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The Concept of Grand Strategy in Harrison’s Applied Game Theory.



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Q. What does the term “Grand Strategy” mean and how is applied in HAGT – Harrison’s Applied Game Theory?

A. In HAGT it is always important to know the end result you desire before you enter a competitive environment. As the old cliché’ states “If you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there.”

A Grand strategy (GS), also known as a high strategy, is a general term for a broad statement of strategic action.  A GS comprises the intentional application of all instruments of power and influence available to a strategist. Issues of grand strategy typically include the choice of primary versus secondary areas of competition, distribution of resources among the various team members, the general types of tools to use in specific scenarios, and which alliances best suit group goals. Grand strategy focuses primarily on the long term implications of a particular strategy. A team leader typically directs grand strategy with input from the most skilled and specialized team members. Development of a grand strategy in national or corporate environments may extend across many years or even multiple generations.


The concept of GS has been extended to describe multi-tiered strategies in general, including strategic thinking within large organizations like religious organizations,  corporations, and political parties. A GS states the means that will be used to achieve long-term objectives. Examples of business grand strategies that can be customized for a specific firm include: concentration, market development, product development, innovation, horizontal integration, divestiture, and liquidation.



In defining Grand Strategy, military historian B. H. Liddell Hart states:


[T]he role of grand strategy – higher strategy – is to coordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war – the goal defined by fundamental policy.

Grand strategy should both calculate and develop the economic resources and man-power of nations in order to sustain the fighting services. Also the moral resources – for to foster the people’s willing spirit is often as important as to possess the more concrete forms of power. Grand strategy, too, should regulate the distribution of power between the several services, and between the services and industry. Moreover, fighting power is but one of the instruments of grand strategy – which should take account of and apply the power of financial pressure, and, not least of ethical pressure, to weaken the opponent’s will.


Furthermore, while the horizons of strategy are bounded by the conflict, competition, or war, GS looks beyond these engagements to the subsequent interactions between players. It should not only combine the various resources, tools, and instruments but so regulate their use to avoid damage to the future state of peace – for its security and prosperity.


Grand strategy expands on the traditional idea of strategy in three ways:


  1. expanding strategy beyond zero-sum situations to include cooperative possibilities that might include diplomatic, financial, economic, informational, means etc.
  2. examining internal in addition to external forces – taking into account both the various instruments of power and the internal policies necessary for their implementation (in a specific country this might include military conscription, for example)
  3. including consideration of periods of peacetime in addition to conflict, competition, and /or war


One of the earlier writings on grand strategy comes from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, an account of the war between the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) and the Delian League (led by Athens).


One of the best ways for students of GS to explore the subject is to research the histories of great and successful empires or alliances formed in war. Examples might include:

  • Rome: From the era of Hadrian, Roman emperors employed a military strategy of “preclusive security—the establishment of a linear barrier of perimeter defense around the Empire. The Legions were stationed in great fortresses


These “fortresses” existed along the perimeter of the Empire, often accompanied by actual walls (for example, Hadrian’s Wall). Due to the perceived impenetrability of these perimeter defenses, the Emperors kept no central reserve army. The Roman system of roads allowed for soldiers to move from one frontier to another (for the purpose of reinforcements during a siege) with relative ease. These roads also allowed for a logistical advantage for Rome over her enemies, as supplies could be moved just as easily across the Roman road system as soldiers. This way, if the legions could not win a battle through military combat skill or superior numbers, they could simply outlast the invaders.



  • World War II: The decision of the Allies in World War II to concentrate on the defeat of Germany first, before other members of the Axis powers. The decision, a joint agreement made after the attack on Pearl Harbor (1941) had drawn the US into the war, was a sensible GS in that Germany was the most powerful member of the Axis, and directly threatened the existence of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. Conversely, while Japan’s conquests garnered considerable public attention, they were mostly in colonial areas deemed less essential by planners and policy-makers. The specifics of Allied military strategy in the Pacific War were therefore shaped by the lesser resources made available to the theatre commanders.
  • Cold War: The US and the UK used a policy of containment as part of their grand strategy during the Cold War.


GS can change as a particular player develops different resources over time and the game space itself changes.  For example, the conversation around grand strategy in the United States has evolved significantly since the country’s founding, with the nation shifting from a strategy of continental expansion, isolation from European conflicts, and opposition to European empires in the Western hemisphere in its first century, to a major debate about the acquisition of an empire in the 1890s (culminating in the conquest of the Philippines and Cuba during the Spanish–American War), followed by rapid shifts between offshore balancing, liberal internationalism, and isolationism around the world wars. The Cold War saw increasing use of deep, onshore engagement strategies (including the creation of a number of permanent alliances, significant involvement in other states’ internal politics, and a major counterinsurgency war in Vietnam.) With the end of the Cold War, an early strategic debate eventually coalesced into a strategy of primacy, culminating in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The aftershocks of this war, along with an economic downturn, rising national debt, and deepening political gridlock, have led to a renewed strategic debate, centered on two major schools of thought: primacy


With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union the focal point of U.S. strategy, containing the Soviet Union, was removed. Since then a major debate emerged about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. In a 1997 piece for International Security entitled “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” Barry R. Posen and Andrew L. Ross identified four major grand strategic alternatives in the debate:


  1. neo-isolationism
  2. selective engagement
  3. cooperative security primacy
  4. primacy

These four GS can be applied to any game-based or competitive environment, even in dealing with a troublesome neighbor or a neighborhood bully.


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Lewis Harrison is a practical philosopher, mentor, and peak performance coach.


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