Grand Strategy

  • Published

Grand Strategy by Peter Layton. Self-published, Amazon, 2018, 274 pp.

The supreme challenge of any multidisciplinary endeavor is to find essential linkages between the most significant of many diverse elements and processes and to form a theoretical framework that makes sense of them as the conceptual and theoretical foundation of useful action. When your topic is grand strategy—an area of interest that could conceivably require some knowledge of every other academic discipline—the task of wielding Occam’s razor is undeniably difficult and very possibly an exercise in hubris and self-delusion. This principle—entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem—roughly translates to “things should not be multiplied beyond what is necessary,” often paraphrased as “keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” However, if such a condensation must be done on behalf of deliberate grand strategy, what would an adequate theoretical framework look like? This is precisely the task pursued by Dr. Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at Griffith University's Asia Institute in Australia, in his very simply titled and independently published book Grand Strategy.

Somewhere between security studies and strategic studies lies the realm of grand strategy, a field of study whose very existence many credible commentators have questioned in the years since it was first described by theorists and academics like Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Edward Meade Earle, and Sir Michael Howard. As described by Williamson Murray in The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War, “Grand strategy lies at the nexus of politics and military strategy and thus contains important elements of both. . . . The best analogy for understanding grand strategy is that of how French peasant soup is made—a mixture of items thrown into a pot for a week and then eaten, for which no recipe can possibly exist” (pp. 8–9). Despite such imprecision—or perhaps more accurately, because of it—grand strategy has emerged as a valued conceptual construct. It is the subject of dedicated courses of study in military and civilian colleges. Layton’s original contribution joins a field of contemporary literature previously staked out by notable authors such as Paul Kennedy, Williamson Murray, Edward Luttwak, Jon Sumida, Hal Brands, William C. Martel, and John L. Gaddis. It also exists within a field of literature best bounded by Lukas Milevski’s The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (2016). 

Layton seeks to answer the question, Assuming it can and should be practiced deliberately, how should grand strategy best be done? Whereas other books on grand strategy often present historical surveys about how various political entities or states tackled specific issues or outline generic principles of grand strategy, this book proposes a general theoretical framework that can be applied to any strategic competition. Entering the conversation from the perspective of traditional international relations theory, Layton summarizes the relationships of the major theoretical schools that continue to dominate discussions in international relations—realism, idealism, and constructivism—to grand strategy. Borrowing from classical strategic studies, Layton also links the theories to three overarching national security conceptual approaches, each designed to match specific kinds of international orders in adversarial political situations. Sticking to the “Rule of Three”—an unscientific premise observing that humans can usually deal with three ideas at once, and more only with great difficulty—Layton describes three main types of grand strategies: denial, engagement, and reform (fig. 2, p. 51) and proceeds to explain how this initial “rough cut” theoretical framing at the highest levels of grand strategy design can drive different strategic and operational approaches. He also describes differences in framing long- and near-term issues, situations of choice versus necessity, and situations of certainty versus uncertainty (fig. 4, p. 75). He then uses three modern case studies for each major grand strategy type to demonstrate the employment of his framework in practice (chaps. 5–7). In his conclusion, Layton describes the necessary tensions built into his theoretic framework and presents a particularly valuable discussion not often seen in books on theory—advice on when not to use his frameworks.

Perhaps the last (and most subtly offered) component in Layton’s general theory of framing—certainty vs. uncertainty—is one of the most significant contributions and a topic neglected by many other works on grand strategy. Most sources do not even attempt to formulate a general conceptual theory for the practice of grand strategy. Layton consciously develops heuristics to determine which kinds of problems are well structured—lending themselves to deliberate, industrial-age management style approaches, which can be accelerated by innovations like machine learning and artificial intelligence. He also develops empirical methods to determine which kinds of problems are ill structured—requiring emergent, networked-based approaches rather than objectives-based management or the automated bureaucratization executed at the speed of light signified by some artificial intelligence approaches. By including this category, Layton forces the would-be theorist to have an understanding of not only history and international relations theories but also of the differences between complicated and complex problems. Additionally, he advocates the need to tailor different kinds of approaches to account for having elements of both theories and problems. This approach is not unlike the descriptions of “deliberate and emergent” strategies offered by Henry Mintzberg for the business world in Strategy Safari. Layton is careful to emphasize that his process was “developed to assist people both how to think, and what to think about grand strategy. Moreover, the grand strategy process is only to help people structure their initial thinking. Context and judgment must still be applied to determine sensible, practical grand strategic options” (p. 243).

It is unlikely that any single book will ever fully crack the code in this field; however, Grand Strategy is a truly admirable, compact, and highly readable contribution displaying a deft and capable heft of Occam’s razor. Layton meets readers on familiar theoretical grounds but then pushes them toward new corners of the field, all while avoiding the temptation of telling them exactly how to get to their destination. This is a guide for exploring strategic vistas in a world of constantly shifting summit heights—not directions to a single, static, and mostly mythical grand strategy peak.

Lt Col Dave Lyle, USAF

"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."