Cold War Historian Discusses Grand Strategy

John Lewis GaddisFor the last eight years, U.S. military leaders and President George W. Bush knew what they wanted to accomplish in the short run in Iraq, but the long-run objective was less clear. According to John Lewis Gaddis, they lacked a “grand strategy.”

Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University, delivered the Von der Heyden Distinguished Lecture Thursday at Duke University’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy in front of a standing-room-only crowd.

“Grand strategy is a calculated relationship of means to large ends,” Gaddis said. “It has to do with how one uses whatever one has to get wherever one wants to go.”

That general definition was explained through a series of historical and contemporary examples. In the historical context, Gaddis mentioned the American Grand Strategy of containment during the Cold War which ultimately proved successful, as well as the expansion of NATO under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to eastern European nations.

More recently, Gaddis looked to the actions Russia took in the last six months—invading Georgia, a country that was interested in joining NATO, and then withholding natural gas power from eastern Europe—as an effective Grand Strategy that combined actions in several different policy areas to achieve an overarching goal of regional supremacy.

Gaddis spent the majority of his lecture, though, describing the cutting-edge program in Grand Strategy he teaches at Yale. The course begins in the Spring semester, includes a summer component, and concludes with an intensive fall session. Duke’s new American Grand Strategy Program is modeled on Gaddis’s.

Gaddis referred to those three semesters as a study of classics, with an emphasis on heads of state such as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan; surprise, in which Gaddis encourages his students to try things outside their comfort zone, such as taking an intensive language class in a foreign country; and responsibility, when Gaddis challenges his students to present national security briefs on contemporary issues. The course culminates with the class electing a mock executive branch of the federal government and simulating a national security crisis.

To conclude, Gaddis referred to Grand Strategy as an “ecological strategy” in the sense that it depends on a head of state viewing a particular problem in the larger global context.

“It’s about seeing forests, and not just trees,” Gaddis said. “It’s about seeing the world as round, not square.”

The talk, cosponsored by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Vice Provost for International Affairs, kicks off the Institute’s two-day conference on “Debating Grand Strategy After Major War.”