- Octavian Report - https://octavianreport.com -

John Lewis Gaddis on the secrets of grand strategy

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.

OR: Do you think Octavian had a grand strategy beyond putting himself in power?

Gaddis: I don’t know and I don’t think anybody knows. We know so little about him because he begins to be a significant figure so early and because he wrote almost nothing down himself. All we know about him is what other people wrote about him and it makes him both a fascinating and a frustrating character. But I certainly think that he had the desire for power, that’s for sure, the ambition. It’s partly because Julius Caesar had designated him son and heir, but I think it was also partly because Julius Caesar himself had a grand strategy which was to bring order to Rome, if necessary by turning the republic into an empire. I think Octavian probably shared that aspiration, but was clever enough, more clever than Julius, not to let that be known, not to let that become clear, to do that very gradually so that people don’t even realize that it’s happening. It was very skillfully pulled off.

OR: How did you first become interested in the concept and architecture of strategy?

Gaddis: I got an invitation about five years out of graduate school, in 1974, to come and lecture on my first book at the Naval War College in Newport. The book was on the origins of the Cold War. Stansfield Turner was at that time the president of the War College and to my astonishment he was there in the front row. He introduced me and when I finished my lecture, he got up and said, “Professor Gaddis has been right on the following issues and wrong on the following issues. But he was right on enough issues that he will be teaching here next year.”

That was all news to me, but he was an admiral and I figured out that’s what you do to admirals — you just say yes sir. So I took a couple of years off from my own university and found myself teaching Thucydides and Machiavelli and Clausewitz to guys who were all older than I was at the time. All had military experience; I didn’t. It was immediately post-Vietnam, so it was a traumatic time and I was staying just about thirty seconds ahead of the students while we were working through these very difficult texts. It was one of the best experiences of my life: getting thrown into that and forced to learn something new, forced to think differently from how I’d been educated in grad school.

That led to the interest in grand strategy, which first showed up in the book on containment that I did and then that led to several other things, including the Kennan biography and the development of the grand strategy course at Yale.

OR: Why do you think it’s so difficult for people to properly develop strategies and to implement them?

Gaddis: Nobody ever said it was going to be easy to rise positions of responsibility, deal with those responsibilities, organize all the ducks that have to be organized in order to do that. I think just always is going to be extremely difficult. What I’m interested in is the question of whether grand strategies can exist across scale.

For example, we conventionally assume that statesmen and generals are going to have grand strategies. But can students have grand strategies? If they do — and to talk to them you certainly get the impression that they do — would they make use of the same kind of thinking that you would find on the part of statesmen and generals? That might lead to a way of training students and encouraging serious thinking about this at their level, with the thought that it might apply as they themselves rise to greater and greater responsibilities.

That’s what we’ve experimented with here. We take the idea of grand strategy very seriously. We take our students very seriously and we operate from the presumption that there’s not a great deal of difference in how you would think about important issues if you were a graduating senior at Yale or if you were president of the United States.

OR: Do you have a different view now on the role that luck or other extraneous factors play in someone’s career? Can those be overcome by a good strategy?

Gaddis: One of the points Clausewitz makes — and it’s one of his most effective — is that planning for any operation is extremely important. You learn a great deal from planning. But when the battle actually comes, the first thing you do is throw the plans out the window: the battle is never going to go according to the plan. That’s because you’re dealing with an opponent, or with circumstances, that cannot be foreseen. You don’t know how the enemy is going to deploy forces. You don’t know whether the horses are going to get sick. But you do know that there is going to be uncertainty and you’re going to have to cope with it.

So the ability in the mind to plan and to benefit from the discipline of planning, but then at the same time to junk the plan and respond instantly and on the spot is I think what it’s all about.

OR: Do you see any shining examples of grand strategic thinkers operating in the contemporary world?

Gaddis: I don’t think the current environment is very conducive to the emergence of that at the moment for sure. I think that there’s such a premium on fox-like thinking, on moving from moment to moment, that it’s hard to see it. But looking at history I would say that this is not unprecedented. There have been a lot of cases in the past where someone was in power who seemed not to know what he was doing, seemed to be going from crisis to crisis, was revealed afterwards as having had a plan.

Lincoln certainly falls into this category. Franklin Roosevelt notoriously falls into this category. He was considered the most scatterbrained of all the lightweights, but he’s probably regarded now as the deepest grand strategist of the twentieth century. So it might take time for us to know who the grand strategists of the current period are. I did half-jokingly suggest to our students the other day that if you actually had to measure someone who’s done quite a lot with very minimal opportunities, it would actually be Vladimir Putin. I suggested that the students give him an award for the grand strategist of the decade, but I didn’t get very far with that.

OR: Are you worried about the United States right now?

Gaddis: Of course.

OR: More than you have been in the past?

Gaddis: I’m worried about the inequality issue for sure, which is a corrosive internal factor predicted long ago by Karl Marx. I’m worried about the loss of consensus, of a sense of direction that we did have back in the days of World War Two and the Cold War and for a long time afterwards. I’m worried about the degradation of our politics, that bipartisanship seems to be an extinct animal at this point. I’m worried about short attention spans. Who is able to focus on anything for any more than about 15 minutes in the age of Twitter and Facebook? It seems to me that these technological changes have not been to the good. I think people are coming to see that.

