This article was written on 07 Nov 2018, and is filled under Books, Literature, Politics, Theory.

Grand Strategy and Curricular Politics: Book Review–John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy

John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, New York, Penguin Press, 2018, xi-xiv, 368 pp.

Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in no small part because the fascist-conservative alliances on the right faced division and disarray on the left. The Catholic parties . . . liberal moderates, Social Democrats, and Communists did not cooperate effectively in defense of democracy. In Germany this reached the absurd extreme of the Communists underestimating the Nazis as a transitory challenge while focusing on the Social Democrats—dubbed the “red fascists”—as the true long-term threat to Communist triumph. (Christopher R. Browning, “The Suffocation of Democracy,” New York Review, October 25, 2018).

And when, in the spring of that year, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg accomplished in three months what the kaiser’s armies hadn’t in four years . . . it looked as though the ultimate Mackinder-Crowe nightmare had arrived: a single “incubus” controlling a super-continent. . . .

Roosevelt, though, remained calm. He knew that Stalin had long seen Hitler as a capitalist-imperialist, and that Hitler had long seen Stalin as an agent of the global Jewish conspiracy. Germany’s military successes in the west, FDR suspected, had surprised the Soviet dictator, who imagined that they might be sought next. The authoritarians’ respect for one another, therefore, couldn’t be deep and wouldn’t be durable. . . . And so Roosevelt left a door open for Stalin whenever he was ready to walk through it. Somewhat as Salisbury had done, four decades earlier, for the Americans. (John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, 284).

In a single powerful gesture, John Lewis Gaddis’s On Grand Strategy both culminates a U.S. philosophy of global prominence and responsibility within a framework of unprecedented historical strategy, savoir faire, exuberance, and flexibility; and at the same time, it signals, by contrast, the nation’s quite recent retreat from the high-water marks it established. In keeping with the resourcefulness that it attributes to the world’s most strategic, decisive, and consequential leaders, from Octavian to Lincoln and FDR, On Grand Strategy is a multi-purpose treatise—one taking exemplary care to fulfill each of the diverse tasks it has assigned itself. It is at once: 1) a cumulative history of notable political leadership. In Gaddis’s parlance, this crucial quality is conflated with demonstrable facility in strategic decision-making and action. If there is one cognitive capability seeming to characterize those historical figures who against all odds sustained social stability amid crisis, snatched victory (or at least persistence) from the jaws of defeat, it is a dialectical one: simultaneously entertaining the mutually opposed positions defining ally and foe and establishing the give and take of counterpoised options. Yet the specter of Hegel hovers over this authoritative work in other ways as well: for all that Gaddis extols such qualities as spontaneity, flexibility, realism, deferral (as in patience), and benign subterfuge on the part of watershed Western leaders, all admirable qualities in their own right, these headliners stride across Gaddis’s stage in the guise of the welthistorische Menschen who determine the course of human affairs.

2) Yet On Grand Strategy also offers a synoptic overview of strategy both as a constellation of attitudes and approaches and as a mindset. Strategic acuity, as it emerges from a vast swathe of Western history that Gaddis commands with extraordinary erudition, includes the ability to resolve capabilities with aspirations; a rapid, preternatural grasp of the complexities attending a rapidly emerging crisis; enough spontaneity to implement ambient insights; enough humility to acknowledge being overmatched and to withdraw when the situation demands it; coordinating long-term strategy with often sudden twists in public opinion.

3) But also, completing the triadic logic of Hegelian struggle, On Grand Strategy offers itself as a theoretical motor or compendium summating and illuminating the monuments of good and bad strategy that it places on display. Within this tissue of the unfolding narrative, Isaiah Berlin plays a prepossessing role—both as the circus-master to the foxes and hedgehogs that exemplify counterpoised tendencies in cognitive processing of tremendous consequence to strategic decisions as to cultural exegesis; and, as an incisive post-War transplant to the U.S. In the parlance of contemporary cyber-culture, hedgehogs “chunk”: they are gifted in simplifying vast bodies of factors and data in accordance with theoretical operating systems of greater or lesser applicability. Foxes are, rather, both “connoisseurs of chaos” and masters at improvisation within the turbulence of real time. (Berlin’s fox may have a great deal of Benjamin’s collector and flâneur about her; his hedgehog deploys something of an allegorical sensibility.)

