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A Reader's Guide to Strategy

Strategy: A History. By LAWRENCE FREEDMAN. Oxford University Press, 2013, 768 pp. $34.95

Lawrence Freedman’s monumental new book is one the most significant works in the fields of international relations, strategic studies, and history to appear in recent years, so readers should know what it is and what it is not. Despite its size and ambition, this magnum opus is not comprehensive. Strategy is instead a deliberately selective look at an important term that gets bandied about so much as to become almost meaningless. Scholars now have a work that arrests that slackness.

Readers should also know that Freedman’s book does not focus on “grand strategy,” a topic widely studied and a term often used to judge policymaking, since it concerns historical actors pursuing big ends. The index therefore contains no entry for the Roman Empire, and Freedman never discusses the grand strategies of such lasting players as the Ming dynasty, the Ottomans, King Philip II of Spain, the British Empire, or the Catholic Church. He does, however, tackle Satan’s strategy, in a dissection of Paradise Lost. There are diversions into literature, ancient myth, political theory, and the classics, and to the extent that they serve Freedman’s grander purpose of showing what strategy can sometimes be, the detours may be justified. But Freedman certainly likes to pick and choose, a tendency that can sometimes make it difficult for readers to follow the thread of his arguments even as readers move into the central sections.

Those sections are threefold -- “Strategies of Force,” “Strategy From Below,” and “Strategy From Above” -- and Strategy is best read as three separate books in one. As he has with everything else in this elaborate study, Freedman has chosen these titles carefully. Still, his idiosyncratic and even peremptory claim on meanings and the logical chain of his chapters remind one of Alice’s encounter with the arbitrary Red Queen: things are as the author says they are, whatever one may happen to think about whether a “from below” strategy is included in his “Strategies of Force” section. Yet the book still stands tall compared to the many lesser works on strategy and policy out there, which is why it will still stand out in ten or 20 years’ time.

WAR ON THE MIND

“Strategies of Force,” the largest of Freedman’s sections, comes the closest to a classic discussion of wars, campaigns, generals, and admirals. Yet rather than analyzing strategic campaigning on the battlefield, it mostly covers strategic theory about war. The book’s striking front cover, which shows a model of the Trojan horse, may trick bookstore browsers, but they will not find much about tactics, logistics, or the warrior ethos in the pages that follow. 

“Strategies of Force,” moreover, begins only in 1815, after the Napoleonic era, when full-blown theories of war emerged in the Western world. In one crisp chapter, Freedman introduces the military theorists Carl von Clausewitz and Henri de Jomini, making the case that the two contrasting authors -- the former Prussian, the latter Swiss -- should be regarded as the founding fathers of modern strategic thought, as they both reflected on the larger meanings of the epic struggle for Europe that they witnessed. Whereas Jomini gave planners somewhat more mechanistic rules regarding battlefield leadership, distance, timing, and logistics, Clausewitz taught them to appreciate other, less measurable elements, such as passion, unpredictability, chance, and friction. It was Clausewitz, too, who taught that politics does not stop when the fighting begins and that statesmen had to gear that fighting toward a desired peace. No wonder generals and professors in the nineteenth-century railway age generally preferred Jomini, whereas their successors, shocked by the chaos of World War I, came to favor Clausewitz. Both authors made sense in their time, Freedman argues, and they both have their limits. But he himself prefers the nuance that runs through Clausewitz’s works.

None of the later strategic theorists would surpass this duo, although they would add newer data and experiences. Freedman takes readers through the succeeding schools of thought, offering fine descriptions of such figures as the German military thinkers Hans Delbrück and Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the analysts of land and naval power Halford Mackinder and Alfred Thayer Mahan, the British strategists of armored warfare Basil Liddell Hart and J. F. C. Fuller, the theorists of the nuclear age Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn, and, finally, the students of guerrilla conflicts Che Guevara and David Galula.

This list may sound obvious, like the contents of a standard introductory syllabus on strategic theory, but Freedman turns it into something much more valuable through his acute judgments and summaries. For example, although the section on Mahan does explain that author’s belief that the nation with the greatest fleet would control the seas, Freedman gives more space to a lesser-known naval strategist, Julian Corbett, because he prefers the latter’s emphasis on geographic position, communications, and trade to the former’s more simplistic study of great fleets and the Trafalgar-like encounters they engaged in. Generally, Freedman approves of theorists with a Corbettian approach, since no single strategist can comprehend all aspects of war and get it right; once a conflict erupts, calm judgment and careful reasoning will prove more useful than fixed mindsets. Appropriately, this section of Strategy ends with al Qaeda, an adversary that has demonstrated the importance of surprise, confusion, luck, and passion -- and the futility of trying to use a fixed strategy against it. 

