The downside of making grand plans
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