Grand Strategy Definition – Notes

Blog Guerrilla Diplomacy:

Grand strategy is a unifying, long-term vision of a country’s global values and interests; an expression of where that country is, and wants to go in the world, and; an analysis of its potential and capacity to achieve the objectives, and to reach the destination set forth.

B. H. Liddell Hart/Wikipedia:

[T]he role of grand strategy – higher strategy – is to co-ordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war – the goal defined by fundamental policy.

Grand strategy should both calculate and develop the economic resources and man-power of nations in order to sustain the fighting services. Also the moral resources – for to foster the people’s willing spirit is often as important as to possess the more concrete forms of power. Grand strategy, too, should regulate the distribution of power between the several services, and between the services and industry. Moreover, fighting power is but one of the instruments of grand strategy – which should take account of and apply the power of financial pressure, and, not least of ethical pressure, to weaken the opponent’s will. …

Furthermore, while the horizons of strategy is bounded by the war, grand strategy looks beyond the war to the subsequent peace. It should not only combine the various instruments, but so regulate their use as to avoid damage to the future state of peace – for its security and prosperity.

Barnett’s Definition:

As far as a world power like America is concerned, a grand strategy involves first imagining some future world order within which our nation’s standing, prosperity, and security are significantly enhanced, and then plotting and maintaining a course to that desired end while employing—to the fullest extent possible—all elements of our nation’s power toward generating those conditions. Naturally, such grand goals typically take decades to achieve, thus the importance of having a continuous supply of grand thinkers able to maintain strategic focus.

…and his related posts: here, and here.

John Boyd (tunneled through Don Vandergriff):

Boyd’s four elements of grand strategy:

* Improve our morale and that of our allies
* Degrade that of our opponents
* Attract the uncommitted
* Without setting the stage for future (unfavorable) conflict.

John Boyd (tunneled through John Robb):

Grand strategy, according to Boyd, is a quest to isolate your enemy’s (a nation-state or a global terrorist network) thinking processes from connections to the external/reference environment. This process of isolation is essentially the imposition of insanity on a group. To wit: any organism that operates without reference to external stimuli (the real world), falls into a destructive cycle of false internal dialogues. These corrupt internal dialogues eventually cause dissolution and defeat.

The dynamic of Boyd’s grand strategy is to isolate your enemy across three essential vectors (physical, mental, and moral), while at the same time improving your connectivity across those same vectors. Here’s more detail:

* Physical isolation is accomplished by severing communications both to the outside world (ie. allies) and internal audiences (ie. between branches of command and between the command organization and its supporters).

* Mental isolation is done through the introduction of ambiguous information, novel situations, and by operating at a tempo an enemy cannot keep up with. A lack of solid information impedes decision making.

* Moral isolation is achieved when an enemy improves its well being at the expense of others (allies) or violates rules of behavior they profess to uphold (standards of conduct). Moral rules are a very important reference point in times of uncertainty. When these are violated, it is very hard to recover.


28 Responses

  1. Here’s another one-

    Peter Feaver from “What is grand strategy and why do we need it?”

    “Grand strategy is a term of art from academia, and refers to the collection
of plans and policies that comprise the state’s deliberate effort to harness
political, military, diplomatic, and economic tools together to advance that
state’s national interest. Grand strategy is the art of reconciling ends
and means. It involves purposive action — what leaders think and want. Such
action is constrained by factors leaders explicitly recognize (for instance,
budget constraints and the limitations inherent in the tools of statecraft)
and by those they might only implicitly feel (cultural or cognitive screens
that shape worldviews).”

  2. Thanks Phil. I have a few moe to add. This was all prep for a post I will do over the weekend on the USA Future…which was prep for an Afganistan 2050 post (well, 4 posts).

