JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I’m Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you for beginning your day with us.
Our speaker is the distinguished historian John Lewis Gaddis. Professor Gaddis will be discussing his most recent publication entitled On Grand Strategy. This book is based on his reflections from almost two decades of co-teaching a legendary seminar in strategic thinking at Yale. For more about our illustrious guest, please take a moment to read his bio, which was handed out to you when you checked in. We are delighted to welcome him back to this podium.
America is facing many challenges. Now and in the coming weeks or so, President Trump will make several decisions that could move our country from peace to war. Whether it is a promise for “a forceful response” to the recent chemical attack in Syria or launching another salvo in an escalating trade war with China or the unpredictability of his dealings with Kim Jong-un or the decertification of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, how President Trump goes about handling—or mishandling—any one of these will signify an epochal moment in American history. Accordingly, a discussion about grand strategy, about what our goals as a nation should be, and the leadership skills necessary to implement these objectives, comes at just the right time.
In On Grand Strategy Professor Gaddis tells us that the adjective “grand” has to do with what is at stake, which is why grand strategies traditionally have been associated with the planning and fighting of wars. It is, he says, about “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessary limited capabilities.” In analyzing the processes and complexities involved in devising grand strategies, our guest encourages us to not only reexamine the theories of war, diplomacy, revolutions, and great men but to scrutinize timeless leadership lessons. In doing so, he reminds us to think about the virtues and moral compass of grand strategists and thinkers. Drawing on lessons from history and the classics from Thucydides to Machiavelli, from the Founding Fathers to Roosevelt and Isaiah Berlin, Professor Gaddis warns us against leaders who dare to improvise and those who do not listen or learn.
At a time when our nation’s strategy seems elusive and monumental challenges abound, the relevance of leadership cannot be dismissed. In thinking about what is needed to safeguard our vital interests, please join me for a masterclass in grand strategy by giving a warm welcome to our guest today, Professor John Lewis Gaddis.
Thank you for being here.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Well, thanks so much. Thanks to all of you for coming. This is a familiar venue for me. When launching a new book, I always launch it here over breakfast, it seems. This has become quite a comfortable pattern for me, so it’s good to be back here.
I would like to start this morning by saying just a little bit about how this book came to be. Then from that, we can move into—perhaps in the question and answer period—whatever reflections it might imply for more current issues.
This book was not supposed to be, in the first place. When I was here six years ago, I guess it was, I was launching my biography of George F. Kennan, which I had been working on for something like 30 years. That book had come out at that point. The book did pretty well. That was book number 10, and 10 being a good, round number, I thought, That’s a good place to stop, so I told everybody I was stopping. They said, “What is your next book?” I said, “There is not going to be one.” They then said, “No, no. You have to write one. You can’t stop.”
So many people said that that I had to come up with a cover story. The cover story was, “You’re right. I will do a book just for you on foxes and hedgehogs,” and I was not serious about this. That got me by for another two or three months or so. But to make the story credible, I actually had to do some reading up on foxes and hedgehogs, on Isaiah Berlin, and all of this. I began to get hooked myself by the animals, by the foxes and the hedgehogs, and to get interested in it. I found myself actually developing a lecture on foxes and hedgehogs, teaching a course on foxes and hedgehogs, and ultimately writing a book on foxes and hedgehogs. That is how these things tend to happen.
Part of what I got interested in with regard to this concept—you all know the distinction. “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.” It was Isaiah Berlin who revived that old principle, which goes back to the ancient Greeks. But what I found in researching the history of this is that he revived it himself as a joke. He revived it as a party game at Oxford one evening sometime back in 1939. They were sitting around in the common room or something like that. Berlin said, “Let’s play a game. Let’s classify great writers and thinkers according to foxes and hedgehogs.”
So the idea stuck in his mind, and after World War II he used it as a framing device for what really is a very extended essay on Tolstoy, one of his very best. He called it “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” That is what caused this distinction to go viral in 1953, before most other things had gone viral thanks to social media and all of it. The concept of the fox and the hedgehog transfixed people, but for reasons of which they were not completely clear themselves. There was just something intriguing about this.
So there has been a permanence to this distinction, which I think can be a lesson to us all. If you really are interested in durability of your own thinking, the power of your own ideas, turn them into animals and they will persist forever. That’s the first starting point for this book.
The second point has to do with something that tends to happen in the Yale Grand Strategy seminar on a regular basis. I have been teaching this course now with my colleagues Paul Kennedy and Charlie Hill for about 20 years, so I know the pattern. What happens is when the discussion becomes very heated, everyone turns to Professor Hill for his guidance on these issues. He will compose his features, draw back, and say in a very, very serious, even ponderous way, “As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time while retaining the ability to function.” Then he stops, and he says nothing more. The students say, “Professor, what do you mean?” Nothing. Complete poker face. Nothing. He just leaves it hanging.
