Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History draws out the need for strategy to be consistent with the enduring nature of war.

Review Essay

Strategy: A History

Lawrence Freedman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. £25.00. 751pp.

In Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College London and author of many books, asks rhetorically, ‘can the same word apply to battle plans, political campaigning, and business deals – not to mention means of coping with the stresses of everyday life – without becoming meaningless?’ (p. x). In The Direction of War, historian Hew Strachan provides an answer: ‘the word strategy has acquired a universality which has robbed it of meaning, and left it only with banalities’.1

This is not merely an academic problem; it is a danger. Incomplete plans disconnected from the problems they are ostensibly meant to address masquerade as strategies and establish a deceptive rationale for folly. Loss of precision in the word strategy has encouraged in the West a narcissistic approach to national security; ‘strategies’ are frequently based on what the purveyor prefers rather than what the situation demands. Although Lawrence Freedman’s effort at ‘an account of the most prominent themes in strategic theory’ might compromise precision for comprehensiveness, readers should not be disappointed. Freedman’s discourse, organised into five parts, spans the early history of strategy, military affairs, radical and revolutionary movements, business and interdisciplinary theories of strategy. The ability to craft and execute effective strategy is increasingly vital to national and international security because, as Henry Kissinger observes in the introduction to World Order, we may be ‘facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future’.2 Freedman has provided readers with a valuable resource for engaging with a vital subject in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.

Readers may wish to bring their own definitions of strategy to Freedman’s book as an aid to engaging his work purposefully and, perhaps, selectively. Those reading from the perspective of diplomacy and international security might consider the simple definition taught in the US military’s professional education system: strategy is the intelligent identification, utilisation and coordination of resources (ways and means) for the successful attainment of a specific objective (end). However, as Beatrice Heuser points out in her seminal work, The Evolution of Strategy, strategy depends on ‘variables’ – one’s own political aims, the enemy’s political aims and others, all partly interconnected, ‘making the whole equation even more complicated’.3 As Tami Davis Biddle teaches students at the US Army War College, a failure to consider the variables that complicate the linkage between ends, ways and means risks producing ‘little more than an organizational mantra, an overly-optimistic assertion about the ability of a particular instrument of power to effect a specific outcome, or a facile claim about opportunities presented by an adversary’s presumed weaknesses’.4

Elements of strategy

Armed with a definition of the core concept and an appreciation for variables that affect success or failure, readers will be prepared for Freedman’s discussion of strategy’s elemental factors. Freedman begins as Quincy Wright began his 1942 magnum opus, A Study of War, with warfare between animals. His analysis of that topic – as well as strategy depicted in the Bible, John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and the writings of ancient Sun Tzu and Niccolò Machiavelli – leads him to observe that deception, coalition formation and the instrumental use of violence are features endemic to strategy. For Freedman ‘the point about Sun Tsu was not that he offered a winning formula for all situations but that he offered an ideal type of a particular sort of strategy, based on outsmarting the opponent rather than overwhelming him with brute force’ (p. 46). From his discussion of Machiavelli in the sixteenth century to his critique of William H. Riker’s twentieth-century use of social-choice theory to understand political coalitions, Freedman emphasises understanding each party’s interests as essential to coalition cohesion. Interests determine how coalition members will use violence or the threat of violence in combination with other means to achieve desired outcomes.

Readers might use these enduring elements to reflect on contemporary strategies. They might question, for example, the contemporary practice of announcing the details of military strategies – and resources applied to those strategies – publically and years in advance. Readers might also consider how a better understanding of the interests of the various parties to conflicts, such as those in the greater Middle East, could establish the foundation for a more coherent multinational approach to regional problems. And Freedman’s analysis might also inspire contemplation of apparent disconnects between the instrumental use of violence and objectives in recent and ongoing conflicts.

Part Two of the book begins with an analysis of Napoleonic warfare, and the nineteenth-century writings of Carl von Clausewitz and his French rival, Antoine-Henri Jomini. It ends with a critique of those who in the late 1990s and early 2000s promoted concepts such as the revolution in military affairs and fourth-generation warfare. Across that broad sweep Freedman emphasises the centrality of politics. Observing that both ‘Jomini and Clausewitz understood that the objective of war came from outside the military sphere’, Freedman’s examination of strategies of force reveals that ‘if the broader political consequences of war were difficult to anticipate, then the military was likely to be left exploring its own tangible goals without regard to the broader context’ (p. 95). The neglect of the political nature or context of war is a common cause of strategic failures – as well as a common flaw in theories that often contribute to those failures.

