Lawrence Freedman: “Strategy: A History” | Talks at Google

BORIS: Welcome, everyone. It’s another Authors
at Google Talk. Today with us is Sir
Lawrence Freedman. He’s been a professor
of war studies at King’s College London
since 1982 and vice principal since 2003, elected a fellow
of the British Academy in 1995 and awarded the CVE in 1996. He was appointed official
historian of the Faulklands campaign in 1997. He was awarded the KCMG in 2003. In June, 2009, he was
appointed to serve as a member of the
official inquiry into Britain and
the 2003 Iraq war. Professor Freedman has
written extensively on nuclear strategy
and the Cold War, as well as
commentating regularly on contemporary security issues. His recent book, “A
Choice of Enemies, America Confronts
the Middle East,” won the 2009 Lionel Gelber prize
and Duke of Westminster metal for military literature. Today he will talk us through
his newest book, “Strategy, a History.” Please give a warm welcome
Boris, thank you very much. It’s a real pleasure to be here. Everybody here
Googles regularly. So to actually be at the
heart of it is quite exciting. So what I want to do
first is to explain to you what the book is about
and how it’s organized and then give you some
basic ideas about some of the main themes
before trying out on you an approach to strategy which
I think emerges from the book. I have to emphasize
that, because I’d like you to read
it, but it doesn’t depend on you agreeing with
the approach to strategy. But I do think if you’re going
to write about these things, you should have some
ideas at the end about it. The book is essentially
a history of ideas. So it has quite a lot of the
different theories, which I think impinge on strategy and
make people think differently about it. And it’s about the relationship
between theory and practice, about how ideas about
action are influenced by views about how
the world works. So that’s sort of what
inspired me to do it. It isn’t really a
how to do it book. It’s not a book that
the inspiration of which was 20 lessons to success. If you just follow my
example, you’ll make a mint. You won’t if you try
to follow what I say. But it gives you some ideas. So the way it’s organizes
is sort of first looking at the pre-history
of strategy in the sense that the word, as
we understand it, came into use largely at the
end of the 18th century, start of the 19th century. The word itself comes
from the Greek strategos, the art of the general. And, of course, a lot of the
activity that we would now describe as being strategic
was there before hand. Just because people
didn’t call it strategy doesn’t mean to say
that they weren’t doing it. But the word itself, and
therefore the interest in what it’s about
and how to define it, how to conceptualize
it, comes into currency just before Napoleon. But I think Napoleon
gives it more meaning to those who are interested
in how the art of warfare had been transformed since
the French Revolution. But it was part of
the Enlightenment because it captured
the idea that with sufficient application
of reason and science, that the world could
become much more comprehensible and predictable,
and therefore controllable. And there’s an impulse
behind strategy. It’s a desire to make the
future more in your control, more so in control
than other people with whom you may be in
competition or in war. And the assumption is that
if you understand that world better than they do and can work
out your actions accordingly, you’re the one who
will come out on top. So it reflected an
enlightenment belief that it was possible to get
a science of human affairs that would be following
the natural sciences. Napoleon gave it
much more meaning because here was
somebody who seemed to have a genius for
battle, for transforming the way that war was fought. And two of those who fought
in the Napoleonic Wars, not on the same side–
the Swiss Germany and the Prussian Clausewitz–
I became the main interpreters of Napoleon through
the 19th century and influenced the way
that we think about, not only war, but also
strategy ever since. And the basic point that
they sought to get over– and Clausewitz is
much more nuanced and settled than
Germany in this. But the underlying
point was the same. The efforts of the
great general would be geared towards
the decisive battle. And the decisiveness of battle
was really important in this. It wasn’t just winning. You would win in such a way
that the opponent, the enemy, would be at your mercy. And so the politics
of the conflict would be sorted out by
the military victory, by the military success. So the idea of decisive battle–
which is not a new idea, but was given much more
credibility by Napoleon’s early successes–
was to the full. If you won the battle,
you would win the war. Now the problem
with this became– could have been
apparent at the time. There was one campaign where
both Germany and Clausewitz were present, which is the
1812 campaign against Russia on opposite sides. And that showed a
lot of the problems with the idea of
decisive battle. Napoleon won at the
Battle at Borodino. But he didn’t really win
because the Russians had sufficient reserves left–
as the Russians always do– had sufficient
reserves left to be able to mount
another attack. Napoleon went for
the capital city to find it abandoned
and soon on fire and discovered he was stranded. He didn’t actually have
a way of winning the war and famously then
had to retreat. You could argue also that
the Peninsula War, where the first guerrillas made their
appearance– or the first that were called that in
Spain– also demonstrated in the face of
popular resistance, even if an army
had been defeated, you could also struggle. So the problems with the
idea of a decisive battle, in principle, were evident
right from the start. Nonetheless, to this
day, military strategy seems to be geared to
that particular event. Yet if you look at the
developments in technology over the past couple
of hundred years, you realize just
how much harder it is to get a decisive victory
than it was in Napoleon’s day. The range of weapons, their
lethality, their numbers, the ways in which you
could bring reserves to the battlefield
through railways, the development of aircraft,
and so on, all of these made warfare much
