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Defining Grand Strategy

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871

The epigraph by Lewis Carroll neatly sums up the plight in which the term grand strategy finds itself. It is now a Humpty Dumpty word for which many hold their own unique understanding.[1] This has arisen because many historians and international relations scholars simply create a definition for themselves when writing that fits the arguments they wish to make. They mainly use the term to buttress their opinions about specific historical cases and particular academic theories. They are not trying nor, indeed, intendingto create a general, generic definition.

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Recognizing this, there is now a small cottage industry examining how the term varies between authors and across time. These works find what they set out to find, and many are fascinating historical works well worth exploring.[2]

However, it is surely past time to move on and try to develop a functional meaning of the phrase. This means moving away from today’s deliberately idiosyncratic formulations that are only useful in at best a few selected circumstances. Instead, a functional definition of grand strategy would aim to devise a generic meaning broadly applicable across numerous dissimilar cases. Being functional, though, implies the definition is for a specific task. Grand strategy is a methodology used by policymakers and practitioners to solve problems. It is for these people that a functional grand strategy definition would be of most use.

Grand strategy is strategy modified by the adjective grand. Considering the noun first, the crucial issue that defines a strategy is that it involves interacting with intelligent and adaptive others, whether friends, neutrals, or adversaries. It is a particular form of interactive social activity.

In operation, a strategy constantly evolves in response to the other actors implementing their own countervailing or supportive strategies. Edward Luttwak termed this “the paradoxical logic of strategy,” where successful actions cannot be repeated as the other party adapts in response to ensure the same outcome cannot be gained in this way again.[3] This characteristic means strategy is an art and not a science where outcomes are repeatable on demand.

IN OPERATION, A STRATEGY CONSTANTLY EVOLVES IN RESPONSE TO THE OTHER ACTORS IMPLEMENTING THEIR OWN COUNTERVAILING OR SUPPORTIVE STRATEGIES.

If this is what strategy is, its scope can be understood using Art Lykke’s famous model. He deconstructed the art of strategy into ends, ways, and means, where the ends are the objectives, the ways are the courses of actions, and the means are the instruments of national power.[4] The means are used in certain ways to achieve desired ends.

Strategy is accordingly simply the ways. Sir Lawrence Freedman writes that strategy is “about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.”[5] Good strategy involves an astute course of action, a shrewd way that is additive to the available power; the impact of the means are magnified. In contrast, poor strategy subtracts from the available means; it destroys the power you have.

Importantly, the addition of the adjective grand to the noun strategy does not in some manner amplify the ways used. Instead, adding grand to strategy enlarges the term mainly as concerns ends and means. This comes out most strongly in how Basil Liddell Hart and J.F.C Fuller explained grand strategy in the 1920s.

Liddell Hart’s formulation brought out that grand strategy has grand ambitions in trying to purposefully construct a preferred future beyond the current problem. He wrote, “While the horizon of strategy is bounded by the war, grand strategy looks beyond the war to the subsequent peace.”[6] With strategy an interactive social activity, Liddell Hart’s better peace is a change in the relationships the nations at war had with each other before the conflict started. If Liddell Hart saw grand strategy looking beyond the war, Fuller argued grand strategy prepared the whole nation before the war.[7] Combining both perspectives, grand strategy is useful across peace and war.

“WHILE THE HORIZON OF STRATEGY IS BOUNDED BY THE WAR, GRAND STRATEGY LOOKS BEYOND THE WAR TO THE SUBSEQUENT PEACE.”

In terms of means, both Liddell Hart and Fuller stressed that grand strategy used diverse means. Harold Lasswell determined that “a fourfold division of policy instruments is particularly convenient when the external relations of a group are being considered: information, diplomacy, economics and military (words, deals, goods, and weapons.)”[8] This is the DIME acronym oft-used at defense and military staff colleges when discussing grand strategy. Note for later the use of diplomacy, information, military, and economic instruments by a grand strategy needs to be effective to succeed.

Crucially, grand strategy looks beyond the means being simply diverse to also include their development. Fuller observed, “While strategy is more particularly concerned with the movement of armed masses, grand strategy…embraces the motive forces which lie behind.”[9] The instruments of national power are developed from the tangible resources of manpower, money and material, and the non-tangible resources of legitimacy and soft power. In this, the international system is as much a potential source of grand strategic resources for states as their parent societies are. Again, note for later that the development by the grand strategy of the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic instruments needs to be efficient as national resources are always scarce and demands on them many.

Ends, ways, and means may be understood as individual elements, but the essence of grand strategy is their integration into a coherent, cohesive whole. In a conceptual sense, a grand strategy is a system whose outcomes are more than the sum of its parts. A grand strategy can only be understood in its totality.

While the grand strategies of World War Two’s major combatants impacted their societies, the grand strategies the combatants adopted were influenced and shaped by their respective domestic foundations. These states purposefully struck a balance between the demands of their chosen grand strategies and the ability of their domestic base to meet these demands.[10] Applying the means and developing the means were not simply opposite sides of the same coin but were interdependent.

From this discussion several strands appear: grand strategy is intrinsically an art; it encompasses developing and applying the many and varied instruments of national power (the means); it is ideational in being the ways; the ends can be expressed in terms of the relationships between those involved; and it is, at its core, an interactive social activity where the enemy gets a vote with countervailing strategies. A functional definition then pops out:

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 relationship existing between two or more intelligent and adaptive entities.

It’s a slightly wordy definition, but grand strategy is now a distinctive, stand-alone expression. Grand strategy can no longer be confused or conflated with others such as statecraft, foreign policy, or even strategy. The definition can bring clarity to discussions about grand strategy.

The observant will note that grand strategies can only ever be aspirational, as others will push back, perhaps successfully. This fundamental uncertainty highlights the importance of having a functional definition to guide our thinking. If we cannot even define what something is, it is unlikely we will be able to create or use it adroitly. It is time to break with the past and define grand strategy.


Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute (Griffith University), an Associate Fellow at RUSI. The ideas in this article are examined in considerably greater depth in his book, Grand Strategy.

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