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Are Liberals up to challenge of total strategic overhaul?

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

Strategy is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and defined too little. Often, it is confused with the challenges of problem solving, optimizing efficiency or issue management.

The word comes from the Greek, meaning the commanding role of a general in a war. The conduct of individual engagements is tactics; the marshalling of the individual engagements into a co-ordinated, war-winning effort is strategy.

Texts from The Art of War to Clausewitz, added to the general understanding of military strategic thinking with concepts like positioning and the culminating point. Military strategy emphasizes work beyond simple planning to the adaptations that take place in response to enemy movements and changing conditions.

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However, the military applications of strategy themselves define war as a subset of Grand Strategy or the organizing principals of nations, reducing even their own work to a tactic in the overall national strategy. Examples of Grand Strategy are the "Germany First" decision the Allies made in 1942, or the concept of containment during the Cold War.

While Grand Strategy is a fascinating topic, the academic work around it is not generally applicable. Study of grand strategy often focuses on the historical choices or current options facing international relations, rather than how to theoretically optimize strategy at its highest level.

One of the best definitions of strategy comes from business theory, and Harvard Professor Michael Porter. He argued that the essence of strategy was "choosing to perform activities differently than rivals do. Otherwise, a strategy is nothing more than a marketing slogan that will not withstand competition."

The argument he makes is that strategy is about building a sustainable competitive advantage, ideally one that is virtuous and builds on itself constantly.

It must be something that competitors cannot mimic easily, otherwise it is not sustainable. It must be something that provides a real edge in differentiating your offering from others, or it is not a sufficient advantage to matter.

Perhaps most importantly, a good strategy is about trade-offs, and picking what you will and will not do. There will be excellent tactics offered up that could bring temporary gains, even great ones, but if they do not reinforce your sustainable competitive advantage, they may not be the right tactics.

A great example is Wal-Mart. Their low prices lead to market share, which gives them the ability to squeeze suppliers, which leads to lower prices, and so on. Each move Wal-Mart makes a decision increases its virtuous circle, whether it is a new IT system to link suppliers directly to their inventory system or an advertising campaign. The clarity of their strategic vision makes decision making more simple at a tactical level, and it makes it very difficult for rivals to catch up to their low price-market share-squeezed suppliers advantage.

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Strategy as sustainable competitive advantage is a definition that can be translated to different settings. Just as there is no one "perfect" strategy for a nation state, the realities of a political campaign or business must be grounded in the resources available, the position of the organization on the competitive terrain, and the actions of the competitors themselves, finding a niche that builds and sustains a competitive advantage.

Applying this definition to politics, you can see that federal Liberals received a catastrophic thumping in this year's election due to the loss of any sustainable competitive advantage.

Liberals are foremost the "party of power," an organization whose ability to broker consensus among competing interests keeps them in office for long periods of time. However, the advantages of ideological flexibility, incrementalism and moderation become disadvantages in opposition, where clarity, boldness of vision and consistency are typical virtues.

As such, the Liberal positioning in opposition is a non-ideological "natural alternative government." The Grits will wait, generally aligned with government orthodoxy but opposing the Conservatives on some symbolic issues, and then wait for the Tories to implode and the country to come back to them. They hold their position of alternative government by virtue of history, shouting down other challengers with claims of inevitability and strategic voting, and resting on a base of past clients of their brokerage politics.

However, this last election saw the Liberals eclipsed not just by the governing Tories but the traditional third party, erasing not just their government advantage but their opposition differentiation as well. At the same time, the Conservatives may have developed the skills and patience to recreate the strategic advantage over the past few years, adopting a more flexible and incremental approach compared to the Mulroney, Diefenbaker or Bennett eras.

As such, the Liberals will be hard pressed to use their past strategies to regain power, and will have to rebuild an entirely new strategy different from their typical "wait for the Tories to blow up" approach.

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Canada as a nation has a strategy as well. I wrote a long piece for The Globe last summer on Canada's Grand Strategy, which I won't repeat here.

The Journal of Military and Strategic Studies includes some of the most interesting relevant work on Canada's strategy. Jack Granatstein argues that Canada cannot actually have a grand strategy akin to great powers, because we lack the resources to sustain them.

What is intriguing about strategy in the national sense is the difficulty in identifying all but the most obvious examples. China, for instance, clearly has a strategy, but defining it is a difficult effort, far more complex than the classic "Germany First" strategy of the Allies.

But what is certain is that the United States has failed to develop a coherent national strategy since the end of the Cold War, and that absence can be directly attributed to the scattered and incoherent responses to international challenges like 9/11 and the Arab Spring, but also domestic failures in political consensus building.

Like the Liberals, the current struggles of the United States are strategic, and require the hard work and decisiveness to decide what they will do differently from competitors and – perhaps most importantly – to make the trade-offs of what they will no longer do.

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