The Importance of Strategic Thinking

This item was originally presented at the Westminster Strategic Studies Group Inaugural Address on the 11th February 2015.

Strategic thinking is important. In the 1980s, despite an existential threat to the United Kingdom of greater magnitude than at any previous moment in its long history, this country navigated and concluded successfully the Cold War and managed the changes that were wrought to international relations thereafter. In the 1990s, Britain’s strategic success continued as it embraced the rehabilitation of two pariah states of the Cold War era, namely Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Moreover, Britain participated in the defeat of the naked aggression of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990-91, bolstering the hopes for a new world order based on global co-operation. Yet, in the early 2000s, a string of errors based on faulty assumptions, and an absence of strategy, became manifest in the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had apparently forgotten how to think strategically.

Criticism cannot be reserved for the policy-makers alone. The state of academic studies in the last twenty years can be depressing. Higher education, especially in Politics and International Relations, has been afflicted by faddism, dissonance with ‘real world’ issues and a damaging political correctness. The obsession with the ‘cultural turn’ at the expense of authentic policy dilemmas is particularly striking. 

Sir Michael Howard, the founder of the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group, had recognised the problem, and he had set out to bridge the gap between the real world of strategy and its theoretical, intellectual counterpart, and he understood the value of military history as the means to deepen our understanding. The Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford is the living link between academics, policy-makers and military professionals, and we too, in our own way, are trying to fulfil Sir Michael’s original intent, just as you now are.

We have, in Britain, good, virtuous and well-educated people in government and in the upper echelons of the Ministry of defence and the armed forces. They are eager to do good in the world. It is not in them that the problem lies. Rather it has been a systems failure. Our institutions and bureaucracy have not proved fit for purpose. Much of that has been put right in recent years, with the establishment of a National Security Council, Permanent Joint Headquarters, Joint Forces Command and, convened by the Changing Character of War Programme, the national Strategy Forum, which embraces the participation of younger and more agile minds, just as the Westminster Strategic Studies Group seeks to do.

And yet there is something else amiss, demonstrated by recent years. We have lost the art of strategic thinking: the forms and ways of analysis, the need to first understand the problem – something that Carl von Clausewitz described as the supreme, most important challenge – to first understand the nature of the conflict you are in, and to assess the grammar of war. 

So, to quote Lenin, ‘What is to be Done?’ What will you, as founding members of WSSG, contribute? How will you add to the enhancement of strategic thinking in this country and develop our understanding of the world?

At the 40th Anniversary of the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group, I was honoured to be asked to speak for Sir Michael Howard, and I offered a review of the strategic issues of each of the decades of the groups’ existence. This time, I would like to offer you an evaluation of the future. 

While it is notoriously difficult to predict the future, there are several trends in war and international affairs we can assess more confidently. Among these is the issue of porosity or permeability in our national defence. Wars are no longer defined by an enemy confined to a territorial space, for they are dispersed around the globe, concealed, and can now often be found inside our country. They are not just beyond the castle walls, they are here, inside, already. Our enemies will attempt to exploit our nodal-systemic vulnerabilities, for conflicts are now much more about networks than spaces. We will have to prepare ourselves for the further miniaturisation of weapons systems: where the industrial age was about mass and scale, so our own age will be one where weapons will be smaller but more devastating. We will also have to accept that war is becoming more privatised, with belligerents acting outside of state sanction. 

There are also strategic trends beyond war for us to consider. Population growth and urbanisation will increase the pressures of familiar problems. There will be, we anticipate 2 billion more middle class consumers this century, sufficient to ensure the take-off of the global economy, from the current $50 trillion in global GDP to £150 trillion. Yet, this may occur against a background of a doubling of the world’s poor, a fact which will act as a break to much of the world’s development. The costs of shortages in water, cereals and livestock will increase, deepening the fractures caused by inequality, scarcity, religious antagonism, corruption, and government failures.

 These will need to be set against the possibility of larger conflicts ahead: a Middle Eastern War will demand the West’s participation whether we like it or not; a war involving Russia or China cannot be ruled out this century. The patterns of major war are familiar to us: initialoptimism that war can be limited; setbacks and escalation; total war measures; devastation, and finally, a significant re-ordering of the globe. Yet, any major war, even without the West’s direct involvement, would be disastrous for this country and our partners. The way to avert such a catastrophe lies in studying again the Cold War, examining what made our strategy successful, and understanding the past, in order to apply strategic thinking to the problems of the future. That is why strategic studies is so vitally important today. And that is the challenge for the WSSG. 

For, as Shakespeare reminded us: ‘If you can look into the Seeds of Time, and say which Grain will Grow and which will Not, speak then unto me’.