The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War

By Sempa, Francis P. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2012 | Go to article overview

The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War


Sempa, Francis P., Joint Force Quarterly


Edited by Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich, and James Lacey

Cambridge University Press, 2011 283 pp. $27.99

ISBN: 978-0-521-15633-2

Great powers pursue national objectives and promote and protect national security interests by means of grand strategy. This sounds obvious and simple enough, but as Carl von Clausewitz wrote of war, in selecting and implementing grand strategies, even the most simple things are difficult. That is the common thread that links the nine insightful essays collected by Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich, and James Lacey in The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War.

As Williamson Murray notes in the opening essay, there is no neat, precise definition of grand strategy. "The closer one comes to understanding what it entails, the more one sees how complex and uncertain in historical terms are the aspects that encompass its making and use" (p. 5). Grand strategy is affected by a nation's geographical position, historical context, the nature of its government, and the character and capabilities of its leaders, and it encompasses political, social, economic, and military realities. "No theoretical construct, no set of abstract principles, no political science model," Murray writes, "can capture its essence" (p. 11).

The essence of grand strategy can only be understood by historical examples, which is why seven of the nine essays are case studies of successes and failures of grand strategies at different periods of history. "It is the understanding of the ambiguities and uncertainties that political and military leaders have confronted in the past and will confront in the future," writes Murray, "that is the basis of any successful grand strategy" (p. 33).

The contributors to The Shaping of Grand Strategy examine Louis XIV's France; Britain during the Seven Years' War; Otto von Bismarck's Prussia and Germany; Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Britain in the 1930s and the early years of World War II; the United States in World War II; and the United States in the early Cold War years. As Richard Hart Sinnreich points out in his concluding essay, these case studies reveal no "patterns" of grand strategy--no precise theories to explain why some strategies succeed and others fail. There are simply too many variables and too much plain luck involved. Sinnreich quotes Bismarck on this subject: "Man cannot create the current of events. He can only float with it and steer" (p. 254).

Louis XIV succeeded in making France the predominant power in Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, explains John A. Lynn II, but his quest for absolute security and his unilateral foreign policies produced concerted opposition among other European powers and nearly bankrupted France. Louis's grand strategy embroiled his country in wars for 51 of the 72 years he occupied the throne. France increased its continental possessions, but at far too high a cost.

Louis's grand strategy stands in stark contrast to that of Otto von Bismarck, who skillfully steered the Prussian/German ship of state during the mid to late [19.sup.th] century. "No statesman ever adjusted war to policy with a nicer judgment than Bismarck," wrote Halford Mackinder. As Marcus Jones notes in his essay, Bismarck waged three short and successful wars, attained Prussian predominance through a united German Empire in the center of Europe, and then formed alliances with other great powers that maintained general peace. …

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