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date: 25 February 2021

Historical Approaches to Security/Strategic Studiesfree

  • Constantinos KoliopoulosConstantinos KoliopoulosDepartment of International, European and Area Studies, Panteion University


One can treat the terms “security studies” and “strategic studies” as synonymous and as pertaining to the study of the interaction of policy ends with military and other means under conditions of actual or potential conflict. This definition means that security/strategic studies can be a fairly broad field. Moreover, this broadness applies not only to the subject matter of the field, but to its time span as well. The study of strategy is arguably as old as war itself, and certainly far older than the formal establishment of strategic studies as an academic discipline in the aftermath of World War II. In this vein, one may well regard works like those of Thucydides and Clausewitz as belonging to the broad field of strategic/security studies.

Although the study of war and strategy would often go hand in hand with military history, from very early times there have appeared treatises on strategy (actually on “the art of war”) that are clearly distinguished from historical treatises and thus from the very beginning set strategic/security studies on a clearly distinct track. Be that as it may, the historical approach to strategic/security studies has always been and still remains a very powerful analytical tool—provided it is handled with the necessary care.

Beginning with Thucydides, and continuing with such luminaries as Vegetius, Clausewitz, Delbrück, and Corbett, the historical approach to strategic/security studies has provided the field with some of its most brilliant treatises. This venerable tradition continued after World War I and until well into the Cold War, including historically minded gems such as those by Fuller and Brodie. However, the advent of nuclear weapons and the consequent preoccupation of strategic/security studies with nuclear strategy led by and large to the loss of the field’s earlier historical bearings. Though never completely shelved, the historical approach was relatively subdued. It began to stage a comeback during the 1970s, aided by scholars like Howard, Luttwak, and Gray and further bolstered by the renewed interest in classical strategic theory. The end of the Cold War found the historical approach in terrific shape. Thus, not only does it once again tap the huge reservoir of ancient history, but it has also harnessed the newly available tools of quantitative research and the academic rigor of the social sciences. Since the end of the Cold War has definitely not brought about the end of history and the obsolescence of historical experience, it seems safe to conclude that the historical approach to strategic/security studies will fully retain its validity well into the 21st century.

Updated in this version

Summary and keywords updated. References updated and expanded.


This article treats strategic studies and security studies as synonymous and as pertaining to the study of the interaction of policy ends with military and other means under conditions of actual or potential conflict. Strategic/security studies is arguably the most historically minded branch of international relations. Although the present shape of this field has been heavily influenced by the Cold War, the study of strategy is much older. Thus, although strategic/security studies did not formally exist at the time of Clausewitz and Delbrück, it is absurd to assert that their works (Clausewitz, 1989; Delbrück, 19751985) should be excluded from the field; though it may seem anachronistic, this article will regard such works as belonging to strategic/security studies.

The study of war and strategy has often been indistinguishable from military history; Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (1972) is a primary example. However, from very early times we have treatises on strategy (actually on “the art of war”) that are clearly distinguished from historical treatises and thus from the very beginning set strategic/security studies on a clearly distinct track. The works of Sun Tzu, Kautilya, and Vegetius are cases in point. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, probably written during the 4th century bce, has only two or three very sketchy historical illustrations. Kautilya’s Arthasastra, possibly written during the late 4th century bce, has nothing. Vegetius (1943) wrote during the late 4th century ce. His work, which had a profound influence on Western military thought, uses concise historical examples to illustrate and support the author’s theoretical observations and practical recommendations; no one could mistake that book for a military history text.

The historical approach to strategic/security studies is permeated by the belief that the nature of strategy has remained essentially unchanged throughout history. Of course, this strand of thought has come to recognize, sometimes reluctantly (cf. Gat, 2001:6–11, 313, 334), that changing conditions lead to corresponding changes in tactics. It is also recognized that changes in the nature of tactics are bound to influence strategy as well (Clausewitz, 1989:226). Still, it is asserted that grand strategy (“the logic of conflict”), military strategy (“the nature of war”), or even operational art (“the art of the general”) are fundamentally timeless in character, hence a historical approach is essential for their understanding (Napoleon, 1943:236; Fuller, 1970a:15; Thucydides, 1972:I 22; Liddell Hart, 1991:3–6; Fuller, 1998:7; Gray, 1999). This was considered self-evident until the aftermath of World War II, which witnessed the emergence of a school of strategic/security studies that was almost completely divorced from history.

Desirable as it is, the study of history for purposes of strategic/security analysis must fulfill three requirements if it is to be of use: (1) it must be done in depth, so that the scholar understands “what really happened”; (2) it must cover a great time span, so that the scholar realizes what changes and what remains immutable over time; (3) it must take into account the broader political, economic, and social context (Howard, 1983:195–197).

The historical approach to strategic/security studies is not without its potential pitfalls. The most obvious one is the facile recourse to historical analogies. Drawing inferences and analogies from history is, of course, the very essence of the historical approach. However, the golden rule here is to be aware of the limits of the analogy and not to substitute flimsy historical analogies and examples for analytic thought (Howard, 1983:132, 191–193; Gray, 1990:335).