I finally got tired of this and decided I had to try to work through that idea. In fact, it paralleled very nicely the fox and the hedgehog. I think Berlin himself was both in many ways. Certainly by temperament he tilted toward being a fox. But at the same time he was profoundly conscious of the need for some central direction, for some sense of strategy. So I think in his own life, in his own thinking, in his own writing, he is both the fox and the hedgehog. Late in life, when interviewed on this, when pressed on this, he actually admitted, “Yes, really bright people are both.”
But then the question comes up: How do you know when to be which? That, Isaiah never quite got around to somehow. So that was my third question coming into this project.
So very much in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, just picking profound things up from very casual occasions, I went to see a movie. My wife and I went to see Lincoln in 2012, Steven Spielberg‘s great movie. About two-thirds of the way through, those of you who have seen the movie will remember that in the heat of the debate in the House of Representatives in 1865 over the Thirteenth Amendment—which is abolishing slavery for all time to come —Tommy Lee Jones, playing Thaddeus Stevens, confronts Lincoln, played by Day-Lewis, and upbraids him for the political and certainly moral compromises that he was making in forcing this bill through the House of Representatives.
By this time, it has been demonstrated that Lincoln has employed bribery, coercion, deception, patronage—handing out post offices all over the country right and left—to get this thing through. Everything short of murder itself Abe has tried, to get this bill through the House of Representatives. This is shown very nicely in the movie.
In the dialogue in the screenplay, which was written by Tony Kushner, Lincoln looks down at Stevens and reminisces about his days as a surveyor. He points out that as a surveyor, it was very handy for him to have a compass. How otherwise would you know true north? But in fact if all you do is follow the compass, you are apt to wind up in a swamp or falling over a cliff or in a desert or something. What Lincoln was saying is that you have to consult the compass and maintain situational awareness, as we would call it today. Look at what is around you. See where you are going and not just keep that distant view as the only thing that is in your mind.
This was, as they say, an epiphany for me. As I say in the book, I actually had the spooky sense that Isaiah Berlin was right there in the next seat in the movie theater just saying, “You see? You see?” It’s as if it had been written to address him. I don’t think it was, and there’s no authenticity to this particular Lincoln quote. It’s a fake quote, but it is characteristic of how Lincoln thought, it seems to me. That was my third way into this book.
So first, animals; second, Fitzgerald contradictions; and third, going to see the movie. This is what produced the book.
What is the book about in the first place? First of all, the book is about teaching. It’s about the reflections of teaching, or perhaps maybe for me the intellectual fruits of teaching because we have been doing this course for so long at Yale.
The way we have designed the course, it’s a year-long course, but the first semester has always been devoted to the great classical texts. We think there is some reason for reading the classics. There is some reason why people keep coming back to the classics repeatedly. Different ages, different cultures find things of value in some of these ancient texts. Without trying to be too precise as to what those things are, we just thought our curriculum should start with that. It always has and it still does.
What I thought would be interesting to write about was just my own progress through our curriculum. One of the great advantages of teaching, as those of you who have done it would certainly know, is that it teaches the teacher sometimes more than it actually teaches the student. That has certainly been the case with me.
I am a Cold War historian primarily. I have never worked on the ancient world or on intellectual history before, so I’m a total amateur on the subject. But I do know something about how they work in the classroom, and what I wanted to do was to get on paper while there’s still time some sense of what these teaching activities for us have been over a long period of time. Hence the book and hence the case studies. Some of them are case studies that we have regularly used in the class, like Thucydides and Machiavelli and Clausewitz. Some of them are case studies that we never had time to get around to, like Herodotus. Some are case studies that occasionally drop out of the course but then come back in, like Elizabeth and Philip. Some are strange connections that I found myself making in the process of writing the book.
I have a chapter called “Souls and States” in which Saint Augustine and Machiavelli are in the same chapter and are actually talking to each other despite the fact that they were separated by 1,000 years or so. I thought that would be fun to set up. Similarly I have a chapter on Clausewitz, which started out being a chapter on Clausewitz but very quickly got taken over by Tolstoy. The common thread is both were combat officers. Both knew the nature of war on the ground, Clausewitz from direct involvement in the campaign against Napoleon on 1812, Tolstoy from fighting in the Crimea and in the Caucasus in the 1850s, drawing on that knowledge as he wrote War and Peace, which of course focuses on that great event.
