Who does UK National Strategy - Public Administration Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Dr Paul Cornish

  This paper is in response to an "Issues and Questions Paper" circulated by the Public Administration Select Committee in July 2010. The Paper poses 12 questions, each of which is addressed below. Some questions have an abstract and discursive tone that is reflected in the responses given.


    — Strategy forms the connection between policy (ie government security and defence policy) and practice (ie the preparation and use of military force).

    — A national strategic concept must encompass analysis, authority, ambition and action.

    — The UK does not yet have a strategic concept.

    — The UK does have a national strategic process, but what matters is whether government departments will choose, or be required to support and implement the outcome of, that process.

    — The national strategic process must bear the seal of Prime Ministerial authority.

    — There is insufficient capacity for, and interest in, cross-departmental strategic thinking.

    — The National Security Council must be central to the development of a national strategic culture.

    — More could be made of the Royal College of Defence Studies and the Joint Services Command and Staff College.

    — The involvement of non-governmental experts (in an advisory capacity only) is under-developed.

    — Futures/trend analysis should be undertaken systematically and coherently, within one body.

    — When resources do not match commitments, more attention should be paid to risk management.

    — Other countries do strategy differently, rather than better.

What do we mean by "strategy" or "grand strategy" in relation to the foreign defence and security functions of government in the modern world?

  1.  "Strategy" is a term in general governmental use as well as in the commercial sector and elsewhere. As a result, strategy has come to mean little more than "policy" or "planning ahead". It does, however, have a precise origin, stemming from the Greek strategia meaning generalship, or the art of the military commander. While the term retains some of its original meaning, one difficulty for those concerned with the application of military force is that "strategy" will never be reclaimed from widespread use and it will never be possible to confine its usage exclusively to military matters. It should always be borne in mind, therefore, that in "strategy" we have a term that has (or should have) a specific meaning in one context, but a more diffuse meaning in others.

  2.  In the military/defence context strategy should describe a relationship between security and defence policy on the one hand and military action on the other. Strategy, in other words, is about purposive activity. This seems obvious: all strategy—military, commercial, industrial, political, criminal, individual etc—is surely about purposive activity. But according to a deeply embedded Western intellectual tradition, where generalship is concerned it has become especially important that "purpose" and "activity" should not be conflated. When military force is applied, the purpose should be not merely to achieve military ends, but to serve some overarching and legitimising political goal. Since Carl von Clausewitz, the early 19th century Prussian soldier-philosopher, we have been familiar with the idea that the primary strategic task is to establish the political goal, and only then to consider the role of military force in achieving that goal. In the sense used here, strategy is what gives policy its ways and means, and military action its ends.

  3.  Clausewitz divides the activity of war spatially and temporally into three overlapping areas of activity: country/war, theatre of operations/campaign, position/battle. These correlate closely with the division of warfare into the strategic, operational and tactical "levels" taught in western military academies and staff colleges:

    (a) Strategy refers to the higher organisation and planning of defence and war: the interface between the military and the diplomatic/political worlds.

    (b) Operations are the level at which armed services are organised and equipped to carry out strategic decisions and plans.

Nc) Tactics, reflecting Mahan's observation that "tactics" are about "contact" with the enemy, are the concern of fighting formations and units from divisional to platoon level.

  4.  It is useful to add one level to the top (Grand Strategy) and another to the bottom (Individual) of this hierarchy:

    (a) Grand Strategy has been used to mean "all the factors relevant to preserving or extending the power of a human group in the face of rivalry from other human groups." Other terms, such as "total strategy", "war policy" and "high politics", have been used to convey the same meaning, but at a time when war for survival is arguably a remote contingency the traditional use and meaning of grand strategy as an exceptional activity is obsolete. Yet with some redefinition the term can remain useful. Security and defence challenges are more complex, interwoven and mutable than in the past. This is also a time in which it is considered most effective to meet these challenges with a "comprehensive approach" or "joined up government", as well as a time of financial stringency affecting all functions of government. In such circumstances, grand strategy can be used to locate strategy (as defined above) within the overall plan for government, indicating that strategy is one among several aspects of normal government rather than an exception to normal government. Grand strategy can then show where defence and security lie within the overall plan for government and how strategy might be prioritised against other areas of government activity and expenditure.

