the idea that we’ll be making machines that think and act more quickly than we can, we’ve got decades of Terminator and the Daleks ingrained in us. But the problem is, this has already happened. P. W. Singer mentions instances in his book* where the U.S military has already relied on machine calculations even when it had the option of humans overriding it. The recent financial chaos was apparently caused in part by computers being trusted by major corporations to make transactions in less than a second, even when the orders given to the computers are erroneous. Words like ‘piloted’ are still holding onto the past.

      In other words, even if we are stubbornly refusing to admit it we have already entered an era where machines will be a vital piece in tactical thinking. Perhaps strategic thinking will remain totally human, but I honestly doubt that.

      The only way I can see for us to keep humans ‘in the loop’ even as the amount of time for thought to occur lessens is to literally plug humans into the loop. That is to say, deliberately blurring the line between human and machine so that humans are actually capable of consciously thinking at the speeds a machine can, I don’t see any other possible solution**. Of course we could theoretically put a ban on the development of machines to do this, but let’s be honest here. That won’t happen. The genie got out of the bottle about ten years ago and it won’t go back to the way it was before. Efforts to change that would probably be about as good as 19th century efforts to ban machine guns.

      On another note, as a point on language I had to keep rethinking what I was typing so that I could try to give the right implications and connotations. People don’t pay enough attention to words.

      *Wired for War. I don’t think it’s as good or thorough as it could have been but it’s better than narrow technical reports or overenthusiastic news articles.

      **We already give people prosthetics to replace limbs and several (expensive) advances have been made in connecting paraplegics to the internet. Give perhaps half a century to be commercially viable and I don’t see how that could be stopped from going mainstream.

    • Gunrunner says:

      Very interesting and compelling arguments. I have a point to raise, however.

      “I am convinced that in the space of a few generations the U.S air force will be comprised almost entirely of such things (UAVs).”

      Yes, a lot of people think that might be the case. Unsurprisingly, I differ. We can’t field a 1-G, 2-dimensional 25-knot unmanned or autonomous tank on a battlefield. Can’t do it now or in the near future. Same for ships. Therefore, until we can, the ability to field a multi-G, hyper-sonic, 360-degree maneuvering aircraft in the most complex battlespace we have, it is not reasonable to start writing the obituary for piloted aircraft.

      I think this because unmanned (remotely piloted) vehicles are limited by data inputs—unless you have a “virtual” 360 degree holographic “presence.” Autonomous operations are more limited because machines don’t have judgment.

      I postulate that while machines can make decisions, even informed decisions, they can’t make judgment calls. In my view, machines are essentially linear in their processes whereas human have the ability to be intuitive, and because war is not linear and waging war requires intuitive decision-making based on factors and influences beyond what mere sensory inputs tell you, manned (piloted) aircraft will be around for a very long time. For the foreseeable future, I think.

      I look at it this way; unmanned systems in an air war are great for a permissive environment, or one where they are supported by manned systems, but unmanned (or total autonomous operations, like the Boeing X-45A) in contested airspace is far, far into the future simply because machines can’t “think.” They can process information and come to a decision, but they can’t replicate the intuitive thinking actions (judgments) of a pilot. While both a pilot and a machine may “learn” from experience, it is how one applies judgment to that experience is key. Basically, machines can’t function intuitively, as good pilots must do on every flight, let alone during the massive confusion of combat—not yet, anyway.

      In my opinion, of course.

      I do like your thought about plugging into the aircraft. That would be cool. In fact, more than a few years ago there were projects evaluating concepts like that. Technology wasn’t far enough along to support a viable RDT&E project, but it may be now. Who knows, we may by-pass all the hardware and jump straight to “remote influencing” (as initially developed as a concept by Ingo Swan and the US Government’s “psychic spy” efforts).

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      I share your doubts but perhaps for a slightly more basic reason–the USAF (and most other nations’ air forces”) are not surprisingly dominated by those “magnificent men (and women of course) and their flying machines” with all the rights and privileges thereunto pertaining (such as natty flying suits, impressive watches and sunglasses, endearing call sign- derived nicknames, etc.). As such, they are very protective of their “right” to punch holes in the sky while consuming massive quantities of jet fuel (we won’t even mention those incredibly evil “carbon footprints”) and having great fun (usually) at taxpayer’s expense.

      We have seen the same phenomenon in the NASA arena as well—of course guess where the bulk of all space pilots come from? One also only has to look at the culture within the USAF during the Cold War that had such nuanced castes between the various “real men (and later women)” and their pallid counterparts burrowed deep within their missile silos.

      These embedded and institutionalized power structures extend throughout the operating forces and into R&D and procurement (just as in the Navy with the ship drivers) so it will take a few generations more to cleanse the “system” in favor of the upcoming virtual/cyber pilots even now perfecting their craft in their darkened basements on their very expensive (but fast) gaming computers. ;-)

    • Gunrunner says:

      My. . what will we do with those nifty leather jackets if we zipper-suited sun-gawds aren’t at the controls of some death machine and no longer slipping the surly bonds of earth and touching the face of gawd (another ho-hum day at the office).

      What will we do then. . .call gawd, collect?

    • It was amazing to hear the protests within the Army (several years ago) when the one-piece Top Gun suit got nixed in favor of a two-piece variety. I didn’t know that many people enjoyed wearing pajamas to work.

    • “The new term for UAV is in flux but will be something like Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) or Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA).”

      “Drone,” I suppose, has the fatal disadvantage of being readily understood. Blue skies! — Dan Ford

    • Formerly Grant says:

      Normally I would suggest that we just use drone the same way we use car, but drone also has some negative connotations (in English at least). It suggests a lack of individuality, conformance and acting purely on orders. In a military setting that actually might be a good thing, but it doesn’t sound quite as palatable to a Western audience. Maybe ‘predator’ will be used or maybe the machines will get their own name similar to tank.

      …And I think we’ve gotten well off topic. Sorry about that.

  3. Pericles says:

    I don’t like the term RMA itself, but pre-20th century there are Asian RMA’s all over the place-the invention of gunpowder, the combination of the horse and composite bow, the Chinese evolution of siege warfare, Chinese multiple-loading crossbows, Korean turtle ships.

  4. Steve Metz says:

    I find it useful to distinguish strategic theorists, practitioners, and leaders, and to think of strategy in terms of a vertical and horizontal dimension (I lay this out in the introduction to Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy). I also think that there is a cultural element–some cultures seem inherently more receptive to thinking strategically than others. And certainly a personal psychological dimension as some individuals are more receptive than others. Finally, it is context specific: Europe has produced more great strategists than America because threats were constant and close, making security a more pressing issue.

  5. Gunrunner says:

    John Boyd not writing enough?

    Just me talking, but I don’t think “volume” should be confused with quality. The impact of the strategist should be the criteria, I think.

    I’ll comment on John Boyd from the perspective of a retired fighter pilot: His theories, doctrine, aerial strategy and essentially every aspect of his life shaped the entire western world’s approach to fighting. John was a visionary, a true man of, dare I say it, heroic courage to break the mold, to think beyond the usual strategies and tactics, to bring to the fighter world a whole new way of looking at aerial combat, and in doing so, shaped the western world’s warfighting thought processes. In fact, his OODA-Loop concept has application beyond aerial combat and applies to any scenario, any medium.

    John’s theories shaped Col John Warden’s thought processes. Col Warden was a student of Boyd’s, closely studied the man’s work. Because of Boyd, Warden advanced the art that led to stunning Gulf War I successes. Since Giulio Douhet first envisioned air warfare as breaking the enemy’s will to fight, Boyd’s groundwork proved him right.

