Grand strategy is the highest level of national statecraft that establishes how states, or other political units, prioritize and mobilize which military, diplomatic, political, economic, and other sources of power to ensure what they perceive as their interests. Depending on one’s theoretical perspective, these perceived interests focus the most minimal goal of ensuring the state’s survival, pursuing specific domestic interests or ideational coalitions, or establishing a specific regional or global order. The “grand” in the concept is often confused for grandiose or ambitious; however, it does not suggest expansive goals but rather the managing of all the state’s resources toward the means of the state’s perceived ends. The concept emerged from the military domain and refers to what is necessary for the successful use of military force in wartime and peacetime. The latter includes “non-use” uses of military force such as deterrence and coercion. The range of other instruments—beyond military force—is extensive: alliance building, diplomacy, economic policy, financial incentives, intelligence, public diplomacy/propaganda, and the mobilization of the nation’s political will. The majority of the literature explicitly focuses on great powers such as the United States (from World War I onward), Great Britain and France (until World War II), the Spanish Empire, the Soviet Union / Russia, and China during its rise. Middle or smaller powers are often implicitly or explicitly assumed to be too constrained to pursue grand strategies. Studies of grand strategy tend to focus on the rise and fall of these great powers, and their (in)ability to adapt to changing strategic circumstances. The prominent theoretical approaches to the study of grand strategy in political science accept the interplay between the threats and opportunities of the international environment and the constraints or drivers of domestic politics, but understand these in different ways. Realist scholars stress the former, or the interaction between both, while liberal scholars emphasize the latter. Similarly, realist scholars tend to narrowly define the ends of grand strategy as ensuring security, whether through maintaining a status quo or seeking hegemony, and to treat the state and the national interest as relatively unproblematic. Liberal scholars place greater emphasis on ideology and the interests and ideas of domestic coalitions, and also include broader strategic outcomes in their definitions, such as the preferred international order a state (or its elites) is seeking. Empirically, studies of grand strategies are inherently context heavy to take into account the complexity of the international environment, domestic politics, and the range of instruments of statecraft involved. The majority of the literature therefore consists of in-depth, descriptive historical accounts of single states, while comparatively few comparative studies exist. Some authors use terms other than grand strategy, such as foreign or security policy, in nearly the same sense. In practice, it can be difficult to establish clear distinctions between these concepts and grand strategy. In this article, for practical as well as conceptual reasons, the emphasis is therefore on those authors who explicitly use the term, rather than on those who might de facto discuss it.
History of Grand Strategy as a Concept
Strategy emerged as a concept over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, as (former) practitioners began systemically collecting their thoughts on how wars should effectively be fought. The introduction of the concept of strategy—a neologism based on the Greek word for commander—should be seen in the light of the formalization and the rationalization of social processes of the time. Strachan 2005 offers a concise history of the introduction and development of the concept of history over the past centuries. The “grand” (or major, or high) strategy was the logical next step in thinking beyond strictly military strategy, beyond the stringing together of battles to win campaigns, and campaigns to win wars, and was built on the notion that successfully executing a military strategy required the careful husbanding of national material resources, the mobilization of society, and diplomacy. This implied that grand strategy extended beyond wartime into peacetime and should include the prevention of war. The term “grand strategy” was officially introduced in Liddell Hart 1967 (originally published in 1929), which emphasizes that grand strategy was about more than winning the war but also achieving “a state of peace, and of one’s people, [that] is better after the war than before.” Clausewitz 1976 (first published in 1832), an argument of “war as the continuation of politics by other means” (chapter 1, section 24), already encapsulates much of the same thinking. Corbett 1988 (originally published in 1911) considers similar issues and terms it “major strategy,” focusing on the joint use of services and taking the state’s political-diplomatic position and its resources into account. These developments were not confined to the Anglo-American world; French admiral and military theorist Raoul Castex (Castex 1933) was arguing for the cohesive use of land and naval power. Historian Paul Kennedy brought the term to greater prominence through Kennedy 1990 (first published in 1987), a book on the rise and fall of great powers. He particularly focused on overstretch, when ambitions go beyond economic resources. Similarly, the authors in Kennedy 1992 examine the historical successes or failures of various powers of Europe. Finally, the term “grand strategy” is very much an Anglo-American one. French authors prefer stratégie générale (see Coutau-Bégarie 1999) to discuss that level about military strategy, or stratégie intégrale, as Poirier 1983 terms it.
