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Wednesday 16 Aug 2017 | 23:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 16 Aug 2017 | 23:40 | SYDNEY

What is 'strategy'?

29 Jul 2011 09:30

A friend of mine, still in uniform, was reading an Interpreter debate thread about the utility/futility of our presence in Afghanistan and asked me what I thought was meant when one contributor wrote about the '...lack of mutual understanding (that) has underwritten much of the tension between uniformed soldiers and civilian strategists' (my emphasis).

Because I have one foot in the think-tank world and had one foot in the uniformed soldier world, my friend thought I might be able to tell him what a 'civilian strategist' was. I couldn't exactly enlighten him, other than to tell him what I think people who call themselves civilian strategists think they are.

Some people have done courses, so consider themselves strategists as a result. Some have worked in the public service in intelligence or defence policy and consider themselves strategists, while others have written on strategic issues that have influenced government policy. But 'strategist' is not a qualification; it is an appellation one can give oneself.  


8 Aug 2011 11:04

Crispin Rovere is a PhD Candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Rodger Shanahan asks two very important and incisive questions: (1) what is a civilian strategist, and (2) why do they (we) feel they do not need tactical or operational knowledge to be authoritative on strategic matters?

Strategy is about the achievement of political objectives by military means. A civilian strategist is therefore someone not in uniform, who approaches the use of armed force with political objectives in mind. A civilian strategist calculates whether the benefit of military operations to Australia's national interest outweighs the blood and treasure required of the nation.


12 Aug 2011 08:37

It appears my post about civilian strategists brought a couple of these elusive beasts out of the woodwork. And bravo to Crispin Rovere for having a crack at defining what he thought a civilian strategist was. Still, after reading his response and that of Closet Idealist, who didn't really seek to describe what a civilian strategist is, I am still none the wiser.

From Crispin's definition, a civilian strategist weighs up the costs and benefits of military action measured against political goals and decides whether it is worth pursuing. But this sounds suspiciously like what a policy adviser might do. I imagine that someone with aspirations to be a civilian strategist would look at the enunciation and achievement of long-term strategic goals, would examine the manner in which the government should harness the elements of national power and synchronise them to achieve these long-term objectives.


15 Aug 2011 15:36

Rodger Shanahan is having problems with the phrase 'civilian strategist'. Perhaps that's because he's looking too hard at the adjective and not hard enough at the noun. Let's work out what a strategist is, and then worry about the 'civilian' bit later.

If we start by agreeing that a strategist is someone who does strategy, we have to then decide what 'strategy' means. Do not expect a simple answer. The great philosophical logician Humpty Dumpty spoke truly when he said, 'My words mean whatever I want them to mean'. We can and do use 'strategy' to talk about all kinds of things. So the best one can do is to explain how one uses the word oneself, and hope that helps to make things clearer.


16 Aug 2011 11:16

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Nicely put by Hugh White.

The big challenge is to get people on both sides of the civilian/military divide to know what they are talking about, even in their own civilian or military specialty.

A large number of Australian military officers get to senior rank without having much of a clue about real-world military operations because in the past (at least before we gained some solid but low-level military experience in Afghanistan and a bit in Iraq), Australians spent much of their time in delusional military exercises and insignificant operations, and the learning process was clouded by self-delusion.

I also wonder how many civilians really 'immerse themselves in strategic-level problems from the age of twenty'. How much experience of strategic issues do you get from academia or Taxation or Customs or Lowy before you move across into security-related positions?


18 Aug 2011 12:21

Anton Kuruc writes:

It is surprising how many contributors to this debate have limited their definition of strategy to decisions that revolve around the nexus between war and its political aims. Strategy is broader than war, the decisions about a war's objectives and what capabilities are needed to wage it — although this is a handy summation of military strategy. Strategy is a broad approach to external competition. Some time ago I pondered this subject in great depth and concluded that strategy is:

'The process of building, integrating and deploying capabilities into a competitive dynamic external environment in order to promote and or protect one's interests.'

This definition fits the nation or a business. Strategy builds and uses capabilities to compete and cooperate in a competitive dynamic external environment, however that competition rarely takes the form of a war. A strategy is only necessary when dealing with a competitive dynamic external environment. Without the dynamic or competitive elements a plan, rather than a strategy, will usually suffice. Built into this understanding of strategy are three key strategic activities.


18 Aug 2011 13:45

The latest Republican to nominate for the US presidency, Texas Governor Rick Perry, made an interesting claim about the relationship between the military and civilian leadership:

'I want to make sure that every young man and woman who puts on the uniform of the United States respects highly the president of the United States.' He later 'clarified' by saying that 'If you polled the military, the active duty and veterans, and said 'would you rather have a president of the United States that never served a day in the military or someone who is a veteran?' They’ve going to say, I would venture, that they would like to have a veteran.'