Book Notes—Strategy: A History

Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History is gargantuan. Really. This intellectual history clocks in at over 760 pages. It narrates various theorists’ attempts to discover and describe the principles of strategy over the last few centuries of Western thought. Freedman covers many definitions of the word ‘strategy’ but never settles on any one of them: the common theme that unites them all is an attempt made by one group of humans to change the behavior of another group. Freedman’s book is divided into three sections and the narrative arc of each follows a different category of strategic interaction: the first, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through military force; the second, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through law, propaganda, media manipulation, revolution, or protest; and the third, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through economic bargaining and financial maneuvering. These categories are less about ends than means. The first group of theories were addressed to generals and statesmen; the second, to activists, revolutionaries, and politicians; and the third, to businessmen and financial strategists.

These three categories of people seem quite different from each other. But they are not. One of the fascinating things about Strategy is how these three groups of theorists regularly faced the very same set of intellectual problems—sometimes stumbling across one of them for the very first time in the same decade theorists in a different stream of strategy were wrestling with the exact same issues. Freedman does not beat you over the head with these parallels. Nevertheless, they vindicate Freedman’s decision to include all of this disparate material in one generously sized book.

I will not provide an in depth summary of the entire book here. The work is worth reading, if only because it is a firm reminder that most of the problems that preoccupy 21st century minds are not truly new. They have been debated for centuries, and often with more nuance and insight in 1925 or 1876 than they are debated today. However, the book is quite long, and its chapters are uneven. Some chapters sparkle with insight; others fall flat. With a book of this scope that is inevitable. I found the “revolution from below” section (which starts with Marx and ends with modern American presidential election campaign strategy) to be the most consistently stimulating, though even it has some chapters that feel more tacked on for the sake of completeness than because Freedman has anything especially insightful to say about the theorist in question (his chapter on Foucault is a good example of this).

In lieu of a longer review, I’ll leave you with two points I have been mulling over since I finished this book last month. The first centers on the geography of the last two centuries of Western thought. Though he has a few not-that-relevant chapters on the strategic heritage of ancient Greece, Renaissance Europe, and so forth, Freedman’s history really begins only in the 19th century. Specifically, 19th century Europe. At this time, no one European country dominates the debates over military, political, or revolutionary strategy. Germany is something of the center-node for strategic thought and practice as the century comes to a close, but the Germans by no means have a monopoly on strategy, and there is no clear division between debates happening within Germany and those happening outside of it. In both military and revolutionary circles, everybody read everybody else.

When American thinkers first show up on the scene in the 1910s, this did not change. They simply joined the conversation. It is clear from Freedman’s profile of American theorists like Jane Addams and John Dewey (not who you expected to show up in this book, is it?), that the American thinkers of this era viewed themselves as voices in an international conversation. Freedman presents them as such; the chapter in which they appear gives equal space to Max Weber and Leo Tolstoy.

This changes in the post-war world. In each of the three eras, Freedman’s intellectual history narrows in on America after 1945. These chapters are devoted almost entirely to case studies involving American social movements, American military conflicts, or American firms. Henceforth he profiles frameworks created by strategic theorists living in America or made relevant because they were written in English and addressed to Americans. There are two main exceptions to this: a chapter on Foucault and French social theory of the 60s and 70s, and a chapter on Japanese business strategy in the 1980s. Even these two chapters earn their place mostly because of the immediate impact their subjects had on American strategic thought in ’80s and ’90s. The utility of French thinking and Japanese praxis is assessed by the impact they had on American conceptions of strategy.

There is a larger pattern here. You will find it on numerous syllabi in philosophy and related topics in the humanities. A chronologically minded 101 course will contain a scatter-shot collection of writings from the ancient and medieval world, a much larger chunk of content from 18th and 19th century Europe, and then around 1950 or so “Western” thought becomes “Anglophone” thought, and most of that is really just “American.” Freedman did not invent this pattern, but he does follow it. Is he right to do so?

I do not know the answer to this question. In one respect Freedman and the thousand philosophy syllabi that take his approach simply reflect reality: if you were to trace the intellectual history of the ideas Anglophone thinkers debate today, the ideas whose origins lie outside of Anglophone world overwhelmingly entered it before 1960. (As noted earlier: Foucault and his intellectual descendants are the obvious exception). But is this because American thinkers became more insular in the post-war era, or is it because the best thinkers of the era all came from or moved to America?

Another way to ask that question: are there debates happening today in Russian, German, Japanese, and so forth, that would shake the world if only the world could read them? Or are those conversations mostly internal reactions to intellectual trends pioneered in the Anglophone world (just as the intellectual conversation in China, c. 1911-1949 was mostly a reaction to ideas imported from Europe)? Has the engine of thought really left the Old World behind?

