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Strategy and contingency



The determination that strategy should have a long-term predictive quality has left strategy seemingly wanting when having to address what are currently called ‘strategic shocks’, such as the recent Arab Spring and the NATO commitment to Libya. The focus on grand strategy, particularly in the US, is responsible for this trend. Its endeavour to mitigate risk in the national interest is inherently conservative, rather than opportunistic, and it is favoured and probably required by powers that are committed to the status quo, that need to manage diminishing resources, and that are dealing with relative decline. Strategy as traditionally but more narrowly defined by generals for use in a military context, is much more exploitative and proactive. Precisely because it is designed to be used in war it presumes that its function is offensive, that it will have to deal with chance and contingency, and that its aim is change. Its task is to deal with the uncertainties of war, and to respond to them while holding on to long-term perspectives. Clausewitz addressed the issue of ‘war plans’ in book VIII of On war, but the thinker who did most to inject planning into European strategic thought was Jomini. His influence has permeated much of American military thinking. The effect of nuclear planning in the Cold War was to ensure that strategy at the operational level became conflated with broader views of grand strategy—not least when the Cold War itself provided apparent continuity to strategic thought. Since 1990 we have been left with a view of strategy which fails to respond sensibly to chance and accident. Strategy needs context, and a sense of where and against whom it is to be applied. Its core task is to embrace contingency while holding on to long-term national interests.