What the Hell is strategy, anyway?

Posted on June 12, 2010

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The goal of this blog is meant to help people think strategically about foreign affairs, but this goal isn’t furthered if I touch on strategy indirectly and within specific contexts. If readers don’t know what I mean by ‘strategy’, how can I expect them to see things from my perspective? So I want to try to sketch out my understanding of it and thinking strategically.

  • Strategy is identifying priorities, translating those priorities into goals to be achieved, and developing a plan to achieve them by matching goals with resources and figuring out how and when to use those resources to best advantage.
  • To think strategically is to understand how an action or an event impacts on your priorities, goals and plan; and if the impact is negative, working out how to remedy the situation.

This is it in the abstract, at least. There are a number of factors which influence strategy and thinking strategically that can handicap us in doing either, two of which I think are important.

  • Understanding the ‘environment of struggle’. If policymakers are going to identify priorities and figure out goals, then they have to understand the world they inhabit and the opponents they face. This depends on the amount of information and intelligence they possess, which is likely to be insufficient to paint a whole picture. How policymakers read the information they do have also depends on the strategic culture of their country, as well as personal beliefs and principles. Both of these can lead to misidentifying priorities, which subsequently undermines one’s goals and the plan to achieve them. This can be dangerous. ‘Poor strategy is expensive,’ writes Colin Gray, ‘bad strategy can be lethal, while when the stakes include survival, very bad strategy is almost always fatal.’
  • Adaptation. Thinking strategically doesn’t happen in vacuum, but in a world where circumstances are constantly shifting. We can figure out how an action or an event impacts on our strategy, but when we attempt to remedy the situation, something else comes out of left-field and makes our thinking out-of-date. ‘There is often no more logic in the course of events than there is in the plans of men,’ as Pericles said. And if our strategy is flawed, then our capacity to think strategically is well and truly buggered.
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Posted in: Strategy