What is Grand Strategy?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The world of international politics is complex and intense. In this lesson, we'll look at how nations interact and work to define their places in a global community--how each of the nations defines its own Grand Strategy.

Grand Strategy

Imagine that it's your first day at a new high school. You head into the school, and you start to assess the situation: which students are nice, who are the jerks, which teachers are friendly or mean, where do the cool kids sit, which clubs are active, etc. In this new school, you've got to start making a plan of how you're going to fit in. Maybe you'll buy some donuts to make friends, maybe you'll impress them with your artistic skills, or maybe you'll brownnose the teachers first. There's a strategy to how you interact.

Just like these students, world nations interact within their own defined community. This community has rules and penalties for breaking those rules. Of course, in this case, those penalties could include declarations of war. So navigating this world is important, and nations rely on a variety of methods. Researchers who study international relations will often talk about a nation's grand strategy, its master plan for achieving foreign policy goals by use of combined economic, diplomatic, social, and even military means. The world is like one giant high school--we're all just trying to fit in, but doing so takes a little strategy.

Sides of the Grand Strategy

The concept of a grand strategy sounds very lofty and somewhat devious, but it's a very real part of the international geopolitical landscape. Again, the grand strategy is basically a carefully planned use of economy, diplomacy, and military to achieve goals in foreign policy. It's how nations try to secure their places in the international community. According to most scholars, there are two important considerations in how world leaders craft a grand strategy.

The first consideration of world leaders is where their nation currently lies in the geopolitical landscape. Economically, is your nation rich or poor, does it have many natural resources, and what does the labor force look like? Geographically, do you have access to ports for shipping, are you isolated, and are your neighboring nations friends or enemies? Militarily, who are your allies and who are you afraid may want to invade you and take your stuff?

These questions relate back to a political idea called Realpolitik, which means realism, and defines a nation's international position by its realities. Basically, if you're head of the chess club, you're not going to just try and become captain of the football team. Getting there is going to take time, effort, and strategy. For a more concrete example, let's look at Russia in the 18th century (which was an important time in Russian history). Russia wanted to be a world economic and military power, but realistically was limited, because it didn't have access to reliable ports. So, the Russians considered their options, made alliances with stronger Western European nations, and used their own military to conquer Eastern European nations with weaker militaries but reliable ports. Their grand strategy of securing a stronger international presence was defined by their geopolitical reality.

Russia did not always have access to its ports.

The other side of grand strategy you may hear people talk about is Innenpolitik, or domestic concerns. The basic idea is that the people and businesses within a nation have reasons to favor different kinds of foreign policy, and this impacts the grand strategy. Let's look at two opposite examples. Britain in the late 19th century was at the height of its empire. Its people and industries were wealthy from the profits of empire, and so it was in the best interests of the Queen and Parliament to continue devising a grand strategy relying on imperial strength. On the opposite spectrum, the United States in the early 20th century was very isolationist. The grand strategy was to stay out of complicated international affairs, because the American people believed that European greed caused massive violence and destruction, especially after World War I. Both the reality of America's geopolitical situation and the domestic demands of the people impacted the grand strategy of the nation's leaders.

American Grand Strategy Today

Of course, things have changed since the early 20th century. The United States today has a very different grand strategy, one which has been described by some pundits as having five main points.

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