Master Plan

An Interview with John Lewis Gaddis

The Greek poet Archilochus first divided human actors in hedgehogs and foxes — those with deep focus and those with reactive agility; the philosopher Isaiah Berlin resurrected it. John Lewis Gaddis, the eminent historian, wants to apply this lens to grand strategic thinkers throughout the ages from our namesake Octavian to Abraham Lincoln.

Octavian Report: Why is Isaiah Berlin a lodestar for you, and how did his work figure in writing your most recent book?

Gaddis: Berlin is most famous, of course, for his revival of the ancient distinction between the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog knowing one big thing, the fox knowing many things. That has been traditionally interpreted to mean that you have to choose one or the other. I'm trying to argue in my book that that's not really what he meant and it's not really how to think about grand strategy in the first place, that it's much more useful to think about how you can be both (but you wouldn't want to be both at the same time).

It's a question of when to be which, when to be a fox and when to be a hedgehog. I think a lot of the rest of Berlin's writing through his life reflected on that, in one way or another. But he's never been thought of as a grand strategist. I thought I would try to make the pitch that he does have things to say about grand strategy.

OR:  Can focused, even monomaniacal hedgehogs be foxes?

Gaddis: Sure, but I think it's a matter of timing. There are very few people who can manage these perspectives simultaneously and who can retain a sense of the overall objective, the one big thing, and then still be agile enough to deal with all the unexpected things that come along.

That's one reason I gave a whole chapter to your namesake, Octavian. It seems to me that his career illustrates this beautifully. He always knew he wanted to replace his great uncle Julius, of course, but it was very much an uphill struggle for a long time and he was quite brilliant in his maneuvering to get to where he got to by the time of Actium, by the time he's 30 — ruling the world.

I think there are a few people, a few geniuses, who fall into that category. Another one for me, who gets a whole chapter, is Lincoln. Yet another one is Franklin Roosevelt. They're rare. There are not very many like that. So that's one of the things that the book was trying to: to make the case that even if you can't do that with that degree of skill that they manifested, at the same time it's something to shoot for.

It's this idea that Scott Fitzgerald had of keeping contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time and still functioning. I think those are two quite good contradictory approaches to keep in mind even as you have to shift the emphasis from one to the other.

OR: What circumstances do you think the fox mentality is best suited for? What about the hedgehog?

Gaddis: I think the fox is best-suited to dealing with the unexpected, with the things that you can't foresee. If you think of it in terms of an athletic analogy, it simply could be the actions of the other team that you're playing, what Donald Rumsfeld called the "known unknowns." You know that they're going to be out there but you don't know what they're going to be. The ability to respond if necessary on the spot is part of the skill involved in that. But it has to be done without losing sight of the larger objective and I think that's a balance that has to be struck.

Hedgehogs, because they're so focused on the one big idea, are often badly equipped to deal with the unpredictabilities, with contingencies, so they tend quite often just to try to cram their view of reality into their own particular ideology, their way of looking at the world. That often leads them astray. It often distorts what they're doing. It's what causes somebody like Napoleon to march to Moscow when I think almost anybody who thought about it would have said that's a terrible idea.

OR: Is it fair to say that large, world-historical disasters are hedgehog-driven, while foxes often lack the momentum to even get started?

Gaddis: I think it's a fair statement. That's why I like the case study from Herodotus which is right at the beginning of the book. Xerxes invading Greece, crossing the Hellespont with bridges and all of that, is a great hedgehog. He just believes that he's got the power to override anything that's going to get in the way. Herodotus also gives us his uncle, Artaphernes, who is just the opposite. He's a fox and he's thinking of everything that can go wrong along the way, and so there is this fascinating dialogue in Herodotus between Xerxes and Artaphernes in which Artaphernes says, “Master, you have to think of everything before you do anything,” and Xerxes says, “If I did that, Artaphernes, I would never do anything in the first place.”

OR: When you look at Ronald Reagan, he seems like the archetypal hedgehog, yet he was extraordinarily effective. Do you have a view on Reagan as a strategist?

Gaddis: I think Reagan was deceptive. He certainly gave the appearance of being a lightweight and that partly came from his career in the movies, but it partly I think was an image that he himself cultivated. He tried to be charming. He tried to be congenial. It was only after he left office that we discovered all the writing that he had done on the big issues before he ever gained the presidency. These were his five-minute radio addresses that he was doing in the late 1970’s. All of which he wrote out himself and they really were a blueprint for what he would propose to do if he got to be president of the United States.

Nobody took them seriously at the time, but they reflect someone who did reflect before he ever got into a position of power and was thinking about what he would do with power once he got it. I think so many other leaders just concentrate on getting power but then they don't think very much about what they're going to do with it once they have it and that's in some ways worse than having a hedgehog-like sense of direction.