13 August 2018

The Strategy Delusion

By Jeffrey W. Meiser, Sitara Nath


Strategy is a theory of success. If you do not have a theory of success, you do not have a strategy. If you do not have a strategy, you are unlikely to achieve your goals.[1] These are straight-forward, and perhaps even obvious principles. However, judging from what passes as strategic analysis and strategic thought, these principles are not obvious; in fact, these principles are consistently violated.

Examples of strategic malpractice are easy to find among practitioners and scholars. In a response to criticism that the United States does not have a Middle East strategy, Kori Schake recently asserted the Trump administration’s “strategy is to limit American involvement, to push responsibility for outcomes in the region back onto states in the region, and to let power determine outcomes.”[2] By what definition is this a strategy? Is this a list of actions or goals? How are they connected? Schake argues this is a strategy of offshore balancing, suggesting the U.S. goal is withdrawal of its troops from the Middle East. Despite the insightful discussion of possible motivations behind the administration’s actions in the Middle East, Schake provides no evidence that offshore balancing is actually the U.S. strategy, and seems to confuse goals with strategy. Withdrawing forces is not an end in itself. If the U.S. is actually engaging in offshore balancing (which is unlikely), what is the overall goal? What policy is this strategy supposed to achieve?

Other analysts provide clearer conceptualizations of strategy; unfortunately their definitions tend to be too vague or incomplete to be analytically useful. In a recent Strategy Bridge essay, Julian Koeck defines strategy as “the art of reaching attainable goals with limited resources.”[3] While there is an admirable attention to the need for creatively pursuing goals, how does one assess an art? Does this definition provide a way to identify and analyze a strategy? Does it exclude anything? M.L.R. Smith, follows a similar path in claiming, “Strategy denotes the endeavour to relate ends to means.”[4] He is evoking the notion of linking strategy to the relationship between end and means, but does not give us tools for identifying or assessing the resultant strategy. What does it mean for strategy to be an endeavour? How should the strategist relate ends to means? If you successfully relate ends to means, do you necessarily have a good strategy? In a final example, Adam Elkus defines strategy as “an instrumental device that is given meaning by the policy. Policy is that which a government decrees, and strategy is a highly technical set of steps to accomplish it.”[5] This definition is useful in noting that strategy is a thing humans produce (a device) to help them achieve goals (policy), but referring to strategy as a “highly technical set of steps” suggests a strategy is a plan that can be mapped out in detail and with precision ahead of time. This conceptualization encourages thinking narrowly about tasks rather than broadly about the basic logic for achieving success.

These examples suggest strategists and analysts rely on definitions that lack consistency and analytical value. In response to these problems, we derive and apply a framework for strategic analysis based on defining strategy as a theory of success. Our approach provides the tools for practitioners and scholars to understand, analyze, and evaluate strategies. In the remainder of this essay we briefly describe our approach, apply it to the 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America to demonstrate the utility of our approach, and conclude with a discussion of how our framework can help avoid bad strategy.[6]
A strategy is a theory of success. Theories are “statements predicting which actions will lead to what results—and why,” or more simply, “causal explanation.”[7] Therefore, a strategy is an explanation of how and why a given set of actions will cause a desired outcome to occur. Defining strategy in this manner gives us a tool for identifying a strategy, analyzing the conceptual clarity and logic of the strategy, and assessing the quality of the strategy. It provides a broad foundation from which all types of strategy can be defined, analyzed, and assessed, including corporate strategy, grand strategy, and military strategy.[8]

Conceptualizing strategy as a theory of success provides the basis for strategic analysis.[9] Strategic analysis is the application of the concept of strategy, operationalized as three main tasks: 
identify theories of success, which may be explicit or implicit; 
assess the conceptual clarity and logic (in terms of causal reasoning) of the strategy; and 
assess the quality and accuracy of the strategy through empirical testing and/or in comparison with other well-evidenced strategies. 

