Strategic Thinking: National Strategy in Theory and Practice

Strategic Thinking: National Strategy in Theory and Practice

Andrew Novo

Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, DC


This short course is designed as an introduction to the concept of grand or national strategy. It will help students define strategy and address the challenges of both developing and implement a national strategy.

The course is designed to teach students to start thinking strategically. It is a course for practitioners, which asks students to think in a disciplined, critical, and creative manner about power, a range of potential strategies, and their potential intended and unintended outcomes in the current geopolitical environment.

It is structured in three class and culminates in a group exercise. The three classes will address: defining concepts like power and strategy in international affairs today, developing strategy, and implementing strategy.

Defining strategy confronts us with the challenge of semantics and its practical implications. It also sets the parameters for our understanding of strategy and relating it to contemporary national and international issues as well as to understanding concepts like power that are essential foundations.

Developing strategy requires a comprehensive appreciation of both national and international politics as well as the formulation of key questions based on fundamental assumptions. Both those assumptions and the questions that follow from them serve to define the potential strategies available. For nations, developing strategy is also based on their geography, culture, history, and resources.

After a strategy is developed, it must be implemented. Implementing strategy is the ultimate challenge. Various obstacles can obstruct implementing a strategy. Other actors in the international system, rivals and even allies, can be disruptive forces. It is also important to consider how various institutions and individuals within the same government approach the implementation and whether they work together or to serve their own interests.
Class 1: Power and International Affairs

No concept is more central to international affairs than power. In a system based on anarchy (the lack of a universal, centrally controlling authority), power is the assurance of security and the arena for competition.

Defining power and understanding it in a way that can further our ability to comprehend international relations is a challenging exercise.

Questions to Consider:

  • What is power?
  • What are the forms of power and what underpins them?
  • How do states translate power into the outcomes that they desire?
  • Have certain elements of power become more or less useful in today’s world?

Class 2: Defining and Devising Strategy

Strategy has its origins in the Greek word, στρατηγία, from the word for general—στρατηγός. Strategy, in this sense, is narrowly defined as the art of generalship. The narrow definition of strategy, relating it to formations, marching orders, drills, and other tactical concerns has expanded over time.

Modern assessments approach a more total notion of strategy explaining it in relation to policy and embracing various means of national power used to achieve those political ends. A nation’s strategic posture is also related to the resources available to its leaders. These can be natural resources, but also population, and geography.

Strategy, as a concept, has also had its meaning diluted. Where is was once interchangeable with tactics, it is now sometimes synonymous with policy. This conflation has made the development of grand strategy extremely challenging for many modern political leaders.

Questions to Consider:

  • What does an effective definition of strategy have to do in the modern world?
  • Who is responsible for devising a national strategy?
  • What elements should be included in a nation’s grand strategy?

Class 3: The Challenges of Implementing Strategy

Once strategy is defined and a national strategy devised, implementation remains a distinct challenge. Various obstacles can impact the successful implementation of a grand strategy. Rival actors in the international system continue to work to further their own interests. As the expression goes, “the enemy has a vote.” Even allies, by pursuing their own interests can undermine the objectives of their partners, causing uncertainty and creating a profound need for communication and cooperation.

Within governments, various institutions and individuals approach the implementation of strategy differently and can work to serve their own interests rather than an overarching goal. Tensions can exist between various senior figures, especially between civilian and military leaders.

Questions to Consider:

  • What is the proper relationship between civilian and military leaders in designing and implementing strategy?
  • How are strategic interests pursued in the contemporary world? 

Class 4: Exercise

Having built definitions of power and national strategy, we will work to apply those definitions in real world examples using various countries chosen by the students.

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