Book Review by James Griffin

James Griffin, St. John's College Annapolis, The Strategy bridge, 16 January 2019,

“In this year (338 BCE), Philip the king, having won most of the Greeks over to friendship with him, was ambitious to gain uncontested leadership of Greece by terrifying the Athenians into submission…He expected to have no trouble in defeating them since their reliance on an existing peace treaty made them unprepared for hostilities; and that is how it worked out.”[1]

The practice of grand strategy has been a staple of statesmanship since time immemorial. But only since the Napoleonic era has much ink been spilt analyzing and grappling with the grand strategic behavior of varied historical dynamos. Until now, scholars have largely demurred from trying to pin down the theoretical essence of what grand strategy actually is. By borrowing insights from fields as varied as strategic studies and cognitive theory, Layton has created an interpretation of how grand strategy could and should look in practice. His core premise is that a set of three grand strategic schemas (or theories) can be used to effectively wield the means of a state to achieve a desired end.[2] Grand Strategy, it is said, represents the West’s first intellectual foray in discovering the theoretical nature of the subject.

Naturally, such a statement must appear ridiculous on its face given the existence of such titans as Edward Luttwak and Colin Gray.[3] I thought so as well. In an effort to dispel this notion, I flipped to my handy copy of Lukas Milevski’s The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought—the modern touchstone of grand-strategic prosopography—and I pored over it looking for authors who treat with grand strategic theory. Much to my embarrassment, Milevski only noted one individual breaking ground in this particular domain, one Dr. Peter Layton.[4]

Dissatisfied and cognizant of the conversations on strategy cluttering up America’s national security discourse, I spent several months performing an exhaustive literature review to see what else I could dredge up. A few hundred dollars and several score hours later, I’ve come to the conclusion that this claim of primacy is, in fact, reasonable. Even those works professing to elaborate upon grand strategic theory, such as the commendable Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice by the late William Martel, have focused primarily on analyzing the implementation of grand strategy by various actors throughout history and extrapolating in search of general patterns in lieu of grappling with the concept’s pure essence.[5] Layton’s intellectual barque departs from the ever-lavish harbor of history in favor of a perilous, but altogether novel multi-disciplinary course.

The first and most familiar idea is his schema of denial. This schema is reminiscent of Archibald Wavell’s rumination to the elder Liddell-Hart: “The main principles of strategy…attack the other fellow in the flank or rear instead of the front…surprise him by any means…attack his morale before you attack him physically are really things that every savage schoolboy knows.”[6] In the denial schema, all of a state’s coordinated actions are taken with an eye towards maintaining a favorable balance of power vis-à-vis one’s adversary.

To expand upon this concept, Layton examines America’s behavior towards Iraq up to and including the Gulf War; the Tamil Tigers’ strategic behavior against the Sri Lankan government from the Second Eelam War until that country’s 2002 ceasefire; and the Soviet Union’s policy of detente towards the U.S. from 1965 to 1980. All the cases he refers to in this chapter fit well within his framework, although the first two are more apt examples than the third. Personally, I found his summation of the Tamil Tigers’ behavior to be particularly enlightening. Their deviation from cultivating reliable and ever-present reservoirs of power in favor of more lucrative external sources ultimately undermined their broader effort and precipitated their ultimate defeat.

To demonstrate this schema’s applicability elsewhere, I would draw the reader’s attention to a contemporary example. From 2014 to its last battle in early 2017, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria used a frighteningly effective denial grand strategy. From its unexpected sweep through Nineveh province in Northern Iraq to its constant solicitation abroad for men and material, the Islamic State strove to obtain a favorable balance of power vis-à-vis the Iraqi government.[7] Consistent with this schema, the Islamic State strove to keep Iraqi Security Forces on its back foot with minor offensives designed to give their nascent state breathing room. This included the Islamic State’s capture of Tikrit in 2014 and Ramadi in 2015, as well as numerous spoiling offensives designed to draw attention away from its primary sources of revenue and strength such as its 2016 raid against Kirkuk, an attack concurrent with the major Iraqi Security Force offensive directed against the Islamic State’s largest city in Mosul. It is revealing the Islamic State’s noteworthy failures occurred when it launched offensives incompatible with the denial schema, offensives such as the move against the northern Syrian city of Kobani which frittered away its strength and resulted in its first major reverse.[8] The Islamic State would have done well to note Layton’s admonition that “a denial grand strategy is not appropriate to change a state’s social purpose or its social rules,” meaning in this context that force can be used to overthrow a state, but it is ill-suited to cajole the resources of the defeated.[9]

The second schema Layton refers to as engagement. It is reminiscent of that oft-quoted dictum that “war is...a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”[10] Engagement, he suggests, “focuses on working with useful internal or external actors sharing coterminous interests with one’s adversary” with an eye towards shaping said adversary’s behavior.[11] The three historical examples used to illustrate this idea are the Marshall Plan; Iran’s intimate relationship with Hezbollah; and Neville Chamberlain’s efforts to appease a resurgent and recalcitrant Nazi Germany. Layton’s analysis of Britain’s appeasement regimen is the most intriguing in light of given the inherent tension involved in striving to placate a stronger actor who seems determined not to be subdued. Layton provides a sobering insight all strategists should heed: to successfully subvert an opposing state, internal or external actors capable of overthrowing or at the very least balancing the dominant regime are required, otherwise this strategy is doomed to failure.

