war on the rocks

Vulpine Virtues and Strategic Success

April 19, 2018

John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, New York: Penguin Press, 2018, 345 pgs.

The formulation of sound strategy may often be a rational process, but it is complicated by several polar tensions or contradictions. In What Good is Grand Strategy?, Hal Brands stressed how strategists seek clear logic but have to deal with the reality of nonlinearity and the pervasiveness of uncertainty in human affairs. Policymakers want to obtain foresight years into the future forces but must accept that the future is not foreseeable due to irreducible uncertainty in the world. Senior leaders might desire a tightly disciplined use of resources, but also need flexibility and reserves to adapt to changed and emergent circumstances. Great leaders must be decisive, but they must also seek consensus and compromise.

Brands’ observations are echoed in a richer and broader historical assessment presented by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Lewis Gaddis. Gaddis’ ambitious new book addresses the enduring reality of these tensions in the formulation and execution of grand strategy. This latest work is the product of decades of teaching in Yale’s renowned grand strategy program with the historian Paul Kennedy and diplomat cum scholar Charles Hill.

Central to Gaddis’ case studies is the comparison between two strategic archetypes made famous by Latvian-born intellectual Isaiah Berlin in The Hedgehog and the Fox. Berlin draws upon the classic Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote, “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” As summarized by Philip Tetlock in Superforecasting, hedgehogs have one central theory that they apply to all conditions with high confidence. Conversely, foxes are more skeptical about grand theories, humble about forecasts, and apt to remain flexible with their ideas, especially when faced with results or actual events. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, and strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, and more inclined to see complexity and nuance.

While Berlin and Tetlock prefer the guile and flexibility of the fox, Gaddis argues that great leaders need to be both hedgehog and fox, comfortable with combinations, contradictions, and contrasts. Gaddis goes on to demonstrate how these attributes have been applied by great leaders like Xerxes, Pericles, Augustus, Queen Elizabeth I, the Spanish King Philip II, and U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mixed amongst these heads of state are sections on famous thought leaders: Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Augustine, Tolstoy, Clausewitz, and Berlin himself.

The great leaders employ a number of fox-like traits as catalogued in Gaddis’ sweeping impressionistic survey. From Pericles, Gaddis identifies the importance of flexibility and going with “flows,” as well as the perils of fighting against constraints or directly against one’s opponent’s strengths. The great Athenian, according to Gaddis, was initially successful as a persuasive fox and steered his fellow citizens along, but eventually became a hedgehog that struggled against the constraints of the war against Sparta. The author concludes this is a crucial difference, “between respecting constraints and denying their existence.”

The need to balance the tensions of strategy is a consistent theme throughout the book. “He leaves enough options to satisfy any fox, while retaining the purposefulness of a hedgehog. He keeps opposing ideas in his mind by projecting them across time, space and scale.” For Sun Tzu, holding opposites in mind at the same time, both direct and indirect methods, is central to sound strategy. In fact, Gaddis claims, “they are the strategist’s keys to victory.”

Hence, Gaddis wants future strategists to be able to develop sound plans based on a hedgehog’s focus on his or her aspirations, while adopting the fox’s ability to improvise changes to those plans as circumstances shift. From Machiavelli, Gaddis discerns the importance of matching aspirations to capabilities, or what he calls proportionality. To Gaddis, aspirations are free from limits while capabilities are inevitably bound by them—but they must be coupled. “That happens,” Gaddis observes, “only when you hold both in mind simultaneously.”

From Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen of an island kingdom, Gaddis identifies the value of “pivoting.” This is described as the deliberate alignment of various power centers — church, states, rivals, and envoys — to create interlocking relationships that balance each other and retain the freedom of action of the principal agent, Elizabeth. The best position for a pivoting monarch is to never be pinned down and to avoid hasty decisions. The pivoter keeps his or her options open, extending them over time, to the point of being Hamlet-like.

