US Army War College

Dr. Lukas Milevski – “The Grand Strategic Thought of Colin S. Gray”

Released 10 January, 2022.

A titan of modern strategic studies, Colin S. Gray distinguished himself from other scholars in the field with his belief that grand strategy is indispensable, complex, and inherently agential. This article identifies key themes, continuities, conceptual relationships, and potential discontinuities from his decades of grand strategic thought. Gray’s statement that “all strategy is grand strategy” remains highly relevant today, emphasizing the importance of agential context in military environments—a point often neglected in strategic practice. Click here to read the article.

Episode Transcript:

Stephanie Crider (Host)
Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Lukas Milevski, an assistant professor at the Institute of History at Leiden University. He’s published The West’s East: Contemporary Baltic Defense in Strategic Perspective (2018) and The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (2016). He is the author of “The Grand Strategic Thought of Colin S. Gray,” featured in Parameters Winter 2021-22 issue.

I’m glad you’re here, Lukas. Thanks for joining me today. Let’s talk about your article. “The Grand Strategic Thought of Colin S Gray.”

Colin Gray, a Titan of modern Strategic Studies, often referred to grand strategy as equivalent to statecraft. War is more than a simple military contest, it inherently involves nonmilitary forms of power. Gray’s, conception of grand strategy contradicts the mainstream interpretation, particularly favored in the United States, in which grand strategy is identified as the Master of Policy. Walk us through Gray’s basic views on grand strategy.

Dr. Lukas Milevski
OK, well first of all, thank you for inviting me. Now there are four key features of Colin’s basic understanding of grand strategy which are worth emphasizing.

First grand strategy was in some ways a compromise, particularly between strategic studies characterized by the study of strategy, understood fairly strictly as military strategy, and security studies, which encompass security beyond military security— economic, environmental, human, etc.

So grand strategy therefore was a compromise between the necessity to focus on war in strategic studies and the recognition that war, and indeed security, is more than just warfare as waged by militaries.

Second, his personal definition of grand strategy is, and I’ll quote here. “The direction and use made of any or all among the total assets of a security community and support of its policy goals as decided by politics.”

Which he followed up by asserting that the theory and practice of grand strategy is the theory and practice of statecraft itself.

So, for Colin, grand strategy was clearly rather enormous concept in both theory and in practice, and one which did actually go beyond war itself. Given that he stated that grand strategy and statecraft are essentially synonymous.

Third,  grand strategy will  still strategy despite its enormity, means that it could be, had to be, and was understandable via the general theory of strategy, which he, throughout his career, sought to clarify ever further.

This means, among other things, that as much as military strategy needs to be conducted, performed, or whatever word you prefer. So too does grand strategy. So there’s performance and economic or financial sanctions. For example, just as much as , if quite different from, that found in military strategy.

That said, Colin didn’t really ever actually delve into how and nonmilitary power performed in application.

Fourth, and finally, grand strategy is indispensable. Any military strategic judgment is inherently a grand strategic judgment. And often judgments needs to be made which are grand strategic rather than narrowly military strategic. You know, not every threat or every policy problem is necessarily solvable with armed force. Or even if it is, that task may be more easily done in combination with other instruments.

Gray noted grand strategy undoubtedly is so close to policy that the two can seem indistinguishable. Can you clarify? What is the difference between the two?

I’ll try, certainly.

So the first thing to note about the distinction between grand strategy and policy, or even more broadly between strategy and policy, is that conceptual distinctions are rarely born out in organizational structure.

And this in turn means that organizational structure should not and cannot be used as an argument for or against particular conceptual distinctions. Otherwise, we can’t share concepts with other analogous organizations like within that the DoD or with other European ministries of defense, or even with our own past or our probable future and our organizations in those time periods.

So there is value in conceptual clarity, even if we also acknowledge that practice is liable to be messier. Because then we can develop theory, which both maintains clarity and is still useful in messy situations.

So, for example we can develop theory which embraces the ideal. That strategy should serve policy while acknowledging and incorporating the fact that often strategy can shape policy, and that this is, to some degree inevitable and not even necessarily bad. Or even that some might attempt to practice strategy in a policy vacuum and why those attempts are a bad idea.

So real-world might messiness can actually be very useful in developing and annunciating theoretical clarity.

So then coming back to the distinction between grand strategy and policy, Clausewitz observed that at higher levels, strategy slowly transforms into policy. Quoting from the Howard and Paret translation, “. . . the conduct of war in its great outlines is therefore policy itself, which takes up the sword in place of the pen.’