Another potential pitfall is that of anachronism, namely the use of modern terms to describe past situations, institutions, etc. In the specific context of strategic/security studies this pitfall is arguably less acute, owing to the timeless nature of strategy. Nonetheless, it is occasionally doubted whether modern strategic terminology can be legitimately used to describe the actions of political leaders and military commanders of bygone eras. Still, even though one ought to be cautious in attributing modern thoughts and practices to historical political and military leaders (Howard, 1983:191–192), it is indeed justifiable to use modern strategic terminology to explain the past and test theoretical assumptions with general application (Gray, 1990:334); the historians may disapprove, but the aim of strategic/security studies can be well served.

Another pitfall to be avoided is excessive lack of empathy for the strategic decision makers of the past. In a sense, this is connected with the aforementioned pitfall of anachronism. Since changes in tactics are bound to affect strategy, the historically minded strategic/security analysts have to be well versed in the tactical conditions of the periods they examine, in order to accurately assess the strategic options open to historical actors. It is decidedly unfair, as it is mistaken, to castigate strategic decision makers of the past for failing to follow strategic options that may look attractive to modern analysts but were tactically unfeasible with the military instruments actually at hand. Excessive lack of empathy may also come as a result of hindsight. The analysts, lacking the real-life pressures of historical decision makers and enjoying the benefit of hindsight, may be tempted to judge overly harshly the decisions made. In this way, a historically minded strategic/security analysis could degenerate into mere argument with the figures that actually made history (Overy, 1980:xi).

Having outlined the main methodological issues involved, we now move on to the survey of the relevant literature.

The Early Literature Up to Clausewitz

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (1972), apart from its acclaimed status as a historical work and an international relations textbook, has also every right to be regarded as a classic essay on strategy. To start with, Thucydides provided the first recorded outline of two opposing grand strategic designs. Both sides in the Peloponnesian War understood that victory demanded not only military prowess, but also economic resources, domestic legitimacy, and a favorable diplomatic environment. Consequently, each of them tried to secure these desirables while simultaneously negating them to the other side. Moreover, Thucydides (1972:I 82, II 18, II 62) offered a sophisticated treatment of many strategic concepts such as coercion and command of the sea. Last, but not least, Thucydides, in presenting the strategy employed by Athens during the initial phase of the Peloponnesian War, outlined the archetype of what Hans Delbrück (19751985) would call the “strategy of exhaustion.”

Thucydides (1972:I 22) based his historical approach on the supposed immutability of human nature. His argument was that a thorough, accurate, and objective examination of a seminal historical event is bound to increase one’s understanding of human nature and consequently of political and strategic affairs. However, since Thucydides was keen on getting as precise a knowledge of his subject matter as possible, he believed (1972:I 1, I 21) that the historical approach ought to deal with contemporary or nearly contemporary events.

The belief in the utility of history, contemporary or more remote, for the study of war permeates the ancient tradition of political and military history, as exemplified in the works of Xenophon (19181921, 1998) and Caesar (1914, 1917). Although they lack the depth of Thucydides, these works do contain nuggets of wisdom. Opinions about their value for posterity vary; Frederick the Great was dissatisfied by Caesar’s work (Gat, 2001:60), but Thomas Schelling (1966:vii) found it useful. A somewhat special case is the Greek historian and statesman Polybius (19221927). His account of the rise of Rome is still an important textbook of international relations and contains quite a few useful pieces of strategic analysis.

The Imperial Roman military treatises also followed a historical approach. The work of Vegetius has already been dealt with, whereas one cannot help mentioning the works of Frontinus (1925) and Polyaenus (1994). Written in the 1st and the 2nd century ce, respectively, these works are compilations of instances of deception and surprise in war. Although some mythological examples do creep in, the approach is basically historical; it was believed that the stratagems of the past could give inspiration to contemporary Roman commanders.

The historical approach to the study of military affairs was not an exclusively Western phenomenon. Abstract, apophthegmatic texts do occupy a prominent place in Asian military tradition, as was also the case in Byzantium. However, from quite early on, China also produced a considerable corpus of military literature that combined theoretical insights on tactics and strategy with historical examples. This literature grew from the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce) onward (Black, 2004:90). The work of Ralph Sawyer (1998, 2002) has made much of this corpus accessible to Western readers.

The historical approach was the cornerstone of Machiavelli’s work (2003, 2005, 2008). The Florentine statesman drew upon a wealth of examples from ancient Roman and contemporary Italian and European history in order to come up with useful generalizations in political and military matters. However, although his historical approach served his analysis extremely well in matters of politics and grand strategy, it seems that his admiration of the Roman Republic and his desire to promote the civic and republican spirit among his fellow citizens led him astray with regard to tactical matters. In order to justify his advocacy of a tactical formation that resembled the Roman legion, Machiavelli felt compelled to claim historical continuity at the tactical level of war and thus downgrade the impact of contemporary developments in military technology; the quality of his analysis suffered as a result (Gat, 2001:6–11). This should be a cautionary tale for every advocate of the historical approach to strategic/security studies.

