US Army War College

Mr. Phillip Dolitsky and Dr. Lukas Milevski – On “The Grand Strategic Thought of Colin S. Gray”

Released 3 June 2022

In this podcast, Mr. Phillip Dolitsky and Dr. Lukas Milevski discuss the article “The Grand Strategic Thought of Colin S. Gray,” which was published in the Winter 2021-22 issue of Parameters.

Click here to read the review and reply to the original article.

Key words:  Colin S. Gray, grand strategic thought, grand strategy, military strategy, military power

Episode Transcript

 Stephanie Crider (Host)

Decisive Point introduces Conversations on Strategy, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who explore timely issues in national security affairs.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

The guests in speaking order on this episode are:

(Guest 1: Lukas Milevski)

(Guest 2: Phillip Dolitsky)


Conversations on Strategy welcomes Mr. Phillip Dolitsky and Dr. Lukas Milevski for a review and reply of “The Grand Strategic Thought of Colin S. Gray” by Dr. Lukas Milevksi, featured in the winter 2021–22 issue of Parameters. Dolitksy’s thoughts on the piece appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Parameters. Milevski is an assistant professor at the Institute of History (Institute for History) at Leiden University. He is the author of The West’s East: Contemporary Baltic Defense in Strategic Perspective, published in 2018, and The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought, published in 2016. Dolitsky is a master’s student at the School of International Service at American University. Welcome to Conversations on Strategy.

Lukas, it’s a pleasure to see you again. Your article appeared in the winter 2021–22 issue of Parameters. Phillip wrote in to share his thoughts on it. Lukas, please start us off with a recap of the original article.


The article engages intellectually with Colin Gray’s grand strategic thought—a grand strategy being one of those concepts which he employed quite frequently, but he never really explored in a dedicated work. So I engaged with this thinking along a number of fronts, starting with a few basic, and sometimes mutually contradictory, definitions which he had used over the course of his career; then, certain casual conceptual overlaps—notably, among grand strategy, geopolitics, and strategic culture as well as, later in the article, also policy; and, finally and crucially, the inclusion of nonmilitary forms of power in grand strategy and the fungibility of these various forms of power, which related closely to certain problems of complexity in war. And war, of course, gets more complex once you’re trying to coordinate various forms of nonmilitary power alongside military power as well.

So in exploring Gray’s grand strategic thought, the sense that I got is that for him, it represented what I called in the article the “agential context”: the context of what the rest of one’s government or one side was doing to contribute to achieving success in war around the military effort because, ultimately, Gray’s focus was usually military strategy, and his most prominent nonmilitary strategic theme was geopolitics.

But he never really dedicated himself to exploring grand strategy. But, nonetheless, he did recognize its importance, and he was always conscientious in continually reminding his readers of the fact that it still mattered for them, whether in academic thinking and study or in actual strategic practice. And I’ll end with that.


Great. Thank you for the recap. Phillip, in your reply to Milevski’s article, you noted two critical areas of Gray’s thought that you feel like he left out. The first one was classical realism and Clausewitz. Can you speak to that for us?

Sure. First of all, pleasure to be here, and just want to thank the professor for engaging in a little master’s student from across the pond . . . is a testament to the type of scholar that he is. So I appreciate that.

The first part that I raise in what was otherwise a really sweeping analysis was that I think that in order to understand Gray’s definition of grand strategy, which he really associated as being almost synonymous with statecraft, I think you needed to understand what his view in the international system was. And in this regard, Gray differed from quote unquote “mainstream (international relations or) IR” and the way that it’s taught nowadays as a split between (Kenneth) Waltz and (Alexander) Wendt, constructivism and neorealism. Instead, Gray really held to the primacy of the great giants of IR. So, starting all the way back from Thucydides, Lao Tzu, Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Morgenthau, Kissinger, Raymond Aron—he had a particular affinity to. So understanding Gray had a great love for these people and that he thought that they truly can calculate a world politics gives you a different understanding of what grand strategy will become if you think that the world is this really anarchic place where power really matters. And I thought that highlighting that basis upon which his theory of grand strategy essentially rests on—I thought was a necessary component in what was an otherwise really great analysis.


Lukas, what do you have to say to this?

Phillip’s comments are very much premised on what I feel is the most incongruent interpretation of grand strategy by Gray: that it is the theory of statecraft itself. And I think incongruent because I don’t feel like statecraft obeys the general theory of strategy fundamentally, and Gray was very adamant that grand strategy was still strategy. And the reason that statecraft doesn’t do so, that it doesn’t obey the general theory, is because war and peace simply as contexts in which people act are simply too fundamentally different.

Strategic thinking is a wartime phenomenon, whereas there are other forms of thinking for peacetime. That’s the basis of my contention with Phillip’s critiques. But it is true, of course, that Gray referred to himself on occasion as a classical realist. I would suggest that this has mostly to do with him translating himself to IR audiences because from a strategic studies perspective, IR, and especially the grand IR theories like realism and liberalism and etcetera, are somewhat irrelevant. They’re kind of meaningless and even kind of valueless because regardless of the content of those theories, what we see in strategic history is that realists, liberals, Marxists, fascists, etcetera, everyone—they all have to think about strategy practically, and they all have practiced strategy and history—I one exception being absolute pacifists who don’t actually practice strategy.