more challenging and much more likely
to end in attrition, a long battle, a
long struggle that would not have an easy answer. One side would eventually
be basically worn down by the other, in
which case it would be just the superiority
of resources that would make the difference. I mean, we’re
happy to talk later about various ideas
that have developed over the last couple of
decades under the influence of the digital revolution about
how military affairs might be affected by this. But essentially
if you’re talking about wars between great powers,
especially nuclear powers, it’s very hard to see
how they can be concluded with the abject surrender
of one to the other, especially if both have
got nuclear weapons, hence the phrase mutually
assured destruction, which is very explicit
about the state of affairs. That warns of the consequences
of two sides trying to fight to the finish. And my experience
warns of the problems of believing that
through clever strategy you can control affairs because
there’s always something else to come behind. The next session looks
at political affairs. And I start with the
underdog, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. I start with revolutionary
theory, largely revolutionaries, because the
gap between where they start and where they’re going, where
we wish to end up, is enormous. They’re the ones who
think about strategy more than anybody else. It’s often pretty
hopeless and futile. But they do think
a lot about it. Anybody who’s had any
connection with radical groups will know just how much
strategizing goes on, often to little effect. But in the 1830’s, when
the first professional revolutionaries
came along, they had an example not very long before
of the French Revolution, which indicated how things could
change, and a lot of unrest and unsettled
popular feeling that gave them hope that things
could be transformed. And a lot of the ideas that we
have now become very familiar with, of course, were very
fresh in those terms about how society may develop and
the science of politics that Marx in particular. But others also
thought that they had discerned that would
explain why in some way or other their victory was inevitable. And they also were looking
for a decisive event just like the
military strategists. In their case the
decisive event was going to be the revolution,
which would be the moment when you move from one political
order to the next. And, of course, with
the revolutionaries, they didn’t have much chance
to put it into practice. When there were revolutions,
for example in 1917, they didn’t occur in anything
like the circumstances in which the revolutionaries
had predicted. Their methods were
different to those that they had said
that they would follow. And then, of course, they were
faced with the many challenges of coping with the society
that they’d inherited. But what I try to
do in the book is look through the ways in
which the frustrations of the revolutionaries
led to new thinking about political action, and
in particular the importance of the way that people
think about their situation as being what you have to
influence and manipulate. Why was it that the
masses didn’t understand how repressed and oppressed
and exploited they were? What were the sources of
their false consciousness? And as those ideas
developed, they merged into much
more general thinking about how people construct
the world in their heads and the challenges
of influencing those constructions. So as you move on, you see
within political affairs, quite mainstream now, not
particularly radical, the idea of the narrative taking
hold, that what’s critical is your ability to frame
events in such a way that people will accept your
version of what’s going on and act accordingly. So the narrative
becomes increasingly important to strategy. And you can argue
something similar is happening, the
influence by some of these ideas in political
affairs in the military affairs as well. In counter insurgency
theory, the importance of hearts and minds as
opposed to just beating people up, so-called kinetic methods. The importance of hearts and
minds lies in the recognition that the way people
think about a conflict, not necessarily
that they like you, but if they think
you’re going to win and maybe that it’s going to
be better for you if they do, it may well, again, affect
their readiness to give support to insurgents, provide recruits
to insurgents, fund them, or whatever else they might do. And similarly also in
the business sphere, if you look at the
literature now, business strategy is
the dominant field. There’s more books written
about business strategy and all the bits of the business
strategy, human relations, procurement,
marketing, whatever, than there are about
military strategy. It only really
started– you only see books on business
strategy coming into being in the early ’60s. It has a similar sort
of origin, however. Just like military
strategy was initially about the affairs
of the great powers, so it is business strategy
was about the affairs of the great companies, the
big American corporations, whose actual ability
to grow their business was limited by antitrust laws. And they, by and large, were
not doubting their market share. The question for them
was profitability and how do they get
the most efficiency out of their business. So a lot of the original
work on business strategy was looking at the
structure of organizations to make sure that they were
at their most efficient. The word competition
didn’t particularly appear. It was only towards
as the ’60s wore on that the idea of competitive
strategy in business became more and more important. And even then, initially, a
lot of it was– for example, the work of Michael Porter–
some of you may be aware of, at Harvard, one the first
serious academic business strategists– was essentially
about maintaining your market position and
repelling insurgents in the sense of putting
up market barriers rather than necessarily
making better products. Over the ensuing
period, a lot more interest in innovation,
finding new markets, showing how you can be
cleverer than everybody else. But there’s been a problem
with business strategy in that it hasn’t really,
unlike military strategy, had a single compelling model