The military writers of the 17th and 18th centuries used the historical approach as a matter of course, with ancient history being quite popular among them (Gat, 2001:35–80). Clausewitz (1989:172–174), a man noted for his critical attitude, commends the attempt of one of those writers, the French Marquis de Feuquières, to “teach the art of war entirely by historical examples” and expresses gratitude for the results of Feuquières’s historical research; still, Clausewitz claimed that the Frenchman ultimately failed in his mission. Even Maurice de Saxe (1943), who pointed out that historically minded treatises on war make for pleasant reading but often neglect the nuts and bolts of the military profession, used his fair share of historical examples. The spirit of the times is well captured by the celebrated dictum of Napoleon (1943:236): “Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne, Eugene, and Frederick. Make them your models. This is the only way to become a great general and to master the secrets of the art of war. With your own genius enlightened by this study you will reject all maxims opposed to those of these great commanders.”

It may be said that the trend of historical approach that began with Machiavelli, or even with Vegetius, reached its culmination with the work of the Swiss baron Antoine Henri de Jomini. Jomini enjoyed a long life (1779–1869) and his prolific pen earned him world fame. In his Précis de l’ art de la guerre (The Art of War) (1992), his most renowned treatise, first published in 1838, Jomini purported to provide a comprehensive analysis of war. The work is steeped in history. The Napoleonic Wars are the chief sources of examples, of course, but Jomini also draws from ancient, medieval, and early modern history. Incidentally, Jomini pays due attention to the various episodes of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire; he was no ethnocentricist, although his historical knowledge of non-Western civilizations was indeed confined to their contacts with the West. Jomini explicitly vouched for the continuing validity of the historical approach to the study of war, despite the great technological developments that were taking place in his lifetime. Even though Jomini (1992:347) conceded that the recent improvement of firearms “would probably have an influence upon the details of tactics,” the immutable principles of war would continue to apply in the realms of strategy and operational art.

Be that as it may, Jomini’s work demonstrates that command of a vast expanse of historical examples does not guarantee an accurate grasp of the broader sociopolitical context and consequently may result in failure to link military conditions and developments with the prevailing sociopolitical milieu. For instance, instead of attributing the cumbersome logistics system of the 18th century to the particular conditions of the period (Clausewitz, 1989:516), Jomini simply viewed it as an error induced by inadequate thinking and prejudice (Gat, 2001:124).

Clausewitz was a strong advocate of the historical approach. However, following the teachings of his mentor Scharnhorst (Gat, 2001:162–168, 188–191), he came up with profound refinements of the historical approach in strategic/security analysis. He laid down the relevant principles in two chapters in Book 2 of On War (1989:156–174) that dealt with critical analysis and historical examples. Clausewitz defined critical analysis as the application of theoretical truths to actual events. Critical analysis consists of three intellectual activities: (1) discovery and interpretation of equivocal facts, (2) tracing of effects back to their causes, and (3) investigation and evaluation of the means employed (Clausewitz, 1989:156). A working theory is the cornerstone of criticism, but there is more to criticism than the mechanical application of theory (e.g., General X divided his forces in the presence of the enemy, therefore he lost). On the other hand, Clausewitz (1989:157–158) is quick to point out that a theoretical assertion is not necessarily proved incorrect merely because a contrary example has been found.

Clausewitz (1989:164–167) makes a unique analysis of the issue of hindsight. To begin with, he gives the customary advice that historically minded analysts should try to discard the benefit of hindsight. However, Clausewitz goes deeper than that. The benefit of hindsight is often a true benefit because it may be the only way for the critics to rise above the situation and pinpoint mistakes (which they themselves would undoubtedly have committed, too). Actually, the outcome of an action often affords the most important proof of the soundness (or unsoundness) of that action.

As regards the use of historical examples, Clausewitz thinks they are very useful provided they are used judiciously. According to Clausewitz (1989:171), historical examples can be used in four possible ways: (1) to explain an idea (abstract exposition being too dreary), (2) to show the application of an idea, (3) to support a statement (in this case, they merely have to prove that some phenomena or effects are indeed possible), and (4) to deduce a doctrine (by a detailed presentation of a historical event). He did not make particularly harsh demands for the first three uses of examples but would brook no compromise concerning the fourth use. Echoing Scharnhorst, Clausewitz (1989:173) declared that “where a new or debatable view is concerned, a single thoroughly detailed event is more instructive than ten that are only touched upon.”

