The Agenda

Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim on the Idea of Grand Strategy

Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim have an essay in The Nation on the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale, which has been led by the historians John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy and the former diplomat Charles Hill for the last decade. I’ve been told that the leadership of the program is about to change, and it will be interesting to see if its distinctiveness declines over time. For the most part, the essay is concerned with what the authors take to be a fundamental misapprehension at the heart of what we might call the grand strategy project:

Yale’s grand strategists openly long for the intellectual certainties they associate with the cold war, when the Soviet threat made strategy seem indispensable. Grand strategy is “endangered,” Gaddis laments, “for in the absence of sufficiently grave threats to concentrate our minds, there are insufficient incentives to think in these terms.” But then why think in those terms if the conditions that seem to have called for them no longer exist? Gaddis and company are remarkably untroubled by the possibility that the incessant push to strategize grandly might construct the threats it seeks to meet. Strategy likes enemies. It has traditionally addressed military affairs because war is an inherently adversarial condition and tends to produce a simpler range of outcomes than do most other areas of life. Kennedy, following Liddell Hart, suggests that the Clausewitzian dictum that “war is a continuation of politics” implies the opposite, but grand strategy turns Clausewitz on its head, squeezing all of politics into an analytical method best suited for war. It assumes that a grand strategy is necessary all the time, whatever the circumstances. That’s why not having a grand strategy becomes a sin. Yet is there a single, overarching purpose, much less strategy, around which a world power should orient everything it does? Certainly, if an all-consuming threat truly exists, but otherwise grand strategy becomes a recipe for simplifying the world and magnifying threats—in which case the best “grand strategy” may be no grand strategy. [Emphasis added]

Despite some low-level snark in the opening paragraphs, and the fact that the essay really should have been built around a discussion of Gaddis and Kennan as such rather than about Yale’s evolving grand strategy program, I found Meaney and Wertheim’s essay very insightful.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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