What subjects do politicians and military leaders study in order to formulate and implement grand strategies for their countries and the world?

TLDR: Grand Strategy is not only where military strategy meets statecraft. Grand strategy is understanding everything about a nation and it’s place in the world. Agriculture, business, water, energy, weather, people, religion, pop culture, internal and external politics, risks, threats, infrastructure and foreign deals at all levels. Grand Strategists have to understand how all those moving parts fit together, otherwise, they risk the fate of every fallen empire that came before.

You can’t know everything, but you have to know enough of everything to understand the experts in most fields.

There are many schools in strategic studies that cover the military and foreign affairs part of grand strategy in great detail. The political/domestic/ private sector parts of Grand strategy are far more elusive.


Grand strategy is what the leaders of Nations should be doing.

Per Wikipedia: Grand strategy – Wikipedia

Grand Strategy can be a misleading term. Technically Grand strategy is more than the military and foreign policy side – what the department of defense leadership does – the generals and the civilian military leadership (Secretary of Defence, Consultants, etc.

Political Grand Strategy typically means the top level of national strategy; including but beyond the military scope.

Generally speaking – Grand strategy is national strategy. It’s understanding how all the parts of a nation and government interact with one another, and how that plays out on the world stage to desirable long term outcomes while minimizing risks and threats.

Grand Strategy is really the blending of military science, political science, diplomacy, law, business, economics, finance, accounting, engineering, science, supply chain, infrastructure, sociology, behavioral science, and management science to lead a nation strategically; meaning to understand all the inputs and outputs of a nation, and figure out how they best fit both together and into the larger world.

Which means it’s not just understanding how the Military and State Department can respond to a crisis overseas. It not just understanding how to mobilize the world’s largest banks to finance government and private debt to support combined acts of nonprofits, humanitarian groups, and private for profit companies in responding to a crisis.

Grand strategy is leading several hundred million people that can’t agree on anything, getting enough of them to buy in on win-win scenarios that serve mutual best interests, and understand which levers can be pulled in education, commerce, business, banking, medicine, religion, law, entertainment, construction, supply chain, regulation, war and diplomacy to make things better for your nation and its position in the world, which almost always requires allies and win-win relationships with allies outside of your nation.

Keeping in mind that these allies can be anything- businesses, cultural influencers, religious leaders, global organizations, other nations.

You have to study all the skills and knowledge for the above. You have to speak the jargon of many disciplines, understand how regulation drives energy drives agriculture, drives food supply drives public health drives safety drives medicine drives insurance drives banking drives finance drives money drives lobbying drives regulation. Which means you have to know in principle and practice how those individual things work so you may connect the dots.

You need to know how the import/export bank affects the price of wheat. You have to understand how the price of wheat affects social programs, military spending, and financial markets. You need to understand the contract law of genetically modified seeds and how Agribusiness affects the price of wheat. You need to understand the motive of the guys that hired the lobbyists and how this fits into the bigger picture you can choose the battles that are worth using up your political capital for. Understanding that is you use up political favors “saving” agricultural commerce you may lose the pull you need to prevent a war next year.


Learning grand strategy at West Point and the National War College is very instructive on the military side of Grand strategy. But do fall short of the entire subject.  I would expect the military to know that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were set up after world war 2 to prevent a repeat of world war two.  I would not expect military grand strategists to be great at understanding how Chinese environmental regulations drive Mining for rare earth metals, lowering the cost of batteries, making things like smartphones and electric cars affordable and potentially lucrative business ventures for capitalists.  Not their focus.

To be fair, on the NWC website, the National War college defines Grand Strategy as follows:

“The College is concerned with grand strategy and the utilization of the national resources necessary to implement that strategy…Its graduates will exercise a great influence on the formulation of national and foreign policy in both peace and war…”

West Point and National War college I suspect are great at the military side of Grand strategy – Having contingency plans in place, raising, training, maintaining a military force, studying opponents and threats, net assessment, choosing the best weapons, preparing for the next wars, maintaining national defense, defending and attacking national infrastructure, peacekeeping, Warfighting.

Both institutions in their study of military grand strategy very heavily stress the importance of the civilian world and nonmilitary matters, and the importance of joint military and civilian cooperation and priorities on national strategy.