    In Gulf War I, I postulate, air warfare was the “primary fire” and ground warfare was supporting, and moreover, other than a few short battles, after the first part of the air campaign, the enemy’s capability and will to fight was essentially gone.

    Su Zu had not written much (that survived, actually), and given John Boyd spent his entire life dedicated to advancing the art — with untold millions of squadron, wing, Air Force, Headquarter and school brief’s, lectures, white papers, staff summary sheets, coordination memo’s, think pieces, professional military school papers, etc, it could be argued he did write a whole heck of a lot. His writings are now either buried in the archives, shredded, embedded in lectures and tactic books. John’s writings are not bounded in a lot of book’s with his name as author. Boyd’s writings are the men he led and shaped, and their results achieved. Now, that’s writing volumes.

    So, to me I think he ranks right up there with the “best” strategists. I also think it could be agued he should be ranked first, if only because his moderns theories have been combat tested and proven.

    But then again, I am biased (sat though a couple of his brief’s/lectures and he is a semi-gawd in the fighter world).

    *I usually don’t recommend Wikipedia, but they do have an excellent piece on John Boyd:

    Say, week before last I was in London and it was COLD. Today I land this morning on a return trip and it is HOT. Argh. . .one can never pack correctly when coming to London. ;-)

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      No doubt Col. Boyd would have never gotten tenure among some of our august KOW blogging academics given the paucity of his “writing.” ;-)

  6. Marc says:

    “Why the dearth of strategic writing in recent years? ”

    Now there is an interesting question.
    Was the body of writing in this field indicative of our rather warlike culture and the current dearth is due more to the fact that Europe is slowly aging, no longer able to wage war the way is use to, and as such, no longer able to produce such thinkers?
    Or is it due to rapid changes in society that are leaving any possible writers somewhat stuck as they try and understand the implications of such change?
    Or could it be that all we really need is a big series of wars to rampage across Europe and/or America before we get our creative juices flowing?

    Anyone seen any ambitious Corsicans around lately?

  7. Steve Metz says:

    Personally, I don’t think there has been a dearth of strategic writing in recent years. There may be a dearth of receptivity to strategic writing, in large part because the strategic community and the attentive public is focused on the “close fight.”

    • Thomas Rid says:

      There is probably not a general dearth of strategic writing in recent years. After all so many academics, officers, journalist — let alone those pesky bloggers — write about the subject. But I would be hard-pressed to name a genuine strategy book written in the past years that will still be important in one or two decades. But then it may just take time to recognize a classic. Or, more likely, I just missed it.

      Interesting points you make above, about the role of geographical proximity, culture, and context.

    • Right on. A combination of a focus on the fight at hand and a shift of loyalties – either to the global market or the immediate subnetwork.

  8. Steve Metz says:

    I think recognition is the key. Clausewitz was not an instant classic. And I also think you’re on to something that it may no longer been books that matter, but collective bodies of work in multiple media. In that sense, Boyd may have really been ahead of his time.

  9. Thomas Rid says:

    Well, I hope you’re not right. Not just because I’m a book nostalgic, but because I think you actually need more than 10,000 words to make a sensible argument. Boyd ahead of his time, hm. Didn’t we just see what PowerPoint can do?

  10. Somewhat provocatively, or because I’ve had one too many in the sun, a concept that applies ‘to any scenario, any medium’ seems too vague to be truly valuable. Any action has a reaction; what goes up must go down, etc. And here I purposefully include the OODA loop. I can’t say much about John Boyd in general, but the whole OODA loop thing always struck me as overrated (or self-evident).

    • Gunrunner says:

      Too many in the sun? Well, being it is darned hot and sunny in London, you just may be around the corner!

      To the point about self-evident truths, we have seen much common-sense and self-evident truths to be less common and less obvious, such as Su Tzu advising it is best to attack enemies where they are weak. Simple and obvious but actually ignored for several millennia. Perhaps it is the ability to stitch together the argument and influence that should be factored when deciding pivotal strategists.

  11. Steve Metz says:

    We need to remember that Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, etc., were not writing in a market environment. I doubt they could find a publisher today. Mahan maybe because the Navy mafia and defense industry would have liked it.

    Even university presses look for commercial viability these days, making it hard to find a venue for complex, breakthrough works. Instead we end up with pop strategy like Barnett.

    • Guy says:

      Well Mahan wrote in a market environment- his book was a bestseller! Indeed one of the criticisms of his books and articles are that they were squarely aimed at policy makers and the public rather than at professionals (contrasting to Corbett). As I’m sure KCL’s very own Andrew Lambert could tell us all. ;)

      I’ll throw out a thought. Perhaps the dearth of current strategic books recently is due to the democratisation of western cultures. Democracies are inherently politicly unstable and what might be the ‘strategy’ of one government might change in only a few years with the new government. Consequently there is a lack of long-term though, maintenance of aim etc.

  12. I found the following while searching around the blogs that I follow some time ago and thought it interesting:

    “Since Weber, a giant of Western political science, made this observation in 1919 and, given the fashion for non-Western books on war like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the neglect of the Arthashastra in the United States is surprising.

    What is the Arthashastra? It is one of the few complete books on statecraft ever written. It is the collective wisdom of centuries of Indian thought on statecraft distilled into one handy volume. The Arthashastra covers governance, law, internal security, economics, foreign policy, diplomacy, covert operations, and war.

    The book is attributed to Kautilya, also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta. Kautilya was the mastermind behind the rise of Chandragupta Maurya, India’s first great conqueror. Kautilya, the story goes, was a professor at Takshashila University. He was thrown out of the royal court of the Nanda empire and swore revenge. He found Chandragupta along the road as a small boy, dispensing justice to other boys. After acquiring Chandragupta from his mother, Kautilya proceeded to train him in the arts of statecraft, intending to use the boy as the instrument of his vengeance. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s Indian incursion in 326 BC, Chandragupta and Kautilya destroyed both the Nanda empire and the Macedonian satraps Alexander left behind. By the time he reached the age of twenty, Chandragupta had conquered this much of India:”

    Well, that’s cool, yeah?

  13. “Given that America eclipsed Europe in terms of geostrategic weight some time in the first half of the 20th century, and given that the United States attracts the best brains in all fields, you would expect strategic tomes adorned with stars and stripes all over the place.”

    If that is the situation, then what do the tomes matter? Or maybe, our best strategic thinkers don’t write for some reason?

    Just trying to pull all of that apart, a bit, that’s all. There must be some reason for it? How about that old lazy intellectual standby: culture?

  14. Well for one thing, how many European countries feel they need real strategy? Britain has a lot of the great living strategists, but then Britain seems to already be one of the more strategically-minded European countries. If there isn’t a demand for strategy among policymakers, then it’s hard to imagine great or enduring works of strategy being written, or at least, attaining any prominence until some time in the future when policymakers change their minds.

    As for the US, for a lot of our history we seem to have been too idealist or insular to feel as if we needed a grand strategy. So there has been a paucity of demand on our end historically – and it’s definitely correct that a lot of our grand strategic or even geopolitical thinking comes from European immigrants or people heavily influenced by European thought. I’ve also heard muttering from lifelong diplomats and officials at the DoD that even after WWII, the Cold War, and today’s challenges, American policymakers either have too much faith in American ideals (democracy, free markets, human rights, etc) or technical superiority to replace serious grand strategic thought.

