The Duck of Minerva

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Grand Strategists Need to Dump Kissinger

September 30, 2021

So the New York Times reported on Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale University, resigning from her post as head of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy because of donor pressure. There’s a lot at stake in this.

As an academic field, grand strategy has a reputation for being very conservative, and for advocating a didactic, great-man view of history. The Yale program has not only been the premier school for grand strategy, inspiring a few similar programs at similarly prestigious universities; it has also been the premier focal point for critics of grand strategy who see it as a self-aggrandizing way for elites to put state power in service of elite interests.

I teach and research in the grand strategy tradition despite not fitting the profile — I’m not conservative, and have no interest in lending my voice to an accumulation and exercise of state power that disproportionately benefits an Ivy League world I’ve never known.

My introduction to the subject came as a strategy practitioner in the Pentagon during the early Obama years. I appreciated that grand strategy research approached the problems of statecraft in a highly contextual, interdisciplinary way, which I saw as an antidote to a reductive, technocratic way that dominated in those days. Issues in the bureaucracy were so siloed, and narrowly framed, that it was hard to see let alone weigh the tradeoffs across issues or the risks of one course of action versus another.

Grand strategy as a research program had fallen on hard times when Beverly Gage took over the Yale program in 2017. I saw myself as part of a wave of scholars, including Gage, who aimed to move beyond the old ways with the old implications. At the time, much of the research in grand strategy had become deeply regressive — rehashed case studies about the Spanish empire, Cold War containment, and the German blitzkrieg, oye. Practitioners of grand strategy were basically only interested in defense strategy. Scholars were looking at questions of war and had nothing to say about social protests, labor movements, climate change, poverty, or using public policy beyond the State Department to realize societal goals. The most interesting grand strategy journal articles were review essays — summaries of the literature rather than new insights within the literature.

It was a very elitist affair, which evidently was part of the problem. According to reports, Gage was pressured by conservative donors precisely because she wasn’t teaching grand strategy “the way Henry Kissinger would.” Never mind that Kissinger stands credibly accused of war crimes. Never mind that he was the very model of a modern major sycophant to power. Never mind that his career has betrayed a remarkably jaundiced view of history. Even if you looked past all this, the Kissingerian approach to grand strategy wasn’t just killing a potentially valuable way of thinking about the world; it was subordinating ideas and debate to influence politics.

As a former student in the Yale program commented on twitter: “‘grand strategy’ became the discourse through which these advisers were able to offer their endorsements of the Bush administration’s race to launch wars that would destroy hundreds of thousands of lives and achieve none of their putatively lofty goals.”

That’s right. Grand strategic prowess became a vehicle for proximity to power, but worse than that, it become a tool to legitimate some of the worst decisions of the 21st century. That Gage ended up facing conservative donor pressure was directly a consequence of this elitism. Another astute observer on twitter wryly noted: “these projects seem to only exist at places like Yale. Hard to imagine this would be such a problem if the program had well-resourced, accessible competitors.”

Indeed. Precisely the kind of project I’m championing on the other side of the planet, at Victoria University of Wellington. If grand strategy were taught and discussed more widely and in more contexts, and if it wasn’t by elites and for elites, Gage wouldn’t have been in such a difficult spot.

For the rest of us, there’s a question of whether to throw the baby out with the bath water. Some critics will almost certainly argue that the Kissingerian legacy in grand strategy makes it unredeemable. But that’s a genetic fallacy.

I’ll keep working in a grand strategic tradition because I think it’s possible to embrace new applications, approaches, and conceptions of who grand strategy ought to serve. Gage’s work at Yale the past few years suggests I’m right. But to keep grand strategy redeemable, we need to move beyond Kissinger.

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Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a think tanker at lots of places around the world: a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defence & strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast.