Written evidence from Professor Sir Hew Strachan

For commanders in war, certainly in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, strategy was a matter of time and space, and the coordination of the two.  Whether on land or sea, their task was to calculate how long it would take them to move their forces, given the challenges of weather and geography, over a set distance to use them to best effect at the right point. Today time and space feature much less in how we think about strategy, first because we assume air travel and real-time communications have minimised their importance, and second because we no longer associate strategy primarily with military command in wartime.  Instead, and especially since the Second World War and the advent of nuclear weapons, we have seen strategy’s principal responsibility as the co-ordination of war with policy.

The relationship between strategy and policy is normally set in the context of Clausewitz’s formulation, that war is the continuation of policy by other means.  Frequently – indeed more often than not, as the wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan have reminded us – the outcomes of war fail to deliver on this normative expectation. If the commander gets his calculations of time and space wrong, he may face defeat.  However, that defeat may also be the consequences of factors outside his control: a change in the weather, the lack of sufficient resources, a failure of communications, a loss of political or public will.  The point is that policy’s role as the guiding hand in either war or strategy can be shattered by circumstances beyond either political or military control.

Recent strategic failures are evidence of our too-ready assumption that strategy sits in a hierarchical relationship, with policy at the top and strategy as the vehicle for its implementation. In this narrative policy sets the objectives and strategy sorts out how they are best achieved. But if the objectives cannot be delivered, for example because they are too ambitious in relation to the available means, or too complex given the pressures of time or probable governmental patience, strategy must make demands of policy, not vice versa. In these circumstances, policy has to adapt to what is possible, not demand what seems ideal.

The relationship between policy and strategy is therefore iterative, not uniquely top-down. It travels in both directions, from strategy to policy as well as from policy to strategy. In stressing the ‘how’ of implementation, strategy may create demands which exceed governmental expectations or cause the aims and objectives to be redrawn. The implications go further in practice. Although in a democracy, the elected government must have the final say in policy, those who develop strategy should be able to give advice and express views that are inherently political (in the sense of policy, not of party politics), despite normative constraints to the contrary. When Clausewitz wrote about war and policy, he never imagined that the commander-in-chief would not have some share in the latter as well as in the former.  We have made a fetish of an artificial division which gets in the way of common sense in strategy-making.  The issues of time and space both illustrate the importance of these points.

Time matters in strategy because strategy tries to anticipate the future and to create plans to address the challenges the future might bring. But the further forward it projects itself, the shallower its foundations become. The presumption that strategy is about forecasting can produce assessments which are either so general as to be of little direct help or so focused (frequently on a specific technology) as to be vulnerable to a host of other variables.  The 2018 edition of the Ministry of Defence’s Global Strategic Trends looks out to 2045, and similar surveys to 2050.  The analysis of trends as long as these does not cope well with contingency.  Strategic shocks – for example, the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 – change the calculus in short order.  Moreover, they sometimes put assumptions into reverse, rather than impel them forward.  The Russian attack on Ukraine brought major war to Europe once more, and in a shape that many compared to the First World War.  The current conflict between Israel and Hamas is set against a background of Middle Eastern history which stretches back to 1948 and in some respects to 1917.

The presumption of change which the future creates can also blind us to continuities, especially if they have been dormant for some time.  Strategy is therefore a dialogue between past, present and future. Armed forces fight current wars with what are largely legacy systems but which they have to adapt to new circumstances. If strategy becomes too confident about its predictions, for example that major war has been eradicated in Europe or that the relationship between Israel and Palestine has found an equilibrium, it fails to prepare adequately for the present. The AUKUS Pact aims to deliver SSBNs for Australia to deploy in the Pacific by the late 2040s but the United States anticipates conflict with China by 2027. If the US is right, Australia should be spending its money on large numbers of diesel-propelled submarines deliverable in a nearer time-horizon.

Long-term strategy is therefore in constant tension with contemporary predicaments. The impact of events in real time can change the trajectory of the future in short order.  Strategy sets a course towards an objective. When circumstances change, it is important to remember that original objective, which can then shape the response to the immediate situation. But it is equally important, if need be, to respect the realities of the current circumstances. Ultimately, the immediate priorities may require the objective itself to be replaced. The iteration between where you actually are and where you might like to be is therefore continuous.

