Strachan On The Failures Of Western Strategists

Tom Ricks has posted a commentary on recent political events by Scottish historian Hew Strachan. Strachan is one of the current luminaries in field of strategic studies (his recent The Direction of War is excellent). He offers a fairly pungent critique of the failure of strategic thinkers in the West to understand and respond to the forces buffeting the U.S. and Europe that resulted in Brexit and the Trump presidency.

Strategists, for all their pontifications about the future, have failed on two counts. First, they have become too politically aware in their views. Politicians need to buttress current institutions, and in doing so feed the narrative that the institutions are robust and reliable, despite their need for reform and reinvigoration. Strategists need to be tougher, and to speak truth to power. Since the end of the Cold War, geopolitical pressures have taken the common ideologies of the “west” — democracy and liberal capitalism — in divergent geographical directions. Globalization, for all its rhetorical flourishes, has mattered less than regionalism. The United States has turned from the North Atlantic and the Middle East to the Pacific and East Asia. Meanwhile Europeans are driven by an opportunistic Russia and a flood of refugees to look to their eastern marches and the Mediterranean.

Secondly, strategists have failed because they have allowed their understanding of strategy to be dominated by their commitment to the status quo. Strategy has become obsessed with the mitigation of risk and the minimization of threats, rather than with the exploitation of the opportunities which risk presents. Strategy has to respond to and even initiate contingency, not to be fearful of it. Both the Brexit vote and the election of Trump amplify the risks which we face, but they also — like Hans Christian Andersen’s child — expose the emperor’s nakedness. We shall not master risk if we do not also embrace it.

This criticism applies not simply to the last eight years of the Obama administration, but really, to the international challenges that have manifested since 9/11. The notion that the only constant is change may be a worn cliche, but that does not mean it is not true. Many a great power has foundered due to the inability to adapt and master change.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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