So I have Clausewitz and Tolstoy, as I put it in the book, finishing each other’s sentences. Because they actually do. If you set Clausewitz’s great work on war against Tolstoy’s greatest work, War and Peace, the parallels are uncanny. Yes, of course you have to read through a total of probably 2,000 pages to see the parallels, but because I teach those texts, this was not difficult to do. I just wanted to write about these as well.
I had one other specification for this book. That was that I did not want to say anything about the Cold War. I have that weird feeling that you all know—been there, done that. I’m not sure that I would have anything new to say at this point about the Cold War. So I decided to stop with World War II and with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who certainly is one of my heroes, as a perfect, or almost-perfect, grand strategist, and not do current events at all this time around.
There are several different reasons for this, one of which is cowardice—no question about that—but one of which also is timeliness. If you focus too much on the current period, that is going to date the book. In time, the book will seem out of date. I have seen this with some of the other things that I’ve written in the past. If you stop before you get to the current time, maybe it will last longer. Maybe it will stick longer in people’s minds. Maybe it itself will take on halfway timeless characteristics.
So that was my argument for stopping some 70 years into the past and just saying, “Here it is. Draw for yourself your own conclusions as to how it applies to the present and to the future.” That’s what we ask our students to do. We try not to tell them what conclusions to draw. We simply encourage them to draw those conclusions.
That really is what I would like to encourage you to do, to draw your own conclusions when you have a chance to read the book. To what extent is this a book about timeless principles? If those principles are timeless, how do you think they apply to our time and how do you think they might apply to future times? Then thinking that through, how would you, if you were a teacher, train young people now for a future that lies before them which they cannot see and we cannot see either; we cannot come close to seeing it?
Think of just the extent to which we have been surprised ourselves by the last four or five years, and then think about the possibilities for surprise that lie ahead. Ask yourself, “What, then, is going to be the compass heading in these swamps, to guard against these cliffs, these deserts?”
I think the compass heading—the most likely one we can rely on, one of the very few available to us—is the great classical texts. They have been around for a very long time. There is every reason to think because of this they will continue to be around for a very long time. They will continue to be read. Maybe that is the best we can do in thinking ahead.
I would like to conclude, if possible, by just encouraging you to have another sweet roll and a little more coffee and to think about timeless principles as they might apply to the situations with which this organization is concerned and with which I know all of you are concerned.
Thank you for your attention, and I would be happy to answer any questions. I think that should be our main activity this morning, a dialog. Thanks so much.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you.
Before I open it up, maybe you could elaborate and tell us what you found to be some of the timeless principles.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: I wouldn’t want to do that. That would be too didactic. That would be too instructional.
Let me just mention one which is so obvious that it seems pedestrian to say this, and yet I think it is so often overlooked that it is pretty fundamental. The principle is this: Aspirations can be anything. They can be infinite. They can be whatever is in your imagination. They can be Xerxes, in Chapter 1, proposing to invade not just Greece but all of Europe and perhaps Zeus‘s skies as well. Capabilities can never be infinite. Capabilities are always finite. These are boots on the ground. They are supplies. They are logistics. They are geography. They are environment.
The classic case for me is precisely the Persian invasion of Greece in 480, the point with which I start the book. I talk about Xerxes’ great bridges across the Hellespont, the pontoon bridges. I talk about his great armies that were there. I talk about him looking down. Herodotus gives us all of this on those armies there.
I talk about the dialogue that Herodotus gives us in those pages of his great history, the advisor who turns to Xerxes and says, “Sire, are you sure? Are you really sure you want to do this?” invading Greece, these tens of thousands of troops. He says, “If you invade Greece, you will find that your supply lines are stretched. You will find that the armies are drinking rivers dry before they can finish crossing them. You will find that there are surprises along the way. You will find all kinds of resistance long before the Greeks themselves begin to mount any resistance.”
Xerxes arrogantly says to his advisor, “If I had to think about all these things, I would never do anything.” And that is true. If you have to think about everything, you may well paralyze yourself into inactivity.
But it’s also true if you don’t think about these things, you get into trouble. So Xerxes’ supply lines were stretched. The rivers were dry before the armies crossed. Unexpectedly, there were lions in the mountains of Macedonia which came down and ate his supply camels and so on. Finally, at the crucial Battle of Salamis, the naval battle after Xerxes had captured and burned Athens, it suddenly emerged that while the Greeks were very accomplished sailors and so were the Persians, the problem for the Persian sailors is that nobody had bothered to teach them to swim.
You have to think about these things. These are details. These are tiny details. None of them are rocket science. Anybody could have said, “These are going to be the problems.” The advisors said this. But Xerxes in his hedgehog-like determination just to flatten everything that got in the way was brushing these things aside.
