Satyajit Das: Strategy – The Idea of an Idea of an Idea

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.

Chimp Strategy

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”.

Reviews Well

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.

Strategic Lies

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.”

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18 comments

  1. James Levy

    The Napoleon quotes at the end are oversimplified and misleading. No military historian I know of agrees with Tolstoy’s view of the battle. Mark Grimsley in his book “And Keep Moving On” does an admirable job of dismantling it. And a battle like Borodino does not involve strategy. It was an operational/tactical engagement. So Freedman is not the only one “going wiki” on this topic.

    Strategy, in a military sense, is pretty well understood as a level of analysis and action that involves the mobilization and employment of military force towards a certain objective. I’ve written a couple of pieces on why we as military historians aren’t very much good at turning theory and practice into formulas for future success (you can read one in the current volume of the Naval War College Review), but we do know what strategy is when we see it.

    My way of describing it is that studying strategy is like studying the fugue or the jazz trio. You can know how it works, and how masters of the past have employed the form, but that doesn’t mean you yourself can write good music. What you can do, and I don’t know if Freedman does this because I haven’t yet read the book, is learn best practice and think hard about what you learn. Jon Sumida makes that point (a bit awkwardly and not as clearly as he might) in his book “Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command.”

  2. J M Hatch

    Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail has several chapters which support the premise that strategy is a poor substitute for luck and flexibility.

    1. James Levy

      Moltke the Elder once famously said that “strategy is a series of stop-gaps”, but he also understood that planning the initial mobilization and deployment of forces before with the enemy was crucial. Very small edges in those activities won him the wars of 1866 and 1870-71. As he also said, no plan survives with the enemy, but if you don’t have a plan to begin with and play off of, you are up shits creek without a paddle.

  3. j gibbs

    A great review which reminds me why Das is among the very few contemporary writers whose books are worth reading. This Freedman book sounds as though it will win tremendous accolades, awards, etc., be discussed endlessly among the comfortable and the kept, in Washington particularly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Das turns out to be the only person who actually reads it. The review tells me all I need in order to ignore it. Thanks for that.

  4. The Dork of Cork

    When somebody talks about management speak on a political level on I
    immediately think of a one Eamonn Ryan
    A guys that is painful to watch and listen but who seems to really believe in the bull that he speaks – at least while the hot air comes our of his mouth.

    He was minister of energy and natural resources during the last government (a catastrophic period of Irish energy use where almost all of our liquid energy went into cars and trucks no matter how efficient Eamonn wanted to make them – which he did through legislation)………….if we only believed fully in his worldview Ireland would have turned around global climate all by its little self.
    A catastrophic understanding of energy issues was his primary gift on Irish humanity.
    What a bloke , what a Specimen
    And yes he was/is a liberal wearing a green shirt.
    I am just not sure if the shirt was Irish or Greenpeace.

    Go Ireland Go , you go girl.
    The only way is up is it not ?

  5. Banger

    Strategy has a pretty plain dictionary meaning which is to make a plan to achieve an objective. Strategy has been studied in social science (and I don’t see any mention of that) with interesting results. But what we are talking about, it seems, in this essay is strategy as it applies to power–or how the powerful can overcome rivals–in other words, dominance/submission games with losers and winners.

    Since I start from the assumption that we are all connected and that dominance/submission games may be amusing in the bedroom (I’m told) but they are demoralizing, demeaning and ultimately destructive in terms of human happiness. In other words, “strategy” (as it applies in this essay) is defined as a way of achieving negative goals by any means necessary. Again those negative goals are domination as well as subjugation and humiliation of others. A good business strategy involves removing money from chumps, essentially.

    What we ought to be looking at today is goals. What exactly do we want to accomplish and is it worth the effort and suffering either we or others must endure?

  6. timotheus

    Calls to mind the impassioned fad of “strategic planning” for nonprofits, which was a lot about how to get your organization weaned from its current funding sources and find new ones. The exercises were sometimes valuable but infrequently merited the time and energy devoted to them, not to mention the hype.

  7. Banger said,

    “a plan to achieve an objective”.

    Strategy needs one more thing besides an objective. All strategies involve assumptions/beliefs/understandings about how the real world works (a theory of knowledge and reality in the parlance of contemporary philosophy).

    So, given a goal (an objective) and a theory of knowledge and reality a strategy is a set of steps and actions to be performed to achieve the objective.

    Also, “practice without theory is blind and theory without practice is empty”.

    The quran says that even Allah has strategy and even he plots and plans and plays the grandest chess game of all where all other gamers are his mere instruments to achieve his goals.

    Banger: I think you will be really interested in the ideas of Oswald Spengler beautifully summarized here:

    Mansoor H. Khan

    1. Heretic

      Mr Khan, two questions for you…
      a)What does the Koran say are Allah’s goals?
      b) I want to present you a conundrum. Allah is Omnipotent… He could his goals directly through His will without need for clever machinations or strategy. So why does He play this cosmic game of chess, and who is he playing against?

