Essays & Reviews

Bridging the “George Gap:” Recalling reflections by Peter Feaver and John Gaddis on Grand Strategy

Michael P. Noonan, Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on National Security, hosted an event at FPRI on  “Thinking about War and Peace: Intellectuals, Soldiers, and American Security Policy.”  The introduction to his talk observes:  “Debates about American foreign policy have always been heavily influenced by partisan political considerations, but most partisans attempt to justify their positions with reference to the work of security policy experts. The role of such experts, whether they reside in government agencies, universities, think tanks, or simply ride the circuit between them, has always been a subject of controversy. Are they outsiders or insiders? What difference should that make in evaluating the advice they provide?”

As we have also noted, War on the Rocks is running a series, “The Schoolhouse,” which is designed “to explore and debate the state of advanced graduate education in international affairs” – specifically, taking up Alexander George’s assessment two decades ago in Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy, which identified a growing divide between academics and policymakers interested in foreign policy and international affairs.  The most recent contribution in this series was by Kathleen Hicks, Senior Vice President, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

For those of us with an interest in the classics of strategy and diplomacy, we face a particular challenge: how can historical documents, speeches and memoirs – many of them considered musty, some long forgotten – contribute, directly or indirectly, to intelligent discourse about policy, much less to policy-making itself?  Compared, for instance, to wisdom purveyed by the latest trendy theory; or to the frequent insistence that in the real world, the best we can do is pragmatically muddle through.  As Harold W. Rood once wrote:

International relations is an arena where politics is exercised by nations and other entities to accomplish goals and secure interests. The study of politics in that arena is a study of history: what has happened, how it came to happen with its consequences and therefore a guide to what can happen. The 20th Century so recently passed, provides vivid illustrations and experience of the exercise of politics whose consequences were monumental and painful and sometimes so decisive as to seem irreversible, or nearly so. Yet the great clashes of will that characterized the 20th century did not originate the day before the century began but years and centuries before. What happened yesterday, is happening now and is about to happen can be better understood through the study of history.

The classics of strategy and diplomacy document the experience of those centuries, by the most astute thinkers of their times, and hence beyond time.  To be sure, they do not always agree with one another about the meaning of those experiences – and we do not always agree amongst ourselves about what they meant (see the ongoing debates over Clausewitz, for instance, even among those who consider themselves “Clausewitzians.”)  And, as Churchill noted repeatedly, sound strategy is not a cookbook.  But these arguments, at various levels, themselves point us to consider the most important things.

Perhaps this is special pleading.  In any case, intentionally or not, classic works and themes often enter the public sphere and shape the policy debate and even policy itself.  One of the most recent examples is the Thucydidean Trap, introduced by Harvard’s Graham Allison (who has been both an academic and a policy practitioner). I suppose at a minimum, those who study the classics ought to avoid malpractice when using them to make a practical point, as well as introducing them into scholarly literature.  But we ought to aspire to do better than that, including combatting mistaken notions about what the Classics do, and do not, teach.

In any case, the current interest in overcoming the “George Gap” brought to mind some reflections from Peter Feaver (another scholar-practitioner) in 2009, as he was establishing the American Grand Strategy Program at Duke.  Grand strategy is perhaps the closest conceptual approximation of what the Classics project seeks to achieve.  One can make the argument that its first and best place is in the academy – to break down ever-growing walls of scholarly specialization, and to overcome the disparagement of the study of history, particularly the history of conflict.  These walls are also the bane of a sensible, integrated, and adaptable approach to national policy. Feaver wrote:

Grand strategy blends the disciplines of history (what happened and why?), political science (what underlying patterns and causal mechanisms are at work?), public policy (how well did it work and how could it be done better?), and economics (how are national resources produced and protected?). Students are especially drawn to grand strategy because it makes history more relevant, political science more concrete, public policy more broadly contextualized, and economics more security-oriented.

Indeed, the study of grand strategy may require a revolution of sorts in the way that we educate students. That, at least, is the thesis of a talk given by John Gaddis at Duke (information available here). He argues, persuasively to my ears, that grand strategy is a useful way of blending academic history, academic political science, and the real-world experience of practitioners. . . . we need to do a better job of training the next generation to engage critically in the hard work of designing, implementing, and revising American grand strategy.

If I understand Feaver and Gaddis correctly, it is not so much that the scholar should be issuing grand strategic wisdom to the President from his ivory tower, or that professional academic experts need populate every office in the national security bureaucracy.  (It is interesting, as an aside, that many academics who enter government seem to follow lines of policy that they rejected while out of government; but then return seemingly un-wiser for the experience. But perhaps that is unfair.)  Nor need we expect that the Secretary of State will reach for his or her well-thumbed copy of Thucydides before embarking on a foreign trip (although it is said that Allen Dulles, the CIA Director, had a well-thumbed copy of Kipling’s novel, Kim, on his bedtable.)

It is rather that we encourage the expectation that those students with aspirations for serious careers in government, the military, business, and the media, will have engaged Thucydides (and Adam Smith and Mahan and Kennan), even while getting out in the real world to see how it actually works, as Duke and Gaddis’ Yale program do.  The best and brightest will be naturally attracted to study grand strategy (and to the Classics), and to approach the world in that way, if they are given the opportunity to do so.  At the very least, outside commentary upon, and criticism of, government policies will be much better informed.