Strategy: A History

Oct 4, 2013

Creating a successful strategy is not just a question of being cleverer than your opponent. Sir Lawrence Freedman lays out some cardinal rules: think about how you are going to endure; have empathy with those whom you want to work with you, but also those who might oppose you; and be able to form coalitions.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome our members and guests, and thank you for joining us.

Our speaker is Sir Lawrence Freedman, who is unquestionably one of the world's leading authorities on war, international politics, and strategy. It is our privilege to host him at the Carnegie Council as he discusses his latest book, Strategy: A History.

The word "strategy" is a concept that has been around since the beginning of civilization, but in recent weeks this word is being uttered more frequently. Whether the headlines bemoan Obama's lack of grand strategy in foreign affairs, an immigration strategy in limbo, or health care reform under fire, this administration's attempts to think about actions in advance so that they understand where they are, where they are going, and the way to get there seem to be lacking.

While questions about political strategy seem paramount, politics aren't the only context in which a strategy comes in handy. We can employ a strategy for every aspect of our life.

With the publication of Strategy: A History—a title, by the way, which says it all—Professor Freedman confirms his reputation as the preeminent thinker on this subject. In synthesizing the vast history from the earliest of times of the most prominent strategic thinking from military operations to political and business strategies, this book is about the relationships between theory and practice, from the abstract working of the brain to the practical application which exposes us to an entirely new range of discourse. It is a fresh understanding about the meaning, the implications, and consequences of strategic thinking.

In reading this fascinating book, it becomes apparent that strategy is not only about choices one makes, but it is also about views and values that one holds.

So how did the greatest minds navigate towards success and why were they so successful? I see that Sir Lawrence himself is strategically positioned, ready to address these questions, and since every strategy needs an objective, mine is to get him to the podium as quickly as possible.

Please join me in giving him a very warm welcome.


SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Thank you very much indeed. It's a great pleasure to be back here.

As has just been said, the point about strategy is, first, it's a thing that everybody believes that they now need in almost every area of their life. There are very few activities where there is not a strategy on offer, whether it's sorting out your tax returns or bringing up an infant or a counseling strategy. There are always strategies around. Yet at the same time it's seen as something that is essential for governments, for big corporations, for military to have. Indeed, if things are going badly, it's often put down to the fact that they don't have a good strategy.

In my own title at King's College London, I'm a vice principal for strategy and development. So I have used the term myself and, indeed, on behalf of my organization, I've occasionally tried to do it.

Strategy is a concept that is ubiquitous. Like all of these words, it therefore becomes very difficult to get a handle on it, because it gets overused and used in circumstances where it's not very credible.

What I try to do in the book is trace the origins, literally from the start of time, looking at primates and the Bible, the classics, and so on, to see how these ideas have developed, and then really look hard at three areas: the military, political—starting with revolutionary strategy, for a reason I'll give you in a moment—and then business, ending up looking more at the contribution of the social sciences. I hope in doing this, though it covers an awful lot of ground, that certain themes do emerge. What I want to do this morning is draw attention to a couple of those things and then what seems to me to be the underlying concept of strategy that comes through, and one where I will be interested in your views when we get around to discussion.

So the word itself, "strategist," comes from Greek, "the art of the general." That's, for much of the time, how it was seen. The contemporary concept of strategy—because the word wasn't used very much really until the late 18th century—was really a consequence both of the Enlightenment and, you would argue, the Napoleonic Wars. It reflects a view that if only you can get the analysis right, the understanding right, the right sort of knowledge—apply, in effect, science of some sort—you will get a far better set of answers than you would have done otherwise. It also reflected in the military context, where it was first used, the sense that under Napoleon something very different was going on that was demonstrating that those who were able to apply this higher understanding of war were able to get great results.

There's a line in War and Peace discussing the buildup to 1812 in Russia, where a very skeptical old count is saying, "Tell me how you're going to defeat the French with this new science of strategy." It was seen to be a very German concept. Clausewitz, in fact, appears in War and Peace in a not very flattering light. Tolstoy, of course, was the great skeptic as far as strategy goes.

