Yves here. Das reviews a book that has generally received extremely positive coverage and finds it wanting, in part due to being overly ambitious and inconclusive. But the big reason is that the book focuses on the idea of strategy, and Das finds that word, like “liberal,” has been used to mean so many different things that the term is becoming meaningless, although specific users no doubt believe the meaning they intend is obvious in context. Author Lawrence Freedman fails to acknowledge, let alone deal with, the lack of clarity.
I wonder if this muddiness reflects intellectual exhaustion. What we consider to be civilization isn’t all that old, yet we seem to be perilously short on truly new ideas.
By Satyajit Das, a former banker and author of Extreme Money and Traders Guns & Money
Lawrence Freedman (2013) Strategy – A History; Oxford University Press
There is now a strategy for everything – for peace, growth, recovery, employment, investment, poverty, health, climate change etc. Nations have strategies. Organisations have business strategies. People also have personal strategies – for education, jobs, relationships, child rearing, weight loss etc. Increasingly, society strategizes (the verb) about strategy (the noun).
Of course, there was a time when we actually did things. Management theorist Peter Drucker wrote of business management as “making it difficult for people to get their work done”. Strategy, at least in the modern sense of the term, is increasingly a substitute for action.
Through constant overuse, the term has been leached of all possible meaning or significance, existing as a hollow sound for hollow men. Rudyard Kipling was correct in his observation that: “words are… the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
Strategy is the work of author and historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, a Professor of War Studies at Kings’ College London, Official Historian of the Falklands Campaign and a former adviser to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. His previous book A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East is highly regarded, having won the 2009 Lionel Gelber Prize and the Duke of Westminster Medal for Military Literature.
This encyclopaedic history (700+ pages) outlines the history of the term, commencing from the time of primates. Chimpanzees, we learn, place considerable emphasis on strategy, especially the formation of coalitions to find food, defend themselves or maintain group relationships.
Strategy is divided into five parts: origins; strategies of force (military power); strategies from below (political); strategies from above (management); and theories of strategy.
The short section on origins outlines the source of the idea of strategy. Professor Freedman displays his classical learning, exploring familiar mythology (biblical e.g. David and Goliath) and ancient history (Athens and Sparta). There are a predictable cast of characters from Thucydides, Homer, Plato, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and even the poet Milton.
The original texts are only tenuous linked to the idea of strategy, focusing on direct and immediate concerns such as maintaining a historical record or setting down practical principles for rulers and generals. The author’s attempt to interpret these historical observations into a modern frame of reference as the beginning of strategy is unconvincing, requiring distortion of language and context.
The main body of Strategy focuses on military, political and business strategy. Each section tries to provide a guide to the main “thought leaders” (in modern parlance) and their individual philosophy.
Military strategy surveys the works of Napoleon, Clausewitz, Jomini, Sir Basil Liddell Hart and major strategists of the cold war. Political strategy reviews Marx, Weber, Dewey, Mosca, Pareto, Gramsci as well as Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, C. Wright Mills, Cesar Chavez, Saul Alinsky and Lee Atwater. Business strategy examines the work of Frederic Taylor, great captains of industry such Rockefeller, Ford, and Alfred P. Sloane, Peter Drucker as well modern economists such as Simon and Nash and strategy advisors such as Michael Porter, Gary Hamel and others.
The final Section offers no real convincing theory or assessment of the hundreds of preceding pages. Freedman places his faith in the idea of “strategic scripts”. He also is sympathetic to strategy as narrative “as a story about power told in the future tense from the perspective of a leading character”.
Strategy has been well reviewed, featuring prominently in many critic’s 2013 “must read” books. Perhaps awed by the sheer scale of the undertaking and its size, the book has attracted epithets like “classic”, “definitive” and “magisterial”. Professor Freedman’s ambition, industry and scholarship are admirable. But Strategy is also disappointing and a missed opportunity.
Lengthy works about the history of ideas are most interesting when they are detailed outlines of the development of a specific subject, a particular period of time or a critical analysis of an over-arching theoretical position. At their best, they also need to be multi-disciplinary, deeply grounded in the current of contemporary events. Good examples of this genre include Peter Conrad’s 1999 Modern Times, Modern Places and Peter Watson’s 2002 A Terrible Beauty: the People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind. Another example is Henry Kissinger’s 1994 Diplomacy, which overlaps in some ways with this book.