  15. patporter says:

    there are quite a few serious American strategic thinkers about: Richard Betts, Stephen Biddle, Christopher Layne, Angelo Codevilla, Barry Posen, Colin Dueck, Jack Snyder…

    I’d say that in terms of intellectual output and sophistication, American strategic thinking is at the top of the league. They haven’t had the blessing that the UK enjoys, of seeing strategic studies supplanted by human security. Oh Tempora, oh Mores.

  16. MF says:

    Strange that no one has mentioned Julian Corbett, who in a number of ways is a Clausewitz Mk. 2 or rather a continuation of the Clausewitzean approach to the point that his writings have considerable contemporary relevance.

    • True, Corbett should be included. Svechin, Mao, Schelling, Galula and Rupert Smith are also continuations of Clausewitzian thought/approach in that they are all compatable with Clausewitz’s general theory.

  17. Noonan says:

    Thomas: Re: Aussies, if that is the case the U.S. selects Michael Evans from Canberra with our first round pick.

  18. Round the traps says:

    Speaking as an Australian…who on earth were you thinking of? As current strategic thinkers, I’d suggest Michael Evans and Rod Lyon, but after that the list is pretty thin. Australia doesn’t have a tradition of strategic studies: rather, peace studies in the 1970s-1990s and human security (now in the form of ‘national security’) have dominated universities, and the military is overwhelmingly tactical in outlook.

  19. Christopher says:

    Steve Metz, who has commented on this thread, certainly ranks (subjectively, of course) among the top 25 (and probably top 10 or 15) strategists in America today.

  20. Daniel D says:

    I will agree with Gunrunner about John Boyd, his written work is small but if you watch his power points in conjunction with audio of his lectures its obvious he was seeing a lot further ahead than others. In addition his influence on the US military is huge, even outside the airforce, you can find people discussing him in all areas and as such I think he would be one of the more brilliant (and effective) strategic thinkers of our time.

    Persoanlly I also prefer Luttwak, Van Vrevald and I had Chaliand for two years as a student and found him to be brilliant but you needed to know where he was coming from to get the most from him.

    Persoanlly I cant stand Grey.

    I also agree with the “publish or perish” angle on quantity and quality, many of todays writers are just churning stuff out, nothing really new or interesting which partially runs into why there might not be a leack of advancement in the study of strategy.

    Also the academic grind aside straegy might be facing the same factors as people have discussed in the field of science being that the basic principles have been discovered or explained and now its a slow process of revision and nothing much more, breakthorughs may come but they will be less and less.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      I’m not so sure how much we should listen to Luttwak. I remember an article for by him that argued we should be focusing heavily on strategic bombings in warzones like Afghanistan with (in my opinion) incredibly poor reasoning. Also a New York Times op-ed with apparently poor research.

    • Daniel D says:

      Im less for Luttwaks specifics and more for his overall approach to thinking about strategy, all strategists can have a bad day but his book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace convinced me in regards to strategy in general.

  21. Tom Wein says:

    Some of our classic works of strategy aren’t about war, but rather deal with statecraft more generally (Machiavelli is the most obvious example). I wonder if wider disciplines might hold some hidden classics. The business world has drawn extensively on military strategy, and it’s certainly where the greatest volume of strategic writing is produced (it’s also the field in which the US traditionally excels). I wonder whether there are a few great works there that we simply aren’t aware of.

    • Tom – in which case, let me offer up that master strategist, Will Carling, whose ‘The Way to Win: Strategies for Success in Business and Sport’ surely deserves a place in our pantheon of greats…

  22. Nice post, though I have to make two remarks. First, mixing historians and strategists is a bit problematic. Nonetheless, Herfried Münkler, for instance, is neither an impressive historian nor a great strategist. In his most important work, he is simply copying Mary Kaldor (who strangely did not make it to your list). And second, this is a short one, you might want to add David Kilcullen.

  23. David Betz says:

    Thomas and David U, I think you’re wrong on Boyd who I reckon belongs in the first rank, most defintely. I heartily recommend the very short book on Boyd by my MA student Daniel Ford ‘A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, The OODA Loop, and America’s War on Terror.’ It’s based upon his MA thesis. Dan spent a huge amount of time with Boyd’s papers and books and collecting his lectures. Boyd apparently used to write all over his books using shorthand. Dan, who learnt to decipher this marginalia, writes an amusing bit in the book about Boyd’s views of other strategists. Luttwak’s paradoxical logic of strategy was crap, apparently. (Not in my opinion though, it’s one of the key texts in my strategy course). I also second whoever it was above that noted Julian Corbett really ought to be on the list. ‘Some Principles of Maritime Strategy’ is required reading. Anyway, for me, top three of 20th century: Mao, Schelling, and Boyd.

  24. Hi gents,

    Wonderful post!

    Regarding Col. Boyd:

    “Didn’t we just see what PowerPoint can do?”

    Boyd had slides, if not slideware, but they were generally the antithesis of how .ppt is misused and abused. While some had too much text, Boyd’s point on a given slide was generally clear, coherent, connected to theme and narrative and were mercifully free of visual clutter and neon colors. In a brief, Boyd was teaching and asking questions to stimulate thought and debate and take challenges to his own ideas.

    What impressed me and drew me to Boyd’s ideas was his explicit connection of strategy to the brain’s cognitive processing and cognition to empirical reality and also cultural evolution.

    Col. Frans Osinga, PhD captured Boyd’s strategic philosophy about as thoroughly as anyone could have:

    This is not to say Boyd got everything right or is the last word in strategy. Some of his criticisms of Clausewitz were excessive, for example, but Boyd was attempting to explain or theorize about strategy as a holistic process, which was his significant contribution to the study of war, in addition to his aerial tactical study

    • Quintin says:

      On reading Destruction and Creation, I’m struck by the peculiar manner in which Boyd draws on the theorems of Gödel (in the field of Mathematics), the Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg (in the field of Quantum Physics) and the Second Law of Thermo-Dynamics (attributed to Carnot).

      First of all, these knowledge blocks in the fields of Mathematics and Physics were never intended for extra-disciplinary application, nor tested for such applications. Each has a discrete application in a well-defined and restricted area.

      Secondly, the above were also never intended to be amalgamated or synthesized with one another, nor were they tested for such an application.

      Finally, these are complex Mathematics and Physics devices, and two of them (Gödel and Heisenberg) are based on paradoxes (therefore with no known answers). Gödel’s theorems could be (extremely) generalised to an instance of the “Liar Paradox”, i.e. “This sentence is false.” Heisenberg is even more complex, as it deals with Wave-Particle Duality (much more than velocity and position of sub-atomic particles) – that is, a sub-atomic entity can either be energy (a wave with no known position) or mass (a particle with no known velocity) at any point in time. This relates to the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, (devised as a means to challenge this Duality – also known as the Copenhagen Interpretation), wherein Schrödinger illustrates that, given certain circumstances (the elevation of this Duality from the Quantum level to everyday life), we’re faced with the paradox that a cat (by way of example) could be in both dead and alive state simultaneously – and it is only by opening the “box” that the state is fixed by the observer. I am assured that no cats were harmed in the process – it is only a thought experiment.

      My point being… there is a lot more to these theorems, principles and laws than what meets the eye – and I have to question the validity of the use of these as parables. I notice in his bibliography that he did read Kuhn (which would have been more appropriate in my opinion). Pity that he didn’t draw on Easton’s System Theory (1965) – but perhaps OODA would not have shown up to be as distinct as it does nowadays, when based on another loop.

