2 What do we mean by 'strategic thinking'
and why is it important?|
10. What do we mean when we use the terms 'strategy',
'National (or Grand) Strategy' and 'strategic thinking'? National
Strategy cannot be expressed in a deterministic plan as 'a Strategy'
or 'the Strategy': an approach which would be futile in a complex
and uncertain world. Instead, National Strategy must be a set
of strategic aims which are subject to constant development in
a context which is also changing all the time. It must acknowledge
that there is no one set view of the UK's national interests or
values, or of how they should be advanced. National Strategy must
also address more than just foreign policy, military and security
concerns. It must encompass economic and domestic factors, given
the growing recent awareness about the critical importance of
a solid economic base and performance and discussions about the
UK's strength, prosperity, wellbeing and place in the world.
11. Why is National Strategy so important? In
our 2010 report we highlighted two prominent failures of strategic
Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are prominent
examples of where our lack of consistent strategy goes a long
way towards explaining why the conflicts have not gone well for
the UK. This underlines the need for a coherent National Strategy.
These lessons apply equally to the whole of government.
It is sometimes argued that modern society and today's policy
challenges are too complex and diverse to be included into a single
body of strategic thought, least of all in a democratic society
where so many aspects of the life of the nation are beyond the
control of a government.
It is often also said that we are either too big or too small
to have a National Strategy. 
These approaches seek to excuse the tendency of governments to
'muddle through', but also to settle for less than voters and
taxpayers are entitled to expect from their political leaders
and public servants. The difficulty facing strategic thinkers
in government underlines the necessity of doing so. The more complex
and unpredictable the challenges, the greater the need for efficient
and effective ways to analyse and assess opportunities and for
clear thinking about what policies to pursue. This time of economic
austerity and international uncertainty demands National Strategy
to inform government action.
12. The problems facing the Government are increasingly
unpredictable and complex; in that our understanding of them is
limited, but that their nature and impacts are often unlimited.
For this reason, we cannot simply transfer the orthodoxy of strategic
thinking as it is commonly used in business into our consideration
of how Governments should undertake strategy.
13. John Kay, Visiting Professor at the London
School of Economics explained his perception of the difference
between strategy-making in business and in statecraft:
You started by saying that strategy is about making
the best use of your strengths. In large part, in business, that
is true, but there is a difference between business and the state
in this sense, because business is operating in a competitive
environment technically, whereas states are, at least nationally,
monopolies. Our foreign policy is not in the modern world being
operated in competition with other people's foreign policy. That
is a big difference between the way one should think about strategy
and business and the way one should think about politics.
14. Lord Carter of Coles, who has carried out
a number of reviews of Government strategy and policy, emphasised
that Government faced an added complication, not present in business,
of political considerations:
... you always have the political imperative coming
along and changing those priorities. One of the hardest things
in Government is the balance between having a strategic plan and
sticking to it. Whether it is Ministers or senior civil servants,
there is an issue of consistencyof actually sticking with
a thing as it goes along as opposed to constantly changing it.
In business you get a much more stable environment, in my experience,
to do those things. 
When pressed further on this point, and asked "is
it sensible to look to business to learn lessons that you can
apply in Government?" Lord Carter responded:
No ... It is hardly an apt comparison because it
is much more sophisticated and much bigger.
15. Following this advice, we have therefore
sought to avoid the mistake of confusing National Strategy with
questions of management and organisation, or either of these with
policy-making. Policy-making, National or 'Grand' Strategy and
implementation or 'operational' strategy, are the three points
of a triangle of forces
that in a democracy are in natural, and, in fact, essential tension.
Policy is 'to choose': which politicians do. Policy-making will
be better if it is well and systematically informed by strategic
thinking at the national or 'Grand' strategic level. That is the
foundation principle of this report. Policy programmes require
an implementation plan but this 'operational strategy' is quite
different from National Strategy, which must be on a higher level.
In a different, more technical, less geopolitical way, National
or 'Grand' Strategy informs and advises operational strategy too.
16. National Strategy must remain on a higher
level, maintaining clear 'line of sight' with policy and operational
strategy (or implementation) below it. National or 'Grand' Strategy
must be broader than a single government department, and thus
not subject to departmental silos. By its very nature, the national
or 'Grand' strategic level must also be long-term. It is pre-eminently
concerned with matters beyond the power of any government to control.
These include geo-political realities such as social and economic
trends and events, risks and threats to the national interest
and also with how best the national interest is projected by all
the means of national statecraft. To confuse the lower operational
level with the higher level of strategy and to fail to grasp the
special subject matter of National Strategy are errors which our
witnesses and evidence repeatedly suggested are commonly committed
by the Government.
