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?