Basic Strategic Concepts

In the past month I’ve had a few different discussions of political strategy where I found myself unable to explain simple points (or at least: points that initially seemed very simple) without going into an unproductive amount of detail about assumptions I was making and the kinds of distinctions I was drawing.  I decided I wanted a cheat-sheet to point to which explains some strategic ideas.  Conversely, many of these strategic concepts are very useful, and if you haven’t encountered them before you may find them helpful.

I’ve organized the concepts into three loose groups.  This first group is derived from game theory, and to some extent from the kind of “ancient wisdom” that is equally applicable to chariot warfare and office politics.  (I hope to eventually put up a second group I associate with Machiavelli and a third group I associate with Clausewitz. Update: The series on Machiavellian principles is now complete. I – II – III – IV)

1. Preparation

Whatever stratagem your enemy can try, whatever position he can attack, whatever damage he can try to inflict; you should not just fear these possibilities, you should plan how you will resist them when he tries.  That way you will already know how to react when one of these possible attacks materializes, and you will have some idea how his operation will go, how much you can slow it down, and to what extent your enemy will achieve his objectives.

There are practical advantages to this kind of preparation.  Your mind is clearer before the danger becomes imminent.  Advance planning ensures that any complex choices are made while there is still time to crank through the details.  Plans that have been decided and studied in advance (or even rehearsed) can be put into effect more smoothly.

But the true value of preparation is that it allows you to gauge your own vulnerabilities and establish priorities for the deployment of additional resources.  If you prepare a strategy for a hypothetical scenario, but even the best response you can find seems to lead to losses that ruin your chances of overall victory (or are unacceptable for any other reason), you should not allow that scenario to take place.  As soon as feasible, you should find ways to redeploy resources to make them available for use in that (potentially-ruinous) scenario, which will allow you to plan a more robust defense.

(…unless, of course, your preparations have revealed even more terrible vulnerabilities elsewhere!)

2. Equivalence

Every counter-measure that you prepare for every contingency you foresee will rely on the use of resources that will be available for use against the hypothetical enemy operation.  While you can make use of a certain asset in your plans for any number of scenarios, typically once you do use that asset, it is committed and unavailable for other uses for some time (if it is not totally expended, like money or munitions).

This means it is inadequate to prepare one response to each possible enemy operation.  You must have some response prepared, of course, but that first response you prepare will hinge on the commitment of certain assets.  However, all of those assets are likely part of your preparations against other hypothetical threats to different objectives.

For example, let’s say that Point A and Point B are both weakly defended.  You have Company C positioned approximately equidistant to each of them.  If the enemy moves against A, you will reinforce A with C.  If the enemy moves against B, you will reinforce B with C.  You don’t know whether he will move against A, B, or neither, but you are prepared either way.

What is wrong with this plan?

Once the enemy moves against A, Company C is committed; your plan to defend B is no longer feasible.  In the best case scenario, this means that you need to urgently redirect resources so that they are in a position to defend B.  This takes the initiative away from you, and freezes any other strategic priorities you hoped to advance; worse, if the defense of B is sufficiently important, the enemy can be confident you will be busy reacting to his attack by scrounging up a new defense of B. He has a free hand for other mischief.

And this “best case” assumes you are able to move resources into a positions where they could be used to defend B in time.  Possibly you have other more urgent priorities, or the enemy is able to coordinate a second operation against B before you have time to find any resources to redeploy.

Another common pattern: your plan to defend Point A calls for the commitment of both Company C (which could also have been used to defend Point B) and of Company D (which could also have been used to defend Point E).  Having stripped resources that were in use in hypothetical attacks on two different targets, you can redeploy the first available asset to defend either B or E, but the other will still be available for the enemy to pick off.

Thus it is critical to prepare two equivalent responses to every possible enemy operation.  If you know how to accomplish the same goal in two different ways, your enemy cannot hamstring you by forcing you to commit resources that were necessary to accomplish the goal in a certain way.  Every mouse knows the value of having two holes.

3. Efficiency

Because you will try to prepare multiple equivalent responses to each of the many possible strategies your enemy could pursue, all of the resources you acquire and all of your decisions about where/how to deploy them should aim at using them as efficiently as possible.  Try not to avoid using an asset to do just one thing.  Look for ways to make one asset serve multiple purposes.

At a minimum this means that an asset should be potentially useful in your prepared responses to many possible enemy operations.  If you need a different set of assets for every single strategic option your enemy has, you’re going to be in trouble.  But better still is to find ways to commit resources that contribute to two different goals simultaneously.

Example 1: If you don’t have the resources to bomb the forces moving against A and the forces moving against B simultaneously, is there a supply hub both operations rely on that you could bomb?  That may allow you to contain both threats with the limited resources at your disposal.

Example 2: If you need to commit Company C to defend against a possible attack on Point A, is it possible to put C in a position where it is ready to advance on enemy-held Point Z?  If C can force the enemy to commit resources to defending Z, that means C is taking pressure off all your other positions, though still tied down near A.

This may seem to go against the principle recently enunciated by Kristor, to do one thing well.  But that is a principle for institutions: an institution should have one goal that it pursues.  However, that does not limit how the institution uses its power to pursue that goal. Institutions should be specialized, but their resources (and the strategies they devise for those resources) should be flexible and multifunctional.

(Consider the Boy Scouts, and the Swiss Army knives the scouts often carry.  The Boy Scouts should have one mission — scouting — and should not be distracted by poverty relief, transgender rights, and anti-bullying campaigns.  But, in their devotion to scouting, the Boy Scouts may decide that each scout should carry one multifunctional tool, rather than bringing an entire toolbox of specialized tools on each camping trip.)