However both game theory, rational choice, and a basic understanding of politics and economics show an important limit to military grand strategy.

The National War college basically teaches it’s civilian students why the military is needed and trains it’s military student how to justify the military to civilians.

The National War college exists to keep the American military politically viable, and under civilian control. It accomplishes this by educating both sides the value of the other. Which makes sense given the context that it was created in, post world war 2. And strategically and semantically you can call that an exercise in educating grand strategy.

But then there is the nonmilitary side of grand strategy.

Guns versus butter model – Wikipedia


Law of the instrument – Wikipedia

The civilian side of grand strategy is actually more difficult, and not really under the purview of the National War College, though I know they spend some time on each subject; given the majority of NWC students are the Generals of the defense department and the diplomats of the state department… I don’t believe they would qualify as unbiased and fully knowledgeable in all sides of the Guns vs Butter debate or the Law of the Instrument debate.

Guns vs Butter Debate:

Guns vs butter mostly requires an understanding of Opportunity cost – Wikipedia.

Basically, every dollar invested in the military is a dollar not invested somewhere else – Like roads, education, bridges, healthcare.

The military is biased, and it not entrusted with how much money we spend on the military. For better or for worse, the guns vs butter problem, which is related to how much taxes we pay, and what those taxes are spent on, is a decision entirely left to the 535 members of the United States Congress (FYI – the only member of Congress I could find that graduated from NWC is John McCain.)

Last I checked, the National War College does not appear to spend much time on economics, how many taxes there should be, the economic and social impact of taxes, Keynesian vs non-Keynesian vs Austrian economics and what proportion of those taxes should be provided to the military. I’m certain they need to know the Guns vs Butter curve, spend time on why the military requires investment, and the best ways to utilize that investment.

Neither the military leaders or the diplomats make decisions on how many taxes are levied, or how much tax money goes to the military or diplomats.

Now to be fair, I learned Guns vs Butter in my Defense Policy class in college, I do know it’s covered in theory, but probably only detailed on the guns side of the equation – because that’s the side the military guys are responsible for.

But a HUGE part of Grand strategy is how much money should you spend on the military. Just Ask the Soviet Union. How did the world’s largest producer of oil (12.5 Mbbl/d) go bankrupt in the Cold War? Technically they spent too much money on the military. All that mutually assured destruction, proxy wars, and military buildup were simply tactics to get the Soviets to spend too much money on the military. So the cold war ended in a whimper.

If the Soviets understood opportunity costs, economics, and business – they would understand you can’t spend money you don’t have, and investing in business often allows you to make more money to pay for more military.

Law of Instrument debate:

When you carry a hammer, everything looks like a nail (cognitive bias). We need to choose our tools carefully, and only use tools for their intended purpose (i.e. a screwdriver makes a poor and dangerous hammer).

When you are a diplomat, everything looks like a treaty or negotiation.

When you are a diplomat trained at the National War college, everything looks like a treaty or negotiation backed up by military options.

When you are the military, the world looks like a series of targets with different levels of assessed threat. (Allies are typically the lower levels of threat).

When you are a military leader trained at NWC, the target threat levels are viewed as potentially alterable by diplomats.

People do what they know. Neither the military nor the diplomats are going to make money from business deals. Or set up win-win contracts that allow all parties in a multilateral international business deal to prosper. However, both have a role to play in international commerce – usually through creating and ensuring stability.

I’m certain the National War college defines the roles and limits of military and diplomatic tools, and how they support commerce. However I’m pretty sure they don’t get into a detailed analysis of the various NGO’s, churches, religious organizations, businesses, trade groups, industries, tourist flows, immigration flows, criminal activity, manufacturing hubs, agricultural bases, construction projects – and how all of those non government things are actually a huge part of enabling grand strategy at a global scale.

I know they look at that stuff at a high level externally. Not sure how well they understand the interplay or internal commerce, infrastructure, domestic economics, regulations, policy and commercial finance on grand strategy.

I’m pretty sure of that because most MBA programs and economics programs don’t do that either.

Of course, the world is changing pretty quickly these days, so maybe there is a program in economic and infrastructure grand strategy that I am unaware of.

But at the end of the day, the military only needs to understand commerce and industry enough to defend or destroy it. The diplomats only understand commerce and industry enough to use them as bargaining chips and support political policy.

