Searching for Strategy…and Finding it in the Most Likely Place

Strategy is really not that hard. That may seem strange given the mountain of monographs, White Papers, and policy briefs generated over the years debating the direction the ship of state has headed, or as some charged in recent years, if we even had a ship left at all. Yet despite the deluge of discussions, consensus about what good strategy looks like remains elusive, and any reasonable measure of effectiveness of those efforts seems to indicate persistent and pervasive failure. Many fault poor implementation, a failure to go deep enough into “whole of government” with otherwise winning strategies. More damning are the criticisms that underlying strategic assumptions have failed to make sense of complex human values and interests. Still others lay the blame at the decision-makers themselves, or at the very least, their information gatekeepers who lacked strategic vision, narrowed instead by parochial myopia. As frequently as those critiques have come up in the past, what if instead the issue lies at a more fundamental level, and that once clarified, it could provide the guidance needed to make strategy possible in the first place?

Strategy need not be grand, integrated, or subdivided into relative priorities for operational implementation. Instead, strategy is quite simple, and the search for it can go no further than the core interests defining past, present and future US relations in an area. Now at this point, shrill voices of dissent and derision will arise from the established members of strategy generating / debating / never-resolving cliques. “Of course it is centered on those interests, but what are they”, they say, diving headfirst into championing approaches based on their feasibility rather than coherence to enduring values and interests. As such, while necessary, the question’s parameters miss the point by focusing distinctly on the how of strategy, rather than the what of strategy, and thus miss the strategic core.

Herein lies the central problem of the contemporary malaise about strategy – we have mistaken the end state for the processes to get there. So much of the debate within both scholarly and practitioner circles centers on the infeasibility of a goal’s implementation, rather than the goal’s basic attributes. Yet a constant refrain across interagency gatherings is the need to define strategic goals before jumping into how to do them. So instead of debating the nature of enduring interests in Europe for example, pundits draw their intellectual and professional boundary lines about how those goals get played out in the real world. That debate should come, but later, after identifying the core that cuts across organizational paradigms and theoretical models to find the simple truths that underlie all of them. The same can be said of the policy process itself; defining the problem must come before proposing solutions, and certainly before attempting to sell them to stakeholders based on feasibility.

Herein lies the central problem of the contemporary malaise about strategy – we have mistaken the end state for the processes to get there.

In lieu of putting the cart before the horse and pushing it down the hill, looking back on US strategic history instead reveals a few central, common threads, which are so basic as to seem underwhelming given the enormity of the task of setting them into practice. Their simplicity contrasts even more greatly with the stakes of getting it wrong in a conflict prone, complex environment of domestic, international, and transnational threats. If true, and strategy is not as hard as we make it to be, why then do we so often hear the mournful refrain that strategic discussions fail to produce effective strategy? Again, the answer is more straightforward than the weightiness of the issues would show.

At the core of strategic discussions lie organizational paradigms that play out in the bureaucratic norms and practices driving selection of personnel, as well as socialization of members populating and reinforcing that worldview. Like corporate marketing strategies designed to move browsers to become consumers, to then marketers themselves, these paradigms exist across the spectrum of organizational interests and agendas. In the national security enterprise, these paradigms appear as both criticism of other agencies’ procedures (read often as anecdotal failures), and of one’s own organizational shortcomings (the proverbial self-licking ice cream cone). Yet, rather than bemoan this as another apparent failure of whole of government efforts, attention should instead focus on the ways these assessments help to identify the core attributes across those paradigms.

As such, the Department of Defense falls back on age-old mantras of needing, but not wanting stove piping. State turns on its own woes of necessarily byzantine diplomatic cable clearance procedures. The intelligence community relies on sometimes hyper-compartmentalization as part of its raison d’etre. Yet none of this is surprising, new, or even undesirable in a sense, despite examples of catastrophic failure like the oft-mentioned Desert One mission to rescue American hostages held illegally in Tehran. As bad as that event was, it also spurred on the creation of greater coordination around core tasks and mechanisms, eventually leading to two of the best examples of cross-organizational strategic implementation – JSOC and SOCOM after it. Those entities do not exist in contradiction to bureaucratic paradigms, nor in spite of them, but rather as expressions of this “specialization of woes” that makes the constituent implementation efforts adaptable. Each element must grapple with its own core tasks while rubbing up against the interagency, often generating sparks but rarely actual fires to burn down cooperation.

