In his counter to the use of the term strategy, Brendan Taylor observes that the use of strategy has been subverted and thus diluted of its true meaning. He asserts that strategy is purely in the military providence. Without “battalions” one can not apply force and thus one can not ‘do’ strategy. This is a weak position founded on loose sand. Asserting military dominance over the term strategy is a losing battle. While frustrating reading, my concern is with the preoccupation of current thinking that Strategy is a thing. It ignores the process that leads to a resultant strategy.
The confusion regarding strategy extends well beyond the partisan claims of ownership and differentiating nuances on its use. It is vocalised in loud laments over the decline or complete lack of strategy at the national level. Call it grand strategy, politics, foreign policy, whatever. What is common is that the Holy Grail so sought after by the raucous gallery is perceived to be a thing. A noun that takes the form of a deliberate and detailed plan that seeks to guide us into the murky middle distance and, on a wing and a prayer, through the fog onto high ground.
The fallacy with this ideal is that we are ignoring the historical narrative so common to national strategy and foreign policy and that is emergent strategy. Emergent strategy belies the common belief that all strategy is pre-determined. It is the accumulation of a number of small decisions that results in a broader direction. The problem with emerging strategy is that, as it is circumstance and environment dependent, there is no guarantee the result is a desired outcome. Both deliberate and emergent strategies are prone to human error. A poor environment scan or misunderstanding of a future variable will ensure a strategic misstep. Similarly the definition of an ‘end’ ignores the fluidity of the environment within which nation states and their agents operate in. The rigid adherence to a specified end state creates a ‘white line fever’ that prevents the practitioner from looking beyond the goal.
This is not to say that the development of a deliberate strategy should be ignored. The act of planning is extremely important as it allows decision makers and policy advisors to grasp the complexity of the environment, the multitudes of variables and possible futures. Hence I do not recommend the abolition of developing a strategy through strategic planning. Instead I advocate a conscious communication of strategic tolerances that informs the day-to-day decisions that develop the resultant path. The decisions are confined to a preferred path by the communicated ‘left and right arcs’, allowing an emergent strategy that is positive. As conflict always involves at least two parties, no strategy can be assured or linear. A linear plan resting on assumptions is bound to fail in the resulting strategic dialogue. When the path is unclear you are better served walking down a wide road with clear boundaries than a pencil thin tightrope.