The War Against Decline & Fall

I’ve always admired Elliot Cohen for his principled realism.  His last book ‘The Big Stick:  the limits of soft power & the necessity of military force” mentioned how he thought the concept of grand strategy revealed an exhausted, ameliorated vocabulary for statecraft. His idea was to repudiate a concept that could not account for the unanchored wiles of domestic policy, 24 hours news cycles and a return to tribalism as a dominant ethos animating our Republic.  The antecedents of grand strategy require a refined social, political, demographic and public homogenization that no longer exists for our polity.

True enough.  But I could not reconcile Dr. Cohen’s deft reasoning with John Lewis Gaddis’ “On Grand Strategy”, for Gaddis begins his magnum opus from within the purview of the ethics of individual leadership.  By exploring an interior relation between virtue and performance, Gaddis’ view of applied ethics is nothing less than statesmanship.

Exploring facets of wisdom, temperament and courage, Gaddis believes like John Paul II and Churchill, that enduring empires can be wrought from effort.  This strand of ancient thought culminated in Lincoln but has its finest aperture in Thucydides.

Using Isaiah Berlin’s hermeneutic of comparative advantage in hedgehogs or foxes, failure for great commanders often meant succumbing to how hedgehogs work from didactic doctrine or unrealistic objectives; having never learned to adapt, they fail destroying their empires.

What did US military have re-confirmed by their engagement with Arabs after 9-11?  Those that adapt win.

What does the fox know that the hedgehog doesn’t?  The fox knows to adapt tactics to the circumstances of changing variables they cannot control; be it geography, weather, technology or public support.  Yes, great commanders set priorities, husband their resources and work efficiently.  They also must do what authoritarians don’t:  manage difficult alliances.  Their are reasons why civil-military relations remains a difficult hidebound practice for democracies; a hindrance authoritarians don’t deal with.

Gaddis sources the advantages of the fox over hedgehogs by revealing how Octavian, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Queen Elizabeth worked advantages that built an Imperium.

Gaddis provides ample reflection that a curriculum should house history, philosophy and literature to inform foreign policy.  This is Arnold Toynbee writ large.

Make no mistake, Gaddis aims to take down the overt positivism that underwrites contemporary international relations:  “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.”

For both Toynbee and Gaddis, theorists become failed hedgehogs while foxes are born by studying geopolitics.  Both men openly acknowledge the training needed for statecraft requires training in making decisions; in the grasping of intangibles; in mediated experience that philosophy, theology and literature hold.

Gaddis concludes with the following:

“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.'”

Gaddis picks up where Toynbee left his gauntlet. We’re privileged to have a writer alive prepared to address the sine-qua-non of political life itself:  ethics in action.


About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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