The Retreat from Grand Strategy

By General Lord David Richards

“Strategy without Tactics is the slowest route to victory, Tactics without Strategy is merely the noise before defeat.”

Sun Tzu

Grand strategy is the stuff of great power. It is the generation, organisation and application of immense means in pursuit of high strategic aims. There was a time when the conduct of grand strategy was such a second nature for Britain’s elite that it did not even have a name. As Britain’s relative means have retreated – power is always relative – so has a culture of grand strategy at the heart of government.  Worse, the relationship between strategy and tactics has become hopelessly broken undermining the all-important mechanism for application through ends, ways and means. Post Brexit Britain is trying to rekindle such a culture through the mantra of ‘Global Britain’. From my own command experience re-establishing grand strategy as a ‘doctrine’ of power at the heart of government will be hard. Catchy slogans are a useful indicator of intent but devising and then coherently executing the strategy to achieve it is quite a different issue.


In 2003, at the time of the Second Gulf War, as the Assistant Chief of the General Staff and an occasional member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, I observed Western political leaders at fairly close quarters. Both President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had a relatively clear strategy for Iraq in 2003, but their tactics were (not for the first time) hopelessly flawed. There were also marked limits to Britain’s influence.  For example, I visited Ambassador Paul Bremer, US head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. My instructions from London were to try and reverse US decisions over the status of the Baath party and the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and police. Sadly, Sun Tzu’s point about the effect of rotten tactics was borne out. The situation is only now improving but the failure back in 2003 properly to understand sensible ends and the best ways and means to seek them led to a very long and tragically drawn-out process. It was the slowest possible route to what arguably now looks something like a strategically successful outcome.


As Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF), like my US successors, I was forced to repeatedly question both NATO and UK strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, but with little effect. Despite accepting the logic of my arguments, politicians back in Washington, London and elsewhere never took ‘ownership’ of the campaign with the profound consequence that ends, ways and means were never in synch. Last summer the campaign reached its strategic denouement and a chaotic withdrawal. Even then political leaders focused on, and at times seemed to revel in, a tactical withdrawal ignoring the hard truth – complete strategic failure. The withdrawal was only possible with the co-operation of an ‘enemy’ who had killed and maimed thousands of Allied soldiers and tens of thousands of innocent civilians.


In 2011, as Chief of the UK Defence Staff, I disagreed with Prime Minister Cameron on the Libya strategy. It is on the public record that I was implacably opposed to regime change because of the long term strategic consequences for a country that was inherently unstable. Like many politicians both Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, helped by a strategically-detached President Obama, confused politics, strategy and tactics. They were entirely focused on the short–term and the tactical, and their respective political needs to be seen as the heroic victors of a war. 


Good strategy is about hard choices. As Chief of Defence Staff, I and my outstanding team devised a coherent Syria strategy which independent experts agreed had a good chance of leading to a successful strategic outcome. Once again, political leaders were not prepared to align ends ways and means with Washington going as far as to say that ‘the General’s plan is more than the market can bear’. What ‘market’? Consequently, my advice was to let Assad win and quickly and to stop encouraging and supplying opposition groups with insufficient support to ensure success. The price in deaths, ruined lives and destroyed cities would be too huge and a massive strategic setback for the West. Russia was already sensing an opportunity and so it proved. 


A similar lack of a coherent strategy is now apparent in Ukraine. There is, at best, what might be termed incremental strategy with again no early and decisive synchronisation of ends ways and means.  It is a ‘let’s see how it goes’ ‘strategy’, in other words not really strategy at all. There is still little idea in London, Washington or elsewhere how ‘we’ want the war to pan out, or what sort of Russia we are seeking to shape, especially on the vital long term issue of relations with China. Is there an opportunity, using carrots and sticks, to persuade a weakened Russia to align with the West rather than having it pushed ineluctably into China’s orbit? No-one is thinking grand strategically because no-one is brave enough to think beyond the political convention of the moment.

The retreat from grand strategy

London should be capable of grand strategic thinking and acting. Britain remains one of the world’s leading economies and military powers even if it is a decidedly regional strategic power these days. Strategy is about choices and the more choices one needs to make to balance the ends, ways and means when pursuing the national interest the more informed they need to be. That means big clear thinking about big issues and a much better understanding of how plausibly to achieve our goals.

General Lord Richards is a member of The Alphen Group