    (b) Individual. Albeit at the bottom of the politico-military hierarchy, individual members of the armed forces have always been the essential components of military activity. This statement is so obvious as to be scarcely worth making but with the advent of real-time surveillance and communications and the extensive media coverage of military operations in recent years the importance of individuals has become far more pronounced. Sometimes the activity of an individual soldier can have strategic significance—cf. the idea of the "strategic corporal".

  5.  Where politically motivated military activity is concerned we now have a five-level model: Grand Strategy; Strategy; Operations; Tactics; and the Individual. The relationship between the levels is circular: grand strategy sets the overall context in which strategy is determined and resourced; strategy shows how political goals can be achieved through the use of military operations; operations are shaped by what is tactically possible; tactics are driven by the operational plan and are limited by what is individually feasible; the individual is the foundation upon which the whole effort is built and can on occasion have direct significance at the strategic or grand strategic level. What is important about this "levels of war" model is that it describes a dynamic, action- and outcome-oriented politico-military process. As Clausewitz argued, "The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose."

Who holds the UK "strategic concept" and how is it being brought to bear on the Strategic Defence and Security Review?

  6.  Some governments are systematic in preparing and publishing a national strategy. Every US Administration, for example, is required by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act to publish a National Security Strategy. The document has often appeared late, and sometimes not at all; the latest edition appeared in May 2010.

  7.  The United Kingdom is a more recent and rather reluctant convert to an idea that might be thought to go against the grain of British pragmatism. Britain's political classes might consider national mission statements to be the preoccupation of other, less self-confident and less experienced countries. The British preference has been for incrementalism in strategy—"ad hocery" or "muddling through".

  8.  The UK cannot yet be said to have a "strategic concept" if by that term we mean a combination of several elements: analysis, ambition, authority and action:

    (a) Analysis: a published description/forecast of the international situation in the early 21st century.

    (b) Ambition: a concise articulation of the "interests" and "values" which the UK Government will seek to protect and/or project in the context it describes/forecasts.

    (c) Authority: leadership on the part of central government to insist that the concept must drive policy.

    (d) Action: a commitment to implement the concept on the part of all relevant government departments (eg Cabinet Office, HMT, FCO, MoD, DFiD).

  9.  The UK Government has, however, altered its approach in recent years, producing a National Security Strategy (NSS) at the rate of one per year: the first version appeared in March 2008, the second a little over a year later and with the third due later in 2010. The first two versions of the NSS were impressive analytically and descriptively (particularly NSS 2009) but lacked "authority" and "ambition"; it seemed that compliance with the NSS remained at the discretion of the relevant government departments. This state of affairs might change with the advent of the National Security Advisor and National Security Council (NSC), with the NSC's work to "commission and oversee" a Strategic Security and Defence Review (SDSR) in parallel with its work to "develop and publish" a new NSS, and finally with the "strong involvement" of the Treasury in the work of the NSC.

  10.  The relationship between the NSS and the SDSR is difficult to discern. The most obvious relationship would be linear/sequential, whereby the NSS would drive the action of the MoD as a delivery department, set out in the SDSR. However, by some accounts the preference is instead for the rationale (ie the NSS) and its implementation mechanism (ie the SDSR) to develop in parallel, consistent with an umbrella concept (eg "Adaptable Britain").

Do the different government departments (eg No 10, Cabinet Office, FCO, MoD, Treasury) understand and support the same UK strategy?

  11.  It is my understanding that these government departments, as well as DFiD and the Home Office, have all been involved in/contributed to the development of the NSS 2010. In that respect it would be hard to imagine that these government departments were not aware of the NSS and understand it. But whether they all support and will implement the NSS will depend on the following:

    (a) Whether the NSS is written in such a way as to provide clear and unequivocal strategic guidance as to the operations to be undertaken by the delivery departments.