  3. “Dreaming Grand Stratgegy”

    For Joffe these questions can be safely ignored, as they have already been answered. Scholars of the realist school addressed them long ago. In terms of interests, states have but one – survival. The key to survival in a world full of states desperate to survive is power and influence. The state with the most power and influence has the best chance of surviving. Thus it is in the interest of the United States of America to attain as much power and influence as possible – which presently means the maintenance of American hegemony across the globe. Grand strategies are the game plans statesmen use to guide their efforts to do just this.
    In Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History Frederick Merk states that the defining feature of the American polity has been its “sense of mission.” Americans, says he, have always been invested in the idea that their Republic served a great purpose. They could never delegate their destiny to the realpoliticking of the upper echelons of power. In times of crisis it is this sense of of purpose that has sustained the Republic, and in achieving national goals it is this sense of purpose that has acted as the unconscious guide of American statesmen and citizens alike. Strip away America’s mission, and you have stripped away America. And in doing so you have stripped away our grand strategy as well.
    Phrases like “Manifest Destiny” and “Arsenal of Democracy” were not merely the rhetorical flourish used by canny politicians to justify the exercise of power. They were the reason power was exercised in the first place. These phrases were, in essence, bit-sized distillations of the mission and purpose Americans claimed for their nation. Containment only worked because the American populace believed that it was America’s mission to act as the Leader of the Free World. Cold War grand strategy was an outgrowth of this mission – a means to maintaining the mission’s end.

    Purpose provides America with a vision. It prioritizes our interests, informs us of our enemies, and tells us what position we seek to hold on the international scene. A nation without a purpose is a nation without a grand strategy to achieve it.
    This assumes, however, that Americans still have the capacity to create such a national ethos, that we possess the will to forge a consensus on our national purpose. Evidence suggests that we cannot. National ethos is dependent on national identity. And as a previous post on this topic has shown, this is something Americans do not have. One fourth of all Americans believe that our nation is divided to the point where a common identity is impossible. At the same time, American participation in civic and community institutions has fallen drastically. As this previous post concludes: “Modern America is a country bereft of social capital.** Exceeding the bounds of individualism, our tieless masses are a race of aliens. They breath the same air, live in the same space, but are aliens to each other nonetheless.”

    A country of aliens has no sense of purpose. Without common experiences, ideals, beliefs, or identity, there is no cohesive whole to attach ‘purpose’ to. A whole that does not exist can have no driving mission. And no strategy can serve a mission not yet called into being. In the end, our strategy is only as strong as the nation it is built upon.

    Every armchair general dreams of being the one who ends the crisis in grand strategy. To meet their goal these men must dig deeper. It is not the crisis of grand strategy in want of solutions, but the crisis of American civilization itself.


    Starting with Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (Luttwak has written a new book about the Byzantine Empire), grand strategy has been used in books to refer to the overall method of a state for producing security for itself or making itself powerful. Paul Kennedy’s edited compilation Grand Strategies in War and Peace and Rise and Fall of the Great Powers explicitly uses this framework. The William Murray and MacGregor Knox edited compilation The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War also pioneered it. And the Clausewitzian Colin S. Gray has written a great deal on grand strategy as well.


    he first issue–the Meme-ification of Policy–has been an issue only since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Prior to the early 1990s and going back to the beginning of the Cold War, the general meme of national security policy, and of grand strategy, was packaged in a single, transmittable word: Containment. The concept of Containment allowed for the transmittal of that grand strategy quickly among elites, who were then able to translate the general concept of Containment into the equivalent of Operational and Tactical decisions in a vast array of disciplines. An American Army general in his headquarters south of the Korean DMZ would be able to translate Containment into military decisions. A diplomat in Moscow, or Beijing, or Ankara, with an understanding Containment, would be able to translate that grand-strategic policy into diplomatic decisions at whatever level the diplomat is working, according to the locality he is operating in. Simply put, these grand-strategic memes allow the “Think Global, Act Local” to operate in the national security realm, from the level of policy and grand strategy, through the levels of strategy, operational art, and tactics.

    Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, American grand strategy has defied meme. Various concepts–globalization, black swans, Y2K, COIN, etc., have managed to spread among elites, but there has been very little coherence among these concepts.


    Strategic art entails the orchestration of all the instruments of national power to yield specific, well-defined end states. Desired end states and strategic outcomes derive from the national interests and are variously defined in terms of physical security, economic well-being, and the promotion of values. Strategic art, broadly defined, is therefore: The skillful formulation, coordination, and application of ends (objectives), ways (courses of action), and means (supporting resources) to promote and defend the national interests.
    According to this definition, masters of the strategic art are those who can competently integrate and combine the three roles performed by the complete strategist: the strategic leader, strategic practitioner, strategic theorist. These roles, each with a distinctive set of skills, form the defining competencies of the person who is the master of the strategic art. It will be seen that the three skill groupings overlap to some degree, but each is coherent and they are all mutually supportive. Competencies are developed by the master of the strategic art during the course of a lifetime of education, service, and experience:

    * The Strategic Leader provides vision and focus, capitalizes on command and peer leadership skills, and inspires others to think and act.
    * The Strategic Practitioner develops a deep under- standing of all levels of war and strategy and their interrelationships, develops and executes strategic plans derived from interagency and joint guidance, employs force and other dimensions of military power, and unifies military and nonmilitary activities through command and peer leadership skills.
    * The Strategic Theorist studies the history of warfare, develops strategic concepts and theories, integrates them with the elements of national power and with the National Security Strategy and National Military Strategy, and teaches or mentors the strategic art.