Brands, Hal. What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.
Brands offers a historical overview of US grand strategy that highlights and illustrates different facets of grand strategy in general, discussing the Harry Truman administration and evolution of containment, the personalized grand strategy of the Richard Nixon–Henry Kissinger years, the intuitive and daring approaches of the Ronald Reagan administration, and the dangers of grand ambitions in the George W. Bush administration. He concludes with a concise set of principles that are likely to make grand strategy more fruitful.
Castex, Raoul. Théories stratégiques. Vol. 4. Paris: Société d’Éditions Géographiques, Maritimes et Coloniales, 1933.
Castex was one of a line of thinkers on the centrality of naval strategy, but, unlike many of his counterparts, he considered it as part of a larger, national strategy. General strategy (stratégie générale) is that combination of land and naval power. This line of thinking derived from Castex’s awareness that due to its location on the Continent, France did not have the luxury of primarily focusing on its naval power.
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Clausewitz’s classic treatise, originally published in 1832, goes beyond discussions of military strategy and tactics. He engages with the notion that war inevitably consists both of rational and irrational elements, but that policymakers should not (but will) lose sight that violence should serve larger policy goals. The contradictions that Clausewitz highlights and synthesizes set the stage for later writing that integrates military strategy with larger national objectives and constraints.
Corbett, Julian S. Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Edited by Eric J. Grove. Classics of Sea Power. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1988.
Corbett prefigured Liddell Hart’s discussion of “grand strategy” by distinguishing between “major” and “minor” strategy. Minor strategy consists of operational plans, objectives, and the assignment of forces. In contrast, major strategy includes the resources of the state as a whole and treats the army and the navy as one force. First published in 1911 (London: Longmans, Green).
Coutau-Bégarie, Hervé. Traité de stratégie. Bibliothèque Stratégie. Paris: Economica, 1999.
Coutau-Bégarie’s book is a systematic discussion of strategy at all levels and includes a discussion of grand strategy (stratégie générale). The author uses historical examples from Asia and Europe and explores key concepts, the impact of technology, and so on, with an eye toward practitioners as much as scholars.
Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Random House, 1990.
Kennedy’s comprehensive historical account is arguably for popularizing the notion of grand strategic matching of economic strength and military power to the rise and fall of major states since 1500. Its publication came at a time—the later stages of the Cold War—when policymakers and the larger public debated on whether the United States and the Soviet Union were facing similar moments of “imperial overstretch” that earlier great powers such as Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Britain had faced.
Kennedy, Paul M., ed. Grand Strategies in War and Peace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
In this influential, edited volume, Kennedy brings together several contributions on historical successes and failures: England/Britain in the wars of Spanish succession and both world wars (by John B. Hattendorf, Michael Howard, and Eliot A. Cohen, respectively), the Roman Empire (Arther Ferrill), Imperial Spain (J. H. Elliott), Germany (Dennis E. Showalter), France in both world wars (Douglas Porch), and the Soviet Union (Condoleezza Rice). Kennedy reflects on the lessons of the European experience for US grand strategy.
Liddell Hart, Basil Henry. Strategy: The Indirect Approach. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.
Liddell Hart focuses on the careful husbanding of national resources, since a state that “expends its strength to the point of exhaustion bankrupts its own policy, and future.” Those ideas led Liddell Hart to recommend that Britain should rely on its sea power status to use an “indirect approach,” of economy of force, deterrence, blockade, and high mobility for quick strikes if needed.
Poirier, Lucien. Essais de stratégie théorique. 2d ed. Cahiers de la Fondation pour les Études de Défense Nationale 22. Paris: Stratégique, 1983.
Poirier argues for a stratégie intégrale that includes not only military strategy, next to economic and cultural strategies that can then be separated into a strategy of means and operations. As a nuclear strategist, Poirier was involved in the development of France’s “weak-to-strong” deterrence toward the Soviet Union, illustrating his integrated, political-military outlook on strategy.
Strachan, Hew. “The Lost Meaning of Strategy.” Survival 47.3 (2005): 33–54.
Strachan presents a concise and clear overview of the development of the concept of strategy from the 18th into the early 21st centuries, showing how “grand” it became in parallel to the growing complexity of logistics, technology, speed, and bureaucracy, and as part of the rationalization of policy. He underlines that the concept is difficult to delineate and is quickly used to denote nearly any policy or objective, diluting much of its real meaning.
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