But the idea essentially was that if you applied military force effectively, you could win a decisive victory. It's this decisiveness that was critical to the early concept. You can see it in some of the great military thinkers of the early 19th century, such as Jomini, as well as Clausewitz, the idea of decisiveness, that not only could you do better in battle, but you could use it in such a way as to properly defeat the opponent. This notion of decisiveness in war is one that is still associated with strategy. When contemporary military strategists think about their role, it is often, similarly, in terms of finding a way to cause such a defeat of the enemy's armed forces that political results follow.

You can see this moving across into the political sphere in the 1830s, 1840s, as we get professional revolutionaries appearing, who see themselves as the general staff of the developing proletariat or the masses, trying to work out how they can gain a decisive victory over the elites, over the monarchs, with the French Revolution in their minds as a model of a decisive victory. So this idea of decisiveness and the application of science—think Marx's claims about what he was able to do—is also there when you get into revolutionary strategy.

Eventually, the idea of applying this to business strategy—actually, I think, it was always there amongst some of the great figures in building up the large companies, whether it was the Rockefellers or maybe not so much Ford, who was not a great strategist, but certainly Alfred Sloan at General Motors. They didn't necessarily talk about strategy, but that's what they did. From the 1960s on, strategy in business has been presented as a way of getting the decisive result.

It's worth also thinking about the early writings on business strategy, which were essentially about large corporations and how they could maintain their position, just like a lot of the early military strategy was about how large states could maintain their positions.

Out of all of this, it seems to me there is one starting assumption, one experience, and one new theme. The starting assumption was that if you got the right strategy, you could, in some way, control your environment. You could manipulate events so that you would be in a better position to your enemies, your rivals, your competitors, whether in business, politics, or in military affairs. Of course, the experience of application of strategy is that this is very difficult indeed, that in practice, you don't get control in the same way that you would like to get control.

The idea of the decisive military victory kept on getting knocked backwards, because the people didn't accept that just because their military had been defeated, that they had been defeated. So popular resistance grew up. Or, as Napoleon discovered in 1812 in Russia, even if you could defeat the enemy army at Borodino, it didn't mean to say that they were completely down and out. And there you were, stuck in the middle of an inhospitable country with the climate coming down on you and you were stranded. You weren't quite sure of your next step.

Actually, the practice of military strategy is full of example after example of a failure to assert this sort of control. One of the legacies of Clausewitz, for which I wouldn't particularly blame him, is the belief that if only you can get your victory in early and make it really decisive, then it's a knockout blow, so that even though you may be fighting an enemy with potentially superior resources, they will be taken out of the battle, out of the conflict, early on and you will be in charge.

But the experience of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914 or a blitzkrieg in 1940, and certainly against the Russians—more so even than in Western Europe—demonstrates that you think you've got a knockout blow, but you don't. The failure to get it means that you are stuck in a long, arduous, crippling war of attrition.

So we have plenty of examples on the military side of a failure to get this decisive victory, but there is a real difficulty in the military literature of finding a way to accommodate this and talking about outcomes that are less than optimal, not quite what you want, something short of victory that requires bargaining and negotiation. Interestingly, it was only with the development of nuclear weapons where the idea of a knockout blow came to be seen increasingly as fantasy. The largely civilian strategists who wrote about nuclear issues actually started to incorporate bargaining and negotiation into their theory—something that is quite absent from a lot of mainstream military writing.

If you take even the business community, as well, when they think about the original writing from the early 1960s, it was largely about how the big conglomerates—the General Electrics, the General Motors, or whatever—could sustain a market position that was almost limited by antitrust laws. They couldn't actually go for much more market share. So the question was profitability, and that largely meant looking inwards into the organization to see how it could be optimized to have the maximum effect.

If you look at the original writing, whether it's from Drucker or Alfred Chandler, people like this on business strategy, the word "competition" doesn't really appear. That's not what it was about. It was only as the 1960s turned into the 1970s and, in particular, the Japanese, but also the German challenge to American manufacturing predominance took over, that actually people became utterly preoccupied with competition.

You see in business strategy, in a sense, an opposite development from the military. Whereas the military stick at attempts to try to work out how they can defeat the enemy in battle, on the business side there's a continuing search for the bright new idea, the bright new way of doing things, the new processes that will give you a distinctive competitive advantage.

