Gregory R. Copley

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Gregory Copley on a research visit to Malta, December 2007.

Grand Strategy in an Age of Tactics

By Gregory R. Copley.

Based on lectures to the US Army Command & General Staff College, Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, January 16, 2008, and to the Australian Army and Department of Defence, Canberra, February 11, 2008.

Grand strategy is little understood, despite the fact that the International Strategic Studies Association and its Defense & Foreign Affairs series of intelligence products have been, for 36 years, specifically geared to studying issues and analyzing intelligence through the prism and model of grand strategy.

Meanwhile, we are in an age of tactical, rather than true strategic thinking, and an age of tactical maneuver and reactive policies.

Grand strategy goes well beyond military, operational strategy. It is a different paradigm altogether, so it is worth exploring how we can start to build grand strategy models appropriate to the 21st Century.

We are all aware of the meaning of “the friction of war”. We understand Karl von Clausewitz’s words: “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction beyond the imagination of those who have not seen war. … The influence of innumerable trifling circumstances, which cannot be properly described on paper, depress us, and we fall short of the mark. A powerful iron will overcomes this friction; it crushes the obstacles, but at the same time the machine along with them.”

The machine to which von Clausewitz referred was the victorious machine, which had used its “iron will” to crush the obstacles. The destruction of the enemy distorts, and often crushes, for good or ill, the nature and even the victory of the victorious society. We are now in a time when the friction of war has indeed crushed part of the machinery of state and society along with the obstacles and targets on the battlefields. This is a phenomenon which has occurred throughout history, when societies grow tired and impatient during wars, and yearn for peace, stability, and an end to uncertainty. It is even more to be expected in today’s “Age of Global Transformation”, when modern technology and the explosion of global population levels and population movement and interaction has made all of society impatient for results. The consequences — particularly the unintended or unconsidered consequences — of military strategy on national wellbeing are among the concerns of grand strategy.

Few societies today think in terms of years or decades. The demand for instant gratification, whether in terms of political results or in terms of material gain, is now the driving force of all leaders. The result is that societies today merely react to situations rather than plan for change. And reaction is essentially tactical in nature. We are, then, in an age of tactics.

So here is our age: it has become a dark, narrow valley of tactics and short-term maneuver at all levels of civil and military society. But the consequences of our tactical actions are enduring, sweeping, and strategic. Mankind has essentially forsaken the vision and discipline of grand strategy. We have descended to embrace, shield-to- shield, the clangor of close-quarter battle over resources, geopolitics, economics, and beliefs.

As societies, we fight, street by street, for gains in technology, power, wealth, safety: in other words, for survival.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Richard III: My Kingdom, then, for a mountaintop; a hilltop; a mound even from which to see the scope of history and to see beyond the immediate battlefield. All around is the mêlée of action, and within this urgent pace there is no great field of vision.

Society has largely forgotten the meaning, tenets, and purpose of grand strategy. We master battle, but not war. We win the year, but lose the decade. We excel at tactics and management, and call it strategy. We live within dark-forest boundaries and call it the world. We do not look at the broad context. Instead, as modern societies, we have focused down on every microscopic detail so that our horizons, instead of being geographically or historically broad, are the close walls and complex forest of our creation.

We have been enabled to forget grand strategy because humanity now so utterly commands, dominates, and pervades virtually all living and inanimate things upon this planet. We neither fear nor are curious about the wider world; we feel that we have conquered it. So now, as it focuses inward, humanity fears but two things: itself; and the one which it cannot yet so fully comprehend or yet placate, the climate. Where we lack knowledge or understanding, we rely on blind belief or faith. Belief may stimulate courage and hope, but it is not an ideal basis for planning and decisionmaking. In any event, we have become, because we are submerged in our own overwhelming presence, and in balancing our complex daily regimen of technology and beliefs, merely master tacticians.

The long view, if it is considered at all, has become academic, linear, mythical, artificial. We pay history no heed. We assume that the future world will be merely an extension of what we now see. And therefore we see no need for grand strategy.

What passes for the strategy of our survival is but tactics cobbled into patchwork. Grand strategy — the tapestry vision of a decade, of a lifespan, or many lifetimes — is gone from our comprehension. We focus in this daily rush very much on the hard sciences which have been very productive for humanity. But in all else, we submit to beliefs which have changed not a jot in their basis of fear and superstition since Ra — patron of the sun, heaven, kingship, power, and light— so dominated ancient Egypt.

We have, our heads bowed against the daily onslaught of immediate challenge, come down from the mountains from which once we saw back into the mists and ahead into the sunlight.