    • Quintin – I’m with you. It’s interesting, and surely correct, to see connections between strategy and cognition – but I think Boyd goes off the deep end here. Clausewitz’s work, not least in his concepts of friction, genius, and passion contained much intuitive psychology of enduring value. Boyd I find less convincing, and not just because he’s engaged in some hardcore maths when he might have found more salient findings in cognitive and social psych.

      But, I’ll say this about Boyd – he’s certainly more interesting to read than the run of the mill.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      Of course we need to consider Boyd’s contributions (or I suppose his much more learned–e.g., degreed, published and tenured–critics might say distractions) in the context of his rather plebeian background and personality (this from his Wikipedia bio….erm.., CV:

      “Boyd was born on January 23, 1927 in Erie, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor’s degree in economics and, later, after an extended period as a fighter pilot, from Georgia Tech with a Bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering.

      Boyd enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Army Air Forces from 1945 to 1947. He subsequently served as a U.S. Air Force officer from July 8, 1951 to August 31, 1975.[3] He was dubbed “Forty Second Boyd” for his standing bet as an instructor pilot that beginning from a position of disadvantage, he could defeat any opposing pilot in air combat maneuvering in less than forty seconds. According to his biographer, Robert Coram, Boyd was also known at different points of his career as “the Mad Major”, “Genghis John” for his confrontational style of interpersonal discussion, and as the “Ghetto Colonel” for his spartan lifestyle.”

      Thus it should not be surprising that he appears to have approached these heady and, apparently from some of the very deep thinking evident in this thread so far, esoteric matters in the linear and concrete fashion one might expect of a combat fighter pilot with merely an engineering (gasp) “training” background from rather pedestrian “technical schools.” ;-)

    • Gunrunner says:

      “. . .from some of the very deep thinking evident in this thread so far, esoteric matters in the linear and concrete fashion one might expect of a combat fighter pilot . . .”

      Might replace “linear” with “reality-based” (So says a former A-10 and F-15E fighter pilot)

      Just me talking. . . . ;-)

    • Yes, but g/r, the whole issue is one of ‘reality’, or rather ontology. As a starter for 10, how applicable is a theory conceived in the tactical circumstances of aerial combat to the wider strategic pursuit of goals through conflict? Beyond a banal injunction to look before you leap?

      An enemy aircraft manoeuvring for the kill either exists or does not – the balance between, say, order and justice as political objectives is somewhat trickier.

    • Gunrunner says:

      Good question: “how applicable is a theory conceived in the tactical circumstances of aerial combat to the wider strategic pursuit of goals through conflict?”

      All conflict is local, to twist a well known Tip O’Neal phrase. Essentially, every action from the tactical to the operational to the strategic should be interrelated, contributing to the wider political objective.

      Tactical engagements are strategy in the flesh. Immediacy of result is the only real delta between the two, in my view.

    • Quintin says:

      “Tactical engagements are strategy in the flesh”… yes, we could say that. But what are we going to do about all those instances where Player A had “won all the Battles, but lost the War”?

      I am of the opinion that your view relegates Strategy to being little more than a super-sized Tactic – (or a slower one) and I think that your view may be influenced to that extent by Boyd. Would that be a fair comment?

    • Gunrunner says:

      Possibly a fair comment, perhaps. But I rather think I elevate “tactics” rather than “lower” strategy.

      It is indeed possible, and has been done, to win all the battles but lose the war. However, in that case, the strategy, the over-arching strategy, was not correctly implemented, because if it were, then the right engagements would have been won to effect the win, or better said, center’s of gravity are correctly identified as essential to the adversary and successfully attacked. In that case, you win the battles and the war. Must do both.

      Of course, it may be the engagements were won in accordance with the strategy but the strategy was wrongly formed.

      Just a thought. . . .

    • Gunrunner says:

      And yes, without question, you are right. . .I was heavily influenced by Boyd.

    • Quintin says:

      A question then, if I may… as an ex-driver of the F-15e, are you 100% convinced that the F/A-18 is a better craft?

      The following two quotes are from the Wiki article you’d recommended in an earlier post:

      Regarding the F-15: “even though its final product was larger and heavier than he desired”

      Regarding the F/A-18: “Together, they [Boyd and other] were the visionaries who conceived the LFX Lightweight Fighter program, which ultimately produced both the F-16 and F/A-18 Hornet, the latter a development of the YF-17 Light Weight Fighter.”

      Just curious.

    • Gunrunner says:

      Hi Quintin,

      All fighter pilots love to talk about themselves and their jets. . .it’s in our nature.

      To your question: “are you 100% convinced that the F/A-18 is a better craft?”

      First off, let me begin with a “better” assessment related to the F/A-18 versus the Eurofighter. F/A-18 is unquestionably better in all areas and the reasons are many. The Eurofighter is a solid 4th generation jet, no question, but it is also a great “shoot-me-first” jet in a 4.5 – 5th generation environment.

      The Eurofighter has no network enabling capability. Network enabling is essential for comms out and multi-ship coordination/de-confliction and advanced weapons. The F/A-18 as upgraded has enhanced 4th generation capabilities on all fronts, too include network enabling and enhanced weapons, as well as limited 5th generation modifications and some LO capability due to composite designs and materials (hence the “4.5” designation).

      The Eurofighter is not a “bad” jet, it just was a victim of European acquisition laws and regulations. European acquisition is not flexible or adaptive, meaning that when a product is being built it must be built strictly in accordance with the original contract. European acquisition laws provide little to zero opportunity for upgrading the jet while it was being developed, tested and manufactured. Because we are talking decades between initial design and IOC, this is a serious weakness.

      Consequently, the Eurofighter was obsolete before the ink was dry the day the contract was signed. Yes, of course, all jets are obsolete the day a contract is signed, but US acquisition law and regulation more easily allow upgrades and enhancements as the years-long process begins and technology matures. This is done through regular periodic program reviews that evaluate not only the status of the development and manufacture, but also assess for inclusion technology upgrades to airframe and avionics, weapons and other hardware/software improvements. For example, for the F-22, the jet was about 80% fleshed out when the contract was signed because the DoD knew that by the time the jet was ready for EMD, technologies would be developed and enhanced and ready to be plugged in as the jet was moving along the development path. Contracts were easily amended to include improvements. Eurofighter, on the other hand, hobbled by European limitations, makes that sort of contracting flexibility very difficult to do. Can’t drop some little CPU supplied by some small Italian company in favor of a more powerful and capable (and cheaper) newly-developed German supplied CPU. Jobs mean more than capability. (The aforementioned is true no matter where you are, but the nature of Europe means this is especially true).

      Regarding the F-15: “even though its final product was larger and heavier than he desired”

      Yes, this is not a new issue and it remains a challenge on every jet we build, not just the F-15. Take the F-16. . .please. Originally designed in accordance with Boyd’s concept (a cheap day-VFR air-to-air with no radar missile air-to-air capability). However, it quickly became a day-night-all-weather, air-to-air, air-to-ground, fighter. Requirements creep is the culprit. Because you want “more,” there is a tendency to add more simply because you can. Here is where we need a little more “Europe” in our US acquisition processes. Nonetheless, enhancements like adding radar missile capability was a much needed quantum leap in capability, and the fact that no radar missile capability was originally included, I think, was because past experience with those types of missiles was less than promising and reflect a well-grounded skepticism on the part of Boyd. Technology improved and radar-guided missiles developed and became very reliable along with other technology that allows for independent verification means to shoot BVR, and there you go, a fully functioning air-to-air platform.

      Regarding the F-15 and the F/A-18: “Together, they [Boyd and other] were the visionaries who conceived the LFX Lightweight Fighter program, which ultimately produced both the F-16 and F/A-18 Hornet, the latter a development of the YF-17 Light Weight Fighter.”

