Not so long ago, and for a very long time, great literature was the school of statesmen. Yale Professor Charles Hill recaptures the tradition in Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, just published by Yale University Press.
Professor Hill spent an incredibly distinguished career in the foreign service and in the State Department, where he rose to chief of staff. Among Professor Hill’s awards are the Superior Honor Award from the Department of State in 1973 and 1981; the Distinguished Honor Award in 1978; the Presidential Meritorious Service Award in 1986; the Presidential Distinguished Service Award in 1987 and 1989; and the Secretary of State’s Medal in 1989.
Professor Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution as well as Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy, Senior Lecturer in International Studies, and Senior Lecturer in Humanities at Yale, where he is one of the principal teachers and presiding spirits in the Directed Studies program for freshmen as well as the year-long course on Grand Strategy for university students. Hoover has posted a brief version of Professor Hill’s résumé.
Grand Strategies explores the intersection of great literature and politics, inspired by the conviction that “a grand strategist. . .needs to be immersed in classic texts from Sun Tzu to Thucydides to George Kennan, to gain real-world experience through internships in the realms of statecraft, and to bring this learning and experience to bear on contemporary issues.”
I thought Professor Hill’s book would be of interest to many readers and accordingly asked him if he would outline its themes for us. He has graciously responded as follows:
The book has three main themes. The first is to recover a lost dimension of education for leadership in strategy and statecraft. American leaders have to decide what to do to deal with a crisis before all the facts and ramifications can be known. The works of literature referred to in the book are full of such examples.
But literature, especially classic American literature, has virtually been banished from the university curriculum since the “cultural revolutions” that savaged America in the l960s. Historians when writing or teaching about great decisions (which they do very little of, if any at all) distort reality because they study the case long after the fact, when all the data and documents are available to them. What they are oblivious to is the reality that the decision maker at the time of the crisis did not and could not have all such knowledge in front of him. So historians tend to distort what really happened because they are “all-knowing” when the men they study were not.
This is what accounts for the fact that historians and intellectuals in general are critically dismissive of those historical figures they write about. The historians are the original Monday morning quarterbacks. So the book tries to show how decisions must be made in real time, not after-the-fact time, and literature is the best way to do this.
Second, the book tries to show how grand strategy must consider all the possible dimensions of a situation (granting that all the facts of any such dimension will be unknowable). It’s a matter of range. Businessmen know this almost instinctively; everything matters. A minuscule mistake can have gigantic consequences. As it says in Gulliver’s Travels, “A whore can rule the backstairs, the backstairs the Senate, and the Senate the fate of a country.”
Where our current education fails in this regard is in the social sciences, particularly political science, which, in order to appear scientific, confines itself to working on small corners of a problem, on “eliminating variables” when the reality is that the most dangerous situations and consequential decisions are nothing but a plethora of swirling variables. Here again, without the cases described in great literature available to you, you are forced by the intellectuals to “think small.”
Third, the works of literature examined in this book reveal that across the centuries there can be seen commonalities in efforts to establish something like an international system capable of maintaining world order. In a way not displayed before, there can be seen a kind of conversation taking place across the realm of major works of literature on this. You can see for the first time that, e.g. Robinson Crusoe is engaged in founding a state in the Westphalian international system and with some reference to Aristotle’s Politics.
The system spreads outward from Europe. America greatly disliked it and stayed at arm’s length from it until the US rose to wealth and power and began to see its advantages and eventually take the lead in the maintenance of world order. The book then shows how the system has deteriorated through neglect and through ideological and real attack in the Cold War and now from Islamism.
If the US is going to keep the lead and keep world order headed in the right direction, leaders need to know something about all these themes.
Readers may also want to listen to Professor Hill discuss Grand Strategies on this week’s edition of NRO’s Between the Covers. John Miller’s interview with Professor Hill is posted here.