Small Wars Journal

Strategy Is Not Enough

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Strategy Is Not Enough

Roy M. Diehl

There is now, and long has been, a frequent degree of unease in how we deal with conflict.  These days we may focus our attention on the current state of what used to be called the “Global War on Terror,” or security in Eastern Europe, or tensions in the South China Sea.  Not that long ago we worried about failed states in Africa and narco-terrorism, before that it was the Cold War and the transition from the era of European colonialism.

Particularly since 1981, when Colonel Harry Summers wrote an influential analysis of the Vietnam war,[1] it has become common to look at how we deal with conflict in terms of strategy.  If there are difficulties in Iraq, the problem is with the strategy we are using.  If Putin’s Russia is causing trouble, we look at the strategy he is employing and what strategy we should employ in response.  If we are nervous about how China is acting as an emerging world power, we develop strategies for containment and confrontation.

However, strategy cannot stand on its own.  Strategy exists to support a purpose, its success or failure measured against that purpose.[2]  This was the foundation of the theory of war written by Carl von Clausewitz which Colonel Summers used as the basis for his analysis.

The purpose of strategy is always to be found in what Clausewitz called “policy.”  “War,” he wrote, “is an act of policy.”[3] “Politics… is the womb in which war develops.”[4]  “War is not merely an act of policy,” he famously stated, “but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on by other means…  The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”[5]

Clausewitz called policy the “guiding intelligence”[6] of war: “No major proposal required for war can be worked out in ignorance of political factors.”[7]  To do so would be the same as to design a structure without knowledge of its foundation, regard to its function or concern for its purpose.

Clausewitz was rather clear about the foundations strategy must be built on.  Even for the secondary matter of resourcing, he wrote, “we must first examine our own political aim and that of the enemy.  We must gauge the strength and situation of the opposing state. We must gauge the character and abilities of its government and people and do the same in regard to our own.  Finally, we must evaluate the political sympathies of other states and the effect the war may have on them.”[8]

If you read through the most important documents our nation’s senior leaders maintain on the safety and security of the nation, such as the National Security Strategy,[9] the Quadrennial Defense Review,[10] and the National Military Strategy,[11] you will need to have a vivid imagination to see anything in anything resembling the kind of guidance Clausewitz prescribed.

What is the nature of the conflict we are involved in with anyone?  What are their political aims?  What are ours?  What are their strengths?  Their situation?  Their character and abilities?  How strong are their motives?  What price are they willing to pay?  What harm are they willing to inflict? 

What do our “adversaries” want that we find intolerable? What do we want that they are so opposed to that they may be willing to employ force and violence, to cause misery and privation, to inflict death and destruction, in order to get their way?  What are we willing to fight for?  Or against?

These are questions of policy, the answers to which are essential to understand the foundations any strategy must rest on.

To quote Clausewitz, “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”[12]  If our government does not give us clear guidance on the “political object” that is our goal, then the result must always be “means… considered in isolation from their purpose.”

Without proper guidance on the nature, aims and importance of the conflict, strategists are working blind.  They can either design operations to deal with the military fight as they see it – with only their own instinct to help them find an acceptable political end state – or fall back on an “exit” strategy to execute at the point where their government loses interest and decides to abandon the whole affair.

And that is exactly what has happened to us repeatedly for generations.  We prevail when the aim of the fight is simple and the outcome absolute: remove Noriega, free Grenada, liberate Kuwait. 

But when the conflict is complex or the opposition is durable, we get frustrated and eventually gather up our things, mourn our losses and squabble among ourselves over who to blame for getting us into the mess in the first place.  Vietnam.  Beirut.  Somalia.  Iraq.  Afghanistan.

We need to understand that war is not about strategies, the operational art or logistics capacities.  War is not about manpower, weapons systems or even victory on the battlefield – as a North Vietnamese colonel famously informed Colonel Summers in April, 1975.[13]  Strategies not rooted in a purpose will always be at great risk of failure.

Clausewitz wrote, “… [W]ar cannot be divorced from political life, and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.”[14]

Americans in uniform have time and again been left fighting wars that have decayed into “something pointless and devoid of sense.”  If our efforts in the future are to make sense and have a point, we must look to a day when our government gives us the kind of policy guidance we need to do our job.

End Notes

[1] Harry G. Summer, Jr., On Strategy: a critical analysis of the Vietnam War. (Novarto, California: Presidio Press, 1982)

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), see p. 610.

[3] Clausewitz, On War, p. 87.

[4] Ibid, p. 149.

[5] Ibid, p. 87.

[6] Ibid, p. 607.

[7] Ibid, p. 608.

[8] Ibid, p. 586.

[9] 2015 National Security Strategy, The White House (February, 2015)

[10] Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, Department of Defense (March, 2014)

[11] The National Military Strategy of the United States 2015, Joint Chiefs of Staff (June, 2015)

[12] Clausewitz, On War, p. 87.

[13] Summers, On Strategy, p. 1.