17. The evidence we received acknowledged the
systemic, uncertain, complex and highly volatile nature of the
world in which the Government is operating. Such complexity does
not mean that it is impossible to think strategically. Strategy
consultant David Steven told us that "it is even more important
to have a strategic vision at a time of uncertainty and change;
it is just that you need a different kind of strategy".
18. This kind of strategy emphasises the importance
of flexibility. Changing circumstances require a feedback mechanism
for strategic thinking to be challenged and refreshed.
Strategy cannot simply be published in an official document and
remain valid: it must be a dynamic and adaptable analysis of what
kind of world we are living in.
Professor Kay defined this position as 'obliquity':
a critique of the belief that strategy is simply about determining
objectives and setting out the steps by which they can be achieved.
19. The Joint Committee on the National Security
Strategy emphasised this need for flexibility in their March 2012
report on the National Security Strategy, which stated :
Thinking about what the future may hold, and the
UK's role in it, is essential if the Government is to be prepared
and to target resources effectively. This does not mean making
rigid predictions, which constrain our ability to respond to the
unexpected, but creating a long-term framework, within which the
UK has the flexibility to respond to short-term demands.
20. The UK faces a number of
complex and unpredictable challenges in a globalised world. Such
challenges make the need for the capacity for flexible and resilient
processes of strategic thinking more urgent, but in turn they
also make this goal harder to achieve. We urge the Government
to acknowledge in their response the importance of National Strategy
and why it is so vital. We can see no purpose in defining national
strategic aims unless they are part of a coherent National Strategy
which is regarded by the whole of the Government in the same way.
21. Following the cool reception which the Government
gave our recommendations for the adoption of National Strategy,
we decided to study the concept of 'emergent strategy'; that is
how National Strategy emerges from the process of government.
National Strategy is a framework that helps Government at the
highest level efficiently make strategic choices and decisions
about policies with a view not just to addressing immediate problems
but also understanding the UK's position in a changing context.
In this way, National Strategy requires shorter-term decisions
to be made within a more informed understanding of the wider context,
including longer-term trends, informed by analysis and evidence,
and acknowledging uncertainty and complexity where appropriate,
with a clear-sighted understanding of government and UK non-state
capabilities and assets including aligned financial resources.
This is 'emergent strategy': it acknowledges the challenges and
reflects the countervailing pressures on government, in being
22. There are a number of factors which frame
the subject area of National or 'Grand' Strategy:
a) How the geopolitical factors shaping the UK
strategic environment are identified;
b) how policy is based on perceptions of UK national
c) how such national interests are perceived
by different audiences;
d) how public attitudes and aspirations are engaged
in the formation of such perceptions; and
e) how perceived national interests are advanced.
23. This process is self-reinforcing. Strategy
which is based on a true sense of national identity then leads
into successful policies which can then reinforce national identity
and values. This is set out further in the diagram below:
24. As the name implies, 'emergent strategy'
emerges from the combined effect of individual actions and decisions.
If it is working well, those actions and decisions will be demonstrably
coherent with each other and consistent with shared longer-term
objectives. It is crucial that all decision-makers are mindful
of the broader implications of the options available to them,
and also that a challenge mechanism exists within the decision-making
structure, with responsibility for reconciling day-to-day decisions
with longer-term strategic aims.
25. That strategy emerges is
an inevitable fact of life, but it can be coherent: creating a
virtuous circle, as positive leadership (i.e National Strategy)
leads to effective policies and positive outcomes, which reinforce
the public's values and aspirations which inspired that leadership.
Alternatively chaotic strategy ('muddling through') and wrong
or weak leadership will result in bad policy and failure in outcomes,
which undermine the values and aspirations of the public and faith
in their leaders. Emergent strategy therefore requires a coherent
directing mind, individual or collective, to drive the process.
The driving force of emergent strategy is what will determine
whether the momentum generated results in a virtuous or vicious
8 Public Administration Select Committee, First Report
of Session 2010-2012, Who Does UK National Strategy?, HC
435, para 95 Back
David Steven and Alex Evans Towards a theory of influence for
twenty-first century foreign policy: public diplomacy in a globalised
world Foreign & Commonwealth Office: Engagement - Public
Diplomacy in a Globalised World (London, 2008) Back
Q 61 Back
Q 153 Back
Q 212 Back
Q 213 Back
Adapted from Ev w36 Back
Q 130 Back
Seminar with Whitehall strategists, February 2012 Back
Meetings with strategists in Ottawa, February 2012 Back
Q 166 Back
Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, First Report of
Session 2010-2012, First review of the National Security Strategy
2010, HL Paper 265 - HC 1384, para 6 Back
Mintzberg, Emergent Strategy for Public Policy, Canadian Public
Administration 30(2):214-229 Summer1987 Back
Catarina Tully (2011) Back