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Post 2: Grand Strategy Types

Choose the best type of grand strategy for your problem


This second blog on simplifying the arcane world of grand strategy looks at how we can influence others. Grand strategy involves interacting with others in a way that will change them to our advantage. Grand strategy is not the ends sought – we decide that separately – nor is it the resources (the means) we use. Instead grand strategy is a mental roadmap we devise about how to use the people, money and materiel we have, we can build, we can hire or we can borrow to try to move others where we want them to go.


In being about influencing others for our benefit, there are intrinsically three broad types – although within these there are many sub-types with impenetrable names! Denial involves stopping others doing what they would like to do. Engagement involves helping others achieve what they – and we – want. Reform involves changing the social principles and rules that drive others’ actions. Each type of grand strategy has its own particular way to achieve an objective, but crucially different outcomes require using different grand strategies.


Denial. A denial grand strategy assumes that superior power determines outcomes; you can stop others achieving their objectives by being more powerful than them. In such a grand strategy military and economic might is used in ways that means that others will in fear avoid disagreeable behaviours or, if needs be, can be physically stopped. In a denial grand strategy you become more powerful by building up your own military and economic power, or by forming alliances with other states to amass superior power, or by doing both. The problem with alliances though is that your allies may only be fair-weather friends seeking to maximise their benefits.


Denial grand strategies create international orders based around relative power. If you have overwhelming power you can dominate completely and disregard all others; another option is to form a small like-minded group of powerful equals that together manages other lesser states (a ‘concert’ of powers); lastly if you only have a moderate amount of power you can balance against others and prevent them dominating you. Denial is conceptually uncomplicated in using force to stop others however this is not a permanent solution. Others may simply bide their time until you are weaker or until they build up their own power more. Denial grand strategies examples include containment, off-shore balancing, coercive diplomacy and deterrence.


Engagement. An engagement grand strategy assumes that there are groups in the other state that have interests and desires that you share, or at least that are useful to you. You can support these helpful groups so that they prevail in the continual jostling between domestic interest groups rather then the groups you disapprove of. The aim is to ensure that the ‘right’ people govern the state. Ensuring what the other country wants is what you want is the goal.

Engagement grand strategies can create complex interdependence orders that make other states more permeable allowing access to specific domestic groups that can be usefully exploited and manipulated. Another order involves you and others mutually creating joint institutions that impose rules that all agree to abide with. The final alternative is one where democracies come together to cooperate under agreed rules and with strong economic linkages. Engagement grand strategies can have a long lasting effect and be low cost but they rely on finding useful others. Liberal internationalism, supranationalism, collective security and appeasement are examples.


Reform. A reform grand strategy is all about changing the ideas people hold. The old ideas first need to have collapsed with people convinced a new replacement idea is essential. Then those particular members of a society who have a strong influence on the ideas people adopt need to be convinced that some new notion (of yours) is the answer. After this, these idea advocates need supporting until their message convinces enough people that a tipping point is reached, a cascade occurs and most accept the new thinking. The new idea though has to be seen as useful; if it fails, old ways may return.


Reform grand strategies can reshape the principles on which societies operate and create permanent change although this may take time to achieve. Reform grand strategy examples include rollback, regime change, humanitarian intervention, security community and counterinsurgency.


In the next blog we’ll discuss grand strategy’s essential second half: developing the means to influence others.


A version of this post was published earlier by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. That post may be accessed here.

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