THE UNDERDOGS

In “Strategy From Below,” Freedman shifts his attention to what he calls a “strategy for underdogs” -- although he focuses on only the post-1789 ones. Like so many other scholars before him, he accepts that the most important changes in modern history in the West came with the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Scholars of early modern history may find this cutoff irritating: surely, Martin Luther’s nailing of his theses to the door of a Wittenberg church in 1517 was nothing if not a strategy from below. The same can be said of the social and political revolutions that convulsed Europe around 1648, many of which took their most extreme forms in such bodies as the Levellers, that radical political movement in England.

Karl Marx, Freedman’s key author here, knew all about these earlier revolutionary movements, of course, but as Freedman explains, Marx saw his own movement as different. In addition to having a scientific precision, it would also have a clear destiny: the destruction of capitalism followed by the uniting of the world’s workers. It is precisely because Marx and his co-writer, Friedrich Engels, worked out a full-blown theory of revolution that Freedman can commence his second section in the early nineteenth century. After all, unlike the Marxists, the Levellers were archaic radicals who claimed no predictive powers. They wanted to smash church rood screens and extend popular sovereignty; the Marxists wanted to abolish class structures altogether. Once true international socialism was established, the thinking went, there would be no more underdogs.

Moreover, no later revolutionary movement would lose its way getting to that harmonious endpoint, because Marx and Engels had provided a road map throughout their writings, if only they were studied carefully and properly followed. But in the early nineteenth century, other socialist writers were providing different road maps, and even some of Marx’s own followers would deviate from his. Freedman displays his impressive acuteness and erudition in describing the various leaders of these movements -- just look at his impressive portrait of the nineteenth-century French libertarian Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Yet the story is a complicated one, and this part of the book flails around a lot.

The entry of Vladimir Lenin into this story, beginning with his return to Russia from exile in April 1917 to kick off the Bolshevik Revolution, returns purpose to the text. When Lenin dismounted his train at Petrograd’s Finland Station that month, he already had his own strategy: he would work with a small but strong Bolshevik core to quicken the Russian people’s revolution, employing the gun as well as the pulpit. The result was breathtaking. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and their cadre toppled the moderate regime that had already gotten rid of the tsar, and they created a Bolshevik state that managed to stay alive despite massive counterassaults from the West. Previous thinkers had written about change; these ones actually accomplished it. Here at last, the theory of overthrow from below was being turned into practice.

But if Lenin could both alter and accelerate the course of revolution, then so could his many admirers in later ages and foreign lands -- or so they hoped. Provided the end goal was the same, the means could be altered. Even in Lenin’s experience, the socialist cause often experienced setbacks followed by renewal, and sometimes, well-meaning comrades who failed to understand the urgency of things or who were too keen to compromise had to be smashed as thoroughly as the old order. This happened again when Joseph Stalin steadily took control of the Soviet state, exiled Trotsky (and then had him killed), and survived successive threats from the West, Poland, Japan, and even the Nazis. Exigency and flexibility were the name of the game. As early as 1925 (when some Western powers were beginning to recognize the Soviet Union), one could say that a strategy from below had actually worked. As a strategic success story, it ranks as one of the great narratives of the past 200 years.

But Freedman’s jerkiness again intrudes. Just when one expects his revolutionary tale to move on to Mao Zedong in China and Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam, Freedman turns instead to the German sociologist Max Weber, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, the American social worker Jane Addams, and the American educational reformer John Dewey -- hardly firebrands. (For Mao and Giap, readers must go back to a chapter in the first section on guerrilla warfare.)

The post-Lenin part of “Strategy From Below” thus becomes an overwhelmingly American story, although with many other pieces added in. It mixes an account of the struggles of the United Automobile Workers in the United States with further discussions of revolutionary thinkers; invaluable vignettes of the Black Power crusade, civil rights, and feminism; a nifty chapter on Mohandas Gandhi and the strategy of nonviolence; summaries of the teachings of the philosophers Antonio Gramsci, Thomas Kuhn, and Michel Foucault; and a recounting of the opposition to the Vietnam War. Then, Freedman takes another remarkable turn, to analyze the successful political strategies of such Republicans as Ronald Reagan and his adviser Lee Atwater and the successful campaigns of Barack Obama.

This section of Freedman’s book does start strong -- how could it not, with Marx as its hero? -- but the many meanderings cost it strength and purpose. Moreover, the story of Marxism as a major historical phenomenon fits uneasily with the other, smaller crusades covered. It is easy to agree that the efforts of, say, the Black Power movement involved a strategy that was rooted in specific circumstances and strove toward specific ends that, once realized, meant success. It was indeed a strategy from below, as were Lenin’s grasp for power in 1917 and many of the revolutionary acts of later radicals. Yet Marxism itself was something larger, a total grand strategy that would never be realized until it had taken hold everywhere.