Space in the sense of distance is an equally persistent variable in terms of strategy. For most states bound by land frontiers, strategy has focused – and still focuses – on their ‘near abroad’, on their neighbours, the competition with them, and their relative security. Even sea-girt continents can think in these terms.  In its 2009 defence review, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific century, Australia saw its defence in concentric circles, with the inner circle focused on its coasts and the direct protection of Australia, the median circle looking for effect in the south Pacific and towards Indonesia, and the outer circle seeking to deploy Australian troops in interventions (in this instance in Iraq and Afghanistan) to secure leverage with western allies and especially the United States. For continental states in Europe, the European Union was first and foremost not an economic bloc, but a security alliance, conceived in the embers of the First World War and brought to fruition after the Second. It attempted to draw a line under Europe’s immediate past and so successful has it been that until February 2022 most of its members increasingly took their security for granted.

The relevance of proximity and distance to strategy is particularly acute for the United States and the United Kingdom, both vouchsafed a higher degree of relative security by the sea.  They have therefore had a greater element of strategic choice in their foreign policies than many other states and they have been able to use that choice to wage expeditionary wars.  Between 1969 and 1982 Britain focused its strategy on Europe, responding to the threat of the Soviet Union and recognising the limitations imposed by relative British economic decline. As a result, the end of the Cold War created what was almost an existential crisis for British strategy, seemingly removing the Russian threat to European security and encouraging it to seek a broader framework once more. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review resuscitated the idea of a British expeditionary capability, based on two aircraft carriers which have since entered service in a very different strategic context from that for which they were designed. In 2016 Brexit pushed the political dial even further from Britain’s ‘near abroad’, with the Integrated Review of 2021 setting objectives for ‘Global Britain’. The ambition expressed in that phrase does more than put to one side the issue of overall military capability given falling resources; it also minimises the demands of distance and time in, as well as the direct costs of, deploying major assets – like a carrier-strike group – to the Pacific. 

After 2001, when the 9/11 attacks encouraged the US to launch its ‘global war on terror’, Britain gradually came to realise that it had changed strategic direction once more, albeit without really thinking about it. Its immediate response, a ‘new chapter’ added on to the Strategic Defence Review, retained the assumptions of 1998, despite the fact that the United Kingdom would pursue a fundamentally different strategy for the next two decades. It followed in the slipstream of the United States, assuming that Washington had a greater grasp of where it was going than in fact it had.  America thought it could fight limited wars for open-ended objectives by simply containing the resources it allocated to them. This put the logic of ‘limited war’ the wrong way around.  War is bloody and brutal, and its effects can be best contained by defining realistic and achievable objectives. The task of strategy in this context is indeed long term -  to look to war’s second- and third-order consequences. Those who made strategy did not – and, despite superior military potential, failure followed in Iraq, Libya and – most recently – Afghanistan.

In 2010 Britain responded to this crisis by realising that it needed a better institutional basis for making strategy. David Cameron’s coalition government set up the National Security Council and established what was intended to be a quinquennial sequence of National Security Strategies.  The issues of strategy and how it was made, and of the distinction between strategy and grand strategy were debated. The House of Commons Public Administration Committee conducted an enquiry in 2010-11 on Who does UK national strategy? Its response to that question was not encouraging but the fact that it posed it in the first place suggested that strategy was in the ‘air’. It remains there but it is hard to conclude that Britain is doing it any better. It has committed significant resources, at a cost to its own defence readiness, to Ukraine’s fight against Russia, without exercising much control over how those weapons are used and into whose hands they might fall. NATO as a whole is enabling Ukraine to wage war but leaving Ukraine free to decide on its objectives. In the Middle East, Britain is supporting Israel in its war with Hamas, while seeing its credit as a power that obeys International Humanitarian Law leaching as Israel apparently rides roughshod over its provisions. These may be the necessary opportunity cost of war: one fights as one must, not as one might like. But it is still prudent to be aware of the second- and third-order consequences.

So, why is strategy still not being delivered in Britain?  One get-out clause for Britain’s failure to think strategically is that the idea of a National Security Strategy is a form of hubris. Britain cannot have a truly national strategy because it is a junior partner in a multi-national alliance, in which each member state is sovereign and in which even the hegemon – the United States – can find itself fettered. But in that case, Britain’s strategy must be based on that fact and then seek to find its way round those limitations. It might mean, for example, that the United Kingdom would seek to back-fill for the United States in Europe, not to duplicate it in the Pacific.