Another example of pivoting was FDR, who admitted he was simply a juggler who preferred expediency over consistency. “I may be entirely inconsistent,” he once said, “if it will help win the war.” For Roosevelt, who pivoted between allies, the services, and domestic politics, logic and opacity were acceptable, even if his subordinates remained in the dark. As Gaddis notes, he saw the connections and the logic of his own grand design, while sharing what he saw with no one. Roosevelt disingenuously claimed that his left hand did not always know what his right hand was doing. In Gaddis’ vernacular, he was simply demonstrating his skills as a master pivoter.

Overall, the author captures the skill set of the competent strategic leader, but one element he overlooks is the critical importance of coherence. Flexibility and pivoting cannot and should not be allowed to alter or erode the links between the guiding logic and the means applied. It is the sustaining of coherence in the face of adaptation that is an essential art of strategic practice. The enduring formula of ends, ways, and means must be logically and coherently linked. If a strategy employs a “way” that is inconsistent with policy, or if policymakers provide too little means, then it lacks coherence and the prospects for success are suspect. Gaddis’ case study on King Philip suggests he failed for this reason, while FDR was ultimately successful in World War II because he stressed this crucial alignment.

The volume has clear educational value, but there are numerous structural flaws. The most obvious is its over-reliance on the Western canon for cases. The lack of any leadership studies from Asia is troubling, although Sun Tzu is cited. While strategic culture is not a prescriptive code of action, cultural myopia is a prescription for surprise. Future grand strategists from the West need to be acutely conscious of the strategic culture and history of their competitors. We are not playing chess against ourselves. Gaddis acknowledges that grand strategy requires a deep and informed perspective about one’s adversary and that strategy is inherently competitive. Thus, examining how a hedgehog “with Chinese characteristics” acts in the emerging geopolitical competition would certainly be salient today.

Next, this volume does not include any modern U.S. historical examples. In particular the author avoids the early Cold War strategy that unfolded in the Truman administration. One can imagine that, given the years Gaddis has devoted to the study of the Cold War and U.S. Strategies of Containment, he did not think he could add much. Reading his footnotes closely confirms this suspicion. But since the strategic environment facing the West today has some evident comparisons to the Cold War, it would be nice to see what the biographer of George F. Kennan has to say about Putin’s new Cold War.

The absence of a case involving Bismarck, the ultimate master of foreign policy pivoting, is surprising. While not a head of state, he was an influential grand strategist who exemplifies the art of blending diplomacy and military instruments of power to obtain a sustainable peace. Some historians, including U.S. Naval Academy Professor Marcus Jones, attribute Bismarck’s success in guiding Prussian interests to his “nuanced grasp” of political realities, prudence, and a “Machiavellian flexibility” in war and diplomacy. If strategy is the art of creating (and applying) power, per Lawrence Freedman, then surely the Iron Chancellor is worthy of study. Bismarck’s strength was his pronounced effort to sustain proportionality and coherence in Prussia’s policies and war aims.

One final downside: The various chapters of the book do not provide undergraduate-level students or non-specialists with sufficient historical context. Readers will need to supplement Gaddis’ philosophical treatment with books that offer greater granularity on the times and decisions of key leaders. Two major works, Making Strategy and Successful Strategies, provide useful case studies that flesh out the details. 

All in all, this is a unique and nuanced book by a master scholar of strategic thinking that will appeal to serious intellectuals and advanced students of international affairs. It is, as the author admits, entirely impressionistic and “wholly idiosyncratic.” Readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the need to cross-breed the flexibility and improvisation of the fox with the focused sense of purpose of the proverbial hedgehog. But whether you are a fox or a hedgehog, there are longstanding complexities in strategy worth exploring in and absorbing from On Grand Strategy. This book will not likely become a classic, but Princes and policymakers seeking to learn about sound strategy will find a few rewarding insights.


Frank Hoffman, Ph.D., holds an appointment as Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. These are his own views which do not reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense.

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