    # slapout9 Says:
    August 21st, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Well let’s see….what is the mission of America? A long time ago we created the greatest Grand Strategy Document that has ever existed and then we ignore it. The USA has 6 Mission areas that if we ever fulfill them would keep us safe and prosperous. It has nothing to do with Capitalism or Communism or Socialism……it is about Americanism and creating the proper Systems to achieve our mission, when we learn that(or remember it) we may just start to get somewhere.

    From the preamble of the Constitution:
    1-Form a more perfect union.
    2-Establish justice.
    3-Insure domestic tranquilty.
    4-Provide for the common defense.
    5-Promote the general welfare.
    6-Secure the blessings of liberty for now and fututre generations.
    We don’t need to read anybody else’s theory or book, we need to practice the one we wrote!


    Grand strategy is not, in my view, simply just ”strategy” on a larger scale and with a longer time line. Strategy is an instrumental activity that unifies ends, ways and means. While grand strategy subsumes that aspect, it also provides ordinary strategy with a moral purpose, perhaps even in some instances, an identity. Grand strategy explains not just “how” and “for what”, but ”why we fight” and imparts to a society the supreme confidence in itself to sustain the will to prevail, even in the face of horrific sacrifice. Grand strategy brings into harmony our complex military and political objectives with the cherished, mythic narrative of a ”good society” we conceive ourselves to be, reducing “friction”, “pumping up” our resolve and demoralizing our enemies. Grand strategy is constructive and energizing.

    A simple but profound moral argument is a critical element of a grand strategy, to a great extent, it frames the subsequent political and military objectives for which war is waged.
    War is not a game of chess. Without a moral purpose – an Atlantic Charter, a Gettysburg Address, Pope Urban II’s sermon, the Funeral Oration of Pericles – to lend sanction to strategy, a war effort is hamstrung and civil society is left unengaged, perhaps indifferent or even hostile to military action. In the American Civil War, there was a world of difference between the morale and determination of Union states of 1861-1862 and that of late 1864-1865. This turnaround was not solely due to Generals Grant and Sherman, the former of whom was being castigated in the newspapers as a “butcher” up almost until the moment where he was deified in victory, the change pivoted on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address which welded battlefield sacrifice to a higher cause.

    Naturally, actions that violate the moral purpose – of the grand strategy or a society’s sense of self – are incredibly, incredibly, damaging. This is why Abu Ghraib was utterly devastating to the American war effort in Iraq. Or why accusations or evidence of high treason are bitterly divisive. They contradict the entire raison d’etre for having a strategy and paralyze a society politically, energizing competing centers of gravity while giving heart to the enemy.

    Oddly, highly sophisticated American leaders seem to be blind to this but Osama bin Laden, fanatical and ignorant in his half-baked, obscurantist understanding of Salafi Islam, is keenly aware.

  9. Just came across this post that expresses contempt for the very idea of grand strategy:

    “It seems, then, that the portentous modifier “grand” refers not to a different kind of strategy but rather to the sort of people who practice it”

  10. From CPS at

    The moral dimension of strategy must have roots in a polity’s culture and its politics. It is its expression through these mediating layers that impacts strategy for good and for ill. The incoherence of U.S. strategy is a result of political results evenly divided between parties whose ideological extremes are polar opposites and who overlap only in their equal devotion to looting the commonwealth for their partisan base. If a U.S. political party achieved a decisive, generation long victory over its competitors, U.S. strategy would immediately become more coherent. Irrational coherence maybe but coherence nonetheless.