I think so often that tends to happen, because qualifications, details, problems like that seem to be weights impeding the great project that you may have, and so the tendency is to sweep them aside. But they are the things that often impede your progress or maybe even frustrate the ultimate objective.
QUESTION: My question for you is about Eastern political philosophies. It is intriguing to me that you have a country which was the world’s most populous, a great nation put into eclipse about 250 years ago when the Industrial Revolution started in the West. Now it is perhaps taking its historic place in the world. But yet there doesn’t seem to be much discussion of the question of strategy that emanated from that environment, from that culture. I am wondering if you might comment on that.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: There is a problem with language here. The Chinese grand strategic tradition and that body of literature is immense, actually. The Chinese have over the years had the concept of grand strategy and have written about it, but most of it is still as yet, as I understand it, untranslated.
We do have Sun Tzu and in fact there is a discussion of Sun Tzu in the book. In fact, we teach Sun Tzu as part of the course that we do at Yale. You suddenly begin to see a kind of different mentality at work. If you read Sun Tzu, you see that it is a book of precepts. It’s not a history. It’s not theory. It’s just precepts.
The precepts will be something like this: Water tends to run downhill. Then there’s a moment of silence and the students all look at each other, and they say, “Didn’t we know that? Is that profound? Is this strategy? What is this?” Then they read the next line, and Sun Tzu says, “And armies must do the same thing.”
So what you have here is Sun Tzu anticipating what I was saying about situational awareness, about the importance in any military operation of taking into account the terrain, the importance of getting gravity on your side, the importance of leverage. This is something that Xerxes totally ignored in invading Greece. So in two sentences, Sun Tzu has become, I think, both hedgehog and fox without ever hearing those terms.
One of the things that fascinates me is the extent to which different cultures seem to come to the same ideas independently of each other. I would like to see as a project for major universities and think tanks some more systematic effort, first of all, to retrieve those classics that are still inaccessible to most of us because of language, but then to think more systematically about the cross-cultural comparisons of these for sure.
QUESTION: Don Simmons.
A follow-on question: China is now in a strategically expanding posture but seemingly limited, at least so far, to its region and to those areas that have been historically connected or were arguably connected. Six centuries ago when they had a chance to bring military conquest to the Indian Ocean and East Africa, they didn’t. I’m wondering, would you expect them in the coming decades to remain focused on their region or become more global?
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Well, I know the 15th-century decision to cease exploration has always been an immensely puzzling decision to us because the explorations would have been far more massive than anything that the Spanish and Portuguese mounted.
But before we get too puzzled on this, we should maybe ask ourselves why, some four decades ago or so, the United States seemed poised to colonize the moon and then it seems to have forgotten that the moon is there. What has happened to our great expedition in that regard? Before one says this is too completely weird or too completely curious, it’s good to look in the mirror at some of these principles and try to learn from the comparisons that can come from that as well.
Yes, the long Chinese tradition has been one of expansion and contraction, but within that region. The possibility of doing this on a global scale has never really been developed by the Chinese. But the Chinese have not had the wealth and the technology that is available to them now. The Chinese have not been in the position of almost competitive overtaking of the West in certain critical areas like artificial intelligence, which we had a conference on at Yale last weekend, inspired by Henry Kissinger, who was deeply interested in this topic.
What the Chinese may do in the future—to assume that they will always be bound by their own cultural tradition again is something we should look into the mirror about. There might have been those who would have said in the 19th century that Americans will always be bound by their isolationist tradition, their habit of staying within their region, their own boundaries. Then look what happened.
These are good starting points for analysis, but again situational awareness is critical. You have to factor in the new variables that are created, particularly by technological progress, which is rarely reversible. Sometimes it is, but rarely.
QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.
If someone were to find themselves president of the United States or head of state, do they necessarily need to arrive at the office with a big-vision program strategy or could they develop one through the interaction with advisors and the resources?
Secondly, if you were advising that person, what are the few things you would tell them to do to create a grand strategy?
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: I think on the one hand, it would be desirable for them to have a compass heading, yes. I think on the other hand, that rarely happens because they come to power preoccupied with other things like how to get power in the first place. That is a domestic political problem, it seems to me.
On the business of what you bring to power, this again gets around to Kissinger and what he said famously years ago about intellectual capital. A leader entering into a great position of responsibility can only draw on the capital that he or she has brought to that position. Often that capital has been invested decades ago—in education, for example—and you don’t have time as you’re rising within some organization, as you’re competing with rivals, and then certainly as you are president of the United States, to sit around and reeducate yourself in the great classical texts. There just is not time to do this.