      I already addressed the inherent issues with the F-16, so I will now direct my comments regarding the F/A-18 and F-15A-E.

      Boyd’s YF-17 (F-18) concept is essentially the same as the F-15: Dual engines, day-night-all-weather fighter. I have not flown the F/A-18, but I have flown against them, many times. I won most all my engagements because of superior skill (of course), though the avionics of the jet and its performance in a knife-fight made quite the difference. Now, the Navy has requirements for a jet that while on paper look like it can easily be shared with the Air Force, in application they can’t. Navy jets operate off carriers, Air Force jets do not. This means the F/A-18 must be designed for shipboard operation and this requires design changes that, like the F-15, make it heavier. Heavier gear to take the pounding to landing, wings that fold requiring enhanced spars to support the wing as it moves up and down, and Navy jets a fuel limited because their mission is primarily ship defense and not deep strike, but primarily because launching off a carrier doesn’t give one much room to accelerate to flyable speed and a fuel-ladden jet is hard to throw into the air, therefore, the jet has less fuel capability. Contrast that with the Air Force; longer runways so no need for heavy gear, wings that don’t fold so they only need to be designed to withstand linear G-forces (no rolling G), increased fuel load because take-off is really not a factor, etc. Basically, Boyd would have found the F/A-18 as designed (and latest models) to be far heavier than he would have liked as well. Actually, all fighter pilots think their jets need to be lighter, faster, more maneuverable and, sexier-looking, too.

      Combined Navy and Air Force jets have been tried before with limited success: F-111 and F-4. F-11 was a monster and the Navy rejected it, but the F-4 proved viable.

      Based upon his experience, Boyd had a great vision of what the next generation fighter should look like and perform to. However, technology advanced beyond his comfort zone. Indeed, the F-4 was originally designed with no gun because “visonaries” thought in future all aerial combat would be done through missiles (heaters and radar-guided). Those visionaries were wrong, and I think Boyd had a well grounded skepticism when it came to technology, therefore, his vision of fighters didn’t rely on missiles (and the heavy radar), but more on pilot skill. Of course, acquisition laws and requirements creep intruded, as well as the mind-set that jets should be able to perform more than one mission (hence the F-15E was born and the A-10 was put on life support), and there you have it: Two great jets (F-15E and F/A-18), heavier than Boyd would have liked but both very capable.

      Hope this quick, one man’s assessment, helps.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      No doubt. I had hoped it was better camouflaged. Of course it is not ALL academics I hasten to add. ;-)

      Good point-I defer to your more apt experience as one “of those magnificent men in their flying machines.” I also noted after my post that the use of “linear” was not especially clever given Boyd’s hallmark that speaks in terms of loops rather than lines. ;-)

    • C Jr – I don’t care about his credentials, but his writing. Plenty of tenured academics can’t write for toffee and have duff ideas. Does your comment, I wonder, say more about your view of academics than mine on Boyd?

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      No doubt. I had hoped it was better camouflaged. Of course it is not ALL academics I hasten to add. ;-)

      In my defens(c)e, I try to do my bit to help my colleagues in the Ivory Tower avoid taking themselves too seriously–something they seem wont to do if left to their own devices.

  25. Cincinattus Jr. says:

    Is it just me or is this compendium of very interesting, if not occasionally obscure, an no doubt eminent “strategists” awfully thin on actual practitioners of the dark art? Interesting….

  26. David Betz says:

    Not just you, no; I was struck by a similar thought. If you look at Thomas’s list of old Europe strategists they’re all military up to Engels and Lenin. With the Americans it’s military up to Wohlstetter. ‘Applied strategy’. After that it’s much more civilian and abstract. Strachan talks about this in his series of articles in Survival about strategy starting with ‘The Lost Meaning of Strategy’. The bottom-line seems to be that during century 20 for a number of reasons (but most significantly because of nukes) strategy came to be something ‘practiced’ in the main by civilian academics; the military meanwhile became more or less completely focussed on their ‘operational art’–moving brigades around on a map. So who does ‘strategy’ now? The military? Well, not so much. The politicians? One suspects not. Which leads to the unsettling suspicion that the answer is no one. Which kind of makes sense when you look at the state we’re in. Incidentally, can’t believe no one’s mentioned Rupert Smith yet. Also I think that John Robb is highly interesting.

  27. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    Hmmm…I wonder if the difficulty is one of definition. What is a strategist? Is it someone who practices strategy or thinks it up or both?

    Many of the people listed so far, I would classify as strategic thinkers and others as strategic analysts. I don’t think the divide is really mil vs. civ, or even applicator vs developer, but rather something a bit more abstract. And it can change: when someone muses about how strategy works, they are acting differently than when they are designing a particular strategy.

    Take Smith for instance. I think he is speaking about concepts, strategic ones maybe. The concept of ‘wars amongst the people’ for instance, is not really a strategy, but more of a big idea that might inform a strategy. This is akin to what Lutwak did with his ‘paradox’ idea. It certainly doesn’t lay out a strategy, but talks about how strategy and strategies work.

    Biddle’s best work, in my opinion, is as a strategic analyst. In his work on the initial successes of Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, he methodically challenges the underlying assumptions (airpower works if you have good local allies, for instance). While he is not generating new strategies, his work should help to improve the new ones that do get developed.

    Look at Ward as another for instance. He did a bit of strategic thinking (centres of gravity concepts) and also designed some specific strategies (air campaign in Gulf War One).

    All of which takes us to Clausewitz. In his work as a general on several campaigns, he concentrated more on operational issues. In his role at the Kriegsakademie, he was more of a strategic analyst (helping others to see the strengths and weakness of particular strategies, with a view to improving their ability to develop strategies in the future). As an author, he certainly did all three. Book 1 is all about strategic concepts, as is most of Book 8. Book 3 sets out principles of strategy as understood by Clausewitz. Other books (4-7) can be seen as quite tactical in nature.

    As Strachan has pointed out, “What is strategy?” is a hard question to answer. So perhaps it should not be too surprising to decide who is a strategist, either.

  28. Cincinattus jr. says:

    Gunrunner: What leather (and only the finest vegetable-tanned supple goatskin will do) jackets? I thought those were offially labeled “many-hued Swiss-embroidered universe/solar system/world/coaltion/nation/service/unit/individual patch display device, (real) man-portable, 1 each”. ?

    • Gunrunner says:

      Owwww. . . .you mean my silk scarf might be made out of a sow’s ear?

      Say it isn’t so. . . .


  29. Cincinattus Jr. says:

    A few more suggestions for the list

    Earl H. ‘‘Pete” Ellis

    Dr. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr.

    Thomas X. Hammes

    Hong Cheng-Chou

  30. Steve Metz says:

    I think we need to remember that democracies always have difficulty with strategy, and the more that the public thinks that it should have a direct role in national security (e.g. the U.S.), the more astrategic it is, particularly when there is no obvious pressing threat. The United States and the other Western democracies are in a state of strategic lull today because the contention from the political right that Islamic extremists pose a threat on the order of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, that argument is simply not persuasive.

    So what I’m suggesting is that strategy flowers either in closed political systems, or in open systems facing a major threat. Given that, it is not surprising that there are few towering strategists in the West today.

    I also think that information saturation and the partisan, “gotcha” culture is spawned complicates the creation and implementation of coherent strategy. Any action which doesn’t generate quick and demonstrable results will be sniped into oblivion. This mitigates against the holistic and long term thinking which is the essence of strategy.

