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

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’. 

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’. 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’. 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’.

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

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February-March 2015

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