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Is Strategy an illusion in the 21st century?

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Tommaso Cruciani

on 26 March 2014

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Transcript of Is Strategy an illusion in the 21st century?

The Illusion of Rational Calculation

1. the problem of false logic (Psychoanalysis vs. conscious choice)

2. the problem of complexity (Cognition vs. complex choice)

3. the problem of communication (Culture vs. coercion)
...An illusion?
21st century? Strategy is timeless. Strategic calculus has not changed.

"The question that matters in strategy is: Will the idea work?" - Bernard Brodie

Does all our planning actually change anything?

Strategy: a plan for using military means to achieve political ends. "The use of engagements for the object of the war." - von Clausewitz

Betts' 'illusions' question the capacity of would-be strategists to influence the world around them.
Luck versus Genius

The Illusion of Succesful Implementation
o Friction versus fine-tuning

o Goal displacement versus policy control

o War versus strategy
The Illusion of Coherence
The problem of prioritisation:

Normal model of rational strategic calculation
= different values and preferences of strategic actors should be ranked according to priority.

- Democratic model of rationality
= consensus building, objectives and values of all constituencies taken into account.

While strategic practice suffers from many 'problems'/'illusions,' all hope is not lost.

Strategy is not an illusion.

The enemy is also beset by potentially intractable problems, first of which is his enemy.

Extensive potential for compensation of complexities and diversity. The strategist needs to be creative and find alternative routes to goals.

To achieve victory, we do not need to be superb in strategy. We just need to be better than the enemy. Education is key.

Mass as insurance against an absence of quality in performance.
Is Strategy an illusion in the 21st century?
An Illusion...?
The illusion of control
The illusion of rational calculation
The illusion of successful implementation
The illusion of coherence
The problem of false logic

(Psychoanalysis vs. conscious choice)

Strategists are guided by their perceived logic. Strategists may deceive themselves.

Logic is often subject to non-logical influences, of which the strategist is not aware.


1. Difficult to pin-down evidence of this effect.

2. Psycho-analysts also subject to effect + biases.

3. Struggle to differentiate logical/illogical.

The problem of complexity
(Cognition vs. complex choice)
Human brain tends to rationalize, prioritize and divide.

The sheer complexity of problems involved makes genuine rationality impossible - an illusion.

The mind self-deceives by ordering, simplifying and superimposing with personality/culture/ideology/experience bias.

Rebuttal: Difficulty in identifying clear evidence of this effect. In hindsight, it is impossible to prove whether or not a decision was well-reasoned or not.
The problem of communication
(Culture vs. Coercion)
Conflict between humans is ultimately a form of communication.

Strategy is intended to shape conflict to convey certain messages to an opponent, with the purpose of inducing compliance without overtly forcing it.

Due to cultural/discursive differences, message can be lost in translation.

Rebuttal: These difficulties do not preclude the use of universally communicable strategy (eg. deception, absolute coercion).
The problem of compromise:

1. Democratic model does sacrifice efficiency = but gains in effectiveness.
2. Different interests and cultures may produce a more reasonable outcome.
3. Clashes/incoherence may act as checks on bad decision making.
4. Incremental change + consensus building = more effective form of strategic decision-making.
Consensus = satisfies the democratic bodies, but doesn’t satisfy what is required in war.

Example: UN in Bosnia = mandated itself to defend Bosnian sovereignty, but did not engage enemies, declared safe zones and did nothing as they were overrun.
Inherent problems in the civil-military relationship of democracies?

1. Compromise doesn’t always produce half-measures.

2. Compromise over specific tactical decisions, not over the overriding objectives
Randomness versus Prediction
The strategist is not in control: luck rules.

With perspective and hindsight, we label things as strategic genius which were actually luck.

Did good strategies simply lack luck on the day?

Results do not always follow plans
Randomness v. Prediction
Luck versus Genius

1. Just because chance plays a role, does not justify poor strategy.

2. 'Good' strategy takes account of chance.

Tolstoy: history is "a succession of ‘accidents’ whose origins and consequences are, by and large, untraceable and unpredictable."

Some strategies prove successful in the short term only to prove counter-productive later on
1. Chaotic non-linearity is common, but neither absolute nor pervasive.
Tommaso, Suzie, Simon, James, Omid
The Illusion of Control
Friction vs. Fine Tuning
Constraints imposed by operational problems in coordinating decisions and implementation.
These problems can block timely communication even if executing organizations fully understand the higher strategy.

1. There is no good response, because friction is what it is. The fog of war exists, and can only be mitigated, much like the other problems discussed.
Goal Displacement vs. Policy Control
War vs. Strategy

Cybernetic and Organisation theories

Example – 1990-91 Persian Gulf War

Civilian input

Example – US Air Force and Navy in Vietnam

Illusion – strategy is limited to one plan or policy

Enemy are equally cunning -> Will frustrate strategists

Policy must adapt

Operation imperative becomes the driver, strategy the rider

Example - Schlieffen Plan

Difficulty defining strategic success -> Overextension, over-ambitious strategy

Example - 1940 – Germany, 1942 - Japan

Full transcript