What Strategic Studies Need

Adam Elkus has provided a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing discussion of the relationship between academic political science and its application in government. He focuses on strategy studies, which are often nonexistent or poorly done. I am one of those maverick bloggers Adam mentions. I did not learn strategy in a college course.

I am neither an academic nor a government practitioner. Most of my career addressed technical issues related to policy: the nuclear fuel cycle and proliferation, destroying materials under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, demilitarizing nuclear weapons, environmental cleanup, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Occasionally I worked on policy directly. Not all of what I did made it into the public record. Some of it probably made its way to government decision-makers.

My graduate degree of many years ago is in chemistry. I taught chemistry in a university for a year and am on the Board of Trustees of a liberal-arts college. My training in strategy began at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, from two expert mentors. Additionally, a good friend with expertise in community organizing and other social activism taught me a lot.

From that idiosyncratic mix, I’d like to present some observations and conclusions about strategy and how it might be taught.

Everyone does strategy, all the time.  Strategy is figuring out how to get from here to there. It may literally be figuring out the best route home from work. It is more difficult when it includes changing other people’s minds or getting things done despite them. Although everyone does strategy, not all are good at it. “Maybe I can get her interest by showing her how wrong she is about that.” A strategy, but unlikely to achieve its goal.

Strategy uses facts, logic, and intuition. It is not a strictly academic or quantitative subject. Since everyone uses it, everyone develops their own methods. Commonalities can be discerned among those methods, and some can be seen to be more successful than others. The context in which a strategy is applied is critical. Such matters could be part of a research program on strategy.

Military strategy is a special case of strategy.  One of my mentors loved extracting strategy from Civil War battles. “A battle is such a clean example of strategy – you either live or die.” His purpose in extracting those strategies was to apply them to much more difficult organizational life. Likewise, strategies for governance and foreign relations are special cases. They can draw from and contribute to business and social activism strategies.

Strategy development must explore multiple possible outcomes. With every tremble in the Middle East, we are assured that the application of force or militarized delineation of “safe zones” will end the conflict. That single straight line to a poorly-thought-out ending has not worked well for the past decade and more. Likewise, analysis of past actions too often admonishes that if the author’s preferences were followed, the goal would have been won. Seldom are the ways the author’s preferences could have gone wrong considered. A strategist must game out many possible outcomes. Red teams are helpful, but habits of mind are essential.

Those with power use different strategies than those without power.  Peter Thiel employs his wealth to attack a perceived enemy, something few can do. Suicide bombing is the tool of the weak. Building trust and helping others builds power. Power includes the privilege of white skin, nationality, gender, ethnicity. Those with less power or privilege must learn different strategies if they are to succeed. Setting strategic goals may be similar for those with and without power, but the tools with which a strategy is built are different. Nonviolent action was used to great effect in India, the American civil rights movement, and in separating the Baltic States from the Soviet Union. I asked an Estonian friend why they decided on nonviolence. “They had the tanks,” he said.


Academic courses in strategy usually focus on military or national strategy. The strategy of military battles is a highly stylized form of strategy. It can be useful for deriving generalizations, but it is by no means the most difficult application of strategy. In contrast, Lawrence Freedman includes a variety of applications of strategy in his History of Strategy. If strategy is something we all do all the time, there are an enormous number of examples and insights. Crosscutting studies open up new possibilities.

To winnow out strategies for particular applications, students must learn to ask questions. How analogous are the situations? Are we dealing with power, logistics, or something else? Do we need a strategy to answer a question or to accomplish a goal? What effects and side effects is the strategy likely to produce? How can they be dealt with?

A strategy course would emphasize the need for background information from other disciplines: history, political science, physical, biological, and social science, game theory, military tactics, and ethics. Analytical thinking, as developed across a good general curriculum, would be essential. The best way to integrate all this might be through the use of case histories.

History yields case studies relating to war and governance. Political science provides frameworks for categorizing the situations of history and generalizing from them. Psychology and other social sciences provide behavioral frameworks and case studies relevant to war and governance, business and social activism. Logic and game theory are directly applicable. Strategy is always entangled with ethical issues.

Physical science provides develops the student’s appreciation for the inexorability of hard fact. Carbon dioxide and water cannot be made into fuels unless you put more energy into converting them than you will get out of the fuels produced. Period. No exceptions for magic catalysts or special conditions. Live with it. Geography is similarly unyielding; the land of the Finns will always be adjacent to the land of the Russians.

The social sciences develop an appreciation for the malleability of fact and the importance of framing. Both physical and social sciences, at advanced levels, teach experimental design, a blend of analysis and synthesis that can be applied to developing and testing strategies.

The fact that power influences strategy design implies that the experience of those without power – in the United States, mainly women and people of color, yields insight. Conversely, it is useful for them to learn the strategies of the empowered so that they become better strategists.

Of course the classics of strategy would figure in such a course. Although both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are directed toward war, their precepts are applicable widely. It’s always useful to measure new insights against the classics. Society and technology have changed since those classics were written, opening new strategies as well as new ways to use old strategies.

The biggest problem: a course like I’ve described doesn’t easily fit in any of the standard university departments. Professors from a variety of disciplines could teach it. The best would be fully capable of teaching courses in their home disciplines. Strategy needs a broad understanding of many things. But universities and departments are wary of such a many-faced thing.


This isn’t an exhaustive course description, but rather indicates aspects that might be incorporated into a course on strategy. Such a course could help students to design a strategy to get policy-makers to listen to them. Or to be able to understand the decision-makers’ strategies and why they don’t listen.


Photo is of the Baltic Chain, August 23, 1989. Two million people in Soviet Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined hands from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius to draw world attention to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, signed on that date in 1939. More here.

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