Influences on Grand Strategy

Grand Strategy is “the direction and use made of any or all among the total assets of a security community in support of its policy goals as decided by politics”.[1] It is the “calculated relationship of means to large ends”[2] and is therefore the art of statecraft in its most intrinsic nature.

Grand Strategy is an all-encompassing concept that can make use of all the instruments and means available to the state: from the loneliest sentry to the highest point of foreign policy, from taxes to bribery, from the funding of scientific research to its application, all aspects of civil and military society fall under the mantel of Grand Strategy. However, Grand Strategy has not always been such a broad concept. Because of its intrinsic nature being so closely tied to warfare and military affairs, it was originally limited to this field. It has grown over time and started embracing an increasing number of different fields. The complexification and interconnectedness of all aspects of modern society has incited a need for Grand Strategy to expand itself.[3]

The ever-increasing magnitude of this type of strategy stuns the imagination. Yet, this is also the reason of its downfall. It is extremely difficult to effectively and efficiently manage all the tools that fall under the scope of Grand Strategy. The breadth of Grand Strategy makes it difficult to wield over a long time, unless its concept is particularly simple, in which case it can be sustained over a longer period with more ease. A fitting example of a simple Grand Strategy that has been sustained over time is the English attempt to prevent the rise of a continental hegemony in Europe.[4]

The adjective “grand” is itself misleading for it does not necessarily correlate with something great in size or purpose but rather to the plethora of tools available that can, and will, be yielded in order to pursue and secure the aim of the strategy. It would be more accurate to call it “total strategy” for a more intuitive understanding as it is a strategy used for “total war”[5]. This term of “total strategy” would help spontaneously understand the depth and importance of this strategy. However, because of the means devoted to Grand Strategy, not every strategy can be characterized as Grand Strategy. The use of certain tools naturally expresses the importance and weight of the strategy. It is difficult to say which strategy is “Grand Strategy”, but the use of a critical mass of diverse instruments in order to pursue one’s strategy will distinguish mere strategy from Grand Strategy. For that reason, it is only appropriate to conclude that the critical mass of tools applied towards a strategy is only critical relatively to its means: a country with a smaller capacity cannot hope to match the capacity of a larger country.[6] Grand Strategy seeks out to weaponize all the available instruments it has, whether they be military, economic, diplomatic, or any other accessible means, in order to achieve its goal. Both the pursued means and the available tools at its disposal therefore characterize it.

Who directs Grand Strategy?

There can be two different origins to Grand Strategy. The first case is the individual-led Grand Strategy of which one individual is the impulse (such as Alexander the Great or Bismarck). In the second case, the impulse is in the latent strategic culture of a country. Proper examples of such latent cultures that survive through multiple changes in the administration would be the American containment policy that was prevalent in during the Cold War[7] or the quest for Grandeur by the French administration that was initiated by the General de Gaulle after the second World War.[8]

In the first case, Grand Strategy is directed by the impulse of one man. Usually, only authority such as heads of states have the necessary means to set off the impulse of such strategy. They are the only ones who have access to the essential tools to set a Grand Strategy in motion. These Grand Strategies are too often limited in time because they are the product of one single individual. Furthermore, Grand Strategy is then subjected to the personal limits of the man himself. This might lead Grand Strategy to be poorly or inadequately implemented, and for that reason, it would not yield the desired result.  

Grand strategic culture has the advantage of being laid out over a longer period of time. It can therefore adapt over time to get more effective and it substantially increases its chances of being successful. Moreover, if a grand strategic culture has managed to establish itself, it necessarily means that a continuity of heads of state have decided that the sought-after objective was worth the trouble. Not only does cultural Grand Strategy suffer less from the inadequacies of the head of state, but it is even approved by the following head of state, thus appearing even more legitimate. There is the possibility that Grand Strategic culture evolves over time, and ends up being fairly different than the original idea.

In Grand Strategy, the definition of the purpose is in itself not always obvious. When facing a grave and life-threatening situation, the strategy to be followed is often self-evident in purpose if not in means. In times of peace however both goals and means can be difficult to define, especially when there is no clearly defined threat to fight.[9] In which case, the development of a culture aiming at certain strategic goals can help focus naturally the means of strategy over time, and even unconsciously in some cases. A good example of this would be the culture of corruption that was efficiently used by the Byzantine emperors. Knowing that enemies of the Empire will continue to rise and fall, the Byzantine emperors have soon realized that they could simply bribe their neighbors into withholding their attack, or even better, to attack some other poor tribe instead of having to fight them traditionally.[10]

Both of these attitudes were mostly self-evident during both the Byzantine and British Empire. By having made these strategic reflexes part of their everyday foreign policy, they had a lasting impact and an accrued effectiveness. Furthermore, because the head of the state sent strategic impulses, these impulses could only last for as long as the influence of this head of state is there. A striking example of a Grand Strategy limited to its architect is the abandonment of the Bismarckian foreign policy by the German Empire after the chancellor’s resignation. This demonstrates the limits of a one-man Grand Strategy because this very change in the German Empire’s foreign policy ultimately led it to its dissolution.[11]

Whether it is a one-man Grand Strategy or a cultural strategy, the efficiency of the Grand Strategy also depends on the ability of the head of state to instrumentalize the capacities of government towards the fulfillment of its goal. In which case the structure, the culture of the country as well as the character of the head of state itself, will help shape the efficiency with which the instruments of Grand Strategy will be weld. An authoritarian state will be able to more easily extend the period of time during which it applies its Grand Strategy, if the head of state were to change more often, such as in a democratic government, Grand Strategy will change more easily from one administration to the next.

Factors influencing Grand Strategy

Both geography and history shape Grand Strategy. The geographical position of the country will shape its strategy: it determines both the strengths and weaknesses of the country.[12] The natural resources, their access, the strategic positioning, and everything else related to geography will determine the weaknesses, strengths and needs of a country. The more important the needs, the more pressing the strategy. Throughout history, the geography of a country has determined its strategy: the English Empire could almost exclusively focus on the expansion of its trade and navy because it is an island. The Byzantine Empire had to have an extremely careful approach towards its neighbors because it was extended on three different continents, etc. Geography is the most persistent influence on Grand Strategy.

It is possible to overcome geographic limitations through technology, but rarely can technology completely overcome the constraints of geography. The United States for example have benefited a lot from technology. Firstly, because it allowed them to build and exploit the Panama Canal (thus overcoming the problem of having to split their navy across two oceans), and secondly, technology has allowed to easily project their power across the globe. The numerous American bases around the world embody this exquisitely. However, even if technology can allow regimes to overcome their isolation, geography still largely determines a country’s internal limits and external needs.

The historical factor also influences a country’s Grand Strategy. The head of state inherits a situation on the political sphere that will indubitably influence its strategy in a certain direction. Some historical events can deeply change the way a country positions itself in the international sphere. A contemporary example of this change would be the change in American foreign policy after 9/11. This influences not only the internal situation of a country but its external position in the world as well, both influencing in one way or another the Grand Strategy of a country.[13] 

It would be interesting to further look into the intrinsic elements that constitutes grand strategy. Since the definition of Grand Strategy is rarely completely agreed upon, a more thorough study on the subject might be welcomed. A proper study could extensively look into what constitutes Grand Strategy but what would necessarily influence its application. The vastness of the concept and the subtle interconnectedness with many (if not all) aspects of society make it challenging to adequately define Grand Strategy and its proper means. Furthermore, it would be particularly interesting to look into Grand Strategy through the scope of geographical constraints and how technology manages to dim the influence of geography on Grand Strategy.


[1] Colin S. Gray, “The Strategy Bridge – Theory for Practice”, Oxford University Press, p. 18.
[2] John Lewis Gaddis, “What is Grand Strategy?”, lecture delivered at the conference on ‘American Grand Strategy after War’, 26 February 2009, p. 7.
[3] The appearance of the concept of hybrid warfare exemplifies this interconnectedness nicely.
[4] Some date this strategy all the way back to Philippe II of France (1180-1223) and his expansion in Angevin-controlled land. André Maurois, “Histoire d’Angleterre”, Ed. Fayard, 1937, p. 458.
[5] General André Beaufre, “Introduction à la Stratégie”, Ed. Pluriel, 2012, p. 45-46.
[6] For example, it is indubitable that North Korea has a Grand Strategy and that it is deploying all of its country’s meager resources towards the achievement of its goal. 
[7] Peter Dombrowski and Simon Reich, “Comparative Grand Strategy”, Oxford University Press, 2019, p. 35.
[8] Thierry Balzacq, “Comparative Grand Strategy”, Oxford University Press, 2019, p. 101.
[9] Williamson Murray, “The Shaping of Grand Strategy”, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 33.
[10] Edward N. Luttwak, “Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire”, Harvard University Press, 2009, p. 111.
[11] Jean-Paul Bled, “Bismarck”, Ed. Perrin, 2011, p. 321.
[12] Williamson Murray, “The Shaping of Grand Strategy”, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 11.
[13] Another example of subtle change in Grand Strategy is the switch of rivalry in British strategy in the 20th century. For centuries France has been the rival to keep in check, however with the German ambitions growing quickly, the British have started to get closer of France in order to keep the German Empire in check.


About the Author
Antoine Buffin de Chosal, a graduate of the "Strategic and Arms Control Studies" programme, Saint Petersburg State University. He is currently a Blue Book trainee at the European Union.

Our partners