Grand Strategy

Dr. Chet Richards

Editor, Defense and the National Interest

Military—that is, destructive—activities have the potential to provoke a backlash in public opinion (on both sides) and among allies and the uncommitted.  Nightly newscasts of civilian casualties in Vietnam, for example, helped fuel public demands to end the war, as did reports of carnage along the "Highway of Death" out of Kuwait during the last days of the First Gulf War.  In this age of instant worldwide communications, the potential for such adverse consequences, and even for their manipulation, has obviously increased.  With the growth of satellite television and the Internet, censorship is not a realistic option.

One solution is a "grand strategy" that guides military actions not only to minimize these effects but to produce positive benefits on morale and public/world opinion. Such a grand strategy would also shape our alliance structure and form a key element in isolating adversaries from physical, mental, and moral support.

The late American strategist, John R. Boyd, suggested four functions of a "sensible" grand strategy:

  • Support our national goal, which at the highest level involves improving our fitness, as an organic whole, to shape and cope with an ever-changing environment

  • Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary's resolve, and attract the uncommitted

  • End the conflict on favorable terms

  • Ensure that the conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict.

Note Boyd's mention of the "uncommitted," a group often slighted (or even antagonized!) in modern warfare.  Grand strategy seeks to "influence the uncommitted or potential adversaries so that they are drawn towards our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success."  If they choose to join our cause, great; but at the very least they should refrain from any actions that furnish comfort, support, or information to our adversaries.

A tall order.  Boyd does not provide a checklist for accomplishing it, but instead advises gaining "an appreciation for the underlying

  • self interests

  • critical differences of opinion

  • internal contradictions

  • frictions

  • obsessions

that we as well as the uncommitted and any potential or real adversaries must contend with."  In other words, to create a grand strategy that works, we must carry Sun Tzu's admonition to "know the enemy and know ourselves" at a step or two farther: to know potential opponents and the uncommitted as well as we know the enemy and ourselves.

Boyd suggested a three part approach:

  • With respect to ourselves, live up to our ideals: eliminate those flaws in our system that create mistrust and discord while emphasizing those cultural traditions, experiences, and unfolding events that build-up harmony and trust.  [That is, war is a time to fix these problems, not to delay or ignore them. As an open, democratic society, the United States should have enormous advantages in this area.]

  • With respect to adversaries, we should publicize their harsh statements and threats to highlight that our survival is always at risk; reveal mismatches between the adversary's professed ideals and how their government actually acts; and acquaint the adversary's population with our philosophy and way of life to show that the mismatches of their government do not accord with any social value based on either the value and dignity of the individual or on the security and well being of society as a whole.  [This is not just propaganda, but must be based on evidence that our population as well as those of the uncommitted and real/potential adversaries will find credible.]

  • With respect to the uncommitted and potential adversaries, show that we respect their culture, bear them no harm, and will reward harmony with our cause, yet, demonstrate that we will not tolerate nor support those ideas and interactions that work against our culture and fitness to cope. [A "carrot and stick" approach.  The "uncommitted" have the option to remain that way—so long as they do not aid our adversaries or break their isolation—and we hope that we can entice them to join our side. Note that we "demonstrate" the penalties for aiding the enemy, not just threaten them.]

During the Vietnam War, we committed every mistake in the grand strategic book.  Instead of attracting the uncommitted, we repelled them by a perception of indiscriminate use of firepower (more tons of bombs than in all of WW II), we failed to negate Ho Chi Minh's claim that he was fighting a straightforward war for independence, we did not respect the ideals and culture of our allies ("gooks"), and our population came to believe that their government was not telling the truth about either the goals or the progress of the war (which is why our tactical victory in the 1968 Tet offensive resulted in a grand strategic defeat.)  As a result, achievements on the battlefield were offset by our government's isolation first from its allies and then from its own people.

As a basis for a grand strategy, Boyd recommended a "unifying vision":

A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances—yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems. Such a unifying vision should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things.

The U.S. Constitution represents such a theme for this country. The challenge of American grand strategy, therefore, is to uphold the ideals embodied in the Constitution, while showing that we respect the culture and achievements of our allies, the uncommitted, potential adversaries, and even the population of actual adversaries.  Executing such a grand strategy would have the effect of limiting the support for—and so the options available to—violent ideological, trans-national "terrorist" groups.

Unlike military strategy, which must of necessity be kept secret and shrouded in ambiguity and misinformation, grand strategy must be well publicized and proclaimed by top leaders on a daily basis.  Churchill defeated Hitler not because he was a great strategist (just one day after Churchill dismissed the blitzkrieg as merely a "scoop or raid of mechanized vehicles," German armor reached the English Channel, effectively deciding operations in France) but  because he was perhaps the greatest grand strategist of the modern era:

Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide empires which rest beneath their shield—side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history. Behind them—behind us —behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France—gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians—upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.

—First Broadcast as Prime Minister, May 19, 1940

Lincoln was his worthy equal in the previous century:

This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.

—July 4, 1861

As the examples of Churchill and Lincoln show, successful wartime leaders place a high premium on grand strategy.  During the early phases of a conventional conflict, when alliances are being formed, and throughout a fourth generation war, they have no more pressing responsibility. In any stage, however, it is not enough just to formulate and proclaim grand visions and noble ideals: Political leaders must also ensure that military commanders understand the grand strategy, enthusiastically support it, and harmonize their operations with it. They must remove commanders who cannot or will not maintain such harmony, while still achieving their missions, and promote those who can and do.


  1. John R. Boyd, "Patterns of Conflict," 138-143.

  2. ___________,"Strategic Game," 53-57.

  3. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, (Cleary trans, Shambhala, 1988). Sun Tzu advised attacking alliances before engaging in military actions (69), placed high premiums on intelligence (knowing the enemy, 82 and Chapter 13), emphasized moral unity ("momentum") as the key to victory (43, 98-99), and proclaimed that winning without fighting was best (67).

  4. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 1832.  Clausewitz placed the "passions of the people" in the first position of his "Trinity of War." (Book I, Chapter I, Section 28).