Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Future of Strategy

The Future of Strategy by Colin GrayGray - future of strategy

At the end of a distinguished career, professors sometimes write ‘a history of my field and its future’. This can be a fascinating and vital genre. At its best it engages the public, distils decades of learning and directly engages the most important issues of the day. At worst, these books do little more than summarise an author’s past thoughts (see Henry Kissinger’s World Order). Colin S. Gray’s The Future of Strategy walks both sides of this divide, but the effort, for author and reader alike is worth the toil.

Clarity of focus is one of Gray’s enduring strengths as an analyst. He is one of most relentless brushclearers in the field. He consistently tries to strip empirical reality back to its most base generalizable theory. In just 117 pages he has boiled down his life’s work to a few key themes: the need for a general theory of strategy, the universality of strategic practice and the ahistoric challenge of nuclear weapons.

Gray’s focus on developing theory is important in a field which often takes its claim to intellectual rigour as self-evident. Too often has the romantic allure of change (technology, ideas) and influence (providing analysis those in charge want to hear) caused theory to be left behind. That said, readers without the wider context of his work could question if a little too much brush has been cleared in this book, leaving a field slightly too barren for fertile development.

The heart of The Future of Strategy is the claim that strategy has a future. Gray believes his discipline will endure because he views strategic practice as a universal part of human experience. He brushes apart the objection that the word ‘strategy’ was only used in its modern context from the 1770s onwards. Instead Gray insists the practice of strategy — namely the search for security, the setting of policy via politics and the aligning Ends, Ways and Means to achieve this— is found in all times and places. While this claim is asserted more than demonstrated, I strongly agree.

To deny strategy had existence before we had a word for it, would be to suggest our ancestors had no capacity to think in terms of cause and effect. Or any desire to use violence or the threat of violence to achieve political aims. Yet such themes are vibrant in the works of ancient Generals such as Thucydides and Julius Caesar. A sceptic could put this down to modern translation error but that still does not explain the feints, deceptions and coordination of action found within the pages of these classics. War has never been merely politics by other means. But nor has war just been war. It is always undertaken for an objective beyond its own boundaries, and that aim is almost always a political one.

It may well be that earlier eras understood the calculations of strategy very differently, but I wouldn’t assume a universal approach exists even today. Groups who are deeply motivated by religion may consider their prayers and faithfulness a strategic act. A practice that can help swing the chance of battle in their favour through God’s protection. By comparison Chinese or French armies do not see any value in prayer as a way to improve their chances on the battlefield.

As has been widely remarked, despite its universal practice, formal scholarship of strategy remains a largely anglo-american practice. What is interesting is just how significant the anglo part of the field still is. Of the handful of truly world-class strategic writers, you’ll find three British authors. Hew Strachan, Lawrence Freedman and Colin S. Gray. And that sidelines the doyen of the field, the now retired Sir Michael Howard. This concentration is remarkable for a country seen as in decline, unable or unwilling to use force (the recent vote to join the campaign against ISIS notwithstanding). It may be this is a random occurrence or perhaps the last generation of significance, but with UK strategists like Theo Farrelly and Emile Simpson still early in their careers, the long term influence of British strategic thinking seems assured.

There is however a downside to this cultural continuity as Gray recognises. In one of the most fascinating sections, he argues ‘We strategists have tended to stick more or less closely to what can best, if unflatteringly, be seen as a tribalist tendency…we discover only a modest cannon of classic and more popular texts’. This is not unusual, but where other fields like Philosophy begin their discussion with Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche, strategic studies almost seems to find its end within the pages of Thucydides, Mahan and especially Clausewitz. As if nothing beyond these good books is needed to interpret modern events. Gray challenges this with his desire to build new theory, though even he still makes sure to pay homage to the ‘masters’.

The Future of Strategy may not be the deepest or most original work in the field or even of Gray’s prodigious output. But I still found myself underlining lines on nearly every second page. Old thoughts were put in clear and direct ways, perfect for citing later. Thus, as a stocktaking effort if nothing else, there is a great value in reflective assessments from those who have achieved so much for so long. We should therefore be thankful when today’s giants take a moment to pause and clear some space on their shoulders. So the next generation may stand firmly atop, and look afresh towards the distant horizons.