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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.

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The Whale or the Elephant

Williamson Murray and Peter Mansoor urge U.S. policymakers and strategists who are considering the formulation of a grand strategy in the coming decades, to examine the fate of other great maritime/island powers which have wrestled with similar challenges. Of primary concern in this respect concerns the rise of China and the impact of its nascent power, both regionally and globally. The basic choice, they argue, is between a continental strategy, involving a land force commitment to allies in Eurasia; and one of an offshore balancing-maritime (blue water-limited liability) strategy, as being urged by scholars such as Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.

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The Bhagavad Gita and the Cross of Thought or Action

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” So J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, said he had reflected while witnessing the detonation of the first atomic device in July 1845. The source of this inspiration, or despair, was the Hindu scriptural epic, the Bhagavad Gita. 

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The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century A.D. to the Third by Edward N. Luttwak

The Romans understood that, when possible, it was best to conserve force and use military power indirectly as the instrument of political warfare. Together with money and manipulative diplomacy, the Romans deployed forces visibly ready to fight but held back from battle to foster disunity among those who might jointly threaten the empire, to deter those who would otherwise attack, and to control lands and peoples by intimidation – ideally to the point where sufficient security or even an effective domination could be achieved without any use of force at all. The Romans learned that most desirable use of military power was not military at all, but political. They conquered the entire Hellenistic world with few battles and much coercive diplomacy. The Romans understood all the subtleties of deterrence, and its limitations.

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Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1901)

Rudyard Kipling is known today as the poet laureate of British imperialism and of the "White Man's Burden" – titles that are no longer much in fashion, although Kipling’s literary reputation has recovered in recent decades. His body of work includes the great novel, Kim, the story of an orphaned Anglo-Indian boy who is drawn into the Great Game – the geopolitical contest in the 19th century between Britain and Russia for the domination of Asia. For the British at least, this contest ultimately meant the control of India. Kim is a classic of the espionage genre – former CIA Director Allen Dulles had a well-read copy on his bedside table at the time of his death – but it is also a chronicle in miniature of the Great Game and the ethnography of the Indian subcontinent.

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McDougall: Can America Do Grand Strategy?

McDougall poses the question differently -- whether the U.S. government is capable formally of planning, coordinating and executing grand strategy with sufficient competence to secure the nation and its vital interests?   Here he expresses strong doubts:  "World weary as I am, having witnessed so many disappointing and disillusioning cycles of politics and foreign policy, having acquired so much vicarious experience of human folly and forgetfulness from my study of history, I nurture no hope that a great burst of grand strategic creativity lies just ahead. Oh, this or a subsequent administration may make institutional reforms, such as insisting that the National Security Strategy document address resources and means instead of just goals, or reinventing the Eisenhower NSC structure with its Planning and Operations Coordinating boards."

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Xenophon, The Persian Expedition

To encourage fidgety school boys to pay attention to their Greek lessons, English and American headmasters would frequently assign Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus (The Ascent of Cyrus, sometimes rendered as “The March Up-Country” and popularly titled “The Persian Expedition”). Xenophon told the thrilling story of what became known as the Ten Thousand, a Greek mercenary contingent engaged during the summer of 401 B.C. by a Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, to support his campaign to claim the throne from his brother, Artaxerxes II. These events took place shortly after the Spartan-led coalition, with aid from Persia, had defeated Athens and its allies in the decades-long Peloponnesian War.

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Machiavelli, The Art of War (1521)

In The Art of War, the only one of his major writings published during his lifetime, Machiavelli sets out to consider that topic from the standpoint of the superintending military commander. The Art of War is divided into a preface and seven books (chapters), presented as a series of dialogues that take place in the garden of Cosimo Rucellai, a friend of Machiavelli, who had died two years before the book was published. Cosimo and his guests, including a silent Machiavelli, respectfully question a visitor, Fabrizio Colonna, who is treated as a military authority. Fabrizio discusses how an army should be raised, trained, organized, deployed and employed. His model is the Roman Legion of the Republic, which he argues should be adapted to the contemporary situation of Renaissance Florence.

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Herodotus, The Histories (5th Century BCE)

Herodotus, who wrote a generation after the Persian Wars, puts these battles in the context of a great clash of civilizations, between Greek freedom and Asian despotism. He seeks to explain why and how a relatively poor, small, and divided collection of Greek-speakers were able to defeat a much larger, wealthier, and centralized empire. On the battlefield itself, on land and at sea, the Greeks were better disciplined and employed superior close-order tactics, such as staying in ranks rather than attempting to kill the greatest number of enemy soldiers in open combat. But Herodotus' generic answer reflected the views of his contemporaries and greatly influenced the West's understanding of itself: "As long as the Athenians were ruled by a despotic government, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbors. Once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world."

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