that has shaped all discussion. There’s numerous different
strategies on offer. I was fascinated to discover
whole academic literature on fads and fashions,
which charted the rise and fall of a variety of
ideas, often initiated by Tom Peters, that grabbed
attention for a few years and then were supplanted
by something else and raised interesting questions
about why did chief executives follow these strategies when
experience should warn them that they may have
a short shelf life and not produce the
promised rewards? And there’s sort of
interesting answers in terms of if everybody
else is following it then you don’t lose out
by following it yourself. Indeed, following the
latest fashions often was associated with higher
executive pay, if not better results. So there’s an
interesting question about the development
of business strategy in that its often
struggled to find its way. So with that very
quick background as to how the different
elements– and I should say, the book ends with
more social sciences stuff about rational choice and
attempts by social scientists to also provide a scientific
approach to strategy and what I think is the
interesting influence of cognitive psychology
on these ideas. That’s very briefly an
overview of a very long book. Let me give you now my sense
of the approach that I think comes out of this. One of the things
I’m trying to argue, as you will have
gathered, is the attempts to control the environment
well into the future so that you’re sure
that where you start, that by following your strategy
you will reach the desired end, is often disappointing
and misleading, that strategy is not
necessarily a plan. I challenge the idea
that strategy is a plan. Now, there’s a very famous quote
by the great Prussian Field Marshal von Moltke that
“no plan survives contact with the enemy.” I open the book with
my favorite quote which gets to the same point
in a more pithy way by the boxer Mike Tyson
which is “everybody’s got a plan until they
got punched in the face.” And the reason why
plans aren’t followed is for a very simple reason. It’s a difference in the
way between an engineering problem and a strategic problem. If you’re dealing with physical
properties as a well known, you may have to struggle,
there may be uncertainty, but you should be able
to get, eventually, through experimentation and
clever thought, to an outcome. With a strategic
problem, you’ve got somebody trying
to frustrate you. An example I use is President
Reagan’s strategic defense initiative in the
1980s where he said, understandably, isn’t it better
to protect against a missile attack than avenge
a missile attack? We should be able to protect
against a missile attack because look how good we are. We put a man on the moon. But, of course, the moon
wasn’t trying to fight back. The moon wasn’t trying
to repel borders. And that’s the basic difference. You’re dealing with an
intelligent opponent. Now, if you’re very
strong, then you should be able to get your
way in many situations. There’s a quote
from Ecclesiastes that “the race doesn’t always go
to the most swift or the fight to the most strong.” But Damon Runyon added,
“they’re the ones to bet on.” By and large the fast
win, and the strong win. So the interesting
things about strategy, which is why I looked so much
at revolutionary strategy, is under what circumstances
can the underdogs do well? Now, one answer to
that comes from being cleverer than the sort
of muscle bound opponent that you may face. And the example that’s
often used for that is David and Goliath. Every time somebody
sees themselves as the underdog, the
weak guy in the fight, they will cite David and
Goliath to give them hope and to show that they’re
also on the side of right. You know the story
of David and Goliath with the Philistines
offering their champion to challenge the Israelites who
don’t come up with a champion. And that’s actually one
important part of the story because it should
have been King Saul. That was his job. That was why he’d
been made king. But he was very cautious,
and a bit reluctant so bizarrely accepted the
claims of a shepherd boy to go on instead. And this was a shepherd boy who
refused to accept Saul’s armor. So he went undefended
against this giant. Instead he picked up some
stones from the stream, used his sling, and sent them
in the direction of Goliath, hit him in between the head. Goliath falls down. He chops of his head
with Goliath’s own sword. And the Philistines agree. Now, the interesting
thing about all of this is it could’ve been different. And the ways it could
have been different gives you a warning about
an underdog strategy that tries to work through deception
and getting in the first blow. First, this could have been
a couple of centimeters. This could have
been very different. If the thing had pinged off
the top of Goliath’s helmet, he wouldn’t have
had a second chance. He had one chance
and one chance alone. Secondly, that it
required the Philistines to accept this result. If they thought this
was really unfair– this was asymmetric
warfare, after all. If they thought this was unfair,
they could’ve rushed forward, and the Israelites would
still have been in trouble. And third, and most
relevant, is that you can’t do this over
and over again. The next time a champion of
the Philistines came along, he would at least
have a better helmet. And he’d certainly be
looking quite carefully at what David was up to. And it’s the problem of the
trickster through the ages. If you look at
Odysseus, who I spent some time on in the early
stages of the book, who was the great trickster and
a really successful one. And Homer really
approves of doing things by guile rather than force. But he’s not believed
after a point. Nobody trusts him at all. Even when he’s telling the
truth, he’s not believed. So there are limits
on what you can do by cunning and deception. Not to say it
can’t be successful in particular circumstances. It may be very successful. But there are limits. And you can see that
in military terms, for example, with
the Schlieffen Plan. You’ll be hearing
more about it as we go through the anniversary of
the start of the first World War next year. But it’s the German plan
to take France quickly out of war with a knockout blow. And once they failed