Note that sometimes the most multi-functional use of resources is one which solves a certain class of problems permanently.  For example, imagine you have (multiple equivalent) plans that give you a 95% chance of defending a certain vital point; it might seem like overkill to fortify it further.  But if your current plans require you to keep many valuable assets nearby to prepare for various hypothetical threats (and further, to commit them to that defensive plan if the threat arises), then fortifying the already-defensible position becomes a cheap way to reallocate resources towards many other goals.

4. Anticipation

The concept of preparation dictates that you ask yourself, for many hypothetical choices your enemy could make, How should I respond if he does that? What would my best option be?  It is not enough to consider everything that the enemy might do, however.  You must also try to anticipate what he will actually do — which means you should devote yourself with equal vigor to the questions How can my enemy beat me? and How can I beat my enemy?

This mindset seems to be foreign to most people.  It is probably the most common obstacle to real strategic thought.  Many men’s experience with competition is limited to games which combine elements of chance, dexterity, and bluffing; in such games, fortune favors the bold, and staying excited about the game and eager to win may matter more than a stark estimation of each side’s chances.

Sometimes people even act as though it were disloyal (or unlucky) to point out strategic vulnerabilities, as though studying such a weakness might generate information the enemy can access, or fixing it might call his attention to what he would otherwise have ignored.

This is entirely pointless.  The point of preparation is to determine the best plan for you in any given situation.  If your enemy is competent, he will likewise prepare the best plan for him and you will be better off if you figure this plan out to begin with.  If your enemy is incompetent, that makes the entire conflict much easier!  Better to anticipate and plan for competence, so you will be ready for a competent (or lucky!) enemy, and allow yourself to improvise more if his reactions are suboptimal (and thus easier to exploit).

This means, for example, that when you implement a new strategy, you should never be bewildered by your enemy’s reaction to it.  If his response is the one you decided would be optimal for him, it is what you predicted.  If his response is unexpected, you may be wary, you may be suspicious (“What am I missing,” you ask); but broadly speaking you should be excited because you expect the conflict to go even better than you originally planned!

5. Dominance

This leads us to one of the most important strategic principles, which is to make strategic choices which leave the opponent with no way to respond which leads to victory.  A choice that has this special property (all of the options which the opponent has, even the best one, lead to defeat) is called a dominant strategy.  More broadly, you dominate a strategic interaction when (a) you control your opponent’s choices by creating urgent priorities he needs to address, and/or (b) you continually leave your opponent with the choice to sacrifice one or the other of two goals, with a sequence of such sacrifices leading to victory.

Previously I mentioned many people have trouble believing their enemies want to defeat them and will choose their strategies accordingly.  Worse still — the same people often have trouble remembering that they want to win!

Poor strategists may abandon a dominant strategy that accomplishes all their goals simply because they like thinking about a different strategy.  Or they may be curious about what an enemy would do in a certain situation, and set off to find out.  Sometimes (this is a terrible but very real vice) leaders will pick dubious strategies that they think will give them a chance to showcase their cleverness, or to showcase the virtuosity of the forces they lead. Sometimes people pick a course of action simply because it seems like it might work and they want to “win big”, or quickly, or without expending too many resources.

Now in the real world (again, pace Kristor) strategists rarely have the luxury of a single overriding goal or set of goals they must accomplish, against which all other goals are unworthy of consideration.  But in most complex strategic interactions which create winners and losers, the difference between defeating your enemy (forcing him to surrender, or destroying his ability to continue fighting) and suffering defeat is so large that it is foolish to trade away a dominant strategy for any small gain elsewhere.

6. Risks are for Losers

Any serious real-world conflict (with or without live ammunition) creates fog of war.  The grunts at the bottom of any two rival institutions generally have no idea what is going to happen next.  Many plans have a margin of error.  Some strategic dynamics reduce rival commanders to the equivalent of rock-paper-scissors as they try to outguess one another. In fact, even in theoretical conflicts with perfect information, because each rival will refuse alternatives that lead to a clear victory for the other, they tend to push their conflict into unpredictable territory where neither can predict the outcome.

This is all to say that strategic interactions are unpredictable and some risks come with the territory.  However, the upshot of the concept of dominant strategies is that the winning side does not need to pursue high-risk, high-reward strategies.  If you are already winning, you have a no-risk, low-reward strategy available which leads to victory.  High-reward would be nice, but the biggest reward is winning; if you’ve already got that in the bag, why jeopardize it?

Losers are the ones who need to take risks to win.  They already have had some of their key goals compromised; they already have too few resources spread among too many objectives.  To reverse their fortunes, losers need to invite unpredictable exchanges where everything is up for grabs and the fortunes of either side can swing up and down unpredictably.

Of course they can only invite such situations: it takes two to tango.  When the loser tries to provoke a risky exchange, it is the winner’s prerogative to retreat, retrench, and generally make small concessions that avoid any strange upsets, while leaving the loser in an unsalvageable position. (Remember: no risk, low reward.)

In you have the upper hand and successfully pursue this strategy, the loser will be driven to more and more unlikely and unpalatable “gambles” in an attempt to create some uncertainty in the outcome.  This is yet another reason to stick to a dominant strategy that clinches victory.  If the loser feels he must win, he will be forced to resort to increasingly desperate and self-destructive options as his final defeat looms closer.  If this happens, you will end up “winning big” without ever having put your victory at risk.

Part of a series on Strategic Concepts:

  1. Basic Strategic Concepts < you are here
  2. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts I: Subordination
  3. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts II: Centrality
  4. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts III: Drilling & Disengagement
  5. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts IV: Hierarchy
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