Strategy: Creating Power or Justifying Reality?

The material in this post is drawn from the author’s forthcoming book – The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 – which is published by Oxford University Press in July 2017. This post originally appeared in The European Financial Review.


Strategy, it seems, matters. No forward thinking business, organisation, or government would contemplate attempting to do anything without a “strategy” for success. As a result, strategy sells. Books and articles on the topic proliferate, encompassing almost every conceivable application of the term – from business to time management, with approaches drawn from sources as diverse as ancient military theorists to modern day life coaches.

This has lead to a wide-ranging debate amongst scholars and “practitioners” as to whether the term is now used so widely as to rob it of any meaning at all. If a government has a foreign policy strategy, a business a corporate strategy, and a commander a military strategy, can they call be talking about the same thing? Even if one takes a broad definition of the term – Lawrence Freedman’s the creation of power in pursuit of an aim, for instance – the generalisation of its employment clearly creates potential pitfalls of understanding and application.

These problems have produced a critical response, which questions whether making “strategy” in the sense that common usage of the word often assumes is even possible. In this reading, rather than a centrally directed, targeted attempt to achieve any given objective, “strategy” is a descriptive term which we retrospectively apply to create the illusion of coherence in a series of chaotic activities which owe more to individual and organisational agendas than any form of unified vision. To talk of strategy is thus to overestimate the agency of senior decision makers and their ability to concert the efforts of their organisations in support of a clearly defined outcome. More important than deciding which of these schools of thought one subscribes to, however, is to employ both when thinking about the term “strategy”. The requirement to do so can best be illustrated by way of an example.

Between the late 1870s and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the British government faced growing difficulties in defending an expanding Empire against a series of powerful rivals. By the end of this period, the growth of German and American power, combined with the latent potential of Russia and the perennial antagonism of France, threatened to escalate the cost of protecting the British interests beyond what the taxpayer was prepared to countenance.

For much of the two decades prior to the Boer War (1899-1902), inefficiency – or a lack of “strategy” in a directed sense – exacerbated this problem. Britain’s armed services supported each other and worked in concert where required, but their interactions were largely organic. Without a system of centralised oversight, duplications of effort and concomitant omissions were inevitable.

The shortcomings of this approach were widely recognised within military and political circles. As one observer remarked upon hearing of a new government enquiry into the defences of imperial coaling stations in 1880, “for the first time in the history of our Empire we are about to inquire – How to defend it?” Others went further, making calls for a uni ed “ministry of defence” to improve inter-service co-ordination.

The great challenge facing British policy makers of this period was that of how to defend the jewel in the crown of the Empire – the Indian Raj – from the expansion of Russian power southward, whilst concurrently staving off the threat of the Tsar’s partner in the Dual Alliance – France – at sea. These twin problems were intimately related, because the main military reinforcement for India would be drawn from the army stationed in Britain. If French sea power prevented this force from moving to the sub-continent by sea, then a Russian move towards India – or even a major revolt on the scale of the 1856 Mutiny – threatened to deal a paralysing blow to British power in Asia.

Administrators battled with and failed to solve this problem for much of the period between 1880 and 1900. On each occasion, the lack of a body capable of adjudicating between the view- points of the interested parties – the Army, Navy, India Office, and Indian government – obviated meaningful progress. If one can speak of British “strategy” at this point, the term must thus neces- sarily be used in a descriptive sense – that is to capture the aggregate of the loosely connected but fundamentally independent policies being pursued by different centres of power within the British imperial system.

Ultimately the combination of incrementally rising costs and the strategic shock of the Boer War brought these issues to a head in 1900-1903. Then, the Unionist Prime Minister – Arthur Balfour – created a new advisory committee intended to produce a greater synergy within imperial defence. This body – the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) – drew its authority from having the PM as its chairman, and with an interested and capable individual such as Balfour at the helm, it quickly demonstrated its worth.

Under Balfour’s stewardship, between 1903 and 1905, the CID made considerable headway in ironing out many of the internecine squabbles which had beset British defence planning for the preceding two decades. A coherent plan for the defence of India, and a new organisational structure for the army intended to facilitate it, were settled upon and imposed, and the activities of the Army and Navy regarding home defence were also de-conflicted. Problems doubtless remained – Britain lacked an obvious means of exerting its maritime strength against Russia and was therefore still vulnerable to pressure in Central Asia. As one official remarked, resignedly, “Russia’s only weak point is her poverty”. Yet the government had synchronised naval and military effort such that the two complimented each other to a greater extent than had been the case before 1900. Here was can see “strategy” in terms of central direction, as a conscious and successful attempt to direct proportionate resources in a coherent way in pursuit of a realistic objective. Unfortunately, this administrative momentum dissipated almost as soon as it had developed.

A new government arrived in power in December 1905, the leadership of which took decidedly less interest in affairs of strategy than had its predecessor. The Prime Minister, Henry Campbell Bannerman, had actively opposed the formation of a general staff for the Army in the 1890s, concerned that it might foist an aggressive military policy upon the country. His successor after 1908, Herbert Asquith, was equally reticent, and had his time occupied managing the conflicting agendas within his party and cabinet. What “strategy” had been developed in 1903-05 thus began to drift soon after Balfour departed Downing Street. The solutions and structures appropriate in 1903-05 endured, but they were no longer necessarily rele- vant to the questions posed by rapidly altering international conditions. Without close political coordination, the activities of the Army and Navy thus became polarised once again. By the summer of 1913 the situation was suf ciently serious for an of cial at the Admiralty to remark that the coun- try’s military policy had begun to exert a “very insidious” affect upon naval planning, a situation that persisted well into the War.

Here was see a reversion to the conditions present prior to the formation of the CID in 1903: Britain no longer had a “strategy” in the sense of a directed attempt to create power. In this instance, “strategy” can only be used to describe the aggregate of internally inconsistent naval and military policies, which did not combine to their maximum potential effect. This much was born out after 1914, as the government struggled to gain control of the leviathan British war effort or to shape its course.

What can this episode of mixed administrative fortunes tell us? Most basically, it underscores the need to think carefully about how we use the term “strategy” and to acknowledge that is has utility both as a tool of retrospective analysis, and as a term used to describe practical attempts to solve the problem of the present. Striking this distinction better enables us to understand how what might be thought of as “bad” or “ineffective” strategy works, to capture the a-strategic along with the strategic.

Yet it is also important to appreciate that if we conceive of strategy as a way of framing actions in the present – we cannot and must not think of it as an act. Strategy is not fixed, it is not an end point, it is, above all, a process. By failing to participate in the process Balfour had begun, after 1905 the Liberal government let British strategy drift, bereft of its central co-ordinating function. Without the continued and proactive interest Balfour had demonstrated, the process worked at only a fraction of its potential capacity. To borrow from Aristotle, strategy, then, is not act but a habit – a state of mind – a critical, questioning approach to problem solving. Such a mode of thought must be sustained, even when “answers” to immediate problems appear to have been identified. Inaction can be strategic if it is the product of conscious choice, as can acting without regard to the consequences if purely by doing one achieves one’s aim. All too often before 1914 British inaction in the real of “strategy” was simply the result of apathy.

Image: Destroy this mad brute—US propaganda from 1917 via Wikimedia commons.

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