Layton’s third and final schema evolves around tugging on the heartstrings of one’s adversary to get them to do what you want—preferably without using force. Keeping with the pattern, Layton discusses two successful examples and one not-so-successful example. For his first example, Layton provides an analysis of the successful International Campaign to Ban Landmines that I found engrossing. In the wake of the Cold War, when global peace euphoria was in full swing, a coalition of civilian actors set out to convince the governments of the world to ban the use of landmines. Using the resources of non-governmental organizations the world over, as well as funding from such benefactors as the Open Society Institute, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines ran a successful de-centralized campaign to systematically shame the governments of the world into shrinking or eliminating their stockpiles of landmines.[12,13,14] This case showed that an actor does not have to be “a giant, seven feet tall with four arms, each with two biceps”[15] to get what it wants. It just has to know where to apply pressure to its target. His analysis of the British Empire’s approach to its Malayan Emergency is the least fleshed out example, though it did have a positive outcome. The third example he discusses is the U.S. effort to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime up to and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This was, of course, the unsuccessful example.

It is telling that Layton neglected to address this work to any particular institution or nation in spite of his stated affiliations. The reader might be tempted to view this absence of acknowledgement as a damning indictment of the conduct of grand strategy worldwide. The sole superpower has notably been strategically listless since at least the 1990s, with innumerable onlookers expressing their concern over the apparent absence of a captain at the helm.[16] The Russian Federation, the United States’ erstwhile adversary, is constantly skating the line between re-emergence as a global great power and becoming the world’s first Potemkin State. The People’s Republic of China in a sharp rebuke to its decades of steady economic and gravital expansion is increasingly finding itself checked throughout the world, partially because the United States is tripping it up, but mostly because the Chinese Communist Party can't get out of its own way. Even regional actors who once showed great grand strategic promise such as Saudi Arabia under Mohammed Bin Salman, have shown themselves to be remarkable for their tendency to score own-goals. Layton’s timeless contribution might be to convince the world’s decision-makers that not only is thinking at a grand-strategic level possible, but it is also a good idea.

Grand Strategy, self-published as it is, has a tendency to read like A.T. Mahan, or Edward Luttwak in a writing flurry, which might prove annoying to some readers. But to my mind, Grand Strategy’s staccato moments do not at all detract from the intellectual substance of the work. At some points, it even adds a bit of flavor. I would recommend this work to military professionals, think tank analysts who focus on national security affairs, and the entirety of the West’s political class.

As a bonus, in his concluding section Layton lays out guidelines demarcating when and where grand strategy is appropriate, and when it is better to just wing it. This section alone is intellectually stimulating enough to be worth the read. All in all, I do not believe this book will have the opportunity to accrue dust on anyone’s bookshelf.


[1] Diodorus the Sicilian, Historical Library, Book XVI, Chapter 84 - Translated by Giles Laurén

[2] Layton’s term “schema” is derived from a metacognitive construct of the same name. It can be loosely defined as an overarching guiding principle.

[3] Dr. Colin S. Gray, Theory of Strategy ; See also: Strategy and History: Essays on Theory and Practice

[4] Dr. Lukas Milevski, The Evolution of Grand Strategy, see also this Spencer Bakich review here in The Strategy Bridge.

[5] Dr. William Martel, Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice, The Need for an Effective Foreign Policy; he discusses the theoretical components of grand strategy in chapter 11.

[6] Sir Basil Liddell Hart, Edited by Adrian Liddell Hart, The Sword and the Pen, pg. 7

[7] Kelly McEvers and Rukmini Callimachi, The New York Times Uncovers How ISIS Recruits From Afar

[8] Patrick Cockburn, Isis in Syria: Kobani stood up to the jihadists and won - but it's still a city under siege

[9] Dr. Layton, Grand Strategy, pg. 80

[10] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, pg. 87

[11] Layton, Grand Strategy, pg. 132

[12] Ann Peters, International Partnerships on the Road to Ban Anti-personnel Landmines

[13] Richard Price, Reversing the Gun Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines

[14] Lesley Wexler, The International Deployment of Shame, Second–Best Responses, and Norm Entrepreneurship: The Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Landmine Ban Treaty

[15] Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, pg. 12 .

[16] Ionut Popescu, Trump Doesn't Need a Grand Strategy - this is a good expose into the strategic angst plaguing the National Security Community.

37 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Grand Strategy Reviews

Amazon Customer Reviews Sean Atkins Need to do strategy? Read this book. July 7, 2018 5.0 out of 5 stars This is an enormously useful book and one that addresses a challenge that many organizations ar

Book Review by Lukas Milevski

Lukas Milevski, Leiden University and author of The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (2016) Oxford University Press. The RUSI Journal, Vol.163, No.3, July 2018, pp. 117-118, https://www.tan

Book Review by Sawar J. Minar

Sawar J. Minar, Independent University, Bangladesh and Founder, Center for Grand Strategy Studies, 14 September, 2018,