What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Grand strategy is the framework through which nations order their principles and priorities, and determine how best to achieve their goals. Broadly speaking, grand strategy can be viewed as a dependent variable, a process, or a blueprint. To develop the grand strategy we need today, policymakers should keep an eye on all three conceptions.

Grand Strategy as a Variable

The favored approach of realists who emphasize the influence of the international environment on national action. Viewing grand strategy as a variable is an analytic approach that tends to focus on past actions of great powers. Minimizes the agency of individual nations in choosing their own grand strategy.

Grand Strategy as Process

Focuses on how a nation formulates its grand strategy -- for instance, the work of the National Security Council. Generalizes grand strategy as all questions of international leadership and foreign policy. Useful for extrapolating leadership principles for use outside of international relations. Considers the influence of domestic political factors on the formation of a nation’s grand strategy.

Grand Strategy as Blueprint

The most prescriptive of the three, this view assumes that grand strategy is consciously constructed, and precedes and informs foreign policy. For instance, “liberal internationalism” is a grand strategic blueprint that dictates U.S. intervention abroad. Unlike viewing grand strategy as a variable, viewing grand strategy as a blueprint assumes broad agency on behalf of national actors.

The Future of Grand Strategy

As the United States puzzles out its role in a multipolar mode, it will be important to consider grand strategy from all three perspectives. Viewing grand strategy as a variable will help policymakers understand how grand strategies have functioned in the past. Viewing grand strategy as a process will help policymakers work across departments when formulating a strategy. Finally, viewing grand strategy as a blueprint will push policymakers to order their priorities and set a clear plan for how the United States should act in the international arena.

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