The Futility of Grand Strategy

Today’s brilliant strategist is tomorrow’s headstrong fool.

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Today’s great powers face some serious strategic quandaries. How much effort and resources should the United States allocate toward combatting Russia when China clearly possesses greater power? To what extent should China assist Russia in a war that has so far seemed to accomplish little but degrade Moscow’s resources and global standing? Is it possible for states in the Indo-Pacific to balance between China and the United States? And should the European Union attempt to create its own autonomous pole or rely on a United States bedeviled with partisan divisions?

If ever there was a need for strategy, it would seem to be now. So, who are the world’s leading international relations strategists to guide us through it all? Here’s a good rule of thumb: They are whoever you think is likely to meet their comeuppance in the next few years.

If you believe this prediction is cynical, recall the past two decades. Experts on grand strategy, such as John Lewis Gaddis, praised then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s post-2001 national security strategy—a doctrine that led to 20 years of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with very little to show for them. Then-U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy was all the rage a few years later; it is safe to say that Petraeus’ star has dimmed since then. More recently, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Gerasimov Doctrine, which stressed the gray zone of conflict between declared states of war and peace, that was praised as both tactically nimble and strategically daring. But after nearly 16 months of grueling conflict in Ukraine, Putin now looks like a leader mired in quicksand who will lose even if he wins. And Valery Gerasimov, the Russian general for whom the doctrine is named, is the object of mockery and scorn from Russian paramilitary leaders.

In some ways, those elevated to the strategic stratosphere resemble the stock market gurus and financial entrepreneurs once celebrated on the cover of business magazines. The chances are decent that anyone the business press exalts will ultimately wind up bankrupt and scandal-ridden. Whether in business or great power politics, today’s brilliant strategist is tomorrow’s headstrong fool; what might now seem to be a nugget of fresh insight could look like a rotten, gnarled piece of fruit just a few years from now.

This all begs the question of whether it is possible to craft a book on the science of strategy that has a half-life of more than a few years. I have contributed to edited volumes on grand strategy and written repeatedly about the futility of such an exercise, so I have my doubts. Call it the Clausewitz Trap, in honor of the author of On War and one of the most widely cited strategists in history, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz: Anyone who acquires celebrity from their strategic acumen inexorably believes in their own strategic genius and makes ego-driven mistakes. The best strategic advice is humility in the face of success—but the very exaltation of strategists makes this very difficult to do in practice.

Enter Hal Brands. He is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Bloomberg opinion columnist, and the editor of The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age. Given Brands’s productivity and prolixity, it is quite possible that he has already written another book in the time it took me to write this sentence. The point is, if anyone can avoid the Clausewitz Trap, it is Brands.

Brands’s The New Makers of Modern Strategy does possess some natural advantages. As its title suggests, this is a new edition of an existing project. Edward Mead Earle edited the first edition of Makers of Modern Strategy, published in 1943, quite the date to release a volume on the state of strategic thinking (that book’s subhead was Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler). Peter Paret edited the second edition of the book, published in 1986. The odds are excellent that you will find that edition stowed on the top shelf of your international relations professor’s office bookcase. That is a mixed signal: Paret’s edition is one of those big, important collections that many professors like to display in their stacks—but its hard-to-reach location suggests the book was seen far more than it was read. After the 1980s, no one really cared what former French President Charles de Gaulle thought about strategy.

There are multiple reasons why Paret’s edition is acknowledged but not beloved within the strategic studies community. Although both Zhou dynasty-era Chinese general Sun Tzu and Clausewitz warned against viewing strategy through a strictly military lens, Paret’s definition of strategy was incredibly narrow: “the use of armed force to achieve the military objectives and, by extension, the political purpose of the war.” Even the security studies community viewed this as far too restrictive. As FP’s Stephen M. Walt lamented in his 1987 review for International Security: “Paret and company passed up a golden opportunity to show how a broader conception of strategy might yield important new insights.”

Brands learned well from his predecessor’s mistake; the definition of strategy he provides—“the craft of summoning and using power to achieve our central purposes, amid the friction of global affairs and the resistance of rivals and enemies”—is far more capacious. That description enables Brands to note in his introductory essay that “some of the greatest American strategists, such as John Quincy Adams and Franklin Roosevelt, have been diplomats and politicians rather than soldiers.” The New Makers of Modern Strategy includes numerous entries devoted to the nonmilitary pillars of strategy. One chapter by James Lacey and another by Eric Helleiner and Jonathan Kirshner tackle the economic foundations of strategy. Tanvi Madan explores strategies of nonalignment; Priya Satia writes about anti-imperial strategies ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to Frantz Fanon.

Brands also corrects for the other principal way that Paret’s volume fell short: Of the 28 chapters in the 1986 volume, 27.5 were devoted to Western concepts and practices of strategy (Japan’s World War II strategy made the cut). Not even Sun Tzu merited a chapter. Brands does not neglect the Western canon in The New Makers of Modern Strategy; Walter Russell Mead writes about Thucydides, John Maurer explores U.S. naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Michael Leggiere covers Napoleon Bonaparte. But there are plenty of chapters about non-Western strategies, ranging from Toshi Yoshihara’s analysis of Sun Tzu to Kori Schake’s take on Shawnee chief Tecumseh to Seth Jones on Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Gerasimov’s reliance on irregular warfare.

Still, the problem with Brands’s volume is the same as with the prior iterations: There are inherent limits to articulating a timeless science of strategy. Brands contradicts himself on this point in his introduction. He writes that “the field of strategic studies is rooted in the belief that there is a basic logic of strategy that transcends time and space.” But just two pages later, Brands acknowledges that the prior editions of this book “have aged, unavoidably, since publication, and so both remind us that the state of the art does shift over time.” There is a tension in claiming that there are timeless principles of strategy if the state of the art keeps evolving. While individual chapters might be of immense historical value, perhaps the underlying concept that strategy is enduring needs to be interrogated further.

One way to remain modern is to project how strategy might evolve in the future, but Brands omits any chapters devoted to that question. This is puzzling. To be sure, trying to predict strategic trends for the next few decades is a fool’s errand. And The New Makers of Modern Strategy does cover a variety of new areas, ranging from Thomas Rid’s chapter on intelligence to Joshua Rovner’s chapter on new strategic domains. That said, anticipating future strategic challenges is not that hard. It was surprising to see no chapter devoted to how strategists will need to think about the challenges posed by climate change, artificial intelligence, pandemics, and the demographic slowdown enveloping much of the world.

The New Makers of Modern Strategy is far superior to the prior iterations of the book. It is a useful corrective to the wealthy conservative war against everyone in strategic studies who does not think strategy begins and ends with folks such as Henry Kissinger. The volume demonstrates the added value that comes from reading about Sun Tzu; David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first prime minister of Israel; Jawaharlal Nehru, the anti-colonial Indian leader and prime minister; or even the Kim dynasty of North Korea. Brands has taken a mediocre classic and pumped new life into it.

Still, the Clausewitz Trap suggests that there are inherent limits to any exercise to develop a timeless science of strategy. Perhaps analysts need to consider the possibility that the best strategic innovations wind up being self-defeating. Today’s brilliant strategist will often prove to be tomorrow’s cautionary tale.

(This post is republished from Foreign Policy.)

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