Like a systems engineer who oversees the integration of all the connected, but still autonomous systems at a water treatment facility, strategic systems engineers know each element as it relates to the others.

However, despite the progress those endeavors have produced, something critical is still missing – the precursory perspective that sees underneath those organizational paradigms and the tools to implement them in order to find the core binding all others together. Like a systems engineer who oversees the integration of all the connected, but still autonomous systems at a water treatment facility, strategic systems engineers know each element as it relates to the others. Critically, this function neither replaces the deep knowledge and functionality of the constituent parts, nor does it override the paradigms of guiding logic and resource requirements of the same. Instead, the purpose is to harmonize the core elements for a set of core goals. This inside-out perspective is a first step to the strategic core because it sees bureaucratic conflict as inevitable and necessary iron sharpening iron.

  The remains of a burned-out U.S. helicopter and an abandoned chopper in the eastern desert of Iran on April 27, 1980, after the aborted American commando raid to free U.S. Embassy hostages | AP.

The remains of a burned-out U.S. helicopter and an abandoned chopper in the eastern desert of Iran on April 27, 1980, after the aborted American commando raid to free U.S. Embassy hostages | AP.

Practically speaking, this impacts one of the core analytical frameworks for the national security apparatus – DIME (Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic elements of power). Attempting to find sufficient, but not all-inclusive traction within the complex, adaptive systems of domestic and international relations, DIME focuses on diplomatic, information, military and economic factors. Given the bureaucratic specialization of the US government, one ought not to be surprised then, when rival agencies emphasize different letters to their advantage. Yet this very practice almost universally gets raked over coals during the self-flagellation that so often characterizes interagency sessions designed to address problems that cut across all four realms. That refrain echoes at all stages of the strategy pipeline, from intelligence community workshops identifying threats, diplomatic simulations detailing the complexities of the context for engagement, and military assessments for putting strategy into effect in hostile environments.

In addition to the universal criticisms though, the “solution” also comes across as clearly from wargames on post-ISIS Syria, to seminars exploring counters to Russian hybrid warfare in Eastern Europe. Accordingly, rather than emphasize the need for one track over all others, the solution highlights the need to level each of the factors and bring them back into balance. For certain, participants regularly acknowledge that imbalances can and must exist at times, most notably with the growing threat from North Korea. However, across the discussions is a clear message that one element needs much greater emphasis as both the foundation for further activities, and as the glue that holds all elements together for both domestic and international stakeholders. As such, information and influence is the core that connects the whole of government approach, and define the paradigmatic foundations of the various bureaucracies functioning within it.

Given the bureaucratic specialization of the US government, one ought not to be surprised then, when rival agencies emphasize different letters [of DIME] to their advantage.

Therefore, despite the high level of bureaucratization in the US strategic community, the substance of the strategic core still revolves around two basic elements that bind both the epochs of strategy, and the organizational cultures performing it. These two reside in the realm of great power statecraft as much as democratic governance, what has been labeled “principled realism”. Quite simply then, the underlying core has been and will continue to be growth and a preference for partnerships with like-minded partners. Obviously deviations occur, some with long-standing consequences, as in support for dictatorships during the Cold War or aiding insurgencies that turn around and attack their former partners. Yet overall, the strategic core has endured across geographic regions and transnational issues.

Considering broad, internally diverse cases like European relations, the core looks like 1) keeping NATO as a functioning tool of US statecraft, 2) ensuring favorable relations in the region to foster US economic growth, and 3) supporting partner democratic countries in their defense against rising Russian attempts to undermine all of the above. Syria’s “war of all against all” is another central issue on the docket of many interagency discussions, largely because it is a key crucible of Middle East politics in the midst of declining US dependence on fuel supplies from the region. Given those parameters, the core presents itself as A) support for proto-democratic entities – be they state or non-state groups – as they build governance capacity, but with the clear caveat that support remains contingent so long as they continue on the path of developing both effectiveness and responsiveness over time. Equally important is B) communicating clear non-negotiable issues for adversaries and erstwhile partners alike, i.e. preventing the elimination of the aforementioned groups’ existential security. Doing the latter in Syria is as critical there as bolstering European allies and partners’ confidence vis-a-vis Russia, since both communicate the essence of what US support really has to offer. Doing so in the contested “Phase 0” arena of the Gray Zone, with its ever-possible competition short of armed conflict, is equally necessary if the United States is to succeed in the long-term struggles of a Democratic Great Power.

