For leaders and decision-makers grappling with a diversity of complex, occasionally competing, national interests, as well as with challenges in every region of the world, the ability to hierarchize interest and threat vis-à-vis national goals enables them to effectively allocate attention and resources to priorities. Ideally, this is achieved through crafting and implementing “strategy.” While the process of formulating and employing strategy is rife with challenges and shortcomings, it is nonetheless one of significant meaning and importance for U.S. foreign and defense policy. In lack of a strategy – a firm grasp, prioritization, and articulation of national interests – there is a danger that policy will wander according to the crisis or fashion of the moment and that policymakers will be exposed to distraction, confusion, and be led to overreach.

A “good” strategy is a method, not an endpoint. It is a process of defining political ends, of identifying critical approaches for achieving those ends, and of problem-solving in circumstances where much lies outside decision-makers’ ability to control. Good strategy reduces uncertainty in times of ambiguity and clarifies which options for action and reaction are in line with national priorities, preparing leaders to act in integrated ways even when surprised. Likewise, in an international environment saturated with potential challenges, threats, and opportunities, a strategy delivers guidance on which should be deemed and treated as critical for national attention and which should not.

Beyond providing a methodology for thinking about and acting upon decisions, crafting strategy offers functional benefits for the organizations that engage in it. First, a strategy helps bridge the gap between the government’s resources and policy ambitions. Limitless policy and programmatic opportunities are bounded by real constraints in funding and manpower. Through the act of declaring top priorities and goals, policymakers can identify the programs that support them most closely, which warrant a greater share of the limited available budget, and appropriate accordingly. Next, the process itself of developing a strategy helps focus policymakers and bureaucracies. As with any thought-exercise, it provides policymakers an opportunity to consider more closely national needs, goals, and options to pursue them. It allows them to hone in on an integrated way of thinking and doing amidst the confusion of constantly changing events.  Articulating priorities provides guidance to implementers throughout the bureaucracy for devising executable steps toward achieving them.

Finally, strategy serves an important messaging function that conveys the intent of defense policy to audiences both domestic and international. In the domestic sphere, it informs the public and Congress of the Department of Defenses’ interests, concerns, and policy priorities. Deciding whether to abide by a strategy through authorizations and appropriations that align with its tenets is ultimately the prerogative of Congress; nonetheless, it is valuable for members and their staff to understand how the Department of Defense intends to approach issues – how it “thinks” – when developing policy. Internationally, it communicates to friends and foes alike how the United States sees global developments and how it will act to shape them and in response. This offers allies an opportunity to align their own strategies to support and supplement the United States, and serves as a form of warning or deterrent to potential adversaries.

The strategies that most effectively achieve these aims consist of certain key elements. First, and perhaps most important, a good strategy is realistic. One that fails to consider, or misconstrues, the real limits of national means and power defeats the purpose of providing decision-makers guidance on how best to employ available resources to advance the national interest. A realistic strategy acknowledges constraints; indeed, in doing so, it prepares decision-makers for making choices that account for these constraints and work around them. Similarly, good strategies are limited in objective and scope. A broad strategy makes it difficult for policymakers to prioritize top objectives, especially given the limited means available to execute, and runs the risk of leading to overextension and decisions that conflict with each other. With a broad strategy, hierarchies of interests and threats tend to become blurred or collapse altogether.  Instead of cataloguing every interest, strategy should consist of decision rules that allow for application to events as they unfold.

Good strategies are clear in direction, to allow for their consistent implementation through all levels of the bureaucracy and across multiple decisionmakers. Strategies that are unclear or ambiguous in tenet and direction lead to different interpretations among various levels of the bureaucracy, which can muddle execution and lead to non-integrated action. Finally, a good strategy is one that is conceptualized and crafted through an inclusive process that involves all stakeholders. Not only does this secure needed buy-in from the wide array of actors responsible for implementing the strategy, but it allows for a diversity of perspectives to be offered, taken into consideration, and included.

The process of crafting and implementing defense strategy is a challenging one. With multiple constituencies seeking to involve their particular interests or “pet projects” in a strategic framework, the strategy that emerges risks being burdened by excessive and specific detail. Detail can be constraining – a good strategy is limited in scope and breadth – as it minimizes the space for recalibration and adaptation to changing circumstances. The discipline to minimize detail in a strategy is not always forthcoming. Meanwhile, competition regarding priorities, programs, and approaches to be included in a strategy tends to emerge between career bureaucrats and political appointees.  By virtue of their different positions and prerogatives, both have different – often-contradictory – perspectives on the best course of action to take. Political appointees seek to advance the agenda of the Administration and correspondingly approach strategy with a short-term, politicized focus. Particularly within the Department of Defense, career bureaucrats with long institutional histories and knowledge tend to seek preservation of the status-quo and to protect or give priority to their own institutional interests. Striking a balance between these perspectives can be a difficult task, necessitating significant compromise and limiting the extent to which an Administration can pursue its defense policy aims and objectives.

A further challenge in executing strategy is linking the long-term goals set by planners and “strategists” with the short- and mid-term actions that operators can reasonably take to deal with a crisis of the moment. Imperatives do not always align on the short- and long-term perfectly, and planners and operators have different institutional incentives to address tensions. Even with good strategies that are clear in direction and guidance, implementation will suffer because of differing pressures and competencies throughout all levels of the bureaucracy. Finally, a continuing, indeed, inherent, challenge with crafting and implementing strategy is simply that of its nature. How does one know that a strategy is good? How can one be sure that a strategy is working? These are questions without clear answers – decision-makers can work only with their best assumptions and predictions about the world and alter those assumptions as needed. Strategies need to both offer a framework for dealing with security challenges and world events but also simultaneously allow for flexibility and adaptability to new situations.

Despite these challenges, the act of developing, articulating, and implementing strategy is and will remain an invaluable tool for the Department of Defense and American defense policy. An integrated way of thinking about and handling the world’s challenges, even if flawed, is always superior for advancing national interest than haphazardly stumbling into the crises of vogue.