Lowy Institute

Debate: What is 'strategy'?

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A friend of mine, still in uniform, was reading an Interpreter debate thread about the utility/futility of our presence in Afghanistan and asked me what I thought was meant when one contributor wrote about the '...lack of mutual understanding (that) has underwritten much of the tension between uniformed soldiers and civilian strategists' (my emphasis).

Because I have one foot in the think-tank world and had one foot in the uniformed soldier world, my friend thought I might be able to tell him what a 'civilian strategist' was. I couldn't exactly enlighten him, other than to tell him what I think people who call themselves civilian strategists think they are.

Some people have done courses, so consider themselves strategists as a result. Some have worked in the public service in intelligence or defence policy and consider themselves strategists, while others have written on strategic issues that have influenced government policy. But 'strategist' is not a qualification; it is an appellation one can give oneself.  

Which then got me thinking why the military seems to want to get its people to think strategically but why the strategic community never appear to think operationally or tactically.

The notion of the 'strategic corporal', a phrase coined by US Marine General Charles Krulack in 1999, is a good case in point. With the onset of the information age and the omnipresence of the media (both social and old), the decisions taken by tactical-level commanders can readily resonate at the strategic level. So the concept of tactical commanders needing to understand the strategic effects of their decisions has been taught as a fundamental part of professional military education.

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I often wonder why the reverse never seems to occur. If tactical-level commanders are expected to take into account the strategic environment in which they operate, at what point do putative strategists need to understand the tactical or operational level implications of their strategic prognostications?

I used to wonder why those in the academic or bureaucratic community who advocated a Defence of Australia strategy were never asked to outline the impact of this approach on the army's ability to deploy and sustain itself outside continental Australia. Or, more recently, why those who advocate pulling Australian troops behind the wire in Uruzgan fail to address the impact of such a suggestion on the tactical environment outside the wire, and the impact on the ADF and OGA hunkered down inside the wire.

The military appreciation process, the means by which plans are formulated, requires those driving the plan to examine the intent of two levels of command above them and the impact of plans on two levels of command below them to ensure that both the higher level guidance and the lower level impact of decisions are understood.

I stand to be corrected, but I assume that strategic studies courses taught in universities don't spend much time discussing the second- or third-order effects of strategic plans at the operational or tactical level.

Photo by Flickr user avyfain.


Crispin Rovere is a PhD Candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Rodger Shanahan asks two very important and incisive questions: (1) what is a civilian strategist, and (2) why do they (we) feel they do not need tactical or operational knowledge to be authoritative on strategic matters?

Strategy is about the achievement of political objectives by military means. A civilian strategist is therefore someone not in uniform, who approaches the use of armed force with political objectives in mind. A civilian strategist calculates whether the benefit of military operations to Australia's national interest outweighs the blood and treasure required of the nation.

When coming to these judgments, they are bound to ask questions like: is the threat to Australia's national security grave enough to warrant the sacrifice of Australian lives? What are the costs and risks of embarking on such an enterprise? What is it we hope to achieve by the use of armed force? Under what circumstances would it no longer be in our interests to continue?

With respect to Afghanistan, these issues have long been contested. At the IQ2 debate in Melbourne, General (Retd) Jim Molan argued that, irrespective of the stated political objectives, Australia has a moral and humanitarian responsibility to protect the Afghan people from oppressive Taliban rule. This was a powerful presentation that understandably swayed much of the audience. 

A civilian strategist might then ask: if we have a moral responsibility, just how many lives are required to fulfil this obligation? Is it 10? 100? 100,000? At what point do we assess this as being beyond our interests to pursue? Moreover, is the vast expense of conducting large-scale operations in Afghanistan the best possible allocation of resources to assist those less fortunate around the world?

Ultimately, a civilian strategist may be less concerned with whether Afghanistan is 'winnable' than whether it is worth winning.

