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20181104 – On Grand Strategy



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The main idea of this book is to formulate meaning of grand strategy that author defines as “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities”and provide a wide ranged confirmation from history and art to support this idea. It mainly demonstrates superiority of flexible approach to ways and means to achieve adjustable objectives over rigid subordination of everything to overreaching objectives.



This narrative starts with discussion of Xerxes decision to cross Hellespont despite advise of his advisor and uncle Artabanus, who pointed to unpredictable character of the future struggle. Xerxes’ position is: “if you were to take account of everything . . . you would never do anything. It is better to have a brave heart and endure one half of the terrors we dread than to [calculate] all of the terrors and suffer nothing at all . . . Big things are won by big dangers.”

From this initiation author moves to Isaiah Berlin and his discussion on hedgehogs and foxes, applying it to Xerxes vs. Artabanus and defining Xerxes as a big idea man and Artabanus as “how to do” man, who can see complexities of undertaking. This follows by discussion of Tetlock’s finding about predictability power of experts, which is very close to none. The author moves to the main point of the chapter – need to establish a proper relationship between ends and means and discusses how exactly hedgehog Xerxes and fox Artabanus both failed: “The tragedy of Xerxes and Artabanus is that each lacked the other’s proficiency. The king, like Tetlock’s hedgehogs, commanded the attention of audiences but tended to dig himself into holes. The adviser, like Tetlock’s foxes, avoided the holes, but couldn’t retain audiences. Xerxes was right. If you try to anticipate everything, you’ll risk not accomplishing anything. But so was Artabanus. If you fail to prepare for all that might happen, you’ll ensure that some of it will.

Next author brings Scott Fitzgerald and his definition of the first class intellect:“the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
, the quality both Xerxes and Artabanus were lacking. Author then goes into literary discussion of several famous artworks that he believes are relevant, consequently formulating the main point of this book. The final part of the chapter discusses training and planning as forms of preparation to action, stressing that it is not possible to plan for all contingencies and to be trained for all variants of the future, but both are necessary if not sufficient for concentration of resources and development of skills, which in combination with bold improvisation and effective behavior during action dramatically increase possibility of success.


Discussion in this chapter is built around Peloponnesian war and Athenian reliance on the long wall and Navy versus Spartans reliance on impromptu actions and improvisations.  Author discusses strategic value of expensive defense infrastructure, which often froze resources in places that may turn out to be not very useful because the opponent would take walls into consideration and would go around them. There is also very important psychological component: Athenians build walls on the back of farmers around the city, who were not really protected by these walls, so this strategy led to resentment of Athenians’ most important allies. Another downside was that by moving resources to infrastructure they starved warriors of weapons, training, and professionalism. It democratized war by removing class of professional warriors, but deprived Athens of effective human military component. Author then reviews details of the war and demonstrates how exactly the failure of strategy produced actual defeat. At the end of the chapter author links the hedgehog strategy and its inherent failure to American war in Vietnam, which was a classical case of such strategy.


Here author moves from Greeks to Chinese – San Tzu and their round about way of discussing strategy and everything else. The author finds here a way to tether a few principles to the practices, of which is many. The next teacher is Roman Imperator Octavius – great nephew of Caesar and very successful practitioner, since he did a lot and died in his bed of old age. Author reviews history of his actions in fight for power, especially fluidity of his alliances with Antony in fight with Sextus Pompeius. At the end of chapter author praises Octavius for his strategic success of turning dysfunctional republic into somewhat functional empire.


This chapter starts with work of George Kennan who researched Siberian native tribes in 1870s. It is about divine representation of reality in the minds of people. The eye-opening event here is the ease with which Kennan nearly moved from his native Christianity into polytheistic believes of natives.  This moves discussion from military and power struggle strategy to ideological strategy or strategy for salvation as Augustine and others practiced it. Author discusses “Confessions” and “City of God” in which Augustine concerned himself with tensions such as: order vs. justice, war vs. peace, and Caesar vs. God. Resulting standards that Augustine framed were presented in form of checklists that become foundation of his teaching. After that author moves to Machiavelli and his strategic advice to a prince, eventually offering analogy for Augustine as hedgehog and Machiavelli as fox who promoted the “lightness of being”. Consequently author discusses strategy of Borgia and his use of Machiavellian technics in power struggle. Author stresses importance of power balancing and provides corresponding quote from Machiavelli’s “Discourses”: “[I] t is only in republics that the common good is looked to properly in that all that promotes it is carried out; and, however much this or that private person may be the loser on this account, there are so many who benefit thereby that the common good can be realized in spite of those few who suffer in consequence.”

At the end author again invokes Berlin and his interesting interpretation of fraise of tolerance:  “[T] here are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational,” Berlin insists, “capable of understanding . . . and deriving light from each other.” Otherwise, civilizations would exist in “impenetrable bubble[s],” incomprehensible to anyone on the outside. “Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes men human is common to them, and acts as a bridge”


The chapter starts with the statement that princes are always pivots around which society turns and thinkers such as Augustine or Machiavelli, while themselves being pivots of Western thought during their lives, were dependent on princes they served. Then author looks at two of them who competed in XVI century: Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth of England and strategy they applied. Here again author refers to rigidity of Philip and flexibility of Elizabeth to some extent explained by huge size and therefore inertia of his holdings and small size, compact, but with strong flexible arm of navy of Elizabeth’s realm. Her background gave her additional advantage of superb political training since her very survival was dependent on political skills and luck. Author refers to eventual triumph of Elizabeth as the strategy of small, but flexible force of England wearing out big and rigid force of Armada. One of the key elements of Elizabeth strategy was refusal to commit to anything as much as possible, always trying to leave place for maneuvering. At the end of chapter author discusses counterfactual novel about possible historical changes if assassin eliminated Elizabeth with all her foxy skills.