After that, he went on to claim that modern historical examples are more useful than remote ones. This is because in modern historical examples conditions remain similar to the present ones, and also because modern history has still retained some important minor elements and details that are always bound to be lost with the passage of time (Clausewitz, 1989:173). Using this kind of reasoning, Clausewitz claimed that any historical examples older than the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) would be inadequate for analysts of his own era (early 19th century) due to profound technical, tactical, and operational changes that had meanwhile taken place. Pursuing this line of thought, Clausewitz (1989:173) stated that the ancient examples are the most useless of all. However, he immediately (1989:173–174) went on to qualify this assertion by pointing out that remote historical examples may still prove useful if their analysis does not depend on detailed knowledge. In fact, Clausewitz (1989:174) cites as a case in point the example of the Roman military strategy of horizontal escalation to Spain and Africa while Hannibal was still undefeated in Italy: “we still know enough about the general situation of the states and armies that enabled such a roundabout method of resistance to succeed.”

Finally, Clausewitz (1989:582–594) provides a sweeping historical sociology of war from ancient times to his own era, not neglecting to include the Eurasian nomads. The idea is simple: every age and every political unit has its own kind of war, conditioned by historical circumstances. In one of his celebrated passages, Clausewitz (1989:583) laments that the Austrians and Prussians of 1805, 1806, and 1809, blissfully unaware of the profound transformation of the war that had taken place at the onset of the 19th century, prepared for typical 18th-century wars of maneuver and were only too surprised to face “the God of War himself.” Clausewitz’s historical sociology of war remains absolutely valid both as a piece of historical observation and as a tool for strategic/security analysis.

One can see that the historical approach represented a powerful strand of thought in the early literature of the subject. It was sometimes misused, but was deemed indispensable for the study of the tactical and operational (and occasionally the strategic and the grand strategic) levels of war. Clausewitz did introduce some strict methodological rules and important qualifications for the use of the historical approach but, as will be seen in the section “From Clausewitz to World War II,” these were quite often honored in the breach.

From Clausewitz to World War II

During this period, practitioners of the historical approach steadily moved away from the tactical level of war, as it increasingly became evident that constant technological changes rendered obsolete the tactical experiences of previous eras. At the same time, the whole field kept broadening its focus to cover overall military strategy and grand strategy, that is, returning to the Thucydidean archetype that had been rarely heard of after Polybius. New vistas were opened, and the historical approach had plenty to offer. Finally, the study of war was progressively institutionalized, chiefly in military academies and general staffs but also in universities, thus sowing the seeds for the spectacular growth of strategic/security studies after World War II. In either case, military history was considered an integral part of the curriculum (Black, 2004:186–188, 190–192).

A brave attempt to harness the historical experience to the study of war was made by the French colonel Charles Ardant du Picq (1946), whose collected works were published posthumously in 1880. Ardant du Picq dealt with the tactical level of war, drawing heavily from ancient battles and sending detailed questionnaires to his colleagues with a view to preserving and distilling their war experience. The endeavor to ascertain contemporary tactical conditions and come up with useful tactical and organizational recommendations for the French army was highly commendable. However, deducing tactical lessons from ancient battles was a potentially disastrous exercise. Ardant du Picq attributed primary value to morale as a means to success in battle; moral superiority could overcome greater destructive power. However, it is only fair to say that the increasing rapidity and volume of battlefield fire rendered his analysis progressively obsolete and misleading (Fuller, 1970b:297).

Ardant du Picq cannot be held responsible for the disastrous French offensives during World War I. At any rate, his honest research and lack of obvious personal agenda (apart from the improvement of the French army), plus the fact that he died when the machine gun was still in its infancy, should incline one to give him the benefit of the doubt. This is by no means the case with Ardant du Picq’s far more famous compatriot, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, whose Principles of War (1918) provides a hard-to-surpass example of what a practitioner of the historical approach to strategic/security studies must avoid. Analytical and historical accuracy were willingly sacrificed on the altar of Foch’s exaltation of the offensive and morale—an exaltation closely linked to French domestic politics (Snyder, 1984:41–106, 201–203). He asserted that a battle can only be lost (or won) morally and not physically, hence a battle won is one in which a commander does not acknowledge defeat. This kind of sophistry extended to contorted mathematical calculations—“mathematical abracadabra” (Fuller, 1972:123)—intended to prove that the improved infantry firepower actually favored the offensive, and culminated in outright misleading historical illustrations where suicidal blunders were presented as brilliant pieces of generalship (Foch, 1918; Brodie, 1959:47–50; Fuller, 1972:122–128).

The historical approach fared much better at the hands of the American captain (eventually rear admiral) Alfred Thayer Mahan. In his two most famous works, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1957) and The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 (2002), he tried to provide an analysis of the workings of sea power as a tool of grand strategy and a passport to world dominance, as well as a theory of naval strategy based on the precepts of Jomini and the conduct of outstanding practitioners such as Nelson. English/British history offered Mahan a ready-made case of the benefits of sea power. Sea power, in the form of a very strong and consistently victorious navy plus a chain of overseas bases, enabled the British to secure their homeland; dominate international trade; acquire colonies, markets, and money; sustain their Industrial Revolution; and become the most powerful nation on earth. For Mahan, this historical analysis bore a clear message for the turn-of-19th-century United States: imitate Great Britain, in the sense of fostering sea power and acquiring overseas bases. Although sea power is clearly not the only road to international greatness, Mahan’s historically minded analysis of the subject has generally been vindicated.

