Le’ Notes #4: The Politics of Grand Strategy

This post discusses strategy, grand strategy, and the influence of politics on strategy and defining the national interest.

What’s the difference between strategy and grand strategy? And what does politics have to do with it? More than you think.

Though we might be acquainted with “strategy” strictly in military terms, we have to accept that the word has fallen into abuse over and over again. And it’s got even more muddier ever since Liddell Hart came up with the definition of “grand strategy” as being the use of all national resources to achieve political objectives. So here, let’s talk about the politics of grand strategy, how it is formed, and how politics sometimes fail strategically.

 Before we begin, let’s get semantics out of the way.

When we talk about strategy, we refer to its usage in Clausewitzian terms, which is the use of force or threat of force to achieve a political objective. Note that Clausewitz talks solely about force, nothing else. That’s strategy in its purest form, the art of the general. If you’re looking for business strategy, I’m sorry but those businessmen have polluted the term.

When we talk about grand strategy, we’re talking about Liddell Hart’s definition, which refer to the utilization of national resources to achieve political objectives. See how Liddell Hart basically expands Clausewitz’s definition, from force (or threat of force) to practically everything a state can afford.

While we’re at it, “policy” should not be equated with strategy nor even grand strategy in any way. It’s true that these terms might be used interchangeably, but policy refers to an idealized statement of an objective. It is a goal, rather the means to achieve the goal. One should not confuse the means and the ends. We should also remember that policy is essentially one-sided. I can proclaim policy without considering what the other guy thinks. Whereas strategy is dialectical. I can’t just make up a strategy if there is no opposing strategy to oppose!

Now that the differences are clear, we can start talking about grand strategy and. When coming up with a strategy, we need to first equate ends and means. We need to first identify what political objective we want to achieve, and then figure how we want to get there. And to add to the work, we also need to figure out other people’s strategies relative to us. So how does that work?

First step, we need to understand what constitutes as our national interest. This nebulous term can refer to anything that a state is interested in, be that world peace or world destruction. Sondermann [no links available; 1977], define the national interest as “values held by some or all members of a society”. Nuechterlein [no links; 1979] moved from an ‘egotistic’ notion of the national interest as Sondermann held in favor of a more universalistic approach. Nuechterlein defined the national interest as “the perceived needs and desires of a sovereign state in relation to other sovereign states which constitute its external environment.” Notice how Nuechterlein includes the notion of other sovereigns. It shows that national interest is not only about yourself, but also about others. Nye [paywall] would build on Nuechterlein’s definition; the national interest as “the set of shared priorities regarding relations with the rest of the world.”

Now we know what the national interest is, how can we map it out? Luckily, Nuechterlein provides a handy tool for that called the national interest matrix.


The national interest matrix splits 4 broad categories of national interests, ranging from defence (which is understood primarily in a military sense), economic relations, diplomacy, and promotion of values. Each category is then cross-referenced with a priority level: survival — meaning that without this particular component, a state might not exist — to peripheral, meaning that we can still live without it and might just pursue it if we have the extra resources to spend.

Sounds easy right? Wrong.

Even though we now know what our national interests are and where they might lie, there’s now the problem of sorting out our priorities. Which national interest should come first? Which can be sacrificed for another, which one cannot be compromised at all? That is where the interplay between the human, social, and political dimension of the state comes in.

We often think that a political system is monolithic. That assumption is wrong. It is composed of many humans, each with their respective backgrounds, bound together by a political culture, and working or bitching together within the confines of a political system. More often than not, a national interest may be considered a vital interest simply because the many people in the political system think that it is such. There is also influence from culture, geography, and history. A state might choose to prioritize some interests above others because they (a) live in a particular geopolitical region, (b) have a belligerent/pacifist history, (c) have a culture of inclusiveness/exclusiveness.

That’s just the internal environment. According to Nuechterlein, we also need to consider the external environment. What are other states doing that we should or should not? Do we have similar or differing interests? What if their interests conflict with mine?

Good luck figuring that out.

The bells ring…

A quick summary:

  • There’s a difference between strategy and policy. Strategy is how to get there, policy is the destination.
  • Grand strategy and national interests are heavily influenced by politics, which is further influenced by societal, cultural, and historical factors.
  • National interests can either be constructed internally or externally.

References with no links:

  • Sondermann, Fred A. “CONCEPT OF NATIONAL INTEREST.” ORBIS-A JOURNAL OF WORLD AFFAIRS 21, no. 1 (1977): 121-138.

Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture and reading notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.


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