And he noted elsewhere that there’s no such thing as purely military advice, even though that sort of notion is quite attractive to military professionals.

Then we might add in the context of grand strategy, there’s similarly no such thing as purely economic, financial, diplomatic, or whatever, advice either.

This means that in considering and employing the instrumental value of these forms of power, policy is always present because these instruments are used to achieve policy.

So, policy may arguably be felt less in tactics than strategy, and even that’s not necessarily true, but fundamentally still present in one way or another. So the question is then, what does this mean for the distinction between grand strategy or even strategy in general, and policy, if policy permeates the whole conduct of war?

So the difference in conception, I would say between grand strategy and policy, is that the former does not set political goals to be achieved, whereas in the latter does.

Moreover, it is through policy that politicians demonstrate a political preference for particular instruments to be used, but it is up to grand strategy to determine first the details of that use in as much as that use is tactically viable and politically acceptable.

And second, ultimately, determining whether it is possible to fulfill the desired political goals using the instruments preferred by policy–or not–as the case may be.

Ultimately, theory needs to recognize that there is a dialogue, even if it is unequal, between grand strategy and policy.

The difference in practice, of course, is that organizations are not necessarily structured in ways which reflect these sorts of conceptual distinctions.

So when you look at practice, I would suggest that the main difference is really based on degrees of engagement with the particular responsibilities of grand strategy or policy. That is, the more one engages in deciding political direction and political preferences concerning the conduct of war, the more one is engaging with policy.

Conversely, the more one engages with reconciling tactical details in whatever field whether that’s military, economic, financial, whatever, with given political limitations, with imagining the political meaning of actions and in providing feedback from real practice back to policy as necessary, then one is doing grand strategy. And, of course, a single individual or single set of individuals can be doing all of this together.

But that’s not really a problem, because they can still be conceptually distinct.

So sort of to sum it up, grand strategy is still a relational. It’s still relates tactical actions and the details of the many forms of power to policy and political consequence.

Policy, on the other hand, is the director and to say it quite inelegantly, the “related to,” as it were.

Let’s end with this quote from your article Grays interpretation of grand strategy contains much potential conceptual depth yet to be explored, but which may further develop grand strategy as an idea. Can you give us an example?

Sure. So one example is the orchestration and combination of military and nonmilitary forms of power together into a single grand strategic effort.

What does it look like?

How do we do it?

Here in the West, we don’t really have that many good ideas on this issue. Now, this is something Colin didn’t explore in his writings, as I mentioned my article. And in fairness, it’s partly because it’s incredibly difficult to do so effectively. It requires understanding, even if not necessarily mastering, all the various forms of power–military, economic, financial, diplomatic, disinformation, etc. And then on top of that, imagining how they can fit together.

And this is an issue which has actually plagued grand strategy as a concept for more than a century. So this is not something which is unique to Gray’s thinking about grand strategy, although it’s certainly a part of it.

We can go back to the British maritime strategic theorist Julian Corbett or the British military thinker Basil Little Heart–both of whom emphasized the importance of multiple forms of power. But both of these men also did not explore how they actually work together.

And the grands strategic literature since their day has consistently, I think, avoided the topic even while invoking it as core to the very concept of grand strategy. And, indeed, we see this, you know, this expansive dimension appear even in numerous definitions of strategy per se, let alone grand strategy.

But we are not good at thinking about it, and therefore we’re not good at doing it. And both of these are demonstrated by our repeated reinvention of grand strategy to suit particular contexts.

So first, a couple decades ago, we reinvented grand strategy as the comprehensive approach in this specific context of counterinsurgency.

And then arguably failed to do it effectively. And then we reinvented it again in 2014 as hybrid warfare, when it turned out that the Russians had a pretty solid idea of how it worked and a pretty solid idea of how to do it. And they did it pretty well in Crimea. And in the process. They quite surprised us.

We know and can do combined arms.

We know why it’s a good thing to do. We know how to do it, etc. Similarly, if we take one step up, we know and can do joint warfare. We know why it’s a good thing to do. We know how to do it.

But when we take another step up to grand strategy and combining multiple forms of power rather than multiple forms of purely military power, we’re kind of lost. We have the sense of why it’s good in principle.

But we have little idea of how to do it. In part because we, at this stage, have little idea of how to think about it.

Because we have no real theory on how to combine these quite dissimilar forms of power together into a single effort. So this is something which both deserves and requires a good deal more attention than it has gotten in the past  more than a century now.

I enjoyed our time today. Thank you for chatting with me.