I doubt that it has. My reasoning reflects my second observation about the grand course of Freedman’s narrative: the theorists of the post-’60s, for a lack of a better way to put it, seem far less brilliant than those that came before.

This is an entirely subjective impression. I can fathom no way to objectively prove it. But it is true! Or at least, it is true in the three of the domains Freedman investigates.[1] I have two hypotheses for why this may be. The first involves the social position of post-’60s theorists. The thinkers and practitioners from 19th and early 20th century did not think of themselves as being part of a specific intellectual discipline. They were not experts in “strategic studies,” “activism,” or “business strategy.” Credentials in these fields did not exist. Indeed, they were not yet recognized as professional fields at all. There was no canon for potential strategists to master, no position for potential strategists to strive for, and no degrees to validate potential strategists’ pretensions. Those who theorized and strategized did so because of an irrepressible intellectual fascination with the topic or because their immediate responsibilities demanded it of them.

This changed in the latter half of the 20th century. By the turn of the millennium, these were fully professional fields with their own graduate degrees and industry hierarchies. Much of the intellectual work done over the last three generations was done for the sake of obtaining credentials or jumping through professional hoops. ‘Correct’ frames of thought had been ingrained into the relevant communities. What had once been an exciting, open-ended pursuit that defied existing categories had been nailed down into domains of licensed expertise.

There are some similarities between what I am describing here and what happened to the strategy-related blogosphere (the “strategy sphere”) c. 2008-2014. In the years before, online writing about war and strategic theory has been dominated by anonymous junior officers desperately debating paths to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were complimented by a small host of (again, mostly anonymous) citizens nerdy enough to play along. What mattered most was the quality of one’s thinking. By the end of the era, however, blogging had become a prestige medium. People wrote to promote their careers. What they wrote could not compare to what had come before. [2]

I often wonder if intellectual disciplines do not always work something like this. When a discipline begins it is not really recognized as an independent discipline at all. Its practitioners come from diverse backgrounds and they draw on ideas and research from a strange conglomeration of sources. They are in dialogue with the world. I would put the emerging discipline of “cultural evolution” (or “cultural epidemiology,” if you are from Paris) in this category right now; just about everything game-theory hit this stage in the ’50s. Move forward a decade or two and the field has an upswing in funding and prestige. It is no longer the work of isolated scholars. Professional associations, research centers, and grants have been founded to improve our knowledge of the field. In this stage the field is at its most productive—ideas and insights from earlier eras are built into more coherent models and used to explain an increasing number of otherwise mysterious social phenomenon. This is right about where I would place cognitive and evolutionary psychology and the current iteration of ‘global’ history today.

After this comes the decline. Now established as an independent discipline, new folks sign on because it is the sort of thing respectable scholars do. A canon of what experts in field x are supposed to study becomes the standard curriculum. New research continues, but few outside the field care about or understand it anymore. Links to research outside of the field dry up; debates are limited to insiders. There are clearly defined social markers (and if the people involved are modern academics, journals) that separate success from failure. Innovation in this stage mostly means spinning off new subfields. Things are more competitive than they used to be, yet a larger percentage of those who succeed in the field seem to do so by jumping through professional hoops. I would put a great deal of current IR theory in this bucket.

Where things go from here depends upon the social nature of the field in question. If the field is attached to a plane where there are real world consequences for mediocrity (say, a general staff), reality might crash in and force a reshuffling of the social deck. In academia few fear such exogenous shocks. There the field devolves into little more than an intellectual patronage network. Doyens of a past age act as king-makers. Scholarly disputes linger on, ossified remnants of ancient gang-wars. The old methods are applied to increasingly narrow problems. All of the institutions that were created in the field’s heyday still exist, and they continue on, funding and hiring long after their purpose has been fulfilled.

So that is my first guess. The skillset needed to obtain a set of credentials does not match the skillset needed to develop useful strategic theories. Or useful theories in general. Credentialism has ravaged American thought.

My second hypothesis is more tentative. The very first wave of thinkers in the American age (who by and large were educated before its birth) were brilliant people. If Thomas Schelling and Herbert Simon are not included in St. John’s reading list by 2050, the list will not be worth much. The strategic practitioners of this time were also very sharp people. But things quickly were muddled up. The clearest break between the crisp thinking of the older Americans and the addled thought that came after them is marked quite clearly in Freeman’s second section, when he transitions from a discussion of the strategic theory behind the American Civil Rights movement to the theory behind the SDS and the Port Huron manifesto.

