ACSS Senior Leaders Seminar: Dr. Robert H. Dorff on Strategy and its Importance to National Security

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 06/26/2012

PlenaryLEditor’s note: Nations worldwide, including those in Africa, are increasingly reexamining and refining their national security strategies to seek appropriate roles for their militaries and security sectors in an era of financial challenges and complex security environments. Thus, “Strategy and National Security” was the featured topic of a plenary session for the 14th annual Senior Leaders Seminar, sponsored by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The seminar took place from June 18-29, 2012, in Arlington, Virginia, and was attended by 70 security sector professionals and other government leaders from 40 African nations.  The “Strategy and National Security” plenary was conducted by Dr. Robert H. Dorff, Professor in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Academic discussions at the Africa Center are conducted under a strict policy of non-attribution to allow free and open discussion. However, several presenters agree to allow portions of their presentations to appear on the record in order to promote broader discussion.

Dr. Robert H. Dorff began the second day of the ACSS Senior Leaders Seminar by presenting on strategy and its importance to national security. He focused the plenary session on a discussion of what strategy is, why strategy matters to national security, and how to craft an effective strategy. Through his remarks and participation from attendees, these lessons were applied to situations specific to Africa.

Dr. Dorff explained that a strategy is the calculated relationship among ends, means, and ways—which he also stated as “what to accomplish, the resources to reach those objectives, and how those resources will be applied.” These important concepts can be applied at any scale, including national, regional, or local. He stressed that strategy is dynamic and interactive; a good strategy must adjust to changing circumstances and evolve based on the actions of other entities in the situation. These challenges make crafting a strategy a non-linear, adaptive, and ongoing enterprise at senior levels. The development of an effective strategy involves considering many possible contingencies to avoid surprise and the “oops factor” that comes from being caught off-guard.

While strategizing is not deterministic or linear, Dr. Dorff offered some universal guidelines to creating a good strategy:

  • Ends, ways and means must be in balance.
  • Resources are always scarce, so risk of neglecting an issue is an inherent property of strategizing. Choosing which risks to take and deciding beforehand how to manage those risks is essential to creating stability.
  • Ends matter most. While all three major factors are essential, going quickly or effectively to the wrong destination is ultimately purposeless. Having the wrong goals will result in a failed strategy.
  • “Being busy” or “doing something” is not a strategy. Reacting to crises individually can often create or exacerbate other problems; issues are not independent from one another, and should be considered in a larger perspective.
  • Means should not drive strategy. Many countries fall into the trap of deciding their course by what resources are available to them, rather than deciding their objectives and planning how to leverage their resources to achieve those ends.

While strategies can deal with various topics at any level, the focus of this session was national-level security strategy. Dr. Dorff emphasized that security encompasses more than just military functions and times of war, but must involve all instruments of national power during both peace and war. Combining diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power to achieve objectives which ensure human rights, health, emergency preparedness, and safety from external threats are all necessary parts of a security strategy.

Dr. Dorff offered guidance regarding how national security strategies should be developed. Leaders must identify core values that the country stands for, such as democracy, equality, prosperity, and safety. They must then list and prioritize interests and objectives that which promote these values. Resources should be committed to these priorities, and specific plans developed to achieve the overall goals. Making these decisions of priority and resource allocation is inherently difficult, and will require choices made using the three guides of “brains, heart, and gut.” Once a strategy is in place, it must have a feedback mechanism to ensure that leadership is adapting to changes in circumstance and the actions of other players.

Dr. Dorff explained that national strategies have an inherent political dimension. Ideally, the policies enacted by government and the voice of the people should provide the guidance to crafting a strategy. He also identified difficulties that arise in crafting strategy. For instance, the requirements of individual rights must be balanced against the requirements of government powers. In other cases, the process can become more about political appearances than achieving meaningful ends. Many leaders try to reduce their own public accountability by exaggerating the possible objectives and minimizing the stated costs required to accomplish them. For these and other reasons, Dr. Dorff stated, the process of creating and executing a national security strategy must include balanced participation from military, government, and the general population.

In specific regard to Africa, some participants showed concern that some African nations lack the precondition of good governance to create meaningful strategies. Dr. Dorff agreed that corruption presents an additional challenge to creating an effective national strategy, stating that “without good governance, you will not get strategy right.” Encouraging rule of law, accounting for resources used, and acting in the national interest are required prerequisites for creating an effective strategy, and these efforts should always be a focus of nations.

In response to questions about achieving ends with limited economic means, Dr. Dorff stated that strategizing is even more essential for countries which lack resources, because they cannot afford as many missteps as a wealthier country. In such cases, issues such as increasing trade and investment must be identified as high-priority objectives within a strategy in order to bolster a country’s ability to manage its future strategic progress. In this era of globalization, this process can involve creating international or regional strategies with partners, to promote stable relationships and encourage economic gain.

When asked about logistics of distribution, use, and content of national strategies to ensure a “whole of government” effort, Dr. Dorff emphasized that a strategy should be disseminated to all parties who play a role in carrying it out, and that there can exist an unclassified version for public consumption and a classified document for limited use. He encouraged inter-agency cooperation when necessary, but also mentioned that the “whole of government” approach is not always required and can become a distraction from the actual objectives of strategy. “Whole of government” effort, he stressed, is a way, not an end.

Many African leaders voiced their gratitude and appreciation for Dr. Dorff and his remarks, and stated their intentions to use his guidance to refine their approach to their own national issues.

Summary prepared by Eric Severson. Mr. Severson is pursuing a M.S. in Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University, and is a 2012 summer student employee of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

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