Edited by Hal Brands
Princeton University Press/2023
Reviewed by Colin Robertson
December 26, 2023
War is back. So is the threat of more war. The study of war and of preparations for war remains central to the study of strategy. How do we deter war in order to stop war, especially as the technology of war changes exponentially? Historian Hal Brands and 44 collaborators contributed essays to The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age.
New Makers of Modern Strategy was completed as Russia’s full-scale 2022 invasion of Ukraine created the largest interstate land war since World War II. As Brands remarks and as the latest explosion of kinetic conflict in the Middle East has reinforced, it is a reminder that “hard power has hardly gone out of style.”
New Makers of Modern Strategy is the third iteration of a collection originally published in 1943. Designed to help those conducting the Allied effort during the Second World and then extensively revised in 1968 to reflect the “nuclear revolution”, it was required reading when I took the introductory course to strategic studies in my second year at the University of Manitoba.
Nuclear arms were a game changer, introducing a decline in great power bellicosity because of the quantum jump in killing capacity. Nuclear doctrine went through various permutations but it ultimately boiled down to making threats to use such weapons as convincing as possible in order to avoid their use. Brands observes: “If strategic studies was a child of hot war, it matured during the Cold War” redefining the relationship between force and diplomacy to emphasize Cold War co-existence.
But war never goes away, and authors cover the intervening years’ rise of small wars, irregular warfare, counterinsurgency and now hybrid warfare. New Makers of Modern Strategy also includes essays on the classical strategists including Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Napoleon, Mahan and Mackinder.Later essays examine Mao Zedong, Qasem Soleimani, Valery Gerasimov and the return of great power competition.
The essays are diverse and, at over a thousand pages, readers should approach New Makers of Modern Strategy as you would a box of Christmas chocolates. Take a bite and, if not to your taste, sample another. Styles differ but each author draws from a deep immersion in history.
Roughly half of the collection deals with events in the twentieth century and later. There is discussion of the gray zones of conflict, the changing technology of AI and cyberwarfare, the impact of social media in spreading disinformation and misinformation, and the application of technology into weapons such as drones.
Brands sets the tone in his introductory essay, arguing that there is no substitute for strategy. Strategy “allows us to act with purpose in a disordered world; it is vital to out-thinking and out-playing our foes.”
Canada’s most recent national security strategy, Securing an Open Society, was written in 2004. The last foreign policy review, A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, was published in 2005. The Trudeau government published its defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, in 2017 and a promised update is overdue. Both the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the University of Ottawa have prepared their own national security reports arguing that their efforts should spur on the government to prepare a new Canadian strategy.
There is a recognition that all strategy is suffused with politics; an ‘incessantly interactive endeavour’ that cannot be reduced to mathematical formulae and that will always remain an imprecise art.
For Brands, the essence of strategy is straightforward: “It is the craft of summoning and using power to achieve our central purposes, amid the friction of global affairs and the resistance of rivals and enemies.” Without strategy, writes Brands, “action is random and devoid of direction; power and advantage are squandered rather than deployed to good effect.”
Professor emeritus of War Studies at King’s College, London, and “dean of British strategic studies” Sir Lawrence Freedman argues that strategy today is “a way of thinking, a habit of mind, an ability to assess vulnerabilities in situations, an appreciation of causes and effects, a capacity to link disparate activities in pursuit of a shared purpose.”
While the 19th-century American naval strategist Alfred Mahan is still read in China, the US Naval War College’s John Maurer notes that Mahan has been dropped from the Naval Operations professional reading list. Too bad. As Maurer writes, Mahan is not for the ‘faint of heart’: his stark realism of global affairs warns that struggles for mastery of the global commons cannot be won on the cheap against determined great-power challengers. It’s something Canadian political leadership should remember as they look to purchase new submarines and the infrastructure necessary to guard the Canadian Arctic and help secure the vital sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
National strategies, writes Margaret MacMillan, also reflect location: if the British, Japanese and Americans thought of sea power as crucial for defense and the “projection of power and influence”, the Germans, French, Russians and Austrians, with their vulnerable land borders, had to rely on their armies for security. MacMillan also underlines the dangers of silos within the armed services. She points out that at a 1911 meeting (the last before 1914) of the Committee of Imperial Defence to review Britain’s strategy, the politicians were dismayed to learn that in the event of an attack on France, the army planned to send an expeditionary force to the Continent. The navy, on the other hand, intended to blockade German ports and carry out occasional amphibious raids. Their role did not include carrying the army’s planned expeditionary force to the Continent.
There is a recognition that all strategy is suffused with politics; an “incessantly interactive endeavour” that cannot be reduced to mathematical formulae and that will always remain an imprecise art.
There is also an appreciation that democracies may well do strategy better than autocracies. The concentration of authority in autocracies can produce dexterity and brilliance in the short term, but the requirement for accountability and diffusion of authority in democracies makes for stronger societies and wiser decisions. Still, it is no sure thing.
The most impressive strategies are those that shift the balance of forces by creating advantages and applying pressure in areas where the enemy is vulnerable or sensitive, as Russian and Iranian strategies of irregular warfare have proven. Mao triumphed in the Chinese civil war because he manipulated regional and global conflicts to win a local one.
There is no guarantee that the democracies will prevail, geopolitically or ideologically, in the twenty-first century as they eventually did in the twentieth. If the democracies are to prevail, it requires a minimum deterrence and the re-establishment of a strategic culture that is prepared to answer two questions: Is defence simply a cost or does it have a value? And, if it has a value, how much are we prepared to invest in the value of peace?
While we did not choose it, we in the West are now engaged in a competition with China, a war with Russia and confrontations with North Korea, Iran and Venezuela — all variations on the systemic theme of democracy vs. autocracy. There will be others. The ‘global south’, by no means a homogeneous group, prefers to sit on the fence. They will continue to rely on China for trade and financing until that trap sends them westward for protection. But do not expect gratitude. They don’t like sermonizing from the West on human rights and democracy.
It’s a complex, increasingly multi-centric world complicated by transnational challenges, including pandemics, climate change, dis/misinformation and now artificial intelligence. The West needs a grand strategy with national strategies backed by diplomacy supported by intelligence and military forces skilled in new technology and the tools of our digital age. There is, as Brands observes “a basic logic of strategy that transcends time and space.”