Grand Strategy One-Oh-One Primer Series

One-Oh-One: Grand Strategy

In our previous article, we covered the basic difference between Defence and Security. As a short recap, Security is an outcome partly provided by Defence. A country is secure from the threat of hostile militaries when it is able to put up resistance or deter aggression against that threat. In this way, defence is only one element of national security, and it must mutually complement other elements.

In this article, we’ll cover how those elements work together by defining Grand Strategy. The term appears to be very intimidating, but the logic it provides is actually fairly straightforward.

Breaking it down to its simplest form, Grand Strategy is an equation of three things: Ways, Means, and Ends. Ways and Means work together to produce Ends. Ways refers to policy planning and execution, Means refers to resources, and Ends refers to a desired end-state or outcome.

Ways + Means = Ends

The Grand Strategy Equation, as often quoted in defence and security literature.

Ends are often determined by a country’s domestic political processes. Whether it be authoritarian states or democratic polities, there is always a system of determining a set of interests that dominates the agenda of the country in any given time. Because many countries, regardless of their political system, are often composed of competing interests, factions, and identity groups, it can be difficult to determine a true and objective desirable End state or aspiration.

However, there are some common characteristics that are persistent in those aspirations. As a general rule, regardless of nationality or creed, most nations strive to keep the peace, maintain public order, and pursue economic prosperity and growth. Where differences start to emerge is the specific manner in which these conditions are created.

For example, a country rich in natural resources will have a different economic makeup than one which is not. Public order will be achieved differently in a mono-ethnic society than it would be for one that is fractious and tribalistic. Mediating factors such as the political system, sociocultural biases and imperatives, economic endowments, geography, and history all will provide nuances and additional considerations that shape how we think about our aspirations and how we achieve them.

These differences then also become apparent in the Ways and Means, which are a form of State Power, or just Power. In international relations and security studies, Power is the ability to influence other entities such as countries and corporations to act in our interests.

To this end, we have Ways to compel, coerce, or deter those entities with Hard Power. Alternatively, we have Ways to persuade or convince them with Soft Power.

Both Hard and Soft Power capabilities exist in every policy space. Military hard power for example involves the use of military forces to threaten and compel a hostile organization or state to comply with our interests. For example, in 1991, the United Stated formed an international coalition to enforce Resolution 1441 of the United Nations to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.


Campaign map for Operation Desert Storm, February 1991. An example of hard power being used in a UN-approved coalition to restore the status quo in Kuwait. When Saddam Hussein illegally occupied Kuwait, a coalition of nations formed by the US and approved by the UN launched Operation Desert Storm as a means to forcefully end the occupation. Military hard power in its clearest example. Image from https://history.army.mil/reference/Commemoratives.htm

Conversely, military soft power is about sending military officers and enlisted personnel in exchange programs so that both sides come to an understanding and develop closer ties. For example, the United States and the United Kingdom often accepts Malaysian officers and officer cadets at their prestigious institutions, such as West Point or Sandhurst, for military education, thereby cementing common military cultural norms and traditions across military organizations.


UPNM Cadets Muhammad Aniq Hilman Haslimi, Grace Sian Ern Hui, and Mateshan Verma Subramaniam were selected last year to attend the US Naval Academy, US Air Force Academy, and West Point respectively. Allowing foreign cadet officers to attend their military academies allows the US government to imprint its own military culture and establish close networks with future military leaders in other countries. Photo Credit: Eizairi Shamsudin, New Straits Times.

Similarly, economic hard power is about employing embargos, sanctions, and restrictive tariff schemes against a hostile organization or country, as was the case in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea. Economic soft power on the other hand is about getting partnering nations to cooperate on common economic agendas and policy thrusts, as commonly seen through free trade agreements, tax exemption status, and even the use of a common currency.