[14] Clausewitz, On War, p. 605.


About the Author(s)

LTC Diehl originally enlisted in the Regular Army in 1984.  Prior to retirement, his service included tours in Germany at Field Station Augsburg (1986-1989), in Iraq at Forward Operating Bases Danger and Speicher (2005) and at the Pentagon with the International and Operational Law Division of the Office of the Judge Advocate General and the Operations Directorate of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff G-3/5/7, Headquarters, Department of the Army (2010-2014).


"Particularly since 1981, when Colonel Harry Summers wrote an influential analysis of the Vietnam war, it has become common to look at how we deal with conflict in terms of strategy. If there are difficulties in Iraq, the problem is with the strategy we are using. If Putin’s Russia is causing trouble, we look at the strategy he is employing and what strategy we should employ in response. If we are nervous about how China is acting as an emerging world power, we develop strategies for containment and confrontation."

"However, strategy cannot stand on its own. Strategy exists to support a purpose, its success or failure measured against that purpose. This was the foundation of the theory of war written by Carl von Clausewitz which Colonel Summers used as the basis for his analysis."

What the author would seem to be saying here is that we should not necessarily look to strategy (or lack thereof?) to explain success or failure but, rather, to purpose -- which, in-and-of-itself, can be found in "policy."

As to what is our purpose -- and thus our policy -- to "spread democracy and economic openness" would, at first blush, seem to answer this mail.

But, upon closer examination, this answer would not seem to be satisfactory.

Thus, to ask the related question: To spread democracy, and economic openness, throughout the world, to what end?

Herein, to suggest "to achieve greater power, influence and control throughout the world/to achieve global or extra-regional hegemony" might be an answer.

But to what end might we wish to achieve greater power, influence and control throughout the world/to expand our hegemonic status?

Herein, to suggest the answer of: "To achieve greater safety, security and prosperity for our nation, for our populations and for our allies."

Thus, now, to possibly articulate the full question properly, as follows:

a. Have our efforts (including war) -- which were undertaken to spread democracy and economic openness -- have these allowed the United States to gain greater power, influence and control throughout the world/to achieve a global or extra-regional hegemonic status?

b. This, providing that the United States -- via this virtuous effort -- has now become safer, more secure and more prosperous? (More so, for example, than it would have been minus this such effort.)

If the answer to the "a"-"b" question above is a resounding "YES," then we would seem to have done good.

If, however, the answer to the "a"-"b" question above is a resounding "NO," then where, within this scheme, do we believe that we should apply corrective action?

It would certainly be nice if policy guidance was clearer, but unless we're in an actual war I just don't see that happening. In respect to OIF and OEF-A, the broad policy guidance was clear, but the broad policy guidance and associated objectives were strategic overreach. We didn't have the tangible means (forces) nor the intangible means (political will) to do what was necessary.

Furthermore, most strategy today is focused on shaping the strategic environment, which is dynamic and ever changing. We want security, prosperity, a rule based international system, and to promote our values. Guidance in this case will be broad out of necessity, and yes we have to use some imagination to interpret and pursue gray objectives in the shaping phase. However, if we go to war all of your points are valid and a must read for our civilian leadership. As you have effectively argued, we have failed to do this as a nation repeatedly.

Related to your argument is a quote from GEN Dempsey in the latest Joint Force Quarterly on page 5. "Elected officials are hardwired to ask for options first and then reverse-engineer objectives. And the military is hard-wired to do exactly the opposite.

Now what can you do about that situation? Nothing frankly. But that is the environment that we live and work in."