Strategy suffers from the fact that its central thesis seems contrived. Professor Freedman postulates the history of strategy as the battle between the Greek bie (superior force) with metis (craft or guile). But the author’s equivocation about the idea of strategy and the infrequent linkage of individual theories to the broad thesis means it is explored too infrequently.
In his eagerness to find significance, Professor Freedman tends to over interpret events. An example is the discussion of the 1968 student riots in France. Identification of strategic undertones in the overly ambitious and unrealistic idealism of some middle and upper-class campus rebels is to attribute trends where there may be nothing of significance to the development of strategy.
The difficulty of delineating strategy, tactics and plans also proves confusing at times. For example, in business, there is rarely strategy although there are plenty of plans (which are usually never implemented) and an abundance of tactical moves (which are).
In seeking to cover a large amount of material, the book at times consists of a series of categorized narrative summaries. Wiki-portraits of key theorists and their work are more surface than depth. Perhaps constrained by the already door stopping size, the limited historical and cultural background and drivers behind key steps in the development of theories sometimes robs the book of essential context.
The attempt to cover military, political and business aspects in a single work is probably overly ambitious. Reflecting his expertise and experience, Professor Freedman is better in his coverage of military and (to a lesser extent) political strategy. The discussion of business strategy is less certain and unconvincing, feeling second hand and derivative.
Self-aware, cautious of his place in history and overly conscious of the importance of this work, Professor Freedman seems almost diffident, reluctant to commit to specific positions. The reader is left largely to draw their own conclusions.
If there is a peroration it is about the impact of context on strategy and the need for flexibility. But it begs the question as to whether strategy in this reduced form is little more than alert and resourceful opportunism? Acceptance of strategy as merely a narrative reduces it, perhaps appropriately, to a soap opera.
Befitting a professional and distinguished historian, the writing style is proper and utilitarian – more Bentham than Shakespeare. It lacks vibrancy and excitement, robbing even the most interesting history of excitement and urgency.
The Question Not Questioned
But strategy as an idea entails tantalising questions, some of which are posed but not always dealt with satisfactorily in the book.
Strategy may not be an idea in the first place. If it is a set of co-ordinated actions designed to achieve a certain outcome, then the definition of success is far from clear.
In war, is it the achievement of victory in a specific skirmish or battle as against success in a war or avoidance of war? Did the coalition of the willing “win” in Iraq or Afghanistan? In politics, is it the attainment of government, achieving systemic change or giving voice to the will of the supporters?
In the 1960s, Tom Hayden found that the values and aspirations of the poor were similar to those of the middle-class, which he personally found vacuous. In her book Freedom Is an Endless Meeting covering the same period, Francesca Polletta recorded that demands to “let the people decide” floundered on the moderation and risk aversion of ordinary people, who only wanted better lives rather than revolution. Facing these exasperating challenges, sixties’ political activists, mostly well-educated intellectuals from comfortable backgrounds, concluded that people needed to have their real interests explained to them.
In business, is a higher share price a true measure of performance? Variations in accounting and relevant time horizon may yield different results. Even such a rudimentary and potentially misleading measure may require convincing sell-side equity analysts rather than any real performance outcomes.
In so far as a strategy presumes achievement of identified outcomes, there is the problem of Type 1 (a false positive or incorrect rejection of a true null hypothesis) and Type 2 (a false negative or the failure to reject a false null hypothesis) errors. It may not be possible to know accurately the cause and effect of specific sets of actions dictated by a particular strategy. This is particularly the case when interpreting historical events based on limited available records. As author Chua Achebe’s favourite proverb states: “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.
The significance of factors outside the control of actors, such as chance, luck and unforeseen intervention, may be important. In addition, the context and environment may be more decisive than the effect of specific actions themselves.
Professor Freedman quotes Richard Rumelt writing in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters: “many writers on strategy seem to suggest that the more dynamic the situation, the farther ahead a leader must look. This is illogical. The more dynamic the situation, the poorer your foresight will be. Therefore, the more uncertain and dynamic the situation, the more proximate a strategic objective must be.”
