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Rethinking Grand Strategy

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Rethinking Grand Strategy


Peter Layton


Grand strategy may seem an irrelevant idea but it’s not. As Colin Gray declares “all strategy is grand strategy.” Without a grand strategy that explains the ends, works the means and sets out the ways, lower-level strategies will be uncoordinated, work at odds with each other and be unlikely to succeed. Grand strategy seems superfluous as its gotten unhelpfully confused with the National Security Strategy. It should be instead thought of as a practical problem-solving methodology you can apply to particular real-world problems. This article rethinks grand strategy to provide just that.


Grand strategy has a bad wrap but it’s not the concept’s doing. A perception has developed that the National Security Strategy (NSS) and grand strategy are the same. This is a major error. The NSS addresses certain matters of particular Congressional concern as required under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. The NSS is simply a particular example of a grand strategy, not the whole of grand strategy as a problem-solving approach.


Worse the NSS seems disoriented. The NSS is a late Cold War creation when the Soviet Union was the obvious central focus. Similarly if more generically, grand strategy in originating in war stressed staying focused on the adversary. Post Cold War though, with the USSR dismantled, the NSS lost its concentration, drifting into what John Ikenberry calls a milieu grand strategy, one aiming to shape the general international environment.[i]


It’s easy to be sceptical of this sub-type of grand strategy. As a recent book, ‘The End of Grand Strategy’, nicely argues it’s really hard to see how one grand strategy can address all the problems a state faces.[ii] But the book goes a step too far in deciding that, as the NSS is a poor grand strategy format, the idea of grand strategy is now of little value.


This confusion is important as the post-Cold War era ends and our problems intensify. It’s not just the Greater Middle East’s ‘forever wars’, North Korea’s rockets or Russian malfeasance but crucially the rise of China. China has both the economic potential to outspend America and its allies on defense and the population base to man any size military force structure acquired. The West’s post-Cold War era military and economic overmatch is receding. Our edge may become using our national power better, more effectively and more efficiently. Better thinking could be crucial.

The concept of grand strategy can help gain the thinking edge. Even a small gain would be valuable in offsetting greater material power.  Historian Hew Strachan observes: “if ambition outstrips resources, the need for grand strategy, and for a coherent grand strategy at that, is all the greater because waste is both unaffordable and unforgivable.”[iii]

We need to rethink grand strategy focusing on its use as a practical problem-solving methodology. Such an idea immediately enters the Jomini versus Clausewitz debate.  In a very broad sense, Jomini gave readers a list of principles to apply to all future wars.  Clausewitz instead sought to educate readers allowing them to apply his broad insights as they saw fit.


Treating grand strategy as a practical problem-solving methodology is a bit of both. It’s easier to approach a complex problem if you have some form of structured way to think about the issues. This notion tends to privilege agency. It forces people to focus on what they want to achieve and how.  On the other hand structuring thinking only goes so far.


Context is clearly crucial albeit a deep understanding of the context can really only be obtained after the event – the famous 20:20 hindsight. Context is, to say the least, complicated and confusing, and worse, constantly evolving.  This is were history is really useful however it is not by itself the full solution. History looks backwards. It is written knowing what happened whereas we look forward into an uncertain future.


So using grand strategy as a practical problem-solving methodology means applying a structure to your problem’s context. It can help you think but it doesn’t do your thinking for you. This is of course very different to those frequent exhortations to adopt this or that highly-specific grand strategy. If you treat grand strategy as a problem-solving tool, you need to do the hard intellectual work yourself. Chances are however, you know more about your own problems then a distant writer in some ivory tower.


In discussing this, it helps to use Art Lykke’s famous model that deconstructs strategy into ‘ends’ (objective), ‘means’ (instruments of national power) and ‘ways’ (course of action).[iv]  The ‘ends’ are achieved by using the ‘means’ in appropriate ‘ways’.  Purists will note that may be expressed as E=W+M. Lykke’s seminal article however used Strategy = E+W+M. The difference is important for more than just pedants.




Strategy involves interacting with particular intelligent and adaptive others trying to change our relationship with them for the better.[v]  In this though Liddell-Hart discerned an important issue: “while the horizon of strategy is bounded by the war, grand strategy looks beyond the war to the subsequent peace.”[vi] A grand strategy then tries to take us to a better future where our relationship with specific states or non-state actors is improved - even if only from our perspective.


This better future may be best expressed in terms of international politics. Clausewitz would have understood: “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it”.[vii]


The field of politics between states has long been examined in the International Relations academic discipline. Its language, concepts and theories can assist defining the desired ends.[viii] Crucially however, the ends and the ways are directly related as discussed later. The ends chosen bound the possible ways - and vice versa. The ends sought may need to change depending on what ways are practical.


