DeMarco Banter: A book recommended by Neil Stott, of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School…and now by The Economist….will need to pick it up, but it sounds as if any member of the US Federal Government should read as well…
Strategy: A History. By Lawrence Freedman. Oxford University Press USA; 751 pages; $34.95. Buy from Amazon.com
EVERYONE, it seems, is in need of a strategy. Governments have lots of them: strategies for health care, energy, housing, and so on. Each area of policy is made to seem more purposeful if there is a strategy behind it. Similarly, no company these days would dare to admit it lacks one. If things are going badly it will often be put down to the lack of good strategy. People even talk about using it to improve their lives—from coping with stress to losing weight or just making other people like them more.
Over time, the word “strategy” has been drained of meaning by ubiquity and overuse. Sir Lawrence Freedman’s aim in his magisterial new book, “Strategy: A History”, is to find a workable definition of what strategy is and to show how it has evolved and been applied in war, politics and business. Above all, he argues, it is about employing whatever resources are available to achieve the best outcome in situations that are both dynamic and contested: “It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.”
Sir Lawrence, who for more than 30 years has been one of Britain’s foremost historians of military strategy, examines how the origins of the word can be found in Greek mythology and the Bible. A recurrent theme emerges: the dichotomy between strategies based on the application of superior force (personified by the heroic Achilles) and those based on the application of guile (personified by the crafty Odysseus, who came up with the idea of the Trojan horse). Guile is more seductive because it offers the possibility of cleverness defeating brute power.
A few hundred years after Homer’s “Iliad”, Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, was writing “The Art of War”, a book that celebrates cunning by arguing that the way to win is by always doing the opposite of what your opponent expects. Sun Tzu gave birth to a long tradition that believed strategic goals could often best be achieved by avoiding the destructive uncertainty of pitched battle. It was preferable to use “stratagem and finesse” to defeat an enemy—famine was a favourite tactic of Sun Tzu’s—than to expose yourself to “the chance of arms”. His teachings are still used in business schools and military academies today.
No one is more associated with strategies founded on deceit and psychological manipulation than Niccolò Machiavelli, who is also still studied. However, as Sir Lawrence argues, guile alone can be overrated, particularly against enemies that are clever as well as strong. Machiavelli believed that his prince needed both the cunning of the fox and the strength of the lion to keep power. If David’s slingshot had missed the gap in Goliath’s helmet, which unaided by God it might well have done, things would have gone badly for him.
It is, however, not really until the late 18th century, partly as a consequence of the Enlightenment and partly through the impact on military and political thinking of the Napoleonic wars, that the concept of strategy as it is usually understood today made its first appearance. It was seen as a way of uniting operational art in the military sphere with political objectives. As Carl von Clausewitz, a great Prussian strategist, put it: “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.”
The other great strategist of that era was the more narrowly prescriptive Antoine-Henri Jomini. But the two men agreed on one thing that was distinct from their predecessors and which became central to strategic thinkers that came after them. They believed in the centrality of the decisive victory which compels an opponent to submit to one’s will.
Sir Lawrence examines this idea in three main forms. The first is the “strategy of force”, which deals with the military sort, from Clausewitz to nuclear game theory and the rise of asymmetric warfare today. The second is “strategy from below”, which looks at political varieties, particularly those of 19th-century professional revolutionaries such as Karl Marx, who saw themselves as the general staff of the downtrodden. And the third is “strategy from above”, which examines the development of strategy in business, mainly a late-20th-century phenomenon, at least in its most self-conscious form. In all three spheres strategy is seen as the way to get a decisive and thus lasting result.
As this long book, full of anecdote and illustration, unfolds, this is the question that bothers the author the most. The idea of knockout military victory keeps getting knocked down. Whether it is Napoleon’s victory at Wagram (pictured above), the early success of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, Hitler’s blitzkrieg in 1940 or the rapid defeat of Iraqi forces in 2003, all turned into long wars of attrition because the other side refused to realise it had been beaten. In modern times faith in the pursuit of decisive victory has been undermined by the overwhelming mutual destructive power of nuclear weapons and the frustrating messiness of counterinsurgency operations.
The same is true in politics and business: initial success is hardly ever decisive, Sir Lawrence argues. If you win power, you still have all the problems of trying to govern; if you have a run of success with some great products or an innovative business model, it does not mean you will stay on top for ever. Strategy, it turns out, is really about trying to work out in a sensible way how to get from one stage to the next. With each stage a new set of problems has to be negotiated before you move beyond it. There is no end point: strategy is not simply a grander name for a plan, something that moves you forwards in predetermined steps. As Helmuth von Moltke, a 19th-century German field-marshal, put it: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or Mike Tyson, still more pithily: “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” A strategy that starts with objectives and works backwards is one that is likely to fail.
A lot of strategy these days, especially in fashionable business books, depends on using narrative both to explain a proposed course of action and recruit support for it. But stories taken out of context and conveniently edited can be an unreliable guide. Sir Lawrence concludes that it may be better to look at strategy as a form of script, albeit one which incorporates the possibility of chance events, which attempts to anticipate the interactions of many players over a long time and which is open-ended. The climax that concludes a normal drama is denied the strategist, who is more like the writer of a long-running soap opera, with its myriad twists and turns.
The sobering lesson after 630 pages of wide-ranging erudition and densely packed argument is that although it is usually better to have some kind of strategy than not, unless you are prepared to adapt it as circumstances change it is unlikely to do you much good.