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Reader riposte: Politicians are strategists

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This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

COMMENTS

18 August 2011 12:21


This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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.

First there is an internal dimension where capabilities are developed. This dimension deals with fundamental uncertainty, almost always costs the most and paradoxically, requires the greatest flexibility from the most rigid elements of strategy — capabilities. The fundamental uncertainty is driven by the cost to acquire, time taken to introduce and the life span of capabilities fielded. We just can't know what the Joint Strike Fighter, for example, might be required to do in 2030. Likewise we might build and fund: industry priorities, dedicated educational institutes or negotiate free trade agreements as a part of a national strategy to better compete in our external environment or to protect us from potential external shocks. But we can't know with any certainty what the opportunities and threats will be in 2030 — we can only make informed guesses.

Having a capability changes the external environment. The advent of Chinese aircraft carriers, China's growing economic reach and influence through direct foreign investment, its increased wealth, its expanding technical skill base etc all change the strategic environment. These changes force others, including Australia, to change national perspectives, priorities, and expectations about their own interests. It is not just military capability development that is important. It is the development of a strong economy, ties to other countries, national wealth, an educated and technically literate workforce and good political leadership etc. These are strategic capabilities that take decades and cost billions of dollars to build.

The second dimension of strategy is the integrating role that bridges the internal and external environments. These decisions are not just about war, in fact they are mostly about peace. During peace, Australia decides who to forge alliances with, who to trade with, where to dispense aid and whose international causes to support. These are all strategic decisions that help shape the external environment to promote and or protect Australia's interests. It is at this level that the Executive decides what the national interest is, what resources are available and which ones to deploy into the external environment to pursue a particular interest. This area typically deals with shorter time-frames, involves moderate to high levels of uncertainty and cost very little in and of itself. It is usually the most flexible and creative area of strategy. The time-frames can be from the relatively immediate crisis to those that emerge over years. This level derives a 'yield' from the prior capability investments made, in some cases, decades ago.

The decisions at this level are constrained by oversights or shortfalls of capability-investment decisions made much earlier. Today's internal capability-development investment decisions constrain tomorrow's strategy. Only in the present can we accurately determine whether prior expectations of the longer term future were well balanced against the competing priorities of more immediate demands of government. Rarely do those who invest in a capability get to apply that capability, which unfortunately provides very little incentive to get the long-term capability investment strategy right.

The final level is what the US calls the 'theatre strategic' level. This is the best understood realm of strategy which can be costly, but deals with the shortest time-frames and has the least uncertainty. Essentially the strategist at this level, sometimes a military person, knows what interest he pursues, where to pursue it, what resources are available and who he is competing with. All three levels of strategy are interdependent to get to this point of use.

In our system, nearly everyone of these key strategic decisions is made by a civilian, which brings us back to the original question asked by Rodger Shanahan – what is a civilian strategist? Normally he or she is someone who doesn't call themselves a strategist, has little or no education in strategy, but has a working life full of strategic decision-making. They are called politicians.

What previous contributors to this debate call a 'strategist', civil or military, are usually a direct or indirect adviser to a politician in the Executive (cabinet) which is responsible for strategic decision-making. Strategic advisor's help fill in the technical and domain knowledge gap that lets politicians identify a national interest, understand what means are available and how they might be used to promote and protect our interests. In some circumstances these advisers also implement a strategy in a confined area and under defined conditions – usually overseen by a politician.

It is the politician who, in a democracy, is quite rightly responsible for strategy. The rest can only offer wise counsel.

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