Most accounts stress that grand strategy has been a fundamental feature of all statecraft across time. Historians as influential as Paul Kennedy and John Lewis Gaddis argue that “all states have a grand strategy, whether they know it or not.” If this is so, then why did it take until the Second World War for a term to emerge describing such a crucial quality? If grand strategy has been an historically continuous element of statecraft, then understandings of strategy must surely have encompassed more than the mere fighting of battles before 1945?
Moreover, the idea that humankind has progressed towards a more effective understanding of strategy across time—moving towards the inclusive modern application of the term—risks straying into a Whiggish account by which we assume an increasing capacity to influence events that are often far beyond the control of statesmen and women. As Patrick Porter has argued, an intellectual framework of this nature can be extremely problematic when applied to the security challenges of the present—underpinning over-inflated notions of agency in world affairs, and assisting in the rationale offered in justification of unrestrained interventionism.
Some of the most notable proponents in debates over grand strategy have been distinguished historians—among them Kennedy and Gaddis. Yet at the same time, the discipline of history itself has been remarkably reluctant to engage in discussions of strategy. This has contributed to a situation whereby history is used to emphasise continuity in the practice of grand strategy—buttressing the idea that grand strategy is something that has always happened—rather than to challenge ideas and assumptions within broader debates on the topic.
This is an unfortunate oversight, as history has a vital role in sharpening our analysis of strategy. As Hew Strachan has argued, viewing strategy as ubiquitous in the annals of statecraft conflates strategic theory with strategy in practice. Doing so confuses our understanding of strategy in the modern world by depicting the inherently responsive, changing nature of strategic action by governments with the long-term continuities of strategic theory.
Returning to the origins of the idea of grand strategy makes this much clear. Doing so reveals that grand strategy was not an idea born of the experience of the First or Second World Wars. Nor was it a concept regarded as an inherent aspect of statecraft. Rather, an identifiably modern notion of grand strategy was the product of the British Empire’s anxieties over its global security challenges. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, the Edwardian courtier Lord Esher argued:
"The questions confronting the Great General Staff of the German Army are constantly undergoing revision, but they are simple and stable compared with those affecting our world-wide Empire, and they are purely military. There is, on the other hand, hardly any point on the earth’s surface which can change ownership, and certainly not a modification in the relative power of two foreign states, can take place without affecting the National Strategy of Great Britain."