Secondly the institutions that make strategy are only as effective as the personalities that populate them. David Cameron as prime minister took his role as chairman of the National Security Council very seriously. It met almost weekly, effectively substituting for the Cabinet.  That may have been too frequently and the sub-committee that it set up during the Libyan War became too operational and even tactical, rather than strategic.  But Cameron’s successors have proved less ready to utilise the NSC. It barely met under Boris Johnson, who towards the end of his premiership planned to divide it up into NSMs, i.e. meetings on particular issues chaired by specific ministers, so subverting the principle of cross-departmental coordination. Liz Truss went so far as to abolish the NSC.  Rishi Sunak has revived it, but it meets less often, about once a month, and its public profile seems diminished.

Thirdly, even in Cameron’s day, the NSC was under-gunned.  It is based in the Cabinet Office, which has authority for coordinating departments and for liaising with the devolved administrations on cross-cutting issues. But the guiding principle, given the potential size of such a portfolio, is to leave well alone rather than go on a mission to identify common issues which could swamp the capacities of the centre. Security and strategy fall into this category. Today they have both international and domestic dimensions; there is no clear division between ‘home’ and ‘away’; and the Integrated Review and the Integrated Review Refresh have prioritised economic security as well as other non-military capabilities.  Once delegated to departments, process takes over, making it hard for strategy in a coordinated sense to survive. Top-down direction, if it is given, is reformulated according to the department’s own priorities and interests, and when the possible plan for implementation moves its way back up the chain of command it may no longer match the original intent. The NSC recognises the problem, to which the ‘fusion doctrine’, propounded by Lord Sedwill when he was National Security Adviser, was a proposed solution.

Fourthly, the pattern of parliamentary oversight replicates the departmental and ministerial structure, leaving strategy without a defined home in the committee arrangements. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on the National Security Strategy was established in 2011. The chairs of the select committees on defence, foreign affairs, intelligence and international development all sit ex officio on the Joint Committee. As required by its brief, the latter steers clear of issues which it concludes belong more properly with those other committees.  As a result, the Joint Committee goes in one of two directions in its enquiries. It either reports on areas that fall into the cracks left by other committees, as its current enquiry on ransomware illustrates, and as did its annual review of the Conflict, Security and Stabilisation Fund, or it addresses the workings of the NSC itself.  Even here it has a problem.  It is the committee on the National Security Strategy, not on the National Security Council. It therefore addresses strategy when there is a new National Security Strategy in the offing or when one has been published but the delegation of defence, foreign affairs, intelligence and international development to other committees limits its reach into strategy in the sense intended by the Liaison Sub-Committee’s Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government.

Fifthly, the divided parliamentary oversight of strategic thinking in government has wider consequences for the public understanding of strategy. Parliamentary committees report on the record and so what they have to say can help both inform public understanding of the issues surrounding security and strategy and promote public identification with government strategy. The Ministry of Defence’s polling of public attitudes to defence, on issues like Britain’s membership of NATO and the deployment of the armed forces, show consistently high ratings, normally over 65 percent approval, regardless of age, place of residence or gender.  Public support for Ukraine and public engagement with the current state of the Middle East make similar points.  There is greater awareness of and appreciation for security and strategy than either government or the traditional media often acknowledge.

This insight matters, sixthly, because public understanding contributes to societal resilience.  The Covid-19 pandemic brought out the capacity of British society to act collectively in the common interest and in ways which both supported and contributed to communities. This is itself a strategic asset – and a lesson that should be learned from the pandemic, because national resilience itself underpins both deterrence and, as Ukraine is showing on a daily basis, defence itself.

Seventh, and finally, strategy – particularly in situations of volatility and high levels of competition and even conflict – rests not on the minimisation of risk but on the awareness of the opportunities that risk can present. The National Security Strategy has depended on a National Risk Register for its conclusionsThe Register creates a defensive and reactive mindset.  That is not how the commanders of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries the example with which these comments began - saw risk.  They accepted risk because its exploitation could create opportunity. 

Professor Sir Hew Strachan, Bishop Wardlaw Professor of International Relations, University of St Andrews, and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

The above comments draw on ideas developed more fully in:

Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: contemporary strategy in historical perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2013).


Hew Strachan, ‘Strategy in theory; strategy in practice’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 42:2 (2019), pp 171-90

Hew Strachan and Ruth Harris, The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain, RAND Europe, 2020, www.rand.org/t/RRA213-1

Hew Strachan, ‘The Causes of Wars and their Consequences’, in Richard Iron and Damien Kingsbury (eds), How wars end: theory and practice (London: Routledge, 2023), pp 11-27