What is Grand Strategy? Interview with Thierry Balzacq and Simon Reich

Comparative Grand Strategy

What is grand strategy? Do states have the monopoly of grand strategy? Can all states develop and claim to have a grand strategy? What can a comparative study of grand strategy bring to an understanding of global politics? Thierry Balzacq, Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski examine these questions and many more in a coedited volume promoting a novel approach to the concept of grand strategy, Comparing Grand Strategy: A Framework and Cases (Oxford University Press, 2019). Interview with Thierry Balzacq and Simon Reich.

How would you define grand strategy to the layman?

This is a difficult question, not least because experts tend to forget that the definition is considerably simplified with that purpose in mind when you provide an answer aimed at a general audience. But acknowledging that risk, in our view grand strategies describe the fundamental principles that guide a country’s foreign policy. In that sense they provide the guidelines for a state’s plans, the strategy it pursues in a specific case, and even its decisions and tactics in an individual episode. The goal of a grand strategy is to articulate a state’s guiding beliefs, values and priorities, and to establish coherence and consistency in a state’s behavior. In this sense, our view of grand strategies does not distinguish between principles, plans, and behaviors. They are related. For example, the French grand strategy of grandeur was expressed by specific forms of behavior, which were fed by distinct plans and principles. Our project used these basic ideas as a foil against which to study what we think are the three main components of any grand strategy: formulation, mobilization and implementation.

Is the concept subject to debate?

Yes, the concept of a grand strategy is heavily contested. There are different areas of contestation discussed in the book, but here we can single out two.

The first dimension is the very definition and purpose of a grand strategy. Some scholars argue that grand strategy, and national security, should be narrowly defined in terms of the fighting and winning of wars. This is what we have characterized as a Classicist approach.

Others contend that a grand strategy’s definition and purpose is far more expansive. We have labelled the latter an International Relations approach. The purpose here is therefore to broadly serve a nation’s interest in terms of many forms of engagement in three domains—diplomatic, economic and military—not just one. In this latter approach the idea of national security may include elements such as human and economic development, and even issues such as sustainability and climate change.

The second dimension of debate has been between different prescriptions for a country’s grand strategy. Essentially, five major forms have been developed, stretching across a spectrum from those that endorse a high degree of global engagement, such as Primacy, to those that promote very limited engagement, such as Isolationism. Proponents of these different types routinely publish work in both academic journals and on social media in which they advocate on behalf of their preferred grand strategy. This debate has consumed American scholarship since the end of the Cold War, as academics have searched for a guiding principle in the aftermath of the logic of Containment that then dominated thinking.

How has grand strategy been studied until now and why do you think that it is necessary to renew the scholarly approach to this object?

To date, the focus of study has been overwhelmingly on the United States, with some limited work on other great powers such as China and Russia. The logic behind this small selection of countries is that states need large bureaucracies to formulate a grand strategy and vast militaries to implement one. Not surprisingly, they preponderantly focus on the military aspects and on efforts by these countries to mold the global system to suit their interests.

None of this makes much sense to us. We believe that many countries, both great and small, can and do formulate and implement a grand strategy on a multiplicity of issues. Looking at the evidence, it would be hard to argue that large countries like Brazil and India don’t have guiding principles that form the basis for their foreign policy and even their tactics in a specific situation. The same is true of smaller countries like Israel or Iran, and even city-states like Singapore and Qatar. These countries, of course, can’t mold the global system to their liking. But they can often effectively adapt it to suit their interests. Think of Qatar as an example. It has a small military. But it uses many forms of economic leverage and public diplomacy to develop a string of alliances with other countries. It was able to call upon those relationships to overcome the economic blockade imposed on it by other Gulf States in 2017 and 2018. That wasn’t a coincidence. Its effective response was the product of a series of prior decisions about awarding aid, investing in other countries (like buying Paris Saint Germain football club!) and setting up a global media empire that criticized, and therefore undermined, many of the Gulf states that subsequently threatened them.

We therefore believe that the study of grand strategy should be greatly expanded to include other countries. Not all states qualify, of course. Many failed states are too incoherent to form and implement a grand strategy for any purpose. But from Canada, Germany and Norway to Morocco, Rwanda and Turkey, there are many states who have a grand strategy. Understanding what they do, why they do it and the consequences of their action can only help academics to explain the world and policymakers to plan for it.

Why has context not been given appropriate importance in the study of grand strategy; and why do you aim at emphasizing its importance?

