Man Claims Britain Can Do Strategy Shock

May 28, 2014

The May issue of International Affairs has a selection of articles on Britain’s national interest and the strategy question. Jonathan Gilmore correctly questions the continuing tendency for British political discourse to equate interests and values and Jamie Gaskarth attempts to use role theory to sort out what Britain should be doing in the world.* I was intrigued to see the article by Timothy Edmunds that argues against the position that Britain can’t do strategy (see here and here)

In fact he argues that

it is possible to see the outline of an emergent and distinctive theory of action in contemporary British strategic practice, characterised by principles of adaptivity, anticipation, self-organization and nascent cross-governmentalism.

In an environment characterised by complexity and uncertainty it becomes difficult to link ends, means and interests.

Therefore we see the emergence in the UK of a way of thinking about strategy that relies on risk assessment and horizon scanning to allow government to focus on risks and how they can be managed.  In a complex world we try and identify the risks and how they can be managed.

To be fair Edmunds discusses many of the criticisms of this approach – for instance that risk assessment is subjective, that the approach is reactive.

From my point of view processes of risk assessment and horizon scanning are inputs into strategy not an approach to strategy.   Strategy has to be selective rather than additive – having worked with risk management approaches they tend to operate a bureaucratic tools whereby everybody covers their backside.

In the end Edmunds helps to explain where this approach has come from but it just reinforces the critics’ point. It’s the failure of the politics that creates a space that the bureaucracy attempts to fill with administration and scientific looking technique.

*Role theory should be left interred in the structural-functionalist graveyard if you ask me.



  1. Robin, I think the confusion comes from “strategy” having a different meaning at the FCO than the classical definitions. Rather than Policy-Strategy-Tactics, the setup as far as I remember is Policy (set by ministers)-Strategy (the organisational response to policy)-Policy mark 2 (set by fast streamers w/in the FCO to fill in gaps & respond to change, & approved where necessary by ministers)-Operational. Hope that helps(!).

  2. Hi James, I think the issue is much broader than just the FCO – a lot of the criticism in the various parliamentary reports has been aimed at the MoD and at the NSC. Given that William Hague at various points has said that national policy comes from the NSC (and not the FCO) but successive reports have said that the NSC is too focused on operational activities it seems we have a bit of a problem.

  3. Hi Robin, maybe the gvt response to the House of Lords inquiry will explain what the NSC does. My suspicion is that the NSC’s strategic role in soft power/PD hasn’t gone beyond restructuring the FCO to prioritise Security, Prosperity & Consular. Have you heard differently? Best wishes, James

    • The latest report from the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201314/jtselect/jtnatsec/169/16903.htm#a6 – see para 17 onwards continues to be doubtful about how ‘strategic’ the NSC is but the government view expressed by Cameron downwards is that it’s doing a great job – it will be interesting to see the response to the Soft Power Report and the NSS one but I’m not expecting much.

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