Things are less clear as regards Mahan’s teachings on naval strategy. His analysis of naval battles, while eminently readable, is more often than not an example of the mechanical application of theory to historical examples that we have already seen Clausewitz warning against. In Mahan’s analysis, there is almost always a “clever” admiral who dutifully applies Jomini’s principles and wins, and a “stupid” admiral who duly commits every conceivable mistake (divides his fleet, lacks offensive spirit, etc.) and loses. Of course, one should expect to find at least some correlation between victory and “cleverness” or between defeat and “stupidity,” but in reality things are rarely present in such black-and-white terms. Apart from that, Mahan exaggerated the economic impact of the various British naval blockades. In other words, Mahan’s historical approach to naval strategy was rather crude and doctrinaire, although it must be said that the problem was mostly one of Mahan overstating his case rather than presenting a completely groundless case. All in all, Mahan came up with a brilliant conception that he fortified with a historical approach that, despite its defects, was basically sound.

Julian Corbett, the other great naval strategist of the period, was also an unambiguous case of a historically conscious strategic/security analyst. Corbett was both influential and controversial during his own time, but nowadays his star is deservedly in the ascendant (Gat, 2001:480–493; Handel, 2001). Among his numerous works, arguably the most important are Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1972) and England in the Seven Years’ War (1992). In the first, Corbett gave precise definitions and made a systematic analysis of several key concepts of naval strategy. His analysis rests on two powerful cornerstones, namely his historical learning and his study of Clausewitz. The book draws heavily on English/British historical experience; this makes for quite lively reading. As to Corbett’s book on the Seven Years’ War, this is a historical case study in much the same vein as the studies prescribed by Clausewitz: concrete, thorough, and theoretically informed, although admittedly too remote in time to fulfil Clausewitz’s contemporaneousness criteria.

One of the greatest achievements of the historical approach to strategic/security studies is the work of Hans Delbrück. In his multivolume History of the Art of War (1975–1985) Delbrück covered the period from the Persian Wars (490–479 bce) to the Napoleonic Wars. Delbrück began by applying the new scientific historical method to military history. This was essential for doing away with much legendary and mythological material that had accumulated through the ages and kept clouding and distorting the factual background of military history. In this sense, Delbrück’s conclusive demolition of Herodotus’s account that had more than five million Persians invading Greece was a great service to both history and strategic/security studies. First, it cultivated an attitude of healthy skepticism toward ancient sources. Second, by suitably repairing the ancient accounts, it salvaged a number of ancient incidents from the morass of legend and rendered them usable by modern analysts. Consequently, Delbrück could come up with an important theoretical contribution, outlining two basic forms of strategy, namely the strategy of annihilation and the strategy of exhaustion.

A typical example of the institutionalization of the study of war that took place during the second half of the 19th century was the work of Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen (1931), chief of the German General Staff from 1891 until 1905. Schlieffen became fascinated by the double envelopment effected by Hannibal’s Carthaginians against the numerically superior Romans at the battle of Cannae (216 bce). As a result, he tried to demonstrate that enveloping attacks had been the recipe for victory throughout history. It has been correctly pointed out that Schlieffen’s analysis often did “violence to the facts” (van Creveld, 1989:5), thus demonstrating once again the difficulty of finding a single compelling “meta-narrative” in military history and strategic/security analysis. Be that as it may, powerful enveloping attacks against the enemy flanks or rear have indeed been the primary tools of decision in land battle.

After the convulsions of World War I, many a strategist tried to figure out what to make of the new weapons unleashed by that conflict. Giulio Douhet (1972), the Italian pioneer theorist of airpower, believed that an independent air force consisting solely of bombers was the key to victory in future wars. Due to the novelty of airpower and his own futurist leanings, Douhet consciously rejected the utility of history for analyzing the new weapon (Gat, 2001:576). One would have to wait until after World War II to encounter analyses of airpower that would feature the historical approach.

This disdain of the historical approach was by no means characteristic of all the strategic/security analysts that emerged during the interwar years. For instance, J. F. C. Fuller demonstrated that the historical approach could be profitably combined with unconventional and pioneering thinking. Although Fuller became known during the interwar years as a leading theorist of tank warfare, he arguably left an even more lasting legacy with his historically informed analyses written after World War II. His Armament and History (1946) was a trailblazing attempt to trace the impact of weapons technology on war, from the ancient Greeks to World War II. Among Fuller’s quasi-biographical works, the most important is probably The Generalship of Alexander the Great (1998). In examining the extraordinary career of Alexander the Great, Fuller showed himself to be equally at home in subjects ranging from the philosophical milieu of the ancient Greek world in the 4th century bce to Alexander’s commando operations.

