It’s grand, but is it strategy? The origins of ‘grand strategy’ revisited

Please note that the venue has been changed to the Manor Road Building.

Grand strategy is back en vogue. Policy makers and scholars alike insist that grand strategy is important, and that states need to have one to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Yet defining precisely what it is – or what it entails – has proven extremely difficult. Numerous academics have spilt much ink trying to pin down a usable definition for grand strategy, however we appear no closer to a consensus than we are to a clear definition of ‘strategy’ itself.
What a series of influential thinkers – from Paul Kennedy to Colin Gray – do agree upon, is that humans have pursued grand strategies throughout history. As Kennedy has claimed, ‘all states have a grand strategy, whether they know it or not’. According to them, grand strategy has a long history, and has been practiced for millennia.
In this talk, Dr Morgan-Owen will question this assumption, and show how and why the idea of grand strategy evolved in a particular place at a particular time. Moreover, he’ll argue that there are significant dangers in assuming that all states and groups have a grand strategy – namely, the risk of painting the history of strategy in terms of continuity and similarity. The reality is almost the opposite – grand strategy is a practical endeavour, shaped by context, and which undergoes ongoing change. History has a vital role to play in illustrating this fact, and we risk omitting it from the study of strategy at our peril.

David Morgan-Owen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. He is author of The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914. Aspects of this talk have been published as “History and the Perils of Grand Strategy” in the Journal of Modern History in June 2020.