The current dominant forms of grand strategy mentioned above share some key assumptions. One is that states are rational actors who objectively use a cost-benefit analysis to establish their interests and prioritize the threats they want to address. It basically assumes that the structure of the global system dominates strategy and that context isn’t particularly important: Faced with a particular situation, any state with the same resources will respond in a similar fashion. They assume that behavior is therefore generalizable, across time and space.

This kind of approach, in practice, ignores the role of national histories—and the subjective factors that influence a state’s understanding of history and interpretation of threats. We believe, in contrast, that decision-makers and the public are driven by a variety of beliefs and ideas —and interpretations of their own history— that heavily skew how they see the world. Little if anything is objective. Take for example, the British choice to leave the European Union. A narrow majority of the British public ignored the obvious benefits of EU membership, lured by the idea that British sovereignty over decisions was more important, even EU decisions from which Britain benefited. The dominant adage for them was “taking back control,” based on a nineteenth century conception of Britain’s glorious past.

One of our objectives is to examine how national psyches —the interpretation of the past by leaders and the public—frame contemporary grand strategies and influence foreign policy. Doing so will move the debate away from universal assumptions about rationality and generalizability and towards the importance of national context in understanding grand strategies.

Furthermore, most studies of grand strategies tend to understate the importance of domestic politics, including the extent to which factors such as civil-military relations, regime type, institutional architecture, and elite interests shape grand strategy. We, in contrast, study their contribution. Our comparative approach allows us to generate a better understanding of processes that have theretofore been kept implicit .

Finally, because grand strategies are reflected in mid-to-long term policies, we found a preponderant emphasis on continuity in the literature. But the authors we recruited for the volume were asked not to commit themselves to such a premise a priori. Instead, we asked them to enquire into the conditions for both continuity and change in the countries that they examined. By doing so, they provided a contrasting picture about the way nations reinforce, adapt or alter their grand strategies.

Which countries and regions have you chosen to examine in this edited volume, and what are the main conclusions of this collective comparative study?

Working within the Global Initiative on Comparative Grand Strategies (GICGS), we examine 10 countries in our new edited volume, some of which we have already mentioned, plus the European Union. The ten countries include the current five great powers––China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. No study could reasonably exclude this group. But our contributors study them in a non-traditional way by examining how historical factors frame their contemporary grand strategies and behavior. There are a series of interesting findings when comparing them. One, for example, is that British grand strategy has consistently emphasized disengagement from Europe while France’s has conversely consistently stressed more integration since the 1980s. Brexit was therefore no accident. It was the culmination of that British strategy. Despite the rhetoric about French independence, in contrast, its leadership has plotted a consistent course to nestle France within the EU and other global organizations. Current IR theory, however, would anticipate their grand strategies would posit moving in the same direction.

We then examine two states that are by far the most important in their region: Brazil and India. Of course, they operate in very different environments. Brazil’s military dominates a region that has been devoid of any interstate wars for decades. India, in contrast, operates in an environment where geo-politics and existential threats clearly exist. Pakistan’s nuclear capacity, ethnic conflicts in Kashmir, and Chinese and American engagement offer numerous flashpoints. Here, the traditional approaches to grand strategy would expect Brazil and India’s grand strategies to look very different. What is remarkable is that they are notably similar, due to some common historical features that still influence contemporary domestic leaders across the political spectrum.

We examine the cases of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia because these are three countries who many employing traditional approaches to grand strategy would say are disqualified from being studied. But, faced with a realistic threat of destruction from each other, they clearly each have a grand strategy. Yet, beyond that basic point, they differ in how they combine diplomatic, economic and military power in implementing their grand strategies. This makes them interesting to study as individual countries, but also fascinating to compare.

Finally, we look at the European Union. Again, it is interesting to study because the conventional literature assumes that only states can have grand strategies. Our question was therefore whether an intergovernmental organization, with enormous resources but no unified military, could in fact have a grand strategy. The conclusions are somewhat qualified, in terms of the breadth of the EU’s strategy. But the findings suggest that the field of grand strategy should not be monopolized by states.

Our goal is to develop many of these themes in multiple platforms. We are now working on two authored books. One reconceptualizes the study of American grand strategy through the framework we have described here. Another is a ‘how to’ book for scholars and students wanting to study countries this way. We are also in the process of concluding an agreement to edit an exciting book series with Oxford University Press in which scholars from around the world will study the grand strategies of some of the countries we have discussed in this interview—and many more.

Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI

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