On the Universality of the “Logic of Strategy” and Beyond


Just like several other scholars, military strategist Edward Luttwak argues that “the universal logic of strategy applies in perfect equality to every culture in every age”.[i] This implies that there is indeed one logic inherent to strategic thought, which, according to Luttwak, “cannot be circumvented […] and must be obeyed”.[ii]Mahnken further underpins the idea of the universality of the logic of strategy with the argument that war is a human activity and human nature has not changed throughout time.[iii]When considering Colin Gray stating that “there is an essential unity to all strategic experience in all periods of history because nothing vital to the nature and function of war and strategy changes”, it seems rather natural to accept a certain inevitability of strategic conclusions.[iv]

It is therefore necessary to pose the question which implications the existence of a universal logic of strategy might entail. If such a universally valid logic is assumed to exist, those who understand – or rather master – it best and manage to uncover its underlying cognitive mechanisms will be the most successful actors within the international system as they will be more able to foresee and therefore counter the strategies of possible opponents.

Additionally, to investigate the notion of a logic of strategy is particularly relevant considering the prospect of future wars. If there is a logic of strategy, which is further universally valid, then neither the scenario of a militarized outer space, nor the invention of highly lethal, insuperable biological weapons or the increasing development of and reliance on artificial intelligence will have any substantial, altering effect on it. This thought is congruent with Colin Gray, who claims that it would be a major fallacy to fall prey to the assumption that the invention of ever more modern weapon systems might change the presumed continuity inherent to strategy.[v] In this respect, it must also be emphasized that a certain trust in a universally valid logic of strategy must be handled carefully and must not confine strategic thinking. Hence, the notion of a logic of strategy hints towards the very practice of strategy.[vi]

The term “strategy” itself evolved over time and certainly captured a different meaning before World War One than it does today. This caesura was introduced by Freedman, who argues that this experience led to a widening of the concept “strategy” and to several attempts of redefinition, thus diverging from earlier notions of the concept as provided by von Clausewitz and others.[vii] However, Whetham points out that the notion of strategy and its inherent logic already permeated pre-modern eras, even if it was not yet considered or referred to as such by the respective protagonists.[viii]Approaching the term from a contemporary perspective, Gray very prominently defines strategy as “the bridge that relates military power to political purpose”.[ix]Angstrom and Widen engage with the term similarly when they write that strategy must be viewed as a rationalist process that reconciles “the political aims of war and the military aims in war”.[x] The notion of strategy can therefore be boiled down to the combination of means, ways and aims.

The term “logic” shall in this essay be understood as a rational process of reasoning that is based on various premises and finally leads to the acceptance of a valid conclusion.[xi]Considering that the sub-discipline of strategic studies was traditionally occupied with the question whether and to what extent strategic action is subject to historical, economic, social and technological regularities and patterns – thus whether certain premises indeed necessarily lead to specific strategic conclusions – the assumption of a specific “logic of strategy” does not seem far-fetched. Therefore, this essay argues that indeed a universally valid logic inherent to strategy can be identified, having overcome the constraints of time and space. However, this logic is not the only one. Strategy further operates along the lines of a time- and space-bound, actor-specific logic, which is why strategy must be perceived through a multidimensional lens – and which finally makes strategy so difficult.

On the logic of strategy

When approaching the notion of a logic of strategy, it is necessary to emphasize two preconditions. Firstly, the utility of the use of military force as an important tool of statecraft must be acknowledged.[xii] Secondly, one has to consider the general overarching perception of international politics that widely underlies the field of strategic studies, namely the notion of an anarchic self-help system with independent states at its center, which are all armed to a certain extent and therefore find themselves in security dilemmas.[xiii] Within this framework we will now consider what might constitute the logic of strategy.

