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Strategic Art: The New Discipline for 21st Century Leaders

Authored by Lieutenant General (USA, Ret) Richard A. Chilcoat. | October 1995

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SUMMARY

This article is an appeal to strategists to match the success in the development of operational art and joint doctrine with an equally comprehensive approach to strategic art as a distinct discipline that every strategic leader must master.

The nation cannot afford uncoordinated approaches among the domains of strategy? military, economic, diplomatic, or informational?which often manifest themselves as institutional and bureaucratic barriers to unity of thought and action. Political and military leaders must work closely, interacting on desired end states, objectives, courses of action, capabilities, and risks. Both must be masters of strategic art, and the subordination of military to civilian leadership does not lessen the importance of military counsel and advice to political authorities or the responsibilities of both to communicate and coordinate at every level of strategy and during all phases of conflict. This is the essence of strategic art.

This essay develops a simple, yet comprehensive definition of strategic art. Strategic art entails the orchestration of all the instruments of national power to yield specific, well-defined end states. Desired end states and strategic outcomes derive from the national interests and are variously defined in terms of physical security, economic well-being, and the promotion of values. Strategic art, broadly defined, is therefore: The skillful formulation, coordination, and application of ends (objectives), ways (courses of action), and means (supporting resources) to promote and defend the national interests.

According to this definition, masters of the strategic art are those who can competently integrate and combine the three roles performed by the complete strategist: the strategic leader, strategic practitioner, strategic theorist. These roles, each with a distinctive set of skills, form the defining competencies of the person who is the master of the strategic art. It will be seen that the three skill groupings overlap to some degree, but each is coherent and they are all mutually supportive. Competencies are developed by the master of the strategic art during the course of a lifetime of education, service, and experience:

  • The Strategic Leader provides vision and focus, capitalizes on command and peer leadership skills, and inspires others to think and act.
  • The Strategic Practitioner develops a deep under- standing of all levels of war and strategy and their interrelationships, develops and executes strategic plans derived from interagency and joint guidance, employs force and other dimensions of military power, and unifies military and nonmilitary activities through command and peer leadership skills.
  • The Strategic Theorist studies the history of warfare, develops strategic concepts and theories, integrates them with the elements of national power and with the National Security Strategy and National Military Strategy, and teaches or mentors the strategic art.

The master strategist integrates and plays each role simultaneously as he executes his responsibilities. The senior leader exercises strategic leadership, most completely, when he is competent in each of the three roles.

Mastery of the strategic art is not the same as so-called "strategic genius." True strategic genius?a transcendent ability to read the enemy state's center of gravity and then to devise the most effective and efficient combination of means for attacking or threatening that center of gravity?is probably too much to expect of any individual at the dawn of the 21st century, because the total spectrum of elements of national power has grown so astonishingly broad and complex. The activity of the individual strategic prodigy as manifested in centuries past is today a corporate endeavor within governments. Realistically, the complex interagency structure of national security requires military leaders to develop complementary and overlapping expertise as time permits and circumstances dictate. And, understanding how to build organizations and develop strategies and plans reflecting all three competencies of strategic art and its mastery are as important as striving for individual mastery.

A successful search for strategy and the mastery of strategic art by our senior leaders, military and civilian, are vital to the nation. Identifying and mastering the components of strategic art offer no panaceas, but elevating the importance and ensuring the visibility of these steps in the national security debate can serve as constructive counterpoints to such tendencies as political isolationism, militant economic protectionism, military unpreparedness, and emotion-based interventions.

This essay is not intended to provide a strategy or even an ideal process for formulating or mastering strategic art. Its purpose rather is to emphasize that the search itself is important, permanent, and worth our best efforts and attention at a time when familiar landmarks have vanished and no new strategic vision has attracted a national consensus. Said another way, we have come a long way towards mastery of the tactical and operational arts?the time is now to strive for mastery of the strategic art.

What constitutes success in the coming years will depend, as it always has in American history, on our ability to reconcile the often conflicting demands of domestic and international politics. This means, in turn, that civilian and military strategic leaders will face even greater challenges in this transition period in building a consensus among the American people with regard to the increasingly complex concept of national security. Patience, perseverance, and endurance in the face of protracted conflict without prospects for clear and final victory are assuredly likelihoods for which the strategist and the public alike must prepare.

Conclusions.

The beginning of the Cold War marked the first time in American history that strategic leaders were forced to deal with the essential paradox of grand strategy faced by the Roman Empire and other great powers in the intervening centuries: Si vispacem, para bellum?if you want peace, prepare for war. Good strategy does not recognize the concept of permanent victory. There are no such victories; there are only phase lines in a permanent struggle to promote and defend our national interests. At each phase line threats are defeated or recede; the international system reconfigures as old powers decline and new powers rise; and, at home, resources are redistributed in support of new priorities. Only the nation's interests remain relatively constant, requiring new strategies and competencies for their promotion and defense in new environments.

The foregoing realities persist for the United States in the post-Cold War transition period in which the National Security Strategy of global engagement and enlargement is supported by a National Military Strategy focused on regional contingencies and operations other than war. The key to the success of these strategies remains the creation of linkage among national ends, ways, and means. And what constitutes "credible" in terms of national security in the coming years will depend, as it always has in American history, on our ability to reconcile the often conflicting demands of domestic and international politics. This means, in turn, that civilian and military strategic leaders will face even greater challenges in this transition period in building a consensus among the American people with regard to the increasingly complex concept of national security.

Clausewitz was prescient on this issue. He did not discuss bureaucratic politics, interagency process, or the separation of power in a constitutional democracy. He did, nevertheless, clearly anticipate the necessity to achieve political consensus at home before victory in war was possible. Patience, perseverance, and endurance in the face of protracted conflict without prospects for clear and final victory are assuredly likelihoods for which the strategist and the public alike must prepare.