Gaddis on Why Grand Strategy Is Tough for Academics

Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis recently spoke at Middlebury College in Vermont. He had a lot to say, but one thing that struck me was his analysis of why grand strategy is difficult for academics.

First, that grand strategy is, by its nature, an ecological enterprise. It requires taking information from a lot of different fields, evaluating it intuitively rather than systematically, and then acting. It is, in this sense, different from most academic training, which as it advances pushes students toward specialization, and then toward professionalization, by which I mean the ever deeper mastery of a diminishing number of things. To remain broad you’ve got to retain a certain shallowness – but beyond the level of undergraduate education and sometimes not even there, the academy is not particularly comfortable with that idea.

Second, grand strategy requires setting an objective and sticking to it. The academy does not take easily to that idea either. It asks us constantly to question our assumptions and reformulate our objectives. That’s fine to the extent that that sharpens our intellectual skills, and therefore prepares us for leadership. But it’s not the same thing as leadership: for that, you’ve got to say “here’s where we ought to be by such and such a time, and here’s how we’re going to get there.” Taking the position that, “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that,” as you might around a seminar table, won’t get you there. Nor will saying that you voted for the $87 billion appropriation before you voted against it.

Third, grand strategy requires the ability to respond rapidly to the unexpected. It acknowledges that trends can reverse themselves suddenly, that “tipping points” can occur, and that leaders must know how to exploit them. The academy loves this sort of thing when it happens on the basketball court or the hockey rink. In the classroom, though, it resists the idea: instead the emphasis is too often on theory, which promises predictability, and therefore no surprises. That’s why the academy tends to be so surprised when events like the end of the Cold War and 9/11 take place. Leaders, like athletes, have to be more agile.

Fourth, grand strategy requires the making of moral judgments, because that’s how leadership takes place: in that sense, it’s a faith-based initiative. You have to convince people that your aspirations correspond with their own, and that you’re serious about advancing them. You don’t lead by trying to persuade people that distinctions between good and evil are social constructions, that there are no universal standards for making them, that we should always try to understand the viewpoint of others, even when they are trying to kill us.

Finally, grand strategy requires great language. As the best leaders from Pericles through Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan have always known, words are themselves instruments of power. Their careful choice and courageous use can shake the stability of states, as when Reagan said, before anybody else, that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” headed for the “ash-heap of history.” They can also undermine walls, as when Reagan famously demanded, against the advice of his own speech-writers, that Gorbachev tear one down.

But where, within the academy is the use of great language taught? Where would you go to learn how to make a great speech? Certainly not to political science, language, and literature departments at Yale, where as students advance they are spurred on toward ever higher levels of jargon-laden incomprehensibility. I think not even to my beloved History Department, where my colleagues seem more interested in the ways words reflect structures of power than in ways words challenge or even overthrow structures of power.

The art of rhetoric, within the academy, is largely a lost art – which probably helps to explain why the academy is as often as surprised as it is to discover that words really do still have meanings – and that consequences come from using them.

via Roger L. Simon

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1 Comment

Filed under education, U.S.

One response to “Gaddis on Why Grand Strategy Is Tough for Academics

  1. Betty

    Marvelous article. I missed this one from Gaddis during that time period. What an excellent analysis of difference between leaders and academics!

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