Indeed, I discovered when I was writing this that there's a whole academic literature devoted to the topic of fads and fashions, because certainly in the 1980s and 1990s there was a rapid turnover of new ideas, often fed by consultants, who could do very well out of these bright new ideas, which often led companies into considerable expenditure for often quite limited results. Even there, the problems of actually finding the idea that will give you this sort of control over the environment has been found challenging.

In politics, the revolutionaries, from the start, were stuck with an enormous gap between what they wanted and the resources they had at their disposal. If we think of strategies in terms of available means and desired ends, the gap was just enormous. They kept on trying to find different ways.

I found the revolutionaries an interesting way to get into a lot of issues, because, actually, the most interesting strategic issues are faced by the underdog. If you've got enormous power and you can basically get your way without much effort, then strategy isn't very interesting. Strategy is only interesting when it really allows you to be much more creative with your resources than you would otherwise have been. So they tried to have great creativity.

I show basically how the approach they adopted as they tried to understand why they kept on failing was to draw attention to the problem of what the Marxists would call false consciousness—basically, that people weren't thinking the right way and that somehow the constructs with which people approached the world had been manipulated, they would say, by the ruling classes and were very hard to undermine and challenge by the revolutionary movement.

Now, we can trace how all that happened, but the important legacy of all of this—and you can see it through the interwar years with figures like Gramsci, who became very important in thinking about the sociology of knowledge and the way people think, but also people like Edward Bernays in this town, who were amongst the first to actually worry about public affairs and see how they could shift perceptions—over time, this idea of influencing how people think became one of the most challenging ideas in strategy.

In the political world we're very used to this now. Everybody's got a narrative. Everybody talks about messages and narratives all the time. In some of the literature, it's almost as if the narrative is something that can be sort of conjured up, sort of a position-guided intellectual bomb that can be put inside people's minds and make people who once thought they were Republican vote Democrat or vice versa, and so on. But the narrative has now taken hold as being the thing that you want to be in charge of. If it's your narrative that frames the debate, then you are one step ahead of the opposition.

Actually, you can see this idea in the other areas I've been talking about as well. You can see it on the military side. As counterinsurgency developed and the methods that the U.S. forces had been using in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't seem to be getting much traction, you can see there the efforts by those who were aware of a long literature of counterinsurgency to revive the idea of hearts and minds, to revive the idea that it's not good enough just to show that you're stronger than others, that you can beat people up, but that you also have an ability to win them over.

Joe Nye's idea of soft power, to some extent, comes into this category. [Editor's note: check out Nye's 2004 Carnegie Council talk on soft power] And in business, again looking at the Harvard Business Review and other literatures, there's increasing focus on storytelling as an important part of an effective strategy.

It's all, it seems to me, part of a piece. It's a recognition that though a lot of big strategic ideas would make claims for science, that they were, in a sense, almost mathematical—you can find it there with lots of games theory and deductive theory—actually, if you look at how the mind works and how you make an appeal to the mind, if you look at contemporary cognitive psychology, the fact is that people do think in terms of stories. If you can get the stories working for you, then you can make more progress.

However, as also I, towards the end of the book, try to point out, it isn't as straightforward as that. One, stories can be very misleading. Most people tell stories with themselves at the center and tend to play down the importance of impersonal factors that produce the outcomes that can actually be seen. The challenge, I think, is to accept that strategy is a form of storytelling, while at the same time recognizing the limitations of stories.

What sort of concept of strategy emerges from all of this? The challenge I'm trying to pose in the book is to the idea of strategy as a plan. A lot of people think of strategies as being synonymous with planning. But it's not. A plan is something where there is a sequence of events leading to a desired outcome. You have to assume that if you start at one point, each move will build on the one before and take you to where you want to be.

You only have to say it to realize how unlikely this is going to be in situations involving other willful human beings. You can have a plan with an engineering problem when you are dealing with inanimate objects, although I think most of us have had experience even with inanimate objects. They can still be extremely frustrating. But when you're dealing with other human beings, even if they are on your own side—they are colleagues or subordinates or whatever—planning can be extremely frustrating, and plans don't produce the results they expect.

