In the complex environment of conflict and decision making the modern world finds itself facing continuously today, how do non-democratic (or less democratic) systems compared to their Western democratic counterparts perform in developing and producing master strategists in leadership positions? Do the leaders of more authoritarian systems have a bigger and better chance of emulating their genius ancestors? It is a hard and extremely subjective endeavor to name anyone living today (or in recent times) as a “master strategist,” a task history (and its lessons) finds more willing to undertake. In the modern world there is less room for the growth of master strategists in the form of legendary historic figures. The nature of non-democratic systems provide more space to its leaders to potentially reach such a status.
To address these questions, we should first define what a master strategist is and some of the limits the modern world places on the emergence of a master strategist in general. We must also understand that the makeup of a modern master strategist is quite different than his/her historical counterpart.
Alexander the Great was the embodiment of the strategic man. His genius as a strategist went far beyond the ancient battlefields, as “Alexander displayed not only tactical ingenuity and ferocity, but also political sagacity and magnanimity.” Essentially, he resembled a one-man strategy bridge, connecting the gap between the political and military himself. For Clausewitz, the genius is the individual who displays “outstanding gifts of intellect and temperament,” which are revealed in exceptional achievements. At the U.S. Army War College, three roles for strategists are considered: the leader, practitioner, and the theorist. Harry Yarger states that a master of strategic art is expert in all three capacities. On the other hand, Sir Lawrence Freedman argues that strategies are rarely developed by professional strategists but by leaders who impose their will on events without understanding the consequences of their actions. Freedman goes on to say that good strategy does not necessarily come from experts in the field but can be generated by imperfect human beings who work in imperfect organizations under conditions of great ambiguity.
Generally, the definition of the master strategist in our world requires some humbling down. Modern scholars of strategy such as Colin Gray and Harry Yarger associate an enormous number of qualities to such a being, suggesting that becoming one may become impossible. The complexities and the ever changing nature of the problems we face today means that it is extremely hard and almost impossible for a single individual to have the wide range of expertise, knowledge, unmatched vision, genius and, perhaps most importantly, authority. The master strategist in today’s world would have some of these qualities, but more importantly, be able to consistently produce sound or better strategy (as compared to adversaries or competitors), which improves the position of the state, department, or organization.
It is unrealistic to expect such an individual to know and understand the second and third order effects of all their actions. A master strategist should be able to develop (or take part in) grand strategy which focuses on the internal and external. As Colin Gray puts it himself, “[R]emember that to succeed in strategy you do not have to be distinguished or even particularly competent. All that is required is performing well enough to beat an enemy. You do not have to win elegantly; you just have to win.”
In Western societies, and specifically democratic societies, it is even harder to attain such status in the field of strategy. Freedman acknowledges this. Strategists function in different levels or in different roles in different organizations whether it is for the government or for a non-governmental entity. This requires that one be comprehensive and communicate their strategies effectively to all levels that make up the organization that will eventually implement the strategy. Another element that prevents the strategist from becoming a master strategist is the growing gap between the political and military establishments in today’s democratic systems.
To be a master strategist in some ways would mean to go against the political setup of the state. This applies more to the leader of the state, for example the President of the United States. The checks and balances in place in democracies mean that the obstacles and the level of power (veto, for example) various institutions hold would further inhibit a strategist from reaching master status. While a leader may have the qualities that make a master strategist, the limits of democratic mechanisms would inhibit such an individual, due to time constraints and the checks and balances mentioned earlier. We must be clear here, Western democratic systems can produce individuals who many would consider master strategists or at the very least strategic geniuses. The last century has seen the likes of Churchill, Eisenhower, and Margaret Thatcher, to name a few, but what allowed them reach this status was the sheer uncertainty and level of heightened conflict that allowed them to use their unique abilities to impose their will on events and greatly narrow the military/political divide.
While the heads of states and militaries of Western democratic societies are arguably hindered from truly achieving the status of master strategist in the historical sense, what about rulers who do not face time constraints, democratic consensus, or the bureaucratic processes which disrupt their strategic progress? For example, what about the various forms of authoritarian states around the world?
Today, conquering new nations or parts of them and defeating enemies in open, conventional combat is more a semblance of the past (although Putin has tried hard to revive the glory of the past—and Iran as well, through other means), especially when it comes to improving the standing of a state. Instead of obtaining new territories (and the wealth that comes with them), strategists must make wise economic investments, prudent use of resources, and effective partnerships/alliances which can help mitigate external threats. This, too, includes making investments which give a leader and the state considerable political leverage, hence, the ability to “control” others without perhaps any military requirement. To be sure, this is not necessarily modern (history has various examples), but largely applicable to the norms of our modern world. In fact, achieving strategic goals or producing and implementing effective grand strategy within the realm of international norms today (most of the time any way) is what makes or leads to the modern master strategist status.
The heads of states of such political systems have two key points that work in their favor compared to their Western counterparts: time and a concentrated level of authority. The leaders of non-democratic systems, unlike their Western democratic counterparts, usually rule in the decades. Furthermore, the makeup of these systems allows for the ruler to amass considerable power, which in turn allows them to impose their will on all or most political and economic decisions. These two elements are required to realize the potential of becoming a master strategist or Clausewitzian genius. By no means are these guarantees; education and life experiences are also essential in the development of a strategic mind.
Today, each system of governance has its pros and cons. Importantly, Western democracies allow for the growth of more strategically-minded individuals who can have an influence and help direct the policies and wider grand strategies of the nation’s leader. Political pluralism in this case helps in expanding the pool of strategic thinkers that can actually have an influence. In non-Western systems of governance, the ruler makes most if not all the major political and military decisions. This means that there are less individuals who can enter the strategic decision-making apparatus or have much of an influence on it.
The idea of a master strategist requires consistency. Can an individual produce exemplary strategy all the time? Even those individuals who were considered great strategists have produced horrible strategies at certain times. Could Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great have achieved their unmatched successes were it not for the generals and advisors who played major roles in those successes? Arguably not. Strategy, by nature, is adaptive and evolutionary. While it is necessary for leaders to have strategic minds, it is perhaps even more important to have systems in place which allow for individuals to further develop their education and have the opportunity to influence the development of a nation’s strategy. Perhaps,that time and circumstance are perhaps one of the most important deciders of such a status. Based on the nature of non-democratic and democratic systems today, non-democratic systems are more conducive to producing leaders who have the potential of becoming master strategists.