Let’s Make Grand Strategy Great Again – Michael Sleeman

In April 2019, we argued that ‘every staff paper, speech, and brief that remains buried in network folders represents a lost opportunity to inspire the intellect, stimulate the curiosity, and gain the insight of an increasingly engaged professional military community.’ Today’s post is an example of our attempt to address that problem.


This article was written as an assignment by Michael Sleeman while he was a student at the United States Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies in 2018/2019. In it, Sleeman discusses the need for military leaders to embrace and support a true grand strategic approach to addressing the United States’ strategic issues, even if that means sacrificing military budget in order to direct funds to other elements of national power.


Grand strategy is the use of all instruments of national power to achieve long-term national influence. Grand strategy is a widely recognised term, but I posit that unless significant changes happen, the United States will never achieve a true grand strategy: one where the military is just one component of national influence. The current funding disparity between various government departments precludes a balanced approach. I propose that there is a straightforward change the US can make to enable the development of a true grand strategy. Acknowledging that – as Clausewitz said – simple things are sometimes the hardest, making the necessary changes requires innovation by military leaders beyond simply stating catchy slogans.





While this article is about the funding disparity in the United States, it behoves Australia to ask tough questions about where we spend our money. Is it possible for Australia to have a true grand strategy?


The main factor causing the ineffective mix of government instruments is the staggering disparity of funding between the United States State Department and the Department of Defense (DoD). This has not always been the case.


DoD spending spiked during World War I and World War II, which is to be expected; yet unlike during the interwar period, DoD and State funding never reached parity post-World War II. The funding disparity worsens as the years’ progress.


President Trump announced a 2019 fiscal year national security budget of $716 billion, of which $686 billion is allocated to the DoD. For the State Department budget, the president requested a budget of less than $40 billion, a decrease of approximately 30% from the 2018 budget. This significant funding disparity creates a warped view of what the United States can and should achieve in its foreign policy and leads to the militarisation of US grand strategy, rather than a considered use of all instruments to achieve a true grand strategy. The Beatles knew that money could not buy you love, but it sure can buy a lot of butter or bullets. Just not both.


As military officers, how do we address this obvious, but rarely discussed issue? We are frequently told to innovate, take risks and be BOLD. A business card that a United States Air Force major general recently gave me even evidences this. It told me to ‘Take Risk.’ However, I am almost deaf to these words that senior leaders preach ad nauseum. I am not deaf to these terms because I disagree with them; I wholeheartedly agree with them, but I do not see any genuine attempt by the military leadership to address the overweight elephant in the room.


While attending the US School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, I attended a two-day workshop run by a couple of well-regarded strategic thinkers at MGMWERX, in Montgomery, Alabama. In one exercise, we looked at ways to develop a strategy for the United States to guide its relationship with China. One presenter listed ten factors that the United States could consider in developing such a strategy. Looking at the list, it dawned on me that not a single factor pertained to the military. Not one. However, there we were, mid-level military officers trying to devise United States strategy. This is the elephant in the room. The military is not, and should not be, the overriding apparatus of national power. So why are we unwilling to state that the military only appears to be the solution because of its overwhelming preponderance of resources.


Why are the senior military leaders not truly innovating and stating that funding should be redirected from the military to the other instruments of national power? What is a bolder statement than that? I am not suggesting we need military mavericks, as they tend not to achieve the desired long-term effects. However, if respected senior military leaders made the argument that funding needs to be more evenly distributed between all the apparatuses of national power, then change may well be possible. Such a bold statement by military leadership would also assist in overcoming ideological and distributive effects that hinder presidential decision making. General James Mattis made this exact point in 2013 when he testified that if the State Department is not funded appropriately, then he ultimately needs to buy more ammunition. If the military is asking for less bullets, then the State can afford to buy more butter.


So, let us innovate. Let us be BOLD. It is only through the actions of senior military leadership that we can overcome the funding disparity and help make it possible for the Government to bolster the other instruments of national power. It would be beneficial for the United States to use other instruments of national power rather than relying on military power as the default national strategy. If the Government reduced the gap in spending between the military and other departments, then the elephant can lose some weight, and perhaps eventually leave the room. Over time, maybe the United States – and Australia – can develop a true non-militarised grand strategy.


Wing Commander Sleeman is a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is a graduate of SAASS Class XXVIII. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not represent the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

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