Rethinking Western Strategy and the Character of War in the Twenty-First Century

Few could describe the strategic performance of the Western alliance over the last couple of decades as satisfactory. Iraq is just one example of our efforts falling, in the words of the Chilcot Report, ‘far short of strategic success’. Much of the rich and growing literature analysing this failure blames some mixture of setting the wrong ends, choosing the wrong ways, and allocating insufficient or inappropriate means. This paper will explore the practice of strategy in the UK and USA over the last century and a bit and argue that alongside, and in some cases underlying, the many and complex reasons for failure already identified lies a fundamental misunderstanding of the character of war. The relative certainties of two world wars and a cold one have led us to place exaggerated emphasis on Clausewitz’s view of war as ‘an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone’ and so have left us with an exaggerated sense of our ability to think our way out of trouble. We have under-estimated the extent to which war is the domain, not of rational choice and manageable risk, but of radical uncertainty. The implications of recognising that fact are wide-ranging, but may help us reconsider the way we think about strategy, improve the strategy-making apparatus, and maybe even – who knows? – produce better results.

Dr Jonathan Boff specialises in the history of warfare and is a Reader in the Department of History, University of Birmingham. His current research is into the history of money during wartime in the modern world, combining political, strategic, social and cultural history approaches with the techniques of economic and financial history to chart how money has affected, and been affected by, the causes, conduct and consequences of war since 1900. His most recent book was published by Oxford University Press in April 2018. ‘Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front’ studies one of Germany’s most senior First World War generals to see what he can teach us about the war and the armies which fought it.