        1. Heretic

          Thank for your link Mr. Khan. I have swiftly perused it, but I intend to read it more carefully in order to examine your ideas. I do believe there are some substantially different irreconcilable view points between our views; nonetheless I hope we can maintain a civil exchange of ideas.

          Goodnight.

  8. Steve H.

    “The Idea of an Idea of an Idea”

    Archdruid: “Figuration, then, assembles a world out of fragments of present and remembered sensation. Abstraction takes these figurations and sorts them into categories, then tries to relate the categories to one another. It’s when the life of abstraction becomes richly developed enough that there emerges a third kind of thinking, which we can call reflection. Reflection is thinking about thinking: stepping outside the world constructed by figuration to think about how figurations are created from raw sensation, stepping outside the cascading categories created by abstraction to think about where those categories came from and how well or poorly they fit the sensations and figurations they’re meant to categorize. Where figuration tells stories and abstraction creates theories, reflection can lead in several directions. Done capably, it yields wisdom; done clumsily, it plunges into self-referential tailchasing; pushed too far, it can all too easily end in madness.”

    Boyd: “I believe we have uncovered a Dialectic Engine that permits the construction of decision models needed by individuals and societies for determining and monitoring actions in an effort to improve their capacity for independent action.

    Furthermore, since this engine is directed toward satisfying this basic aim or goal, it follows that the goal seeking effort itself appears to be the other side of a control mechanism that seems also to drive and regulate the alternating cycle of destruction and creation toward higher and broader levels of elaboration. In this context, when acting within a rigid or essentially a closed system, the goal seeking effort of individuals and societies to improve their capacity for independent action tends to produce disorder towards randomness and death. On the other hand, as already shown, the increasing disorder generated by the increasing mismatch of the system concept with observed reality opens or unstructures the system. As the unstructuring or, as we’ll call it, the destructive deduction unfolds it shifts toward a creative induction to stop the trend toward disorder and chaos to satisfy a goal-oriented need for increased order.”

  9. Susan the other

    Das is so clever and wry he made Freedman’s book sound worth reading. But I’m not gonna do it. Even Das himself engages in considerable double speak, with a wink. I’m left wondering if what Freedman is advocating is a fluid adaptable strategy to make rapid changes easy. Kinda like everybody sitting around a table doing Rock Paper Scissors. Might work. I’ve only read one book on military tactics gone amuck – Dereliction of Duty. Which I enjoyed because it confirmed my own opinions. Control really is the issue. And the military has such succinct phrases for chaos, like “being overtaken by events.” At which point all strategy flies out the window and everybody pees their pants. Now, in this New World, the question is becoming, What happens to the tactic of strategizing when no opponent has a superior strategy? High technology ultimately brings chaos. So maybe war in all its ineffective and expensive dithering will go the way of the dodo. I can think of a million better uses for the military than engaging in war.

  10. Lawrence Freedman

    I won’t comment on the substance of the review because that is always a bad idea. Most reviewers have understood the central messages well enough. For the record, however, I do make a point of noting that Tolstoy’s reading of Borodino is wrong. Meanwhile I am puzzled by the assertion that I over-interpret the May 1968 events in France as they get one sentence. I do discuss US new left radicalism of the 1960s pointing to the reasons for the failure but also some of the areas of enduring influence.

    1. James Levy

      If you are Sir Lawrence, then I commend you for coming here to discuss this article. As you can see above, I tend to think that your comments are fair and the review has problems. When I get the chance, I will read your book and see for myself.

      1. Lawrence Freedman

        Yes I am the real thing. I am happy to discuss the ideas in the book but I don’t think authors should start arguing too much with reviewers as they soon sound defensive and peevish. Also most of the criticisms are phrased in pretty general terms so it is hard to engage constructively. Mr Das does at least appear to have read the book. I’m not sure if Yves has because my whole introduction is about how widespread and varied the use of the word has become and in the conclusion I attempt to impose some boundaries. He may be right about intellectual exhaustion however!
        If you have any specific points will be pleased to have aconversation. I can be found at [email protected]

  11. larry

    Dear Satyajit,

    I have two questions, only one of which is related to this excellent review. One often sees strategy contrasted with tactics. What would you see as the significant difference between these two terms if in fact there is one?

    The other question concerns an equation in your terrific book, Traders, Guns, and Money. On p. 11 of the second edition, you have an equation, Max [x, y], that equates to zero for every argument due to the algebra of the second variable. What I wondered was whether this equation was real or constructed by you as an example of the kind of chicanery you were describing.

  12. H. Alexander Ivey

    Well, I was just about to jump in with my two bits about strategy being the start point, tactics being the implementation, and the goals being the end points of war when the author! for heaven’s sake, politely and with good effect, posts a comment. Dang, now I’ll have to go buy the book before I can rant.

    Yves, I thought you checked at the door.

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