On My Grand Strategy on Grand Strategy (Interim Book Report or Tour of a Tour of Tours of Tours)

I have had an essay on American Grand Strategy – working title: “Pacific War: Strategy and the World-Historical State” – on the back feedburner for going on a couple of years now – and I still feel it needs better grounding or precautionary backgrounding, or perhaps fortification, vs. recent writings on the general subject.1 I find myself with the same self-skeptical position on a more recent addition to the In Progress pile, “Si Vis Bellum,” which began as a short response to a blog comment on the unreliability and misuse of the terms “militarism” and “interventionism,” but which in the writing and re-writing turned into another mini-magnum opus attacking some of the same targets in somewhat the same way.

I may yet join the two together. Or: Maybe that should be my strategy. Specifically: Though I would not seek nor even contemplate an engagement with all the the best and brightest thinking from a vast and heterogeneous defense, history, international relations, and political science governmental, academic, and volunteer army of armies built up and extended over generations, or centuries, or millennia, I feel that I should at least be conversant on the main questions as discussed in recent non-specialist works. To that end, I added three books to my reading list: I recently finished Barry Posen’s Restraint (2014, a “defining treatise”), am currently reading Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy (2015, “magisterial”), and I have Hal Brands’ What Good Is Grand Strategy? (2015, “simply one of the best and most useful books on grand strategy”) to get to next and last.

I will want to think further about Posen’s oxymoronical term for the reigning American strategic or strategic-historical concept, “Liberal Hegemony,” and determine what distinguishes it from what I have been calling “Neo-Imperialism.” What other readers might find more interesting is Posen’s careful and quite fittingly restrained elucidation of particular propositions that have lately entered into political discussion in a rather disruptively un-restrained manner. He argues, for example, that American allies should be, if necessary, not just cajoled or coaxed or encouraged, but compelled to take greater responsibility for their own defense. He argues that a little bit of nuclear proliferation might not be the worst thing, might even be a good thing, and is inevitable anyway. He does not bluster or cavil on the matters, however. He realistically appraises resistance and risks, and proposes flexible schemes of gradual implementation. Along the way, he also offers a true tour d’horizon on the global state of things.

Freedman offers something even grander, a tour of tours, to the effect that strategy or the idea of strategy becomes a lens for a re-examining everything we file under history, from evolutionary and ancient origins through the entire social and cultural development of Western and now global civilization. Eventually, as German Idealism tried to tell us, our understanding of strategy or its possibilities and limitations is our understanding of consciousness or human consciousness and its possibilities and limitations. In other words Freedman’s project is downright Hegelian, a phenomenology of the world spirit, even if Hegel receives only one respectful sentence across the 700-and-some pages. Brands’ focus would appear much more focused, since his aim is to analyze how recent American presidential administrations, from the beginning of the Cold War through the War on Terror, have sought to define and implement strategic concepts, or turn theory into praxis. We can view this project as equally “world-historical,” however – in the two senses of the term, in short the aims as well as the conditions, that according to the philosophy of world history must eventually converge on the same meaning.

These three books do not, of course, exhaust the project’s entire bibliography, which latter would include classics on strategy and strategy-in-relation-to-history and even an I hope reasonably representative take from defense-intellectual blog posts and Twitter feeds, but I am not trying to qualify for an ersatz PhD in intellectual or military or military-intellectual history. Again: I am seeking a grand strategic overview of the grand strategic field, with an emphasis on the world all around us – not total occupation of a literary continent and victory in detail down to every last sty and hollow. All the same, if I am reluctant to add to the reading list unnecessarily, I will remain grateful for recommendations on any further very-essential reading.


  1. I think I may also have gotten carried away with Hobbesian-Schmittian metaphors and the characteristics of Leviathan vs. Behemoth states, when the piece as composed was not really short, as a matter of proportions, on speculative material. []

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8 comments on “On My Grand Strategy on Grand Strategy (Interim Book Report or Tour of a Tour of Tours of Tours)

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  1. This stuff is beyond my unpay level, but still it’s worth mentioning what I’m reading that comes at some of the issues you’re working on from a different slant. The Stack – “an interdisciplinary design brief for a new geopolitics that works with and for planetary-scale computation.”

    Bratton takes a starting point Carl Schmitt’s idea of Nomos proposing the technological represents a new nomos beyond land, sea and air, and therefore another theater for contesting power and sovereignty.

