Strategy: Alchemy that makes the world move

Asking yourself the question what one understands by strategy and strategic studies, there certainly are many issues and dimensions to be taken into account. Here’s a comment on this.

Strategy – often described as a practical art – and its academic sibling – strategic studies – have been influenced by many different thinkers across time. They all not only reflected and tried to make sense to the complexity of what was happening around them but also to find the ultimate key to influence the very affairs that shape this complexity – often identified as politics, economy or the military (environmental, societal aspects were taken into account only recently). As more and more factors are influencing global affairs, strategic thinkers are faced with an ever growing set of issues and developments that affect their subject of study. Thus, strategy is the ever forming inter-disciple, it never rests. Before it can settle down, it makes a leap forward and re-organises itself again. Before it can establish itself in some place, it is – often due to advances in technology, power relations, etc. – trying to make sense of its own comprehensiveness. At the same time, it is never really possible to nail down (or – for that matter – thoroughly controlling) effects of implementing a certain strategy. With that being said, strategy – in any shape – as a practical art (cp. Strachan 2019 in Larsdotter 2019: 157), a process or a link between ends and means (cp. Larsdotter 2019: 157) – can never really, fully be sure about its input and output relations.

So much to philosophising about strategy.

However, as strategy often looks back or tries to analyse past events, global changes, political disruption or military campaign, it often tends to become rather descriptive than visionary, not exploiting its full potential. Strategic studies take this into account by making room for reflection in a structured manner and turning it into an academic disciple. At the same time, the forward looking part of strategy has become deeply entangled with any sort of policy making. There, typical sets of strategies applied include deterrence, defense, compellence, coercive diplomacy and offence. Being very much a derivative of military problem solving techniques (obvious in the sets of strategies), strategy (and strategic studies for that matter) are very much based in a set of approaches and embedded in a language that is quite close to the military domain which makes its language often seen seen as rigid and authoritative. It certainly gives it weight in politics and the formulation of policy and – according to Lawrence Freedman (2013: xii) – has turned it into the “central political art”. Thus, strategy usually speaks with authority of knowledge, power and scope.

This fact has not managed to stop “the division between strategy in theory and strategy in practice […] [to] become larger” (Larsdotter 2019: 158). At the same time, strategic thinking now (as always, remember: “the ever forming inter-disciple”) faces multiple challenges to wrap its head around a variety of pressing issues and developments. These include an increasing number of non state threats, changing norms of intervention, the blurring of lines between war and peace (cp. Larsdotter 2019), hybrid warfare, geopolitical changes due to globalization and fragmentation and the re-emergence of great power rivalries (Baylis/Wirtz 2016: 13).
Here, I would also like to add the backsliding of democracy as well as (socio-)ecological challenges that need to be taken into account by anyone that is interested in developing holistic courses of action for the future. In classical strategic discourses this is usually not taken into account at all. And this is presents an immense soft spot.

What will come out of it this realignment of issues and how it will influence future strategies with a global scope, no one knows. Maybe only true strategic alchemists do. And I am not sure if they are to be fully trusted.

Literature used

  • Baylis, John; Wirtz James (2016): Introduction: Strategy in the Contemporary World: Strategy after 9/11. In: Baylis, John; Wirtz James (eds.): Strategy in the Contemporary World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pages 1-14.
  • Larsdotter, Kersti (2019): Military Strategy in the 21st Century. In: Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 42, No. 2. Pages 155-170.
  • Freedman, Lawrence (2013): Strategy. A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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