Where we are going, in discussing grand strategy, is new. We are in a time of tactics, but can, if we choose, see through the long lens of this concept of grand strategy an end to the darkness of decades. Before, in earlier times, the sweeping vision was the natural attribute of acquired wisdom. Now, it is impeded by the forest growth and strangling weeds of daily, gritty pressures, rapid pace and urgent fashion, and rising monuments to smug immediacy.

The evolution of intellectual and physical tools, built one upon another in a precarious construct of deepening, accretive complexity, has marked the progress of humanity since Hominidae straightened their backs to see above the grassy plains. The physical tools and the intellectual-instinctual tools of human organization have also been inextricably intertwined. These mechanisms have become increasingly finite in concept and application, ever more precise and specific in the management and domination of each aspect of our time and space.

Grand strategy, which steps back and rises above in order to see the long view and the broader context, has perforce been lost. What currently passes for “strategy”— in reality super tactics, as single-discipline strategy has now become — is what we fashion together in the undergrowth. There have been few disciples of Grand Strategy, and no discernible modalities or characteristics of it laid down, other than that it views and plans from a vantage point of greater detachment than the “super tactics” or single discipline military, economic, political, or population strategies.

Grand strategy is the tool of societal understanding and planning, and stands as the knowledge-based alternative to submission to belief-based organization. But we have yet to articulate all the models of what grand strategy is, and what it can do.

The horizon — the distant, shimmering and beguiling unknown — no longer beckons us as a gateway to understanding, and to new worlds; to tomorrow.

We are preoccupied with the immediate, and with the grains of sand which comprise our world. Because we have closed time down to narrow periods and because we have abandoned much of our curiosity, we have created a world as confined in proportion — if not in style — much like that of a village of the Dark Ages, when the learning of Rome and Greece was lost.

How can we, then, expect to blend the complexities of countless nanotechnologies and nano worlds into a greater whole — a total and evolving society — if we cannot equally devote time and effort and lives to the study, planning, and admiration of the canvas as a whole?

Captains rush in the busy, shadowed valleys, while marshals, alone on mountaintops, survey and ponder, seeing back into time immemorial and future toward time yet to be memorialized. Those who plan only for tomorrow and for the day’s march ahead endure only for that day, that march. But history’s march is long in days and leagues, and those who march but a day in the valley are just a twinkling of a twinkling, and pass forgotten without a trace on the sand.

Our sciences, then, which focus on each specific tool and the doctrine evolved around each tool, are equally transient, and but a fragment of human growth. Weapons such as the patiently- fashioned bow of yew — and its maker — are long forgotten, and they are but a conceptual memory of fleeting import. And now we are in an age when colonels can utilize net-centric capabilities to stoop to micro-plan the path of sergeants, and sergeants feel that they are empowered to challenge the path of emperors. In losing perspective and context, we also lose societal and even military hierarchy.

The path back to a grand strategy perspective is not a brief journey. This is a lifetime’s voyage, back and forth the traverse of history, and to and fro the sweep of peoples, lands, and strange beliefs.

Because of the growth in human numbers and the tools of complex society we had built, we moved, in about 1970, from an age in which all could take care of themselves through rudimentary skills — an age which spanned perhaps 20 millennia — to the new age in which few can now take care of themselves without the aid of technologies which lie beyond the comprehension or skill of most individuals to maintain without a modern, functioning support base. We have, in other words, become imprisoned by our own machines. This is a phenomenon of the past 30 or 40 years.

Recovering our grand strategic cognitive skills, however, is the most significant means by which we can resume control of our historical path. This will become increasingly necessary as the anticipated upheavals of the 21st Century — and the peaking and subsequent decline, of global population levels over the coming decades — disrupt our ability to depend solely on the balance of our tight, complex man-machine relationship. Humanity has never before been so dependent for survival on processes beyond the comprehension of all but a few individuals.

Forget the divine right of kings, holding sway over the life and death of subjects. We are now under the sway of a complexity controlled by no-one, and a major break in the global economic cycle alone could disrupt communications, health care, food production, and the viability of life in areas which technological capability has transformed from aridity or cold or isolation. The anticipated peaking and then decline in global population numbers would be accelerated by the breakdown in our technology; the return to primitive survival methods would become of paramount importance.

The ability to see from the mountaintop, and plan paths through the fluid world which emerges from our present dense complexity, would once again become decisive. Grand strategy is the mechanism of human control over human destiny.

What is Grand Strategy?