in the knockout blow, they were stuck with
a war of attrition. Now the great book
for those who want to be cleverer
than their opponent is the Chinese
sage Sun Tzu, which is a very good read,
very interesting. It wasn’t very
specific, which is why it stood the test of
time, lots of aphorisms. And the basic idea is to
be a better intelligence than the opponent
and to deceive them. If the enemy things you’re
strong, you show you’re weak. If the enemy thinks you’re
weak, you show you’re strong. If the enemy thinks you’re
retreating, you advance. The enemy thinks you’re
advancing– you get the idea. And you can always make up
some of these aphorisms. There’s more to it than that. But the basic idea
and the reason why it’s so appealing
to people is that it plays in
some ways to vanity, that if you could be
cleverer than others– and who doesn’t want
to think that they’re clever than others–
that you could win. But the problem
comes, obviously, when you face an opponent
whose got more resources and is as clever or
indeed clever then you. If everybody’s read Sun Tzu,
it’s not altogether clear how you’ll ever engage
because everybody’s going to be deceiving
each other so much. You end up with
total disorientation. But Sun Tzu, because it warns
of the dangers of direct attack, encourages indirect
approaches, has been taken as the
Bible of those who want to try to achieve great
results without too much pain. So it’s beloved in the
business community. My favorite moment
with Sun Tzu is in the episode of the “Sopranos”
where Dr. Melfi is saying to Tony Soprano, listen,
don’t come to me. If you want to be a
better strategist, go read the art of war. And then a few weeks
later, he comes back out. I read the “Art of War.” It’s better than Machiavelli. And immediately Amazon sales of
Sun Tzu shot up in New Jersey. So it’s an attractive book. But I think there are
limits on what it can offer, which is heresy, I should
say, to a lot of people in the strategy business. So what’s a different approach? Well, for a
different approach is where I start the book, which
is with primates, with chimps. We talked about Antwerp before. At Antwerp Zoo there’s a
chap called Frans de Waal in the 1970s who stood
day after day watching chimpanzee communities. And he wrote a book about it
call “Chimpanzee Politics.” And what he realized is
that when the alpha male, the big strong leader of the
pack, was being challenged, it wasn’t by somebody who
was bigger and stronger. But actually the challengers
were often quite clever. They did use deception. But they also formed coalitions. They found partners. And that’s a pretty good way to
challenge a stronger opponent. Find somebody, and get
stronger than they are. And that’s what the chimps did. And the other thing that
studies of chimps showed is that they did go to war. And usually for
animals, they were prepared to kill their own
species as a deliberate attack. It wasn’t out of
emotion or anger. It was quite deliberate. And we know it’s
deliberate because they would tend to try to, again,
have superiority in numbers if they mounted an attack. And if they didn’t have a
superiority, they slunk away. And I think that also points
to an important lesson, which is the importance of endurance. Actually, rather than
go for a swift knockout blow, if your weaker,
often the first thing to do is to survive and endure until
you find the point at which you can gain strength
from partnerships or because something
else has happened which allows you to move in. So the lessons– and
I argue that these are elemental and can
be taken all the way through– our the
importance of endurance, the importance of
coalitions, and actually to make coalitions
work if you are going to deceive an opponent,
the importance of empathy. And you don’t necessarily
think of chimps as being especially empathetic. But what that meant
was that they have what biologists called a
theory of the mind so that they understood that the
way another individual behaved depended upon the way
that they thought. And so you get back to this–
in a sense, again, not a thing you’d associate with
a chimp, a narrative. But you get back to the idea
that the way that the world is constructed is very important
to understand behavior. And if you can change that,
you can change behavior. And just to give you an
example of leaping forward, so it’s from chimps to
Churchill, when Winston Churchill became prime
minister in 1940, in May 1940, the issue that he
faced at the time was not how Britain could
beat Germany war because all Britain’s allies, [?
and our ?] allies, they were all being swept
away by the Nazi advance, by the blitzkrieg. And the issue was Britain
finding itself alone. And the question was
should they attempt to negotiate peace with Hitler? And he concluded no and
persuaded his colleagues– it was quite a serious
debate in the Cabinet– that they should not. Not because he ruled
it out in the future, but he didn’t need
to at the time. They could endure and
survive for the moment. And then they would
have to review. So in the first instance– and
this is true of much strategy. Because a lot of
strategy is written as if you’re on the
offensive from word go. And it’s about
winning and beating. Actually a lot of strategy
is about survival. It’s about circumstances in
which you’re under challenge, and you’re trying to
work out, often in part from a very good
position, how you’re moving into a weak position. So that was just
Churchill starting. But Churchill did
have a view about how victory might come eventually. And it was quite
different from the view of his predecessor,
Neville Chamberlain. And that was that the key
was the United States. He immediately set
up a correspondence with President
Roosevelt with the view all the time to persuade
the United States to provide the British Empire with help
and eventually hopefully coming into the war. So when, on the 7th
of December, 1941, the Americans were in the
war, helped the next day by Hitler’s own declaration
of war on the United States, one of many strange
moves, in retrospect, made by Hitler– the
Japanese didn’t reciprocate. The Japanese declared
war on the United States, but they didn’t declare
war on Russia, for example. But anyway, Hitler declared
war on the United States. And Churchill’s
