March 31, 2020 —
Boy on the Bridge: The Story of John Shalikashvili’s American Success
By Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice
528 pp. $22.99
Colonel Walter M. Hudson, USA, is an Assistant Professor and Deputy Chair of National Security and Economic Policy in the Eisenhower School of National Security and Resource Strategy at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.
Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice’s To Build a Better World begins in early 1989, with two nobodies: one, a dutiful KGB officer in Dresden; the other, a research scientist at the East German Central Institute of Physical Chemistry. Like the rest of the world, they do not know what will take place through the course of that pivotal year, or how the aftermath will one day lead these two unknowns, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, to the pinnacle of power.
It is a fitting introduction; how little do we really know about how events will unfold? The so-called experts certainly did not have it right. Well into the late 1980s, the accepted thinking among the intelligentsia was that the Cold War would continue into the foreseeable future and that the “American Century” was ending.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Talk of America’s decline was consigned to history’s ash heap and the American Century appeared unassailable. Things are hardly so sanguine now. Nonetheless, the end of the Cold War—with the free market system and the democratic order vindicated—still seems something a little short of miraculous. But perhaps it was not so. Human agency decisively intervened at every point. The end, as the authors make explicit in the book’s subtitle, was determined by choices made. Zelikow and Rice’s “analytical history of the major choices” zooms in on human beings and the choices they made during one of the 20th century’s great pivot points.
Zelikow and Rice have done a very fine, scholarly job. Of course, they write not only as scholars but also as actors who played parts in that history. This opens them up to some criticism—how can they be objective? They are, however, forthright about it and occasionally place themselves in the narrative, a seeming overt acknowledgment of this sort of participant history. And it is familiar scholarly territory for them, both having previously navigated this subject matter in their Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Harvard University Press, 1995). That was a good study, but still a case of near-first impression. Deeper scholarship, more declassification, and the passage of time provide for greater context and make the current title a much richer work.
Zelikow and Rice demonstrate impressive multiarchival, primary source research in a variety of languages to buttress their insights. This scholarship makes it a worthy addition to the growing body of literature examining the end of the Cold War, and, at a minimum, their book supplements traditional Cold War histories, such as the recent magisterial work of Odd Arne Westad, and earlier works by Cold War deans John Lewis Gaddis and Melvyn Leffler.
The book is also highly accessible and offers carefully sketched portraits of key world leaders grappling with the decisions of their time. The portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev is sympathetic yet ultimately unflattering. George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl, on the other hand, are highlighted as capable stewards and leaders, and, in Kohl’s case, the German chancellor is portrayed as a near-visionary statesman.
However, Zelikow and Rice do not only offer interesting character studies; the book is more fundamentally about strategic choices and the strategy of decisionmaking. Too often, histories that focus on so-called grand strategy appear as roadmaps to preordained destinations. The “blindness of hindsight,” as Zelikow and Rice observe, is powerful. Retrospection confers a sense of the inevitable on events. Historians discern patterns in policymakers’ decisions that operate in accordance with Alexander George’s famous phrase, “operational codes.” To do strategy is to have a mapped out “plan.” In senior Service college terms, having a strategy is to have determined “ends, ways, and means.”
But strategy is not simply planning; it is doing, which means strategist-statesmen are constantly choosing what to do. A strategy is often far less a set of rock-solid propositions that become long-range goals and more a series of tentative questions that require immediate answers. Zelikow and Rice’s excellent work offers a thorough appreciation of strategy as choice-making.
In order to unpack how strategic choices are made, they rely on “Vickers Triangle,” a formulation composed by the brilliant British polymath Geoffrey Vickers. This triangle is composed of values (what one cares about), realities (what the facts are), and actions (what one can actually do). Values, realities, and actions, as opposed to ends, ways, and means, are not linear; they are, in a Clausewitzian sense, relational. They constantly react and interact with each other to create new issues, new questions, and new understandings. They form a crucible from which judgments and choices, framed and reframed, are made in the urgency of the moment.
Thus, Zelikow and Rice frequently break in medias res and present “issue maps” that pose a large geopolitical strategic issue, such as “Ending the Cold War in Europe.” Below that issue, the authors posit broad themes such as “Security in Europe.” They then pose a series of questions that lead to choices such as “Should the U.S. keep troops in Europe or not?”
Such questions, sifted through the interaction of values, realities, and actions, had to be answered. Choices had to be made. This is what strategy formulation was during the end of the Cold War. Indeed, one could argue that this is what strategy always is: fork-in-the-road decisions made with incomplete and sometimes confusing data. Some leaders, such as Gorbachev, made decisions that tended to be more wrong than right; others, such as Bush and Kohl, made ones that tended to be more right than wrong. For policymakers, warfighters, and students of strategy throughout the joint force, the insights offered should be of immediate value.
The Cold War ended three decades ago. For a brief moment, history itself appeared to have ended in a way that signaled the ascent of American ideals worldwide, in perpetuity. That moment has passed, no doubt. Nonetheless, as Zelikow and Rice point out, we would do well to remember our triumphs as well as our defeats, and recall that both result from deliberate choices and not simply historical accidents. JFQ