James Holmes

Grand Strategy and the Art of the Possible

Grand Strategists take note: it’s easy but not altogether useful to propose impossible remedies.

The strategist Aesop relates a tale of misbegotten strategy. A group of mice convenes to determine how to outwit their archnemesis, the Cat. An enterprising young mouse devises an ingenious strategy, pointing to "the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us." The mice, he reasons, could escape the feline's clutches easily once alerted. He therefore urges "that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighborhood."

The council of mice applauds the proposal — whereupon an older, wiser mouse asks who will bell the Cat. Silence descends. The fable concludes with the sage mouse intoning that "It is easy to propose impossible remedies." Or, as a former teaching partner of mine puts it, anyone can come up with an impossible plan!

Aesop's lesson should be first in the hearts of "grand strategists," including yours truly. Grand strategy is the art of combining diplomatic, cultural, economic, and military tools of influence to accomplish national goals, broadly construed. For interwar thinker B. H. Liddell Hart, a successful grand strategy yields a "better state of peace" as a society defines it. Grand strategy is essential. Indeed, a major purpose of graduate education in strategic studies is to help practitioners — military officers and civilian officials — lift their gaze, first from the level of tactics and hardware to the operational level, and ultimately to the rarefied plane where grand strategy unfolds. An all-encompassing perspective is crucial to furnishing senior officials or commanders’ wise counsel.

This doesn't mean operations and tactics are suddenly beneath strategists' notice. Quite the opposite. Clausewitz pitches his theories largely at the operational level. Strategy, writes the Prussian theorist, is the art of using battles and engagements for the purpose of the war. If armies and navies lose the battles and engagements, however, the larger endeavor is dismasted. If tacticians need to elevate their sights above workday concerns, consequently, grand strategists have a reciprocal obligation to depress theirs, making themselves conversant with the operational and tactical levels. Otherwise, how will they know if some strategic alternative they formulate amounts to belling the Cat?

As Aesop reminds us, a strategy that cannot be executed amounts to a wish. In one sense, then, officers, diplomats, and other practitioners enjoy a comparative advantage over scholars as they ascend the ranks and undergo graduate education. It's easier for someone who has mastered such technical sciences as aerial combat, naval nuclear propulsion, or small-unit tactics to learn about grand strategy than the reverse. The lives of the masters bear this out. Thucydides was a practitioner before he was a theorist. The same holds for Clausewitz and Mahan. Corbett was a scholar, but he was a scholar who took the trouble to acquaint himself intimately with naval warfare. Sir Julian ended up besting Royal Navy officers at their own craft. Thinkers of a practical bent know the hardscrabble world where strategy is executed. And that's the world that imposes bounds on strategy.

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Why ruminate on all of this now? The Naval War College's annual Current Strategy Forum takes place this week. The theme for this year is "American Grand Strategy: Power and Purpose in the 21st Century." The forum is always a bracing event. It brings leading scholars and officials to Newport, along with representatives from the business community and other sectors, to explore important matters of the day. The Naval Diplomat will be chairing a seminar.

Still, consumers of strategic advice should don a skeptical mien. If someone proposes some grand strategy while scanting the how of implementing it, it's time to level tough questions. For instance, I've criticized the idea of "offshore balancing" for precisely that reason. Proponents of this rather elegant theory have a habit of waving aside the colossal practical difficulties Washington would encounter should it try to put it into practice. To paraphrase Aesop's farseeing mouse once more, it's easy to dream up an impossible plan.

Or there's the AirSea Battle Doctrine. One objection to retiring offshore is that a wartime adversary may veto U.S. forces' return. But because AirSea Battle is an operational concept rather than a full-up strategy, many grand strategists insist it has no place in discussions of grand strategy. (It's worth pointing out that "battle" isn't a strategy either, but few grand strategists argue for banishing it from strategic discourses.) That may be true in a narrow sense. Nevertheless, U.S. grand strategy depends on access to important theaters. Nor is this anything new. A century ago, Mahan defined sea power as prying and keeping open commercial, political, and military access — in that order. That's grand strategy to a T.

If access qualifies as grand strategy, so does anti-access. Like past regional powers, China, today's foremost practitioner of anti-access, has deployed diplomatic, cultural, economic, and military stratagems to raise the costs of access to its environs, or to forbid it entirely. That means the Western Pacific, the China seas, and parts of the Indian Ocean — the very expanses where Washington sees vital U.S. interests at stake. America has no actionable military strategy in Asia, let alone a grand strategy, without some forcible-access option. Some operational construct, faired into a larger military strategy, must be in its toolkit. If not AirSea Battle, what should it be? Sounds like an eminently fitting topic for debate.

Take it from Aesop. Let's apply a reality check to schemes for belling the Cat.