Before I began Professor Freedman’s book on strategy, I didn’t realize that I would be embarking on a painstakingly detailed 751 page historical journey of the meaning and applications of an increasingly popular - yet too often poorly defined term - that has evolved over time to become far more flexible than it was fifty years ago.
I also didn’t consider that if I had still been studying for my PhD comprehensive exams in political science or public administration, this book would have served as an excellent reference because many of the chapters summarize and analyze the works of major western political thinkers. Remember that – those of you who are still in graduate school or are thinking about graduate school and need a handy historical resource. This book is a keeper for review at exam time.
The major reason I decided to embark upon Freedman’s journey – and see it through to the end – was because the term strategy (or lack thereof) has become one of those words that are tossed around all too easily by people complaining that so and so or such and such organization has no strategy. But they then fail to define what they mean or they give it such a rigid, outdated meaning that they, in essence, render the term useless.
Freedman argues that strategy (the word, he tells us, derives from the Ancient Greek word “strategoi” or the 10 members of the Athenian War Council) is basically a plan that is flexible enough to change as unforeseen events (or the fog of war or uncertainty) alter the reality of the playing field. He argues that strategies are usually developed in response to the need to respond to some form of adversity – whether in a wartime environment, in business or in government. He also points out the importance of coalitions in strategy formation for good or ill as well as the role of language as a strategic instrument.
This means that strategies are far from immutable. Successful ones are not set in concrete that do not change in response to changing environments. Quite the opposite: Whether an unforeseen opportunity presents itself, the pursuit of the strategy itself may trigger an unforeseen consequence, or something else suddenly arises so the strategy and strategist must adapt to the new realities. In this sense, the concept of strategy is very much a part of the realist school of thought – and action – and, in Freedman’s words, much of strategy is “about getting to the next stage rather than some ultimate destination.” (p 628)
Strategic thinking is not bean counting or quantitative simplification
Freedman is critical of the numbers games played by the quantifiers and games theorists – the people who have relegated strategic thinking to bean counting and simplification – who have, for the sake of the ease of quantification, turned evaluation into a game in which nothing consequential is measured because, well, the consequential doesn’t lend itself to quantification.
As Freedman and others have pointed out, this was first taken to the height of absurdity during Robert McNamara’s years at the Pentagon during the Vietnam War in the 1960s when Viet Cong body counts supposedly determined whether or not the US was winning the war. There were just two problems: the American body counters inflated the numbers to make themselves look good and the Viet Cong’s struggle operated on different lines. Thereby the Pentagon’s data was not just useless, but also counterproductive for US defense planning.
More benign – but equally benighted forms – have subsequently arisen in the “accountability” measurements laid on the US government and its subunits under the rubric of ZBB (zero based budgeting) in the early 1970s or worse via the Congressionally-mandated GIPRA in the 1990s. It’s as if the civilian side of the government learned nothing from the Pentagon’s earlier mistakes.
Some things, like rolls of toilet paper used or the expected use of government vehicles, can, and should be measured and funds for replacements and/or repair allocated accordingly. Others, however, like much of the quantitatively based “evidence of effectiveness” nonsense cannot.
Too often, US officials are forced to define effectiveness in terms of what can be quantified as opposed to what needs to be assessed that is, in reality, not measureable by numbers.
When Obama originally off-handedly commented that he didn’t yet have a strategy for dealing with IS maybe that was all to the good unless, of course, strategy means reaching the next stage rather than some ultimate teleological destination. Let’s face it, without the active support of the countries of the Middle East – which I don’t see coming although IS brutality and aggression should be a wake-up call across the region – the best the US can do is selectively degrade the terrorists’ capabilities in a variety of ways.
On another front: Perhaps one of the most difficult assessments for the US and Europeans is whether Russian president Vladimir Putin is following an irredentist dream with respect to Russia’s relationships with its “Near Abroad” in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Russian Empire foremost listening to “whoever has the most insidious, exotic, malicious theory about what the West is up to” (in the words of Stobe Talbott) or whether Putin is primarily “an emotional tactician” who is ignoring the longer term realities of Russia’s demographic weaknesses.
Perhaps the Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine is most about Putin’s and his KGB colleagues continued control of the Kremlin - but what kind of strategy is that? It reminds me of George W Bush’s delusions of gaining peace for Israel via invasion of Baghdad. Remember the “road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad” claim of the neocons?
In the complex world of foreign policy-making and implementation there are just too many unknowns to deal with to develop a strategic plan that doesn’t require flexibility and continuous revision – not just the tweaking of tactics, but revision of plans and goals. Like it or not, foreign policy decision-making is usually reactive. Success comes about by managing situations so that the outcomes are as favorable to the country in question as possible. In warfare, as Freedman points out, the battlefield changes in accordance with the events that take place on it – as also happens in politics.
Clearly there is far too much contained in this hefty book to touch upon more than the most relevant lessons and to point them out in this review. So I thought I’d conclude – with mention of Freedman’s discussion of the singular importance of language in strategy – which, as he points out, takes us back to Thucydides.
Humanity’s use of language is just as important today as it was in the days of the conflicts among the Greek city-states and between the Greeks and the Persians. This is likely why Freedman devoted Chapter 22 “Formulas, Myths and Propaganda” to it and why the ideas of Edward Bernays - who Freedman describes as the best working propagandist of his time - features in that chapter so prominently.
Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History, Oxford University Press, 2013, $34.95.