June 16, 2020

To many scholars and practitioners of international affairs, the word strategy engenders the names of the great military leaders and thinkers—Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Napoleon Bonaparte. Clausewitz, a Prussian general, provides the concept of strategy and conflict between states in his foundational anthology On War. Strategy, according to Clausewitz, “is the doctrine of the use of individual battles for the purposes of war.” So, what does the novel term grand strategy mean?

In late 2019, Richard Betts, who is the Leo A. Shifrin Professor of War and Peace Studies and Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies at SIPA, published “The Grandiosity of Grand Strategy” in the Washington Quarterly. Betts’s tongue-in-cheek title illustrates the fine rhetorical line between strategy and grand strategy—the latter being the larger approach of how and what a nation does with all means at its disposal to accomplish a particular set of objectives; the former is a set of schemes for using those means to win a war. Foreign policy refers to the overarching policy goals of a nation.

“Foreign policy is the wishes and grand strategy is the idea for how you make them come true,” Betts told SIPA News in a recent interview.

Betts’s storied career as a foreign-policy thinker includes stints as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; as a staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the National Security Council, and Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign; and as an occasional consultant to the National Intelligence Council and Central Intelligence Agency. His writing, including five books and numerous articles, has won the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association, among other prizes.

When considering the price of policy objectives in blood and treasure, Betts points out what may look good on paper, isn’t quite the same in reality.

“In practice, it is very hard to estimate what the costs will be; very often decisions are made by the seat of the pants, guesses. But in principle, you want to be able to accomplish what you want, at the least [possible] cost,” Betts said. "So there's a big gap between principle and practice.”

Every country wrestles with this struggle in grand strategy. Countries, like that of the United States, go through an arduous policy-planning process in both their diplomatic and military departments to develop strategy documents, but the world, and nature, gets a vote. The unforeseen events of a grave terrorist attack or a pandemic can immediately shift resources. As the poet Robert Burns is paraphrased, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

The other tension exists between efficiency and effectiveness. For countries, some objectives are worth accomplishing, even if they are inefficient. Betts provided an analogy that everyone can relate to. 

“Killing a fly with a sledgehammer, that’s not very efficient, but better than not killing the fly,” he said. “But half of the problem is: in international politics, it’s very seldom obvious how to do any of this or how to make choices.”

According to Betts, large democracies face multiple hurdles when implementing grand strategy. Among them is the organizational complexity of bureaucracy that every government, not just democracies, must deal with. Indeed, the notion of the “deep state”—meaning the legion of civil servants without political appointments—has gained notoriety over the past few years. But sidestepping bureaucratic impediments, real and perceived, can have both positive and negative consequences.

“That complexity means that you're likely to have more success if you take big risks by circumventing the process,” Betts said, “which in a certain sense is what Nixon and Kissinger did. Nixon was a veteran, high-level leader and knew if you let the normal process unfold, democracy would strangle itself.”

Today, with nationalist rhetoric in the mainstream and multilateralism arguably on its last legs, many pundits and scholars alike wonder if the world order is collapsing. But, Betts cautions, one should take a long view when seeking to understand the ebb and flow of political change.

“Hardly anything in terms of general tendencies turns out to be permanent national politics because they're cross to any movement and as they become evident, there is readjustment,” Betts said.

Daniel E. White MPA ’20