There really isn’t a great difference between the words stratagem and strategy. According to the sources I researched, it is a matter of age. Stratagem is the more ancient term, having come into use in English in the 15th century, and the more common strategy having emerged in the early 19th century.* In contemporary American English, the word strategy is the more common, it being easier to employ and less obscure.
Stratagem (often mis-spelled as strategem) refers to a plan one has to defeat an enemy or an opponent. I emphasize that word plan because it is important to the use of the word. Stratagem is not accidental or unintentional. It implies the construction of a method which will be implemented in order to achieve the final goal of defeat.
I am a casual chess player, having learned the game as a kid. I know the rules for moving chess objects around the board and occasionally I am successful in defeating an opponent. But there is another whole realm of chess in which there are stated patterns of play, all stemming from the first move. Someone who is skilled at chess knows those maneuvers by heart and knows the stratagem required to disrupt the pattern and substitute a defensive pattern. Professional chess players move rapidly, recognizing the pattern and then preparing to apply a defensive substitute pattern. This process can go back and forth throughout a game, all dependent upon the selection of stratagems to block the opponent and gain the upper hand.
In the military, a stratagem is a plan which involves more than simply attacking or responding to an attack. Brilliant military strategists employ comprehensive maneuvers which may take months or even years to accomplish. They involve complex patterns of diplomacy, intelligence and espionage, deployment of personnel, selection of appropriate arms, and constant analysis of the response of the enemy. Simplistic approaches to military action (i.e.: “just go in and bomb the Syrian leadership”) can bring about emergent problems which plague a nation for decades or centuries to come.
In the political realm, a stratagem is necessary in order to wage a political campaign with a purpose. If a campaign has no plan, but simply reacts to the opponent as issues arise, the voting public soon recognizes that there is no substance to the campaign. It signals a lack of structure which will carry over into the office being sought should the candidate be elected. Or, if the candidate simply raises issue after issue, revealing no planned “message” the voters begin to wonder if the candidate will have a consistency if elected. A well-planned campaign has a stratagem which reveals intelligent employment of a concise message, corroborating information and testimony, confidence in the process, and a clear indication of maturity and capability. Variation from “the message” and frequent side-steps into unrelated issues or defensive responses to off-message charges indicate a style of leadership which will be erratic and inconsistent.
Photo Credit: Bruce Duensing
*See Garner’s Modern American Usage , p. 575