Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

What is strategy

Strategy is the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy – Lidell Hart

Strategy must now be understood as nothing less than the overall plan for utilizing the capacity for armed coercion – in conjunction with economic, diplomatic, and psychological instruments of power – to support foreign policy most effectively by overt, covert, and tacit means. – Robert Osgood

Strategy is the theory and practice of the use, and threat of use, of organized force for political purposes. – Colin Gray

This section is sourced from Strategy in the contemporary world, An Introduction to Strategic Studies by John Baylis, James Wirtz, Eliot Cohen and Colin S. Gray. It is a book I highly recommend. Any miskates are my own.


Strategic Studies is the bridge between military means and political goals; it is a sub-field of Security Studies, itself a sub-field of International Relations which is a sub-field of Political Science. From the 50’s to the 80’s it was the dominant sub-field of International Relations.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but the NATO powers had barely had time to start re-appraising their military needs when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, followed by a decade of Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo, leading straight into the attack on World Trade Center, then the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The end of the Cold War has not brought peace to everyone, nor given strategic planners much more sleep.


The philosophical viewpoint of contemporary strategists is what they call Realism.

Realism is a clear recognition of the limits of reason in politics: the acceptance of the fact that political realities are power realities and that power must be countered with power; that self-interest is the primary datum in the action of all groups and nations – Gordon Harland

Realism has a pessimistic view of human nature, subscribing to the views of Thomas Hobbes that people are inherently destructive, selfish, competitive and aggressive, and that these destructive traits can never be eliminated. Strategists attempts to minimise the likelihood and severity of international violence, but do not believe in the possibility of permanent peace.

Strategic studies focuses on the relationships between states. Unlike domestic society, there is no authoritative government to create justice and the rule of law. Realists note that states reserve the right to use lethal force to achieve their objectives, a right that individuals living in civil society have given up to the state. Who wins in international relations does not depend on who is right according to some moral or legal ruling but purely on the balance of power.

Realists see a limited role for ‘reason’, law, morality and supra-national institutions in world politics. As there is no ‘world government’ to enforce international law, to promote a universal moral code, or even to enforce the decisions of organisations such as the United Nations, states will agree with the law, moral code or decree when it suits them and disregard it when it threatens their interests. Realists see supra-national organisations not as truly independent actors but as agents set up by states to further their national interest.


If you have read this far, you may well be thinking that the field of Strategic Studies is obsessed with conflict and force, insufficiently concerned with ethical issues, part of the problem, not the solution, and state-centric. These are the main points of criticism of Strategic Studies.

They respond by saying that yes they are interested in conflict and violence, in fact that is what they study, in the same way that computer programmers are interested in computers. They recognise that their field of study is only a sub-field of International Relations.

On the second point, they claim that they cannot let ethics interfere with their morally neutral scholarly detachment.

The third point, that strategists are part of the problem, not the solution, can be translated as: viewing military power as a legitimate instrument of policy helps to perpetuate a particular mind-set among national leaders and the public which encourages the use of force. Strategists respond that they reflect, rather than create, the reality of international relations. That most policymakers and elected officials tend to share their assumptions is because of the threats and challenges presented to them, not because of the strategists mind-set. They believe that conflict cannot be permanently avoided, but that effective strategy can mitigate it.

On that final criticism, that they are state centric, they say that they do concern themselves with intra-state conflict (Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya), but as the state is the main actor in world politics, that continues to be their main focus.