Freedman draws out the need for strategy to be consistent with the enduring nature of war. He focuses on Clausewitz’s theory of war, especially the need for strategy to be grounded in war’s political nature and to regard war fundamentally as the continuation of policy by other means. A grounding in clear political objectives is essential if strategy is to ‘impose a semblance of rationality’ on war (p. 86). But Freedman also acknowledges war’s resistance to rationality, and its tendency towards uncertainty. Uncertainty in war is based on interactions between opposing wills that, when combined with violence, chance and emotion, make the future course of events impossible to predict. Strategy, therefore, must adapt to changing conditions. His point is consistent with Strachan’s observation in a 2008 Survival essay that ‘what begins as one sort of war can turn into another’.5 Although Freedman’s Clausewitzian emphasis on politics and uncertainty in war is not novel, his argument is important because it serves as a corrective to a contemporary failing – specifically, the tendency to assume that enemies and adversaries will cooperate with plans and thereby ensure linear progress toward strategic objectives.

The book gains contemporary policy relevance in revealing how a neglect of these factors can undermine both strategy in war and defence planning for future armed conflict. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, gaps between prior visions of future warfare and the nature of the eventual wars themselves complicated efforts to adapt strategy over time. Minimalist, linear plans – in place at the outset of both wars – were disconnected from the ambition of broader policy objectives and the complexity of the operating environment. Indeed, recent war plans have, at times, been essentially narcissistic, failing to account for interactions with determined enemies and other complicating variables. In extreme cases, plans were based on the assumption that a war would end with the disengagement of one party to the conflict.

Neglecting the political dimension of war ignores the need to consolidate military gains and reduces war to a targeting exercise. It also undermines defence planning, building vulnerabilities into future armed forces such that those forces are unable to either prevent conflict or respond to threats to national security. As Colin Gray has argued, only after embracing the political nature of armed conflict as well as the lack of ‘evidence about the future from the future’ can planners begin to plan defence intelligently.6 In short, Freedman’s analysis builds on Clausewitz’s advice that strategists not try to turn war into ‘something that is alien to its nature’.7

Freedman highlights Clausewitz’s genius in understanding the limitations of rational policy and sound strategy as they compete with the ‘blind natural forces of “violence, hatred and enmity”’ to shape the future (p. 94). These natural forces relate to other important continuities in the nature of war: the human dimension, and war as a contest of wills. Successful strategy depends on ‘a sustained act of will, required in order to master its terrible uncertainties and resulting from human frailties and the capricious impact of chance’ (p. 92). Freedman uses the Athenian statesman Pericles to emphasise that ‘the ability to persuade not only one’s people but also allies and enemies was a vital attribute of the successful strategist’ (p. 23). He describes Napoleon as the leader who, in the modern era, unleashed popular passion in the conduct of war (p. 70).

Here, readers might reflect on how the lack of popular emotion towards – or even interest in – contemporary wars may place at risk the effectiveness and integrity of the military instrument in the service of strategy. As Christopher Coker wrote in The Warrior Ethos, ‘If we become what we sing, today we sing in minor key. The muse is beginning to fail us.’8 It seems possible that the West’s lack of passion for its wars not only risks separating society from those who fight in its name, but also risks undermining the warrior ethos of shrinking professional militaries. Freedman quotes Tolstoy to make the point that it is not only the decisions of leaders or the strength of military forces, but also the ‘sum of individual wills’ that determine the outcome of war (p. 99). In Part Three, Freedman considers the importance of popular will in sustaining strategies for achieving political and social change over time. He describes efforts to influence popular thought and behaviour through mass media, propaganda of the deed and, today, social media and the Internet. His focus on the role of popular will in strategy reflects Richard Betts’ observation that:

Strategy is the essential ingredient for making war either politically effective or morally tenable. It is the link between military means and political ends, the scheme for how to make one produce the other. Without strategy, there is no rationale for how force will achieve purposes worth the pride in blood and treasure.9

It is in their inherent moral components that recent Western strategies may be deficient. What percentage of the populations in countries engaged in the 14-year effort in Afghanistan could even name the three main Taliban groups with whom their soldiers have been engaged? The professed war-weariness among populations who have sent only a small percentage of their sons and daughters to fight in recent wars may derive from a failure to communicate effectively what is at stake in those wars and explain why the efforts are worthy of the risks, resources and sacrifices necessary to sustain the strategy.