comment, recollection, was “so we had won at last.” We would survive. Now, there were years to
go before the war was over. But he now knew the
balance had shifted. And, of course,
even before that, it indicated Russia, Soviet
Union, had come into the war. And when that
happened, Churchill was chided for forming
an alliance with Stalin because Churchill had been
a great anti-Bolsheviker, an opponent of the Soviet Union. And his comment was, if
Hitler invaded Hades, I’d say a good word for Satan
in the House of Commons. So he understood from the start
the importance of coalition. So what then– just to sort
of pull this together– am I arguing? I’ve argued coalition. I’ve argued often
the starting point is defensive rather
than offensive. And that leads, I
think, to a challenge to the idea, which is very
strong in the literature, that strategy is about
setting your objectives and working out how
to achieve them. It’s always about
the relationship between ends and means. But somehow the ends define
what you’re trying to do. And I think it’s understandable. And sometimes it’s fine
because you can set objectives, and you can see a way forward
with a plan to achieve them. But there are two reasons
for caution in that. First, actually in
practice, strategies are set by the problems you
face in the here and now. Strategy is not about getting
to an ultimate objective. Strategy is about
getting to a better place than you would be
without strategy. And that may be
quite short term. It may be a longer term. But the initial objectives
are unlikely to be ultimate objectives. They’re going to be what you can
do to get yourself to address the problems you
face at the moment. That is what most
strategy, in practice, is about, never mind what
the strategy books may say. The second reason why it’s
important not to get fixated on the ultimate objective is
actually in life there isn’t. You rarely reach an
ultimate objective. And it goes back to the
problem of the decisive battle or the decisive revolution. They’re decisive
only to a point. You win a battle. The enemy surrenders. But then you’ve got a whole
series of other problems to face about working the peace. You win an election. You find yourself in government. You have a successful takeover. You’ve now got to work out to
merge one company into another. You have a revolution. The regime is overthrown. But somehow you’ve
got to govern. So strategy doesn’t stop. It’s not a three act play. It’s a soap opera. You get to one stage,
and then there’s another stage, and
a stage after that. It’s a permanent part
of human activity. So the approach that I’m
arguing for at the end is based on getting away
from the idea of a plan with a definite end and
thinking more about strategy as a response to a changing
environment, which is throwing up new problems which requires
you to think through what you can do to get yourself into a
better position, at which point you’ll be thinking
again about how to get to an even
better position. As you move, new
possibilities open up and other possibilities
may be closed down. So it’s very rarely
the case, when you embark on a great campaign,
the you’ll end up in the place where you hoped to be
or even expected to be. Things happen. There are questions of
chance, of serendipity that will make a difference. So to conclude, what I hope
people will get from this book is first a sense of the
many, many different ways that people have
thought about strategy and talked about strategy. I hope you’ll get a sense of the
importance of political theory, the big ideas of
the time in shaping how people act and
address their affairs. And I hope that it’ll also
make people a little bit cautious about the
claims of strategists. As Eisenhower has said about
plans, “plans are useless, but planning is essential.” I think strategy is essential. I think it is important to
think clearly and consciously and deliberately about
what you’re trying to do. But it should always be
done with this awareness that you can’t control
your future environment. There are other
players involved. And things will
happen that’s nobody’s expected that will change
what you want to achieve. So with that, I’d be more
than happy to take questions. But I’ll stop there. Thank you very much indeed. [APPLAUSE] AUDIENCE: Thank
you for the talk. I was wondering when
you were talking about the theory of decisive
battle and von Clausewitz– I haven’t read von Clausewitz. I’d be curious to
know how much this is based on their actual
interpretation of history. And did that actually happen
in the centuries beforehand? Or is it more something
you get from, at least today what we see in
fiction and literature, this idea of champion
versus champion and one side just surrendering? Like, I don’t know how much that
actually happened in history? And was that actually
a valid strategy for some period of time? SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Well,
it’s an interesting question because actually in
the 18th century, battle wasn’t so decisive. It was very much a
response to Napoleon and what Napoleon achieved. So it was based on
experience but actually quite a limited one. And Clausewitz famously, as
he was writing his great work on war, had a rethink because
you looked back and realized there were alternative ways
in which conflicts could be resolved other than
by the decisive battle, although all his
instincts– and he never finished writing his
book, so we don’t quite know how it would’ve
ended up– pushed him towards decisive battle. Jomini never really
veered away from that. He disliked guerrilla warfare. He thought this was sort
of beneath contempt, though he knew it happened. And interestingly,
Jomini was actually a far greater influence on
American military thought than was Clausewitz though
he’s less remembered now. So it was based on a
very limited experience but very powerful
experience that these men have been through. AUDIENCE: Is there
actually a lot of cases throughout history
where you do see war is being fought where
it ends up being champion versus champion or king
versus king or something and it steps down? Because I almost have the
suspicion that that doesn’t actually happen in
practice and instead you see the 16 Years War
or the Hundred Years War or battle after