Very famously, von Moltke, the great Prussian field marshal, observed that no plan survives contact with the enemy. My favorite happens to be Mike Tyson's observation: "Everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the face." [Laughter] So a plan isn't a particularly good way to think about strategy, because, for all the reasons I've given, they don't work out as you would expect.

Secondly, from what I've said, it's important to see that it's more than a duel. Often strategy is presented as a duel, as if you have one opponent. Say you are fighting Mike Tyson and he looms large and menacing. One way you might do it is to try to trick him in some way. Look at the early fights of Muhammad Ali. But another way is to break the rules completely and bring in somebody else to help you.

Actually—I mentioned I start with primates—if you go back to chimps, according to the observations that have been done on them, when the alpha male gets challenged, it's rarely challenged by somebody else trying to beat up the alpha male. It's often because they find a partner to do it together.

Coalition formation actually seems to me to be one of the most important features of successful strategy—finding somebody else to help you.

It's important to say that because a lot of writing on strategy is influenced, I think, particularly by Sun Tzu, because it's very aphoristic and you can read into it whatever you want to read into it. The great thing about Sun Tzu, a Chinese strategist from way back when, is that actually it says you are going to beat your opponent by being cleverer than them. Then you get the idea of Sun Tzu quite quickly: basically, whatever the opponent thinks you're going to do, you do the opposite. If he thinks you're going to attack, you retreat. If he thinks you're weak, you've got to show that you're strong. If he thinks you're strong, you've got to show that you're weak. It's quite an easy formula to apply.

But the basic problem is, it's great until you find somebody who is as clever as you are or indeed cleverer. Who wouldn't want a strategy that assumes that it's your cleverness that is going to win the day? It appeals to everybody's vanity, but isn't necessarily a good way or the only way of getting results.

And there are a number of problems with a Sun Tzu-type strategy. In the book I looked at David and Goliath, which is an everybody's underdog-beats-the-giant iconic moment. Actually, the importance of David and Goliath—the original relevance was about belief in God. It wasn't anything to do with cleverness. It was about belief in God as being the thing you need to be successful in war. But everybody knows it as a story of David—in a sense, a form of asymmetric warfare, where he has this giant clad in armor and he picks up some stones from the stream and gets his sling and knocks Goliath down, chops off his head, and the Philistines retreat.

It was brilliant as far as it goes, but it's not hard to work out the problems with that strategy. First, it depended on the knockout blow. If it had just pinged off his armor, that wouldn't have been particularly effective, and you would look rather vulnerable. Secondly, it required the Philistines to accept that this was a reasonable outcome of something they thought was going to develop in a different way. Third, of course, you can only do this once. Next time the giant is going to be better prepared.

Actually, if you look historically, that has been the problem with the great sort of tricksters and crafty figures, Odysseus being the original archetype: nobody believed a word they said, because they knew they were tricksters. You can do it once, but you can't keep on doing it.

So it seems to me that the wise strategy is one that involves not relying on your cleverness. Though cleverness is useful and intelligence is always worth applying, actually the most effective strategy when you're an underdog is to find friends or supporters or even people who just happen to have a coincidence of interest.

If you look at, say, Churchill in 1940, the first point you note about Churchill in 1940 was that strategy was not about winning at that point, just sheer survival. A lot of strategy is not about how to get to victory, but how to survive.

Secondly, he saw from day one that what he needed to do was to bring the Americans in, and so established the connections with Roosevelt. That was his strategy. It was to find another powerful—the most powerful—supporter. When Hitler invaded Russia and people remarked on his past anti-Bolshevism, he said that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would have a good word to say for Satan in the House of Commons. The basis of success often is to find friends.

So where does that leave us with thinking about strategy? If you hear people talk about what's needed for a strategy, they will often start with objectives: What is it we're trying to achieve? Where are we trying to get to?—and then somehow working backwards from that.

I argue that it's the other way around. Most of the time with strategy, it's, "What is the problem we face at the moment? How do we diagnose it, and how do we look for ways of getting around it?"

