#Reviewing The Future of Strategy

The Future of Strategy. Colin S. Gray. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015.

“It can, and probably should, be a chilling realisation that the future of strategy in the twenty-first century will rest very much in people’s hands, minds, and emotions as much as it did in the 1910s and 1930s.”
—Colin Gray[1]

The central statement that strategy is a pervasive and enduring aspect of human history describes the theory, practice, and predictions surrounding the study of strategy posited by Colin Gray in his 2015 book, The Future of Strategy. This book is a useful start point for any student of strategy, strategic history, and for those who seek to understand its foundation, formulation, and fallibility. Gray ultimately offers that the future of strategy is contiguous, susceptible to the human condition, and a generally difficult enterprise in which to succeed. Nevertheless, he explains its definition, origins, and utility for the contemporary strategist.

In the first instance, Gray offers the foundation of strategy from the perspectives of both Carl von Clausewitz and Lawrence Freedman. He cites his difficulty with Freedman’s approach and ultimately sides with the Prussian foundational view. Gray suggests strategy and politics are inextricably linked and ties this to human motives through the enduring Thucydidean triptych of fear, honour, and interest; moreover, he offers that in the context of geography, there are some useful predictions of behaviour in understanding the culture of an adversary. Strategy’s evolution in the nuclear age, declares Gray, is a useful vehicle for viewing its future—a terrifying thought given the propensity for human error in strategy. The Future of Strategy is more than just a description of the subject’s transition into the next epoch, it posits a useful definition, a description of geography’s immutable influence, and the centrality of politics in the design and execution of strategy.

Establishing a useful definition for strategy is a strength in Gray’s work and sets the scene for deeper engagement with the subject—particularly in understanding the influences of geography and its inseparability from politics. In this sense, Gray describes that strategy is not politics but is always about it. He states, “We devise and have strategy because of our human needs, most especially for security, and strategy has to be made and to a degree executed, in a process that is always political in nature.”[2] This makes sense because political participation provides the mechanism for a polity to act, to enact or formulate a strategy—including the accompanying contention and negotiation resident in any modern political system.

…strategy is a system that enables functional cooperation (military included) among categorically distinctive behaviours (fear, honour, or interest) for advancing a common purpose relative to the interests of the stakeholders in a given polity.

The definition for strategy is threefold as described by Gray. First, he offers that of Freedman, though he largely disagrees with it: “Strategy is the central political art. It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest; it is the art of creating power.”[3] That strategy is an art is an important aspect of the definition and the resultant idea of power creation can be seen in the same vein as Posen-Cohen’s strategy as a theory of victory.[4] Gray employs Clausewitz’s approach echoed by Liddell Hart, that “strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war.”[5] Due to his preponderance of work on the subject, Gray comfortably highlights the military aspect of strategy whilst at the same time acknowledging the central importance of politics in his definition. Gray offers commentary on Germany’s disconnect between the military and political institutions, also described by Michael Geyer in his contribution to The Makers of Modern Strategy. Specifically, in neither the first nor the second World War did Germany have a strategy-making institution capable of guiding war in accord with political sense.[6] What can be discerned as a result of Gray’s initial exploration in the opening few chapters is that strategy is a system that enables functional cooperation (military included) among categorically distinctive behaviours (fear, honour, or interest) for advancing a common purpose relative to the interests of the stakeholders in a given polity. Gray’s caveat is that strategy is only valuable when it serves as the bridge between purpose and action with military force a primary actor.

The definition of strategy offered by Gray in this work then is this: “Military strategy is the direction and use of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics.”[7] Edward Luttwak has previously criticised any narrow military angle in defining strategy, but Gray counters that every challenge in strategic history has required an application of then contemporary military capability.[8] Gray’s definition is useful, particularly when he later describes the formulation of strategy as adversarial; the military nuances of the definition are self-evident. Helpfully, Gray illustrates what strategy is at a basic level: “Strategy should be thought of as the glue that holds together the purposeful activities of the state.”[9] Lastly, to link politics and military mechanisms within his definition, Gray offers the metaphor of strategy as the bridge between political purpose and military power.[10] With an effective definition and a useful metaphor, Gray offers a historical narrative on strategy regarding the enduring motivations of polities relative to human behaviour. He does this through reinforcement of Thucydides’ timeless truism.

In continually reinforcing the centrality of the influence of politics on strategy throughout his work, Gray emphasizes the human dimension. Underpinning the role of politics, he offers, is that of human motive. Nowhere is there a more enduring example of this than in the fatalistic story of Athens and Sparta. Gray states: “The terse judgement in Thucydides—fear, honour, and interest—has yet to be bettered.”[11] In deciphering the Thucydidean triptych, it is enough for the strategist to observe that every political community is motivated by its own fears, a sense of honour, and a relative view of its own interests. Plainly, a polity will act on one or a combination of these things to further its own interests. Both Robert B. Strassler’s and Donald Kagan’s work on Athenian strategy in the greater context of the Peloponnesian War support Gray’s view on the dominant role of politics in strategy: “The Athenian experience suggests that during times of war, when open debate must precede decision making and when the persuasion of relatively uninformed majorities is often required, democracies may find it harder to adjust to the necessities of war than less open societies.”[12] Kagan observed that open and unfettered discourse was one aspect of Athenian strategy heralding their defeat. Strassler captures the powerful dialogue of Athens’ Mytilenian Debate as one illustrative example supporting Kagan’s observation. With a definition established and the enduring nature of human motive founded in timeless Thucydidean logic, Gray offers another useful way to derive understanding of strategy.