My low estimation of the SDS’s strategic acumen is shared by Freedman himself. To quote:

The new radicals were more in a libertarian, anarchist, anti-elitist tradition, desperate for authenticity even at the expense of lucidity… Instead of the rigorous analysis of classic texts, the new radicals were suspicious of theory. Political acts had to be genuine expressions of values and sentiments. Convictions took priority over the calculation of consequences, reflecting a wariness of expediency and a refusal to compromise for the sake of political effects. At times it seemed as if deliberate and systematic thought was suspect and only a spontaneous stream of consciousness, however inarticulate and unintelligible, could be trusted. Todd Gitlin, an early activist and later analyst of the New Left, observed how actions were undertaken to “dramatize” convictions. They were “judged according to how they made the participants feel,” as if they were drugs offering highs and lows. If it was the immediate experience which counted for most, then there was little scope for thinking about the long term.[3]

I do not think American intellectual thought has ever really recovered from this. The SDS and the constellation of social movements that it was a part of created the “New Left.” These students, and those they influenced, would go on to take control of university departments, editorial chairs, and other positions in the ‘commanding heights of American culture. Though most are now passing from the scene, the American imagination still refracts politics through the cultural lens these boomer rebels created.[4] Most of the intellectual sloppiness that you find in modern activism comes from this source (not from Foucault et. al., who was brighter than conservatives give him credit for, and has largely been appropriated as intellectual cover for shoddy thinking that had been entrenched before Foucault was published in English).

The student movements trained an entire generation of intellectuals to feel instead of think. It also taught them to reject all that came before, cutting themselves off from the smartest thinking of the preceding two centuries. It was our misfortune that this happened just as the American intellectual scene was shrinking away from the rest of of the world. The free-wheeling, transnational debates of the 19th and early 20th century could not be repeated in the frozen Cold War world.

I pity the American public intellectual. Rejecting the rigor of the past, isolated from intellectual currents of non-Anglophone society, and planted in an environment where feelings trumped thought, it is a marvel that any of the lot has added to our understanding of strategy at all.

So that is hypothesis number two. Demonstrating this hypothesis true or false will be devilishly difficult. Possibly it is nothing more than an imaginary “just-so-story” engineered to pull a sense of coherence out of the last three generations of American thought. But either way, it is intriguing business to mull over. For the thoughtful reader, Strategy: A History will quicken many questions of this type. It is a book worth mulling your way through.

If you found this post on American intellectual history to your liking, you might also find the posts “Requiem for the Strategy Sphere” and “Honor, Dignity, and Victhimhood: Three Centuries of American Political Culture” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] One of the lingering side effects of this book was a drop in my appraisal of John Boyd—I did not realize how much of his theory was really just late 20th century update on ideas first described in the interwar years by fellows like Giulio Douhet and J.C. Fuller until Freedman juxtaposed them directly.

[2] Tanner Greer, “Requiem for the Strategy Sphere,Scholar’s Stage (2 November 2019)

[3] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), kindle location 13600.

[4] Yuval Levin, Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 13-31.

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I want to highlight one aspect of the insularity of American thinkers, and that is the European project. It is always surprising how little the big names understand of the most important movement on the Continent. Americans are not alone, as the shambles of the British Brexit negotiations amply demonstrates, but it limits the foremost intellectuals still.

The most recent case that caught my eye was Francis Fukuyama. Some Europeans scholars pointed out that in his latest 'Identity' book he made some elementary mistakes in differentiating between the European Union and the Council of Europe. He all lobbed them together under 'Europe' and blamed them for popular discontent over migration. Similarly, during the eurocrisis, American economists and pundits fell over one another to predict the imminent collapse of the euro, which according to them was a doomed project. They failed to understand the political will behind a project that was immensely meaningful to the leaders of the countries that put all their force behind rescuing the common currency.

This failure is an intellectual failure, because it stems from completely ignoring the most important political project on the Continent in the current day. Even the eurosceptics claim they want to save 'Europe'. Instead, you get Pompeo and Bolton who misunderstand the EU as just some other globalist attempt to subjugate the nation-state to international organisations. That is what feeds their misguided instincts to weaken or break up the institutions that European leaders see as the most important defence of their countries’ future relevance and sovereignty. That is how they create animosity towards the US. Calls for ‘strategic autonomy’ will only grow.

Exciting developments often taken place amid rapid change. But you need to be in that change. You don't want people like Mearsheimer lazily declaring the European project improbable because it does not suit their narrow theory. You need to be among the change—like the post-war Americans were, embedded in the building of the new world order—to write well about it.

And Europe is only one, shrinking, part of the world. Imagine the intellectual landscapes elsewhere that are ignored.

This post reminded me a long time ago you tweeted about a syllabus for teaching military theory with scifi, but it made me wonder if you have a reading list or something like a good reads account. Would I have to subscribe to patreon for it?

More relevant to the post at hand, I noticed the book is from 2013, does it cover anything modern related to social media or theories about platforms?