On Grand Strategy Cover

On Grand Strategy

John Lewis Gaddis

Penguin Press, New York, 2018, 384 pages

Book Review published on: June 19, 2020

John Lewis Gaddis teaches classes in Cold War history and grand strategy at Yale University. His prior books range from the origins of the Cold War and containment to American security and surprise attack. In On Grand Strategy, Gaddis distills a semester’s seminar on that topic into an easily readable and enlightening work for those interested in strategy’s nexus to global affairs, military history, political science, and security studies. Readers will find it relevant, beneficial, and an excellent addition to their bookshelf.

The author artfully weaves historical vignettes, provides commentary, and classifies actors to educate the reader. For the latter, Gaddis employs Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between “foxes” and “hedgehogs” to compare and contrast strategic leaders from antiquity to World War II and their successes and failures. Berlin’s essay expounds on a line from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus of Parus (680-645 BC) who wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin elaborates that foxes pursue many ends, often unrelated and perhaps contradictory; they are able to better survive in changing environments where abandoning ineffective and inefficient ideas provides advantages. In contrast, hedgehogs relate everything to a central vision or overarching theory; they are better able to thrive in static environments that reward tried and true formulas. Gaddis recognizes that these are simplistic distinctions, yet deftly exploits them to juxtapose historically contemporaneous leaders and their decisions.

Gaddis commences in 480 BC with the Persian King of Kings Xerxes the Great standing at the Hellespont, the modern-day Dardanelles, on the peninsula that contains Gallipoli. There, he confers with his uncle and advisor Artabanus as they watch soldiers march across the bridges to invade Greece. The king seeks to avenge the defeat of his father Cyrus ten years prior, conquer the Greeks, and expand the empire. His uncle warns of the lack of harbors for the resupply of ships, the scarcity of arable land to forage, and the effectiveness of Greek soldiers and sailors. Herodotus’ account of Artabanus and Xerxes reveals that the advisor is a fox, aware of and responsive to the environment and what could go wrong, and the king is a hedgehog, driven to reshape the environment to achieve his vision.

This vignette introduces Gaddis’s concept of grand strategy. On page twenty-one, he defines this as “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” “Grand” encompasses what is at stake, or in the terms of operational design, the desired “end state.” It occurs across the time, scale, and space as defined by the beholder or designer. He articulates that while “grand strategy” typically involves nations at war, the concepts involved permit application by enterprises, individuals, and organizations.

The professor provides a panoply of examples across time. Gaddis examines the strategic successes and failures of the city states and leaders of Sparta and Athens, from their cooperation against the Persians through their conflict in the Peloponnesian War. He then juxtaposes the character and actions of Caesar Octavian Augustus with that of Mark Antony. Jumping to the mid-sixteenth century, Gaddis contrasts England’s Queen Elizabeth with Spain’s Phillip II. She resembles the fox that nationalized English Catholicism to deny papal authority, delegated power, resisted unnecessary expenditures, and avoided the aspirations of France and Spain. Conversely, Phillip II represents the hedgehog who sought the universality of Catholicism, a crusade against Canterbury, micromanaged a macrononcontiguous empire, and allowed his aspirations to exceed his capabilities.

The book offers numerous other examples. John Quincy Adams was the hedgehog president who became a fox congressmen. The “undereducated” yet wise President Abraham Lincoln intuited Carl von Clausewitz’s maxim that war is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” After achieving a military victory, this lanky fox asserts that “war powers” can make formerly “unconstitutional” actions “constitutional.” Otto von Bismark secured German interests, then harmonized them with other nation states to diffuse potential conflict. In contrast, his successors had greater appetites that upset the balance of power. In the early twentieth century, Gaddis notes how nations permitted their aspirations to exceed their capabilities, resulting in the First World War; and Vladimir Lenin exploited Western capitalists’ interest in short-term gains. They invested in and financed the Soviet Union to the detriment of its long-term interests.

On Grand Strategy addresses strategy through the lens of “aspirations” and “capabilities.” Those versed in national security strategy will perceive the book’s lens to encompass the terms “ends” and “means.” This book addresses two-thirds of Art Lykke’s U.S. Army War College model that strategy balances “ends, ways, and means.” The third element of that model that appears absent in the book is “ways.” It represents the methods of “how to accomplish” the ends with the means available, often written as verbs. Gaddis focuses on the linkage between aspirations with capabilities, casually mentioning how leaders attempted to achieve their goals. Creative ways may leverage existing capabilities to achieve more aspirations, and expanding means may permit more ends; but there are limits. He posits that strategic failures arise predominately from the mismatch of capabilities and aspirations, not the choice of methods, policies, or ways employed. Returning to his two categories, Gaddis puns a Jane Austin title and concludes strategic success requires “sense and sensibility.” The successful strategic leader requires a hedgehog’s capacity to perceive a vision, overarching purpose, compass, or “end state,” while also having the fox’s capacity to change ways, employ new means, prioritize aspirations, and sometimes sacrifice one end to achieve another.

Book Review written by: Robert D. Spessert, Fort Gordon, Georgia