Books > Strategy: a history

20 February 2014 | by Lawrence Freedman

Strategy: a history

Our winning ways

Reviewed by David Goodall
Oxford University press, 752pp, £25
Tablet bookshop price £22.50          
Tel 01420 592974

Evolving “as a natural consequence of scarce vital resources and the struggle for survival”, “strategy” was until comparatively recently an essentially military concept, denoting a way to win a campaign by a judicious mixture of force, forethought and deception.

Today, thanks in part to the researches and theorising of social scientists and economists, the development of “spinning” as a political technique and the exigencies of the com­petitive market, every human activity of a cooperative or potentially conflictual character, whether it be the conduct of one’s private life, the practice of diplomacy, the art of war or the management of a business, is perceived as requiring, or as having involved, a strategy. As Mrs Thatcher famously said of Willie Whitelaw, everybody needs one.

In his massively comprehensive survey,Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College London and a member of the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain and the 2003 Iraq War, offers no single definition of what is meant by “strategy”. But he suggests that it is “about maintaining a balance between ends, ways and means; about identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods available for meeting such objectives”. It comes into play where there is actual or potential conflict; and it generally entails a strong element of deceit as an alternative or supplement to the use of force. It differs from “planning”, in that it has to be prepared for unexpected factors which derail or divert its implementation.

Understood in this comprehensive way, “strategy” offers an almost unlimited field for investigation and analysis. Freedman considers both the practitioners of strategy, from David confronting Goliath through Odysseus, Clausewitz and von Moltke to the proponents of nuclear deterrence; and also, in considerable depth, its theorists, from Sun Tzu (around 500 BC) through Machiavelli, Marx, Engels and Tolstoy to a plethora of twentieth-century and contemporary (mainly American) social scientists, political economists and business experts. (He takes a brief look at Gandhi, but makes no mention of “the Indian Machiavelli” Kautilya, much quoted in Indian political discourse, after whom the diplomatic quarter of New Delhi is named.) His focus is firmly on Western thinkers, and latterly on Americans because “the United States has been not only the most powerful, but also the most intellectually innovative country in recent times”.

Freedman’s writing is admirably lucid, and the breadth of his knowledge and scholarship astonishing. But the scale and scope of the book are daunting as well as impressive: part history, part encyclopaedia, part analysis, and part philosophical reflection, it calls for considerable intellectual stamina on the part of the reader. Both as a history of ideas and as a work of reference, it is invaluable. I am sorry it was not on our shelves in my days in the Foreign Office, when Tony Crosland baffled his officials in a discussion of “Euro­Communism” by invoking the name of the moderate Marxist Antonio Gramsci (whom most of us had never heard of) as a helpful influence on the Italian Communist Party. If Strategy had been available then, all would have been clear.

The same cannot be said of all the more recent theorists through whose thinking Freedman guides us. He quotes the late Hedley Bull as having found theories about strategy to be based on the supposed reactions of “a kind of strategic man” who “before long reveals himself as a university professor of unusual intellectual subtlety”; and the reader may be forgiven for the occasional heretical thought that, as has been said of theologians, the function of social and political scientists seems to be to offer bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.

An interesting analogy, for example, is drawn between formulating a strategy and writing a film script; but six pages of argument are then needed to point out that the analogy is of limited value because the screen writer controls the plot and the strategist, however shrewd and well informed, does not.

A lengthy investigation of the intricacies of nuclear strategy during the Cold War leads to the sound conclusion that “so long as any superpower war carried a high risk of utter calamity, it was best not to take risks”. And it is refreshing to find Tolstoy, writing at a time when revolutionary theories were in the ascendant, sympathising with the anarchists but reaching the very Christian conclusion that “There can be only one permanent revolution – a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man.”

One worrying side effect of the contem­porary interest in the science of strategy is the extent to which the manipulation of public opinion has itself become science, with the temptations which that entails for political leaders in democracies to rely more on strat­egists and spinners than on principles. But Freedman has no illusions about the limitations of even the most sophisticated strategies as guides to future action, either in military campaigns or in political ones. “Events, dear boy, events”, as Harold Macmillan observed, are both unpredictable and determinant.

Erudite, wise and illuminating, Strategy is a book to be savoured and treasured, not least in its conclusion: that “in the end, all we can do is to act as if we can influence events. To do otherwise is to succumb to fatalism.”

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