Strategy and the Strategic Way of Thinking

By Owens, Mackubin Thomas | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Strategy and the Strategic Way of Thinking


Owens, Mackubin Thomas, Naval War College Review


Strategy is often portrayed as the interaction of ends, ways, and means, which is a useful formulation. In essence, strategy describes the way in which the available means will be employed to achieve the ends of policy.

The word "strategy" is used in a variety of contexts. There are business strategies, coaching strategies, financial strategies, and research strategies. Over the past few decades, the concept of strategy increasingly has been applied to organizations. An organization develops a strategy based on its mission or goal, a vision of the future, an understanding of the organization's place in that future, and an assessment of the alternatives available to it, given scarce resources.

Yet the central application of the concept of strategy continues to be defense planning. History makes it clear that the development of a coherent strategy is absolutely essential to national security in times of both war and peace. In the absence of a coherent strategy, nonstrategic factors, such as bureaucratic and organizational imperatives, will fill the void to the detriment of national security.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The term strategy is derived from the classical Greek word strategist, the art of the general (strategos). Despite the ancient origins of the word's etymology, modern strategic studies can be said to begin with the division of the art of war into the theory of "the use of engagements for the object of the war" (strategy) and "the use of armed forces in the engagement" (tactics) by the great interpreters of Napoleonic warfare, Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz. As the latter wrote:

Strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: in fact, shape the individual campaign and, within these, decide on the individual engagements.3

These nineteenth- century writers originated the modern conception of strategy as the art of assembling and employing military forces in time and space to achieve the goals of a war. Previously, writers such as Niccolo Machiavelli and his successors through the eighteenth century had used a related term, "stratagem," to mean a ruse or gambit to achieve an advantage through surprise. While such writers limited their use of "strategy" to mean the application of military forces to fulfill the ends of policy, it is increasingly the practice today to employ the term more broadly, so that one can speak of levels of strategy during peace and war. Accordingly, more often than not, strategy now refers not only to the direct application of military force in wartime but also to the use of all aspects of national power during peacetime to deter war and win.

POLICY AND STRATEGY

This more expansive usage of strategy inevitably overlaps with the common meaning of "policy," which is defined as the general overall goals and acceptable procedures that a nation might follow and the course of action selected from among alternatives in light of given conditions. In their military history of the United States, Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski define defense policy as "the sum of the assumptions, plans, programs, and actions taken by the citizens of the United States, principally through governmental action, to ensure the physical security of their lives, property, and way of life from external military attack and domestic insurrection." For our purposes, "policy" refers primarily to such broad national goals as interests and objectives, and "strategy" to the alternative courses of actions designed to achieve those goals, within the constraints set by material factors and geography.

In general, strategy provides a conceptual link between national ends and scarce resources, both the transformation of those resources into means during peacetime and the application of those means during war. …

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