British government can’t do strategy. Who says so? The British government, that’s who. Or more precisely, that’s what the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee concluded after an inquiry last year. To the historian, this looks like a loss of national vocation. In the great wars of the twentieth century, the British often lost the battles but ended up winning the wars, and the quality of strategic thought and execution was the key.
More recent students of government policy will be less surprised. It would take a particular enthusiast to read the National Security Strategy and they would run the risk of severe disappointment if they did. Anything resembling the definition of an end, the marshalling of the available means and the application of the smartest ways that classically represents strategy is conspicuously absent. Rather, it looks like a Christmas list of good things the government wants to happen and bad things it wants to prevent, but with no attempt to define how these beneficent outcomes are to be achieved.
How has it come to this, how has strategy acquired a universality which has robbed it of meaning and left it only as a banality? And, is it just governments that have lost their way or is the same true of business too?
Any attempt to answer this must start at the beginning. The word “strategy” has its roots in the Greek “strategos”: the art of the general. However, it was not until the eighteenth century and the growth of large standing armies, combined with the intellectual rigour of the Enlightenment, that the movement of large numbers in advance of a military engagement derived a generic title.
The Napoleonic Wars confirmed the distinction between tactics and strategy, between what happened on the battlefield and happened off it. Writing immediately after, Carl von Clausewitz established the classic continuum of three levels of war: national policy, from which is derived strategy, which is prosecuted by tactics on the battlefield. In doing so, he defined the roles of the political leader, the general and the soldier.
The early twentieth century debate on the nature of strategy took it in two diverging directions, one Anglo-Saxon and one German. The English-speaking view was best captured by probably the finest strategic mind this country has produced, Sir Julian Corbett. An academic at the Royal Naval War College, he brought together the traditionally separate disciplines of land and maritime strategy and created, for the first time, a sense of what the British came to call grand strategy and the Americans national strategy.
Corbett and his near contemporary the American Thomas Thayer Mahan also began to create an understanding of the virtuous circle comprised by sea power, liberal democracy and ideas of grand strategy. Freed from the requirement of countries with extensive land borders (France and, above all, Germany) to maintain large standing armies against the threat of invasion, the insular Anglo Saxons could develop along political lines that favoured individualism and capitalism; a legacy that remains to this day.
The Germans, meanwhile, were going in the opposite direction. The idea of total war emerged from Germany in 1916: that, once embarked upon war, politicians must pass the mandate of national policy to the generals they have commissioned to execute it. This inversion of the Clausewitzian principle of war as the servant of politics ended in Nazism. Little wonder, then, that Chancellor Merkel has such trenchant views on European unity.
The advent of nuclear weapons and the Cold War further complicated matters. The concept of deterrence meant that strategy became concerned not so much with what armies did in war as how nations used the threat of war in peace. As a result, strategy began to lose its traditional clarity and was appropriated by politicians and diplomats, by academics and, increasingly, management consultants. Strategic studies began to flourish more verdantly in business schools than in staff colleges and defence ministries.
So maybe there are clues here to show why we are where we are today. The conflation of policy and strategy by governments in the mid-twentieth century was reflected in business. The strategy houses emerging in the 1970s, using similar analytical techniques to the nuclear theorists, began to favour big strategic ideas in isolation from the small ideas of business execution.
In doing so, they separated what happened on the battlefield – otherwise known as the marketplace – and what happened off it, and broke the causal link between the two. For the first time, strategy became an end in itself.
Let’s get back to Clausewitzian basics and an understanding that anything claiming to be a strategy that cannot trace its effect at the front line of governance or business is no strategy at all; rather it is snake oil, peddled by self-appointed masters of the strategic universe. Time they were held to account.
Sir Robert Fry is executive chairman of McKinney Rogers, a global business execution consultancy. He previously spent 30 years on military operations from Ulster to Kosovo, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.