News | Nov. 5, 2018

On Grand Strategy

By Peter Dombrowski Joint Force Quarterly 91

Download PDF
On Grand Strategy
By John Lewis Gaddis
Penguin Press, 2018
$26.00 384 pp.
ISBN: 978-1594203510

Reviewed by Peter Dombrowski
Dr. Peter Dombrowski holds an appointment as Professor of Strategy in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College.

On Grand Strategy
On Grand Strategy
On Grand Strategy
Photo By: Penguin Press
VIRIN: 181105-D-BD104-010

John Lewis Gaddis, deemed the “Dean of Cold War Historians” by a New York Times reviewer, has published yet another book, at least the 14th in a long and productive career. The latest, On Grand Strategy, however, will disappoint those hoping for another learned exposition on the American role in the post–World War II era. Rather, Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History and Director of the Brady Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University, has written a wide-ranging essay on strategic thinking that begins with the dawn of recorded history and concludes with the momentous challenges facing American leaders during World War II. As such, On Grand Strategy will bring joy to those whose professions depend on strategizing and anyone wanting to rummage through history seeking insights into how past strategists practiced their craft.

Gaddis takes an unusual approach. In effect, he has written a collective and selective history of various critical periods in history by focusing on individual leaders (like Pericles, Octavian, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt [FDR]); their contemporaries (Thucydides, Agrippa, and Harry Hopkins); their internal and external rivals (Archidamus II, Marc Antony, and Joseph Stalin); and, most unusually, strategists and intellectuals facing similar challenges but separated by time and space, as the primary focus of each chapter. For example, the late Oxford political theorist Isaiah Berlin appears throughout the book; Gaddis uses Berlin in order to examine the difference between strategic “hedgehogs” who know one big thing, and “foxes” who know many.

The reason for this approach is clearly thematic. It allows Gaddis to discuss strategic teaching and religion or judge which strategist was grander—but it can also be disorienting and a bit too idiosyncratic at times. Some readers may be left nonplussed, for example, by chapter 4, “Souls and States,” which begins with a few paragraphs on George F. Kennan’s distant relative, George Kennan, who explored and surveyed Siberia in the latter half of the 19th century. Gaddis uses the example of the senior Kennan to illustrate the theme of chapter 4—that “this fear of understanding roots religion in all great cultures which we know” and thereby introduces a discussion of Augustine (in the 4th century) and Machiavelli (in the 15th century), mixed with a smidgeon of Isaiah Berlin (in the 20th century). Yet Gaddis skillfully ransacks nearly two millennia of Western history to conclude that these strategists prescribed procedures, drew on history, developed “checklists,” and deliberately proportioned “aspirations to capabilities” (pp. 116–117). These are good and useful lessons, but following Gaddis’s logic through the epochs in history and figures might be hard going for all but the most broadly educated strategic thinkers. At its best, however, the mixing of perspectives by Gaddis provides a broad overview on the challenges and choices facing specific leaders/strategists in today’s world.

As enjoyable as it is to read On Grand Strategy, I could not help but feel misled by the book’s title. This is not, strictly speaking, about grand strategy in the way understood by most historians and political scientists researching and writing in the field today. With a few exceptions, most recent analyses of grand strategy recognize the limits of the so-called Great Man of History approach taken by scholars since Thomas Carlyle in 1840s. In the modern era, it is not enough to understand how a supreme leader seeks to reconcile national ends, ways, and means. It is not enough to understand the stratagems of leaders who also led armies in battle (for example, Xerxes), or who undertook personal diplomatic negotiations with their counterparts (for example, the Big Three of Winston Churchill, FDR, and Stalin). Rather, it is critical to recognize that even the best leaders are constrained by the institutions in which they are embedded. Since the rise of the modern nation-state and the decline of absolutist monarchs, even the brightest, most experienced, and most forceful chief executives must rely on the other organs of state for funds, intelligence, analysis, and, most of all, implementation.

This is true of most of the personalities surveyed by Gaddis. As Geoffrey Parker’s fantastic volume The Grand Strategy of Philip II (Yale University Press, 2000) makes clear, the Hapsburg emperor could convince himself that to fulfill his earthly mission of unifying Roman Catholic lands and stamping out infidels, he should single-handedly exercise command and control in the form of his own person. By the time of Abraham Lincoln or Otto von Bismarck, much less FDR, even their strategic wisdom required vast bureaucracies to implement—not only large armies and navies but also domestic agencies to raise funds and acquire the instruments necessary to wage both modern war and the peacetime preparations for war. Moreover, few of the modern leaders discussed in On Grand Strategy functioned without war councils, strategy development groups, or cabinets (constitutional or kitchen) to help them formulate strategies great and small.

Shortly before defining grand strategy as the “alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities,” Gaddis makes the case for common sense— “Common sense, in this sense, is like oxygen: the higher you go, the thinner it gets.”

To much criticism from both the political left and the right, President Barack Obama famously asserted that his first task as President was “Don’t do stupid shit”—a pungent shorthand for “use common sense.” It seems that a U.S. President with little formal training in strategic affairs had stumbled upon a truism Professor Gaddis developed over a lifetime of study. Rather than simply do something that conventional wisdom insisted was required, Obama tried to keep his options open, a strategy that Gaddis calls “pivoting.” The President took so long to make a decision, however, that he was openly accused of dithering. He pivoted to the point where he even changed his policies when he realized the implications of earlier decisions, such as when he decided not to enforce his proclaimed red line against Syria’s continued use of chemical agents.

President Obama might be classified as a proverbial “hedgehog” with an overarching idea that dissatisfied many professional national security scholars and politicians. He pursued what he understood to be common sense and applied Gaddis’s preferred “proportionality,” even in the face of many foreign policy crises and emerging geopolitical developments. He applied this strategy among his many advisors and the Department of Defense, as well.

As frustrating as that was to many observers, Mr. Obama was simply demonstrating the ability to be both fox and hedgehog by combining approaches. This flexibility, Gaddis claims, is the “strategist’s keys to victory.” JFQ