Facing A Strategic Endgame? The US and the Ambiguities of Strategic Thinking

LSE IDEAS Strategic Update by Christopher Coker

What is strategy?

Strategies come in many forms. One is organisational strategy, the basis of management consulting. The great attraction of hiring business consultants is that they send in a team from the outside which often has no specific knowledge of the business they are analysing; they analyse the data, write a report, and make sure they drop in an invoice before leaving the building. And they are not reluctant to invoke the great strategic thinkers of the past such as Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. The Boston Consulting Group once compiled a list of ‘best of business’ quotes from Clausewitz’s magnum opus, On War. I suspect that the great attraction of sketching an intellectual trajectory back to his work is that business consultants can finally transcend the numerical monotony of Excel spreadsheets and the simplicity of 2X2 matrices; they can even take their own discourse beyond the banalities of phrases like ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and ‘core competencies’ which may merely serve to conceal their own business inexperience.

Seven Types of Ambiguity

One of the most influential works of literary criticism was published in 1930 — William Empson’s critically acclaimed book, Seven Types of Ambiguity. A poem is ambiguous, he wrote, when an alternative view of the subject might be presented without completely misreading the text. One example of ambiguity that he offered is the use of metaphor, when two things are said to be alike even though they have different properties. Another example involves two or more meanings which are resolved into one such as the words “lines of life” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16 which can convey a multiplicity of meanings, from the wrinkles of old age to a subject’s genealogical lineage, and the lines of the poem itself: “So should the lines of life that life repair”. There is no need to go down the list. Ambiguity as philosophers have told us from the beginning inheres in the difference between appearance and reality. We may think we grasp what is real only to discover that life is problematic: because we are part of the world we are trying to describe, all truth tends to be paradoxical.

Surfing the future

It is not all bad news. There are some encouraging signs from the Biden administration, in particular cutting loose from Afghanistan — at last, and seeing off Russian bullying of Ukraine a few months ago and turning the Quad into a more credible association of states. But has it learnt the lessons of the country’s strategic mistakes? And what are they. I think there are three.

About the author

Christopher Coker is Director of LSE IDEAS. His publications include Why War? (2021) and The Rise of the Civilizational State (2019). He was Professor of International Relations, retiring in 2019. He is a former twice serving member of the Council of the Royal United Services Institute and former NATO Fellow.

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LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.

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LSE IDEAS

LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.