Two issues are at stake.
1. Yes, the policy/strategy relation must always be conceptualized correctly. Policy = "the what"; Strategy = "the way in which means are used to accomplish specific objectives" that directly support policy. The political object of war is supreme, and war is an instrument. However, it is also crucial to rethink 'war' in the way the Chinese colonels have to embrace every means available to influence an enemy to further one's own objectives. I prefer to view war as a state of enmity--"a state of war"--that can exist whether nukes are facing each other in a Cold War, or one's future economic potential is being stolen through cyberwarfare, cyberespionage, or other 'non-kinetic means. By the way, the recent NSS and NMS documents DO provide discussion of "the what": to disrupt, degrade, and ultimately defeat the Islamic State organization, AQ and affiliates, etc.
2. The REAL lack of clarity that I have detected in most founding statements of existing strategy pertains to two fundamental premises of any policy and strategy: core values, vital national interests.
Represented logically:
Core Values --> Vital Interests --> Policy --> Strategy.
What are our "core values"? What are our "vital interests"? It is at this point that one can see two very different visions of America's self-understanding of its goals/role in the world. A careful reading of the National Military Strategy leads one to conclude that our vital interests consist in ensuring that we, "our allies and partners," are committed to maximizing access to the global commons; defending the existing post-WWII UN-based system of international law and nation-state-based system; ensuring access to global energy reserves. We are a global superpower, with a dynamic global reach, and enormous power. The NMS repeatedly defends the necessity of proving this power through forward posturing, active military-military relations, persistent presence, etc. For many, though not all, this 'empire of liberty' represents a positive, robust opportunity to attach to a global cultural modernity, capitalist markets, liberal-democratic institutions, and what appears to be a surer recipe for enduring peace and prosperity. However, and what is really at issue here, is that a definite minority is willing to wage asymmetric warfare, using all instruments of influence including mass-casualty terrorism, to attack this very construct on the grounds that it represents an alien regime of infidel domination/hegemony; a sustained occupation of formerly Muslim-dominant lands. One can also view recent Russian and Chinese forms of warfare as decisive challenges to this globalized capitalist democracy. "Realists" and "isolationists" and "non-interventionists" deny that our "core values" and "vital interests" must include such an expansive US commitment. To which the internationalists retort, "it is only on the basis of a global system of stable, predictable, rule-based capitalist markets that the US can actually exist and expand". Let us add in one more ingredient that is also essential: "American exceptionalism". The US views itself as not simply defending American lives, American treasure, American blood, and willing to do deals with devils to maximize in a narrowly "self-ish" sense our own will to power. There is a genuine humanistic thrust that leads us to challenge extreme forms of inhumane treatment, truly tyrannical regimes, and defend human rights and liberties. Why? It depends on your level of scope. One can zoom out to Western Civilization, or one can zoom in to specific variants of Anglo-American religious missionizing and Providential religiously-motivated compassion, or simply the democratic revolutionary sensibility bound up in our birth in the 18th century. Whatever the reason, we have also defined our "core values" and "vital interests" as involving the defense of those unable to defend themselves, and the freedom of persons whose lives do not in any direct way actually contribute in a narrow materialist sense to our own "lives and treasure".
3. The bottom line? It is not just policy/strategy, but the broader conceptual relation of core values, vital interests, policy, and strategy, that must be understood. It is on this basis that one must pose the question: Why is the disruption, degradation, and ultimate defeat of the Islamic State organization, or deterrence/containment of China/Russia, a realization of our core values and vital interests.


Fri, 08/07/2015 - 4:46pm

In reply to by Bill C.

BillC. Do you know what Political entity or elected official wrote this policy?

From the now-defunct(?) FM 3-05.130, Army Special Forces Unconventional Warfare:

Chapter 3: Policy and Doctrine:


3-1. ...


3-2. It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world. The fundamental character of regimes is as important as the distribution of power among them. The goal of U.S. statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet citizens’ needs and act responsibly in the international system. This is the best way to provide enduring security for the American people.

3-3. Achieving this goal is the work of generations. The United States is in the early years of a long struggle, similar to what the country faced in the early years of the Cold War. In the 20th century, freedom triumphed over the threats of fascism and communism. Yet a new totalitarian ideology now threatens—an ideology not grounded not in secular philosophy but in the perversion of a religion. Its content may be different from the ideologies of the last century, but its means are similar: intolerance, murder, terror, enslavement, and repression. As in the past, today the United States must lay the foundations and build the institutions that the country needs to meet these challenges. Therefore, the United States must

-- Champion aspirations for human dignity.
-- Strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against the United States and its allies.
-- Work with others to defuse regional conflicts.
-- Prevent enemies from threatening the United States and its allies with weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
-- Ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade.
-- Expand the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy.
-- Develop agendas for cooperative action with other main centers of global power.
-- Transform America’s national security institutions to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
-- Engage the opportunities and confront the challenges of globalization.

Might we say that nothing has really changed (except HOW we might "seek and support democratic movements and institutions") re:

a. The policy of the United States outlined at paragraph 3-2 above? And, re: this policy,

b. The jobs that we believe we still need to do -- as outlined at paragraph 3-3 above? This, given the fact that we acknowledge that:

1. The overall job at hand is

2. "The work of generations?" (See para 3-3 above.)


Thu, 08/06/2015 - 3:53pm

This is an excellent piece, but I believe there's a disconnect between its wind-up and its eventual pitch. Strategy and policy are, for all intents and purposes, co-terminous. The issue America has faced in many of the conflicts in question is that Washington hasn't really developed much of a strategy at all, and that's the crux of the problem - not that America needs more than strategy, but that it needs a strategy <I>to begin with</I> - as the author so rightly notes, America's "strategic" documents are not worth the paper and/or electrons upon which they are printed. War <I>is</I>, in fact, about strategies, because war is the tool whereby the goals inherent in strategies are accomplished. America's failure to succeed outright in recent conflicts stems from the myopic focus upon the very things the author cites (operational art, logistics, manpower, weapons systems, and "victory on the battlefield"), all of which American officers and policy-makers treat as substitutes for strategy, rather than factors subordinate to it.


Thu, 08/06/2015 - 2:45pm

Outstanding!!!!!full of wisdom for such a short article. Every single member in the WH, House, and Senate should be tied up in a chair and forced to read this article for 24 hours strait. Civilian leadership does policy NOT Strategy! That is what we have Generals for.