When elaborating on the question whether there exist “guidelines” that inform strategic thinking, Gaddis concludes that the fact that strategists do not always have to start from square one increases the likeliness of a certain logic of strategy.[xiv] According to Angstrom and Wilden, the logic of strategy unfolds as its design necessarily bases on three core pillars.[xv]Firstly, military and political ends are perceived as two distinct aspects that need to be put into accordance, the application of military means serving the political ends. Moreover, the actor being concerned with strategy does not have unlimited resources at his/her disposal. Therefore, the aspect of the scarcity of resources is to be viewed as a cornerstone or fixed determinant of the underlying logic of strategy. This is a crucial factor because, as Gray points out, examples like Imperial France, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union all demonstrate that the pursuit of political ends beyond one’s means is bound to fail.[xvi]Thirdly, Angstrom and Widen emphasize that the logic of strategy builds on the confrontation of opposing wills, which accounts for strategy’s interactive and consequently dynamic nature.[xvii] This component might be captured best by Beaufre, who approaches strategy as “the art of the dialectic of two opposing wills using force to resolve their dispute”.[xviii] It is crucial to highlight that the “opposing will” belongs to an intelligent, capable opponent. These three elements that define the logic of strategy are further interlinked, leading to repercussions among them.

As strategy describes the use of military means for the achievement of political ends, several authors have thus attempted to categorize the possible ways to use force. For instance, Robert Art distinguishes four functions of the use of force: defense, deterrence, compellence and swaggering.[xix] Why is this categorization important when reflecting on the logic of strategy? This is because the possible ways to use force (independently of which form the specific “force” takes) are not time-bound. When for example thinking of deterrence, one might be tempted to assume that this specific way to use force is inextricably linked to the deterrence function of nuclear arms in combination with the principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD). However, as Lonsdale vividly illustrates, Alexander the Great already mastered the interplay of military power and psychological effects and made use of coercion and deterrence in order to expand and sustain the newly shaping borders of his empire.[xx] This demonstrates that the logic of strategy operates on the basis of a certain toolkit of ways to use force, which have persisted over time.

Another aspect which could be interpreted as part of a universal logic of strategy might be its inherent paradoxicality. This feature is above all emphasized by Edward Luttwak, who postulates that the whole strategic sphere is permeated with a paradoxical logic deviating from day-to-day life’s ordinary “linear” logic.[xxi] He underpins this notion by referring to the proverb “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, the idea of nuclear deterrence (thus the interpretation of one’s readiness to attack retaliatory as genuinely peaceful intent) or by providing specific examples.[xxii] In this sense he draws attention to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and claims that the Japanese were able to create a momentum of surprise only by neglecting crucial preparations.[xxiii] This means that within the realm of strategy, Luttwak’s paradoxical logic finds thorough application as the straightforward “linear” logic is viewed rather predictable and is therefore more likely to be punished.

In sum, the aspects outlined above could be perceived as being universally valid, throughout time and space. However, as will be argued, there is more to the logic of strategy that must be considered.

Going Beyond Strategy’s Universal Logic

In the following, the attempt should be undertaken to challenge the notion that there is indeed only a logic of strategy. One could firstly argue that strategy, bridging between military means and political objectives, is not only grounded in the specific universal logic as outlined before but that strategy is also always a choice among several available options. Then the question follows, if all options available would theoretically all be equally feasible, require the same resources and are similar in terms of effectiveness, which strategy would be adopted? One could argue that this depends on the involved actors, which, even if acting under the premise of rationality, are rooted in their specific historical, social and political contexts.

Strategy is therefore clearly not designed within a vacuum. The contents of strategy do not only derive from what was described above as composing the universally valid logic of strategy. If we return to the definition of “logic”, the term was understood as a process of thought, which leads from several given premises to a valid conclusion under the condition of rationality. Therefore, also the given time- and space-bound circumstances under which a certain strategy is formulated could be considered as forming their own logic. Angstrom and Widen summarize these circumstances as strategic context, which unfolds along the lines of six dimensions of politics (without claiming to be exhaustive): geography, history, ideology, economy, technology and the political system.[xxiv] Instead of treating them as mere contextual factors, it is important to consider the respective as constituting their own logic, along which strategy is aligned. However, Angstrom and Widen emphasize that these actor-specific factors only bear limited explanatory power and that it is difficult to assess to what extent these factors influence the design of strategies.[xxv] This, nevertheless, does not invalidate the notion that these actor-, time- and space-specific circumstances should be considered as another logic by itself. Acknowledging the existence of more than one logic of strategy penetrating the realm of strategy would further emphasize the importance of the specific embeddedness of strategy – without undermining the significance of the above identified universally valid logic of strategy. One would consequently accept that when it comes to strategy, one encounters several logics in action.