The precipitous effects of US sanction schemes against Russia and the Russian rouble. The sanctions were mooted as a means to halt perceived Russian aggression against Ukraine and other Eastern European states. Economic policies such as these can be just as coercive in nature as military policy options such as blockades and embargoes. Graph taken from The Economist: https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/08/30/americas-escalating-russian-sanctions
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement would have been a US-led free trade arrangement between several nations in the Pacific Ocean. Free Trade agreements typically try to increase profits for all involved by reducing tariff schemes and allowing nations to play off on their comparative advantages. The catch is that industries that are not comparatively more efficient than other countries will suffer, but their loss would be small compared to the net overall gain in the system, or so it was held. TPPA is an example of economic soft-power, using the logic of free trade gains to persuade nations to change their economic tariff schemes. Graphic taken from: https://henrygoh.com/trans-pacific-partnership-agreement-tppa-the-effect-on-malaysian-patents/

Hard and Soft Power doesn’t materialize out of thin air. On the contrary, hard and soft power policies often require considerable resources and logistics to not only plan but execute. This is where Latent Power, or the Means part of the equation, becomes important. Latent Power is essentially a measure of raw and human resources that can be used to achieve hard and soft power actions. In this sense, they are the building blocks to policy options.


Latent Power is the base of resources and personnel that is transformed into critical elements that are needed for successful hard power and soft power applications. The infographic above shows us how generic resources are turned into more specific policy-spaced oriented elements critical to hard and soft power options.

For those that are interested, the Lowy Insitute recently launched an interactive platform that details these elements of State Power for East and Southeast Asian countries. The Asia Power Index 2020 Edition map covers elements of latent power, hard power, and soft power, and has a fairly extensive and well-defined data set for many key indicators. You can find it here.

Now that we understand the basic elements that make up Grand Strategy, we have some idea of how to evaluate whether or not a country has one, and consequently, whether or not said strategy is the most relevant.

If grand strategy is about reconciling national aspirations against resources and planning, then by definition, good grand strategies must do the following: articulate a clear and concise destination for the nation, and reconcile the requirements of embarking on that journey with the available resources on hand.

The best of grand strategies in turn define goals that not only satisfy the aspirational needs of the country, but also result in expanding the country’s own latent power base, thereby enabling even more hard and soft power options, which can then achieve more goals, and so it continues ad infinitum. In other words, the best grand strategies tend to be the ones that create virtuous cycles.

A good example would be the Yoshida Doctrine of immediate Post-War Japan. Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s primary agenda was to rebuild Japan after the Second World War had devastated much of Japan’s infrastructure and industry. On this, Japan’s grand strategy was to focus on economic growth and rely upon the US for its protection against foreign powers, namely at that time, the Soviet Union.


Shigeru Yoshida, Prime Minister of Japan, around 1950. Picture from https://www.macarthurmemorial.org/166/Georges-Dimitria-Boria

The Yoshida Doctrine’s principals saw to Japan’s rise as an economic power during the Cold War and beyond. The hard-earned lesson of avoiding conflict proved to be absolutely essential in this regard; till this day, Japan’s Constitution’s Article 9 prohibits the use of force to resolve international disputes. However, this does not mean Japan shies away from using military power; the Japanese Self-Defence Forces today is a powerful defensive force, capable of seriously complicating any attempt at blockades, amphibious invasion and, increasingly, ballistic missile attack.

Such spending on the military is predicated on Japan’s ability to keep its large economy growing. This is clearly an instance of having a Grand Strategy that feeds into itself and gives a country more options to deal with its national aspirations and proximate threat environment.


Japan spends about 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. This might seem relatively small, but when you consider that Japan’s GDP in 2018 USD was 4.971 trillion, and that it’s federal budget is USD 939 billion, then the scale alone provides for a multi-billion USD defence budget (approximately 48 billion USD). Graph taken from https://www.nippon.com/en/features/h00196/

That then begs the question, what is Malaysia’s Grand Strategy? This will be covered in our next article, A Maritime Nation with Continental Roots, so stay tuned!

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