Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945–1957
By Derek Leebaert
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018
612 pp. $35.00
Professor Daniel Marston is the Director of the Secretary of Defense Strategic Thinkers Program in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University.
Grand Improvisation is an engaging and well-researched dive into U.S. and British statecraft during the often overlooked power transition between the two nations following World War II. Derek Leebaert immediately sets out to challenge the common historical narrative that “the British Empire was too weak and too dispirited to continue as a global imperial power; thus, a confidently prosperous, well-armed America assumed leadership of the West.” Furthermore, he makes the case that “America’s biggest postwar difficulty—perhaps more than the Soviet threat—was the inability to say no to the British Empire. In effect, serious people in Washington believed that ‘no acceptable foreign policy’ was available to the United States if it was not aligned with its sprawling, problematic ally.” He continues, “History’s largest empire [British] was battling to maintain its standing.”
It is immediately apparent, in challenging the myths surrounding the birth of the modern global order, that the book’s greatest strength is the interweaving of diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and strategic history; the arguments are superbly organized and integrated throughout each chapter, and the thoroughness of the research is apparent. The discussion around NSC (National Security Council) 75 in particular highlights the close integration of the various themes running through the book in a clear and concise historical narrative.
Another strong aspect of Leebaert’s work was the presentation of instrumental characters of the era. While some readers of JFQ may be aware of the U.S. personalities, the author also introduces several key British figures, including Ernest Bevin and Malcolm MacDonald, who may not be as well known. He also introduces some overlooked Americans, such as John Snyder, President Harry Truman’s Secretary of the Treasury, who worked closely with the British but has been overshadowed by larger personalities in popular history. In the heavily “militarized” climate of contemporary strategic debate, JFQ readers will find value in the examination of the many civilian personalities on both sides of the Atlantic who worked closely with their military counterparts to make difficult decisions about crisis situations and policy debates.
A key focus of Grand Improvisation is the “role of personalities.” While both the British and Americans had various organizations dealing with economic and strategic decisionmaking, Leebaert’s research highlights how key personalities, not just of the prime minister or President, may shift decisionmaking. The book does an admirable job of analyzing the effect of various ministers and secretaries on decisionmaking, as well as the collaborations and tensions inherent to working with their opposite numbers across the Atlantic. This theme is an important one for future policymakers to consider because it illustrates not only how a given policy may be shaped more by personalities than by mechanisms of the state but also how debate and disagreement are a natural and potentially productive form of discourse between allies.
The meshing of key factors relevant to time and geography is another strength of Leebaert’s work. The core discussion of crises across the Atlantic, Middle East, Asia, and Africa is interwoven with the themes of diplomatic, strategic, and economic history. Each subchapter is organized in a fashion that truly reinforces and builds on the previous arguments and evidence, resulting in a compelling prism through which to view this moment of historical competition and transition among Great Powers.
One small quibble is the lack of a formal bibliography. While the notes are detailed and add another layer of context, the author must have consulted a considerable number of sources. The fact that these works have not been identified is a drawback for any serious reader interested in learning more about this period. I would recommend JFQ readers seek out and read some of the works Leebaert uses as counterarguments and evaluate how they stand up to his criticisms. Doing so will allow the reader to identify the strengths and deficiencies that are inherent in any book, as well as reinforce the reality that history is “gray,” rather than black and white. Excellent sources for an in-depth historical analysis include the British Documents on the End of Empire Project, as well as the archives of Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Office of the Historian at the Department of State. In its totality, I suspect readers will walk away from Grand Improvisation with a much richer understanding of a complex moment in history, one fraught with immense geostrategic change that strategists on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to adapt to.
Grand Improvisation challenges the notion of an acquiescent British global power giving way to a confident United States with a clear schematic of a new global order on the drawing board. What Leebaert does so successfully is challenge this myth with solid historical research, revealing the cogs of a relationship in transition—a transition in which U.S. strategists lacked a coherent grand strategy and British leadership fought to retain strategic independence. Challenging our common understanding about the early days of the modern liberal international order and the personalities attempting to navigate it allows us to assess and interpret the present more clearly as the global order again shifts between Great Powers. With that in mind, joint force officers, national security strategists, and historians should take a close look at Grand Improvisation. JFQ