#Reading: On Grand Strategy

The way the author effortlessly balances literature, history and theory makes “On Grand Strategy” a great primer on strategic thinking.

Bildergebnis für On grand strategyWriting about strategy ain’t easy. Overgeneralization is behind every corner, there’s the concrete risk of talking much without saying anything meaningful – or even worse, to blindly apply some mental scheme to every historical event.

It may seem like On Grand Strategy perfectly fits this description. From the very onset, Gaddis explains the purpose of the book as trying to strip strategic thought down to what he perceives as its bare bones. Lending the term from Isaiah Berlin, he divides leaders in hedgehogs and foxes: while the first tend to see the world through the lenses of a single, great idea (be it ideology, desire or fear), the second have a faceted worldview drawn from experience, refusing to summarize the world through a unique perspective. What is true literally, also holds politically: foxes try to navigate the environment, hedgehogs are steadfast in their convictions. Evoking Xerxes’ crossing of the Hellespont, Gaddis identifies the Persian emperor as a sublime hedgehog willing to subjugate nature to his vision, flattening mountains and overcoming seas. His adviser Artabanus, meanwhile, focuses on the near horizon and tries to guide the empire through immediate perils. If the first fails to see the most banal pitfalls, the second lacks a vision going beyond crisis management.

To the uninitiated it will probably resemble the kind of sweeping categorization of the world that is sold by self-help authors.   However, what lends “On Grand Strategy” credibility is the academic work put by the author.  Gaddis, a celebrated Cold war historian, mobilizes some of the past’s greatest minds: from Tolstoy to Saint Augustine, he avoids reading history to the prism of hedgehogs vs foxes. Rather, what he’s interested in is how personal inclinations dictated outcomes given the circumstances. Despite kicking off the book with a clear preference for methodical, fact-oriented leaders, much space is given to how “the right person at the right moment” matters. Gaddis may preach a healthy middle ground but does so painting moderate leaders in an almost superhuman light, as he’s able to maintain two opposed principles in their mind: that of a great vision, but also that of common sense. Only so, he argues, could Lincoln liberate the slaves: “A compass will point you true north […], but it’s got no advice about swamps and deserts […] that you’ll encounter. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, then what’s use knowing the true north?”.

The way the author effortlessly balances literature, history and theory makes “On Grand Strategy” a great primer on strategic thinking and an enjoyable read for all. Amusingly, it’s also a must-buy if you’ve a weak point for the epic scale of amphibious landings, a recurrent topic across pages and centuries.


Michelangelo Freyrie

All the articles by Michelangelo Freyrie.

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