On Stockdale and Strategy

The following article kicks off The Hunt for Strategic September, a week of analysis on the relevance of strategic guidance to today’s maritime strategy(ies).

stockdaleFor two weeks in September, I participated in a Navy fleet exercise, supporting our nation’s defense by flinging razor-sharp PowerPoint slides at the enemy.

The nature of the exercise – which featured U.S. and coalition ships sailing into an escalating regional tiff – raised an important question with which fans of Admiral Stockdale may be familiar: “Who are we? Why are we here?” In other words, why did this fleet of American warships exist and why did it bother coming to this forsaken, if fictional, part of the world?

We can talk about Quadrennial Defense Reviews and Strategic Choices Management Reviews and TPS Reports endlessly, but they’re all at a level of granularity that misses the point, which is – why do we bother?

The national security strategy answers the question. At least, it should. But lately, it’s hard to define what it is.

Time was, it could be summed up as a doctrine (think Monroe or Truman) or perhaps in a word, such as “containment.” The armed forces were structured to support some overarching goal and their missions were more or less guided by it. But that time is past. This isn’t to say we don’t have a national security strategy – we do– but does the general public possess any common notion of what it might be?

Luckily, I know some members of this “public,” so I asked them. Respondents to my unscientific inquiry included teachers, scientists, cops, economists, retired military officers and everything in between. A sampling of responses follows.


“Our national strategy in foreign affairs seems to lack a strong guiding principle, well-founded or misguided or anything else it might be.  We seem to be reacting to a series of foreign crises (often in philosophically inconsistent ways) rather than making any serious attempt to proactively influence the course of foreign affairs.”

“Our national strategy in foreign affairs seems to be one of PR rather than defense.”

“Simply put… ‘might makes right.’”

“Strategy seems like a generous term – it suggests deliberate action. U.S. policy is set ad hoc and largely reactive. The terms “incoherent” and “ineffective” come to mind… though the administration would say it is promoting democracy and U.S. interests broadly.”

“Promote democracy, protect trade, maintain world power status.”

“Our national strategy is, despite all pronouncements, a strategic retreat from aggressive foreign policy, and a return to more diplomacy, less stick.”

“We either do not have one, or it is to shoot from the hip.”

“I’d have to surmise that our national strategy is to act in accordance with what we view to be our own short-term economic self-interest.”

“The U.S. post-WWII strategy has been to promote political and economic stability in those parts of the globe in which there is a perceived national interest… the last three administrations have done a terrible job articulating a foreign affairs strategy to the American people, or Congress.”


A couple of themes emerge here: First, respondents don’t know much about the national strategy, and events don’t give them a “warm fuzzy” that it either exists or is being executed. Second, they perceive a reactive streak to current U.S. strategy – events drive our actions, not the other way around.

Well, America, I’m happy to report we do have a National Security Strategy. Our nation’s actual priorities, per the National Security Strategy of 2010, can be summed up as Security, Prosperity, Values and International Order. I think. Actually, it might be Building Our Foundation, Pursuing Comprehensive Engagement, and Promoting a Just and Sustainable International Order. It’s hard to tell as written. Maybe I’m not so happy to report we have it, after all.

From a communications standpoint, this is a problem, which leads to at least one of three other problems in the real world (possibly – probably? – all three):

1.) Nobody understands it.

2.) Policymakers don’t follow it.

3.) Foreign powers don’t take it seriously.

What to do?

Hunted to extinction in 1991
Hunted to extinction in 1991

Let’s start by acknowledging that in this arena, the U.S. is a victim of its own success. With the Cold War won, the population of foreign dragons to slay was drastically reduced (though Christian Bale continued to find employment). The U.S. has become, in effect, a status quo power, whose chief goal is maintaining the world system (economic, diplomatic and otherwise) and bringing the outliers into it. “Okay, guys, let’s just keep things the way they are and try to encourage incremental improvement at the margins” is not a very sexy mission statement.

But that is no excuse. Whatever the challenges, a clear and concise strategy must be articulated. And most importantly, it has to be meaningful to the layperson, whose taxes are paying for it and whose children are wearing the uniforms.

My recommendation: Get back to basics. The security establishment is spending a disproportionate amount of time on the means – budgets, force structures, manpower reviews – when what needs some articulation is the end. What does the U.S. want the world to look like? What goals are we working toward? Even a status quo power can have ideals to strive for. We could do far worse than refer back to Admiral Stockdale and ask ourselves, “Who are we? Why are we here?”


Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant and strategic communications consultant who doesn’t work on that kind of strategy. Opinions expressed do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or his employer.

2 thoughts on “On Stockdale and Strategy”

  1. I agree with the substance of what you’ve written here, but I have to wonder how much we should worry about the average layperson’s understanding of national strategy. Strategy is always complicated and highly theoretical; the national strategy may have been more coherent thirty or forty years ago, but I doubt the average person on the street could have explained it any better then than now.

    In other words, I think that coherency of national strategy and public understanding of it are separate problems not worthy of equal attention. If the public gets dumber, should our strategy get dumber?

    1. It’s not as hard as we make it out to be. “Island Hopping”, “Defeat Germany First”, “MAD”, “Roll-back (or) Containment”. It’s our fault for poorly communicating whatever our new strategy happens to be. That said, it’s important, because the people who don’t understand WHY something is critical, are more inclined to casting it aside.

      And let’s be honest… When it comes to the strategic “craft”, most in the military are lay people too. We have no grand course of study on “strategy”. It is an amateur art as we practice it today, since we’ve decided so many other things are our priority.

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