American Strategic Culture – Colin S. Gray


Published in 1988, Colin Gray’s The Geopolitics of Super Power examines the cultural and political dimensions of late Cold War era American geostrategy. Context, as well as comparison guide Gray’s analytical framework – which synthesizes geography and history. According to Gray, political geography catalyzes a vital feature of national strategic culture.


“It is commonplace to observe that dictatorships maintain systemic political strength only in the context of a public aura of success; that is, given that it is the lot of all governments to receive and be responsible for both good and bad news, a dictatorship dares not admit that it has failed.

“The roots of American strategic culture lie in a frontier tradition, an experience and expectation of success in national endeavors, experience with an abundance of resources for defense, a dominant political philosophy of liberal idealism, and a sense of separateness – moral and geostrategic – from the evil doings of the Old World.

“But statecraft is at least as much a matter of discovering and exploiting effective ‘work-arounds’ for national weaknesses and vulnerabilities as it is of exploiting national strengths. Substantially, though not exclusively, the effectiveness of a particular security community in defense of its interests is a function of the quality of strategic guidance provided for sustained collective action.

“Strategic culture – the socially transmitted attitudes, habits, and skills of a community in its approach to issues of national security – is very much the product of geopolitical factors as they are locally interpreted.

“Technical fixes in defense organization, and even changes in military tactics and at the operational level of war, will be unlikely to have the desired effects if they affront important strands in American culture.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Geopolitics of Super Power, The University Press of Kentucky.

The Strategic Dimension – Colin S. Gray


Colin Gray’s analysis of the so-called strategic dimension of conflict is a multilayered approach – which recognizes at least seventeen dimensions of strategy. According to Gray, the essentials of human culture animate the vital center of the strategic dimension. Further, Gray’s strategic dimension synthesizes with John Keegan’s cultural prime mover of strategy notion for a more refined recognition of how assumptions influence strategic thinking.


“Politicians and their advisers are experts at crafting policy, just as soldiers have traditionally been viewed as the professionals in ‘the management of violence.’ Who is it, though, that patrols the no-man’s land between politics and military force? That is the realm where strategists should roam.

“Although it may appear unduly pessimistic, even uncharitable, to say it, the evidence of history strongly suggests that we will fail to anticipate the strategic ideas some of our enemies will employ. As a result, we will be embarrassed and, possibly, even defeated occasionally. Such is strategic history.

“Those theorists and officials who persistently confuse the character of war, which is always changing, with the nature of war, which cannot alter, are responsible for creating confusion and raising false expectations.

“Americans must be true to their culture. The conduct of a technological style of warfare is mandated by American circumstances and preferences: It is what Americans do well, and it is usually sensible to go with one’s strengths. The danger is that America’s romance with high technology might distort its understanding of war and strategy.

“In the twentieth century, Germany proved itself to be exceptionally good at fighting. But it repeatedly fell in its inability to translate that combat prowess into an ability to win wars. A world community uneasily dependent upon America’s strategic performance as sheriff has to hope that their guardian state will not reveal any like tendency to win battles but lose wars. That community must also hope that America will remember that the purpose of war is not victory, but the achievement of a condition of peace with security superior to the pre-war context.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Sheriff: America’s Defense of the New World Order, The University Press of Kentucky.

The Case for General Theory – Colin S. Gray


Published near the end of his life Theory of Strategy presents Colin Gray’s general theory of strategy. The theory is split into four components involving ideas relevant to politics, order, complexity, and cohesion, as well as two sub-categories which survey the significance of history and what may be described as strategic intuition.


“As a general rule, the armed forces need to be able and willing to do it – whatever ‘it’ is – tactically, if operational art, strategy, and high policy are to be feasible.

“Unfortunately, there has been only one long-term pattern in human affairs, and that is a perpetual readiness to resort to conflict. Regardless of the character of the political, religious, and pseudo-religious ideas that have inspired the human historical narrative, this has been its single, and therefore master, theme….A theory of strategy claiming to be general, as here, needs to be housed firmly and plausibly in a resilient basis of causal explanation.

“The search for security must lead inexorably to a quest for strategy. It is solely through strategy that military power can be translated into political influence. This influence is the currency in which security is valued.

“Strategy is in the currency-conversion business, turning military power into political influence. The general theory of strategy is entirely indifferent as to the means employed to achieve this conversion. In practice, of course, the ways in which chosen means are used are often critical to the success or otherwise of the whole conversion enterprise. It can be important to emphasize to an army that, although vitally necessary, it is only a means to an end that is political by definition.

“The theory of war needs to be nested richly within a context of broad understanding of the likely consequences of conflict.

*All excerpts have been taken from Theory of Strategy, Oxford University Press.