Even more ambitious were Fuller’s The Decisive Battles of the Western World (1970a, 1970b) and The Conduct of War, 1789–1961 (1972). The Decisive Battles is a tour de force of strategic/security analysis, tracing the rise and fall of great powers from ancient Egypt to Nazi Germany, the interplay of the security policies of international actors, the changes in the nature of war, and the evolution of military strategy and operational art, all the way down to the tactical details of a number of important battles. As to The Conduct of War, it was a profound exercise in the historical sociology of war from the 18th century onward, demonstrating how the phenomenon of war was influenced by the French, Industrial, and Russian Revolutions.

Another major historically conscious analyst that emerged during the interwar years was Basil Liddell Hart. Liddell Hart’s work has been characterized by his belief in the so-called indirect approach, which generally denotes the sidestepping of the enemy strong points and the avoidance of attrition warfare. The historical approach was one of his preferred tools. His Strategy (1991), the work for which Liddell Hart is chiefly remembered nowadays, is an outline of military history from ancient Greece to World War II—with an appendix on the Israeli War of Independence—purporting to demonstrate the superiority of the indirect approach. The book is not without its shrewd remarks, particularly with respect to grand strategy and guerrilla warfare. However, Liddell Hart was not at all rigorous or consistent in his conceptualization of the indirect approach; the result is that virtually every victory in history is somehow attributed to the victor’s “indirect approach,” while the term itself is stretched amorphous. Strategy is still a pleasant read but ultimately is another failed attempt to impose a universal framework on strategic experience.

The Cold War Years

The first modern textbook on strategy was published during World War II (Earle, 1944). It featured a healthy dose of historical approach, dealing with figures such as Vauban and Frederick the Great. This book presaged the emergence of strategic studies as an academic discipline, by and large independent from the earlier domination of military institutions.

Shortly after that, the world witnessed the advent of nuclear weapons. This would both establish strategic studies as an academic discipline and bring about a radical shift in its focus. For more than two decades strategic studies became preoccupied with nuclear strategy, and to a great extent lost its earlier historical bearings. During the so-called golden age of strategic studies, namely the 1950s and 1960s, the historical approach was relatively subdued. The novelty of nuclear weapons was arguably a valid reason for that, although the fascination with the technical aspects of those weapons and the tendency to resort to abstract thinking was carried too far (Trachtenberg, 1991:3–46).

Still, the historical approach was never completely shelved. Among the leading theorists of nuclear strategy, Bernard Brodie was a wholehearted exponent of the historical approach. His Strategy in the Missile Age (1959) offers an overview of strategic history in an effort to gain an understanding of air and nuclear strategy; as Brodie (1959:19) put it, “while air power, in which we must now include long-range missiles as well as aircraft, is of recent origin, ideas about war and how to fight it are not.” His War and Politics (1973) is even more sweeping in outlook, drawing heavily upon history in order to explore and develop the Clausewitzian idea that war is a political act aiming at the achievement of political objectives and therefore ought to be subordinated to policy. Finally, in From Crossbow to H-Bomb (Brodie & Brodie, 1973) Brodie and his wife, Fawn, traced the evolution of military technology and tactics.

As to other “golden age” strategists, Thomas Schelling (1966), a typical example of that era, did use illustrative historical examples in his analysis and openly recommended the reading of Thucydides and Caesar to those in search of ideas. Moreover, George Quester (1966) produced one of the first works to treat air power and deterrence in a historically conscious manner. Still, the overall picture was fairly disappointing: the historical approach of the “golden age” nuclear strategists basically amounted to invocation of hackneyed analogies of the outbreak of World War I and the Pearl Harbor attack.

It is important to note that outside the realm of nuclear strategy the historical approach continued to hold its own. For instance, it all but dominated the study of civil–military relations. The classic works on that subject followed the tradition of Alfred Vagts’s earlier work (1937) and dealt with historical cases as a matter of course (Huntington, 1957; Finer, 1962).

The same applied to the study of strategic surprise. Beginning with Roberta Wohlstetter’s (1962) seminal work on the Pearl Harbor attack, the literature drew extensively from an ever-expanding range of historical cases. This trend continued well into the 1980s (Betts, 1982; Levite, 1987). Guerrilla warfare was another subject featuring fine works using the historical approach (Laqueur, 1998). Michael Walzer (1992) used a huge number of historical examples to highlight and analyze the moral issues of war.

Michael Howard, for years the doyen of the strategic/security studies community, has been a strong advocate of the historical approach. His work may sometimes have more of a military historical bent but never lacks strategic analysis as, for instance, in his classic book on The Franco-Prussian War (1988). Howard’s scholarly output (1976, 1983, 1988, 2004) demonstrates that the historical approach to strategic/security studies fully retained its vitality during—and after—the Cold War.

The 1970s witnessed the emergence of three new trends in the employment of the historical approach to strategic/security studies. The first of these was the return of ancient history. The use of ancient history in strategic/security analysis had had a very long pedigree but eventually all but faded away. However, the work of Edward Luttwak (1976) on the grand strategy of the Roman Empire demonstrated that strategic/security analysts could expand the range of their inquiries and profitably tap ancient history as well. Classical historians joined the new trend, and, although still a minority interest, ancient history was definitely back insofar as strategic/security analysis was concerned (Ferrill, 1986; Strauss & Ober, 1990).

