Tuesday, April 10, 2018

John Lewis Gaddis and the Mal-Education of Strategy

Trying to understand strategy should make your mind hurt. In his latest book, On Grand Strategy, it seems that John Lewis Gaddis is out to do just that.

From Aaron Maclean's review in The Weekly Standard, it appears Gaddis does not disappoint. I greatly enjoyed Gaddis's book on George F. Kennan, but this looks like a heavier load.

Take time to read full review, but here is a taste on the very wide aperture the author takes to the discussion, opening up on what it takes to get strategy right, and why those we trust to form it seem to be coming up short.
A gap has opened between the study of history and the construction of theory, both of which are needed if ends are to be aligned with means. Historians, knowing that their field rewards specialized research, tend to avoid the generalizations upon which theories depend: they thereby deny complexity the simplicities that guide us through it. Theorists, keen to be seen as social "scientists," seek "reproducibility" in results: that replaces complexity with simplicity in the pursuit of predictability. Both communities neglect relationships between the general and the particular—between universal and local knowledge—that nurture strategic thinking. And both, as if to add opacity to this insufficiency, too often write badly.
As the review notes, there is a problem in academia - one we've discussed often here on on Midrats. It is a problem of narcissistic curiosity; when one is only interested in what happened in your lifetime or that of your parents.
Moreover, young people interested in geopolitics are very likely to get their first meaningful exposure to the subject not from a history department or a classics-oriented course in grand strategy like the one at Yale, but from an introductory course in international relations. A yet-unpublished study by the Alexander Hamilton Society—an organization dedicated to promoting debate on the first principles and contemporary dilemmas of American foreign policy—reviews the syllabi of such courses at the 10 universities atop the 2017 U.S. News & World Reportrankings and finds that of the most commonly assigned readings, only one author (Thucydides) was not born in the 20th century; the other nine are contemporary or near-contemporary political scientists of the likes of John Mearsheimer and Robert Jervis. Such a pedagogical approach implies that our knowledge of statecraft, like our knowledge of materials science or of how to treat cancer, is steadily accumulating. Each generation of theorists will know more, or at least will know better, than the last.
On the evidence of the results of the last 25 years of American foreign policy, it seems as though the question of how to educate strategists ought to be acute for us. In particular, Gaddis's general hostility toward dogmatism of any variety deserves attention: He gets a great deal of mileage out of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's glittering and somewhat glib aphorisms, that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." For Gaddis, the strategic value of such an observation is the suggestion that one might take "the best from contradictory approaches while rejecting the worst."

Fitzgerald's remark ultimately leads Gaddis to the observation that terrible strategic dilemmas can only be resolved by "stretching them over time. We seek certain things now, put off others until later, and regard still others as unattainable." The American project of self-government began with a compromise between the high moral principle of the Declaration of Independence and the barbarity of slavery, a dilemma that took a century to resolve; we redressed the balance of power in Eurasia three times in the last century, and on two of those occasions succeeded through cooperation with an ideologically hostile power (with Stalin to defeat fascism; with Mao and his successors to defeat the Soviet Union). Each resolved dilemma, each geopolitical success, vindicated the reputation of our bold project of self-rule. Acting creatively within such tensions—between the dreams of "idealism" and the demands of "realism"—is the very stuff of the American approach to strategy. Or as Gaddis puts it, quoting Isaiah Berlin, "Perhaps there are other worlds in which all principles are harmonized, but 'it is on earth that we live, and it is here that we must believe and act.'"
I've got to pick this up.

Note, if you will, the overview at the opening of the article. In a subtle way it reminds those in elder-cohort GenX and older something we remember from our youth, and what younger may not realize; there were and are academics that regret that the West won the Cold War. Even while vast parts of the globe were covered with blood-red Soviet domination, they made excuses. They never felt the joy of the end of the Cold War. They acted like, and it may be true, their side lost. The halls of our institutions of higher learning are worm-eaten with blood-soaked communist apologists. They hate people like Gaddis - which should make you like him even more.

Remember, The Killing Fields' Comrade Phat was a college professor.

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