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It is hard to imagine volunteer soldiers in Afghanistan concerning themselves with these questions. While it's critical that field officers understand the strategic thinking of theatre commanders in taking tactical decisions, the political objectives of civilian leadership are of little relevance. As Sebastian Junger observes in 'War': 'Soldiers worry about those things about as much as farmhands worry about the global economy, which is to say, they recognize stupidity when it's right in front of them but they generally leave the big picture to others.'

The problem lies where civilian leaders fail, through lack of direction or oversight, to clearly communicate to uniformed commanders what the latter is expected to achieve with the resources they've been allocated. This criticism has been leveled by both civilian strategists as well as soldiers themselves.

This leads to Rodger's second question. On the one hand there are civilians who possess operational and tactical expertise, whose focus is on military doctrine or defence capability, but who are more likely to have direct operational experience and to have served either in uniform or embedded among soldiers. In this instance they are not so much civilian strategists as military experts, like Rodger Shanahan himself, who move between civilian and military circles, often acting as interpreters for both.

Ultimately, civilian strategists require a different set of skills than those of uniformed soldiers. Speaking only for myself, I will always defer to those with command experience when discussing operational matters.

I would also agree that while not a pre-requisite, knowledge of operations can profit a civilian strategist by helping them assess operational plans and its relationship to political objectives. Indeed, there were few civilian strategists to advise President Obama on General McChrystal's surge plan or capable of arguing alternatives. McChrystal gave his best advice as to what was likely to be effective, but not whether America's security interests justified such an investment.

I would welcome the opportunity to be deployed, expand my knowledge and earn the trust and respect of my military friends, but as ClosetIdealist points out, civilian strategists make a substantial contribution, whether or not they have been on the battlefield.

Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.


It appears my post about civilian strategists brought a couple of these elusive beasts out of the woodwork. And bravo to Crispin Rovere for having a crack at defining what he thought a civilian strategist was. Still, after reading his response and that of Closet Idealist, who didn't really seek to describe what a civilian strategist is, I am still none the wiser.

From Crispin's definition, a civilian strategist weighs up the costs and benefits of military action measured against political goals and decides whether it is worth pursuing. But this sounds suspiciously like what a policy adviser might do. I imagine that someone with aspirations to be a civilian strategist would look at the enunciation and achievement of long-term strategic goals, would examine the manner in which the government should harness the elements of national power and synchronise them to achieve these long-term objectives.

In the contemporary Australian context, and based on my imagining of what a strategist should do, I would argue that we have no such thing as strategists (civilian or otherwise), for a range of reasons that would be worthy of a separate blog post. What we have are plain old, garden variety defence policy wonks — some who have done strategic studies courses, some that haven't, some who are good, and some not so good, just like other areas of the public service. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being good at policy work — the wheels of government would quickly seize up if we didn't produce and employ good policy wonks. 

People often conflate long-term thinking with strategy, but strategists should be much more than simply long-term thinkers. 

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They should be looking at multiple lines of operation over differing time periods in order to achieve national aims. It is akin to being able to write a piece of music for an orchestra and then act as the conductor, a difficult task that requires a combination of vision, experience and understanding of how the elements of national power work in an Australian (and possibly international) context to achieve the best effect. I am not sure that Australia's political, diplomatic or security circumstances demand, or allow us to produce these types of people. 

Still, regardless of how many civilian strategists (or mere policy advisers) we produce, the nature of defence planning means that some strategic policy decisions will continue to be done the old fashioned way.

Photo by Flickr user peasap.


Rodger Shanahan is having problems with the phrase 'civilian strategist'. Perhaps that's because he's looking too hard at the adjective and not hard enough at the noun. Let's work out what a strategist is, and then worry about the 'civilian' bit later.

If we start by agreeing that a strategist is someone who does strategy, we have to then decide what 'strategy' means. Do not expect a simple answer. The great philosophical logician Humpty Dumpty spoke truly when he said, 'My words mean whatever I want them to mean'. We can and do use 'strategy' to talk about all kinds of things. So the best one can do is to explain how one uses the word oneself, and hope that helps to make things clearer.