Now, obviously, you need to think about the steps after the next step. But actually a lot of strategy is getting to the next step. By the time you've got to the next step and certainly the step after that, the possibilities in the situation will have changed, sometimes for the better—there are more possibilities—sometimes you've got to scale down your aspirations.

Therefore, one of the messages in the book is to move away from this idea of strategy as being about a plan that will get you to your desired objectives and criticizing people all the time for failure in that regard, and to recognize that it's an essential but limited activity. It's about the problems you face at the moment and trying to work sensible ways through them, and how you get to an outcome.

The problem with the outcome is that you have to start all over again. At the end of the book, I sort of compare strategy to drama. The great advantage for the dramatists is that they can bring everything to a comfortable conclusion. But the strategists never stop. You win an election; you've got to run the country. You have a coup; you've got to run the country. You win a battle; there may be another battle to come. It's a soap opera. It's not a three-act drama. It's continual.

Again, that seems to me one of the important points about it. It goes back to challenging this original idea of strategy as leading to a decisive victory, because there isn't, in the end, such a thing. There are forms of decision, but they just create the conditions for the next stage. Unless you're thinking through to the next stage and potentially the stage after that, you are doomed to disappointment.

So in a nutshell, I hope, that's some of the themes and ideas of the book. It is, I'm afraid, quite long, indeed heavy. But as you will see, it does contain quite a lot of episodes that try to illustrate these points by looking at actual events.

I'm happy now to take your ideas and questions.


QUESTION: Rita Hauser.

Lawry, I have gotten through just a few chapters, but you assure me that per pound it's worth it, so I will get there.

I want to ask you about circumstances, for many of us, like the Iraq War, where there didn't seem to be any strategy from the beginning—what we would call winging it, going in on some vague idea that people will love you on the other end and you don't have to do very much. Is that different from the improvisation that you have really been talking about, which is an essential as you go forward in any kind of battle?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: As you know, I'm on the UK Iraq Inquiry, so I have to watch what I say about what happened. It's well known.

The problem wasn't that there was no strategy for dealing with the aftermath. There was an extraordinarily optimistic strategy for dealing with the aftermath—that people would be happy, an administration would be in place, the army would be more or less intact, and therefore it would be possible to leave in quite short order. So there was a strategy, but nobody had asked the ways in which this particular strategy could go wrong. Some people knew exactly why it might go wrong, but they tended to be ignored and dismissed. I'm talking about the American side.

It wasn't improvisation. It was a series of assertions about postwar Iraq that turned out not to bear that much relation to reality. Once you start to improvise in those circumstances, you're on the back foot from the start and you never catch up.

Clearly, if I was saying the challenge is, "What are the problems to be solved?" it's not hard to work out. But toppling your regime is going to lead to a series of problems. It's not hard to work out what some of those problems might be. This doesn't have to be farsighted. This is an immediate sort of problem.

That was what was lacking, so that when those problems hit them right from day one, they just weren't prepared. It's not an argument against preparation.

QUESTION: Enzo Viscusi, Eni.

It is widely assumed that Putin has a strategy and Obama does not. Your comments.

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Putin has a strategy, has a clear view. Whether it's a good strategy or not, as a general course, we'll have to see. But he has certain concerns about Russia, Russia's position in the world, that it has to be seen as a great power, that it can't be ignored and mustn't be taken for granted.

Exactly where he sees that leading is an example of a strategy responding to the concerns of the moment, which is what I think strategies do. But, of course, that demonstrates also a problem of not being sure where it's going.

As far as Obama goes—and I think it's true for all strategy—these, to some extent, are questions of power and your ability to calculate the balances of power, to see where strengths lie, and work out how to overcome it. That's essentially, a lot of the time, what we're talking about with strategy.

Obama, as president of the United States, one assumes he has enormous power. But actually, when it comes to bargaining in Washington, it turns out it's circumscribed.

A strategy for Obama, without wishing to interfere in the internal politics of a friendly state, I think is always going to be one of having to find some ways of appealing above the heads of Congress, which is what previous presidents have been able to do in similar circumstances. That seems to be what he has found very difficult to do—though for somebody who is such an orator and wordsmith, you would have thought he would find the means.