Defining the ends highlights the importance of knowing the object of a grand strategy.  A grand strategy needs to be quite clear on who the target is, in terms of non-state actors, single states, alliance partners, regional groupings or the complete international system.


If contemporary NSSs are milieu grand strategies, the other type are positional grand strategies that focus on a specific state or group of states.  The Cold War era containment grand strategy was a positional type. It gradually grew to involve taking actions across the globe however it was consistently focussed on a single bi-lateral relationship, that between the US and the USSR.  For America, the rest of the world comprised others who could help, hinder or distract from its containment grand strategy but were considered unimportant in themselves, being seen instead in terms of the American/ USSR relationship. This thinking is well illustrated in comments made in 1970 by US National Security Council staffer Marshall Wright:

“... both in Africa and in the UN our policy is essentially defensive. Neither is central in any way to US foreign policy operations or interests. We deal with them because they are there, not because we hope to get great things out of our participation. We aim at minimizing the attention and resources which must be addressed to them. What we really want from both is no trouble. Our policy is therefore directed at damage limiting, rather than at accomplishing anything in particular.” [ix]

Conceiving a grand strategy’s ends as involving changing our relationship with others means the oft-used term ‘national interest’ becomes simply an input in grand strategy deliberations not a central driver. The term has long been criticised as meaning different things to different people, having an imprecise meaning and of being used to justify any policy the term’s user decided to support.[x]


More tellingly, in terms of practical implementation, declarations of national interests are difficult to link to strategy, as they provide no defined objective. It is then unknown when it is reached or the time it should be reached by or where it ranks in resource priority order. National interest statements are more expressions of national aspirations than purposeful policy shapers.[xi] For example, the latest NSS lists one of four vital national interests as “promote American prosperity.” It’s reasonable to assume all Administrations have had such a desire, rather than the converse. With an enhanced understanding of the better peace sought, national interest declarations can be shifted from being a primary strategy determinant to having a more secondary, rhetorical function.




The ‘means’ further differentiates strategy from grand strategy. A grand strategy applies all the instruments of national power including diplomatic, informational, military and economic measures. In contrast, a strategy focuses on applying a single type of instrument. Moreover unlike strategy, a grand strategy also involves developing the resources needed for implementation: people, money, materiel, soft power and legitimacy. As J.F.C. Fuller observed: “While strategy is…concerned with the movement of armed masses, grand strategy…embraces the motive forces which lie behind them both - material and psychological.”[xii]  Crucially, if current resources are insufficient, the grand strategy guides their expansion and this can have a big impact.


Aaron Friedberg argued that during the Cold War America developed its required resources better than the Soviet Union.[xiii] The Soviet Union with a strong statist political culture choose a grand strategy that made it into a “garrison state”, where primacy was given to military preparation at significant detriment to society and the ultimate collapse of the USSR. Conversely, the US with an anti-statist ideology was more prudent and struck a better balance between military preparedness, long-term economic growth and societal prosperity. The US became a “contract state”, limiting extraction and mobilization to very specific areas of the economy and becoming reliant upon private enterprise for the necessary research, development and manufacture of armaments.  The American grand strategy as it evolved progressively imposed less of a burden on its society and this gave the U.S. greater resilience and robustness than the increasingly brittle Soviet Union.




There are many ways possible, far too many for any policymaker to recall especially when busy, time-constrained or stressed.  A simpler approach is to consider the fundamental ways of changing an existing relationship into something better: stopping them doing something, working with them or trying to change their minds.  Incorporating International Relations theoretical thinking (including on power[xiv]) then leads to three broad types of grand strategy: denial, engagement and reform.[xv]


A denial grand strategy assumes superior power determines outcomes; you can stop others achieving their objectives by being more powerful than them.[xvi] In such a grand strategy military and economic might is used in ways that means that others will in fear avoid disagreeable behaviours or, if needs be, can be physically stopped through using force.


An engagement grand strategy makes use of groups in the other state that have interests and desires that you share, or at least that are useful to you.[xvii] You can support these helpful groups so they prevail in the continual jostling between domestic interest groups rather then groups you disapprove of. The aim is to ensure that the ‘right’ people govern. Ensuring what the other state wants is what you want is the goal.

A reform grand strategy changes the ideas people hold.[xviii] The old ideas first need to collapse with people convinced a new replacement idea is essential. Then those particular members of a society who have a strong influence on the ideas people adopt need to be convinced that some new notion (of yours) is the answer. After this, these idea advocates need supporting until their message convinces enough people that a tipping point is reached, a cascade occurs and most accept the new thinking.


In this, it’s important to note that the ends and the ways are directly related. Specific ends are only achievable with particular appropriate ways. For example, a denial grand strategy will not change people’s deeply held norms and identities.