And at the end of the day, business, commerce, and industry create the value and wealth that the military and diplomats work to protect.

So under the Law of Instruments – don’t expect graduates of the National War College to be using the relationships of agribusiness, tech, and biotech industries to modify immigration strategy between partner nations to fill employer staffing needs. That tends to be done by contracted local lobbyists, and sometimes facilitating payments under FCPA as needed.

Most of the trade deals out there are made by businessmen expecting a predictable future of trade laws for the duration of the deal.

It’s up to the national grand strategy to provide incentives, like tax breaks, predictable regulations, free trade agreements, grant money, security, stability to businesses to stimulate economic activity.

An important point to make is often the military is stuck with weapons it doesn’t want, because the congressional grand strategy values the economic development and technical maturity of the military industrial complex over the quality of weapons built during peacetime – i.e. the F-35.  Or why Congress purchased “extra” B-2 Stealth Bombers.

And the military does sometimes make it’s own make a grand strategy decision – such as a weapon program canceled because it isn’t needed to fight the current war – i.e XM8 rifle – Wikipedia

I guess my point is, West Point and the National War College, although being authorities in Grand Strategy – mostly teach Grand Strategy from the perspectives of foreign policy, military science, operations research, philosophy, engineering, systems. And little bits of behavioral science, law, political science, and economics from that same perspective.

But mostly they teach Military and Foreign Policy Grand strategy.

They probably adequately cover:

Sun Tzu – Wikipedia

Niccolò Machiavelli – Wikipedia

Alfred Thayer Mahan – Wikipedia

Carl von Clausewitz – Wikipedia

Plus Game theory, ECON 101, International Law.

But Holistic Grand Strategy Requires you to take into account a full net assessment, including commerce, economic activity, unemployment, immigration, popular culture, finance.

The most strategically significant event since the end of the cold war was the financial collapse of 2008. It affected more than half the families on the planet, with a ripple effect of a global economic downturn and the European debt crisis – and its root cause was the American financial industry, especially the home lending market and financial derivatives.

The National War College probably never spent time on assessing the American financial industry as the single greatest threat to world economic stability.

They probably never heard of:

Subprime lending – Wikipedia

Clayton M. Christensen – Wikipedia

Michael Porter – Wikipedia,

Henry Mintzberg – Wikipedia,

McKinsey & Company – Wikipedia

CLS Group – Wikipedia (Foreign Exchange Bank)

They probably don’t know or understand the ramifications of the U.S. Department of Education Student loan program ranking as the 5th largest bank in the United States with a $1 Trillion portfolio.  Financial Risk anyone?

They probably don’t know or understand the grand strategic ramifications of the four largest banks on the earth being Chinese banks. Number 5 is Mitsubishi of Japan. They likely are not familiar with the Mitsubishi Group, formerly the Mitsubishi zaibatsu; which is scary, because it’s the equivalent of General Electric, Lockheed Martin, and JP Morgan Chase being owned by the same family.

Remember, the Soviet Union lost the cold war because they ran out of money. An economic collapse that led to a political disbanding:

Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

So the Grand Strategy that ended the cold war was a matter of economics, business, and finance employed to (deliberately or conveniently) destabilize the political will of the Soviet leadership.

Business, finance, and economics are not primary subjects covered in detail at the National War College. Read the Staff Bios – all career military and government, with academic experience – nobody with experience in private sector, business, domestic infrastructure or anything domestic – all externally focused or military (Notable mentions – 2 staff from USAID, 2 from DOE, One Political Economist, One MBA Economist that was career Army, and one faculty member from Treasury office of Intel and analysis that’s good at economic sanctions and black market finance).

So just to wrap up my little exposition here – National War College, and all the Strategic Studies schools out there that teach Grand Strategy – are mostly teaching Military Grand Strategy, externally focused on the scope of the military, international security, and diplomats.

Overall grand strategy includes boring subjects the National War College does not like to think about. Stuff like monetary policy, financial regulation, health care, water supply, food supply, roads and bridges, unemployment, taxes policy, etc.

All the domestic stuff on the news cycle is part of Grand strategy, and cannot be ignored by the top political leadership determining the national grand strategy.

Hope that helps, let me know what I missed. I’m certain there are mistakes in there beyond my typos.

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