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1648 and All That

by Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball reviews Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, by Charles Hill (Yale, 368 pp., $27.50)

What should you look for in a top-level diplomat? Brains? Yes. Discretion? Assuredly. An equable temper, or at least façade? Without doubt. (Surtout, said Talleyrand, who knew something about the matter, pas trop de zèle.) A certain cynicism about human nature? See under “Brains.” How about a deep acquaintance with the mountain peaks of literature, from Homer, Aeschylus, and Thucydides through Montaigne, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Milton, and Locke, and on to Madison, Schiller, Dickens, Bismarck, Dostoevsky, Kipling, and Hermann Broch? If Charles Hill, a career diplomat who served under secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, is right, this last qualification may be as important as all the rest, not least because, if truly accomplished, it argues possession of brains, discretion, etc.

“Grand Strategy,” Hill said in a recent interview, means knowing “where you’re coming from and where you want to go. . . . It’s a matter . . . of education.” On the evidence of his richly textured book Grand Strategies, I’d say “grand strategy” is strategy rooted — as, for example, was James Madison’s — in a firm and capacious understanding of human nature. And that understanding is best acquired by acquaintance with the imaginative resources of literary exploration. When Madison, in Federalist 10, observes that “the first object of government” is the protection of “the diversity in the faculties of men” for acquiring property, he is basing his analysis in an understanding of human nature that reaches back through Locke to the Greeks and beyond.

To employ a recent coinage, Hill, who in recent years has been a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a teacher at Yale, understands that statecraft is inseparable from soulcraft. The machinations of politicians and diplomats do not take place in a vacuum. They proceed not only by calculating interests and power relations but on a chessboard drawn up by the human heart, by competing visions of what Aristotle called “the good life for man.” The question “What kind of society should we endeavor to make?” cannot be answered, cannot even be seriously entertained, in the absence of the questions “Who are we?” and “What do we want?” And those questions, Hill argues, have been entertained in the most sustained and penetrating way in imaginative literature — understanding “literature” in the large sense that embraces the works of philosophers and historians as well as novelists and poets. In brief, as Hill writes in his prologue, “statecraft cannot be practiced in the absence of literary insight.”

Hill opens Grand Strategies with an account of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s visit to China in 1972. Summoned to Mao’s private residence, the two Americans were ushered into a book-lined study. “Manuscripts lined bookshelves along every wall,” Kissinger later wrote; “books covered the table and the floor, it looked more like the retreat of a scholar than the audience room of the all-powerful leader of the world’s most populous nation.” Novels, romances, and tales of adventure and derring-do competed with history books and the tomes of Marx, Lenin, and other approved scribes. A particular favorite of the Great Helmsman’s was a sprawling 18th-century romance called The Dream of the Red Chamber. Mao boasted of having read it five times. Why? What did he learn from it?

This touches upon the core question of Grand Strategies: “What are dictators, generals, and strategists looking for in the books they keep around them or carry with them?” Hill has two objects in this book. One is to provide a sort of “primer of statecraft and its essential ideas” by exploring their evolving expression in literature from the diplomatic mission Agamemnon sent to Achilles in Book 9 of the Iliad up through the imaginings of Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. How did we move from clan to state, from a culture of honor and revenge to one based on the supervening rule of law? Literature dramatizes the operation of those progressions.

Hill’s second object is to step back and provide a diagnosis of the fate of grand strategy and its precondition, the nation-state, in an age when the very concept of national sovereignty is under siege.

The most important date in Grand Strategies is 1648. It crops up again and again. You will remember from high school that 1648 marks the Treaty of Westphalia. You will also recall that the treaty concluded the Thirty Years’ War, the last real conflagration inspired by religious conflict until our recent problems with the followers of a Dark Ages buccaneer, mystic, and polygamist born in Mecca.

The Treaty of Westphalia not only marked a turning point in the way religious minorities would be treated in the civilized nations of the world, but also gave birth to the very idea of “civilized nations of the world,” not least by providing the fertile seeds out of which the modern idea of the nation-state grew. Grand Strategies provides a sort of literary taxonomy of the nation-state, tracing its prehistory and its development, and ending with its current challenges. “By the opening of the twenty-first century,” Hill writes, “the system [which had its birth in 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia] had deteriorated from within and was assaulted from without by yet another violent, ideological world-spanning movement. This book throws a new angle of light on the foundation stones of world order, their weakening condition, and what needs to be done.”

Grand Strategies is a didactic book, which is to say it is a book of a teacher as well as a professional diplomat. I suspect that, were you to have the privilege of sitting in on one of Hill’s classes at Yale, you would find yourself discussing some of the same books he discusses here and in pretty much the same terms. That speaks well of Yale, for the level of human engagement and literary intelligence on view in Grand Strategies is high. It’s not just that Charles Hill is smart about books. He is also smart about human beings. He is forthright and unafraid of challenging current ideological fashion. In a marvelous chapter called “America,” for example, he describes the exploration of the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries as “the most momentous event in world history,” which it was, though you are not supposed to say so.

All of which is to say that Grand Strategies is not only a literary compendium, it is an admonitory compendium of human folly and its antidotes. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom remarked that the purpose of education was to acquaint students with thoughtful alternative answers to the question “How should I live my life?” It is a project that, once undertaken, must be pursued (for it is always only pursued, never completed) by each person individually, for himself. But it cannot be undertaken successfully in isolation, by the individual alone. (One is reminded that “idiot” is Greek for “private,” “merely personal.”) That’s where Bloom’s “thoughtful alternatives” — what Matthew Arnold famously called “the best that has been thought and said” — come in. Education is entry to that community which relieves the individual of his idiocy.

In one sense, Grand Strategies is a book about memory, that is to say, it is an antidote to amnesia. By reminding us of the roads we have traveled, including the wrong turns we have taken (Hill has some sterling pages on the French Revolution and the awful consequences of that disaster), it endeavors to be an apotropaic remedy: “the restoration of literature as a tutor for statecraft.”

It’s a tall order. Hill drew upon Henry Kissinger at the beginning of his book, recounting Kissinger’s reaction to Mao’s library. He ends the book with another, very sobering, reflection by the former secretary of state. “We have,” Kissinger said recently,

entered a time of total change in human consciousness of how people look at the world. Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships. You have to come to grips with who you are. A leader needs these qualities. But now we learn from fragments of facts. . . . Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can instantly be called up on the computer. There is no context, no motive. Information is not knowledge. People are not readers but researchers, they float on the surface. This new thinking erases context. It disaggregates everything. All this makes strategic thinking about world order impossible to achieve.

Alexander the Great carried a copy of the Iliad with him on his eastern conquests. What do you suppose Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, or Wen Jiabao carry along on their travels?

– Mr. Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books, and co-publisher and co-editor of The New Criterion.

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