The second trend was the introduction of quantitative research. Following the pioneering works of Lewis Richardson (1960a, 1960b) and Quincy Wright (1965), the use of quantitative historical data entered the field of strategic/security studies. The most immediate results were a valuable work on military deception (Whaley, 1969) and the Correlates of War project (Singer, 19791980). The use of quantitative data featured prominently in Bueno de Mesquita’s expected utility theory (1981) and to this day enjoys a substantial following, as any reader of International Studies Quarterly knows.

The third trend was the increasing linkage of strategic/security literature with the social sciences. This trend, benefiting from advances in the technique of using case studies for theory development, involved greater theoretical sophistication, more rigorous terminology, and explicit testing of theoretical hypotheses. In this vein, Robert Art (1973) examined the naval strategy of Wilhelmine Germany; Alexander George and Richard Smoke (1974) dealt with the application of deterrence in American foreign policy; Klaus Knorr (1976) edited a volume containing historical illustrations of various strategic concepts (e.g., war-limiting); George Quester (1977) analyzed the relationship between offense and defense through history; and Richard Smoke (1978) conducted a detailed study of escalation, using among others the cases of the Seven Years’ and the Crimean Wars. These works were soon followed by treatises on concepts such as crises, military doctrine, and security policy (Lebow, 1981; Mearsheimer, 1983; Posen, 1984; Snyder, 1984).

Classical strategic theory began steadily to return to the forefront in the 1970s and was definitely there by the 1980s. Clausewitz got the lion’s share of scholarly attention (Paret, 1976; Handel, 1986) and Earle’s Makers of Modern Strategy was suitably updated (Paret, 1986). Edward Luttwak (2002) came up with an ingenious and historically minded work on the logic of strategy, Archer Jones (1987) produced an impressive meta-narrative arguing that the art of war reduces essentially to a choice between persisting and raiding strategies, while Colin Gray (1990) attempted to set the post–Cold War strategic agenda by producing a work on strategic theory that drew heavily from historical examples.

By the 1980s, strategic/security studies had recovered much of its original holistic approach. Among others, this was reflected in the appearance of historically informed works on grand strategy (Kaiser, 1990; Kennedy, 1991). As had previously happened with airpower, nuclear strategy had now sufficiently come of age to be examined in a historical light (Freedman, 1989).

The last decade of the Cold War witnessed a renewed interest in conventional warfare, which in turn boosted the employment of the historical approach on strategic/security studies. The two World Wars provided an inexhaustible pool of cases for analysis (Overy, 1980; Millett & Murray, 1988); sea power never ceased to command interest (Reynolds, 1983; Modelski & Thompson, 1988), and historically minded treatises on various aspects of conventional warfare kept appearing (McInnes & Sheffield, 1988). Martin van Creveld used the historical approach to produce highly readable, informative, and occasionally controversial books on command, military technology, and the future of war (van Creveld, 1987, 1989, 1991). As to the evolution of military technology, Trevor Dupuy (1980) continued along the lines of Fuller and the Brodies, while also attempting to quantify the impact of various weapons.

The end of the Cold War found the historical approach in the ascendancy. Clear lines of development had been established—that is, those pertaining to ancient history, quantitative approach, social science methodology, and nonnuclear strategic theory and practice—and would be duly followed during the post–Cold War period.

From the Aftermath of the Cold War to the Present

As the Cold War was drawing to its close and the Soviet Union was collapsing, it was widely proclaimed that a new era had arrived in domestic and international political affairs, rendering historical experience obsolete. It did not take long for the naiveté of such views to be exposed; for better or for worse, the historical approach to strategic/security studies would fully retain its validity in the post–Cold War era.

Indeed, this approach has been in excellent shape recently. One of its greatest current aficionados is Colin Gray. Gray (1990, 1999, 2002) has used the historical approach in a way similar to that of Vegetius: theory and analysis, interspersed with historical illustrations from virtually any historical period. Especially his Modern Strategy (1999) reads like a manifesto for the historical approach to strategic/security studies: Gray strongly asserts his belief in the eternal and universal nature of strategy, openly declares himself to be a representative of the “historical school of strategic thought” (which he distinguishes from the “materialistic” school), and, among others, proudly recalls one of his “finer moments” as an adviser to the U.S. government when he treated the Defense Nuclear Agency to a commentary on Byzantine strategy, using the walls of Constantinople as an example of strategic defense.

The use of ancient history in strategic/security analysis is now considered more or less normal. Apart from its widespread use in illustrative examples, there is a growing literature dealing with ancient historical case studies. These are mostly drawn from ancient Greek and Roman history (Starr, 1995; Mattern, 1999; Hanson, 2010), although a more inclusive approach to non-Western cases has also been attempted (Gabriel & Boose, 1994; Sawyer, 2007; Olsen & Gray, 2012).