Here author moves close to our time and discusses Monroe doctrine, which at the point of its establishment by John Quincy Adams in 1823 could not be realistically supported by USA due to its weakness. It is also interesting that at the time Spanish America, which USA were going to protect from Europe, was much bigger than its northern neighbor. Author stresses diversity of USA at the time when its states differentiated from each other far more than countries of Spanish America. Author discusses specificity of American population as it emerged from English development and freely developed in environment of benevolent neglect from mother country, allowing establishment of democratic institutions, armed and independent population, and unusual culture of self-reliance. Author briefly reviewing American developments starting from 1760s, which he separates into 2 revolutions – one of 1776 for independence and another – constitutional revolution of 1786-88, which created highly functional Union of the states with innovative method of rule via representative democracy. Interestingly enough, author stresses difficulty of this method confirmed by the fact that many countries find it extremely difficult to support, typically falling into some kind of authoritarian rule.


Here author discusses theoretical strategists: Tolstoy and Clausewitz. He provides samples from both – writing about chaotic character of real battle and difficulty, or even impossibility, of making sense of any developments on the spot. Author looks at contradiction in their approaches when both promote determinism at the same time as being amazed by consequences of individual actions of actors such as Napoleon. After that author applies this thinking to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its consequences. Author provides concise summary for this: “(a) that because everything connects with everything else, there’s an inescapable interdependency across time, space, and scale— forget about distinguishing independent from dependent variables; (b) that, as a consequence, there’ll always be things that can’t be known— breaking them into components won’t help because there’ll always be smaller components; (c) that owing to what we can’t know, we’ll always retain an illusion of agency, however infinitesimal; (d) that while laws may govern these infinitesimals, they make no difference to us because we can’t feel their effects; therefore (e) our perception of freedom is, in practice, freedom itself.”


This starts with comparison of John Quincy Adams to Napoleon in the scale and complexity of his initial intention when he became president with minority vote. It was also showed similarly clear lack of understanding of challenges of practical implementation of this vision. Then author praises Adams for his persistence after he lost reelection and became congressmen in petitioning against slavery and placing the Constitution within the frame of Declaration – all men were created equal. After that author moves to Lincoln and reviews his development into unusual non-patronage politician who put up containment of slavery as his key position, linking pragmatism with passion of realigning practice with Declaration. Author looks at ideological competition between Lincoln and Douglas in famous debates that made Lincoln into viable presidential material. Author also reviews developments of Civil War, discussing Lincoln’s underestimate of Southern resolve and his development as strategist. Unlike previous examples, in this case the big rigid and slow moving side of North won over flexible, mobile and tactically superior South, but only after slick generals like McClellan were substituted by dogged and commonsensical commoners Grant and Sherman who were fighting to win at any cost.


This starts with description of fear of Americans that British Victorian Prime Minister Salisbury experienced together with contempt for democracy. He was afraid of Americans starting Napoleon like ideological war and would dream about helping Confederacy in order to keep America divided. Such interference did not occurred and ideological war also did not happen because of democracy, the system when regular people have say in politics, albeit in roundabout way. Eventually British increasingly democratic monarchy and Americans become more and more allied. After that author moves to Mackinder strategic paper “The Geographical pivot of History” and Mahan’s work on strategic significance of naval power. Author also discusses geopolitical and colonial strategies leading to WWI and then WWII and people who developed and applied them.


Here author returns to the live and wisdom of Isaiah Berlin. He discusses Berlin’s role as analyst of American politics for British and his attitudes to Soviet Allies whom he correctly identified as the evil challenger to democracy. Then, after brief discussion of Roosevelt presidency, author moves to define liberty as positive: “hedgehogs trying to herd foxes” or negative:“foxes with compasses who  “had the humility to be unsure of what lay ahead, the flexibility to adjust to it, and the ingenuity to accept, perhaps even to leverage, inconsistencies. They respected topographies, crafted choices within them, and evaluated these carefully once made.”

At the end author refers to political correctness and uses example of Robert Kennedy’s statement about unfairness of USA’s war against Mexico and its territorial gains, to which he was replied with question: “do you want to give it all back?  Author uses this example once again to define grand strategy as art of proportionality: “the alignment of potentially infinite aspirations with necessary limited capability”.


I find the main thesis of this book about realignment of objectives and capabilities very reasonable and, despite its triviality, very difficult to implement. The many reasons for this include usually very sketchy understanding of objectives. The simple example is “the world peace”.  At first thought it is great, but who would really want to live in the peaceful world based on Hitler or Stalin ideology, so any freedom loving person would wage war to the death on such “peaceful world”.

Another point of author – generally more successful approach of foxes vs. hedgehogs is also much more complex than it appears. The perfect fox has practically unlimited flexibility, but it is not possible in real live because of complexity of human action and its multistep character. This necessarily creates commitment that with each step forces continuation of initial direction. The simple example: any topographical allocation of resources based on plan A, makes it increasingly difficult to change suddenly to plan B that would require different topographical allocation. Overall it is a meaningful analysis of strategy albeit slightly overloaded with repetitive illustrations of the same point.


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