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The Future of Strategy

The Future of Strategy by Colin S. Gray. Polity Press, 2015, 150 pp.

Colin Gray is one of the most important strategy scholars of our time. He advised the US and UK governments and authored more than 30 books and numerous articles on a broad range of topics, from nuclear weapons to geopolitics to the theory of strategy. In many ways The Future of Strategy is a summary of Gray’s previous ideas (he cites 10 of his own books in the 117 pages of text). If one did not want to read or assign to students 364 pages of Modern Strategy (Oxford University Press, 1999) or 257 pages of The Strategy Bridge (Oxford University Press, 2011), then The Future of Strategy captures many of Gray’s previous ideas, though in much less detail.

Gray suggests that the book’s purpose is to show the universal qualities of strategy. The introduction and chapters 1 and 2 discuss Gray’s intent and arguments about the need for a theory of strategy. Chapters 3 and 4 emphasize the difference between the theory of strategy, which remains unchanged throughout history (and will remain so into the future), and the practice of strategy, which is altered by time, location, and technology, among other things. Chapter 5 touches on grand strategy and geostrategy. Chapter 6 and the conclusion focus on the threat of nuclear exchange and how that would void his arguments about future strategy.

On initial reading, the lack of new ideas was disappointing, and anyone familiar with Gray’s work will likely react the same way. The Strategy Bridge considers the permanent nature but changing character of strategy and differentiates between a theory of strategy and strategies (aka plans), while Modern Strategy explores how the context of strategy changes as well as the relationship between strategy and politics. On closer inspection, though, and after rereading some of his previous work, although The Future of Strategy restates many of his ideas, it also shows some of the evolution of Gray’s thinking.

Gray has written so much on strategy that some of his ideas in The Future of Strategy seem to contradict earlier thoughts, without mention of how his thinking evolved. The 23 dicta (pp. 47–48) that make up his general theory of strategy are incredibly useful for classroom discussions and are easily defensible as necessary elements of strategic thought. However, they are similar to the 21 dicta in Strategy Bridge and to many of the 40 maxims in Fighting Talk (Praeger, 2007). Many of those same 23 dicta reappear in the more recent Theory of Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2018), though they are now key principles and are organized differently. It is not a problem that his ideas evolve over time; in fact, that is admirable. But if the same concepts appear as maxims, dicta, and then principles, these revisions might confuse rather than clarify our understanding of strategy, and it would be useful to know what prompted the changes.

While Gray’s definition of strategy appears to remain constant, there is a shift somewhere between Modern Strategy, where strategy involves only the military instrument of power, and Strategy Bridge, where it now includes any instrument of power (Gray has separate definitions for strategy and military strategy to account for this shift). This change suggests, probably accurately, that a strategy can involve nonmilitary instruments and still achieve political aims.

One weakness in Gray’s work is his insistence on equating models with theory. A theory explains a phenomenon while a model is a representation of reality. Gray’s general theory of strategy involves his 23 dicta as well as the ends/ways/means model of strategy. By incorporating all of these into his theory, Gray both complicates and confuses the concept of a theory of strategy. Carl von Clausewitz claims that the nature of war is a violent, political, contest of wills; that is not a theory of war but a description of it. A theory of war is more akin to Thucydides’s argument that war stems from fear, honor, and interest.

An appropriate parallel comes from physics. The laws of physics explain the unchanging nature of the world around us (its essence). Theoretical physics is a discipline intended to explain behavior as constrained by those laws. The theories rarely change, but could if confronted with new information or new technology (character). Applied physics and engineering put those theories to the test (conduct). To connect strategy with Clausewitz’s view of war, I would offer that the nature or essence of strategy involves many of Gray’s dicta—it is political, it is a bridge between politics and operations, and so forth. The ends/ways/ means of strategy may be unchanging in the abstract, but that is not the essence of strategy—it is a model of strategic choices (or the character of strategy). Finally, strategies and plans are implementations of that model and represent the conduct of strategy.

One final issue is that Gray’s discussion of strategy rarely addresses risk, and it is not a part of The Future of Strategy. His ends/ways/means model incorporates assumptions, and there is probably a link between those concepts; the more assumptions one makes, and the more heroic those assumptions, the greater the risk to one’s strategy. More exploration of that connection would have been a welcome addition.

Like all of Colin Gray’s books, The Future of Strategy is an important read for those who think about, teach, or create strategy. There is not much new material if one is familiar with his earlier work, but it is a more condensed version of his ideas and therefore more accessible to those first engaging the study of strategy. At the same time, this book seems to bridge his earlier work and the more recent Theory of Strategy, which further develops his ideas. While I disagree with some of Gray’s views of strategy, his contribution to the field is immeasurable, and The Future of Strategy is another example.

Dr. Gregory D. Miller
Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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