Strategic Thinking

Strategy equates to finding ways of getting what you want while at the same time avoiding and abstaining from the initiation of hot rhetoric and war that leads to death. Also, if you are resolute in knowing what you want, strategic thinking ultimately does not matter. The past is the past, and the future does not exist. One must do what is necessary in the present to achieve a goal.

Coincidentally, in a book titled Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman argues that strategy is political, not military-based. While the overwhelming history of Western political thought and the likes of Von Moltke and his intellectual posterity would beg to differ and argue that strategy is based on the military, Freedman’s argument becomes all the more valid when taking particular cases of political struggle into account. Commentators who tend to abuse Mao’s expression that “power comes from the barrel of a gun” ignore the conclusion of his expression, which states: “therefore, the gun must be controlled by the party.”

In 2014, the United States condemned Thailand’s military coup that overthrew the civilian government. The U.S. held firmly onto its line that the United States would not support governments resulting from military coups. While in 2013 the United States held a contradictory position on the military coup that overthrew the civilian government in Egypt, the U.S. acquiescence to the military coup in Egypt was done for political (and thus strategic) purposes. Allowing the military coup to proceed in Egypt in 2013 was strategic and thus political in the sense that it would presumably sustain a peaceful and stable balance of power between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and there was a fear that the democratically-elected civilian government in Egypt would eventually disturb that balance of power. Taking these historical examples as well as many other examples into account, Lawrence Freedman’s argument that strategy is political appears quite sound.

In his book titled The Future of Power, Joseph Nye of Harvard University states that “grand strategy” is based on what a leader of a nation or a state develops as his or her theory and story about how to provide security, welfare, and identity for a nation, and that strategy has to be adjusted for changes in context. Nye believes U.S. “grand strategy” (according to what he wrote in The Future of Power) is simply two things: survival and providing public goods. Considering the aforementioned to be the nature of a “grand strategy” would mean that strategy at its highest level necessitates shifting between various instruments of power. Military power is simply one tool within the entirety of a power arsenal. Nye’s definition of “grand strategy” also implies that strategy in and of itself is decision-making.

The decision to use military force is one decision in a set of decisions that accumulate into a strategy. Military force itself is not strategy. It is simply a decision made within a set of decisions. Militaries are ultimately tools used to advance political objectives, not the other way around. Nye is also emphatic about a concept called “power conversion,” which measures power by the conversion of economic and military power into political prestige and not by the mere accumulation of economic and military power. I presume that in Nye’s view, there could be some states with less economic and military resources that are more powerful than states with greater economic and military resources. That is also my view. Nye apparently argues that gaining power depends in large part on the smartness and the wisdom of the decisions you make, not by the wanton accumulation and expenditure of resources.

Effective strategy in this day and age, therefore, depends on “power conversion,” which is a concept that makes power inherent not in money and militaries but rather in the wisdom of their usage. Leaders must now ask themselves: will the use of violence and military force achieve the political objectives I have set? In other words, will it help me attain what I want? Because effective strategy is essentially decision-making done wisely, and effective strategy has the ability to exist in all epochs of history and in a range of contexts. Strategy can apply to all aspects of life.  Money cannot solve all problems, nor will violence outside of self-defense achieve anything in the way of accomplishing political objectives. One should ask: why did the United States win World War II and the First Gulf War in 1991 but failed to win in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Second Iraq War? The answer is that World War II and the First Gulf War were defensive wars, whereas Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Second Iraq War were hegemonic wars, which are never won when analyzing the cases of Napoleon and Hitler. Global hegemony is reminiscent of Germany’s rise and fall, where the initial rise prompted unnecessary entanglements in the affairs of other nations, which in turn led to conflict, economic decline, hyper-militarization, war with major powers, debt, polarization, and a kind of social fragmentation that we are witnessing today.

As many advocates of the irrational theory leading to war termination would suggest, one must avoid making the means the end. Someone like Henry Kissinger would surely agree that the ends of strategy must be the discovery of first causes and the advancement of elevated principles, and thus money and militaries are instruments in achieving and advancing such first causes and elevated principles. Individuals and groups who hold positions of power are thus best positioned to advance first causes and elevated principles such as equilibrium, peace, security, justice, and social harmony through the conversion of money and military resources. Philosophy and the discovery of first causes and principles leads to doctrine, according to Kant. In foreign policy, the basic doctrine of the United States was the “Kissinger Doctrine,” which was ultimately adopted by Brzezinski as well. Kissinger’s doctrine states that America must have better relations with Russia and China than the two have with each other. Individuals and groups must also determine where these elevated principles originate. Do they originate from God or Caesar?