To summarize and amplify, we make three central claims. (1) All strategies must be identifiable as theories of success or they are not strategies. (2) Strategies should be evaluated in terms of their internal validity, i.e., their clarity in defining the actions and the goals and their causal logic. (3) Strategies should be evaluated in terms of their external validity, i.e., their likelihood of success given our existing knowledge base. The next section of this essay is a strategic analysis of the 2017 National Security Strategy.

Military Superiority as a Cause of National Security (Authors' Work)

The 2017 National Security Strategy does not contain an explicit, fully articulated strategy. This creates a challenge for performing the first step of strategic analysis, identifying theories of success. Because of the absence of an explicit strategy, it is necessary to attempt to derive implicit theories of success from the document. Careful analysis suggests the Trump administration has one general implicit strategy (theory of success) for national security: military superiority causes national security. This theory is exemplified in the concepts “position of strength” and military “overmatch” along with the central pillar of the document, “Preserve Peace Through Strength.”[10] The National Security Strategy asserts military superiority will deter or defeat aggression, cause competitors to cooperate, and cause peaceful management of conflict.[11] Furthermore, a condition of strength will cause more effective U.S. diplomacy, create an international environment conducive to U.S. interests, and will cause other countries to believe in U.S. resolve and commitment.[12] The Trump administration's strategy has little to say about how to achieve military overmatch except to claim that overmatch is caused by the restoration of U.S. ability to innovate, along with the increased readiness and increased size of the U.S. Armed Forces.

While the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy contains a plausible (albeit implicit) strategy, the second step of strategic analysis suggests several conceptual and logical weaknesses. First, the strategy contains a narrow view of power, equating national strength with hard power, particularly physical military power.[13] The document shows little awareness of other dimensions of military power or other forms of power such as soft power.[14] The strategy calls for “new operational concepts,” but does not explain what these new concepts are or what they should achieve.[15] There is an assumption throughout the document that the previous administration did not use military power effectively, but there is no description of how military power should be used differently to achieve better results. The phrase “other elements of national power” is used once, only in passing.[16] The strategy does not describe the other elements or say how they will be integrated with military power to achieve national security.[17] In fact, when other potential elements of power are discussed they are derivative of military power. For example, effective diplomacy is portrayed as the result of military strength rather than an independent source of power and influence.[18] Soft power is mentioned obliquely in the introduction through the assertion that “American principles are a lasting force for good in the world” and that all countries benefit from American strength, confidence, and leadership.[19] However, the discussion of this theme only gives examples of how American principles have been good for Americans, not how they have been good for the world.[20] Discussion of allies and alliances is perfunctory and focuses on how allies can and should do more to enhance American power.[21] This presentation of soft power and alliances is consistent with the America First approach, but reinforces the narrow, unrealistic understanding of power seen throughout the document.

Second, the Trump administration does not clearly conceptualize success. As shown above, there are many signifiers of success, but they are all fairly generic. Without a more precise goal, it is unlikely American strategy will achieve anything meaningful. Richard Rumelt argues the core purpose of a strategy is to overcome the central challenge faced by the strategizing organization.[22] To define that central challenge is to define a successful outcome. Competition, along with the claim that the U.S. is falling behind, is a running theme of the National Security Strategy; therefore, it is plausible to consider winning the competition as the central goal of the Trump administration. The clearest description of successful competition in the National Security Strategy is an assertion of the need to “strengthen our sovereignty” to “renew confidence in ourselves as a nation,” which, in turn, enables successful protection of national interests.[23] The National Security Strategy seems to evoke an intangible sense of confidence that comes from a secure and strong nation. This evocation of national confidence is intriguing, but too narrow in its conceptualization. The National Security Strategy seems to equate the narrow pursuit of American interests (“America First”) with a sense of confidence, but this approach ignores the possibility that national confidence is caused by a deep sense of national purpose and principle rooted in shared values and aspirations. The phrase “principled realism” hints at a broader understanding of national interests, but ultimately the conceptualization of success in materialistic, transaction terms is incomplete.[24]

Conceptualizing Success (Authors' Work)

Third, the causal logic of the implicit strategy of the National Security Strategy is questionable. The U.S. is already the predominant military power in the world, and there is little chance any country will catch up soon.[25] If the U.S. is losing the global competition with its current advantage, why should we think additional increments of military superiority will significantly change the situation?[26] The National Security Strategy claims the U.S. is beginning to lose its advantage in some areas of military capability, but it makes no effort to link these decreasing advantages to any negative outcomes.