My use of the word 'strategy' derives from my understanding of the nature of war. For me, war is organised violence conducted for a political purpose. Strategy is the bridge between them – between the organised violence, which is the means, and the political purpose, which is the end. The relationship between violence as a means and political outcomes is inherently complex. Perhaps that's because it crosses the divide between the physical and the mental – always a tricky interface.

On this account, the central problem of strategy is how to match military means to political ends. The core strategic decisions that any government has to face are (a) what military operations it should undertake to achieve its political objectives, and (b) what capabilities it should build to be able to achieve its political objectives in future. These are the big questions of strategic policy - 'policy' being just a fancy word for government decisions.

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We – military, civilian, politicians and layman alike – very commonly get these decisions wrong, because we so often misunderstand the link between ends and means in war. Afghanistan provides an apposite case study. Mistakes happen at every point of the process; we muddle our objectives, mismatch objectives to means, and then mismanage the operations themselves.

Clearly, to make these decisions better, strategists need to know both ends of the link: they need to know about military operations and capability on the one hand, and political objectives on the other. And above all you need to understand as much as you can about the link itself – about the connections and disconnections between them. 

If this is a useful way to think about the word 'strategist', we can turn now to 'civilian'. What does one need to know to do strategy? Clearly I agree with the claim which I suppose Rodger to be making, that no one can call themselves a strategist who does not know a great deal about military operations and capability. I think most civilians who do strategy know far too little about these things. But no matter how hard they work, civilians will not know as much as military professionals who have been immersed in it from the start of their careers.

But equally, no one can call themselves a strategist (at least in my sense of the word) without knowing a lot about political objectives, and about the link between organised violence and political purpose. I think most military officers, even those of very high rank indeed, know far too little about these. And no matter how hard they work at it, any military officer who has spent the first ten or even twenty years of his or her career at the tactical and operational level will not know as much about these aspects of strategy as those who immerse themselves in strategic-level problems from the age of 20.

So we need both uniformed and civilian strategists, and they need to work together. The way to do strategic policy better is not for one 'side' or the other to claim a monopoly on strategic wisdom  and ownership of strategic decisions, but for both sides to educate themselves much better about all aspects of strategy, and to realise that both skill-sets are needed.

Photo by Flickr user The California National Guard.


Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Nicely put by Hugh White.

The big challenge is to get people on both sides of the civilian/military divide to know what they are talking about, even in their own civilian or military specialty.

A large number of Australian military officers get to senior rank without having much of a clue about real-world military operations because in the past (at least before we gained some solid but low-level military experience in Afghanistan and a bit in Iraq), Australians spent much of their time in delusional military exercises and insignificant operations, and the learning process was clouded by self-delusion.

I also wonder how many civilians really 'immerse themselves in strategic-level problems from the age of twenty'. How much experience of strategic issues do you get from academia or Taxation or Customs or Lowy before you move across into security-related positions?

The next issue is the unpreparedness of our politicians, when they become statesmen, to exercise power. There is a certain inevitability that these issues of strategic imperfection will not be addressed until the wolf is at the door. If this was not the case, there would have been an uproar about the stripping out of essential monies from Defence in the last budget, and the return to the past in the Rufus Black Review.

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I should add that, in many years of watching the play between civilian and military within Defence, and in playing around the edges, the stereotypes rarely came out as you would expect. I could name civilians and politicians who understood the use of military power far better than any military officer, and military officers who could work far better than their civilian counterparts at the political/strategic level. I used to refer to one civilian bureaucrat as the toughest General in Defence.

In the end, we are an imperfect human team, and we depend for ultimate strategic success on the quality of our statesmen and a large measure of luck.

Photo by Flickr user malias.


Mark O'Neill is a Lecturer in the National Security College, Australian National University.