Gaddis is adept at placing the minds and actions of major historical Western leaders under the aura of the fox or her counter intellectual icon. These totems may well furnish useful shorthand for contemporary students studying history and preparing for their own leadership positions, civilian and military. During a cultural epoch still very much under “the turn to language,” with a corresponding emphasis on the nature of the information, data, codes, programs, and media that leaders of differing prominence process and deploy in their decision-making, Berlin’s animal mascots for cognitive process, on a par with Freud’s ego, id, and superego, are venerable intellectual homunculi.

Gaddis’s definitive retrospective mobilizes a treasure-trove of Western classics behind its inventory of salutary strategic attitudes, particularly as personified by leaders on a par with Elizabeth I, John Adams, George Canning, Lincoln, and the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. Those classics showcasing extremes of successful and unfortunate strategy in effect form a Great Books curriculum of enduring Western values. To the degree that On Grand Strategy deliberates more on the values undergirding exceptional leadership than the thinking and logistics that made for successful military and diplomatic campaigns, its title may frustrate expectations from certain quarters. Grand Strategy is as much a Lebensweise, a prevailing life-philosophy as it is a set of successful procedures and precautions. The ways of the fox and the hedgehog will produce different readouts from a reading list whose notable entries include Thucydides, St. Augustine, The Prince, Hamlet, The Federalist Papers, Clausewitz’s On War, and War and Peace.

In the broadest sense, the proclivities and attributes that Gaddis gathers under the rubric of Grand Strategy correspond to what cognitive scientists and cyberneticists mean by intelligence. The great historical triumphs of strategy were moments of lucid analysis on the part of leaders who in turn successfully managed to implement their preternatural insight. The ongoing success of U.S. society as a democratic experiment and as a socio-cultural system fostering invention and innovation is contingent on smart leadership, executives who command the skillset of Grand Strategy. Given the full range of possibility, we want the U.S. Armed Forces under the command of admirals and generals versed in the competences grouped under the rubric of Grand Strategy.

And yet, to the degree that On Grand Strategy mobilizes and predicates an entire curriculum, a rather traditional one at that, the volume willy-nilly interjects itself into the contemporary culture wars. Especially when we have still not begun to assimilate the long-term impact and implications of cybernetic tools and media upon cognition, social skills and interaction, and, just as importantly, upon literate and analytical capability. At a juncture when, by dint of relatively recent phenomena such as globalization and the growing hegemony of corporate entities, wired by the World Wide Web and undergirded by cyber-technology, elite higher education increasingly delegates itself to the training of a global class of managers and entrepreneurs. Summer internships and study abroad—as an early initiation into global leadership roles—have become quite common, even de rigeur, at schools in the top echelon, some of which have established, strategically, branch-campuses abroad. In such a climate, particularly at institutions claiming iconic status, the curriculum assembled and implied by Gaddis’s study seems to answer multiple challenges and competing needs.

The story of On Grand Strategy is, oddly, the story of Yale, Columbia, and their peer institutions: under current conditions they may find themselves compelled to seek the high ground, shorthand, and assurance of a curriculum isolating and inculcating traditional leadership values. This at the expense of one coping with the plurality and simultaneity of the linguistic, media, and cultural operating systems not only defining students’ everyday experience but the very limits of their competence and knowledge. Gaddis’s exemplary strategist, beleaguered in real time, may indeed be, as he asserts, a well-read fox; but the edifice demanded by Grand Strategy is the primary residence of the Grand Porcupine.

