Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review – Grand Strategy by Peter Layton

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SWJ Book Review – Grand Strategy by Peter Layton



Grand Strategy” by Peter Layton, USA, Columbia, SC, 30 July 2018, 267 pages, ISBN: 0-6482793-0-8 & 13:978-0-6482793-0-3, Paperback 17.99 USD


SWJ Review by Sarwar J. Minar


As the strategists, policy makers, academicians and many more are confused about the meaning and understandings of grand strategy, the book offers a concise solution to the problem, presenting a shift from traditional thinking, the book offers grand strategy to be a methodology of purposefully shaping tomorrow (p.2).


The book is divided into eight chapters. The author justified the need for better understand grand strategy by portraying three grand strategic catastrophes in the first chapter: UK’s attempt to avoid major war with Germany after first World War, USSR’s attempt to be US’s equal partner during the Cold War, and US’s attempt to bring democracy in the middle east in the post-Cold War era. Thus the book rationalizes better understanding and making better future grand strategies to avoid such failures.


To elucidate a better understanding of the concept, the book traces the evolution and development of the idea of grand strategy in the second chapter. By offering a brief comparison with strategy, the books lays that grand strategy has more expansive scope, requires use of diversified means (e.g., economic, military, diplomatic, informational etc.), and considers developing the necessary means over time. The books briefly discusses a few commonly held misconceptions about grand strategy and emphasizes on grand strategic synthesis (p.26), the importance of integrating ends, means and especially ways for successful grand strategy formulation. The book reminds the readers that grand strategy has a life cycle. The second chapter also provides a distinct definition, “grand strategy is the art of developing and applying diverse forms of power in an effective and efficient way to try to purposefully change the order existing between two or more intelligent and adaptive entities” (p.35).


The third chapter discusses about applying and building power and offers three types of grand strategies: Denial, Engagement, and Reform. The chapter provides the theoretical foundation associating the three grand strategies of denial, engagement, and reform respectively with IR mainstream theories of realism, liberalism and constructivism.


The fourth chapter explains practical approach to make grand strategies by providing explanations of each of the three grand strategies along with conditions for success.


Throughout fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters, a total of nine case studies, three case studies exemplifying each type of grand strategy, are illustrated. The cases are mix of successes and failures. The fifth chapter contains cases of Denial Grand Strategy: US’s Iraq War Grand Strategy (1991-1992), The LTTE Grand Strategy (1990-2002), and USSR’s Detente Grand Strategy (1965-1980). The sixth chapter describes cases of Engagement Grand Strategy: US’s European Recovery Grand Strategy (1947-1952), Iranian Hezbolla Grand Strategy (1982-2006), and British Appeasement Grand Strategy (1934-1939) to illustrate the Engagement Grand Strategy. The seventh chapter illustrates cases of Reform Grand Strategy: British Malayan Emergency Grand Strategy (1948-1960), Landmines Ban Campaign Grand Strategy (1992-1999), and US’s Iraq Regime Change Grand Strategy (2002-2003). 


The final chapter offers alternatives to grand strategy. While reactive ‘Risk Management’ focuses on loss control, ‘Opportunism’ focuses on availing opportunities. The book necessarily concludes with problems of grand strategy.


The book contributes to the conceptual development and understanding of the idea of grand strategy. Making grand strategy practically applicable remains one of the major contributions of the book. However, in trying to assist busy people to get practical benefit, the book simplified grand strategy as ‘problem solving method’ but all the objectives sought need not necessarily be problems. Moreover a little more attention and explanation on the ‘expansive goal’ would enrich the book since that is the fundamental reason which necessitated the creation of grand strategy.


The book is well articulated, well organized and nicely balanced. Highly Recommended.



Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Sarwar J. Minar is the Senior Officer, International Programs and Relations, Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) and Founder, Center for Grand Strategy Studies – a single issue think tank. He may be reached at


With regard to the "problem-solving approach," offered by Mr. Layton, let me offer three items for consideration.  First,  from the associated article by Mr. Layton ("Rethinking Grand Strategy") that I provide below:  

"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. ..."

Next, from Henry Kissinger and, it would seem, relating to "context:"  

"What conferred a dramatic quality on the X article was the way Kennan combined it with the historic American dream of the ultimate conversion of the adversary. Victory would come not on the battlefield nor even by diplomacy but by the implosion of the Soviet system."…

Last to note that -- even if we do not know what the "context" actually is (see Kissinger's "converting the heathen" above) -- and, thus, the problem that we actually seek to solve (the differing ordering, orientating and ordering of outlying states and societies) -- our adversaries certainly do and, accordingly, have formally adopted a strategy (think: "containment") so as to overcome our such strategic designs:

"Differing from the previous Tsarist regional empire and the Soviet globalist one, the new Russian foreign policy has a more pragmatic goal. It aims to build different types of buffer zones against NATO encroachment to the West and U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia."

So let me suggest that -- once one accepts the clear "context" (see "converting the heathen" in my second offered item above); only then, I suggest, might we come to understand why:

a.  Both great nations and small and both state and non-state actors -- much as was the case in the Old Cold War and versus the similarly expansionist Soviets/the communists back then -- why these such diverse actors have adopted various means/methods; these, to thwart our (the U.S./the West's) post-Old Cold War expansionist designs.  And why, accordingly:

b. The expansionist U.S./the West must, in consideration of the many and varied actors standing against us, be prepared to use SIMULTANEOUSLY(?) -- rather than only one/only one at at time -- ALL THE  "WAYS" noted by Mr. Layton in his concept, to wit: use, simultaneously, denial, engagement AND reform?


Supplement to my comment below:

Note that:

Only when one understands that the grand political objective of the revolutionary great power is to transform ALL the outlying states and societies of the world; this, more along the revolutionary great power's own, often alien and profane, political, economic, social and value lines -- only when one is able to understand this, shall we say "context," only then, it would seem, is one able to, thereby, understand why:

a.  Both great nations and small -- and, indeed, both state and non-state actors -- why ALL OF THESE could become the revolutionary great power's opponents/it's "enemies."  And understand why, accordingly:  

b.  ALL OF THE WAYS (denial, engagement, reform) -- outlined by Mr. Layton below -- why all of these such "ways" must be made available; this, for use by the great power undertaking such a "world revolution" mission.



From an earlier Small Wars Journal re: Grand Strategy by Peter Layton on this topic:



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.



If the desired end state of the U.S./the West -- much like the desired end state of the Soviets/the communists before us -- is, for example, to gain greater power, influence and control throughout the world; this, by transforming the Rest of the World more along (their then; our now) often alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines,

Then -- when "convert the heathen," thus, becomes the desired "end state" -- then do not the great powers seeking to so "transform" the Rest of the World (the Soviets/the communist back-in-the-day; the U.S./the West today) actually require -- for their immediate use -- ALL of the ways (denial, engagement, reform) noted by our author, Mr. Layton, above?

This (the use of denial, engagement AND reform), indeed, being what we see the U.S./the West employing today; this re: its "convert the heathen" political objective/its view of a "better peace?"