Small Wars Journal

The Natural Law of Strategy

Fri, 08/26/2011 - 9:18pm

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Few things are more common in government circles these days than the lament that what we need—name the circumstance—is a strategy; we don’t have a strategy—name the circumstance—and until we do—name the circumstance—we are at a loss as to what to do, or how, or with what.  On its surface, this is a truly puzzling contention.  There is an industrial-strength enterprise in the government today, particularly in DoD and DHS, to produce strategy on ever conceivable necessity or non-necessity.  There is a Noah’s Ark of hes and shes, two by two, strategies.  The Congress requires the president to submit a national strategy, if not annually at least regularly and has done so in law since 1987.  Administrations duly produce a national strategy and executive branch agencies generate a family of subordinate strategies in bewildering numbers, which then become the occasion for producing yet a further set of implementing operational and tactical documents in rococo detail, not to mention the follow-on budget documents purporting to add ways and means to all these ends.  Virtually all of these documents are unclassified, available on line and are the product of intensive, intra- or interagency processes with many hands involved.  Yet, the impression persists that there is no current strategy.

What follows relies on two propositions to address this conundrum: first, that what is currently called ‘strategy’ is in fact no such thing; and second, that in order to understand what strategy is it is necessary to analyze current ideas of what strategy is. The conclusion, stated here at the outset, is that we will see that current ideas of strategy actually make it impossible to have a strategy.  One cannot square the circle, though it took two thousand years to realize that point.  Therefore, what follows does not try to do what can’t be done, that is provide a solution.  Policy prescriptions do not follow from the argument.  We already have enough of these and we can see just how well they work and how long any of them last.  If winning the Cold War did not lead to the kind of basic reassessment of our circumstances that require a strategy and consequent reorganization, and the resulting muddle has only led to squaring the error, then there is little hope in yet more policy urging.

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About the Author(s)

Wm. J. Olson is a professor at the Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.


Is the following explanation useful:

"Containment," etc., was adopted as the way to deal with the Soviet Union (to wit: the way to ultimately bring about the required transformation of this great power rival and to, thus, provide an international environment better organized, ordered and configured -- and otherwise better suited -- to optimally service and provide for our state and society's wants, needs and desires going forward),

This consistent goal (to provide a "world order" better organized, ordered and configured -- and otherwise better suited -- to optimally service and provide for our wants, needs and desires going forward) likewise, today, being the focus of our current strategy; the description of which might still be best understood via an understanding of the concepts of "engagement and enlargement" as initially outlined by Pres. Bill Clinton.

It seems as if there is a lot of "fly by night" stuff going on. There needs to be a strategy and a plan with realistic goals. This is not happening. It seems that there is no importance placed on it at all.

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Robert C. Jones

Thu, 09/01/2011 - 7:22pm

In reply to by Adam Neira

We have a new name for that now: "tactics"

Adam Neira

Wed, 08/31/2011 - 6:02am

Napoleon said "Strategy is the art of using time and space well !"

Not bad for the little Corsican.

Continuing my comment below:

The prime difference between Kennan's problem (the Soviet Union/communism) and our problem (globalization) being that:

a. While agreement and "concensus" (plus public understanding and support) was achieved in the former case (thus, providing the requisite "strategic culture"),

b. Such a galvanizing agreement/concensus -- and public understanding and support -- has yet to be achieved re: the argument of globalization (or some other, more valid and unifying concept).

Bill C.

Sat, 08/27/2011 - 11:29pm

Kennan's problem: How to deal with the Soviet Union.

Our problem: How to deal with globalization?

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 08/27/2011 - 1:09pm

As a "strategist" I enjoyed this Dr. Seussian journey very much!

My own cut at "Grand Strategy" here:…

I feel the author's pain. Years of "Ends-Ways-Means"; mixed with lay applications that can mean anything; topped by "my commander has more stars" type of thinking on strategy is enough to drive one to distraction.

Reading the National Security Strategy is definitely enough to leave one wondering if this is the best we have to offer...