So this is has been one of the elements in our thinking. We have always been influenced by the Kissinger quote. We thought of our course as a long-term investment in the future of our students. We can’t know what they are going to be doing. I mean, I know what they will be doing for the first two years or so, which is working for a hedge fund, but they won’t stay there. They will be doing other things after that. There is certainly no way to imagine what crises they might confront 20 years out or so.
But I think we can show them patterns nonetheless. I think we can plant in their minds the seeds of concepts which they will remember because we have their attention now as undergraduates. We will not have their attention when they’re rising, when they are at the hedge fund, when they are on the way to political eminence or notoriety or whatever that may be. They will draw on the capital that we provide them. And I think we have to be very careful about what that capital is. I don’t think that capital should be short term, very specific, overly specialized, or even overly theoretical concepts. It seems to me all of those—microhistory, deterministic theory—have been shown to be not very relevant to operational circumstances.
But I think an instinct for how to wield power is something that is transferable. I don’t think it always requires education. I am impressed again, as always, with Lincoln, who had less than one year of formal education. But no one has intuited classical grand strategic logic better, it seems to me, than Lincoln.
You could say it’s just common sense, and of course it is. It is just common sense. But think how uncommon common sense is.
The psychologist Phil Tetlock did a very revealing study, which some of you may know about, that began about 20 years ago checking on the accuracy of prediction of public intellectuals. He tracked that over a very long period of time and was looking for what explains accuracy in prediction. Nothing worked. It didn’t matter whether people were liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, male, female, whatever. The only variable that worked was when Phil asked the leaders to rank themselves on the scale as either fox or hedgehog, and he gave them Isaiah Berlin’s definitions of those terms.
He said—it is in his book—”The result is startling.” Foxes were far better at prediction than hedgehogs. The hedgehogs had a record of accuracy that approximated statistically that of a dart-throwing chimpanzee. Yet he noticed the hedgehogs tended to rise faster in organizations, and they tended to go to the top of the organizations and whatnot.
Why was that? It’s because they had one big idea. If you think about our media today and what it prizes, what it prizes are sound bites, the ability within 30 seconds or so before the next commercial to give you one big idea. If you sit there in front of a television camera and say, “On the one hand this but, gosh, on the other hand that. Well, I can’t quite make up my mind,” you will either be cut off or at least not invited back. There is a paradox somehow that the one big idea, even though we know that this is a problematic way of thinking about the future, does seem to be more powerful in career advancement than the qualifications that foxes do.
Is there a principle that lies behind this? Tetlock didn’t say, but I have tried to articulate one in the book. Maybe this is one of the few succinct ideas that comes out of this book. It is a riddle: Why is common sense like oxygen? Because the higher you go, the thinner it gets.
QUESTION: My name is George Paik.
Principles: How timeless or time resilient is the principle of individual liberty, by which I’m thinking of, if you will, the growth of individuals’ capabilities to pursue their aspirations. I ask in the context of—and it’s another question—is it fair to call that the core of America’s best traditions? I’m citing Kennan in there.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Yes. I think looking at world history, as we have to do in answering a question like that, I would say that the concept of individual liberty is irregularly represented no matter what period in world history you’re talking about. I don’t think there is a great historical movement, Hegelian, underground tectonic force, moving toward individual liberty. I’m not a “Fukuyama-ist” or anything like that.
What I’m struck by is the importance of culture as a center of gravity. Some cultures are more sympathetic to individual liberty than other cultures are. So am I surprised by Putin in Russia and the rise of authoritarianism there? Am I surprised by Xi in China and what’s happening there? Anybody who’s read Chinese or Russian history, I think, should not be surprised, because these traditions go back far earlier than the communist revolutions that took place in both of those cultures.
I think one of the things we have to do is respect these cultural traditions and realize that certain societies in the world, whether for reasons of geography or vulnerability or religion or any number of other variables, think about these issues differently from the way that we do. I think we have to include that within this zone of capabilities that we bring to the formulation of strategy. If you try to impose an American libertarian culture on a society like China, in a place like the Middle East, or in dealing with Russia, you are facing an uphill battle, and Sun Tzu says you shouldn’t do that. You should make everything a downhill battle so that you take advantage of the natural center of gravity that is there.
These kinds of things go back and forth. Of course, there’s no hard and fast rule. But we ought to be thinking about overall default positions, tendencies that are there, and culture is a huge one.
Just back off that for a minute and think about how the liberal community, not just in this country but in Europe and elsewhere, has thought about culture in the years since the Cold War ended. We tend to say culture is no longer very important. We are in a globalized world, a flat Earth, if I may coin a phrase.
