What is a Strategy?

August 22, 2012 Topic: HistoryGrand Strategy Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

What is a Strategy?

Having a foreign-policy doctrine doesn't always make for better policy.

In almost any institutional setting—in government, business or elsewhere—it is considered good for a leader to have something that can explicitly be called a strategy and bad not to have such a thing. Woe to the senior executive who does not have a “strategic plan” in writing. (One of the pieces of ammunition used by the head of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors in attempting to oust the university's president, Teresa Sullivan, was that Sullivan had not produced a “strategic plan.”) It does not seem to matter if such a document—as is true of most such “strategic plans” that I encountered in government—is at best a re-expression of missions that are already well understood by the work force or priorities that already have been repeatedly communicated. The presumed goodness of distinctive or identifiable strategies often leads to accusations of “he doesn't have a strategy” when this really means “I don't like his policy on some things.”

So what exactly constitutes a strategy, and why—with particular reference to international relations and foreign policy—is acting in a way that can be pointed to as “having a strategy” supposedly superior to approaching foreign problems in some other way?

The question is raised by Leslie Gelb's article about President Obama's foreign policy. Gelb makes rather a big thing about the importance of having a strategy. In the first paragraph in which the subject comes up the words “strategy,” “strategies” or “strategic” are used eight times, and he hammers away at the theme later as well. Anyone of Leslie Gelb's acumen and experience can be expected to offer a wealth of insightful and valuable policy recommendations, and Gelb certainly does so in the article. But for all his emphasis on having a strategy, he never really defines what that means.

He does give us some clues. He criticizes Obama's approach toward Afghanistan as being “little more than a disjointed list of tactics.” It is unclear just what would make a set of tactics jointed rather than disjointed, but in any event Gelb's conception of strategy seems to place more emphasis on ultimate goals rather than immediate tactics.

He also tells us which of several recent presidents had a foreign-policy strategy in his view and which ones didn't. Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush had strategies, he says, and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not. But in looking at what some of those presidents did and even at what Gelb specifically mentions they did, it is hard to distinguish something that stands out as a strategy from what is simply skillful responses to the particular opportunities and problems that happened to confront particular presidents at the times they were in office. Gelb defines the elder Bush's strategy as “end the Cold War without a hot war by helping Soviet leaders dismantle their empire.” Bush was indeed very successful in conducting his own country's part of the tumultuous events that happened on his watch, but the events didn't happen because of some strategy that Bush formulated, brought with him into office and applied. Robert Gates, in his account of this period (during most of which he was deputy national-security adviser), writes that the smartest thing Bush did as the Soviet empire was crumbling was simply to “play it cool.”

Having or not having a strategy hardly defines what made the elder Bush's foreign policy successful and the younger Bush's foreign policy a disaster. Indeed, the son may have had more of a strategy as Gelb seems to conceive of the term than the father did. The father acknowledged he had a problem with the “vision thing”; the son, who envisioned ending evil in the world, did not. Gelb says George W. Bush “seemed to believe that military assertiveness constituted a strategy.” Well, the younger Bush did believe that was at least a major part of his strategy, and it was a lousy strategy, but that is not the same as not having a strategy.

Truman was handed even more of a historic opportunity than the elder Bush was, and his response also was skillful. But the establishment of the post–World War II institutional order was a function more of that opportunity and the once-in-a-century need created by an extremely destructive global war than of some strategy hatched in the White House. Of the presidents Gelb mentions, Nixon was the one who most clearly brought with him into office a specific global strategy and who was more an initiator of revisions in the world order rather than a reactor to them. Even with Nixon, however, one could say there was something of an opportunity to which he was responding, which was the anomalous nature of Communist China's relationships with other powers and especially the United States.

Gelb gives us a further clue of what he means by a strategy by spelling out his own preferred strategy. It is based on the concepts of sharing responsibility with other powers for the handling of international problems such as Afghanistan, knowing both the capabilities and limitations of U.S. power, and appreciating the importance of U.S. economic strength for successful foreign policy. Those are all very sensible thoughts, and taking heed of them is more likely to produce good policy than bad policy. But in translating those principles into specific policies on many different individual issues, does that yield a pattern that is visibly more “strategic” than some other approach? How would we distinguish the result from one being guided by “common sense and flexibility,” which is what Gelb says Obama “appears to think” constitutes a strategy? Gelb's concept of mutual indispensability and responsibility, when applied not just to Afghanistan but to other problems as well, is likely to result in different types and degrees of U.S. involvement, and the resulting pattern probably will look basically the same as common sense and flexibility. And as for economic strength, given how prominent that is as a national objective in its own right, as reflected in the current political campaign, how would the incorporation of that factor more fully into a foreign-policy “strategy” look any different?