Book Review by Dave Lyle

Updated: Mar 1, 2019

Lt. Col. Dave Lyle, USAF in SSQ: Strategic Studies Quarterly, 26 December 2018,

The supreme challenge of any multidisciplinary endeavor is to find essential linkages between the most significant of many diverse elements and processes and to form a theoretical framework to make sense of them as the conceptual and theoretical foundation of useful action. When your topic is grand strategy—an area of interest that could conceivably require some knowledge of every other academic discipline—the task wielding Occam’s Razor (“Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeternecessitate,” which roughly translates to “things should not be multiplied beyond what is necessary”, often shortened to “Keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler”) is undeniably difficult, and very possibly an exercise in hubris and self-delusion. However, if such a condensation must be done on behalf of deliberate grand strategy, what would an adequate theoretical framework look like? This is precisely the task pursued by Dr. Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at Griffith University's Asia Institute in Australia, in his new, very simply titled, and independently published book Grand Strategy.

Somewhere between security studies and strategic studies lies the realm of grand strategy, a field of study whose very existence many credible commentators have questioned in the years since it was first described by theorists and academics like Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Edward Meade Earle, and Sir Michael Howard. As described by Williamson Murray in The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War, “Grand strategy lies at the nexus of politics and military strategy and thus contains important elements of both…the best analogy for understanding grand strategy is that of how French peasant soup is made – a mixture of items thrown into a pot for a week and then eaten, for which no recipe can possibly exist” (p. 8-9). Despite this—or perhaps more accurately, because of this—grand strategy has emerged as a valued conceptual construct. It is the subject of dedicated courses of study in both military and civilian colleges. Dr. Peter Layton’s original contribution joins a field of contemporary literature previously staked out by notable authors such as Paul Kennedy, Williamson Murray, Edward Luttwak, Jon Sumida, Hal Brands, William C. Martel, and John L. Gaddis. It also exists within a field of literature best bounded by Lukas Milevski’s The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (2016).

Layton seeks to answer the question, “Assuming it can and should be practiced deliberately, how should grand strategy best be done?” Where other books on grand strategy are often historical surveys about how various political entities or states tacked the specifics of their time, or offer generic principles of grand strategy, this book proposes a general theoretical framework that can be applied to any strategic competition. Entering the conversation from the perspectives of traditional international relations theory, Layton summarizes the relationships of the major theoretical schools that continue to dominate discussions in international relations—realism, idealism, and constructivism—to grand strategy. Borrowing from classical strategic studies, Layton also then links the theories to three overarching national security conceptual approaches, each designed to match up to specific kinds of international orders in adversarial political situations. Sticking to the “Rule of Threes”—an unscientific premise that observes that humans can usually deal with three ideas at once, and more only with great difficulty—Layton describes three main types of grand strategies: denial, engagement, and reform (Fig. 2, p. 51), and then proceeds to explain how this initial “rough cut” theoretical framing at the highest levels of grand strategy design can drive different strategic and operational approaches. He also describes differences framing long and near-term issues, situations of choice vs. situations of necessity, and situations of certainty vs. situations of uncertainty (Fig. 4, p. 75). He then uses three modern case studies for each major grand strategy type to demonstrate the employment of his framework in practice in three separate chapters (Ch. 5-7). In his conclusion, Layton describes the necessary tensions built into his theoretic framework, then provides a particularly valuable discussion not often seen in books on theory—advice on when NOT to use the frameworks he is offered.

Perhaps the last (and most subtly offered) component in Layton’s general theory framing—certainty vs. uncertainty—is one of the most significant contributions that many other works on grand strategy neglect. Many sources do not even contain an attempt at formulating a general conceptual theory for the practice of grand strategy (most do not). Layton consciously develops heuristics to determine which kinds of problems are well structured—lending themselves to deliberate, industrial age management style approaches, which can be accelerated by innovations like machine learning and artificial intelligence. He also develops empirical methods to determine which kinds of problems are ill-structured—requiring emergent, networked-based approaches rather than objectives based management, or the automated bureaucratization executed at the speed of light signified by some AI approaches. By including this category, Layton forces the would-be theorist to include not only history and international relations theories, but also the ability to understand differences between complicated and complex problems. Additionally, advocated is the need to tailor different kinds of approaches to account for having elements of both theories and problems. This is not unlike the descriptions of “deliberate and emergent” strategies offered by Henry Mintzberg for the business world in Strategy Safari. Layton is careful to emphasize that the process he offers was “developed to assist people both how to think, and what to think about grand strategy. Moreover, the grand strategy process is only to help people structure their initial thinking. Context and judgment must still be applied to determine sensible, practical grand strategic options.” (p. 243).

It is unlikely that any single book will ever fully crack the code in this field, however, Grand Strategy is a truly admirable, compact, and highly readable contribution, displaying a deft and capable heft of Occam’s Razor. Layton meets the reader on familiar theoretical grounds but then pushes them toward new corners of the field, all while avoiding the temptation of telling them exactly how to get to their destination. This is a guide for exploring strategic vistas in a world of constantly shifting summit heights, not directions to a single, static, and mostly mythical grand strategy peak.

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