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.
- 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. [↩]