Moreover, and I only very briefly allude to this in my written response, Gray’s conception of grand strategy as coordinating all forms of national power for political purpose, which I think is the most fundamentally useful interpretation of grand strategy, albeit also the least studied, is somewhat rendered meaningless if put into the context of IR’s grand theories because, for the most part, those grand theories each predetermined for themselves their relevant forms of power. Realists focus on military power, liberals on institutions and institutional power, and so on and so forth.

But this predetermination sinks the very concept of grand strategy as encompassing all forms of power. That very degree of encompassing all power is inherently IR-agnostic, if not even IR-atheistic.

So not only do I feel like this critique is a bit misguided, but, in relying on these IR labels, it is in a sense even outright destructive to the very concept of grand strategy itself—at least to Gray’s understanding of grand strategy, to grand strategy as all the instruments.

And hence, just to make a point that I just thought of, this is probably why American interpretations of grand strategy are what they are—because the older school of grand strategic thought just doesn’t fit with American IR, so they turned grand strategy into something which was compatible with their way of thinking about the world.


Phillip, you also mentioned Colin’s book, The Sheriff: America’s Defense of the New World Order, and why it wasn’t included in Lukas’s original work. What are you thinking here?

First of all, thank you for that response. There’s a lot of food for thought there.

The one work seemingly that Gray wrote on grand strategy—The Sheriff: America’s Defense of the New World Order­—wasn’t mentioned in Professor Milevsky’s article and, to me, that was just kind of, “Why not?” You know, this is seemingly one of his most thought-out expressions of grand strategy. Obviously he has—and I mentioned in footnote—I think he has some other essays peppered throughout his, you know, his gamut of whatever his pen touched.

He has a couple of essays, but he has an entire book here which dictates American grand strategy, which I think highlights some of those original concepts that I mentioned in my first critique: a distrust of global governance and of institutions, which he wrote about at length in another bloody century, but I think stems from his IR theory that I mentioned before, and that was really encapsulated in that article “Clausewitz Rules.” So I thought that that one salient point of “Why is Gray’s only book on grand strategy missing from an otherwise sweeping analysis of Gray’s grand strategic thought”—I thought was a point that ought to be raised.

Over to you, Lukas.

I don’t really consider The Sheriff to be a book of grand strategy or of statecraft. As a brief aside, I’m one of the people who separates the two concepts: grand strategy for war, statecraft for peace. But nonetheless, I don’t consider it either grand strategy or statecraft. Because, inherently, going by what I considered the most useful definition of either, which is encompassing all the instruments of power—The Sheriff doesn’t do that.

The Sheriff does not discuss all instruments of America’s power in the book. Rather, he’s very much talking about and focusing on military strategy, to some degree on defense planning, to some degree on defense policy. All of that combined with a vision of America’s role in the world—the titular sheriff’s role.

Now, granted, the vision thing: that’s very much American grand strategy concept, whereas the rest of it is basically military strategy and topics related to military strategy. So it’s just a thin slice of the breadth of grand strategy. So in this sense, I don’t think that Gray provided a grand strategic theory of success or theory of that for action in The Sheriff because it doesn’t encompass the full breadth of what grand strategy or statecraft are. It’s just, you know, a thin slice of that.


Phillip, final thoughts?


I really appreciate that reply.


No worries.


What are your final thoughts, Lukas?


My belief is that, ultimately, Gray simply didn’t engage with nonmilitary forms of power to the degree sufficient actually to write about grand strategy or to write to a grand strategic theory of success or grand strategic theory for action. And this isn’t a criticism of Gray because hardly anyone has done so throughout history. Liddell Hart famously referred to grand strategy as terra incognita.

And today, it still remains so because people aren’t studying this aspect of grand strategy. I am one of the only ones who has done so, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m anywhere near being an expert on anything which isn’t the military.

But this is also perhaps why we in the West tend to find grand strategy so difficult to do because we’re not thinking about the actual coordination of these various forms of power. We don’t know how to do it, and probably this is also why we were so surprised when, back in 2014, a long time ago now, it seemed like Russia did it so apparently well. We found that surprising because we’ve had a lot of trouble doing that, and then they seem to do it well. Whether that’s necessarily the case is a different question, of course, but, nonetheless, it’s just reflective of the study of grand strategy that people don’t engage with the full breadth—which because that is admittedly pretty damn hard.


I’m afraid we have to end it here, gentlemen. Thanks so much for your time and your insight.

Listeners, you can read more about what our guests have to say about “The Grand Strategic Thought of Colin S. Gray” at Look for volume 52, issue 2.

If you enjoyed this episode of Conversations on Strategy and would like to hear more, look for us on any of the major podcast platforms.


Author Information:

Phillip Dolitsky is a master’s student at the School of International Service at American University.

Dr. Lukas Milevski is an assistant professor at the Institute of History at Leiden University. He is the author of The West’s East: Contemporary Baltic Defense in Strategic Perspective (2018) and The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (2016).