Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman – review

Blair’s foreign policy adviser and member of the Iraq war inquiry has written an ambitious study of military, political and corporate strategy

Lawrence Freedman‘s Strategy is clearly a bid for the high shelves, a kind of summation, almost an apologia pro vita sua, a reflection on a vocation. It is a behemoth of a book. The grand design seems to follow Clausewitz’s dictum (is there a glimmer of humour here?) that the best strategy in war is to be very strong, first in general, then at the decisive point.

It is less a history than a bestiary, or an encyclopedia. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle used to say of himself that he was “philosophically eager”. As a student, unbidden, he acquired a reading knowledge of Italian and a modest grasp of Italian philosophy, much to the surprise of his tutors. As a don, he taught himself German and browsed contentedly for a while in the rarefied fields of phenomenology and theories of meaning. One outcome of this browsing was an unwanted series of lectures on “Logical Objectivism: Bolzano, Brentano, Husserl and Meinong”, known in Oxford as “Ryle’s three Austrian railway stations and one Chinese game of chance”. It might be said of Freedman that he is strategically eager. Contrary to expectation, perhaps, Strategy does not concern itself solely with military strategy – already a vast domain – but embraces almost every sphere of strategic activity known to man, or indeed to beast, for it begins, 2001: A Space Odyssey-style, with an essay on evolution and the strategic behaviour of chimpanzees.

After a brief pre-history, taking in the Bible, the Greeks, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Satan (in Milton‘s Paradise Lost) – Satan, it is comforting to learn, sadly lacking in strategic sense – the main body of the work is organised into three parts: “Strategies of Force” or military strategy, including nuclear strategy, Freedman’s metier; “Strategy from Below” or political strategy, with an emphasis on the underdog, that is to say the revolutionary and the dispossessed; “Strategy from Above” or corporate strategy, a melange of cultural change and social theory. A short concluding section considers the possibilities of strategic theory in the light of contemporary social science; more simply, how we might think about strategy now.

This is an epic undertaking, of considerable intellectual ambition. It displays the familiar Freedmanian virtues: clarity, economy, proficiency, sagacity – a sort of professional sympathy, almost a delicacy of feeling for the subject, a compound of deep immersion, practised exposition, and a certain practical wisdom in it; a determination to recognise its limits, yet give it its due. In strategy, everything is connected. Freedman shows us how.

He has a profound understanding of the fundamental issues. Strategy is defined here as the art of creating power, a difficult art to master. “While it is undoubtedly a good thing to have,” as Freedman sensibly remarks, “it is also a hard thing to get right.” We catch the echo of Clausewitz, still the pre-eminent authority, nearly two …read more    

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