Grand strategy is the interactive and holistic process of understanding, defining, and achieving the long-term goals of an entire society within the contextual framework of the historical, current, and evolving transformation of the society itself, its region, and global society. Single-discipline strategies are processes for the attainment of short- or medium-term goals. Grand strategy determines overarching, contextual goals. Grand strategy, perforce, must understand the entire past, current, and future context in which the individual goals must be selected, and how they must be achieved through selective strategies, tactics, and assets.

Grand strategy is, by definition, a deterministic process. It seeks outcomes of its own choosing rather than accepting an externally-generated course for the society.

Grand strategy, then, entails its own information collection, comprehension, and analytical framework which must set the individual strands of the overarching context into weighted, interlocking and interactive value with each other. It must achieve this comprehension before it can establish realistic long-term goals which can then be pursued with flexible options to account for the multi-dimensional fluidity of the total context.

Grand strategy must comprehend the continuity of past to present to future. Goals which do not accord with this continuity are unlikely to be realized. It must comprehend this continuity train within the context of the continuity train of other societies which impact on it.

Grand strategy entails pattern perception. It must see weights emerge in complex contextual environments in which the most important fact is the knowledge of oneself and one’s own position. Archimedes (c. 287 BCE-c. 212 BCE) said: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.” It is the given, then, that in grand strategy, the exponent must first understand his own position in relationship to the Earth, as well as his own position in relationship to history. It requires not only a comprehensive understanding of context, but a comprehensive understanding of oneself and one’s own society, its identity and its capabilities.

Given that grand strategy sets long- term goals, the society’s principal grand strategist is its head-of-government. The head-of-government must rely on a specialist grand strategy coordinating body. That would usually be a dedicated unit within, for example, an Office of the National Security Advisor, or the Directorate of National Intelligence.

But the head-of-government cannot escape the function of chief grand strategist, just as the post requires him or her to be the nation’s chief intelligence officer, and chief policymaker and chief operating officer on all fronts. And where short-term pressures interfere, it is the head-of-government who ultimately must seek to ensure that the clear long- term goals are sustained and serviced. Rarely, in recent years, have we seen this clear duty held sacrosanct anywhere in the world.

Perhaps the last great philosopher of grand strategy was Dr Stefan Tomas Possony (1913-1995), but he did not lay down a specific set of guidelines or models for the discipline. Indeed, based on decades of discussion with him, I would say that he would have found it difficult to precisely describe the discipline. He did, however, constantly note that the true strategic analyst must be a “specialist generalist”, someone who consciously placed a wide range of disciplines and information into an interlocking and dynamic contextual framework.

We have, on occasion, seen conscious attempts to utilize a grand strategic approach to nationbuilding through the creation of frameworks intended to shape the success of society over generations. Britain’s Magna Carta Libertatum — however it was forced upon King John by the barons at Runnymede in 1215 — was just such a framework. Then, more comprehensive, were the documents which, after great deliberation, formed the enduring framework of the foundation and conduct of the United States of America: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.

These documents — arguably the framework for modern, Western society — did not constitute a complete grand strategy process, but they provided underlying tenets which would endure to contain the shape and values of the societies going forward. So, too, did Napoelon I’s civil code, the Code Napoleon. Similarly, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital provided an underpinning framework document for the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Germany, under Hitler and the nazis, also had a foundation framework document — Mein Kampf — and attempted to build an overarching grand strategy structure.

The USSR and its satellite states attempted to transform their societies through the comprehensive development of what could arguably be called grand strategies, by developing tools of national planning and national management, ranging from long-term plans broken down into five-year plans, and utilizing psychological strategy mechanisms to bring their plans into realization. Where the Soviets failed, of course, was in misreading history and human nature, and in assuming that their plans would be implemented by an honest, altruistic, and competent bureaucratic structure.

In reality, the Soviet and nazi systems failed to take into account a number of key factors, thus making their long- term planning unrealistic. Arguably, the US model, which was more oriented toward market forces and a lassaiz faire model, was more flexible.

Both Japan and the United States, in the late 19th Century, took conscious decisions aimed at building the shape of their nations a century ahead. Both, to some degree, succeeded, by focusing on laying infrastructural foundations atop social and economic frameworks which had been selected at the highest levels of their respective governments.

The People’s Republic of China, which began developing a grand strategy in the early 20th Century, only had the opportunity to begin framing it when the communists succeeded in wresting control of the Chinese mainland from the nationalist Kuomintang in 1950. Mao Zedong, however, was locked into doctrinaire marxist and Soviet approaches to planning, and although he employed a grand strategy for China, it failed for as long as he controlled the PRC leadership.