Part of the argument in the book is the importance of words and language. All strategy at the end is about persuading somebody or other. And that, it seems to me, is where, surprisingly, he has struggled.

I think there's always a danger in assuming that if only he had a better strategy, all would be well. The problem is much deeper than that and lies in the way that Washington, in particular, has developed and the strength of attitudes and feelings in there. So even with a better strategy, I think he would still struggle.

But presidents in his position, to the extent that they have made progress, have done so by being able to move public opinion so that congressmen have to be looking behind them, as well as just talking to themselves.

QUESTION: Robert James. I'm a business manager.

My question deals with military strategy. You have written a book, an Adelphi paper, which is The Revolution in Strategic Affairs—pretty interesting. Is there a "the" revolution in strategic affairs or is there just another one? I've been through a number of them in my 70 or 80 years. I'd like to know, has there been "the" strategy change, other than nuclear weapons?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Of course, it was nuclear weapons that were described as a revolution in military affairs by the Russians. It was the Russians who talked in the 1980s and then into the 1990s about a new revolution in military affairs, based on precision-guided weapons—basically, the advanced technologies that the Americans were far ahead of anybody else in developing.

The Adelphi paper that I wrote, echoes of which are certainly in the book, was challenging the idea that there was a revolution in military affairs. The reason I called it a revolution in strategic affairs is that it seemed to me that the ones promoting this idea had not taken account of the dramatic developments in international politics, which were going to challenge the idea that the advanced military capabilities were going to be that useful in the circumstances in which they were assumed.

The American military was working on the basis that they were developing capabilities to fight another country a bit like the United States. Well, that was never very likely. It was always likely that they were going to be fighting in weak and feeble states, possibly against insurgencies, against terrorists, or whatever, though it wasn't very prescient to point that out in the late 1990s. And so it turned out.

The revolution in military affairs, as described, got them so far, but no further. They could easily push aside the Iraqi army in 2003, and then they struggled.

To sort of reaffirm what you said, the point about the Adelphi—and the point is made again in the book—is to challenge the idea that the right configuration of military forces always produces the answer you want.

I think the nuclear issue, just to wind it up, is important, because that still has a dramatic effect on thinking about war and peace in a way that precision-guided munitions and so on can't. It just keeps in our minds the possibility that any war between major powers is going to be awful, is going to be catastrophic—or, as likely as not, will be. And that has a continuing effect. I think that did have a revolutionary effect on the way people thought about war, but not the more recent things.

QUESTION: Nawaf Salam, the ambassador of Lebanon to the UN.

If I'm not mistaken, you had two messages: the first, that we should forget about decisive victory; strategy should not be associated with decisive victory. And I'm convinced.

Your second, if I'm not, again, mistaken, is that strategy is not about the goals one would like to achieve, but about the problems one faces. Perhaps analytically this is correct, but this is not the case for a whole category of actors. For idealists, for revisionists, for revolutionaries, this is not how they see things. No. They have goals and they pursue such goals.

A footnote to this: it's not about actual resources. For them, it's about potential resources, the resources they would be able to mobilize along their fight or whatever you like to call it.

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Yes. And, of course, it's fair enough that an important part of political affairs is the visionaries and idealists who describe better worlds and do inspire and animate. In one of the chapters I look at sort of where I came in, in the 1960s, where the student movements of the time and what I call an existential strategy, where it was just simply living a different way, achieved quite a radical objective. Over time—leaving aside how little they might have achieved in some respects politically—in terms of shifts in social attitudes and so on, an enormous amount was achieved from that point.

I'm not saying, of course, that the ideals and the values and so on are not important. They are. They're incredibly important, because they inform the moves you make. If you are trying to move people and persuade people, you can't do it on a purely cynical and pragmatic basis. There have to be some underlying ideals there. I'm not arguing against that.

What I'm saying is, if you gear your actions solely to some distant goal, then you may be frustrated. But more to the point, that's not actually how changes happen. They happen in the here and now. If you look at where revolutionary success has come about, it's often not because of working through all the intense strategies. Nobody strategizes more than radical and revolutionary movements. Anybody who has had any connection with such groups knows that they spend all their time talking about strategy. But when their moments come—say 1917—it's completely different, and they act in quite different ways, with slogans that bear very little relationship to what they thought was right and proper before the moment came.