Strategy also assumes correct implementation at every level, consistent with the blueprint. This may be unrealistic in practice. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wryly noted: “One key reason why the presidents of large corporations do not, as some radical critics believe, control the US is that they do not even succeed in controlling their own corporations.”
The dynamics of strategy assume predictable responses from other players. Clausewitz recognised this in On War: “in war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts”. If the responses vary from those anticipated, the same strategy may result in different results. Interestingly, if all players in specific situation have read the book, follow the same strategy as recommended by the same strategist and adopt the same prescriptions, then what would be the outcome?
Reading Professor Freedman’s Strategy suggests that these questions remain unanswered and are perhaps unknowable. The predictive power of strategy and its ability to ensure successful outcomes remains at best uncertain and probably poor.
Professor Freedman is not oblivious to this paradox. In relation to business strategy, he concludes that: “the hype that accompanied the promotion of successive strategic fashions exaggerated the importance of the enlightened manager and played down the importance of chance and circumstances in explaining success”.
The conclusion applies equally to military and political strategy. As Professor Freedman writes that much depends “on innumerable conditions, the significance of which is determined at a particular moment which arrives no one know when”. He notes that the success of military action depends not only on generals but frequently on the ordinary man in the ranks who shouts “We are lost!” or who shouts “Hurrah” at exactly the providential moment.
Attempts to impose structure and will upon an uncertain and uncooperative world are always fraught and likely to end in failure.
All this poses a fundamental question: why do we need a strategy and why has man through the ages devoted so much time and energy to this pursuit?
The answer may lie in the all too human need to believe that there is certain course of action which if understood guarantees success. As Socrates knew: “we want a single, grand lie which will be believed by everybody…”
There is also a need for individual heroes and leaders, which underlies strategy and the cult of strategists. It is a world view that assures mankind that we are architects of our own destiny and history.
It is a curious charade when, in Professor Freedman’s words, the attribution of genius to military men may reflect no more than the pomp and power as well as the flattery of sycophants rather than special qualities.
But it does provide the ability to deflect unfavourable outcomes with the comfort of assigning blame to an individual or poor strategy.
The belief in strategy is relatively new. In business, the word strategy does not appear in Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors. There is minimal reference to it in Peter Drucker’s The Practice of Management.
The genius of strategy lies in the fact that belief in it creates opportunities for exploitation. Strategists –military, political and business- profitably exploit this innate need in generals, politicians, business men and individuals.
The ultimate success of strategy may be its capacity to engender belief in itself as an idea. An entire commercial and academic discipline and a vast industry, based on advice, training, books etc. has been built on this weak conceit but at the cost of devaluation.
Successful consultants exhibit enthusiasm for the idea of strategy, typifying the observation by Irish poet W.B. Yeats that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Expensive strategy consultants and their academic fellow travellers have understood what journalist George Creely knew: “people do not live by bread alone: they live mostly by catch phrases”.
Consultants create meaningless and ultimately useless concepts for hapless and easily seduced politicians and managers. It is not clear that any of it serves a purpose. Participants in a business strategy course told authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge: “I learned a great deal about military history and Confucian metaphors. But the only practical advice that we were given was that every company should send teams of people from different disciplines to country hotels every year to think about the future.”
Strategy also never remains static, with constant reinvention allowing consultant to avoid responsibility for the conspicuous lack of success by embracing the new, new thing. Poet T.S. Eliot provided the script in Four Quartets: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”
Today, the term strategy can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. It is also meaningless and circular.
Strategy’s ultimate value is that it highlights certain intellectual tendencies – the search for and destruction of meaning; the simplification of thought; the fatal search for simple repeatable formulas; and the conversion of complex ideas into stories and narratives.
It was always so. At Borodino, Napoleon’s role can be best described as not contradicting the progress of the battle. Tolstoy wrote: “It was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders was carried out and during the battle he did not know what was going on.” Napoleon was at least wise in recognising the limits of strategy and his own leadership. His approach to selecting generals was to ask: “Are you lucky?”
A close reading of Strategy confirms the observation of Albert Camus: “With the exception of professional rationalists, today people despair of true knowledge. If only the significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences.”