Art not science

Freedman uses Winston Churchill’s war leadership to reinforce the importance of sound strategy and clarity of purpose in sustaining such popular will. Aware of the political and human nature of war, Churchill regarded strategy as an art rather than a science, observing that ‘there must be an all-embracing view which presents the beginning and the end, the whole and each part, as one instantaneous impression retentively and untiringly held in the mind’ (p. 141). A clearly defined objective or goal is essential if leaders are to communicate an ‘all-embracing view’ of strategy. Strategic goals in recent wars, however, have been ambiguous. This ambiguity is due, in part, to a belief that one can achieve acceptable outcomes in war without a commitment to winning. Because war is a competition – a competition involving life and death, and in which the nation’s security or vital national interests are at stake – it seems obvious that establishing an objective other than winning may not only be counterproductive and wasteful, but also, under certain circumstances, unethical. Winning, however, does not require commitment to unconditional surrender, or the lifting of all restrictions on force applied or resources committed. What winning must entail is a rational determination to achieve a sustainable outcome, usually a political outcome, consistent with vital interests.

Thus, working out how to achieve sustainable favourable outcomes is also critical to thinking about future armed conflict, as becomes clear from Freedman’s discussion of strategic concepts from the American Civil War to the Second World War. The First World War, for example, is used to highlight the danger of military operations becoming disconnected from policy in the pursuit of ‘decisive victory’. Freedman observes that ‘it was one thing to have a strategy for swift military action that would deal the enemy a knockout blow. But if the enemy survived then there were no compelling strategies for what came next’ (p. 115).

Such insights may prove helpful in avoiding the mistakes of the 1990s, when defence planners once again promised swift military victory because they confused emerging military technologies with strategy. As the US Department of Defense pursues an ‘offset strategy’ designed to develop asymmetric advantages through the development of advanced technologies (such as robotics and system autonomy, miniaturisation, big data, unmanned autonomous strike aircraft, a next-generation bomber and undersea warfare systems), it seems particularly important to keep in mind continuities in the nature of war, and lessons from successes and failures in previous attempts to enhance future security.

Freedman’s discussion of geopolitics further emphasises the need for defence strategy to consider political interactions between states in the context of the enduring features of their environment. He contrasts the naval doctrines of the late eighteenth century of US admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett, a civilian lecturer at the Royal Navy staff college. Mahan argued that the principal role of navies was to compete for command of the sea. Corbett argued that because strategy should focus on the purpose of the war, naval and land forces must be employed in a complementary way; land forces should control territory and naval forces should control lines of communication at sea. Freedman approvingly quotes Corbett (p. 119):

Since men live on the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided – except in the rarest cases – either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life, or else by fear of what the fleet makes possible for your army to do.

The geographer, adventurer and politician Halford John Mackinder, writing after the First World War, was concerned with what today would be referred to as the ‘anti-access/area-denial capabilities’ of Germany and Russia, were these nations to become hostile and gain control of the Eurasian landmass. Mackinder’s argument that land and sea must be understood as parts of one system seems applicable to defence planning today (especially if one adds the air, space and cyberspace domains). Freedman observes that Mackinder’s theory of geopolitics moved ‘strategy to a higher plane than one which concentrated solely on the operational art’, and cautions against strategic concepts that slight geopolitics or fail to ‘attend to the wider political context’ (p. 122).

Freedman’s critique of early efforts to use airpower as a strategy in isolation echoes Tami Davis Biddle’s argument in Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare that the theory of airpower failed to connect its employment to the achievement of a satisfactory political end.10 Freedman observes that strategic-bombing theory assumed that ‘if the right points could be found – whether in industrial production, political control, or popular morale – the system as a whole could be brought down’ (p. 129). Despite its deficiencies, strategic-bombing theory has proven resilient, reinventing itself periodically under new guises. In a recent manifestation, it was foundational to the orthodoxy of the revolution in military affairs in the 1990s.

This orthodoxy possessed ‘an unreal quality’ because it promised certain and easy victories by ignoring the ‘physicality of war and war’s tendencies to violence and destruction’ (p. 219). Freedman’s critique supports Williamson Murray and Macgregor Knox’s observation that strategic-bombing dogma reduces strategy to mere targeting based on the belief that ‘a generic technological superiority – rather than any searching ongoing reassessment of strategic, operational, and conceptual possibilities – is the key to the future’.11 Murray and Knox warn that so-called revolutions in military affairs should not be regarded as a substitute for strategy. Today the latest version of strategic-bombing theory threatens to undermine defence strategy with renewed promises that technology will, in the next war, permit advanced Western militaries to operate at stand-off range and escape the complications associated with the realities of politics, geography and the human dimension. Freedman’s analysis reveals that neglecting continuities in war could turn the well-meaning attempt to create an ‘offset strategy’ into an anti-strategy that drives the development of unbalanced forces and flawed military doctrine.

