The science of government: setting out the seven elements of statecraft

By on 09/01/2023 | Updated on 09/01/2023
Illustration of US State department press conference Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Much analysis of how government operates fails to bring together all the elements and dimensions of what government does and how the state works. Professor Colin Talbot has created a new initiative to bring together the full range of perspectives on his STATECRAFT forum. In this post, he sets out the key elements of statecraft and invites Global Government Forum readers to join the conversation

Statecraft, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations, is about managing relations between states to the advantage of one’s own country. This is exemplified in Margaret Thatcher’s 2002 book Statecraft – a reflection on her time in power that focuses on “the state’s role in the maintenance of international security”. And this is probably the most common current usage. But there are several others.

A much older tradition stems from Machiavelli and focuses more on how ‘the prince’ is to remain in power and defend his/her state against enemies internally and externally. Machiavelli famously and controversially defended the right of ‘princes’ to use whatever means were necessary for ‘reasons of state’. Much of Machiavelli’s seminal work, The Prince, however, is focused more on the internal maintenance of power.

Charles Anderson, in his 1977 book ‘Statecraft’, points out that in fact statecraft is an old north European word for ‘the science of government’ in the broadest sense. This is very similar to the approach adopted by Alasdair Roberts in his recent (2019) book Strategies for Governing, which also encompasses all aspects of the creation, maintenance, and adaptation of the state and political order – internal and external – at a macro level.

Studies of, and theories about, the state have become extremely fragmented in recent decades. Numerous disciplines, schools of thought, and communities of interest focus on many different aspects of states and governments.

In the early 20th century such studies were dominated by ‘public administration’, and although this still persists there are many parallel approaches: public policy; public management; state and nation building; development administration; etc.

Some political economists and political scientists even began, mainly in the 1990s, to doubt the viability of the state as an important institution. Discussions of ‘government’ were displaced by talk about ‘governance’ – the idea that the state was but one amongst many domestic and international actors and increasingly powerless. Books with titles like The End of the Nation State (1993), The Retreat of the State (1996) and The Hollow Crown (1997) appeared – but turned out to be somewhat premature.

The global financial crisis of 2007/8 and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 showed just how powerful states can still be. Also, the collapse of several ‘failed states’ has shown what can happen without strong states.

The term ‘statecraft’ can therefore be used as an all-embracing one for the study of states and governments and how to successfully build, run and adapt them, internally and externally.

It has the advantage of being both old and novel (in this proposed use) at the same time. It does not try to revive older approaches and make them dominant, for example ‘public administration’. And the ‘craft’ part of the term emphasises that statecraft is a work of science and art.

Statecraft in seven dimensions

What follows is a first attempt to develop a framework for the study of statecraft that is itself a strategic, or macro-level, approach but which can also integrate micro levels of analysis (Roberts, 2019, discusses these different levels).

This ‘7S’ model suggests that all seven of these elements of statecraft can be shaped by, and in turn shape, the way that government exercises its power.

Strategy is the overall purpose, direction and intent of the government and leaders of a state. The strategy may entail changes in any of the other six elements of statecraft. But it may also be shaped by them and the constraints they impose on what is possible. And strategy can be the subject of unforeseen events, of opposition and of changes of purpose by the government itself. It can be ‘deliberate’ or ‘emergent’ or a mixture of both.

Structure is about the overall shape of the state and its governing elements. Is it a representative democracy, or something else? Is there a separation of powers? Is it unified or federated? Is it (or some parts of it) resilient or fragile? How many layers of government are there? How are government and public services and agencies organised?

Scope is about the range of areas of society the state seeks to influence and to what degree and using what instruments? States in the 21st century generally seek to influence far larger areas of social activity than they did a century or so earlier. In particular regulatory scope now affects far broader areas of society. The recent pandemic broadened scope still further in most states, especially in all four ‘tools’ areas (see below). Many states have been criticised for trying to do too much, or sometimes too little.

Size has been a long debated issue for the past century, and especially in the past half-century. The 1970s and 80s saw the emergence of governments in many advanced countries who wanted to shrink their states – the UK, the US, Germany, and Japan, for example. And global institutions like the IMF sought to impose “structural adjustment” (state shrinkage) on many developing countries. One critical issue is how to measure the size of the state. One approach is to use four ‘tools of government’ – finance; authority; organisation; and informational.

Size can be measured using ‘tools of government’ and it is crucial to understand that scope and size are not the same things – e.g. ‘small’ governments can try to do many things.

Staff and skills are the critical resource for any state to function. Without sufficient and competent people working on its behalf the state itself is powerless. So how the state – government and public services and agencies – is staffed and skilled are a crucial set of issues. Across OECD countries around one in five employees work for the state. Every aspect of how these people are recruited, paid, disciplined and motivated is crucial to achieving government strategies.

Style is about how the government – political and ‘permanent’ – public leaders conduct themselves and seek to guide the government and its organisations, as well as society itself. At the extremes their style can be authoritarian and dictatorial, or democratic and representative. Even in representative democracies, styles can vary between majoritarian (winner takes all) and more consensus building approaches. Even within the same party of government, leaders can have very different style and cultures. As an example, in the UK, the styles of the last three Conservative prime ministers and some of their ministers seem to have marked a major departure from ministerial standards that have operated in British government for a long time and have been codified for about three decades, including under previous Conservative administrations.

Shared values are the core of a functioning state and governmental system. Without some shared values that bind a state and its society together, the fragility of the state increases. In democracies, for example, ‘losers consent’ is one important value – which we see being undermined in the US following the 2020 presidential election. What these shared values can be are many and various but without their being accepted by a high majority, states can fail. And do.

Want to learn more about the elements of statecraft and share news and insight on how governments and public servants can think wholistically about the state? Join Colin Talbot’s STATECRAFT Forum on LinkedIn

About Colin Talbot

Colin Talbot is emeritus professor of government at the University of Manchester and a research associate at the University of Cambridge


  1. Al Chukwuma Okoli says:

    This is a very insightful discourse, and a possible premise for the evolution of a theory of governance.

    I am working on a projec and hope to apprpriate some of these fine ideas to propose an agenda for a theory of or on security governance.

    Al Chukwuma Okoli
    Associate Professor, Federal University of Lafia, Nigeria.

  2. Justin Ale says:

    This a very insightful piece to understand about government and statecraft.
    I am a graduate student at the Asia Pacific University in Japan, and currently analyzing foreign policy engagements of China and the US in the Pacific Region, and I wish to make comparison of their policies, and this piece helps. Looking forward to more of the same.

    Justin Ale
    FSO (student)

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