OR: Do you recommend people adopt Machiavelli’s “lightness of being,” as you define it using Milan Kundera’s famous phrase?

Gaddis: I did not expect in this book when I started it out that I would be writing about lightness of being. But it came from putting St. Augustine and Machiavelli into the same chapter. They seem on the surface to be two very different kinds of individuals and indeed in most respects they were. But the big difference between them was that Augustine looked for the hand of God in everything that happened and Machiavelli very bluntly said: “God does not want to do everything.” He leaves some things to us. That was a fundamental divide in the history of Western civilization. It’s the point at which a secular order really begins to rise.

I think from that came the sense that there was no great point in laboring mightily to find deep causes or divine rationales in what was happening. King Philip II of Spain set forth such a rationale for what his armada was doing; his counterpart Elizabeth had a much lighter touch. She had a sense of humor. She was deft at keeping her advisors or courtiers off-balance. She was deft at keeping her enemies off-balance as well. There was something of an ability to move faster and do things more imaginatively than there was if you’re waiting for God’s will and all these things.

That to me is lightness of being. I think you’re more likely to look at the larger picture, let’s put it that way, if you have a certain lightness. Heaviness of hand drives you toward hedgehog-like explanations. The will of God; the historical dialectic. I think lightness is a healthier attitude. I think psychologically it’s significant, but I think strategically it’s significant as well. It certainly does not mean superficiality. It just means taking a wider view, having an ecological viewpoint instead of a very narrow focus.

OR: Are there books — other than your own, of course — that you would recommend people actually read as primary sources on grand strategy?

Gaddis: I have always had trouble, paradoxically, with books on grand strategy. I would try to read them and I’d get bored with them. The philosophical works that lie behind grand strategy, classics like Clausewitz, Thucydides, and Machiavelli — they are a different matter. But the books that have tried systematically to survey grand strategy almost in a textbook manner, it seems to me, are far too structured and they miss much of the spontaneity that’s involved in the process. If you look at my bibliography in the book, it includes relatively few of what you might call books on grand strategy, but it includes a lot of historical works that are suggestive about grand strategy, books that illustrate how grand strategies worked.

One of my favorites, for example, is Garret Mattingly’s classic account of the Spanish Armada in 1588, in which the word “strategy” hardly ever appears. Yet what’s documented in that story, in that case, is a clash between two very different grand strategies with decisive results. I’ve always been more interested in the operational accounts of how strategies were implemented than in accounts of what grand strategy is.

OR: Do you have a view on applied history?

Gaddis: I think all history should be applied history. I think there ought to be some reason for studying history in the first place — even if it’s just because you find it interesting or you find it enriching. That’s applied history. I think that it’s very hard to teach in any structured or predictive way how you would apply grand strategy in specific situations. I’ve never had a lot of faith in the case-study method of investigation.

I think it’s better to do historical accounts that illustrate in some rich way the successes or failures of a grand strategy but that leave it up to the reader, student, or policymaker to draw their own conclusions from this. Each one of them is going to face some different situation and what they have to do is to tailor their thinking to that situation. It’s very hard to write a case study that deals with all possible contingencies or all possible situations.

OR: Do you have a favorite strategist from your book or from history?

Gaddis: I do admit to a soft spot for Octavian, simply because he was so young when he started out. He was younger than most of my students are. There are so many different ways of treating him. I’m very fond of John Williams epistolary novel on the life of Augustus. I do a biographies seminar at Yale and we do Octavian Augustus in that course, too.  I’m fascinated with his whole trajectory of seeing so far ahead as just a kid and getting as far as he did.

OR: In addition to resurrecting the hedgehog/fox dichotomy, Berlin helped illuminate the concept of a negative liberty (which exists within democracy) and a positive liberty (which exists under authoritarianism). Do you feel that we as a nation are moving ever closer to the dangerous consolations of positive liberty?

Gaddis: I think it may be something of an overstatement, but I think that danger is there and I certainly see other countries moving pretty rapidly in that direction. The great thing about Berlin is that he was a very rich thinker. He posed these issues in fairly simple terms, but they’re deep issues, they’re profound issues, and you can write the whole history of the Cold War and the whole history of authoritarianism and democracy in terms of that dichotomy between negative and positive liberty. It’s fascinating to me that someone who was as relentlessly empirical as he was, almost to the point of acting in some ways like a kind of ineffectual butterfly, would have such deep ideas.

I had the privilege of knowing him briefly when I was in Oxford in 1992 because he was a great friend of George Kennan’s and Kennan wanted me to interview Isaiah. So I did. I got interested in him at that point but really didn’t read him more seriously until his death and then I found all kinds of resonances to grand strategy. Perhaps that’s the grandest one of all is that distinction between authoritarianism and democracy, which in its own way circles back to the foxes and the hedgehogs. There is a kind of coherence to his thinking, even though he never put it in any coherent form.

I found him simply a useful guide. As I was going through this work on grand strategy, I found him to be a bit like the way Dante presents Virgil in the Inferno. That’s why I wrote him in, Berlin, at the beginning, at the end, and at several different points along the way. That has made my historian colleagues a little bit nervous. Can historians do that kind of thing in the first place? Is that legal? I don’t care. It was fun.