Teddy Roosevelt, the father of modern American strategy, argued that power and principles go hand-in-hand. One cannot exist without the other. “Speak softly, but carry a big stick” implies that hitting all nails with a sledgehammer may not get you what you want. At times it may be the content and softness of one’s speech that helps an individual achieve their goals. When first causes and elevated principles become the underpinnings of power, the strategies that follow automatically become effective. The status quo will always face the prospect of revolution, even in the 21st century. Fortunately, the first causes and principles that govern both forces, status quo and revolution, remain perennial.

The balance between power and principles may help the status quo achieve its goals. It is the application of this balance between the discovery of first causes and the assertion of principles and the acquisition of tangible power that seems to be missing in the 21st century. The United States, for example, may have been able to achieve the political goals it sought to achieve in places like Afghanistan and Iraq without the costs it incurred. The likes of Audrey Kurth Cronin may agree that emotion undermined the prospects of a wise cost-benefit analysis after 9/11, and that is where the failure of the Bush Administration rested. It was Sun Tzu that emphasized the importance of a leader maintaining their cool in times of adversity. Lack of composure, especially on the part of a leader, takes individuals and nations down a path of destruction. Only internal fortitude through the adoption of first causes and the development of elevated principles can firmly balance someone against external threats, which is yet another prescription of Sun Tzu. Hannah Arendt said that as a result of these realities, there is little to no difference between the statesman and the ordinary man.

The great philosophers and prophets of the past, from Sun Tzu all the way to Clausewitz, contributed to nothing other than the attainment of first causes and the cultivation of principles that would open the way to the development of power. Kant’s “transcendental idealism” sought to reconcile empiricism with continental philosophy by arguing that the pursuit of knowledge and reason will ultimately lead to the establishment of belief. As Kant wrote: “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for belief.” Once belief is established, the goal then becomes one of adopting a carefree and relaxed attitude, according to Bertrand Russell. After all, belief is the only thing that will get a person through an anarchic and chaotic world that is ridden with trials and tribulations. In the perennial struggle between mind-world monism and mind-world dualism, the heart is put to the fore and is made stronger. Whether one is dealing with British empiricism or Marxist historical materialism, both are predicated on a mind-world dualism that puts a heavy strain on the mind.

After acquiring power through the attainment of first causes and the cultivation of principles, power would then be used primarily to deal with external threats. Furthermore, once the attainment of first causes and cultivation of principles leads to power, only the sustenance of the principles and steadfast adherence to first causes can sustain power. Sustaining principles and adhering to first causes then becomes the sole method for the sustenance of power. By logic, the sustenance of principles, adherence to first causes, and thus power becomes a never-ending cycle within themselves. When one is detached from the other, both will perish. The continuation of principles and adherence to first causes leads to security and stability, because first causes and principles are the primary sources of power. Logical sequence is important. Power does not cause principles. It is essentially the other way around. The continuation of balance between and in favor of principles and first causes over power is the basis for Sun Tzu’s notion of security.

Once first causes and principles establish power, the likes of Hans Morgenthau, Stephen Walt, and Henry Kissinger explore the necessary balance between principles and power in the effort to sustain power from a defensive realist perspective. E.H. Carr outlines the overall context of strategy, which is essentially the struggle between satisfied powers (status quo) and dissatisfied powers (revolution). The likes of Brzezinski and Mearsheimer would later outline the means of balancing against threats in the development of a theory known as “offensive realism.” Brzezinski would develop the theory in action. As Machiavelli suggested, practice creates theory, and politics creates ethics. Mearsheimer developed the theory academically. Brzezinski and Mearsheimer may have argued that while it is the primary objective of a state to maintain the balance against external threats, it is also necessary through internal balancing, which amounts to the application of principles internally for the internal development of a nation, for a state to possess the means to tilt the balance against external threats when the opportunity to do so arises. As Sun Tzu asserted and as Brzezinski witnessed in his lifetime, your enemies will present you the opportunity to destroy them with your own hands. But in order to destroy your enemies, whether it means destroying them through psychological or material means, one must first develop power internally through the cultivation of principles best derived from philosophical and religious sources given that politics and international relations is the realm of morals and ethics.

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