Institute of World Politics

Course Objectives 

This course is designed to teach students to think strategically and analytically, sharpening the student’s ability to assess a variety of situations and compare alternative courses of action to achieve overall national political purposes.  Students will be asked to think in a disciplined, critical, and original manner about the international environment and a range of potential strategies.


Course Content

Strategy has been viewed traditionally as the relationship between war’s purpose and the means to achieve this political end. Strategy provides a theory of victory that explains how a state can translate the employment of the specific means of military operations into the achievement of overall national objectives.  In addition, the Military Strategy course focuses on long-term competitions in war and peace, and therefore considers non-military elements of state power and the use of “soft power” in international affairs.  In the words of British strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart:


…fighting power is but one of the instruments of grand strategy – which should take account of and apply the power of financial pressure, of diplomatic pressure, of commercial pressure, and not least of ethical pressure…[F]urther, while the horizon of strategy is bounded by the war, grand strategy looks beyond the war to the subsequent peace.

This course takes a more traditional view of grand strategy than that currently found in academic debates, emphasizing the role and importance of military power for war-fighting, coercion, and deterrence.

Strategy is about interaction, as adversaries seek to frustrate the best-laid plans in war, overturn the peace imposed upon them, or reshape the international environment to their advantage.  A good strategic leader must anticipate the dynamics of interaction in a contest against determined foes.  A skillful enemy that employs asymmetric strategies or an adversary from an unfamiliar culture may prove especially difficult to defeat. The interaction among adversaries and allies greatly complicates strategy and constitutes a theme running through the course’s diverse case studies.

Our case studies in IWP #628 are distinctive in several respects.  First, the course examines the strategic dynamics of full-blooded wars.  Such wars often entail protracted periods of intense fighting that produce truces and peace settlements, interwar and prewar eras, as well as cold war conflicts and crises leading to war.  This dynamic provides an opportunity to consider the long-term effectiveness of all instruments of national power.  Second, the case studies and leading strategic thinkers featured in the readings examine diverse types of wars, encompassing a variety of operations and different keys to success.  Success in one kind of war may be followed by failure in another.  An important aspect of strategic leadership is the ability to adapt to different types of wars and threats.  Third, the course analyzes the strategic success and failure of great and regional powers, and non-state actors over long periods of time.   It contrasts maritime powers with land powers, exploring the different strategies open to them, and examines the resiliency of different kinds of political systems.  Last, the case studies include status quo and revisionist states, and established and emerging powers.

This course examines wars of various types, sizes, and combinations. Three basic types of war stand out in our syllabus: big (and protracted) wars fought for high stakes by the most powerful states of the international system, utilizing coalitions and engaging in multiple theaters; regional wars fought within a single theater (or two contiguous theaters), typically of shorter duration than big wars; and insurgencies fought within a country, against a failing, emerging, or well established state, by a non-state movement that seeks to secede from or overturn the existing political system.  Almost every historical case study of this course incorporates at least two of these basic types of war, and some case studies include all three types.

This course also reveals that new cases of each basic type of war differ in significant respects from previous cases. There is a fundamental nature to war and to its basic types that is virtually unchanging over time, but there are other characteristics that do change radically. Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner, former President of the Naval War College in Newport, emphasized the importance of in-depth examinations of historical case studies for a course on strategy in a convocation speech:

Studying historical examples should enable us to view current issues and trends through a broader perspective of the basic elements of strategy.  Approaching today’s problems through a study of the past is one way to ensure that we do not become trapped within the limits of our own experience. 

The IWP military strategy course adopts an interdisciplinary approach by drawing on the disciplines of history, political science, international relations, and economics.  It integrates these academic perspectives with critical military factors from the profession of arms, such as doctrine, weaponry, training, technology, and logistics.  The resulting synthesis provides a coherent framework of analysis to assess complex strategic problems and formulate strategies to address them.

Our readings consist of two core components: strategic theory and historical perspectives.  The works of major strategic thinkers — such as Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett, and Mao Tse-tung, — provide analytical foundation, while case studies furnish the materials to construct an analytical framework to understand the interrelationship of policy and strategy.  The case studies allow students to evaluate and discuss the ways in which strategic leaders in the real world have successfully (or unsuccessfully) grappled with the challenges associated with the use of force and other instruments of power to attain national objectives.  IWP #628 develops the analytical skills to deal more effectively with current problems in policy and strategy, and those that might emerge in the future.