STRATEGY AT WORK

Freedman’s third book within a book bears the promising title “Strategy From Above,” although anyone looking for a quick survey of how great leaders carried out strategy will not find it here. Instead, this section concerns the rise and evolution of management, in theory and practice, from World War II to the present. “The focus is largely on business,” Freedman admits, and the players are modern managers, entrepreneurs, and theorists. In another example of Red Queen–like arbitrariness, Freedman focuses only on American business and the gurus who have provided it with new ideas. One can almost hear the Sorbonne intellectuals grinding their teeth at this hijacking. Aren’t their very different views of European state capitalism, the social welfare state, and the responsibilities of the firm of any interest? Yes, but only when they appear in an article in the Harvard Business Review.

That said, “Strategy From Above” is very good at what it does. So far as I know, there exists no equally succinct account and critique of American business strategy over the last seven decades. But the narrative goes back even further, to Taylorism -- the scientific approach to manual labor developed by Frederick Taylor in the 1880s -- and the innovations of Henry Ford at the turn of the century. As Freedman shows, Ford’s factories offered proof not only of a model for vastly enhanced production, thanks to the assembly line and the outsourced fabrication of many parts, but also of two larger things: the necessity of maintaining discipline within an organization and the vital role played by managers, who captain the ships on which ordinary workers toil.

The American business model of planned mass production would prove its value most dramatically with the advent of World War II. The U.S. system allowed Rosie the Riveter and her male counterparts to crank out ships, tanks, and airplanes far faster than the United States’ foes could destroy them. Having followed the new industrial model so wholeheartedly, the country emerged from the war as the greatest economic power of all time. All that was needed to keep growing after the war were better ways of explaining the model and newer ideas for improving it. And no book does a better job of describing the way in which management experts such as Alfred Chandler and Peter Drucker thought about companies and people, sometimes brushing aside or co-opting trade unions.

Freedman highlights two trends that changed American business in the postwar years. The first involves companies’ drive to find better and better methods of management in order to enhance their competitiveness -- a seductive idea, given all the evidence suggesting that the best-run firms, such as IBM, are usually the ones to survive and conquer. The high prophets of competitiveness have been extremely influential, and they have been rewarded with astonishing book sales. For example, Competitive Strategy, by the Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, has now been in print for 34 years.

The second trend is the arrival of rational choice theory at business schools and other parts of the American university. According to this remorselessly logical way of thought, all actors maximize their utility. Its early advocates contended that it could apply to all forms of managing, from running a business to fighting the Cold War, and this simple way of looking at things proved immensely popular, perhaps nowhere more so than in political science departments. In most of Strategy, Freedman sticks to neutral description, but in this particular debate, he seems to enjoy dissecting rational choice. After pointing out how actual behavior deviates so frequently from what these models assume, he gently suggests, “The fact that they might be discussed mathematically did not put these theories on the same level as those in the natural sciences.”

This narrative of evolving ideas about management demonstrates once again Freedman’s hunch that no single comprehensive strategy can ever serve all purposes. In his view, it is futile to even search for such a theory, although that’s unlikely to stop social scientists from looking for one. It is equally likely that historians -- along with others who have witnessed what happens when theoretical strategies get mugged by reality, whether in business or in war -- will continue to prefer messier explanations of how things work. As Freedman argues, no strategy, however well it may work against a particular enemy or sell a particular product, is ever final, with a definite endpoint. Strategy is about how to get there; it is not about there.

TAKING STOCK

Freedman’s book should prove useful to students, fellow scholars, denizens of think tanks, and those working in the strategy departments of large organizations and top-rank investment companies. (It is already required reading in the grand strategy class I co-teach at Yale.) Yet Strategy has two main defects.

First, its contents are unbalanced. The three-legged structure simply cannot stand on its own, because the third part lacks the historical importance of the other two. After all, in the first section, readers learn about Moltke the Elder’s profound thoughts on victory, and in the second section, they read of Stokely Carmichael’s wrenching calls for black power, yet in the third section, they get the Boston Consulting Group. The comedown is great.

Second, despite the universalistic claim of its title, Strategy gets more and more American as it goes on. The third book is simply all about the United States. Freedman justifies his focus by noting that “the United States has been not only the most powerful but also the most intellectually innovative country in recent times.” Perhaps this emphasis reflects the author’s own life and times. Born in England just after World War II, Freedman could hardly have avoided being influenced by the increasing Americanization of his world.

Like me, many readers may wonder where to place Strategy in their libraries. It obviously should not go next to my various encyclopedias, given its selectiveness. Nor does it belong beside my small collection of books on management and business. It could go near my section of works on Marxism, socialism, and revolutionaries, but Strategy covers a far larger territory. By process of elimination, I have had to place it with my books on war. Although it differs from them all, it will stand close to books by Clausewitz, Jomini, and Mahan and not far from the many writings of the British military historian Michael Howard, Freedman’s longtime mentor and predecessor in his chair at King’s College London. That is not a bad place in which to be found.