So that's the point made, but certainly not to decry the importance of values, which are critical in working out why you act in one way rather than another.

QUESTION: George Paik.

One thing that can be read about strategy is the comment that too much strategy these days is lists of desirable goals that don't fit together. What I think it's in reaction to—what comes to mind—is the change in U.S. grand strategy from the containment model to a condition where nobody quite knows whether weapons of mass destruction or democracy or environmental protection comes first.

But if strategy is a matter of solving the problem at hand, is it strategy to talk about the priorities, choosing and setting priorities? Is there strategic guidance for that? Or is that something otherwise divined?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: I think it's political judgment that tells you what your priorities are. Clearly a number of governments in 2008—and I'd have to make a political judgment that the financial crisis was the priority, that that was the problem at hand—they had to find ways around that, for which very few of them were actually properly prepared, because that was the challenge they faced. As they come out of that, then other sorts of challenges make themselves felt.

You're absolutely right that part of the problem is that if you get a strategy document—I think it's true of an organization, whether it's a university or a business corporation or a government—any public strategy document is always pretty useless. It is lists of things we want, how we want to be seen. Also, who in a public document is going to give away the real secrets of your strategy?

If you look at some of the great strategy documents in the past, often they were about dealing with a particular problem or a particular country. I'll just talk about the UK. When we produce national strategies, we take on themes. We take on terrorists or we take on weapons of mass destruction or pandemics and so on. All of these things are listed as things we should worry about. There are not actual actors mentioned. There are no opponents, because that would be awkward because you have immediately created a diplomatic crisis if you talk about them. They therefore tend to be a bit unreal, and for that reason, have short half-lives.

I think that's one of the problems. Go back to sort of the Obama problem. If you say that everything is desirable, that everything is important, then you haven't chosen. Then strategy is about choice. It's about saying this is what matters and this is what we're going to go for, and this is the challenge of the moment.

George Bush could do that after 9/11, because everybody could accept that at that moment there was a particular crisis that had to be addressed.

The question one can then ask is, was it then framed properly that led him into a sensible strategy and one that others could bring with them? It's not just a question of priorities, but being able to describe these priorities—going back a bit to the last point—in ways that you can see a way ahead and bring people with you.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Until now you have been emphasizing the role of great powers, who have great power to use. But there's another side of the story that I hope you will now address, which is the role for small countries, who have to maneuver among the great powers. For example, you have written a prize-winning book called A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East. [Editor's note: see Freedman's talk on this book.] Well, let's turn that around. What about the small states who are confronting America—Iran, Syria, and others? What are their strategies and their possibilities?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Obviously, the most interesting questions in the book are not great power strategies, but the underdog. I'm always interested in the weaker powers.

It goes back to my previous book [A Choice of Enemies]. If you try to understand the politics of the Middle East, the most important priority for all the regimes was their own survival—not necessarily that country's survival; the regime's survival. I wrote that in about 2008, and unfortunately this sort of theme of regime survival gets stronger and stronger, Syria being the example. Syria is not challenging the United States. Syria is challenging its own people. Then you get the strategies of those who are challenging Assad and so on.

Iran is a slightly different case. But again, the question for all non-democracies is, in the end, regime survival, because they are never quite sure about the consensual basis of their rule. That has always struck me as being a pretty good starting point. It seems to me a long way away.

One of my favorite books, which was made into a movie—it goes back to the 1950s—was called The Mouse That Roared. The idea was that a country that was down and out and suffering was trying to work out how it could do well, and it noticed that if you fought the United States and lost, you seemed to do very well out of it. So they tried to find a way of going to war with the United States. I think they got a doomsday weapon or something. It looked like they might actually win.

There's a variety of ways by which small countries approach the United States. Of course, a lot of them challenge it. But an important thing to remember about contemporary international politics is that large numbers of small countries depend on the United States. That's still the case. People talk about the rise of China and the decline of the United States. The fact is that there are about 70 countries with some sort of relationship, security relationship, with the United States. And what has China got? North Korea. There's a very asymmetrical relationship.