Beyond those basic premises, strategy enters the business of statecraft, with all the concomitant subtleties of strategic clarity for deterrence sake, while preserving strategic ambiguity to retain initiative. At the same time, the apparent obviousness of these claims does not mean debates do not immediately arise about how to accomplish both growth and security through partnerships. Those debates should arise, and ought to include vigorous disagreements about engagement vs. retrenchment, rule of law, universal norms vs. sovereign choice, and so on. Yet critically important for strategy is situating those kinds of debates in the proper stage of strategy – they belong in the implementation stage, rather than definition of the core itself, which must come first.

Staging the debates in this way also enables effective strategic communication, the key “I” element of strategy. Highlighting the core to domestic audiences, as well as international partners and rivals, does several things. First, it allows for those few elements that have always defined the United States to come back to the fore. In the face of continued efforts by revolutionary forces within, many of whom are supported, if not actively directed by external adversaries, the strategic core reminds the citizens of this nation what has held us together for more than two centuries of deeply divisive policy debates and outright hatred at times. The strategic core communicates the message of E Pluribus Unum, while acknowledging the necessary debates on what that one voice will look like. The Republic has built in mechanisms to handle those disputes, principally through the means of majority rule while enshrining every citizen’s rights. This in itself is a core bulwark against revolutions that seek to undermine and tear apart the essence of the Republic. In that regard, effective and responsive governance are key strategic tools, and communicating them as reference points should be the hallmark of information approaches.

If the domestic “down and in” approach can help to inoculate American citizens from foreign influence operations, the international “up and out” reminds allies and adversaries what they can expect from US efforts.

Equally fundamental has been the expectation of growth in both influence and territory, along with expanding citizens and concepts of citizenship along the way. From a strategic vantage then, these concepts rely on an underlying assumption of partnering with like-minded members, as much for domestic unity as for international relations, and thereby reminding everyone who we are. By doing so, communicating harmony of the strategic core at both of those levels reinforces the glue that binds us together, thus working to counter those who seek to tear us apart.

In that regard, strategic communication of the core holds a second imperative – anchoring expectations for US policy in spite of the vacillations that are becoming ever more frequent in the election cycle. If the domestic “down and in” approach can help to inoculate American citizens from foreign influence operations, the international “up and out” reminds allies and adversaries what they can expect from US efforts. This matters for everything from effective deterrence against peer competitors, to democratic development assistance for those emerging into a brighter future. For this messaging to work though, the message must be repeated regularly, but also more importantly, repeated as the reference point – the core – for all policy discussions.

Yet for all its apparent simplicity, many still ask if any of this possible in today’s divided, wild-pendulum-swinging national discourse. Across parties, organizational cultures, and bureaucratic platforms, they wonder if the organs of state are capable and willing to see through their paradigms to the undergirding foundations that unite them into a whole government, rather than just facile attempts at a whole of approach.

I believe the answer to both critical questions is a resounding “yes” for the simple fact that the United States has weathered these kinds of slings and arrows before. The mechanisms of conflict resolution strain to the limit at times, but they have not broken, even when the final resolution has been the lamentable effusion of blood on the tree of liberty. Given that historic reassurance amidst the newly reinvigorated National Security Strategy, the view from a scholar’s perspective – quite literally an outsider on the inside of government – reveals an array of deeply talented people with equal measures of devotion to the Glorious Cause, as courage to face the challenges of our time.

In the end, that will be enough to weather these storms, and continue shining as a beacon of lives worth living, liberty worth defending, and a pursuit of happiness that blesses others as well as ourselves.


Spencer B. Meredith III, PhD is a professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. With two decades of research and work on post-Soviet regions and the Middle East, his expertise bridges scholarly and practitioner communities as he advises several DOD, interagency, and joint special operations efforts. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or US Government.


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Header Image: Zhou Enlai, left, and Henry Kissinger in Beijing in 1971 | Henry Kissinger Archives, Library of Congress