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Post 1: What makes Strategy 'Grand'?

Updated: Apr 11, 2018

Quickly understand what grand strategy is - and is not.

Grand strategy is a big idea back in fashion as a useful way to think about and address important issues. Many grand strategic schemes advocated though are complicated, incomplete, inappropriate and use arcane terms that perplex policymakers and non-experts alike. This blog is intended to help you overcome these problems. Over the next few blogs we will build a simple, minimalist framework to help you think more clearly and concisely about grand strategy in the future.


Why bother devising a grand strategy though? What does it do that something else doesn’t? Grand strategy is a way to try to get somewhere that you want to go. That may seem simple but can be better understood when compared against two well-known alternatives: opportunism and risk management. These are approaches that await events; they respond to other’s actions, they are reactive but they can be useful.


Australia is good at opportunism with notable examples in both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars of jumping on board the American grand strategy and exploiting it for our own benefit. Equally with risk management; recent Australian Defence White Papers have adopted a risk management approach focussed on building up an armed force just in case a carefully chosen particular risk eventuated. An insurance policy against a house fire if you will – and hope there’s not a flood, as it might not pay out! Both approaches depend on others and react to their activities. With opportunism you go where others take you; Australia becomes a bit player in another country’s project. In risk management you sit down to await the hope-this-doesn’t-happen event. As the old saying goes, hope is not a strategy and neither are opportunism and risk management.


Grand strategy is the opposite. A grand strategy tries to take you where you wish to go. The grand strategy embraced may not succeed but the intention is to reach a particular desired objective. Grand strategy tries to make the future how we would like it. It’s a big, hairy, audacious idea. A grand strategy may fail but if you don’t try it, someone else chooses your destination for you.


Even so, isn’t this strategy? Strategy and grand strategy are both all about ends, ways and means where the ‘ends’ are the objectives, the ‘ways’ are the possible courses of actions and the ‘means’ are the instruments of national power. What then makes strategy grand?


Firstly, while grand strategy is also concerned with applying the means, it also crucially includes the development of the ‘means’ used. Strategy blithely ignores the resources – the people, money and materiel – needed to develop the means but grand strategy includes them, an important matter in this age of austerity. Secondly, grand strategy directs the full array of the instruments of national power, rather than like strategy focusing on a single type of instrument. A grand strategy directs all the national means including diplomatic, informational, military and economic, but more than simply whole-of-government this is whole-of-nation.


Grand strategy then involves developing a comprehensive set of means and applying these in a way that makes a particularly desirable future. You can see why strategic thinker Colin Gray says that ‘all strategy is grand strategy’ because without grand strategy a ‘strategy’ is alone and unsupported, and may work against what others are also trying to do.


Without care, Australia’s approach to China could be like that. Some want a military strategy that contains China; some simultaneously want an economic strategy that engages China. Such a ‘trading with the enemy’ combined approach is though somewhat incoherent. It is to fix such contradictions that grand strategy is most useful.

Having discussed what grand strategy is for, my next blog will discuss about how to influence others.

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