battle after battle. SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN:
Well, that’s obviously part of my point is that if you
don’t have a decisive victory, then these things go on. But, of course, there have been. I mean, you can think of
the Six Day War in 1967. The Israelis got
in the first blow. They took on an apparently
powerful coalition, and they won. Now, you can then say
they won but they’re still struggling and
fighting in the territories they occupied then or
some of the territories they occupied there. So how decisive in the long
term it was is a question. But certainly in the short
term it would seem to be. The state of Bangladesh
exists because India went to war against
Pakistan and defeated them. So it does happen. By and large, if
the war is quick, then the result tends to be more
decisive that the opponent has been caught off guard. But the memory lingers. So 1817, the Franco
Prussian War, which leads to the
unification of Germany. Alsace and Lorraine
taken from the French, the resentments
were still there. 1918, there’s a
defeat of Germany. But the resentment
is still there. So that’s why one
of the points I’m trying to make in
terms of things are never quite as
decisive as they seem. But they have moved you
to a different stage. AUDIENCE: It seems
you’re suggesting that the traditional military
distinction between strategy and tactics should
be obliterated, much more of a fusion
of those two concepts. SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, there’s a very strong
and understandable hierarchy in thinking, which
to some extent reflects command structures. You’ve got the political
masters, the general staff, and the senior command,
the field commander, the local general. And tactics is right at
the bottom of all of that. But the principle, it seems
to be, are often the same. Obviously, the scale can vary. So in recent times
people have been writing about, say,
the strategic corporal because say you’re a
young platoon commander and you’re in the middle
of a not very friendly city and facing a big demonstration,
the choices that you make can have big consequences. And you don’t have a chance to
feed up the chain of command. You’ve got seconds sometimes
in which to make a decision. So obviously there’s questions
of scale and consequences that vary. But the principles are the same. It’s a complex
argument to get it now. But one of the pushes
in a lot of thinking about military
strategy has been what they call to develop the
operational level somewhere between tactics and military
strategy, which is actually a politics free zone
as it’s described. And you can see
why a general might like of politics free zone. But it’s not actually healthy,
and actually it’s not actually correct because most military
force, when it’s applied, has political implications
in every way it goes forward. So, yeah, there’s
actually quite a chunk of the book which
is challenging, not so much the distinction
between strategy and tactics, but the way in which these
very definite hierarchies of strategy have developed. AUDIENCE: Do you
have any thoughts around what’s going
on in Washington right now with the brinkmanship
around the government shut down and the fiscal cliff? I’d be interested to hear your
thoughts about the strategies that are being used and what
strategies should be used. SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: I’m
not sure as a foreigner I should interfere in
your internal affairs. [LAUGHTER] SIR LAWRENCE
FREEDMAN: I mean, it was weird because I arrived
in Washington on Tuesday. And my first meeting
was cancelled. And the guy who was supposed to
chair my second was furloughed. But we did have furlough fries
for lunch, which was fun. [LAUGHTER] SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: It’s
actually a fascinating case because it appears
simply as sort of Congress versus the
Executive Branch or Republicans versus Democrats. But actually the
key question is why does a group of
Republican congressman feel able to withstand the
tremendous amount of pressure that in other circumstances
would be assumed to be almost irresistible
because it threatens the ability of your party to
win elections in the future? No opinion poll is suggesting
that the actions of the House Republicans at the moment are
anything other than unpopular, or that many of the
House Republicans are unhappy with this. But this is sufficient to tie
the hand of Speaker Boehner. So one question is why
doesn’t he face them down? And that presumably
has something to do with his own position. But why do these
guys feel they don’t have to worry about
this pressure? Because their own positions
are absolutely safe because of
redistricting, because of the fact that they can get
funds from wealthy supporters, and they don’t have to
go through the party to get the funds. They feel absolutely safe. And so they can pursue
this crusade, if you like, without personally having
to face the consequences. And it will have to be broken
when– maybe they also think that because of the pressure
of default or something that the president will be the
one who has to blink first. Maybe that’s also part of it. I don’t see how he can’t. So my guess is
that at some point there will be sufficient
pressure from the Republicans on Speaker Boehner that he
has to find some [INAUDIBLE]. It’s not immediately
obvious at the moment. And I think it’s an absolutely
classic strategic problem because it’s not just a
question of the tactics that are being adopted. It’s the way the whole issue
is structured and also the way it’s framed. So the speaker
wants it to appear as a problem with a
lack of compromise. The president wants it to
appear as a problem of extortion and bullying. It has very big consequences. The trouble with academic
students of strategy, we can find all
sorts of grim events absolutely riveting
without thinking always of the consequences. I think it’s very
serious because it goes to the heart
of the governability and the reputation
of the United States. But as a strategic
problem it reveals quite a lot of important issues. AUDIENCE: So your whole
talk really focused on the evolution of
strategy and then defining really
what is the success and what’s the end goal. And I feel that
heavily in the path is this aspect of probability
