The Buzz

Six Strategic Mistakes

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, a recent book by two business strategy gurus, ought to be on political leaders’ shelves as well. The Economist sums up their framework:

Many [corporate leaders] are brought down by making a strategic error, of which there are six common varieties. There is the Do-It-All strategy, shorthand for failing to make real choices about priorities. The Don Quixote strategy unwisely attacks the company’s strongest competitor first. The Waterloo strategy pursues war on too many fronts at once. The Something-For-Everyone tries to capture every sort of customer at once, rather than prioritising. The Programme-Of-The-Month eschews distinctiveness for whatever strategy is currently fashionable in an industry. The Dreams-That-Never-Come-True strategy never translates ambitious mission statements into clear choices about which markets to compete in and how to win in them.

America’s approach to the world seems to suffer from each in places, but the main problem seems to be a Do-It-All strategy. Consider the piece Christopher Preble wrote in these spaces on Monday, which argued that the Pentagon would—like a business—have to make “difficult but necessary trade-offs” as its budget comes under new constraints.

If compelled to choose between more [ballistic missile submarines], more attack submarines, or more conventional surface combatants, what would the admirals pick? . . . Likewise, the Air Force should be asked whether the marginal benefits that would accrue from retaining the bomber leg of the nuclear triad are worth having fewer F-35s, fewer tankers, or fewer bombers dedicated solely to conventional strike missions.

Making trade-offs like these requires an estimation of what sorts of missions Washington will send its military on in the future, what enemies it will confront and where it will confront them. A Navy with lots of attack submarines, for instance, will be suited for confronting an enemy that is strong enough to use and control some of the sea in spite of U.S. efforts; those attack subs will be less suited for confronting piracy. A Navy with lots of surface combatants will excel at a range of missions, yet may struggle with an enemy skilled in sea denial. A Navy with lots of ballistic missile subs might come in handy if we anticipate some new Cold War-style confrontation, but it won’t be as good at sea control or securing logistical support for land operations.

In choosing what to cut, then, military leaders will have to accept that there will be certain missions and methods of protecting our interests that we’ll have to forgo. We’ll be tying our hands. Thus, we need a robust concept of what our most crucial interests are and how we are to go about securing them, so we can determine which capabilities are least vital. The United States currently has no such robust concept, and the costs of that are visible far beyond the world of defense acquisitions. We have spent thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars propping up the government of Afghanistan, one of the world’s most peripheral countries; we are simultaneously containing and not-containing China; we responded to a civil conflict in Libya as though our own security depended on the outcome, and paid a significant diplomatic price in the process. Without a strategy, U.S. foreign policy is just a disjointed set of actions related to things we think are important.

Successful strategies, say the authors of Playing to Win, require answers to five questions: what winning is, where to compete, how to compete, what unique strengths can add to competitiveness, and what things need the most attention to get to the win. Can our foreign-policy leaders answer those questions about America in the world?