Hugh White's effort to define strategy has lured me from a year-long blogging sabbatical. One reason is that a preoccupation of my 'day job' is teaching strategy to postgraduate students at the National Security College. And I think no-one has yet fully nailed the idea of what a strategist is. 

The themes that have emerged on The Interpreter echo the discussions in class each week as my students grapple with the key issues emerging from the literature. Questions like 'what is strategy' and 'who or what a strategist?' are fundamental, yet remain highly contestable. Part of the problem, as Hew Strachan points out, is that the word 'strategy' has acquired a universality which has robbed it of meaning, and left it only with banalities.

There was a lot I liked in Hugh White's post. His quotation from Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty nicely emphasises the contestability of this topic. Hugh strips back some of the 'universal banalities' and, channeling Colin Gray, re-introduces the idea of strategy as the bridge between war and its political purpose(s). His points about policy merely being a fancy word for government decisions, and the need for civil-military understanding, are also well made. 

But two issues arise from Hugh's post, one minor and one more significant, that merit further examination. First to my minor quibble. I doubt that Hugh would be surprised at being called out on this line:

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And no matter how hard they work at it, any military officer who has spent the first ten or even twenty years of his or her career at the tactical and operational level will not know as much about these aspects of strategy as those who immerse themselves in strategic-level problems from the age of 20.

This sentence begs the obvious question: who (or where?) are these civilians purportedly immersing themselves in 'strategic-level problems' from the age of twenty? To my mind, doing the photocopying in a national security department, while immersive, probably delivers little more strategic insight and acuity than being a platoon commander in Oruzgan Province. And neither civilians nor the military have a monopoly on 'strategic studies' at universities. Baldly put, our current civilian and military employment and education paradigms are highly unlikely to produce an Alexander.

My other point is that, having offered a good definition of the space a strategist works in, Hugh does not fully tease out a subtle but significant factor that truly defines what a strategist (military or civilian) is.

Strategy is a practical activity. So the strategist must do something. A strategist is not only someone who can understand or master the bridge between organised violence and policy objectives; he or she is necessarily someone who can do something about it. That is, they have authority and ownership, responsibility and accountability for the sum of the ends, ways and means. This is an important distinction about strategists that has not come out fully in any of the posts to date.

So while 'strategy workers' (that is, people who understand and 'cross' the strategy bridge) are relatively commonplace, true strategists are a rare breed. This perhaps accounts for the confusion surrounding the topic, as people confuse 'strategy workers' (or even 'strategy commentators'...) with true strategists.

Photo by Flickr user illustir.


Anton Kuruc writes:

It is surprising how many contributors to this debate have limited their definition of strategy to decisions that revolve around the nexus between war and its political aims. Strategy is broader than war, the decisions about a war's objectives and what capabilities are needed to wage it — although this is a handy summation of military strategy. Strategy is a broad approach to external competition. Some time ago I pondered this subject in great depth and concluded that strategy is:

'The process of building, integrating and deploying capabilities into a competitive dynamic external environment in order to promote and or protect one's interests.'

This definition fits the nation or a business. Strategy builds and uses capabilities to compete and cooperate in a competitive dynamic external environment, however that competition rarely takes the form of a war. A strategy is only necessary when dealing with a competitive dynamic external environment. Without the dynamic or competitive elements a plan, rather than a strategy, will usually suffice. Built into this understanding of strategy are three key strategic activities.

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First there is an internal dimension where capabilities are developed. This dimension deals with fundamental uncertainty, almost always costs the most and paradoxically, requires the greatest flexibility from the most rigid elements of strategy — capabilities. The fundamental uncertainty is driven by the cost to acquire, time taken to introduce and the life span of capabilities fielded. We just can't know what the Joint Strike Fighter, for example, might be required to do in 2030. Likewise we might build and fund: industry priorities, dedicated educational institutes or negotiate free trade agreements as a part of a national strategy to better compete in our external environment or to protect us from potential external shocks. But we can't know with any certainty what the opportunities and threats will be in 2030 — we can only make informed guesses.

