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Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy

Authored by Dr. Harry R Yarger. | February 2006

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Strategy for the nation-state is neither simple nor easy. Good strategy demands much of the military professional whether he is formulating, articulating, evaluating, or executing strategy. Few do it well. It requires the professional to step out of the planning mindset and adopt one more suited for the strategic environment. This is particularly true in periods of great change and turmoil when a successful military strategy must be closely integrated with and may depend on other national strategies of the interagency community. A theory of strategy helps in this transition by educating the professional and disciplining his thinking in any of his roles. This monograph advances a theory of strategy that provides essential terminology and definitions, explanations of the underlying assumptions and premises, and substantive hypotheses that explain the nature of the strategic environment and the role and expectations of strategy. The environment is explained in theoretical and practical terms, and the implications for strategic thinking are developed with a distinction being made between strategy and planning mindsets. The typical problems practitioners have in formulating and articulating strategy are discussed. Strategy formulation is recognized as both an art and science, and the U.S. Army War College strategy model of ends, ways, and means is expounded on and advocated as a methodology for articulating strategies.


Like politics, strategy is the art of the possible; but few can discern what is possible.1
William Murray and Mark Grimsley

In simplistic terms, strategy at all levels is the calculation of objectives, concepts, and resources within acceptable bounds of risk to create more favorable outcomes than might otherwise exist by chance or at the hands of others. Strategy is defined in Joint Publication 1- 02 as ?the art and science of developing and employing instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.?2 Both of these definitions are useful, but neither fully conveys the role and complexity of strategic thought at the highest levels of the state. At these levels, strategy is the art and science of developing and using the political, economic, social-psychological, and military powers of the state in accordance with policy guidance to create effects that protect or advance national interests relative to other states, actors, or circumstances. Strategy seeks a synergy and symmetry of objectives, concepts, and resources to increase the probability of policy success and the favorable consequences that follow from that success. It is a process that seeks to apply a degree of rationality and linearity to circumstances that may or may not be either. Strategy accomplishes this by expressing its logic in rational, linear terms?ends, ways, and means.

Strategy is far from simple, and understanding a theory of strategy allows us to grasp and work with its complexity by understanding its logic. A theory of strategy provides essential terminology and definitions, explanations of the underlying assumptions and premises, substantive propositions translated into testable hypotheses, and methods that can be used to test the hypotheses and modify the theory as appropriate.3

Why study a theory of strategy? Theory?s value lies not in a prescription for success but in how it helps us expand and discipline our thinking. As Clausewitz reminds us, theory should be for study, not doctrine.

Theory then becomes a guide to anyone who wants to learn about war from books; it will light his way, ease his progress, training his judgment, and help him to avoid pitfalls. . . . Theory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material and plowing through it, but will find it ready to hand and in good order. It is meant to educate the mind of the future commander. . . .4

A theory of strategy educates the strategist?s mind. It helps discipline our thinking in order to deal with the complexity and volatility of the strategic environment and the changes and continuities, issues, opportunities, and threats inherent to it. It encourages us to rethink our own assumptions and prejudices, but it also encourages us to consider the possible assumptions and prejudices of our adversaries and other actors. Strategic theory opens the mind to all the possibilities and forces at play, prompting us to consider the costs and risks of our decisions and weigh the consequences of those of our adversaries, allies, and others. On another level, theory allows the members of the military profession and the interagency community to communicate intelligently in regard to strategy. It serves as a common frame of reference for the development and evaluation of an appropriate strategy and the communication of it to those who must implement it. A disciplined theory of strategy also allows the professional to evaluate the merits of a particular strategy and critique it in meaningful terms for those who determine policy and make decisions.

Strategic thinking is difficult. It is best viewed as both an art and a science. The framework of theory provides a methodological basis for a disciplined thought process to assist the strategist in developing strategy, and it also serves as a guide for others to follow in comprehending, evaluating, and critiquing the merits of a particular strategy. While theory is an important aid for educating the mind, it is not a substitute for ?genius? as described by Clausewitz. History?s great strategists possessed ?a very highly developed mental aptitude? for both the art and science. They had the ability to perceive the realities and relationships of their environment, and apply them successfully in developing strategy.5 True genius is rare, and some say that it is no longer applicable in the modern, complex world. It is, they argue, too difficult for a single person?even a genius?to omprehend all the nuances of the modern world, and they propose that strategy is better served by an organizational process. In spite of these views, however, strategies often are linked to individual personalities in the public eye, and some individuals appear to have a particular talent for this art and science.6

It is useful to consider the roles of strategists today. At the U.S. Army War College, three roles for strategists are considered: leader, practitioner, and theorist. Each of these roles requires a distinct set of skills and competencies. The leader provides the vision, inspiration, organizational skills, direction, and personal impetus necessary to enable others to act in a focused and coherent manner. The practitioner thoroughly comprehends the levels of strategy and their relationships and develops strategy. He translates broad policy guidance into integrated strategies that lead to policy success. The theorist develops theoretical concepts through study and thought and teaches and mentors others. A master of the strategic art is proficient in all three of these areas and may approach Clausewitz?s genius.7 Strategists function at different levels or in different roles within the state?s organizational hierarchy, but they all need to understand comprehensive strategies and communicate them effectively among themselves and to the leadership, the planners, and the people who make up the organizations that ultimately implement strategy.

Strategy, then, provides direction for the state, seeking to maximize positive outcomes and minimize negative outcomes,as the state moves through a complex and rapidly changing environment into the future. Strategists thoroughly examine the environment and develop a strategy that identifies objectives, concepts, and resources required to accomplish the goals established by policy. Theory disciplines strategic thinking by explaining strategy?s inherent logic; it serves to remind all involved with strategy neither to promise too much nor fail to consider any of the attributes of strategy. A coherent theory also helps leaders, planners, and others to evaluate and execute strategy.