    It may be a bit afield for your endeavor, but I thought it would worthwhile for you to be aware of. Plus if you wanted to fire off a short post on Schmitt, I would find a primer helpful.

    • (Thought I’d replied already… must have forgotten to push the button.)

      Thanks for the link, and I’ll read the piece with interest. Maybe a response to it do the other trick, too.

        • I find it ironic that tracking down discussion of Bratton’s work on-line is a challenge. I did locate this hour+ lecture on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDRxNOJxXEE I hate lectures on YouTube, but I’ll try to sample enough of it to see how much I want to read his book, and confront whatever he has done with Schmitt.

          In the meantime, a site search here on “Schmitt and nomos” brings up three prior posts, including the post whose themes I have been seeking to extend, explain, and evidence in in the “Pacific War” essay: The State of the Neo-Empire Is Strong. Then there’s Comment on Nob Akimoto’s Geographic Chains of Democratic Nationalism, which was written closer in time to my first reading The Nomos of the Earth. Then there’s Chairman Mao and the Cosmopirates. If those don’t help, maybe there’s something else I’ve already written that might be helpful, or maybe you can narrow down your ask.

          It seems that Bratton is as concerned with “sovereignty”: I think that that search would turn up a longer list of prior posts, in connection with “the exception.” It’s also possible that the Heidegger-Gray critique of the Age of Technology or just technology – as dangerously or perhaps essentially nihilistic – or Polanyi’s more moderately greenish views on the Great Transformation, would be as relevant. Kahn also persuasively links the all-consuming/annihilating essence of the internet to earlier propagations of “Enlightenment.” (Schmitt’s critique parallels and reinforces all of these, in my view.)

          So, I suppose my main questions for Bratton and his brand new improved nomos would be how aware it or he is of such critiques, of the two- or multi-sidedness of the process he seems to be describing, and of its pre-figuration in or possible status as continuation of earlier politico-religious and philosophical globalisms. Perhaps I’d first have to see how he defines “nomos,” however.

  2. The Comment on Nob was the most helpful. The interview seemed less so after being in only 40/365 of the book. Trying to explain the book in an interview must be frustrating for him.

    B aims to use Schmitt as a starting point, deconstructing S’s ideas to clear the way for his own. So at this level, I should probably read S first, but I’m not gonna do that and will work with B’s gloss of S. Perhaps if I have specific ?s I send them your way.

    So maybe an excerpt might be useful for you:

    …it will be first be necessary to show how this collapse of the Schmittian distinction between land and sea (and that it implies for the ultimate career of states as they into the Cloud and The Stack) is accomplished not only by the radicalization of the “aerial” into even more vaporous “information space”, but equally through a radicalization of the physical line carving into the territory and guaranteeing its own enforcement. As The Stack emerges as both the machine and the geography, the territory and the map at once, yet more smoke escapes from the ears of Schmitt’s direct and indirect heirs.

    • Hmmmm… I think I might enjoy looking at his use of Schmitt – not quite sure yet it would be worth the time/effort/resources. The passage doesn’t convince me he has grasped Schmitt’s anticipation of this type of analysis. As the Chairman Mao post was meant to suggest, the theory of “Grossraeume” was intended as an answer to the disorienting, reductive universalism or globalism that Schmitt found to be very typically American and “liberal,” and that other critics have in different ways associated with capitalism, technology, progressivism, the Enlightenment, and so on. As the Mao post also shows, I am not complete averse to the notion of a newly emerging “nomos,” though I may have been more sympathetic at the time than I am now.

  3. Already, B has referenced this:

    In Schmitt’s positive view of the Monroe Doctrine…the doctrine reintroduced transnational territorial lines of demarcation into the body of international law, infusing it not just according to population and land and space and politics, but by “land people and ideas” in opposition to liberal internationalism and “Anglo-Saxon pseudo-universalism”. For the older Schmitt, both the Wilsonian/UN globalism as well as Nazi Germany’s Lebenstaum diluted really “genuine” Grossaume (plural) in a stable order.

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And this programmer suggested a way to avoid user input all together:

Eventually, programmers on Reddit started making fully-functioning, interactive versions of the awful forms, like this and this and this. Someone even created one out of the classic game Snake. The meme hasn’t stopped for weeks now, and iterations of it seem to be growing more detailed and elaborate.

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Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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State of the Discussion

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+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
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+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic