Tac Talks: Understanding war, policy and strategy

Tac Talks No. 31
Tac Talks No. 31

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LEUT Patrick Kneipp



Junior Military leaders often miss the relationship between policy and strategy, particular as it subsequently applies to an operation. In the international community, states interact to advance self-interests however; this can cause either deliberate or inadvertent conflict.

The conflation of Policy and Strategy occurs when the pursuit of war, or conversely avoidance, is the political aim in either war or peace. War can be an instrument of politics, when this is the case then the strategy is the tool that enables understanding and provides direction to the point of best advantage. The policy provides a nation with the rationality to conduct war and therefore occupies a higher status in political thought.

This does not detract from the strategy, which operates to make war useable to accomplish these political purposes. These ideas however are not interchangeable; they are distinctly separate concepts, never able to occupy the same space; rather what is sought is a harmonious relationship that provides continual feedback through all aspects and to all decision-makers.

Grand Strategy


‘Grand Strategy’ is a policy in execution, pursuing via strategy, national goals. In the broadest sense, it is seen as a conflation of policy and strategy to allow the highest allocation of resources to a State’s goals, often involving conflict or avoidance thereof. One analysis, in a materialist sense, is that it is the decision maker’s assessment of the best approach to achieve an end with the available means.

Colin Gray goes further to state that all strategy is Grand Strategy. In concluding this he states that no matter the scope there must be continual relationships through, government, military and population across all levels to ensure the correct allocation of resources. He continues to state that the concept of policy in execution goes beyond war as an instrument for evaluating peace afterwards. In either circumstance, the importance of the proximity between policy and strategy is continually highlighted.

The existential war is the most apparent form of Grand Strategy and is demonstrable in both World Wars. This however was a circumstance of Total War, which is the mass mobilisation of forces to fight for national survival. Here there can be no choice except for policy and strategy to conflate for the harmonious purpose to enable national survival. Total War is a rarity and is not the only place conflation occurs; it is just the most obvious example.

Small wars


Since the end of the Second World War, deterrence theory has hijacked strategic thought, particularly in the realms of Grand Strategy. It is the use of threatened violence to influence wills and is a conflation of policy and strategy. The policy in action here comes in the form of diplomacy and foreign policy. State legitimacy rests, in part in their ability to provide security to themselves and their interests. Thomas Schilling provides an example; “The power to hurt is bargaining power”.

To exploit it is diplomacy - vicious diplomacy, but still, diplomacy, extrapolating on this idea is the notion that to threaten influences motives, while to overcome an opponent’s strength force is required. This can be seen in a sense of ‘waging peace’ that is to use the threat of violence so strongly that peace must be maintained. This concept requires strategy and policy to align to walk the boundary that it creates just short of war. It is also within a state’s interest to understand and be able to use this concept or to prevent its use. The danger of this philosophy is that it removes thoughts of a specific strategy to a specific situation. As an example, Israel uses the Grand Strategy to wage small wars to achieve its political aims. Since its inception, it has seen itself in a struggle for its existence. It is locked in mortal combat with many of its neighbours and accepts that the best outcome in the short term is not peace, but rather forced acceptance. It has fought numerous small wars against other states, the last being 1982 against Syria in Lebanon. It also continues a policy of strategic deterrence, in the absence of these wars, with large scale military action its real threat.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Sydney, Australia, flies the Israeli flag on HMAS Choules during a visit in 2020. Photographer: LSIS Steven Thomson.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Sydney, Australia, flies the Israeli flag on HMAS Choules during a visit in 2020. Photographer: LSIS Steven Thomson.

This strategy has seen some success in interaction with diplomacy and foreign affairs, this has occurred as policy in action with the support of military action. It has influenced both Egypt and Jordan to sign peace treaties, thus reducing the adversary pool. This coupled with the Arab Spring, which has also reduced the Arab League’s military power and ‘organised collective’ in opposition, Israel has shifted its focus to non-state actors. The combined strategy and policy has also seen success here, however, long term prospects remain uncertain. It has continued this into the modern-day using this small war deterrence, referred to macabrely as “mowing the grass” against non-state actors.

Non-state enemies of Israel have similar goals, as its state enemies, of continuous violent resistance. It is a protracted struggle for survival leading to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that it is little politically that can be achieved due to the multitude and nature of the enemies. Based on this Israel has a major policy consideration of state security, which arguable culminates in international legitimacy and protection of its citizens who are predominate of one religion. In Israel, it is considered a fundamental issue and a political necessity to be capable of handling situations robustly, including the use of force. Israel pursues security policy through strategic conflict designed to deter and weaken the enemy, thus creating cycles of war and peace; where short war and extended peace is the aim.

Internationally there have been many critics of this cycle claiming that Israel’s tactical successes do not reap political or strategic dividends. This criticism lies in the lack of a ‘hearts and minds’ policy or diplomatic attitudes. It fails to identify long term real prospects of peace and therefore security. Analysts of this could look at the predominately Western approach towards war and insurgency: being that ‘war is war’ and to win the population must be convinced to cease the conflict. This is a sound concept but its implementation has seen a divergence of policy and strategy which has left it lacking. The difference in measurable success could not be further apart between US lead interdiction in Afghanistan/Iraq and Israel deterrence warfare. Israel has maintained a strong baseline of national security, while uncertainty and war fatigue in Western Nations is greater than ever. This is attributable to the existential component that Israel faces compared to a visionary idea, with little practical thought.

The conflation of policy and strategy


The conflation of policy and strategy however cannot be unilaterally embraced, as this can cause confusion between roles. Continuing in the context of Israel, the Second Lebanon War is an example of this. Deterrence created a one-shape solution to regional foreign affairs, which resulted in poor execution of conflict with no tailored military thought; rather there was only a policy to project force.

Strategy no longer operated to support the policy, a divergence had occurred. It can however long term be argued that the war did achieve the desired security outcome; there was peace for several years and Hezbollah rethought its strategy and assumed a role in the Lebanese government. This was only achieved through force of violence and not through sound strategy, an alternative result could have been equally realised. What this shows is that there is a danger in pursuing conflict on the assumption, and not the deliberated, understanding that policy aims can be met by strategic methods. Ultimately, sound dialogue between the two via qualified decision-makers will determine alignment.

Attendees at the International Engagement Conference hosted by International Policy Division, at Adams Theatre Canberra, 2018. Photographer: Grace Costa Banson.
Attendees at the International Engagement Conference hosted by International Policy Division, at Adams Theatre Canberra, 2018. Photographer: Grace Costa Banson.

Conversely, an example of waging peace is seen in Taiwan’s international approach. Similar to Israel, security is a major existential concern, with the threat of war with China prevailing for over the last six decades. Taiwan unlike Israel now has the issue of being disadvantaged in military power and occupies prime strategic territory, which China desires. It could never strategically achieve a policy of war with any great success. It has ensured peace by making war so unattractive that an aggressor must seriously consider the cost of invasion. Arguably this has seen a rise in the ‘cutthroat diplomatic war’ between the two with actual conflict being adverted due to numerous reasons This is what the real concept of conflation is; creating an aim that is strategically achievable with a state’s resources.

In viewing the examples of Israel and Taiwan it can be seen as a relationship between ends and means. Here the end for both nations is security and whether fact or fiction one of survival. They both to an extent have achieved the same ends, continued existence and have even enjoyed substantial economic and cultural prosperity. It is the means for each nation that has forced them to adopt a different set of policies driven by strategic considerations of national resources and eventualities if and when war occurs. This demonstrates the convoluted nature of policy and strategy, which often erroneously results in them being used as a synonym. Compare this to recent US political rhetoric and the conclusion is that war cannot be used as an instrument of policy, without a sound dialogue with strategy.

The true nature of war including its reciprocity, unpredictability and friction can often result in an unexpected outcome. It would be foolish to conclude that in its entirety that it is completely an instrument of states. The conflation of policy and strategy is crucial to shaping and directing conflict for political purposes. To favour one over the other, in the context of war, or interaction without successful dialogue is the most perilous of undertakings.