When returning to the initial question, which implications the existence of a logic of strategy would have, specifically regarding the prospect of success, it is worthwhile to consult Richard Betts, who asks “Is Strategy an Illusion?”.[xxvi] He argues that effective strategy is often impossible due to the unpredictability and complexity of the gap between the use of force and the aspired political ends.[xxvii] However, it is indeed because of this overwhelming complexity in which strategy operates that its underlying logics should be reflected upon. Gaddis refers to the universally valid features of the logic of strategy as a “checklist”, which shall be considered to contribute to the design of a successful, effective strategy.[xxviii] As was demonstrated above, it is nevertheless also crucial to consider the additional specific time-and space-bound logic of strategy. To understand the strategy of potential opponents, it makes sense to deconstruct its logical foundation, to consider the universally valid logic of strategy but also the respective underlying actor-specific logic. Strategy thus operates along a multidimensional logic, both universally valid and time- and space-bound. This is what makes strategy difficult but acknowledging this conceptual aspect might notwithstanding contribute to its further mastery.

[i]Luttwak, Edward N., The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2012), vii.

[ii]Ibid., viii.

[iii]Mahnken, Thomas G., The Evolution of Strategy… But What About Policy? Journal of Strategic Studies 34 no. 4 (2016), 52.

[iv]Gray, Colin S.,Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1.

[v]Gray Colin S., Why Strategy Is Difficult. JFQ (1999), 8.

[vi] Cf. Lonsdale, David J. and Colin S. Gray (eds.), The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011).

[vii]Freedman, Lawrence. The Meaning of Strategy: Part I: The Origin Story. Texas National Security Review 1 no. 1 (2007), 90-105.

[viii]Whetham, David, The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present. Edited by John Andreas Olsen and Colin S. Gray. War in History 21 no. 2 (2014), 252.

[ix] Gray, Modern Strategy,17.

[x]Armstrong, Jan and J. J. Widen,Contemporary Military Theory. The Dynamics of War (New York: Routledge, 2015), 33. Original emphasis.

[xi]Hintikka, Jaakko, Logic. Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessible via: https://www.britannica.com/topic/logic [accessed: October 25th 2020].

[xii]Art, Robert J., To What Ends Military Power? International Security 4 no. 4 (1980), 35.

[xiii]Gilpin, Robert G., No one Loves a Political Realist. Security Studies 5 no. 3(1996), 26.

[xiv]Gaddis, John Lewis, Containment and the Logic of Strategy. The National Interest 8 no. 10 (1987), 29.

[xv] Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 46.

[xvi]Gray, Why Strategy Is Difficult, 10.

[xvii] Cf. Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory.

[xviii]Beaufre, André, An Introduction to Strategy (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 22.

[xix] Cf. Art, To What Ends Military Power?

[xx]Lonsdale, David J., The Campaigns of Alexander the Great. In: John A. Olsen; Colin S. Gray (eds.). The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011)33.

[xxi]Luttwak, Edward N., Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 6.

[xxiv] Cf. Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 36-43.

[xxv] Ibid., 42-43.

[xxvi] Cf. Betts, Richard K., Is Strategy an Illusion? International Security 25 no. 2 (2000), 5-50.

[xxvii]Ibid., 5.

[xxviii] Gaddis, Containment and the Logic of Strategy, 38.

Sandra J. Bandemer
Sandra J. Bandemer
Sandra J. Bandemer graduated in History and Political Science at LMU Munich and is a second year Master student in Peace Research and International Politics at the University of Tübingen. Currently she is based in Paris and studies at Sciences Po. Her main focus lies on international security studies as well as the history and politics of the Middle East.