We can assume there is a global movement toward individual liberty, but I think we’ve been shaken—I know we’ve been shaken—in that assumption in the last five years or so. This is going to be regarded as a very interesting historical period, but a kind of comeuppance to American arrogance in the aftermath of the Cold War—but not something again that requires rocket science. All it requires is reading history.
QUESTION: Jim Traub.
I remember after 9/11 that you gave a series of lectures, which were then turned into a book, where you made the intriguing point that the historic pattern in the United States is that after being attacked the United States, rather than seeking shelter, strikes back and expands. You said that these concepts that Bush was then being criticized for—unilateralism, preemption, and so forth—actually were very much the American tradition.
So I’m curious, now with 16 years of retrospect, how you feel about that now.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Well, one of the problems with writing a book on current affairs is that you almost always regret it later. I don’t terribly regret that book. I think it was mostly on target with its long-term historical conclusions. Comparing Bush 43 to Henry V was a little bit much. That was a little bit over the top, but nonetheless.
People say it was a pro-Iraq War book, and maybe it was in the balance. But it certainly was pointing out some problems that we were apt to run into, so I mostly would stand by it.
But I don’t think that is what I do primarily. I don’t think that is my role. There are plenty of other people, a lot of people in this room, who do that. I think my role is to actually teach history and try to provide young people with the kind of grounding in these very long-term perspectives that would allow them to be better prepared to deal with policy issues.
That book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, is also a dated book. It was dated almost immediately after it came out, and that is what tends to happen. Such books have short shelf lives really.
I’m hoping that this one, which decidedly and carefully tries to avoid commenting on the present, might wear better than that one did.
QUESTION: Thanks. Reed Bonadonna.
First of all, I have been reading your book but I have not gotten to the chapter yet on Clausewitz and Tolstoy, so I’m intrigued by that.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: It’s the best chapter in the book.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Bonadonna]: Is it? Okay. As a former combat arms officer, I am interested in the idea of their experience as combat arms officers.
I know that in your class, you teach some active-duty Army and Marine Corps officers, and also some of the students at Yale are in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program and will be going maybe to the Marine Corps after.
I’m wondering first of all what these guys bring, going back to Tolstoy and Clausewitz, and what you think they are getting out of your course in particular. I am interested in officer education, which goes on, by the way, throughout our career. Professional Military Education (PME) doesn’t stop at the undergraduate level.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Yes.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Bonadonna]: Reading it, I am constantly reminded of Tolstoy. In fact, I think in some ways he out-Tolstoys Tolstoy.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: I wouldn’t go that far.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Bonadonna]: No? Okay. Well, I think the conditions under which it was written were so adverse.
Anyway, any comments at all about that tradition of combat arms officers as thinkers in your classroom?
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Well, I would just say first of all that that tradition of combat arms officers is actually fundamental in this comparison I am making of Clausewitz and Tolstoy, for the reasons I mentioned. It seems to me to re-read those great books with the knowledge that these were both people who knew the face of battle on the ground and who both describe it in absolutely parallel ways is extremely important.
One of the things a combat arms officer learns from combat is that training is exceedingly valuable in going into combat, but once you are in combat there is no manual you can rely on. You have to relate your previous training to completely unexpected things, which Clausewitz called friction, as you know. Tolstoy is full of friction. It is that intersection of training with surprise that I think is so critical in Clausewitz, and I think that is a more sophisticated view of theory than the way theory is normally taught and conceived of and written today because it is a theory about when not to have a theory. In life, there are many points in which theories are useful, but there are also many points in which you just have to throw out the theory and assess the reality.
Just on the officers in the classroom, it has been a great benefit to us, simply having them present in the classroom. We were startled—this was before ROTC came back to Yale—at how few of our undergrads had had any experience with anyone ever in the military. So to have a light colonel or a full colonel come and just sit in the classroom and go to Mory’s with the students or god knows where else—maybe Toad’s—with the students is immensely educational. It was a kind of culture transfer there that we could not have done ourselves, but those guys did it.
But then the whole mood on campus has changed since ROTC came back to Yale, and now we have students walking around campus on certain days in full uniform. Nobody objects to this; everybody welcomes the presence—well, not everybody. There are a few diehard faculty who don’t, but it is faculty only. It is a completely different mood. The interaction is much smoother now than it was then. Then it was just two cultures learning about each other, but I think now they know more about each other and there is more genuine dialogue and interaction that takes place as a result.
Whatever it is, it is immensely healthy for Yale and for other universities to have that presence on campus, and we are very happy to have played some role in that, for sure.
QUESTION: I cannot resist the temptation of asking the preeminent historian on the Cold War, how would you characterize the scenario where we are today? Would you call it the new Cold War? Would you call it Cold War 2.0? Would you call it something else entirely?