The PRC, however, arguably is the only major state functioning today with a leadership and structure geared toward an integrated national grand strategy. The PRC leadership is highly aware that even this does not necessarily safeguard the state from all the possible vagaries which it may face over the coming decades. Nonetheless, insofar as possible, the PRC is attempting to consciously plan well into the future, and to undertake long-term goal achievement, in a comprehensive context.

It is significant that Australia has also begun to embark on such a process. The Australian strategic analysis center, Future Directions International (FDI), which was established to assist national-level strategic policymaking, on December 4, 2007, issued a major “framework document” entitled Australia 2050: An Investigation Into Australia’s Condition, Outlook, and Options for the First Half of the 21st Century. This was designed to build, as a framework, on the Australian Constitution, and to begin the process of creating a long-term integrated framework for goal- setting and national development, utilizing existing (and some planned new) capabilities.

Australia 2050 was one of the first deliberate attempts for some time — apart from the efforts of the PRC — to create a shape for a nation a half-century and more into the future. And while many political scientists saw the process as attempting to put a definitive vision of the future in place, it was, in fact, a process which set goals and outlined paths to a future which understandably would have many enormous variables. Japan and the US, in the late 19th Century, were able to set out a basic framework for their countries a century ahead; there is no reason why Australia should not do so now.

Equally, there is no reason why each nation cannot begin such a process, specifically allowing for the inevitable changes of governments and significant transformations of the global contextual framework in the decades ahead.

What are the Modalities of Grand Strategy?

Dr Stefan Possony, who had been called “the greatest strategic philosopher of the 20th Century” [by another great strategist, Dr Robert Strausz- Hupé], had not laid down a model for grand strategy formulation. That does not mean, however, that he did not have any fundamental tenets for the discipline. Moreover, it is time now that such a framework be commenced, and I attempted to start this process with my work on The Art of Victory and Australia 2050.

Today, we can only begin to set out some of the process, and it is, as yet, incomplete. The grand strategy process must, in any event, always remain fluid. Nonetheless, grand strategy modeling must include some of the following components:

1. Know Yourself. A grand strategy must initially identify the total position and condition of the proponent, historically, currently, and into the indefinite future. It also describes the nature, values, and identity of the society, and the core attributes it wishes to project into the future.

2. Know Your Context. Positioning the state into the future is an interactive process which considers the regional and global condition. Goals must accord with the external realities.

3. Balance all Factors. Grand strategy must be a conscious process, not an accretive or ad hoc one. It must embrace the historical realities of all major disciplines (such as military, economics, the sciences and industry, geopolitics, politics, geography, history, linguistics, religion, culture, technology, media, etc.), and assign weights to these factors.

4. Understand, Plan, Act. Grand strategy is an interactive process of cognizance, then reflection, and then action. Leaders must embody, therefore, the capability to function in all three capacities.

5. Know Historical Trends. Grand strategy must embrace trend analysis of the broadest possible nature. The maxim of Sir Winston Churchill — the farther backward into history we look, the farther forward we can see — should be a guiding principle.

6. Determine Goals. Grand strategy is an art form which can be aided by computational modeling, but — given that no-one can predict the future — the the first task of grand strategy is to determine goals and to seek methods of goal-achievement. Passive, business-as- usual models are not strategy. Grand strategy is a deterministically-driven process, not a reactive one.

7. All Things Are Related. Grand strategy embraces all-source, all-discipline analysis of the past, current, and future strategic environment or context, and therefore commands and tasks all-discipline responses, ranging from economic to infrastructural to social to national security assets. The grand strategy function therefore must have access to specialized intelligence or knowledge on a broad range of disciplines, and, if these are not formally available, it must create them. For example, psychological strategy intelligence collection capabilities rarely exist in governments, and therefore must be created, as must psychological strategy operational projection capabilities. These differ, but may derive expertise, from psychological warfare and propaganda units, only on the understanding that psywar/psyops is tactical or theater-level; psystrat is a primary implementation arm of grand strategy, and therefore of an order of magnitude more complex.

There are many more aspects of the grand strategy model to be outlined, but even at this point it can be seen that this is not the model of military, political, or economic strategy. Indeed, although the overarching nature of the grand strategy framework appears to lend itself to sweeping, even journalistic, generalizations, the reality is that it is a framework in which generalization is the enemy of the detailing which must characterize grand strategy formulation.

Great soldier-statesmen have always functioned within this broader framework and with great strategic situational awareness. So should we all.

     



 
Copyright © 2008, Gregory R. Copley. All rights reserved.
     
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