Abstract: National policies and decisions all aim at achieving long-term and desired outcomes. From a perspective, success largely depends on strategic choices. In turn, policy planning and implementation partly rely on leaders’ mindset and approaches, and those of advisors and staff. This paper attempts to analyze key theoretical and practical aspects of "strategic thinking", which serves as an important nexus between policy planning and implementation; based on the research findings, the author proposes a few of policy recommendations for Vietnam in the coming time.


International or national policies/decisions are often expected to reach "strategic thinking" level. If a policy is to tackle only short-term problems yet causes long-term adverse consequences, it would result in a "strategic mistake". Conversely, if primary goals are met, that policy would be strategically meaningful and successful.[1]

Conceptualizing strategic thinking 

Thinking is "the process of reflecting objective realities”,[2]"a higher phase of cognitive process, capturing the essence and discovering the laws of thing in form of symbol, concept, judgement, and thought"[3].“Strategy” is a plan of action and/or science/art, composed of creative and smart strategies to achieve overarching, comprehensive, long-term outcomes in political, economic and military fields.[4]The concept of strategy is often applied to medium to long term. Although there exist different ways of understanding, strategic thinking can be essentially defined as a process of approaching subject matters in a broad, logical, rational, multi-level, creative manner with a view to accomplishing major outcomes and producing significant and lasting impact. 

Questions make up the main language of strategy.[5] The more difficult a question is, the better the chance it has to express strategic thinking. For example, what Vietnam should do to avoid being compromised behind the scene by major countries is a strategic question. In this connection, a question of moderate importance is how Vietnam can design a diplomatic agenda in the coming years to apply new “balanced” thinking in its relations with major powers. Another difficult question (but only to specify the first question) is which areas of cooperation, Vietnam should prioritize in dealing with the United States and China, with a view to neutralizing the possibility of being compromised.[6]

Strategic thinking helps us see "the big picture" and avoid being consumed by details. In other words, strategic thinking is the process of observing, explaining, and capturing key trends, laying out a vision that encompasses fundamental aspects of strategic spheres in which one should take steps and mobilize forces to achieve primary, long-term goals. The "case-by-case" approach is the anti-thesis of strategic thinking. For example, former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski advised US foreign policy planners to focus on the "grand chess board", concentrating resources on key geopolitical areas and missions.[7] Concurring with several other thinkers, Brzezinski believed that after the Cold War, the United States somehow lost its direction and fell short of a "Grand Strategy" for the new era. American policy towards international issues at that time was dominated by events without a coherent message. The United States was dragged into Iraq, and then Afghanistan, and Pakistan, coupled with fighting terrorism and coping with the rise of China at a time when its relative power gradually declined.

Strategic thinking is linked to geospatial vision.[8] Historian Frederick L. Schuman calls it "geo-strategic" thinking.[9] Geography plays a key role in the security and development of nation states, the difference is just which dimension is prioritized among land, sea, sky and/or space.[10] Modern concepts such as cyberspace, “soft border”, “off-shore defense,” and "deep defense" are also becoming increasingly popular. Historian Halford Mackinder pointed to the land, while Alfred Mahan promoted sea power. Not putting the Eurasian continent at the epicenter, Mahan noted that the "geopolitical fate" of humankind depends on the Indian and Pacific oceans. Mahan advised countries to build up sea powers of which navy should be to the fore. In a similar thought, American political scientist Nicholas Spykman argued that geography represents a decisive factor for the American power in the sense that the country is first and foremost surrounded and protected by both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.[11]


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Key words: strategic thinking, policy making, Vietnamese diplomacy, "soft border", first line of defense, "asymmetric" strategy, middle power.

By Le Dinh Tinh

Le Dinh Tinh (Ph.D) is now working at Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. Views expressed here are the author’s only.

[1]See, for example, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Khả năng cải thiện nghịch cảnh [The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable], translated by Tran Thi Kim Chi (Hanoi:Youth Publishing House, 2015).  

[2]Nguyen Manh Cuong, “Về bản chất của tư duy” [The nature of thinking], Journal of Philosophy, Vol 1 (152), 2005.  

[3]“Tư duy” [Thinking], Glossary,ư_duy, retrieved 11/12/2017.  

[4]“Strategy”, Merriam Webster Dictionary,, retrieved 11/12/2017; “Strategy”, Oxford Dictionaries,, retrieved 11/12/2017.  

[5]Nina Bowman, “Four Ways to Improve your Strategic Thinking Skills”, Harvard Business Review,, 2016, retrieved 1/11/2017. 

[6]For example, China is now proposing the Belt and Road Initiative, while the US is spearheading the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.  

[7]Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1997).  

[8]The concept of “geospatial space" actually depends on political decisions, for example, without an incident Sri Lanka would have become a member of ASEAN; different specialized organizations also introduce different definitions of the Asia-Pacific region.  

[9]Fredrick Schuman first used the term "geo-strategic" in 1942 in his article “Let Us Learn Our Geopolitics”, Current History, Vol. 2, (1942): 161-165.  

[10]Fredrick Schuman first used the term "geo-strategic" in 1942 in his article “Let Us Learn Our Geopolitics”, Current History, Vol. 2, (1942): 161-165.  

[11]Nicholas J. Spykman, “Geography and Foreign Policy I”, The American Political Science Review, Los Angeles (1938).