Finally, and most importantly, the proposed causal connection between increased military power and American success suggests the authors of the National Security Strategy do not appreciate that one of the core purposes of strategy is to create power.[27] From this perspective, strategy causes power; power itself is not a strategy.

The third step of strategic analysis, assessing the quality and accuracy of the strategy, suggests military primacy could be counterproductive by making competitive pressures worse.[28] As noted, the National Security Strategy evokes the realist premise that material power is crucial for national success. However, realist theory is complicated and has many variants. Offensive realists assert that more power is better as long as it is not too costly to obtain, but defensive realists assert that too much power causes fear in other countries and may lead them to band together to balance against the predominant power. Defensive realists also warn against the temptations of power, suggesting that attempting military primacy will lead to imperial overstretch and increased vulnerability.[29] By siding with one set of scholars in an ongoing theoretical debate, the United States is accepting a high level of risk for uncertain benefits.

The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America has been critiqued by others, but these critics tend to either assume there is no strategy or focus on particular elements of the strategy.[30] Our analysis suggests there is a strategy, and we provide a condensed illustration of a systematic critique, showing the National Security Strategy is flawed in specific, fundamental ways.

Flanked by members of the military, U.S. President Donald Trump signs the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America does have an implicit theory of success. It is conceptually and logically weak, however, and the veracity of the causal logics used is highly questionable is highly questionable. The National Security Strategy assures the American people that more physical military power will solve all problems and achieve all goals, but is silent on vital questions: What are the tradeoffs and opportunity costs? How will increased levels of military superiority achieve what our current level of military superiority purportedly failed to achieve? What level of superiority is enough? How will military overmatch be used? How will military might be translated into political outcomes? What are the risks of military primacy?


By asserting the simple application of resources will achieve national security, the Trump administration has fallen into the trap of means-based planning.[31] At a time when the U.S. maintains a significant military advantage over all other countries, it is seductive to think that simply applying those resources to any and all problems will cause success, but it will not. As a country, the U.S. can and must do better. One small step toward improving American strategic competence is to explicitly articulate our strategies as theories of success based on clear conceptualization of all variables and causal mechanisms. This approach will help focus debate on the crucial issues of how to define and cause national success and bring greater clarity and focus to American national security strategy.

Jeffrey W. Meiser is an assistant professor at the University of Portland and was previously an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. His book, Power and Restraint: The Rise of the United States, 1898-1941, was published by Georgetown University Press in 2015. Sitara Nath is a senior at the University of Portland. She is majoring in political science and philosophy.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] On defining strategy see Jeffrey W. Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy,” Parameters: U.S. Army War College Quarterly 46, No. 4 (Winter 2016–17): 81-91. On the value of strategy, with an emphasis on grand strategy, see Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy? (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 1-16, 194-195.

[2] Kori Schake, “Trump’s Syria Strategy Actually Makes Sense,” Defense One, April 16, 2018, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2018/04/trumps-syria-strategy-actually-makes-sense/147467/.

[3] Julian Koeck, “Strategy in Postmodern Times,” The Strategy Bridge, March 20, 2018, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/3/20/strategy-in-postmodern-times.

[4] M.L.R. Smith, “Strategic Theory: What it is…and just as importantly, what it isn’t,” E-International Relations, April 28, 2011, http://www.e-ir.info/2011/04/28/strategic-theory-what-it-is%E2%80%A6and-just-as-importantly-what-it-isn’t/.