    (b) Whether the delivery departments will be required by No. 10 to implement the NSS.

    (c) Whether the Treasury will ensure adequate resources are made available.

What capacity exists for cross-departmental strategic thinking? How should government develop and maintain the capacity for strategic thinking?

  12.  In the field of security and defence, I am aware of a certain amount of inter-departmental strategic working through committees and through cross-departmental posting of officials. The latter is particularly effective when those concerned are experienced mid-career officials. I am aware also of formal Whitehall structures that seek to develop an inter-departmental strategic approach; the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, the Conflict Pools, the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit and its successor the Stabilisation Unit are all illustrative. In my view, however, the culture of government in the UK is not amenable to cross-departmental strategic working: government departments consider themselves sovereign in their field and protect their "turf" vigorously. This is reflected in (or perhaps caused by) the Treasury's resource allocation system that privileges a culture of departmental sovereignty over inter-departmental working.

  13.  As far as I am aware there has been and remains much less scope for cross-departmental strategic thinking. In some cases, such as the MoD's Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, I believe there has been cross-posting of staff in order to undertake strategic thinking and futures work. I understand that some non-MoD officials also attend the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS). But in general, my perception is that government departments conduct their own strategic thinking, possibly driven by the turf protection motive described/referred to above.

  14.  What is required is an inter-departmental strategic "think tank", an organisation known to be independent of the departments of state and which reports to/advises the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office. Staff for this organisation could be recruited from outside government, to form a new cadre of civil servants, or from within government. The first option runs the risk of creating a team of "whizz kids" who know little about government and whose analysis would be considered to lack foundation. The second option is preferable, ensuring that the government strategy organisation would reflect the culture and preferences of the various departments and would be able to make use of the most capable people within those departments for periods of two or three years. The NSC seems to promise something of what is outlined here. But for this to work the relevant departments of state would have to support the initiative fully. The initiative would also require adequate resources, not least to enable sophisticated computer modelling, scenario planning and "war gaming", and appropriate staffing levels.

What frameworks or institutions exist or should be created to ensure that strategic thinking takes place and its conclusions are made available to the Prime Minister and Cabinet?

  15.  As indicated above, the requirement must be for a body which can conduct research and analysis and pose strategic questions impartially at the national level rather than partially at the departmental level. As far as I can see the NSC is the only organisation to undertake this function and it is in the best place (the Cabinet Office) to do so.

  16.  It will probably be insufficient merely for the conclusions of an inter-departmental strategy organisation to be made "available" to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. There should also be some indication of "leadership pull". There should be a sense that the Prime Minister supports the work of the strategy body and wants/needs its advice. Equally, there should be evidence from time to time that the Prime Minister is willing to act upon the analysis received.

How is UK strategy challenged and revised in response to events, changing risk assessments and new threats?

  17.  There can be no doubt both that UK strategy has been challenged over the past 15-20 years: the end of the Cold War; the first Gulf War; the Balkans conflicts; the fire strike; flooding; Sierra Leone; the foot and mouth outbreak; 9/11 and 7/7; operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. My perception is that UK strategy has been revised as a result of these challenges; how could government have done otherwise? I consider that the revision of strategy has been cautious, which I welcome, and has been more ad hoc than formal and declaratory. This is not to say that strategic shifts have not been reflected in formal government policy—consider both the "New Chapter" to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the NSS sequence outlined above, and the excellent "Strategic Trends" work of the DCDC—but it is to suggest that the UK preference is first to assess and to act, and to describe/explain later. In a particularly complex and volatile international security environment this is the best, if not the only approach.

How are strategic thinking skills best developed and sustained within the Civil Service?

  18.  I am not familiar with the Civil Service training syllabus. Exposure to other departmental cultures in the course of a career is an obvious and necessary step towards the cultivation of a government-wide strategic culture. Attention should also be paid to formal training and education in risk assessment and management methodologies, in scenario planning and exercising etc.

