ASPI recommends: The evolution of strategy
1 Aug 2012|

The Evolution of StrategyFor readers looking for a good one-volume text on strategy, I would recommend Beatrice Heuser’s work, The evolution of strategy: thinking war from antiquity to the present, published in 2010. Heuser, an academic at the University of Reading, offers an overview of strategy across the ages, interesting both for the sweep and scope of the subject matter and for the author’s elegant unpacking of an immensely complex topic. Readers will doubtless focus upon those chapters of greatest interest to themselves, and for me it’s her observations about the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic worlds that offer the greatest insights.

Her trenchant commentary upon strategy and war in general in the aftermath of World War II will give readers a lot of the broad framework they need to think about the contemporary strategic environment. For Heuser, warfare since 1945 has been characterised by what she calls ‘wars without victories and victories without peace’. With Afghanistan still stuttering to a fitful conclusion, it requires no great leap of imagination to believe that formulation might well continue to define the pattern of war in coming decades.

In an epilogue to the text, Heuser makes some astute observations about contemporary strategic thinking that will be of interest to Australian readers watching their government embark on yet another Defence White Paper. Writing with the British experience more in mind perhaps than the Australian one, Heuser notes:

Strategic concepts formally adopted by governments rarely existed in a formal written form before the late nineteenth century. Since their usage has become widespread, they have been characterised more by contradictions and compromises resulting from bureaucratic politics than by a logical application of explicit principles…One therefore has to be aware of the corporate character of any government document that is taken to reflect or define government “strategy”…Such documents…are a “distillation of compromises”.

There’s a cautionary message here for Australians interested in the finer details of national declaratory strategy—beware over-reading the messages of any white paper, let alone the one currently in process. The picture that Heuser paints of decisionmakers’ behaviour during a crisis—stumbling blindly in the dark, concerned above all with surviving the crisis and preventing the worst from happening—suggests that formal expressions of declaratory policy don’t readily guide such decisionmaking in such cases. After the events of 9/11, did John Howard sit down and re-read the Defence White Paper of 2000? No. He made strategic policy rather than analysed it.

Does this mean that White Papers are exercises in futility? Again, no. Australia should try to explain its own strategic settings, both to others and to itself. There’s a learning curve for those most engaged in the process—and, usually, a national debate for the rest of us about whether the drafters got their arguments and conclusions right or wrong and who’s going to pay for the associated defence procurement plan. But we should beware seeing a White Paper’s conclusions as self-evident truths, or as markers for how governments will behave in relation to future decisions.

Rod Lyon is senior analyst for international strategy at ASPI.