Who does UK National Strategy? - Public Administration Committee Contents

2  Defining Strategy


9. The term strategy has a very precise meaning and origin. It derives from strategia, the function of a strategos, the Greek for general. Strategia is the general's office and by extension the skill of generalship and therefore of waging war. Subsequently, with the separation of political and military leadership in modern states there has been a distinction made in the literature between two types of strategy:

  • Grand Strategy—which determines how the policy for war and peace will be accomplished; and
  • Military Strategy—which determines and assigns the military forces to achieve the objectives of the Grand Strategy.

10. Strategy therefore originates, and has been best understood, in military terms. However, this term has been broadened in recent years. The term strategy has been so widely applied, to all sorts of activities, that it has become devoid of real value. Before 1950, "Strategy" was a term used only by the military or military-political circles. Since then the word has been absorbed into the business lexicon and general usage. The term has therefore lost its original, solely military, meaning and has become a wider and more ill-defined term. This makes it difficult to agree on a single, clear definition of strategy. Professor Prins suggested that, "[...] it is a recognition of unchanging geopolitical truths and their translation into shaping principles and a hierarchy of priorities, which may change in expression from time to time".[9] The then CDS saw it in terms of immutable principles, although the way they are given effect might change.[10] Professor Cornish proposed that "strategy is what gives policy its ways and means, and [...] action its ends" although this definition may not be comprehensive enough.[11]

Strategy as process

11. As the term 'strategy' has moved out of its narrow military meaning and into general use, it has lost precision. The idea of strategy as 'strategic thinking' (i.e. a process) is confused with 'a strategy', which has come to mean more often than not, a plan or merely a document. Although, inevitably it might be necessary to document current strategy, the overwhelming view from our witnesses was that strategy was a concept not a plan or a list. For Professor Prins "Strategy is a culture of thinking [...]".[12] According to Commodore Jermy "Strategy lives; it is organic. It is a collection of ideas, judgments and decisions, and it lives. So yes, it is absolutely ongoing; indeed, that is key".[13] For the former CDS "it is dynamic" and "... should evolve in the face of reality".[14] Cat Tully, a former FCO official, saw strategy-making as "[...] a process of alignment—not a piece of paper".[15] Strategy is therefore about dealing with uncertainty, complexity and the dynamic. It is not a plan or a paper. In modern politics it is about ensuring that the whole of government identifies and acts effectively upon the national interest.

Confusing strategy and policy

12. There has been a tendency to confuse 'strategy' with 'policy'. The Foreign Secretary said that there "can" be a difference between strategy and policy but was concerned that too often strategy failed to inform policy. To avoid this disconnect he believed they should be undertaken by the same people. However, this is a failure to appreciate fully the distinction between the two which we hope the Foreign Secretary will accept.[16] There has always been a symbiotic relationship between the two. Professor Strachan noted that the "relationship between policy and strategy is likely to be an iterative and a dynamic one.[17] However, to confuse the 'end' (policy) with the 'ways and means' (strategy) is not conducive to clear thinking in government". Strategy is not policy, but is the means of effecting it. That this confusion is met with so often confirms the need for establishing a clear understanding of these two distinct elements in government. It also makes the case for returning to the formal study and teaching of strategy. Otherwise there is a risk, as Professor Hennessy observed that, "policy without strategy is, to a high degree, flying blind, [...]".[18] We have no doubt the Foreign Secretary accepts this.

The value of the term 'Grand Strategy'

13. The title of our inquiry was originally, 'Who does UK Grand Strategy?' We began by examining whether the concept of 'Grand Strategy' was still of value and if there was a common understanding of the term. It was quickly evident that the very meaning of the word 'Strategy' has changed considerably in recent years. In fact, the term 'Grand Strategy' met with mixed reactions.

14. In its written evidence to the Committee the Cabinet Office explained that:

Grand Strategy is no longer a term that is in widespread usage; but it is understood to mean the purposeful and coordinated employment of all instruments of power available to the state, to exploit the changing opportunities and to guard against the changing threat it faces.[19]

15. In the seminar discussions it was observed that, historically, the idea of 'Grand Strategy' was linked to times of warfare with all the economic, military and diplomatic resources of the state focused on one goal—victory. Professor Strachan also placed it in the context of the Second World War where government was seeking to achieve total victory and to coordinate several theatres of war.[20] The concept of victory clearly does not have the same relevance when we are broadly at peace; nations aim to be successful, and perhaps to compete successfully with other nations, but not to be 'victorious'.

16. The historical connotations of 'Grand Strategy' could prove to be a hindrance because the term is associated with Empire and in some quarters is seen as hubristic. Nonetheless the term has proved to be a useful means by which this inquiry has been able to explore the concept of an overarching process; a concept intrinsic to good governance. This process today can better be described as 'National Strategy' and we have therefore adopted this term as the title for our report.

9   Ev 91 Back

10   Q 269 Back

11   Ev 84 Back

12   Ev 92 Back

13   Q 203 Back

14   Q 246 Back

16  15  15 Ev 94 Back


1 17  6 Q 76

17 Q 3 Back

1 18  8 Q 4 Back

1 19  9 Ev 64 Back

20   Q 2 Back

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Prepared 18 October 2010