Gray’s approach to illustrating strategy as inextricably linked to politics is reinforced through his enhancement of Arthur F. Lykke’s model of strategy comprising ends, ways, and means.[13] Gray offers that the addition of assumptions underpinning strategy will increase the fidelity of Lykke’s triptych and provide a better understanding.[14] Gray’s model, which builds upon that of Lykke, therefore becomes: ends, ways, means, and assumptions.[15] As a brief example, the 1942 execution of Operation Barbarossa in the Second World War could be seen as one in which the limitless policy ends required by Hitler and the available military means of the Wehrmacht led to the failure of German strategy against the Soviet Union. The addition of accurate assumptions related to the resolve of the Soviets in a city like Stalingrad or at Kursk may have assured the Nazis of a different outcome. The illustration of the “Gray Model” is the second most useful aspect of this book behind the definition of strategy itself.

Sir Halford John Mackinder (Wikimedia)

There are two other aspects of strategy Gray seeks to characterize for the reader, a definition of grand strategy and the timelessness of geography in its influence over strategy. In describing grand strategy, Gray states, “This ambitious concept aspires to provide guidance and control over all the assets of a polity for the purpose of achieving a collective effort of a large-scale strategic effect.”[16] This definition is essentially the macro version of the previously offered military-centric version. It offers more depth to the formulation of strategy in theory, provided the polity can marshal other means and more expansive ways on a greater scale in the pursuit of the purpose. Linked to grand strategy is Gray’s emphasis on geography: “Geography, both objective and subjective, explains more about a polity’s national security issues than any other factor.”[17] He identifies interesting commonality between theorists Mackinder and Spykman, though he is more a disciple of Mackinder, and posits that both theorists identified problems (in challenges to strategic world orders) and located political and strategic solutions that are highly relevant today.[18] Based on the two theorists, Gray offers the relevance for geography as a significant influence in formulating strategy, and to a greater extent, grand strategy.

Gray’s work on the foundations and future of strategy is extremely useful to those seeking both a definition and the common influences such as motive and politics on its formulation. The Future of Strategy provides this in spades. The first five chapters of this book provide the reader with a recap of his earlier work and a useful foundation for the reader without introducing much else new. This is not to say that there is nothing more to say; rather, Gray simply covers old ground in fewer pages. His assertion that the core of strategy is about consequences rather than an innate quality or quantity is germane to any conversation on strategy. This work is also an excellent on-ramp to his 2005 book, Another Bloody Century, illustrating strategy in the context of the next century framed in both geography and great power conflict—the narrative on the Sino-Soviet bloc is especially disconcerting in this work. If the conflict-rife future isn’t enticing enough or a lack of  inclination to chew through Gray’s style of prose begins to engulf the reader, Gray’s persistent connections to Thucydides and theorists such as Mackinder and Liddell Hart provide the foundation for the more curious to explore the topic of strategy in an historically enduring and much deeper sense.

Peering into the future in the closing chapter of The Future of Strategy, Gray posits there are two aspects of the contemporary world that will seek to influence strategy. First, the last seventy (or so) years of the nuclear age proposes a model for the future in the persistent need to offer deterrence, but Gray is a skeptic with respect to the calculus of deterrence in that it couldn’t possibly offer a steadfast guarantee of security. Gray also notes that the sheer destructiveness would simply overwhelm models of strategy as it is unlikely a polity should seek the outright destruction of the Earth as a self-professed end. Second, the cyber domain offers potential in the formulation of strategy, but the means and ways at this point appear murky.

For Gray, the future of strategy has to be seen and understood as nesting in a great (and hopefully) unending stream of time which may be too esoteric for the casual reader. His practical assertion that action in pursuit of policy always requires assistance in the form of behaviour guided by strategy is likely to be more appealing. Through Gray’s definition of strategy, the timeless application of Thucydidean motives, and an understanding of the immutable influences of geography and politics, any prospective student of strategy is well equipped to enter any debate on the future direction of the national interest.

Von Lambert is an Australian Army officer attending the U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting. The views offered here are his own and do not reflect any official positions.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: The Cau Vang, or Golden Bridge, at Ba Na Hills, Vietnam (Sun World Ba Hills)


[1] Colin Gray, The Future of Strategy. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 5.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] Ibid, 20.

[4] Jeffrey W. Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy,” Parameters 46:4 (Winter 2017), 84.

[5] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, second revised edition (New York: Meridian, 1967), 319.

[6] Michael Geyer. “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare: 1914 – 1945” in Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 529.

[7] Gray, The Future of Strategy, 21.

[8] Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1987), 180.

[9] Gray, The Future of Strategy, 23.

[10] Ibid, 21.

[11] Ibid, 16.

[12] Donald Kagan, “Athenian Strategy in the Peloponnesian War,” in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Bernstein, eds., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 55.

[13] Arthur F. Lykke, Jr., “Defining Military Strategy,” Parameters 69:5 (May 1989), 3.

[14] Gray, The Future of Strategy, 10.

[15] Ibid., 31. Figure 2.2

[16] Ibid., 83.

[17] Ibid., 84.

[18] Ibid., 92.