    • Daniel D says:

      Im not sure if democracy places constraints on strategy in the way that you say, i do think that a non democratic system may appear to less constrained but that may in fact be a lack of a critical function that strategy needs. Think about such systems which are less accountable to the public and some of the blunders that they made.

      If we look at strategy as some sort of raw will to make war its not really strategy. As always the pure war abstract is what one strives towards but there is friction in any governmental system/structure be it democratic or not and working within that function is part of any strategic calculation. The reality and the abstract are two different things and good strategy works within such constraints.

      In the problems that strategy faces today I think two factors have become the primary reason for the situation we face strategically.

      1. A new way of fighting after having spent a long period of time developing the means and strategy to fight another.

      2. The corresponding shift in power means that the west may be behind the curve in strategy.

      Just my humble opinion.

    • Quintin says:

      “…strategy flowers either in closed political systems…”

      My instinct is to agree with your suggestion, as it corresponds with history.

      But on the flip-side, I wonder if North Korea and Iran are currently experiencing such a flood of towering strategists? Or are there other factors at play?

      It would be interesting to explore the trade-off’s applicable to Strategy in current closed political systems (under those leaders that put the “mega” in megalomania), and compare that with their previous closed systems of say, 70 years ago.

  31. Pericles says:

    Questionable whether Rommel was a strategist. That he could be thought so reflects the trend towards ‘operationalising’ strategy. Likewise problematic to place IR theorists like Phillip Bobbit in the realm of strategists, (brilliant in many ways though he is). Luttwak always interesting, reading his study of Byzantine strategy right now, but ‘grand strategies’ always easier to discern with hindsight. Taking up Dave Betz’s challenge on the best from the twentieth century meanwhile:
    A A Svechin
    Giap (read Colvin’s underrated ‘Volcano under Snow’ for example)
    Mao (just squeezes in, because I also think the whole CCP military leadership of that era needs some re-assessment and re-appreciation of the collectiveness of the effort)
    My ‘esoteric’ academic opinion is that Boyd is largely junk, re-heated Douhet, and bad Douhet at that, but hey, different folks, different strokes…;-)

    • Daniel D says:

      I agree with you on that one in a general sense for Rommel but then I think that so few people are as well in the true sense of the word. I mean if youve published lots but its never been tried out does that make you any more than someone who at least worked with it but never wrote about it (and Rommel at least did, his Infantry Attacks and his diary does give an indication that his brilliance wasnt just brilliance but driven by a sound and methodical ideas.)

      I would agree with how you rated Mao, sure he was yanking chunks from Clausewitz but he turned it round and made it suit for and work with his own means and goals which i think is a good test as well as his “exporting” his ideas to others. His Ghost haunts the COINistras even now.

      I wouldn’t class Bobbit as a strategist either but he is brilliant.

      I think Boyd’s time hasnt come yet so we will have to wait. Im not sure how you classify him as in relation to Douhet, they dont seem at all similar, Douhet was strategic air power, Boyd was attempting to make sense of generic strategic principals.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      You beat me to it-I was also curious as to the Douhet/Boyd comparison in that beyond their common backgrounds as aviators, they seem to speak to different spheres of interest.

  32. Steve Metz says:

    @Quintin: I didn’t mean to suggest that closed systems are across the board more strategic than democracies. Simply that there is greater potential to undertake long range, potentially unpopular actions in a closed than an open system. Nothing assures that a closed system will avail itself of that.

    One could make an argument, though, that Iran and North Korea are pursuing effective strategies since their influence exceeds their tangible power.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      “their influence exceeds their tangible power.”

      Or hopefully subsequent events by a more (one can but hope) resolute “world community” will let us put it another way: “their reach exceed[ed] their grasp.”

  33. Iran and North Korea are pursuing effective strategies since their influence exceeds their tangible power

    Absolutely. They are operating inside our OODA Loop! Of course any given instance of that can be merely a tactical matter, but at least in Iran’s case it appears to be grand strategy.

    In my WiMW dissertation, I said of John Boyd that he was “arguably the greatest American military thinker since Alfred Thayer Mahan.” I have since expanded that paper into a small book called A Vision So Noble. (And no, I see no similarity between Boyd’s thinking and that of Guilio Douhet.) Blue skies! — Dan Ford

    (Well, that link doesn’t seem to work. Try )

  34. Steve Metz says:

    As I think about it, that’s actually a potentially useful criterion for assessing strategy: whether a nation or non-national organization exerts influence out of proportion to its tangible power, either more or less than. It could even studied empirically by coming up with indicators of influence and comparing that to power resources.

    • David Betz says:

      I’m sure it’s not an original thesis of mine but I can’t recall where I got it from, it seems to me that one explanation for the relative paucity of American strategists is that its particular strategic position–wealth and industrial power, big oceans on either side, resource base etc–insulates it to a large degree from blowback of misdecision. The US is in (or at any rate was, may still be) the luxurious position of enjoying multitudinous ‘do-overs’. The 19th century was kind to Britain in this way too. Most countries don’t have the luxury of getting it wrong so much or so frequently. Logically, by my model Israel should be chock-full of strategic thinkers… Now that I mention it I recall that when Putin first came to power and in the first few years after it was often remarked how cleverly he played the meagre hand which he had been dealt. Makes sense. When your country is that close to the edge you start to think creatively. Anyway, its a theory!

      Steve, by your criterion I would say that Canada must be led by Sun Tzu reincarnate. Is there a place which exerts influence in greater proportion to its tangible power. Those guys are getting value for money.

  35. Cincinattus Jr. says:

    A very interesting and thought provoking thread indeed.

    Acknowledging both my adult -onset ADD in that I may have missed the points already having been made and also that I am a novice in this arena striving to avoid bumping into the knees of all you larger than life experts (said sincerely–none of my usual acidity implied), I wonder if there are a couple more dichotomies that have surfaced that we should at least note.

    Some of the posts seem to be making distinctions (variously among the different iconic figures cited, ideas, events etc.) that align with my understanding “grand” strategy vs. more pedestrian forms. Also, there may be a distinction worthy of some discussion between the “theory” of strategy (grand or otherwise) and the “practice” of it (whether in terms of historical examples based on real empires, campaigns etc. or as postulated by “practitioners” even if not ever executed (the strategy that is and not the proponent!).

    Again, if this is old news or too sophomoric, in the inimitable words of the late Gilda Radner in her persona as Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live, “Never mind.”

  36. “Simply that there is greater potential to undertake long range, potentially unpopular actions in a closed than an open system. Nothing assures that a closed system will avail itself of that. ”

    True. There is a question of capacity to execute strategy freer of political constraints imposed by more democratic or open systems.

    That said, closed systems are far worse at accurately gauging reality due to their propensity to “kill the messenger” and enforce orthodoxy. Whether we call this corruption of the OODA Loop by another name such as “groupthink” or not we can see it operating throughout history – the USSR, the court of Charles V, Tsar Nicholas II Russia, the Bush White House, the Ming and Q’ing Dynasties etc. Ultimately, this affects strategic thinking as the isolated regime strategists wander further away from empirical reality

  37. Steve Metz says:

    Let me quote myself on the definitional problem:

    While there is no shortage of definitions in the scholarly and profession literature, Barry Posen captured it succinctly and accurately:

    A state’s grand strategy is its foreign policy elite’s theory about how to produce national security…A grand strategy enumerates and prioritizes threats and adduces political and military remedies for them. A grand strategy also explains why some threats attain a certain priority, and why and how the remedies proposed would work.

