The down­side of mak­ing grand plans

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In the last year of Lord Sal­is­bury’s life, the Vic­to­rian states­man ex­pressed re­gret for an al­leged Bri­tish folly: fail­ure to es­pouse the Con­fed­er­ate cause in the Amer­i­can Civil War. “If we had in­ter­fered,” he wrote in 1903, “it might have been pos­si­ble to re­duce the power of the United States to man­age­able pro­por­tions. But two such chances are not given to a na­tion in the course of its ca­reer.”

The splen­didly provoca­tive Amer­i­can his­to­rian John Lewis Gad­dis cites this as a re­flec­tion of Sal­is­bury’s vi­sion of grand strat­egy. He goes on to note that once the great Tory, as prime min­is­ter, had re­gret­fully ac­cepted the im­pos­sib- il­ity of check­ing the as­cent of Amer­i­can might, he de­ter­mined to go to any lengths to avoid a col­li­sion with the US. Gad­dis writes ap­prov­ingly: “He and his suc­ces­sors be­gan me­thod­i­cally and uni­lat­er­ally elim­i­nat­ing all sources of fric­tion with the United States.”

Bri­tain re­frained from ar­gu­ment when Wash­ing­ton made a heavy-handed at­tempt to de­cide on Venezuela’s bor­ders; stayed neu­tral in the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War; and de­clined to con­test Alaska’s bound­ary with Canada or Amer­i­can an­nex­a­tion of The Philip­pines. If Bri­tish pol­icy could not quite be de­scribed as ap­pease­ment, “it was lu­bri­ca­tion”.

Defin­ing grand strat­egy as the align­ment of po­ten­tially in­fi­nite as­pi­ra­tions with nec­es­sar­ily lim­ited ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Gad­dis quotes Ed­mund Burke in 1775: “In all fair deal­ings, the thing bought must bear some pro­por­tion to the pur­chase paid.” The grand strate­gies of many na­tional lead­ers col­lapse be­cause they fail to see the ne­ces­sity of ap­pease­ment or (if that word has ac­quired ex­trav­a­gantly pe­jo­ra­tive sig­nif­i­cance since Mu­nich in 1938) of com­pro­mise.

The au­thor high­lights the Per­sians’ folly in un­der­tak­ing the in­va­sion of Greece: “Xerxes had brought ev­ery­thing with him across the Helle­spont ex­cept a grand strat­egy.” Napoleon in­vaded Rus­sia for the lim­ited pur­pose of forc­ing the tsar to join his block­ade of Bri­tain, and sud­denly found 500,000 men dead and his em­pire doomed be­cause he had ig­nored the in­dis­pens­able re­quire­ment to re­late the stu­pen­dous re­sources re­quired to over­run Rus­sia to the fi­nite means avail­able.

Gad­dis re­peat­edly cites and en­dorses Carl von Clause­witz, who said war must be sub­or­di­nate to pol­i­tics, and there­fore to in­tel­li­gent pol­icy (oth­er­wise it be­comes mere “sense­less vi­o­lence”): in our own times, think of Viet­nam, or Iraq. Un­for­tu­nately, suc­cess­ful ex­ploita­tion of vi­o­lence as an in­stru­ment of pol­icy can cause na­tions to em­brace the wrong lessons.

Prom­i­nent among the rea­sons Ger­many’s gen­er­als were sui­ci­dally un­afraid of a show­down in 1914 was that the sword had served them so well in the re­cent past, se­cur­ing great vic­to­ries over Den­mark, Aus­tria and France.

Bis­marck had forged a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and grand strat­egy that worked only in the hands of a chan­cel­lor of bril­liance and an em­peror who was sane. The ab­sence World War I.

Gad­dis is justly de­scribed as the dean of Cold War his­tory. Set along­side his pre­vi­ous mag­is­te­rial works, this book is an odd­ity. Its pub­lisher de­clares it to be based on his “ac­claimed Yale course”, and much of it reads likes an ex­u­ber­ant se­ries of dis­courses de­signed to hold the at­ten­tion of sem­i­nar au­di­ences, rather than a mea­sured ar­gu­ment.

Some of the his­to­ri­ans Gad­dis quotes com­mand scant schol­arly rev­er­ence, even if they are well re­garded in con­ser­va­tive so­cial cir­cles. He de­fends his own broad­brush as­ser­tions by declar­ing de­fi­antly that many aca­demic his­to­ri­ans have now be­come so spe­cialised that they “tend to avoid the gen­er­al­i­sa­tions upon which the­o­ries de­pend”.

True enough, but some of the au­thor’s ver­dicts are highly dis­putable. He im­plies the US army in France in 1918 was re­spon­si­ble for the Novem­ber Ger­man col­lapse, which is par­tially true morally, but cer­tainly not so mil­i­tar­ily.

He en­dows Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s con­duct of for­eign pol­icy with a good deal more in­tegrity and wis­dom than Win­ston Churchill, for one, would have cred­ited it with. But he is surely right to iden­tify gifts for dis­sem­bling and tim­ing, to­gether with com­mon sense, as fore­most among the re­quire­ments for suc­cess­ful leader- of both pre­cip­i­tated

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