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Let’s call it something else, all right? [Laughing] There have been cold wars throughout history. If you define “cold war,” in lower letters, not capital letters, as simply a persistent and sometimes very, very tense conflict that still does not erupt into a hot war, then this is nothing new. There is a long tradition of this having happened.
I think we need to look at what was distinctive about the Cold War itself. What was distinctive about the Cold War, with capital letters, it seems to me, was the ideological dimension, the ideological divide, the fact that this was a very long conflict about ideas, originating with Marx and Lenin.
One of the things that we have found is how seriously the Soviet and Chinese leadership took ideology. We had often thought that it was just window-dressing, but you cannot read, for example, Steve Kotkin‘s great biography of Stalin—now the third volume approaching—and take ideology lightly, because it shows to what extent, almost with blinding effects, it shaped even Stalin, who was no great intellectual, but a very complex figure.
There is nothing like that today. There is no guiding ideology other than authoritarianism, which is really more of a cultural tradition, it seems to me, in Russia and in the other places. There’s no common ideology guiding these things.
What is guiding them is, I think, a backlash against globalization in each of these countries. If you include immigration as a manifestation of globalization, certainly that is what is going on in Europe in places like Hungary, for example.
That would be my answer. No, it is not the Cold War as I wrote about it, but yes, it is a kind of cold war of the kinds that have happened many times before in history.
QUESTION: Korean Mission.
We are dealing with the North Korean issue. I was quite impressed by the timeless principle. The gap between aspiration and capability actually is applied to our happiness too, right? If we get the gap, we are unhappy.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Yes.
QUESTIONER [Korean Mission]: But actually the things about the North Korean issue are really—our aspiration is really we want to dismantle their nuclear capability as soon as possible. In reality, the capability is not—a lot of conflicting issues. So I just want to hear your perspective.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Well, I am not an expert on this subject in any way, but I would say, should our primary objective be to dismantle their nuclear capability? That is the way Americans think about this. But I imagine if you could bring the North Koreans in today and give them breakfast here and whatnot—they would be grateful, of course—I think you would find that they would see it differently. They would say there has to be some objective beyond that. Possibly it is a political objective. Possibly it is a cultural objective.
I think it would be reunification of all Koreans in one country, in one place, and I suspect that is powerfully motivating the North Koreans. I suspect it also in a different way is powerfully motivating the South Koreans.
Nuclear weapons are just one part of that equation. I think far too often, we in the United States confuse process with objectives. To say that we are seeking to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, that is a process. What is it leading to? Is it leading to stability? Well, nobody really thinks much about that. In the first place, it is seen as an objective in itself.
Take NATO expansion. NATO itself was always a process leading toward a larger objective, which was restoration of the balance of power in Europe. When people say, as they do incessantly, our supreme goal must be to ensure the solidity and credibility of the NATO alliance, I have a lot of trouble with that, because that is confusing process with objective.
A man from Mars coming in, a woman from Mars coming in—whoever it is who comes in from Mars—looking at NATO as a military alliance would, I think, say, “Should your boundaries really be so exposed as those of the Baltic Republics and some of the Eastern European—would you have designed an alliance like this to begin with as opposed to applying the Sun Tzu principle of taking advantage of the landscape and finding the defensible positions, and not trying to defend the indefensible positions?” No, I don’t think so.
But the process has carried us that far. I think something like that perhaps has happened with globalization as well. We became so infatuated with that process that we didn’t look at the backlash.
As some of you know, I come from Texas so I know something about backlashes. I taught for years in the Middle West. I saw a backlash coming 20 years ago against globalization, against free trade. That was pretty obvious in Southeastern Ohio. How that could not have been seen better and more clearly among the elite establishments on both coasts and so on is something we need to look into and think very hard about, for sure.
QUESTION: Good morning, Professor. My name is Kevin McMullen.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Jomini is not a finished work either. He thought it was finished, but it was not the full picture. It is too geometrical. It is too inclined to reduce strategy to a matter of fortifications, calculations, all of this.
It certainly was the dominant influence at West Point in the 19th century before Clausewitz had even been translated into English as well. It is probably still read—I don’t doubt that it is—in some of the war colleges.
The great difference is that Jomini had a single lens of analysis: If you do this, then the following will result. It was kind of like a football coach drawing a diagram of the play up on the blackboard and just saying, “That’s it, guys. That is what is going to happen. None of it is up to you. I have already determined what’s going to happen because I put the plan up on the blackboard.”