    In the broadest sense, strategy seeks to control risk, maximize effectiveness, and increase the chances of success during the mobilization and application of power—particularly but not exclusively military power–in pursuit of objectives or interests. It entails order extended in time, space, and milieus. Strategy attempts to impose coherence and predictability on an inherently disorderly environment composed of thinking, reacting, competing, and conflicting entities. It is built of interlinked general concepts, techniques and repeated procedures. It is both a mode of thinking and the pattern that emerges from a series of discrete decisions if they are made in a particular way. Strategic decisionmaking entails explicit or implicit priorities, preferences, assessments, predictions. If a state takes a strategic approach to its security problems — and they can do otherwise — chaotic, ad hoc, and disorganized applications of national power are, to a varying extent, replaced with orderly ones. The logic of strategy holds that expected outcomes must be balanced against expected costs and risks, and expected short term outcomes, costs, and risks against long term ones. The calculus of strategy is a context- and cultural-dependent weighing and prioritization of objectives, acceptable costs, and acceptable risks. When opponents utilize different strategic calculi, predictions and calculations are more complex, and thus strategy becomes even more difficult than it normally is.
    Strategy has both horizontal and vertical dimensions. The horizontal seeks to augment order, add coherence, and synchronize actions across various domains of activity. The horizontal dimension, for instance, attempts to ensure that a nation’s diplomatic, economic, and military efforts are integrated and all are applied in pursuit of common goals. The vertical dimension projects thinking and actions into the future. It is concerned with long-term and second order effects. It is developed using systems that vary in complexity and formality. The American system for strategy development is complex and formalized. That of dictatorships is more personalized and informal. Strategy is shaped by a strategic culture—the way the individuals making or affecting strategy see history and time, the way they prioritize their objectives, the amount of risk they are willing to tolerate, and the role they accord force and conflict—and by a context, composed of personalities, political dynamics, specific issues, and specific conditions.
    There are three other aspects of strategy that demand attention. First is the crucial role of assumptions. Assumptions allow strategy to take place when vital information is missing or unknowable. They can deal with the future, with the intentions of an opponent, partner, or unaffiliated actor, or with facts that cannot be discerned (such as the possession of nuclear weapons by a state that chooses to keep secret their possession or the lack thereof). Assumptions are necessary for strategy, but they are also a potential weakness. They reflect shortcomings in intelligence or understanding. As a general rule, the more a strategy is based on assumptions, the more fragile it is. The second aspect is the importance of perception and understanding, particularly across cultures. Third, strategy is and always will be a human endeavor. Ideas, concepts, principles, priorities, prejudices, and personalities matter greatly. Mine is not that variant of realism that sees states as faceless, soulless black boxes marching according to abstract rules, but entitles of ambitious, talented, and flawed people. My roots run deeper in Thucydides than in Hegel.
    The word “strategy” originated in the realm of armed conflict. It derives from the Greek word for military generalship. The most common meaning throughout history was the science and art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations. Clausewitz, the most influential theorist of war, defined strategy as “the use of engagements for the object of the war.” Colin Gray, the most astute contemporary theorist of strategy, has expanded this to “the use that is made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy.” But like many words and concepts, the meaning of strategy has expanded over time. Today it is used to describe any endeavor that seeks to control risk and maximize the chances of success during the mobilization and application of power in pursuit of objectives or interests. Businesses and other complex organizations thus can have strategies. It is not inaccurate to say that even some individuals approach life strategically. I will use strategy to mean the mobilization and application of all national power resources, but will concentrate on the traditional sense of the word–the preparation and use of armed force to promote or protect national interests. Conceived this way, strategy takes on several important characteristics. First is its importance. If a business adopts a strategy that fails, profits may decline. At worst, the company may go bankrupt, investors lose money, and employees lose jobs and benefits. This may be sad, even tragic, but is not disastrous. If a nation’s security strategy fails, people are likely to die and the entire nation may suffer, perhaps to the point of obliteration. The stakes of security strategy are thus greater than the stakes of strategy in any other realm. In addition, strategy operates with what Edward Luttwak calls a “paradoxical logic”—most human endeavors involve a linear logic where what appears to be the best solution to a problem normally is. But since strategy pits two or more entities deliberately attempting to thwart the other, what appears best often is not, simply because the opponent will be prepared to counter it.

  38. Cincinattus jr. says:

    Seydilitz89: having studied the late MLKJr. a great deal as well as having met him on several occasions as an undergraduate (admitting candidly that his being a “strategist” in the context of this thread was not in my mind on those occasions) I find it a “bridge too far” to agree with your argument. Of course, as pointed out more ably than I could elesewhere in this thread, such comparisons and nominations to the pantheon of “great strategists” it depends to a great extent on how various terms etc. Are defined. Having most of my operational experience (that in turn directed and shaped my later academic pursuits, such as they were and are) in the kinetic end of the Clausewitzian progression beyond ” diplomatic” means, I confess I see salient differences and limitations in mlk’s “strategy” of nonviolent coercion. Primarily (and I apologize if you addressed this in your linked post forgive me as I am presently browser-challenged using my I-phone as I do my stint on the gym treadmill) I think it difficult if not impossible to extrapolate from a domestic context (notwithstanding the extent that MLK really thought internatinally about his “strategy”) as to the efficacy of such a “strategy” in a conflict of an international character. The success of his nonviolent model ultimately relied on there being a federal government powerful enough to apply sufficient coercion (both “moral” in the sense of enacting the needed laws and physical in enforcing these laws even at the points of bayonets weilded by regular federal troops). While one might posit a metaphorical “federal” model internationally in the sense that natios are like the recalcitrant American states in that era and some international body ( formal like the UN or NATO or ad hoc in some “coalition of the willing”) plays the role of the American federal government,I do not think either history or reality favors such a construct. As we too clearly see in various contemporary situations (even horrific humanitarian crises) there is little real chance that some nonviolent “movement” etc. Over an injustice ( to use MLK’s first step in his model, will cause effective action by some “federal” authority with the power, and perhaps most important, the collective will to set it right.

    • Cincinnatus-

      I would be very interested in you taking a look at that particular blog post if you have the time and desire. Especially the connection between MLK and Niebuhr.

      I agree that certain requirements must be in place (as in the character of the “tension”), but it was King’s strategy that brought the desired change about.

      As to an “international character”, if I read you correctly that would exempt any conflict within a politically community which would exclude civil wars . . .

      Could MLK have assumed that the Federal government would intervene and assist him in attaining his goals? Then why the whole emphasis on Non-violent direct action as in long-running “operations”? King training his “troops” in his tactics, participating in operations in pursuit of a strategic goal? Also his awareness of the dangers of crossing the threshold of violence and thus losing the rational emphasis in the “three tendencies to extremes”?

      It’s not war I’m talking about, but strategy. While military victory is a means for strategy (the goal following Clausewitz being the return to peace), it need not be the only means – or a means at all if it is unsuitable – a strategist uses . . .

  39. COINTASTIC says:

    I would ask ‘where are all the strategists’? I remember reading a scholar of strategy (either Michael Howard or Colin Gray) question whether strategy can actually be taught to practicioners. This might explain some of the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan (headed by Generals who were ‘taught’ strategy during the Cold War) and thus the dearth of relevant and lasting texts on strategic thought in recent years.

    I am also reminded of a comment in The Junior Officers’ Reading Club where the author stated that his superiors in the British Army had not witnessed the type of combat they had faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. People like him may have written the big strategy texts of the future, hadn’t they left the Army in droves.

