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There’s a funny scene in the movie “Lost in America” in which Albert Brooks confronts his wife, played by Julie Hagerty, after having learned she just gambled away their entire nest egg, and tells her that since she clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of the phrase “nest egg,” she can’t use the word “egg” any more, she will have to order “things over easy on toast.”
I think of that scene whenever I hear someone in the Washington use the word “Strategy.”
This past week new guidance emerged from the five-sided wind tunnel informing the world (or at least the DOD), that, per direction from the National Security Council, the phrase “Great Power Competition” will be replaced with “Strategic Competition.”
The Interim National Security Guidance informs us that:
We confront a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency. We face a world of rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states, and a technological revolution that is reshaping every aspect of our lives.
Now, strictly speaking, a strategy is simply a plan. We all have them; a strategy is nothing more than a plan, the “bridge that connects your assets to your goals.” The great key is clearly identifying your goals - what do you really want. Then list your assets - what you can use to achieve those goals. Then and only then do you build a strategy.
This can be a very a mundane process: how do I get all my errands run, then get the car washed before 3PM? Or more subtle: how do I get the gorgeous neighbor to go out with me? Or more complex: How do I turn my $10,000 in cash into $10 million?
You are generating “strategies,” that is, plans. What then is a “strategic” plan?
Despite the widespread misuse of the word, “strategic” does not identify an echelon of activity, at least it doesn’t do so accurately. But it’s used that way regularly and the result is a great deal of fuzzy thinking.
It’s worth noting that the other word used all the time by planners, tactics, means essentially the same thing: “the art of arrangement.”Tactical actions normally refer to engagements between forces that are clearly defined in both time and space. An infantry regiment fighting two rifle companies over a tennis court (Burma during WWII - a particularly vicious event) is a tactical event. And while vicious and of immense consequence to the participants, the actual engagement may have little other impact.
So, “tactical” is used a great deal to talk about engagements - battles - between military forces, but then everything gets confusing: the “Battle of the Atlantic” during WWII lasted for several years and was, arguably the sine qua non of defeating Hitler.
Other actions can be very large and still have no meaningful impact on the outcome. And in some cases tactical actions can be repeatedly successful and yet not affect the outcome at all. Col. Harry Summers, one of the better strategists the US produced in the 20th century, noted that the US never lost a tactical engagement in Vietnam, but we lost the war; strategic failure.
Further confusing things, some events can be small and easily defined in time and space but have all sorts of impact, and yet, confusingly, they are referred to as “strategic.” Such an event might be one dissident shooting a crown prince and his wife on a street in Sarajevo in June of 1914. The event was tragic but simple, the impact was colossal, igniting what became World War I.
The point here, first, is that words have meanings. And using the wrong word or using a word poorly can be misleading. Calling something “strategic” may mean something to one person and something else again to another.
Meanwhile, though each administration generates a new “national security strategy,” they’re rarely read (Secretary of Defense Gates noted he rarely bothered reading them.)
Which leads back to the new National Security Guidance, which now tells us that the US and China, previous labeled as a “Great Power Competition,” are in Strategic Competition. One might wonder if we are going to compare our plans and see whose is most complete.
But this is far more serious than that. Because the fuzzy wording does indeed lead to fuzzy thinking. As a smart friend noted…
“There is a dissonance between the term “Strategic Competition” and the tone of crisis that permeates the document [The National Security Guidance]. Competition means competing in a race towards some kind of finish line. What is the finish line? Global domination? If the CCP and the US are in a race, then what happens to the loser? That ought to be a motivating factor. If the CCP are looking to recruit RU in the race to slow us down, then what’s in it for RU?
“Put another way, if the CCP wants to dominate the world, we should define what this would mean for us – a better way of defining what we would fight for. Competition means us vs. them, I think, not peaceful coexistence.”
Great Power Competition speaks directly to the problem: Two Great countries (or three if you include Russia) are in competition for their respective places in the international pecking order.
We are a great power, China is as well. Russia, with its massive geography, its huge oil and natural gas reserves, and its huge nuclear arsenal, is also a great power.
The folks in Washington may not want this to be viewed as a cold war that can overheat and lead to shooting. If that is the case, they are taking all the wrong steps. It is precisely when one country is not only clear about its goals and also clear that this can lead to war, and the other country is not clear about goals and not clear about the possibility of war, that is where there will be miscalculations.
And that is where we stand today; Beijing is crystal clear about its goals. What are Washington’s goals?
One final thought: the only group of people in the US who have all received graduate level training, and then worked extensively in developing strategies, are the senior officers of the US military. They should know we need clarity in our plans.
And who should know this best? The senior uniformed advisor to the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who should be worried about what’s brewing across the Pacific, rather than trying to figure out why some people in the US are angry. If he were paying attention, he would know that there are a whole bunch of angry Americans, on all sides. But just imagine how angry they’ll be if the Chinese slap the US around. And then, when those angry Americans figure out he’s to blame, they’ll all be angry at him.
We need the Pentagon, the Joint Staff, and the services to tighten up and focus on their primary mission. Because a reading of the documents coming out of Washington focused on National Security suggest no one is up to the job. Over to you, General.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...