• Toby Irwin

The Science of Strategy

What is it that determines a state to make the best possible decisions? After all, policymakers and statesmen have a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders. Decision-making is often described as being a rational process. In this scenario, according to Australian scholar Hedley Bull, there is a presumption that the strategist will act with extraordinary caution, and to be informed to the best of their ability. As he put it, even the most average of statesmen would become “a university professor of unusual intellectual subtlety”. This of course comes as a surprise, for not all great minds are focused on social phenomena that appear from the interactions between states. To Bull, it was the advent of nuclear weapons that propelled this development, and expelled impulsive recklessness from policymaking.


It is perhaps best exemplified by Robert McNamara, who acted as Secretary of Defence for President Kennedy in the 1960s. He was well known for deploying quantitative analysis, something he learned from his civilian career in the motor industry, to issues of national security. As one of McNamara’s colleagues noted, every military problem suddenly became economic in nature, one of “efficient allocation and use of resources”. Here we see the rational process at work, utilising the maximum amount of data possible to calculate the optimum solution to international crises based on a cost/benefit analysis. No less so is this evident than with the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Graham Allison, in his 1971 book Essence of Decision, also expanded on this rational model, noting that during the crisis Kennedy and his cabinet calculated the outcome of every likely scenario based on what evidence could be gathered. They consequently concluded in favour of the idea of a naval blockade, for this was the best way to 1) avert direct conflict, 2) force the Soviets to make the next move, and 3) confine any unlikely conflict to conventional means, and not nuclear.



Returning to Bull, it becomes possible to surmise that strategy is becoming more and more like a science, based on calculations and game theory. Here, data collection becomes increasingly empirical, and perhaps also its conclusions ominously positivist. Bull believes this is a consequence of civilians entering the realm of policymaking at the same time as the diffusion of nuclear weapons around the world. The ascendance of economics into the realm of strategy would inevitably help “rationalise our choices and increase our control over our environment”. The key take-away from this is that any strategist cannot be prone to acting on a whim, particularly when modern states possess such devastating offensive capabilities. In addition, one should not be fooled into thinking that this assumption of rationality is universal and not prone to anomalies. A number of factors can interfere, including inter alia the absence of information, false data, human-error in calculations and an obscuring of mutual intentions.

Strategy by Lawrence Freedman (2013) Essence of Decision by Graham Allison (1971)

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.

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