Essays & Reviews

Is Strategy an Illusion? Karl Walling reflects on Richard Betts

From time to time in history, the very notion of “strategy” has come into question. Strategy, in this sense, means the ability to exercise some degree of “reflection and choice” in international politics and warfare; of being able to bring about a rational relationship between the exercise of power, especially military power, and policy objectives.

Strategic skeptics, or in extreme cases, strategic atheists, if we may term them that, point to the recent failures of the United States in the Middle East (and before that, in Vietnam), and of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, as evidence that beyond a very limited point, policymakers’ efforts to exercise “strategy” points in the direction of imperial overstretch. They cite the tyranny of unintended consequences, “blowback,” the nonlinearity of human affairs, the intractability of culture, asymmetrical warfare, and the iron rule of the culminating point of victory. The world resists organization, whether by international norms, democratic governance, or traditional instruments of power. One must proceed modestly, adopt low-regret policies, avoid binding commitments, and be exceptionally cautious of military solutions.

This is itself a strategy of sorts, of course, but it is based on very low expectations about one’s ability to influence decisively the long-term course of events with any degree of predictability. And it is certainly true that the most thoughtful of those associated with the traditional approach to strategy, such as Churchill, were themselves well aware of the continent nature of politics and warfare, and hence skeptical of excessive confidence in controlling the outcome of events.  Thus the need for strategy to adapt constantly; but they did not believe it should be an excuse for inaction.

Sir Lawrence Freeman’s recent book, Strategy: A History, evidences a good bit of strategic skepticism as he searches for ways around the problem posed by the intractability of human affairs. Hal Brands’ What Good Is Grand Strategy?: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush, concurs that it is extremely difficult, yet essential to try.

In the Spring 2015 issue of the Naval War College Review, Karl Walling of the Naval War College raises these questions through a review of Richard Betts’ 2012 collection of essays, American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas of National Security.

Walling focuses on the chapter, “Is Strategy an Illusion?,” an updated version of an article Betts published in International Security in 2000.

In principle, national interest, grand strategy, policy, strategy, operations, and even tactics are linked in a rational way, with lower means serving ever higher ends. But is such a chain of cause and effect really possible when political leaders choose to use force as an instrument of policy? Betts posits ten critiques of the very possibility of this sort of instrumental rationality. These range from the difficulty in all wars of predicting what the political result of using force might be to the possibility that non-rational psychological and cultural mind-sets may blind leaders to what actually motivates them. These include cognitive constraints on the ability of anyone in war to comprehend all its variables, especially when “nonlinear” dimensions need to be factored into the strategic calculus; “goal displacement,” in which standard operating procedures of complex organizations become ends in themselves rather than entirely changeable means of achieving strategic objectives; interaction with the enemy; and “friction.”

In the United States, these constraints include democratic pluralism, which makes it difficult to set a coherent policy or to tailor strategy to it, and the need for compromise, which makes it highly likely that more than a few political leaders will jump only halfway across Clausewitz’s ditch — “a short jump is certainly easier than a long one, but no one wanting to get across a wide ditch would begin by jumping half-way” — thus failing to achieve their objectives.

As Walling writes, Betts attempts to “salvage strategy” by refuting each of these critiques, showing they are at best partial and do not prove that strategy is impossible, but their cumulative weight makes him well aware that if anything can go wrong in strategy, it often will. This makes Betts a strategic skeptic when it comes to the use of force. Hence, Betts argues that its is folly to fight preventive wars.  Restraint is the default position. There is so much uncertainty that wars need to be avoided unless the stakes are extraordinarily high and there is good evidence that a reasonable chance exists of return on the investment of lives, treasure, prestige, and legitimacy. Strategy is not an illusion, but we should avoid the delusion that it can ever be easy.

When force is to be used, however, Betts argues for concentrating force for decisive victory, preferably a quick one, which is often the most humanitarian way to fight as well. Because he takes seriously the cumulative weight of the critiques of the very possibility of strategy, Betts argues for simplicity in planning. The fewer the parts in any plan, the less chance there will be for friction among them. Above all, policymakers should be mindful of the stakes. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are threats, but not of the same kind as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. The greatest threat in the twenty-first century is likely to be of the same kind as in the twentieth century —namely, great-power war—so prioritizing against potential peer competitors is the essence of strategic prudence today.

Walling observes: “Perhaps unintentionally, Betts winds up sounding a great deal like Colin Powell. He has almost reinvented the Powell Doctrine, blending caution against resorting to war with overwhelming force when war is chosen as an instrument of policy. At times he sounds like a cheerleader for the Obama administration: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’ But even that administration has found it difficult to follow the all-or-nothing approach of the Betts (aka Powell) Doctrine. Middle-range threats may require something between all and nothing, like drone strikes and special operations, for example. Middle-range threats—dare one say it?—may require more ‘flexible responses’ than Betts seems willing to endorse, though always with some risk that they will be mere half-measures.” That said, Walling concludes, “this book is a marvelous blend of theory, historical cases, and social-science insight, . . . It merits careful study by all who labor to ensure that strategy is not an illusion.”

We might add this observation: when we think about strategy, we should appreciate the fact that a nation’s military posture is about many more things than the use of force. (Although, to be sure, we should never remove that essential purpose from the equation, as some during the Cold War would have had us do). The locations where our armed forces are deployed and exercised; their configuration and composition; their training and doctrine; the technologies they propose to develop and employ; the resources the nation is prepared to commit to them – all these elements shape the long-term geostrategic environment in fundamental ways (as do other elements of national power, of course). For a dominant power such as the United States – and this is still the case – our peacetime (or crisis-time) military posture signals powerfully what we are about in the world. Actual and potential allies are reassured or distressed, and respond accordingly. Actual or potential adversaries are emboldened, discouraged (hopefully deterred) or provoked. The decision to use (or not use) force in what Walling terms “middle range” contingencies, how that force is used, and how effective it is (in political as well as military terms) also shapes the views of third parties — and thus on the great-power contingencies that so concern Betts.

To be sure, these responses to the American military posture, thus defined – and their interrelationships – are not entirely predictable, any more than is the outcome of the use of force itself. Unfortunately, however, the combined effect of the George W. Bush and Obama administration (whatever their respective intentions) has been to create the widespread perception that the use of American military power is either the sole solution to, or the fundamental cause of, the threats to our national security. War or restraint (military intervention or abstention) seem to be the only choices. The field of strategy, rightly understood, if not an illusion, suggests that the choices to be made are much broader and more tractable.