John Gaddis's new study of grand strategy draws on a famous essay by Isaiah Berlinby David Patrikarakos / June 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
Drawing on Isaiah Berlin’s famous 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” John Gaddis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Cold War, explains in this characteristically fascinating and important work, that “Hedgehogs… relate everything to a single central vision” through which “all that they say and do has significance.” Foxes, by contrast, “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way.”
This idea serves as a core around which Gaddis builds his central theory in On Grand Strategy—a work that examines great historical figures from Xerxes, Pericles and Thucydides, to Elizabeth I and Franklin D Roosevelt in order to distil their accumulated wisdom into a coherent worldview.
Grand Strategy of the kind pursued here—which has become a serious business in academia, especially in the US—is essentially the study of the means that can and should be used to achieve long-term objectives, whether military or political. It is about how leaders and states can marshal economic resources, make alliances and fight wars that further their interests on a world stage.
The book, whose 10 chapters are based on a well-known course at Yale run by Gaddis, opens with the Persian king Xerxes attempting to invade Greece—against the advice of his minister Artabanus. As Gaddis notes: “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.” As we know, that expedition ended in disaster for the Persians.
Gaddis’s answer to the problem of balancing attack and defence is that one must be both a hedgehog and a fox: in the words of F Scott Fitzgerald, we must have “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Only then can there be the correct “alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.”
On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis (Allen Lane, £25)