Freedman acknowledges that technological advantages are important, but points out that creative enemies can fashion strategies to avoid those advantages. In his section on asymmetric warfare, he identifies measures

that the weak could adopt against the strong: concentrating on imposing pain rather than winning battles, gaining time rather than moving to closure, targeting the enemy’s domestic political base as much as his forward military capabilities, and relying on an unwillingness to accept extreme pain and a weaker stake in the resolution of the conflict. In short, whereas stronger military powers had a natural preference for decisive battlefield victories, the weaker were more ready to draw the civilian sphere into the conflict while avoiding open battle (p. 220).

While Western governments seem keen to avoid repeating recent (and ongoing) experiences with protracted counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns, Freedman’s analysis raises the prospect that advanced military technologies may drive future enemies off conventional battlegrounds and make those kinds of campaigns more likely.

Strategy must account for technology, and since the 1950s Western defence strategists have had to accommodate nuclear weapons and address the danger of unthinkable destruction.Yet, while acknowledging the contributions of scientific method, quantitative analysis and economics to defence strategy in the nuclear era, Freedman highlights the limitations of rational-choice theory and game theory as applied to war. In this sense he concurs with Colin Gray’s description of rational-choice theory as ‘armchair strategy’ based in the unrealistic belief in ‘a value-free, universally rational, strategic theory’.12 In Part Five, ‘Theories of Strategy’, Freedman provides a useful summary of rational-choice and behaviouralist theories as well as a critical view of the rise of quantitative political science in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In Part Four, readers may find useful, according to their particular interests, Freedman’s survey of business-management theory and his argument that early management theory reflected contemporary social theory, evolving from autocracy to paternalism to, in the period of the Industrial Revolution, intellectual constructs that had to account for broader social and economic change. He charts the beginning of business strategy in the early twentieth century, tracing the rise and fall of theories that touted ‘centralized control, quantification, and rational analysis’ (p. 504). It was during the latter half of the twentieth century, Freedman observes, that business began to look at military history for models of success. He asks ‘whether the two activities were sufficiently similar for military strategy to work in a business context’ (p. 511). He argues the affirmative case due to the requirement, in business as in war, to manage the complex interaction of internal organisation with a competitive external environment. A chapter on economics addresses the latter, and a chapter on sociology addresses the former. Many of the theories categorised by Freedman as ‘strategy from above’ possess useful insights that apply to political and military strategy, such as the need to foster learning organisations that can adapt under conditions of uncertainty, the need to ground strategy in a fundamental understanding of complex situations and the need to establish clear objectives.

* * *

Strategy: A History might be considered as a book to be used rather than a book to be read through. It will help those who spend time with it to mature their own theories of strategy while reflecting on its historical realities. The book’s broad scope is conducive to the study of strategy in the way that Michael Howard recommended studying history: in width, depth and context. It might be read alongside Howard, Strachan, Heuser, Murray and Knox, and Gray. Although the reward for the time invested may not be immediately apparent, to paraphrase Clausewitz on military theory, Freedman likely meant his latest work to educate and help guide the reader in self-education, not necessarily to accompany him or her to the Pentagon, Whitehall or the corporate boardroom. After full consideration of strategy and what it takes to become a successful strategist, some may judge it an impossible art. But the stakes are indeed high for those charged with charting the course of war or developing defence strategies to shape security environments, prevent conflict and, when necessary, respond to threats to national and international security. Engaging the subject – and engaging Strategy: A History – takes considerable effort. That effort, however, is worthwhile.


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1 Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 28. See also Hew Strachan, ‘The Lost Meaning of Strategy’, Survival, vol. 47, no. 3, Autumn 2005.

2 Henry Kissinger, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (London: Penguin, 2014).

3 Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 17.

4 Tami Davis Biddle, ‘Strategy and Grand Strategy: What the National Security Professional Must Know’, unpublished paper.

5 Hew Strachan, ‘Strategy and the Limitation of War’, Survival, vol. 50, no.1, February–March 2008, p. 50.

6 Colin S. Gray, Strategy and Defense Planning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 191.

7 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 89.

8 Christopher Coker, The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), p. 15.

9 Richard K. Betts, ‘Is Strategy an Illusion?’, International Security, vol. 25, no. 2, Fall 2000, p. 5.

10 Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

11 Williamson Murray and Macgregor Knox (eds), The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 192.

12 Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 58.

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H.R. McMaster is IISS Consulting Senior Fellow and a Survival Contributing Editor.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2015

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