What Is Grand Strategy?

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What Is Grand Strategy?* by John Lewis Gaddis** Yale University

When my colleagues Paul Kennedy, Charlie Hill, and I first began talking about setting up a grand strategy course at Yale in the late 1990s, at least half the people to whom we tried to explain this thought we were talking about “grant” strategy: how do you get the next federal or foundation grant? This misunderstanding would not have occurred, I think, during the fifty years of insecurity that separated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, from the final collapse of the Soviet Union in December, 1991. We had a grand strategy for fighting World War II already in place at the time of Pearl Harbor – go after Germany first – and with adjustments we stuck to it throughout that conflict. We had, in containment, a grand strategy for fighting the Cold War worked out within the first five years of that conflict – some would say earlier. With adjustments, we held on to that strategy for the next four decades, despite the confusions generated by our domestic politics, our relations with allies, and at least one grievous miscalculation of fundamental interests, which was the war in Vietnam. We maintained purpose and direction during those dangerous years because we had to. For as Dr. Samuel Johnson once put it: “Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Now, maybe historians of some distant future will conclude that the United States has been equally adept at framing and sustaining grand strategies during the two decades that have passed since the Cold War ended. Revisionist ingenuity is always surprising. But I have difficulty right now seeing how that argument is going to be made. Consider the record. The administration of George H. W. Bush, facing the most favorable prospects ever for the use of American power in the international arena, spoke grandly of building a Prepared as the Karl Von Der Heyden Distinguished Lecture, Duke University, February 26, 2009, the keynote address for a conference on “American Grand Strategy after War,” sponsored by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy. ** John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History and Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University. He wishes to acknowledge the generosity of Nicholas F. Brady ’52 and Charles B. Johnson ’54 in making that program possible, as well as the support, over many years, of President Richard C. Levin and the Yale administration, the Smith Richardson and John M. Olin Foundations, and the Friends of International Security Studies. Professor Gaddis also wishes to thank Paul Kennedy and Charles Hill, his collaborators in teaching Grand Strategy at Yale, who would nonetheless want him to emphasize – and who will find ways to remind him – that the views contained herein are strictly his own. *


“new world order” but then did little to bring it about, as if the coining of a phrase alone would construct the reality. The Clinton administration spoke of “enlargement” and “engagement,” without specifying what was to be “enlarged” or who was to be “engaged.” It was a bad sign when President Clinton assured an aide in 1994 that Roosevelt and Truman had gotten along fine without grand strategies. They’d just made it up as they went along, and he didn’t see why he couldn’t do the same.1 The morning of September 11, 2001, dispelled any lingering illusions on that score, just as abruptly as the attack on Pearl Harbor ended a similar period of complacency on another morning almost six decades earlier. But would anybody claim, seven and a half years later, that the strategy George W. Bush devised compares favorably with the ones Roosevelt and Truman embraced during World War II and the early Cold War? Bush’s strategy succeeded in one important respect: there were no further attacks on...
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