and luck to actually get there. And over the years luck
has become probability, which now we have
predictive analytics. And I was wondering with
all the computing power and predictive
analytics these days, how much you felt
strategy was going to change in the
next five years, and what direction you
thought it would go? SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN:
That’s really interesting. Clearly you can
trace this back– and I do trace it back– to
the 1950s, and particularly the RAND Corporation,
which were the first to see the possibilities of making
calculations using computers, which they had, that the
human mind couldn’t make and, in a sense,
simulating states of affairs that
would in other ways be beyond human imagination. So since then there’s been
a continuing belief that it is actually possible to
crank in the variables, to almost experiment,
a little experiment in the way and engineer
would, and work out how things are likely work out. And I think if you’re trying
to understand human behavior in the mass, a lot of basic
supply and demand stuff, this will stand
you in good stead. If you’re talking about
relatively stable societies with growth and stable
behavior patterns, this could be quite interesting. But I wouldn’t want
to be the one who relies upon it if it was
a really big decision. If it’s an outlying
decision, if you’re talking about situations
where the sample size is small and the variables are many and
the possibilities of chance and luck are considerable,
then as likely as not your predictions
will let you down. And you’ve always
got the possibility that somebody else is
doing the same calculations on the other side, and coming to
the same conclusions about what might happen, and
acting accordingly. There has been a degree
of experimentation. I mean, like all of
these experiments, they’re largely done
on graduate students in this part of the world. So whether this is
representative behavior, one can ask. But they show actually that
people aren’t necessarily naturally strategic. But they understand when
they’re in these situations. They understand they need
to vary their behavior. If they’re too predictable
in a sort of repeated game, they’ll get caught up. So I think there
are possibilities to understand large areas
of human affairs, which often in many ways
are not political. They’re just the way that
people operate and relate to their environment. But the more political it
becomes and the more conscious people are that
they’re in a conflict, I think the less likely it
is that that will in the end take you as far as
people might hope. AUDIENCE: I was wondering if
you could talk a little bit about the roll of
process innovations, particularly things like
the Roman camp formation and John Boyd’s
description of the OODA loop and the tactical
operation center and how they contribute
to changes in strategy. Oh, and also impact
as force multipliers. SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Yeah. I spent a bit of
time on John Boyd, more than the other
things you mentioned, because Boyd was an
innovative thinker. For those of you
who don’t know, he was a fighter pilot who wrote
the manuals on dog fights out of this idea of the OODA
lopp, which is Observation, Orientation,
Decision, Adaptation. I think that’s right. Which was a way of
getting to the idea that what was important was
thinking faster and more accurately than your opponent
rather than necessarily having more firepower. And it was a very
influential idea. It was not a bad idea. I mean, it had a lot of effect. And some of other of Boyd’s
ideas were less successful. I don’t think there’s
any basic problem with the idea of the OODA loop. It’s like one of these
things like SWAT analysis. They’re useful tools once
you start thinking about it. What I thought you were going
to ask about when you started talking about process is
things where people have tried to change strategies that
have been based on essentially change the way you go
about your business, which a lot of business
strategies like that. And the one I spent a bit
of time on in the book is business process
re-engineering, which was a fascinating
example of a fad, and a very influential one. Al Gore once thought
about applying it to the United States
government, which may not have been a bad idea, I guess. And it was based on
the idea that you could take a particular
process or a company or any organization, break it
down into its component parts, analyze each individually,
relate them to each other, and then them together again
into some more efficient form. And it sort of swept the
board in the mid 1990s because it was seen to be
a way of taking advantage of the digital revolution, which
was part of what’s Boyd’s OODA loop did, and gave you the
possibility of being much more efficient, creating more
shareholder value, and so on. The problem was it soon became
associated with redundancy because in order to demonstrate
where the change had happened, as often as not those who’d
been through the process said and we’ve lost these
people who’ve been let go, whatever the euphemism is. And the consequence of
that is that as soon as firm started talking
about business process re-engineering, the workforce
got a little anxious and resistance set in. And then like so many
of these fads, which had been over hyped, once people
started looking at the claimed successes, they found other
reasons or the successes didn’t last and so
on and so forth. And often it had some quite
good ideas in it got lost. And also one of the
problems with it was the narrative around it. So when you had the proponents
of this saying management has joined the dangerous
professions, help the wounded but should the
stragglers, and so on, that sort of macho language
with which it was spoken about was also part of the resistance. So I think a lot of this
is a warning against hype. I mean, any organization
needs to look at its process. And some strategies need
a change in process. Some processes lead to
a change in strategy. But it’s all these
things, this belief that you’ve got the
winning formula that will be the key to
everything that’s often the cause of trouble. BORIS: Thank you everyone. Please join me in thanking
Sir Lawrence Freedman. [APPLAUSE]