    In terms of quality strategic thinkers, I’m a huge fan of Azar Gat.

  40. Kenneth Payne says:

    93 comments —- come on guys, we can do it — one final push….

    On Cointastic’s comment – I’m in broad agreement with Bernard Brodie’s general scepticism that there’s much inherent advantage in military service when it comes to devising strategy. Familiarity with military means, of course, is an essential prerequisite. But senior military officers, who have invariably spent most of their career wrestling with tricky tactical and operational problems, are not necessarily better placed than civilian defence specialists, who may have spent a considerably greater proportion of their career thinking about the relationships between political goals and military activity.

    That’s not to say that military officers cannot be great strategists – far from it – just that they need not be, by dint of experience and uniform. Indeed, when it came to nuclear weapons, in Brodie’s time, the can-do martial spirit of proven battlefield commanders may have been a positive disadvantage in thinking strategically. The same, in our era, might be said of coin.

  41. Daniel D says:

    I think the earlier distinction between grand strategy and military/operational strategy is a good one but I think we need a more concrete test and a more salient definition that the broad academic ones here as they seem hard to apply to either of the categories without some major justifications. (noting of course the perils of simplification but for the sake of this discussion and the distinct possibility that the various realms might not actually have a common denominator – although I think they do)

    Perhaps one way to cut the knot of the question would be to look less at the person or the particular strategy and ask what is/has/was their intended effect and has it come about or been operationalised etc.

    I say this because in this whole question factors such as luck/randomness etc seem to be out of the loop and while it does occur did the strategy in question deal with well with the unknown.

    My thoughts on this run in the line of being told what to do but not how to do it that is the hallmark of true military/strategic flexibility.

    Anyone can be a “strategist” but how did their strategy actually work out (be it grand or not)?

    My contribution to making 100.

    • Gunrunner says:

      Adding to the effort to achieve ‘100,’ regarding your observation that “(p)erhaps one way to cut the knot of the question would be to look less at the person or the particular strategy and ask what is/has/was their intended effect and has it come about or been operationalised etc.” I agree, and to that end, I shamelessly refer to my earlier post (23 May, 1346hrs): “Boyd’s writings are the men he led and shaped, and their results achieved. . .I also think it could be argued he should be ranked first, if only because his moderns theories have been combat tested and proven.”

      Great minds think alike, eh, Daniel?

  42. Steve Metz says:

    Let me take a contrarian perspective. I don’t consider Clausewitz, Boyd and many other people discussed here to be strategists. If one were to sit down and develop a Clausewitzian or Boydian strategy for, say, the United States or U.K., what would it be? I’m not sure there is a clear answer to that unless you believe that strategy is simply the accumulation of tactical and operational success. I don’t, instead preferring to work through the construct of strategy’s horizontal and vertical dimensions.

    • I agree with your original comment on this as to the distinction between “strategic theorists, practitioners, and leaders”. It is difficult to come up with many who fit all three, as does Mao for example.

      In developing a Clausewitzian strategy, would that not require a strategy in line with what Andreas Herberg-Rothe and others describe as Clausewitz’s general theory of war? Could not a Boydian military strategy operate within that?

    • If one were to sit down and develop a Clausewitzian or Boydian strategy for, say, the United States or U.K., what would it be?

      I won’t speak for Clausewitz, but Boyd was very explicit in his call for a “counter-guerrilla” strategy, to wit: “. . . a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors or adversaries . . .”

      Boyd adds a footnote to his 300-word slide on the counter-guerrilla campaign: “If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides!”

      Blue skies! — Dan Ford

    • Quintin says:

      …the humanitarian equivalent would be: “S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”

    • Quintin says:

      A valid point… and a perspective that I was attempting to construct into a post just about as you posted yours. At the risk of repeating everybody, I would still like to offer my thoughts on the matter:

      To illustrate the the conflict within, I propose that we need to visit the definition of War, which (according to Clausewitz) is:

      the mere continuation of politics by other means

      Clausewitz is emphatic in his content that the purpose of War is to render the opposing military force incapable of conducting the War by disarming it. His “other means” is therefore the application of Military Force to break and disarm an opposing Military Force – and therein he relegates those dimensions of conflict beyond the confines of a Theatre of War.

      To this effect, we experience a fundamental problem, since War (even in his times) is not restricted to the application of Military Force. It is anticipated that the conduct of a war would also include the continuation of the other dialogues within the inter-state manifold:

      a. Diplomacy (even if pursued indirectly)
      b. Espionage (we could anticipate a heightened occurrence in the absence of peace-time constraints)
      c. Trade (embargoes)
      d. Research and Development (in response to, or to head off technological advances by the opponent)
      e. NGO’s (suspension of services, etc.).

      In a state of War, it could be anticipated that these other dialogues will assume a coercive nature. And while they generally do, such coercion is not exclusive to the state of War. For instance, it could be argued that the US, UK and other interest states are applying Diplomacy as a means of coercion relating to Iran and it’s Nuclear Programme. None of these states are at war with Iran, but they are applying means of coercion in order to bring an untenable situation about for Iran – using Diplomacy as the method. By drawing on a definition of Strategy:

      the method of using means of coercion to create an untenable situation for an opponent,

      whilst by no means perfect, we can show that these states are pursuing a Strategy (or Strategies). But not a War. As a further example, consider current Strategies of Deterrence.

      This is in sharp contrast with Clausewitz on Strategy. In his On War, as well as Principles of War, Clausewitz only recognises that what could currently be described as “Operational Strategy”, (or “Operational Art”) as Strategy. He deftly rolls Grand Strategy up into Politics and does not include the concept of “General Strategy”, or “Strategic Doctrine” in his definition of Strategy, being:

      the employment of battle as the means towards the attainment of the object of the war,

      – though the irony of this omission will not be lost on the critical reader. As it may, Strategy for Clausewitz is about battles and Wars are about the application of military force.

      Is it therefore advisable to develop a Clausewitzian Strategy today? I am of the opinion that, relevant as his thoughts on War and Strategy may have been at the time, the bulk of it did not survive the onset of the Steam Age. Strategy (and War) is more complex than this.

    • Daniel D says:

      I would agree with you but also disagree in the sense that I think your right about Clausewitz in the main sense but if a word like “battle” is redefined to suit the particular age then perhaps Clausewitz is still relevant.

      He might not know much about Afghanistan per se but I guess that if he applied his thinking he would still have a logical approach to the problem. One most likely as you point out in the real more of grand strategy/politics than trying to fight it on the ground.

      Which in this age “battle” does need to be up skilled to suit the reality and not the dim memory.

  43. Cincinattus Jr. says:

    I will do my bit for the 100 as well. In more recent posts more mention has been made of “grand strategy” that in turn caused me to review the previous posts since it triggered a dim memory (I seem to have more and more of those). At least one student (I hesitate to say “expert” among so many true experts) of such things, John Gaddis at Yale has opined that Gen. Georgie C. Marshall was/is “arguably the greatest of modern American grand strategists” yet I did not see Marshall’s name suggested as yet in this thread. Is this but an oversight or a conscious omission and if the latter, why?

  44. Steve Metz says:

    Seems to me that for anything to be accurately called a strategy, it must specify or at least suggest where, when, how, and why power resources are used. Clausewitz and Boyd focused on the “how” but not the other issues. So I think their thought might be a vital component of a strategy but do not, in themselves, constitute strategy.

  45. Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your content
    seem to be running off the screen in Firefox. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with internet browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know.

    The design and style look great though! Hope you get the problem solved soon.
    Many thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *