What is the Role of History in the Study and Practice of Grand Strategic Thought?

13 September 2022

Elizabeth Borgwardt, Christopher McKnight Nichols, and Andrew Preston (eds.), Rethinking American Grand Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Late in the year 1906, a senior official in the British Foreign Office assessed the state of the United Kingdom’s relations with France and Germany. In his memorandum, Eyre Crowe wrote favorably of Anglo-French diplomacy, which had benefitted from the entente signed between the governments just two years before. This new arrangement, and what seemed like its promising future, would become a cornerstone of Britain’s policy on the continent, he suggested. The state of relations with Germany, however, was far different in his mind. Incensed by the actions of Berlin during the recent Algeciras Conference—talks which sought to settle a dispute between Britain and Germany over Morocco—Crowe penned a litany of transgressions committed by German leaders dating back to Otto von Bismarck. Many of these had led to “gratuitous concessions” on the part of the United Kingdom, he complained. The record had clearly shown the “entirely one-sided aggressiveness” of the German government dating back decades. There was only one way to deal with this threat, and that was through a more concerted effort to oppose German foreign policy. “The vain hopes that…Germany can be ‘conciliated’ and made more friendly must be definitely given up”, he wrote. The United Kingdom should thus uphold its traditional balance of power policy and display “the most unbending determination to uphold British rights and interests in every part of the globe.”

Though he was advocating for an explicit change in Britain’s policy toward the European continent, and specifically toward Germany, he couched his recommendation in what he saw as a larger tradition of British grand strategy. The country’s geographic reality—namely its existence as a small island off the northeast coast of Europe—had led its statesmen in the past to associate its survival with the “possession of preponderant sea power.” And because of its naval supremacy, he pointed out, the United Kingdom had been brought into contact with a great number of independent countries. While such power might naturally draw negative reactions from these governments, the British were able to retain their influence by harmonising their own policies with that of other nations. “The first interest of all countries is the preservation of national independence. It follows that England, more than any other non-insular Power, has a direct and positive interest in the maintenance of the independence of nations, and therefore must be the natural enemy of any country threatening the independence of others, and the natural protector of the weaker communities.”

In the weeks after Crowe submitted his paper, a counter-memorandum arrived on the desk of the Foreign Secretary. Lord Sanderson, until recently the civilian head of the Foreign Office, took exception with a number of Crowe’s assessments. In his view, the actions of Germany were not so much the “black deeds” of an aggressive power but the inevitable jostling for position undertaken by a rising European and world power. “It is at all events unwise to meet her [Germany] with an attitude of pure obstruction…A great and growing nation cannot be repressed.” In essence, Sanderson was calling for a more conciliatory British policy towards Germany, one that would resist the urge to directly confront Berlin in Europe and abroad. “It would be a misfortune that she should be led to believe that in whatever direction she seeks to expand she will find the British lion in her path. There must be places in which German enterprise can find a field without injury to any important British interests.”

Between 1907 and the outbreak of war in 1914, British policy towards Germany would forego Sanderson’s warnings in favor of Crowe’s recommendation. “There was no longer any scope for diplomacy”, Henry Kissinger wrote of this changing Anglo-German relationship. “The issue had become who would back down in a crisis, and whenever that condition was not fulfilled, war was nearly inevitable.”

This moment in British diplomatic history is of great relevance to those scholars interested in the connection between strategic thinking and historical consciousness. Among other insights, it represents the way that historical generalizations (in this case Sanderson’s assumption that great powers behave in a certain way) and notions of historical traditions in national policy can exercise great influence on the decision-making of statesmen and women. One of the first scholars to recognize the connection in this specific case was the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, who wrote in July 1960 that despite Crowe’s and Sanderson’s opinions being “extraordinarily historical in character”, the key difference between each was “historiographical.” The way they made sense of various historical phenomena—from Britain’s geographic position to Germany’s actions dating back to the 1870s—largely determined their policy recommendations. As Butterfield noted, “History has sometimes to be regarded as ‘action’ as well as ‘thought’, and something of a man’s attitude to the past may enter into the structure of his own contemporary world-view, and even of his policy.”

In the present day, the connection between history and high policy, the latter of which we might call “grand strategy”, has been revitalized in some quarters of the academy. This is especially true within the United States and the United Kingdom, where members of the trans-Atlantic “Applied History” movement have often addressed the great questions of future American and British foreign policy. Historians in particular have played a key role in this initiative, which, as it has developed, has come to amplify the general relevance of historical study and to revitalize the dormant connection between historical and strategic thought.

One of the more notable collections of writing that embodies this general mindset is the edited volume Rethinking American Grand Strategy, published in 2021. Over twenty scholars, the vast majority trained historians, contributed to the volume and in so doing reflected on some of the main traditions and the future direction of American foreign policy. For students and practitioners familiar with the topic, the list of contributors is a who’s who of esteemed historians, among them Mary Dudziak, William Inboden, and Hal Brands (whose classic line about grand strategy as the “the intellectual architecture that lends structure to foreign policy” is referenced by a number of contributors to the book). Among other achievements, the editors Elizabeth Borgwardt, Christopher Nichols, and Andrew Preston—all accomplished historians themselves—have brought in younger scholars as well as those examining American foreign policy from new and long-overlooked perspectives. Lauren Taylor and Emily Conroy-Krutz contributed chapters on global health and religious missionaries, respectively; while Daniel Tichenor has explored the relationship between immigration policy and larger strategic aims, specifically through a study of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. “The contentious and uneven character of immigration and refugee control in American politics,” he concludes, “often has frustrated the best-laid plans of leaders pursuing larger national purposes in domestic and international relations.” There are bold and provocative pieces within this volume as well. Adriane Lentz-Smith, for example, describes what she sees as the “unthinking whiteness of grand strategy itself” while highlighting the writings of Carl Rowan and Sam Greenlee, two writers who thought in grand strategic terms but who were ignored by the key policymakers of their day. She shows how these thinkers connected domestic policies of oppression with foreign policies of exploitation, particularly in the Third World. “Ideology does not exist separate from statecraft”, she rightly notes. “It is what legitimizes the practice of power.” Taken together, the volume offers a wide and stimulating range of studies, one that provides a strong sense of the past, present, and future of grand strategy as a concept within the lexicon of American foreign policy.

Apart from the intriguing and informative chapters there are several themes which emerge from the book—a not altogether easy accomplishment for editors of a lengthy volume. Most obvious perhaps is the relationship between agency and structure. In this case, it begs the question, one addressed by other great historians of American foreign policy such as Walter McDougall, of just how much credit historians can bestow on individuals or groups for developing, implementing, and in some cases succeeding with a grand strategy. Is it really in the hands of policymakers, or does the cumulation of external circumstances—everything from ideologies to economic power, geographies to environmental catastrophes—render individual agency impotent in the face of complex phenomena? Can individuals and groups, particularly those in the executive branch, direct the ship of state, which in the case of the United States, comprises an expansive and often inertial mix of federal bureaucracies, think tanks, private organizations, and university centers?

A number of chapters touch on this general theme (see for example those by Borgwardt and Michaela Hoenicke Moore), but none more so than the concluding piece of the book, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and admitted skeptic of grand strategy, Fredrik Logevall. He argues here that, “History suggests that grand strategies do not alter the trajectory of great-power politics all that much.” The Cold War is one of the examples he leans on, noting that “victory” for the United States by 1989 had a great deal to do with the “systemic and long-standing weaknesses of the Soviet system.” Moreover, the striving to articulate a grand strategic notion in the decades after the Second World War led to an alarmist and militarized American society. He wrestles with whether a more pragmatic or ad-hoc approach – something suggested by other leading minds of American foreign policy—might, at times, be the more appropriate outlook.

Perhaps the overarching theme, however, and the one which the editors seem most intent to put forward, concerns the future framework for studying the subject. As Nichols and Preston describe in their introduction, grand strategy should be understood as an epistemology, which they define as “a theory of knowledge of international history that organizes outcomes around methods, means, and desired ends.” It is a stimulating idea, and certainly one worth engaging with given that the topic of grand strategy has, in the last decade or so, become more popular—and often more hotly debated—in academic departments and scholarly writing. The effort undertaken in the introduction to this volume, though, might do more to complicate rather than clarify the term.

A long-standing problem with the concept of grand strategy is its seemingly academic and theoretical nature. Government officials, and even some scholars, have argued that the term appears neat and tidy in the abstract, but when faced with the time-sensitive pressures and surprises that flood modern policymakers, it becomes useless. Against this practical backdrop, the idea of studying—much less publicly discussing—grand strategy as an epistemology risks pushing the term further into some of the dark, foreboding, and ultimately impractical grottos of the academy.

There are undoubtedly benefits to grasping the idea of grand strategy—and this author is certainly a proponent—but there are important adjustments to be made in terms of how it is understood and taught. The solution is not to burrow ever deeper into the scholarly soil, but to clarify and ultimately simplify the concept, and in the end, to make it more approachable and achievable to scholars, students, and policymakers alike. But how?

As a start, the concept should not stray too far from its roots in diplomatic and military strategy. Though it encompasses a range of domestic considerations—as the chapters on immigration policy, disaster relief, even reproductive rights in this book do so well to point out—its primary and most consequential focus is on foreign policy, including its military, economic, and political dimensions. While countless individuals can think in grand strategic terms—a reality evidenced by chapters on W.E. B. DuBois, Carl Rowan, and Sam Greenlee—an inescapable fact remains that grand strategy, while it involves ideational, social, economic, and military considerations, relates principally to what can be called the “point of delivery”, in other words, those senior officials responsible for designing, implementing, and adjusting the highest-level foreign policies of a government. Straying too far from this practical anchor runs the risk of the concept floating into obscurity.

And here we might return to the very purpose of the term itself. Why, for instance, did strategists like Basil Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller began to use the term in their writing during the 1920s and 1930s? It was, first and foremost, used to signify something bigger than specific military, political, and economic strategies, especially what might be considered short-term, even day-to-day strategies. These were often concerned with matching specific means to specific ends or competing with other nations in a particular industry or region. Grand strategy, on the other hand, was seen as something more than specific, targeted, or short-term policy. It was an approach or mindset which sought to combine disparate elements together, under a clear set of long-term principles. Britain’s balance of power approach to the European continent throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might be considered a principle of grand strategic thought, but perhaps more important was the principle which that balance was intended to serve—namely, the prevention of any one power from dominating the continent and thereby threatening the United Kingdom, a development which would have threatened the wider international economic and political order that the British Empire was seeking to uphold throughout the world.

In viewing the concept of grand strategy in this way—one that is seen to be more of a mindset concerned with a nation’s place and purpose in the world, as opposed to a specific blueprint for success—can allow us to view it as a practice inherent to statecraft. In many ways, the term is similar to one used by European statesmen in the nineteenth century. “High policy”, as they referred to it, dealt with larger, more fundamental, and ultimately more consequential questions of a government’s broader foreign policy. Financial, security, or trade policies, taken individually, would fall below the tier of high policy; but the strategy adopted towards Germany vis-à-vis France or major European powers—in other words, a decision which would encompass and affect national, regional, and global characteristics, would be considered high policy. This elevation of priority and importance can be used in the same way with strategic thinking, writing, and decision-making. Scholars long ago gave it the moniker “grand”, a label which can appear arrogant and, well, grandiose; but the concept and its practical employment is, in the end, essential to sound and proactive policymaking.

A second major adjustment, and one that this collected volume by its very approach embodies in principle, is the need to reground grand strategic thinking in historical study. How much of strategic thinking—understood most simply as the alignment of ends, ways, and means—is conditioned by an individual or collective understanding of historical events, ones either directly experienced or studied second-hand? In his chapter on Edward Mead Earle’s famed Princeton seminar which began in the early 1940s, Professor Andrew Preston discusses the work of historian Albert Weinberg, whose contribution to the group was grounded in historical references. Noting the effect of geography on traditional approaches to American foreign policy, Weinberg wrote that, “the American concept of security tends to be more extreme, more exigent, than does the concept of security among most other peoples.” It was an assessment eerily similar to Eyre Crowe’s description of British foreign policy in his New Year’s Day memorandum of 1907. Regardless of the accuracy of Weinberg’s analysis—and Preston notes that several members of the Princeton seminar disagreed with his assessment – the point is reflective of how historical interpretations form an essential basis (I would argue the most important basis) of grand strategic thinking. Thus, traditional historical study—especially the approaches that are wary of the tendency to adopt more social scientific analytical methods—remains the indispensable subject for those responsible for high policy or grand strategy. And within the discipline of history, it is international, diplomatic, intellectual, economic, and cultural history which remains the most useful for policymakers.

In addition to the connection between historical study and grand strategic thinking is another implicit point which the edited volume, by its very thematic focus, seems to suggest. Specifically, it supports the idea that grand strategy should be studied from the national or perhaps even the civilizational perspective. This approach holds that the search for more universal methods or application of grand strategy—for instance, to suggest in a mechanistic fashion that under given circumstances governments should or will behave in a certain way—often does more to obscure than reveal some of the key elements of strategic thinking. Importantly, to approach strategic thought from the national or civilizational unit of analysis—in effect, seeing in different national societies unique characteristics which shape the nature, interpretation, and purpose of strategic thought—still leaves room for transnational and transhistorical considerations. How, for example, the concept of raison d’etat as it developed in sixteenth-century Florence went on to influence generations of thinkers and statesmen in European nations should not be seen as the reserve of esoteric historians. Instead, such consciousness of historical traditions, in all their varied cultural, political, and intellectual forms, can allow students and practitioners to grasp an essential element of strategic thought—specifically, its historical and ideational conditionality.

This brings us back to the point made by Herbert Butterfield over sixty years ago, that one’s attitude towards the past can, and often does, shape one’s worldview and recommendations for present policy. The authors who contributed to this welcome and worthwhile volume on Rethinking American Grand Strategy would appear to agree with this general view. But as historians of the future continue to stake their discipline’s relevance for contemporary foreign policy, it is worth asking whether we should go further, to say that on a more fundamental and philosophical level, one’s interpretation of the past does not simply shape but fully conditions one’s present view of international affairs. In the case of grand strategic thinking—which should take as its starting point a sober analysis of larger political, ideological, intellectual, economic, environmental, and cultural trends, as well as an understanding of how individual policymakers are shaped by their own historical consciousness and domestic environment—this is certainly no exception. In this way, the study of grand strategy may avoid the need to expand into new epistemological forms, and instead recognize and re-center its reliance on historical interpretation.



Andrew Ehrhardt is an Ax:son Johnson Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Kissinger Center, Johns Hopkins University. 

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