    Well let’s see….what is the mission of America? A long time ago we created the greatest Grand Strategy Document that has ever existed and then we ignore it. The USA has 6 Mission areas that if we ever fulfill them would keep us safe and prosperous. It has nothing to do with Capitalism or Communism or Socialism……it is about Americanism and creating the proper Systems to achieve our mission, when we learn that(or remember it) we may just start to get somewhere.

    From the preamble of the Constitution:
    1-Form a more perfect union.
    2-Establish justice.
    3-Insure domestic tranquilty.
    4-Provide for the common defense.
    5-Promote the general welfare.
    6-Secure the blessings of liberty for now and fututre generations.
    We don’t need to read anybody else’s theory or book, we need to practice the one we wrote!

  12. I’m suspicious of the whole idea of grand strategy. This is one post I’ve written on this:

    The modern tendency to pile levels of war upon levels of war often seems to only further obscure what was already obscure. Since, as Zenpundit has pointed out, half of our problem is that our civilian (and, I would add, military) leaders have no idea which end of strategy is up, further muddying the picture seems counter-productive.

    The same might be true of the operational level of war as well. Adam Elkus has repeatedly referred back to this monograph “Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy”:

    I second his recommendation on the monograph. It is well worth reading. I’m still ambivalent about its conclusion though. I still see some use for an operational level of war as originally described by A.A. Svechin.

    But the monograph’s point that operational art is a subset of strategy is also applicable to grand strategy. Grand strategy may be nothing more than the upper reaches of strategy.


    “…This is a key difference between strategy and tactics: tactics solve a problem while strategy decides that something is a problem….”

  14. JF, I don’t disagree with what you are saying here. “Politics” is ultimately what that category of decision-making is about. “Grand strategy” is too military-centric. From what I’ve seen most people interested in grand strategy arrive at it via an initial interest in military issues. And though they will point out that grand strategy is about all elements of national power their thinking will automatically default to their initial interest and they will focus on military issues. The problem with “politics” though is that the people who approach it from that perspective don’t get that they need to be thinking in terms of “grand strategy.” I wish we had a term that synthesized both politics and grand strategy. One step toward this is de-militarizing grand strategy. Throughout most of American history we did not have a standing army and so our grand strategy was pursued via other elements of national power. Today, though we have a large standing army, most of our relationships with the world are non-military in nature and so our grand strategy should reflect this. And yet most discussions of grand strategy deal with the rare periods of major war and national security without a whole lot of thought about what it is we are securing. The interests and inclinations of our grand strategy intellectuals both professional and amateur prevail regardless of the kind of grand strategy thinking that America actually needs. Technocratic discussions of Bismarck and Napoleon have little relevance to the challenges the US faces in the 21st century. But really thinking about those challenges isn’t quite as sexy as thinking about great battles.

      • “You’ll be happy to know that I’ve abolished grand strategy and politics”

        Well that explains the disturbance in the Force I felt earlier.

    • Buonaparte and Bismarck have everything to do with threats in the 21st century.


      Clausewitz’s first theory of war was based on his experience on the losing side of Buonaparte’s victory in the dual battle of Jena-Auerstadt, a battle so cataclysmic for the Kingdom of Prussia that contemporary Prussian academic Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called it the “end of history” (sound familiar?). The conclusion Clausewitz drew was that the all out use of force in a decisive battle was all you needed to do to drive the other guy off the cliff.

      Clausewitz’s second theory of war was based on his experience serving in the Russian army during Buonaparte’s invasion of Russia in 1812. There he saw Buonaparte follow the same basic military strategy he followed at Jena-Auerstadt, only now it resulted in Buonaparte driving his own army off the cliff. Clausewitz figured there ought to be some kind of regulator that will keep purely military considerations from overriding higher level considerations like “hey, maybe we shouldn’t invade Russia”. For Clausewitz, this regulator was politics.

      Clausewitz’s third theory of war was based on his experience in the British-Prussian-Hanoverian-Dutch victory over Buonaparte at Waterloo. Here he saw Buonaparte not only drive his own army over the cliff but throw himself over for good measure. Clausewitz figured there ought to be some regulator that would not only keep a Buonaparte from throwing so much of his army into a last attempt at victory in a battle that he destroyed any army he had left. The Prussian pursuit of the depleted remnants of the French army shattered it so completely that all Buonaparte was left with politically was his clothing and a one way ticket to scenic St. Helena.