[5] Adam Elkus, “The Policy-Strategy Distinction: Clausewitz and The Chimera of Modern Strategic Thought,” Infinity Journal Special Edition, Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, February 2012, 24-27, https://www.infinityjournal.com/article/50/The_PolicyStrategy_Distinction_Clausewitz_and_The_Chimera_of_Modern_Strategic_Thought/.

[6] Our approach is heavily influence by Richard Rumelt’s work, especially “The Perils of Bad Strategy” McKinsey Quarterly, June 2011, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/the-perils-of-bad-strategy.

[7] Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor, “Why Hard-Nosed Executives Should Care About Management Theory,” Harvard Business Review (September 2003): 3, https://hbr.org/2003/09/why-hard-nosed-executives-should-care-about-management-theory. Stephen M. Walt, “The Relationship Between Theory and Policy in International Relations,” Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 8 (2005): 26.

[8] For a discussion of the similarities between grand strategy and business strategy see Ross Harrison, Strategic Thinking in 3D (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2013).

[9] Concepts are the foundation for theory, analysis, and assessment, see Gary Goertz, Social Science Concepts: A User’s Guide (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[10] Overmatch is defined as “the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success and to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight,” The White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States, December, 2017, 28, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf(hereafter abbreviated NSS).

[11] NSS, 26.

[12] NSS, 28.

[13] Clausewitz suggests the intangible or “moral factors” are more important than physical capabilities. Recent work on military power backs up this claim, see Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Kirstin J.H. Brathwaite, “Effective in Battle: Conceptualizing Soldiers’ Combat Effectiveness,” Defence Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2018): 1-18. For a discussion of Clausewitz’s arguments about “moral strength” in war, see Jeffrey W. Meiser, “The Moral Factor in War: Understanding Variation in American Military Effectiveness,” Working Paper, 2016, https://www.academia.edu/29741017/The_Moral_Factor_in_War_Understanding_Variation_in_American_Military_Effectiveness.

[14] See Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009).

[15] NSS, 29.

[16] NSS, 2.

[17] For example, Brian McGrath, notes the NSS “does not offer any substantial discussion of howmilitary power works to protect and sustain economic prosperity” (Brian McGrath, “The National Security Strategy’s Implications for Seapower,” Texas National Security Review, December 21, 2017, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/policy-roundtable-make-trumps-national-security-strategy/.)

[18] NSS, 26.

[19] NSS, 1 & 3.

[20] There is some discussion of how other countries will benefit from embracing American values and joining the American-led “network of states that advance our common interests and values,” but there is no cognizance that American values can be a source of strength and influence (NSS 37-39, 41).

[21] For example, diplomats should “galvanize allies” and allies should do more to enhance U.S. military superiority (NSS 26-28, 33, 37-39).

[22] Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (New York: Crown Business), 77-94.

[23] NSS, 4.

[24] NSS, 1.

[25] See Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, America Abroad: Why the Sole Superpower Should Not Pull Back from the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[26] For additional analysis on this point see Andrew Hill, “Nostalgia and Strategy: There Never Was a Golden Age,” Texas National Security Review, December 21, 2017, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/policy-roundtable-make-trumps-national-security-strategy/.

[27] See Freedman, Strategy, xii; Rumelt Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, 21-31.

[28] Assessing the quality or accuracy of a theory has the broadest scope of inquiry and ought to include empirical testing of the theory as well as a survey of relevant theories and their supporting empirical evidence. For reasons of space, we can only give a brief demonstration of how an analyst can use existing theory for quality assessment.

[29] For a realist critique of the NSS, see Emma Ashford and Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Trump’s National Security Strategy: A Critic’s Dream,” Texas National Security Review, December 21, 2017, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/policy-roundtable-make-trumps-national-security-strategy/.

[30] See Rebecca Lissner, “The National Security Strategy is Not a Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, December 19, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2017-12-19/national-security-strategy-not-strategy and William Inboden et al., “Policy Roundtable: What to Make of Trump’s National Security Strategy,” Texas National Security Review, December 21, 2017, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/policy-roundtable-make-trumps-national-security-strategy/.

[31] On means-based planning, see Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy.”

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