Comments 22

  • good takedown on all those business strategy books, and on Sun Tzu, they appeal to the readers' belief that they are smarter and more virtuous than their enemies, but, their enemies can read too, can buy and read the same books,

  • Disappointed: He mentions the David&Goliath story as an example, but you just MUST hear what Malcolm Gladwell found out about how that really went – David was NOT the underdog, quite the opposite, it's just that the story tellers of the winner of that battle made it appear such in order to make their win look very glorious ("against all odds") when that wasn't true at all. You find that Gladwell talk right here AtGoogleTalks, by the way.

  • Another example he discusses at length is how in WWII Churchill decided to lean on the USA,. When Germany declared war on the US how he said "we have won at last" (or something like that). I guess for strategy overall it's an okay example, but it wasn''t exactly cunning: The entry of the US in WWI had already shown what happens when that happens.

    Overall an okay talk, but I wouldn't call it "groundbreaking". I hate to be the negative guy, with my name out and all, but so sorry, it's my opinion.

  • I've watch tons of google talks to the point that I can recognize half the staff. Espicially the guy that introduces this one, he's forever in attendance.

  • coalition, endurance, empathy are all emotional attributes and thus stratergy ( logic ) is one half of the story !

  • The will to survive & win will destroy all enemies's strengths, tactics & strategies. The side with the stronger will prevails.

  • There certainly have been decisive victories – Dien Bien Phu, Battle of Yorktown,  the Battle of Quebec, Waterloo, the battle of Amiens, etc.  The issue is these huge battle wins happen late, often or usually ending the war. Given opposing generals knowledge of decisive battles, they're hard to engineer. Only after wars have played out, after attrition and circumstance, can a decisive victory happen. 

  • The "Strategic Corporal" is a myth. I'm not sure if Petraeus is to blame or not (the man can spin a narrative); but, the only people I know who are enamored with it are about as far away from the fighting line and you can get. The term is artful double-speak; rather then representing "more" autonomy at the lower levels of military leadership, in reality it is the excuse the Generals use for taking away team level (even squad level) discretion. Talk to any lower enlisted down on The Line and you will hear, in their own words, the actual terms of the situation – PV4 & PV5 (pronounced "private four" and "private five"). Recent conflicts have restricted independent actions at the corporal and below level not empowered them as the Generals' wording leads you to expect!

  • Good show. An Oxford don speaks to a naive, cocooned Silicon Valley audience. He's got lots of knowledge, but offers limited advice. He's old school, from an old country, wearing a navy suit and tie.  Google employees who introduce and question Freedman wear t-shirts. They don't appear to have read his book, but remain cocky.

    Freedman has a message. It's best expressed by his Eisenhower quote. "Plans are worthless, but planning is essential." Strategic plans rarely pan out as expected. People love narratives, and those who succeed cast their success as a series of strategic steps. Most often close examination finds these steps were solutions to immanent problems, not stages of a strategy driven journey.

    This doesn't sit well with Google's analytic programmers. Check the source code of this page, and there's certainly a link that reports my behavior to them. They package and sell this data to advertisers, claiming it predicts market behavior. Being lectured on the limits of repeated "games," on unpredictable randomness, tells them Google's users may not respond as they're expected.

    Freedman studies war and business, but his advice is mostly for business people, not warriors. This talk's audience is small, and probably unrepresentative. Otherwise Google has a myopic, one-track company culture.

  • Interesting talk. But it is interesting to notice how the entire concept of strategy seems to be based on the notion of win-lose-games. As in games where you have an opponent ( or even "enemy" to use the warlanguage ) and where the purpose is assumed to "beat" this opponent. As he mentioned in warfare in MOST cases the battles are very prolonged and in fact both parties lose. Meaning : The win-lose narrative does not seem to actually work in practice. Because of this it is strange that not more was said about the strategy for win-win games. Here of course you avoid the entire problem of someone trying to frustrate you and prevent your strategy from working. In win-win games there is even an incentive for transparent cooperation and mutual learning which is not possible in a win-lose scenario. Is win-win strategy a neglected and overlooked area in this research?

  • Good talk, unbaked questions from the Googlers.

  • Please use slides

  • It would seem a win lose has been simplified to an Xbox game. As always with these matters it depends on your experiences in life. If your family is killled it is an absolute lose – unless survivors are left. If your leaders and aristocracy (ie community leaders are killed) it is a lose – unless survivors are left. If you kill your mate on Fortnight that is a different lose. Then again if we look at geopolitical warfare a lose possibly becomes complicated as we forget about the dead in the grave yards? The thing with war is that the lose is never forgotten and sometime results and inter generational memory and consequences. So an absolute win is difficult to achieve. The history of warfare in Europe and other nations are examples, such is humanity.

  • The importance of coalition in the strategical move. Strategy never stops. The strategy is not a three acts play, the strategy is an unending soap opera.

  • Finding partners is also how bullies work in schools. Not much different in business as well. 30+ years, i have seen it all too often in tech companies. Microsoft, IBM, Google, they all do it. Bully, buy up smaller companies, force out healthy competition and new ideas. So yes, just like primates. Nothing has changed.

  • long term planing is a myth its not longer applicable a special not in business the development are moving to fast. In to days marked we needs to talk about Gerilja Tactics .


  • This is a pretty convoluted talk with a lot of protracted statements which lead to nowhere….because, in the end, I don't know a god damn thing about the point he is trying to make! What is strategy????

  • I am a translator of his book. He is my hero.

  • move from a weak position to a strong position is the key in strategy

  • offensivt startpunkt
    defensivt startpunkt

  • getting to a better place then you could without strategy its not about the ultimate goals its more about improving your situation scene for scene
    better and better positions new opportunity show up and other closes

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