A curriculum oriented to great leaders who somehow managed to get it right at the interstice where concepts, ideology, and attitudes collide into practicalities and logistics is, above all, conceptual, historical, and instrumental. A potential dark side to Great Books in 2018 emerges to Jason Stanley in conjunction with ambient fascism’s self-fashioning in retrospective historical myths. His comment on right-wing ideologues such as Robert Pope, who promulgate Great Books curricula, in his recent How Fascism Works,[1] runs as follows: “The priorities here make sense that when one realizes that in antidemocratic systems, the function of education is to produce obedient citizens structurally obliged to enter the workforce without bargaining power, and ideologically trained to think that the dominant group represents history’s greatest civilizational forces” (49). This drift is in stark contrast to programs of study demanding prior acquisition of various languages (national languages, but also grammar, rhetoric, and computer languages) in attaining facility in the deployment of codes, scripts, and operating languages. Yet to this long-time curriculum planner, in 2018, building bridges between the disciplines, media, scripts, codes and operating languages between which we shuttle countless times a day takes marked precedence, in General Education, over the tried, if also limber, acute, and versatile posture of the Grand Strategist.

In 2018, it is equally inconceivable to imagine such a Core Discipline as Grand Strategy completely entrenched in the history, culture, and lore of the West. The art of strategy is as Chinese, African, Islamic, Indian, and indigenous as it is Euro-American and Russian. Excellent strategist that he is, Gaddis preempts this limitation and its critique through significant allusion to Sun Tzu and his The Art of War. This is an inevitable inclusion, and it marks the first step in an overall program of cultural outreach urgently needed by Great Books programs at the traditional universities and specifically by the one embedded in On Grand Strategy. And yet the wisdom that Sun Tzu can be fed into is first and foremost a venerable Western doxa. “Simplicity, he shows, coexists with complexity” (65). “But when simplicities mix, complexities become endless” (66). Gaddis aptly frames strategy, in Sun Tzu’s rendition, as a combinatorial matrix of options, from which the military general must derive the path of acting “expediently in accordance with what is advantageous” (65). Yet the 5-based elemental system to which Sun Tzu refers in an extended quote sutured in by Gaddis is the very matrix of Chinese scientific thought. It is the backbone of a vast analogical architecture lending coherence to virtually all human conditions (times of day; seasons of the year; organs of the body; flavors; emotional dispositions, to name a few)—interweaving them in one vast feedback loop. Future renditions of Great Books sequences such as are embedded in On Great Strategy will need to spur students to experience alternate civilizations in terms of their own alterity—even though alien and distinct.

Gaddis’s volume enters the cultural marketplace at a moment of political polarization in the U.S. and elsewhere that simply could not have been foretold during the decades over which Grand Strategy evolved. While not all great historical leaders referenced in the book were democratic, Grand Strategy, as Gaddis calibrates it, is plainly in the service of democratic societies. Were this not the case, figures such as John Adams, Lincoln, and FDR would not play such preeminent roles. In keeping with several authoritative recent studies of the Third Reich, Christopher R. Browning’s lead article in the October 25, 2018 number of the New York Review, cited at the head of this review, reminds us of how deleterious to the sustainability of democracy the splintering of fundamentally democratic political parties and other agencies (e.g. trade unions, professional associations) can be.

Browning’s article is an SOS note launched in its bottle on the eve of midterm U.S. elections whose impact will signal either the entrenchment of recent totalitarian trends or a sea change. The current volatile environment for public deliberation is indeed sundered between the forces of fragmentation and “bubbling” at the periphery and encomia such as Browning’s for the maintenance of coalition between democratically oriented social institutions and forces. We find ourselves negotiating a double bind (or what Derrida might call a “play”) between centrifugal and centripetal dispositions on the political front.

There are aspects of Gaddis’s elaboration of Grand Strategy, how shall I put this?–that rub me, as a longtime deconstructionist, the wrong way: its top-down purview, its deep commitment to specifically Western values, its orientation to Great Men, the highly traditional curriculum that it predicates. On Grand Strategy may raise the hackles of readers of several stripes who fancy themselves as progressive or positioned somewhere on the Left, whether from a Marxist, feminist, aestheticist, or deconstructionist point of view. Yet there is no doubting that Grand Strategy is deployed in the interest of societies committed to the ambient conflict and turbulence prevailing in democratic political systems. Gaddis’ book sustains its own internal democracy: it touts the door FDR leaves open to Stalin as one among many strategic triumphs. Those primed for wholesale dismissal of Gaddis’ accrued wisdom need to ponder–particularly at the present juncture–how productive it became for the German Communists and Social Democrats, in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, to be at one another’s throats.

[1] Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works; The Politics of Us and Them (New York: Random House, 2018).

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