  19.  The UK has considerable assets already available with which to develop strategic thinking, notably the Joint Services Command and Staff College and the Royal College of Defence Studies. I am not sure, however, that these bodies are exploited as fully as they might be.

Should non-government experts and others be included in the government's strategy making process?

  20.  Non-government experts should certainly be included in the strategy making process. It would be unintelligent to do otherwise. Yet there should be a clear demarcation between analysts/advisers—whether governmental or non-governmental—and decision-makers. Various people and organisations should be invited to advise and comment on policy, but it is the exclusive responsibility of government to decide and to act, for which it must be held accountable.

  21.  The Ministry of Defence makes an admirable effort at liaising with non-governmental research institutes and policy analysts. However, efforts to include non-government experts in the policy process in an advisory capacity have at best been sporadic and at worst ineffective. From time to time some individuals and some organisations have enjoyed a high level of access to the policy-making process. But this is unlikely to encourage the growth of a critical and vibrant national strategic culture, such as that in the United States and in some European countries. It is noticeable that the UK is less effective than many other western democracies in developing a durable relationship between policy-makers and non-governmental experts, and it is puzzling why this should be the case, given that the UK has a very sophisticated security and defence establishment as well as a wide range of research institutes and university departments working on security and defence matters. Efforts such as the Advanced Research and Assessment Group (ARAG), while well conceived, could not durably bridge the divide between government and non-governmental experts, were not regarded as being at the leading edge of security and defence, and were considered by independent research institutes and academic departments to lack both policy authority and intellectual credibility. The failure of ARAG might have been a function of budgetary constraints and the choice of location.

How should the strategy be communicated across government and departmental objectives made consistent with it?

  22.  I am not sufficiently familiar with intra-governmental communications to be able to respond fully to this question. I would suggest, however, that strategy without authority—ie the Prime Minister's authority and leadership—will not overcome the forces of departmental sovereignty.

How can departments work more collaboratively and coordinate strategy development more closely?

  23.  In addition to the points made above, I would suggest a more consolidated and systematic approach to futures/trend analysis. In my understanding, futures analysis—which is of course an essential ingredient in timely and effective strategic planning—is undertaken separately by a number of government departments. Yet there is only one future, rather than several. That future is fundamentally unknowable but with trend and scenario analysis it is possible to prepare intelligently and self-critically for the future rather than wait for it to happen. By pooling resources from interested government departments the NSC could develop a first-class futures/trend analysis capability. This capability would lend itself readily to the development of government-wide grand strategy, one that would not preclude each government department addressing its specialist concerns.

How can reduced resources be appropriately allocated and targeted to support delivery of the objectives identified by the strategy?

  24.  To the extent that there can be a solution to the resources/strategy gap, I believe that solution must lie in the adoption of a risk-based approach to strategy. The challenge is to devise a risk management methodology which is prospective (as all risk management must be) and which can deal with a risk picture that will continue to evolve. What is required, in other words, is a risk management posture that has credibility and authority even without knowing the precise nature, likelihood and timing of the risk or the potential harm. The national risk position/appetite evolves as well; a function of shifts in public and political opinion. A risk-based approach must enable the refreshment of ideas and judgements about both the threat/hazard and about the risk position. It will never be possible to produce a perfect response to risk, but with careful preparation and risk refreshment it should be possible to ensure that the answer is as good as can be expected.

  25.  NSS 2010 together with SDSR 2010 should generate a system that can link values/interests, capabilities, resources, current commitments and futures in one coherent system. The system should be able to balance these MoD-internal demands against each other, and should then balance MoD against other governmental commitments within an overarching grand strategy.

Do other countries do strategy better?

  26.  Strategy is neither absolute nor uniform. It is only possible to do strategy within the cultural and political context from which the rationale to maintain and use armed force is derived. It is always instructive to assess how other countries frame and implement their strategy. But other countries can never do strategy better, only differently.

September 2010

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