Well, it doesn’t work that way in real life. This is where the genius of Lincoln was, because Lincoln himself, with no education, came closer to thinking about and devising a strategy for defeating the Confederacy than any of his West Point generals did, with the exception, finally, of Grant. But think how long it took Lincoln to get to Grant. Lincoln said basically, “Yes, we need to think about military deployments, but we need to think also about the disparities of power that lie behind those deployments. The South cannot bring to bear the level of industrial technology and economic resources and natural resources that the North can bring to bear. In the end, that will wear the South down. So we just have to find strategies that apply those continental resources to a regional problem of secession.” It was as simple as that.
Lincoln always had this continental vision, thinking of the entire continent. Why did he, right in the middle of the Civil War, insist on building the Transcontinental Railroad? It was an extraordinary act. Why the land-grant colleges in that period? There’s an extraordinary looking-ahead. He even talks in one of his messages to Congress about the 20th century and what the United States is going to be like at that point. He says we are going to be a world power. If we stay together, we will have the capacity in many ways to shape the world. That is where the concept of the last best hope he articulated came from.
It is amazing to me how an academic could have been as narrow as Jomini was as compared to a non-academic who was profoundly grand-strategic in terms of thinking about the big things, a lot of big things at once, but also thinking about the overall sense of direction, and not getting bogged down or distracted by processes.
QUESTION: My name is Jim Altschul.
I want to pick an argument with you. You mentioned a little while ago that we should not be surprised that China and Russia are being ruled by authoritarian governments or have taken an authoritarian turn because of their history and culture.
If that is your belief—and I’m not arguing with it—how do you explain what appears to be the success in democracy taking root in South Korea and Taiwan?
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: The Cold War had a lot to do with that. South Korea we occupied for a long time. Then we were in a position even after we were no longer physically occupying it to support it for a very long time and to protect it for an even longer time.
South Korea is a part of the world that we began paying attention to by inadvertence. It was not part of the original American designation of vital interests in the Cold War. But once the attack occurred, it became a vital interest, or we made it a vital interest.
It seems to me there and in Germany on a larger scale and in Japan on a larger scale, what happened were the benefits of long-term military occupation on the one hand, but something else was there, which was “always something worse out there.” If you didn’t put up with the Americans, think who you were going to have to put up with. That was a powerful incentive to cooperate.
It certainly worked well in Western Europe in many ways. Stalin himself is the most powerful architect of the Marshall Plan. It should be called the Stalin Plan. Don’t tell Benn Steil, who has just written a book about this.
That would be my sense of this. You have to see these situations as lodged in time and affected by time and by circumstance. That they would automatically repeat in a very different geopolitical environment I think is not guaranteed by any means.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
Looking back on your many years of teaching, you remarked on the presence of the ROTC on campus and how they are now greeted in a friendly way, as they ought to be. What do you think of the common critique that the campuses, particularly the “elite” campuses, in which one would have to include Yale, much as I resent it—
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: I don’t know whether to say “thanks” or not.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Berenbeim]: What do you think of the argument made by people who call themselves conservatives that the elite thought has been captured by liberal fake history?
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Well, I’m not sure I want to go so far as to call it fake history, but I would say that there is something to the critique. There is quite a lot to the critique. There is no question that liberal politics are far more popular on all of the major Ivy League campuses than would be conservative politics. There is no question that the curriculum has been tilted toward what I would call liberal concerns, particularly, in my department, courses on race, class, and gender, which now heavily dominate the curriculum. There are all kinds of courses on that.
Is there a course in American diplomatic history? No, not at Yale. Is there a course in American diplomatic history at Princeton? No. Is there one at Harvard? I’m not sure. When a great university is abdicating its responsibility to cover what is obviously part of history, I think there are some serious problems we have to address.
To what extent does this influence or affect the students? You read a lot about certain kinds of students in the media who make themselves available to the media, you see, but not all students are that way. I know quite a number of them, and I can tell you that the great preponderance of them are healthy, are open to diverse points of view, and they take diversity broadly enough to mean not just race, class, and gender but diversities in politics and viewpoints as well. Sometimes they are reacting very much against the prevailing view on campus.
Now, there is one other thing. They are social animals, of course, and they are on Facebook, Twitter, and all the appropriate social media. They are very concerned not to be lonely. That is a huge concern at Yale, as I think it is at most universities these days. So not being lonely often means appearing to go with the crowd, so you are not going to find too many freshmen or sophomores at Yale who will stick out and proudly identify themselves as card-carrying conservatives. There are always one or two who write for the Daily News on that. But I know from talking to them directly, personally, and privately that their viewpoints are much broader.
I’m not so worried about the snowflakes as a lot of people are. I think they are pretty resilient kids.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you so much.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Thank you.