Academic journal article Parameters

Assumptions and Grand Strategy

Academic journal article Parameters

Assumptions and Grand Strategy

Article excerpt

In an early-December 2010 press conference in Kabul, British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he was "cautiously optimistic" about the situation in Afghanistan. He then added that "2011 must be the year in which that progress becomes irreversible, because a safer Afghanistan means a safer Britain and a safer world." (1) Whatever one thinks of the NATO-led mission there, such statements are nonetheless rich in the assumptions that leaders appear to hold about it. In that one short passage, Cameron asserted that progress has been made, that the progress can be made irreversible (or, at least, should be made so), and that stability in Afghanistan directly contributes to British security. That the accuracy of all these positions is arguable is beyond question; that they are politically expedient is probable; but that is the nature of the relationship between assumptions and strategy formulation. They provide the lift to make the mental leaps toward a policy objective that is comprehensible and acceptable.

Strategy and Assumptions

In a recently published article, T. X. Hammes argues that assumptions are often overlooked in strategy formulation and sometimes with extremely serious consequences. (2) From the outset one can make two observations. First, given the complexity of international politics, assumptions are quite obviously inevitable (or, and more correctly, unavoidable) and frequently play a central role in decisionmaking. One can hardly disagree when Hammes advises readers that "[a]ssumptions are critical to defining your understanding of the problem." Second, there is a practical requirement for those assumptions to be right, or to eliminate as much error in judgment as is possible. That this is an imperative is due to the stakes being so great. According to Hammes, "the utter failure to discuss" assumptions has caused the United States great difficulties in achieving its policy objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Without detracting from Hammes' argument, its scope is unnecessarily narrow. It focuses almost exclusively on the assumptions that influence strategies of warfighting; in other words, how to deal with preconceptions held by those conducting a military campaign or a battle. These parameters are

not accidental. Where and when presuppositions have failed in their military application is clearly Hammes' principal concern, and his call for a critical reexamination of assumptions is linked to a desire to improve the efficacy of the US armed forces. Yet, upon reflection, it is clear that assumptions affect all levels of strategy formulation, from grand strategy to tactical levels of combat. More to the point, if the basic assumptions underlying grand strategy are incorrect or otherwise poorly understood, even superior military performance might not preserve, protect, or advance national interests.

It might, therefore, be argued that there is a greater demand for decisionmakers to be aware of assumptions at the level of grand strategy. Why is this so? It is at that level of strategy formulation that decisions are made to use armed force and how doing so relates to the much larger landscape defined by national interests and objectives. In his study of late-16th century Spain, Geoffrey Parker distilled a definition that is applicable today, noting that grand strategy:

   Encompasses the decisions of a given state about its overall
   security-the threat it perceives, the ways it confronts them and
   the steps it takes to match ends and means--and each involves the
   integration of the state's overall political, economic, and
   military aims, both in peace and war, to preserve long-term
   interests, including the management of ends and means, diplomacy
   and national morale and political culture in both the military and
   civilian spheres. (3)

In other words, it is not just about defeating an adversary on the battlefield, but rather about how any military problem advances core national aims. …

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