Power is a means, not an end.82

Good strategy development requires the military professional to step out of the planning mindset and adopt one more suited for strategic thinking. In the strategic mindset, the professional military strategist embraces the complexity and chaos of the strategic environment and envisions all its continuities and possibilities in seeking to create favorable strategic effects in support of national interests. From an accurate analysis of the strategic environment, the strategist determines the threats to and opportunities for the advancement or protection of these interests. From policy, the strategist receives the political leadership?s vision, guidance, and priorities of effort in regard to interests. Thus, in constructing a valid strategy, the strategist is bounded by the nature of the strategic environment, the dictates of policy, and the logic of strategy. The strategist is responsible for mastering the external and internal facets of the strategic environment, adhering to policy or seeking change, and applying the logic of strategy to strategy formulation. He articulates the strategy in the rational model of ends, ways, and means; but leadership remains responsible for the decision to execute the strategy.

Good strategy demands much of the strategist. The strategist must be a constant student of the strategic environment, both externally and internally. He must be emerged in the events of today while aware of the legacies of the past and the possibilities of the future. In one sense, the strategist must sort through an arena of cognitive dissonance to arrive at the ?real? truth. The real truth best serves interests and policy in the long run; the strategist must reject the expedient, near-term solution for the long-term benefit. The strategist intervenes through action or selected nonaction to create a more favorable strategic environment. In this process, everything has meaning, and everything has potential consequences. The strategist cannot be omniscient, but the strategist can be open and aware?open to the possibilities and aware of the consequences. If the strategist is sufficiently open and aware, he can anticipate the future and formulate successful strategy. If in practice the strategist is not immersed in uncertainty and ambiguity and examining the context of the past, the emerging events of today, and the possibilities of tomorrow, he is probably not doing strategy?but rather planning under the label of strategy. Thus, the proper focus of strategy is to clarify and exert influence over the VUCA of the strategic environment in order to create strategic effects favorable to the policy and interests of the state. This is done by articulation of ends, ways, and means that create the desired strategic effect.

Strategy is neither simple nor easy. Nothing in this ?little book? should suggest either. Strategic thinking is difficult because it deals with the incredible complexity and unpredictability of the strategic environment. Its essence is to simplify this complexity and uncertainty?the VUCA ? in a rational expression of ends, ways, and means so that planners can create a degree of certainty and a more predictable outcome. In this regard, it bounds planning but does not unnecessarily restrict the planner. Nor should anything in this monograph suggest that strategy is vague or imprecise. The complex and ambiguous must be reduced and made clear without loss of understanding of the comprehensiveness of interaction within the strategic environment. Strategy seeks great clarity and precision in developing and articulating objectives and concepts?but it does this in a manner appropriate to the strategic level. The logic of strategy requires that these be expressed in terms that allow for flexibility and adaptation; thus they do not unnecessarily confine innovation and initiative at subordinate levels. This requirement reinforces the need for clarity of thought and word so that strategic purpose and direction are evident.

Relative success is the product of good strategy: relative to objectives; relative to ?current? reality; relative to the future; relative to risk; relative to costs; and relative to adversaries and allies. Strategy should be precise and clear its articulation, but it is anticipatory? not predictive. The future changes as it unfolds because the strategic environment is dynamic. Core interests remain over time, but their expression in regard to strategic circumstances changes with time. Once implemented, strategy by definition changes the fundamental conditions and perspective generating it and is at risk in some part. Thus, strategy can be measured relatively against its objectives and the strategic effect they seek to produce, but it cannot guarantee the future. The future situation is always the product of more than the sum of the parts of a given strategy.

The theory of strategy teaches the military professional ?how to think? about strategy, not ?what to think? for a strategy. It educates his mind and disciplines his thinking for the environment that confronts him as a strategic leader, practitioner, and theorist so he can serve the nation well. So armed, the professional is prepared to develop, evaluate, and execute strategy appropriate for his place and time. Strategy formulation and terminology are less pure in execution than in their original conception. ?Strategic planning? and other such ?strategic labeling? are commonplace, and zealous advocates of various concepts and practices often seek to co-opt such terms to gain visibility. The professional should be neither seduced nor distracted by these manipulations but remain focused on strategy proper?never confusing strategy with planning nor the strategic level of war with the others. In this way, the professional?s formulation, evaluation, and execution of strategy will adhere to strategy?s logic, and his advice and recommendations will fully support policy in achieving the desired end state.

And, finally, strategy formulation is not the domain for the thin of skin or self-serving. Detractors stand ever ready to magnify a strategy?s errors or limitations. Even success is open to criticism from pundits who question its role, methods, or continued validity. Furthermore, strategy achieves strategic consequences by the multiorder effects it creates over time?always a point of contention in a time-conscious society that values quick results and lacks patience with the ?long view.? In the end, it is the destined role of the strategist to be underappreciated and often demeaned in his own time. Consequently, strategy remains the domain of the strong intellect, the life-long student, the dedicated professional, and the invulnerable ego.


1.Williamson Murray and Mark Grimsley, ?Introduction: On Strategy,? The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994; 1997, p. 22.

2.Joint Staff, J-7, Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary and Associated Terms, Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Staff, November 30, 2004, p. 509.

3.Gregory D. Foster, ?A Conceptual Foundation for a Theory of Strategy,? The Washington Quarterly, Winter, 1990, p. 43. Foster?s analysis of the assumptions and premises of strategy is particularly thought-provoking.

4.Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 141.

5.Clausewitz, pp. 100-102.

6.Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 33-34, 51-54.

7.Major General Richard A. Chilcoat, Strategic Art: The New Discipline for the 21st Century, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1995, pp. 6-9.

82. Murray and Grimsley, p. 13.