A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian offers a capacious analysis of how leaders make strategic decisions.
Drawing on a yearlong “Grand Strategy” course he teaches to Yale undergraduates, Gaddis (History/Yale Univ.; George F. Kennan: An American Life, 2011, etc.), the recipient of a National Humanities Medal in 2005, analyzes the processes and complexities involved in devising grand strategies: “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” The adjective “grand,” he adds, has to do with “what’s at stake,” which is why grand strategies traditionally have been associated “with the planning and fighting of wars.” Arguing that strategic leaders need to be flexible, creative, and observant, the author cites political theorist and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who popularized a memorable line from an ancient Greek poet: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” That big thing—an obsessive idea or abstract ideal—may make a leader appear decisive but is likely to prevent innovation. “Assuming stability is one of the ways ruins get made,” Gaddis writes. “Resilience accommodates the unexpected.” Elizabeth I, whom he admires, defied traditional expectations by “reigning without marrying, tolerating (within limits) religious differences, and letting a language gloriously grow.” Rather than impose a grand design, she responded deftly to her changing world. Not so Xerxes and Napoleon, who mounted campaigns that failed because of limited “peripheral vision” blinding them to the variables of “landscapes, logistics, climates, the morale of their troops, and the strategies of their enemies.” Abraham Lincoln, too, merits Gaddis’ admiration: self-taught and astoundingly intuitive, Lincoln “managed polarities: they didn’t manage him.” The author returns often to Tolstoy and Carl von Clausewitz, both of whom respect theory and practice “without enslaving themselves to either.” Abstraction and specificity “reinforce each other, but never in predetermined proportions.” Both writers, Gaddis argues, considered the contradictions and irony of history with “the amplitude, imagination, and honesty” that makes them “the grandest of strategists.”
A lively, erudite study of the past in service of the future.