      The drama of Buonaparte’s collapse not only had personal consequences for the Corsican Ogre. The exhilaration of entering Paris in triumph after Waterloo, especially after the debacle of Jena-Auerstadt, affected young soldier Prince Wilhelm so greatly that, years later, as the aged King Wilhelm I of Prussia, after the Prussians had destroyed two French armies and captured Buonaparte’s idiot nephew at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, he overrode Bismarck, his chancellor, and marched on Paris for a third time.

      See Civil War General Phillip Sheridan’s account of the moment the shadows of August 1914 began to gather:

      Bismarck, the supposed master of limited, politically directed wars, lost hold of his king and with it the future. The march on Paris in 1870 led to World War I, World War II, and all that came with it, all because the military cart was put before the political horse.

      It is the need to learn that priorities matter that Buonaparte and Bismarck become relevant. The 21st century has yet to reinvent the human.

      • Actually this is a good example of what I was talking about. I wrote: “Technocratic discussions of Bismarck and Napoleon have little relevance to the challenges the US faces in the 21st century.”

        And the response was: “Buonaparte and Bismarck have everything to do with threats in the 21st century.”

        Somehow “challenges” was transmogrified into “threats” and we’re sucked back into a military-centric discussion.

        The point is to get beyond the narrow, threat-based, reactive approach to big-picture strategic thinking. Developing a grand strategy (or whatever you want to call it) has to be something more than just reacting to some real or imagined threats. It’s about who we are and what we are for. Yes I know that anyone can manufacture some 6 degrees of separation kind of connection to everything. No doubt someone could write a paper on “Buonaparte and marketing sourdough pretzels” and thus he is perennially relevant.

        JF, you’ve written in the past about Alexander Hamilton’s grand strategy and I’d say he is far more relevant to 21st century realities than B&B. Military issues should only be a central focus of a grand strategy in a situation like WW2 or the Cold War. In circumstances like ours we need to devote our intellectual capabilities to other areas.

  15. I am working on some current competing grand strategy type things for America. FOr now they are in my head, but I have been meaning to post them for a few weeks.

  16. Chet Richards

  17. PurpleSlog-

    I came across this paper on grand strategy today. It has by far the best definition of grand strategy I’ve seen (p. 10) – including my my own.


    Now, consider Boyd’s three kinds of war. Only the first, attrition war, covers limited wars or wars of limited objectives. The aim is the enemy’s will to resist and thus compel him to negotiate, while he remains more or less intact. That is the kind most disparaged by Boyd’s followers – attrition war – is also the most common in history and also characterizes the less bloody wars. For Boyd the aim of both maneuver and moral war is the enemy’s collapse, that is total victory. Which would leave the victor attempting to pick up the pieces of the enemy state, which is hardly going to be a bloodless outcome, as witnessed by recent US military experience.
    Finally, strategic theory, especially of the Boydian type, is not very applicable to current domestic political analysis for several reasons. First, strategic theory concerns the use of power with the possible use of violence/coercion. The Western idea of representative government deals, not with potential violence, but with workable political solutions, that is compromise and consensus. Even if you don’t mean “enemy” when you say “enemy” it still comes out the same way. Second, the assumption of moral authority is dubious especially in terms of politics. One side is painted black while the other paints itself white, whereas the reality is all gray. Of course this level of hostility on both sides could reflect the actual situation within the political community – in which we are dealing with more the nature of a war than of a political disagreement. In that case we perhaps need a clear strategic view now more than ever . . .

  19. Via T Greer:

    [Grand strategy is] an overarching concept that guides how nations employ all of the instruments of national power to shape world events and achieve specific national security objectives. Grand strategy provides the linkage between national goals and actions by establishing a deliberately ambiguous vision of the world as we would like it to be (ends) and the methods (ways) and resources (means) we will employ in pursuit of that vision.

    –Colonel Joe Bassani, “Saving the World for Democracy: An Historical Analysis of America’s Grand Strategy in the 21st Century”, p. 10


    Colonel Bassani’s definition, with Mr. Greer’s revisions:

    “Grand strategy is an overarching concept that guides how nations employ all of the instruments of national power to shape world events and achieve specific national security objectives. Grand strategy provides the linkage between national goals and actions by establishing the methods and resources employed in the pursuit of a predefined and deliberately ambiguous vision of the world as a nation’s primary decision-makers would like it to be.”

    I think I would use “nation-state objectives” instead of “national security objectives”, to purposely include economic and other domains.

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