Strategic Communications and the Crisis of Strategy

May 31, 2011

Last week Abu Muquwama had a justifiably scathing post  on the absence of strategy in the Libyan intervention.  He links to an article by the British military historian  Hew Strachan (2010) on Obama’s dismissal of Stanley McChrystal.  Strachan sees McChrystal’s comments about the administration as deriving from a frustration with lack of clarity over the strategy for Afghanistan.

Strachan has been arguing for some time (eg 2005) that Anglo-American  policy  has suffered from what might be called  a ‘strategy gap’:  that is a break in the ends-means chain that links political intent to military action.  A symptom of this is the tendency to use military force without a clearly defined end state in mind or a clear sense of how military force can be used to achieve this end state.  Strachan locates the source of this difficulty in the expansion of the concept of strategy in the context of total war and the Cold War this expansion broke the clear relationship between the  military and political dimensions of strategy.  The result is a political leadership who fail to provide proper policy guidance and a military who have to make something up to fill the gap.   From the military side of the ‘gap’ the concept of the ‘operational’ level or ‘operational art’ have expanded to partially fill the gap.*

There’s an interesting  a parallel with the rise of strategic communication .  I’ve commented before about the way that strategic communication has expanded from a military priority into something that demands the coordination of national level communications and actions.  The expansion of  strategic communication grows out of the recognition that things that are said or done in one place (or by one agency) have effects elsewhere.  It also creates an emphasis on how to do things  not what to do or why.  The expansion of strategic communication both in the UK and in the US has a bias towards the military and security issues.

This has grown out of the perceived requirements of the war on terror but hasn’t been accompanied by efforts to think through national level communication policy.    National level communications strategies have to grow out of a comprehensive view of national priorities (including civilian concerns like investments, tourism and trade)  which in turn places a limit on strategic communications as a set of techniques.   Perhaps what is required is an effort to synthesize the concerns of nation-branding with its  emphasis on generalized reputation and typically civilian concerns with strategic communications

* Of course the great practitioners of ‘the operational’  in both world wars were the Germans who consistently demonstrated their brilliance at operations and their ineptness at strategy.


Strachan, H. (2005) ‘The Lost Meaning of Strategy’, Survival, 47: 33-54.
Strachan, H. (2010) ‘Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War’, Survival, 52: 157-.

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