Having a capability changes the external environment. The advent of Chinese aircraft carriers, China's growing economic reach and influence through direct foreign investment, its increased wealth, its expanding technical skill base etc all change the strategic environment. These changes force others, including Australia, to change national perspectives, priorities, and expectations about their own interests. It is not just military capability development that is important. It is the development of a strong economy, ties to other countries, national wealth, an educated and technically literate workforce and good political leadership etc. These are strategic capabilities that take decades and cost billions of dollars to build.

The second dimension of strategy is the integrating role that bridges the internal and external environments. These decisions are not just about war, in fact they are mostly about peace. During peace, Australia decides who to forge alliances with, who to trade with, where to dispense aid and whose international causes to support. These are all strategic decisions that help shape the external environment to promote and or protect Australia's interests. It is at this level that the Executive decides what the national interest is, what resources are available and which ones to deploy into the external environment to pursue a particular interest. This area typically deals with shorter time-frames, involves moderate to high levels of uncertainty and cost very little in and of itself. It is usually the most flexible and creative area of strategy. The time-frames can be from the relatively immediate crisis to those that emerge over years. This level derives a 'yield' from the prior capability investments made, in some cases, decades ago.

The decisions at this level are constrained by oversights or shortfalls of capability-investment decisions made much earlier. Today's internal capability-development investment decisions constrain tomorrow's strategy. Only in the present can we accurately determine whether prior expectations of the longer term future were well balanced against the competing priorities of more immediate demands of government. Rarely do those who invest in a capability get to apply that capability, which unfortunately provides very little incentive to get the long-term capability investment strategy right.

The final level is what the US calls the 'theatre strategic' level. This is the best understood realm of strategy which can be costly, but deals with the shortest time-frames and has the least uncertainty. Essentially the strategist at this level, sometimes a military person, knows what interest he pursues, where to pursue it, what resources are available and who he is competing with. All three levels of strategy are interdependent to get to this point of use.

In our system, nearly everyone of these key strategic decisions is made by a civilian, which brings us back to the original question asked by Rodger Shanahan – what is a civilian strategist? Normally he or she is someone who doesn't call themselves a strategist, has little or no education in strategy, but has a working life full of strategic decision-making. They are called politicians.

What previous contributors to this debate call a 'strategist', civil or military, are usually a direct or indirect adviser to a politician in the Executive (cabinet) which is responsible for strategic decision-making. Strategic advisor's help fill in the technical and domain knowledge gap that lets politicians identify a national interest, understand what means are available and how they might be used to promote and protect our interests. In some circumstances these advisers also implement a strategy in a confined area and under defined conditions – usually overseen by a politician.

It is the politician who, in a democracy, is quite rightly responsible for strategy. The rest can only offer wise counsel.


The latest Republican to nominate for the US presidency, Texas Governor Rick Perry, made an interesting claim about the relationship between the military and civilian leadership:

'I want to make sure that every young man and woman who puts on the uniform of the United States respects highly the president of the United States.' He later 'clarified' by saying that 'If you polled the military, the active duty and veterans, and said 'would you rather have a president of the United States that never served a day in the military or someone who is a veteran?' They’ve going to say, I would venture, that they would like to have a veteran.'

It may well be that military personnel prefer veterans (in 2008, McCain seemed to beat Obama among military voters), but the last five US presidential election losers are John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole and George Bush Snr (pictured; courtesy of Wikipedia) — all of them had a superior military record to their opponents.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the last Prime Minister to wear the uniform was Gough Whitlam. While eight of our twenty-seven Prime Ministers have served in the military, only Bruce and Gorton used their service as a notable part of their public image.

Rick Perry's real intention, of course, is to paint Obama as something other than a true commander-in-chief during wartime. But Perry, like McCain and Kerry before him, shouldn't expect that the war and turmoil the US faces overseas will lead the public to support a veteran. The public seems very comfortable with the concept of a civilian as chief strategist, as Anton Kuruc argues.