For most countries, the United States is still seen as the power with which they wish to be associated. For populist reasons, sometimes, because you're really annoyed with the Americans, you try to take them on. But there are limits to how far you can go successfully with that.

Most of the time, most of these countries are thinking about survival. If you're small and weak, that's your first priority. Very few of them are thinking about victory. It's just survival.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

Sir Lawrence, I just would like your comments on whether, particularly in the world of global politics, a successful strategy can be inherently antidemocratic and lead to the tyranny of the minority. Mr. Assad and his father seem to be examples of that. Or perhaps a less successful example of that might be Barry Goldwater's famous statement that he would rather be right than president in 1964. That didn't prove to be a very successful strategy.

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Strategy is about power. If you've got the power to be a minority ruler because you've got organized violence under your control, then you can do it. How durable that is, is another question.

It's worth recalling that the idea of terrorism was first introduced, not as a way that small radical groups would annoy big powers, but as a way by which power is maintained. Think of Robespierre and the Great Terror of Stalin. Stalin died in his bed. So it's not at all impossible that antidemocratic rulers can maintain power.

I think the problem for regimes such as that is coping with changes. The great thing about democracies is that you have an idea what people are thinking and where they are. Once your regime becomes frightened of its own people and doesn't know what's going on, then it has created a vulnerability. That's what we have seen in the Arab world recently.

That doesn't necessarily translate into something benign and democratic, but it certainly undermines the old regimes that were antidemocratic and repressive. There's a limit to how far you can sustain that when you just don't know what your own people are thinking.

The problem, I think, is that when you've had nondemocratic systems and people suddenly do have a chance to express their views and change things, precisely because you haven't had a working political system where people have learned what it is to act politically, they often make catastrophic mistakes.

QUESTION: Anthony Faillace, Carnegie Council.

Is there a list of characteristics that a successful strategist has or a successful strategy is? We have a lot of ad hoc examples flying around. But if I'm sitting here saying I want to be a good strategist, what do I need to do? What's the cookbook?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: This is obviously how, if I can get it right, I can make an awful lot of money. There are so many cookbooks around.

Go back to the chimps. What's a good strategy for an ape? The first is that they are quite clear what matters to them. The second is that they have—and this is what distinguishes some of the higher primates from others—what is called a theory of the mind. That is, they understand that somebody else's behavior follows from the particular ways that they think. Empathy—they understand the importance of empathy. Third, they understand the importance of coalitions, as I explained before, and they understand the importance of survival. Though chimps go to war, they don't fight in circumstances where they think they are going to lose. They are prepared to ambush somebody else, but if they think they're going to be outnumbered, they back away. So they understand survival.

I think in most cases this is a pretty good set of rules: how you are going to endure; empathy with those whom you want to work with you, but also those who might oppose you; the ability to form coalitions. These, I would say, come up time and time again.

One of the striking things about a lot of the strategic literature—it's why I keep on banging on about it—is the absence of thinking about coalition and partnerships and so on. It's obvious when you say it, but it's surprisingly lacking in a lot of the great texts on strategy.

QUESTIONER: Why is that?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Because I think a lot of the books do like to show you how, if you're cleverer than everybody else, you can win—or "If you read my book and follow the 25 secrets to a successful strategy, you'll make more money than everybody else." Airport bookshelves are full of books like this. There's the business strategy of Attila the Hun. You can buy it, let alone Napoleon and Julius Caesar and so on.

I think the great leaders saw it as well, if you're strong and forthright. And there are books to develop warrior characteristics.

It's a basic political art of strategy. That's what it's about. A lot of it is also judgment. One of the points I try to make is that the great strategists, because of experience and the events that you have seen and the way you have dealt in the past, you don't have to think very often about what the right course of action is. You have to think about how to explain it and get others on your side. But actually it comes naturally as a matter of judgment, which is a quality that is often underplayed and undervalued.

JOANNE MYERS: You said coalitions are important, so I would like to invite you all to join me in thanking Sir Lawrence. Thank you very much for a wonderful talk.

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