The historical approach has fitted well with attempts at comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of war (Weltman, 1995; Mueller, 2004) and strategy in general (Freedman, 2013). In the same vein, the historical approach has been used to good effect in studies dealing with the causes of war. Among the causes pinpointed by these studies are perceptions of threat or of military advantage, power considerations, and more mundane concerns such as territorial disputes (Van Evera, 1999; Senese & Vasquez, 2008). Attention has also been paid to the problem of creating stable and peaceful postwar international orders (Kennedy & Hitchcock, 2000).

The study of grand strategy from a historical perspective has also proved very popular. It is not unusual to encounter works with a broad historical sweep, organized either as separate case studies (Murray, Knox, & Bernstein, 1994) or around a grand theme, such as the interplay between victory and defeat (Bond, 1996). As regards the subjects of specific case studies, it is no accident that powerful historical actors command the greatest attention. To start with, Western scholars have begun to tap the huge reservoir of Chinese strategic experience (Johnston, 1998). Due attention has been paid to imperial states like Spain (Parker, 2000). The grand strategy of Israel, a state that arguably makes a highly efficient use of its resources, has also been analyzed with a historical approach (Maoz, 2006).

However, by far the most popular subject of historically minded treatises of grand strategy is the United States, with scholarly attention being overwhelmingly focused on American grand strategy during the Cold War. Much of this literature is critical (Lebow & Gross Stein, 1994; Payne, 2001), perhaps overly so, given that the actual decision makers had to operate in a novel and highly uncertain environment, especially during the early Cold War years. The Cuban missile crisis retains its appeal (Allison & Zelikow, 1999), whereas the Vietnam War occupies a special place within the strategic/security analyses of the Cold War (Walton, 2002). Finally, the historical approach is being employed in order to explore the future of the United States’ grand and military strategy; this discussion is often framed in terms of preserving America’s advantages (Herman, Gorman, Gallina, MacDonald, & Ryer, 2002).

An aspect of the current strategic/security studies literature is the use of historical cases to shed light on particular grand strategic choices. The grand strategic choices of foreign intervention, conquest, and occupation have received special attention (Taliaferro, 2004; Edelstein, 2008). In view of the present Western entanglement in Afghanistan and Iraq, this attention is not likely to dwindle anytime soon.

Nuclear weapons and strategy are nowadays clearly within the fold of the historical approach (Solingen, 2007). In an attempt to understand the dynamics of nuclear proliferation, many studies have dealt with the actual acquisition process of today’s nuclear states, with Israel and India receiving much attention in this respect (Cohen, 1998; Perkovich, 1999).

As regards conventional warfare, the trend that began in the 1980s continues unabated. The two World Wars remain popular subjects of study (Murray & Millett, 2000). Strategic bombing and the targeting of civilians in general have been given detailed attention (Pape, 1996). The same applies to the overall problems of leadership and command (McMaster, 1997; Cohen, 2002).

The subject of civil–military relations has once again been happily married with the historical approach. A number of studies have examined from a historical perspective the civil–military relations in various countries, often linking these relations to the choices of these countries at the levels of grand and military strategy (Brooks, 2008). The historical approach has also continued to reign supreme in the study of intelligence and strategic surprises (Mahnken, 2002). The same applies to the study of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. A number of works examine historical instances of guerrilla warfare, often in an attempt to find the key to victory (or defeat) for the insurgents or their opponents (Record, 2007; Gentile, 2013). A similar approach is followed regarding terrorism and counterterrorism (Alexander, 2006). Tackling mercenarism with a historical approach fits well with the increased tendency toward privatization of military force (Percy, 2007). An earlier tradition of historically minded studies of deterrence and coercion is still living on (Press, 2007). Arms control has also been approached from a historical angle (Croft, 1996). Even the concept of revolution in military affairs has been profitably examined in a historically conscious way: past revolutions have been identified, though not without disagreement, and the relevant evidence has been used for drawing pertinent conclusions for the present and the future (Rogers, 1995; Knox & Murray, 2001).

Interest in classical strategic theory remains lively. Among others, Gérard Chaliand (1994) produced a valuable anthology ranging from ancient Egypt to the end of the 20th century ce; the relevant books of Azar Gat (2001) and Michael Handel (2001) have become standard reference works on the subject; and Beatrice Heuser (2010) has profitably delved into the works of long forgotten 16th- to early-19th-century theorists.

Finally, journals like Journal of Strategic Studies and Security Studies display a strong aptitude for the historical approach to strategic/security studies. As mentioned, this approach is currently in excellent shape. Indeed, current literature does testify to the diachronic value of this approach.


I would like to thank Marios Evriviades and an anonymous reviewer for their valuable comments. The usual disclaimer applies.

Links to Digital Materials

  • Air University. A website of the US Air University, containing works of and Internet resources on great practitioners and theoreticians of war. Far from exhaustive, but useful.
  • Clausewitz website. Images, links, bibliographies, etc., on Clausewitz.
  • Correlates of War.The Correlates of War Project website. The mecca of quantitative data on the study of war.


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