It’s also important not to perceive a grand strategy as a set-and-forget, launch-and-leave methodology. The effectiveness and efficiency of a grand strategy as initially conceived will inevitably change as others over time take actions opposing or supporting it, either deliberately or unintentionally. Grand strategies accordingly have a distinct life cycle: they arise, evolve through learning (some call this emergent[xix]) and then at some point finish and transition to another grand strategy or an alternative.[xx]


Such broad thoughts on rethinking grand strategy suggest America’s future grand strategy options from a problem-solving viewpoint. If the rise of China overshadows all, then a positional grand strategy focussed on China might appeal. Under this other states and regions - like Russia and the Middle East - would be managed depending on how they helped or hindered the building of the future desired relationship between the US and China. Some issues like terrorism might then be managed using risk management, that is trying to limit the damage any future acts of terrorism could cause rather than trying to cleanse the world of such political violence.


On the other hand, it might be better to have several positional grand strategies tailored for the major issues perceived, say one each for China, Russia and the Middle East.  Middle Eastern jihadism clearly calls for a different approach to managing peer competitors but even in the later case China and Russia are not the same, suggesting quite different grand strategies would be sensible.  The various grand strategies in play would still be grand strategies in the sense of being about interacting relationships and applying and building power in appropriate ways. The methodology can be applied simultaneously across varying levels of the international system; it is simply a problem-solving device.


Devising grand strategies however hinges on being able to define the ‘ends’ you want. This may not be an intellectually easy task, making risk management and opportunism appealing alternatives. Both approaches await events meaning defining a desired future is unnecessary. Risk management tries to lessen the damage an identified risk causes if it eventuates; opportunism tries to take advantage of new situations that emerge. Being event driven makes a big difference. Only the grand strategy methodology tries to shape events and take us to our desired future. It may not succeed but its ambition suggests grand strategy is worth a try.


End Notes


[i].  G. John Ikenberry, “From Hegemony to the Balance of Power: The Rise of China and American Grand Strategy in East Asia,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2014), p. 48.

[ii].  Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski, The End of Grand Strategy: U.S. Maritime Operations in the 21st Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017).

[iii].  Hew Strachan, “Strategy and Contingency”, International Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 6 (2011), pp. 1283-1284.

[iv].  Arthur F. Lykke Jr, “Defining Military Strategy”, Military Review, Vol. LXIX, No. 5, (May 1989).

[v].  See also: Peter Layton, “Using a Clausewitzian Dictum to Rethink Achieving Victory”, The Strategy Bridge, 15 May 2018,

[vi].  B.H. Liddell-Hart, Strategy, 2nd Revised Edition. (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 321-22.

[vii].  Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 87.

[viii].  This is done in: Peter Layton, Grand Strategy, (Brisbane: Amazon, 2018), pp. 74-93,

[ix].  Marshall Wright, 'Memorandum to the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), Washington, January 10 1970 ', in Louis J. Smith and David H. Herschler (eds.), Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969–1972, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976: Volume I, (Washington: Department of State, 2003), p. 163.

[x].  Arnold Wolfers, "'National Security' as an Ambiguous Symbol," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 4 (December 1952), p. 481.

[xi].  Scott Burchill, The National Interest in International Relations Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 206.  Alan S. Milward, The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy: The UK and the European Community Volume 1 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 6-7.  The practical utility of the term for contemporary policymakers is further discussed in Simon Williams, The Role of the National Interest in the National Security Debate (London: Royal College of Defence Studies, July 2012).

[xii].  Col. J.F.C. Fuller, The Reformation of War, 2nd Edition, (London: Hutchinson and Co, 1923), p. 219.

[xiii].  Aaron L. Friedberg, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America's Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 75-80, 341-51.

[xiv].  Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, “Power in International Politics”, International Organization, Vol. 59, No. 1, (Winter 2005).

[xv].  This step is explained and critiqued in some detail in: Peter Layton, Grand Strategy, (Brisbane: Amazon, 2018), pp. 37-74,

[xvi].  Makes use of [amongst others]: John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001)

[xvii].  Makes use of [amongst others]:  Andrew Moravcsik, "Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics", International Organization, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn 1997).   

[xviii].  Makes use of [amongst others]: Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, "International Norm Dynamics and Political Change", International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn 1998)

[xix].  Ionut C. Popescu, “Grand Strategy vs. Emergent Strategy in the Conduct of Foreign Policy”, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 41, Issue 3, (2018). 

[xx].  Alternatives are discussed in: Peter Layton, “The 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review choices: grand strategy, risk management or opportunism?” Defence Studies, Vol.15, Issue 1, [2015].


Categories: grand strategy

About the Author(s)

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. A former RAAF Group Captain, he has extensive defence experience, including in the Pentagon and at NDU, and a doctorate in grand strategy. This article draws on the book ‘Grand Strategy’.