Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 06:31 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 06:31 | SYDNEY

Strategy is a practical activity


Mark O'Neill

This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

17 August 2011 11:10

This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Mark O'Neill is a Lecturer in the National Security College, Australian National University.

Hugh White's effort to define strategy has lured me from a year-long blogging sabbatical. One reason is that a preoccupation of my 'day job' is teaching strategy to postgraduate students at the National Security College. And I think no-one has yet fully nailed the idea of what a strategist is. 

The themes that have emerged on The Interpreter echo the discussions in class each week as my students grapple with the key issues emerging from the literature. Questions like 'what is strategy' and 'who or what a strategist?' are fundamental, yet remain highly contestable. Part of the problem, as Hew Strachan points out, is that the word 'strategy' has acquired a universality which has robbed it of meaning, and left it only with banalities.

There was a lot I liked in Hugh White's post. His quotation from Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty nicely emphasises the contestability of this topic. Hugh strips back some of the 'universal banalities' and, channeling Colin Gray, re-introduces the idea of strategy as the bridge between war and its political purpose(s). His points about policy merely being a fancy word for government decisions, and the need for civil-military understanding, are also well made. 

But two issues arise from Hugh's post, one minor and one more significant, that merit further examination. First to my minor quibble. I doubt that Hugh would be surprised at being called out on this line:

And no matter how hard they work at it, any military officer who has spent the first ten or even twenty years of his or her career at the tactical and operational level will not know as much about these aspects of strategy as those who immerse themselves in strategic-level problems from the age of 20.

This sentence begs the obvious question: who (or where?) are these civilians purportedly immersing themselves in 'strategic-level problems' from the age of twenty? To my mind, doing the photocopying in a national security department, while immersive, probably delivers little more strategic insight and acuity than being a platoon commander in Oruzgan Province. And neither civilians nor the military have a monopoly on 'strategic studies' at universities. Baldly put, our current civilian and military employment and education paradigms are highly unlikely to produce an Alexander.

My other point is that, having offered a good definition of the space a strategist works in, Hugh does not fully tease out a subtle but significant factor that truly defines what a strategist (military or civilian) is.

Strategy is a practical activity. So the strategist must do something. A strategist is not only someone who can understand or master the bridge between organised violence and policy objectives; he or she is necessarily someone who can do something about it. That is, they have authority and ownership, responsibility and accountability for the sum of the ends, ways and means. This is an important distinction about strategists that has not come out fully in any of the posts to date.

So while 'strategy workers' (that is, people who understand and 'cross' the strategy bridge) are relatively commonplace, true strategists are a rare breed. This perhaps accounts for the confusion surrounding the topic, as people confuse 'strategy workers' (or even 'strategy commentators'...) with true strategists.

Photo by Flickr user illustir.