By Will Inboden
Inspired by the recent spate of top
offered by some of my fellow Foreign Policy colleagues, and Peter Feaver's discourse
below on the meaning of "Grand Strategy" (not to mention Peter's exposure
of me as a "lurking" alum of the Yale Grand Strategy program's inaugural class),
I thought I would offer my own list of ten books that are essential reading for
anyone interested in grand strategy.
An important disclaimer: there are a few
books that are so canonical that they should automatically appear, almost
template-like, on any grand strategy syllabus. Such are Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, Sun
Tzu's The Art of War, Machiavelli's The Prince, and Carl von Clausewitz's On War. Read those before you read any
of the others I mention below. And for those of you who are either graduate
students or who otherwise have almost limitless time on your hands, an
exhaustive reading list can be found here.
For the rest of us who have less time but
still an interest in the subject, my ten recommended grand strategy books
follow, in no particular order.
Kissinger, Diplomacy. Along with George Kennan, Kissinger is the twentieth century's
leading American scholar-practitioner of diplomacy. Any of his books are worth reading;
this one is his best. A magisterial overview of the global order from
Westphalia to the end of the Cold War, Diplomacy
also distils Kissinger's own lifetime of learning from his doctoral
dissertation to his years as a globetrotting statesman.
Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. "The Romans won their
victories slowly, but they were very hard to defeat," observes Luttwak. This is
because "the superiority of the empire...derived from the whole complex of
ideas and traditions that informed the organization of Roman military force and
harnessed the armed power of the empire to political purpose."
Irony of American History. The beginning of
wisdom in approaching grand strategy is to appreciate the limits of power and
human insight. Almost six decades since
its writing, Niebuhr still speaks with prescience today:
confidence in his power over historical destiny prompted the rejection of every
older conception of an overruling providence in history. Modern man's
confidence in his virtue caused an equally unequivocal rejection of the
Christian idea of the ambiguity of human virtue... We take, and must continue
to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must
exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of
perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about
particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which
the exercise of power is legitimatized."
Perhaps nothing better illustrates
Niebuhr's complexity than the fact that (in an irony he would no doubt
appreciate) he is today both embraced and argued over by leading voices on the
political left, right, and center.
George Kennan, American
Diplomacy, 1900-1950. While seemingly modest in size and scope,
this book best embodies the wisdom and worldview of one of America's foremost
strategic thinkers. Though not always correct, Kennan is unfailingly insightful
Kennedy, The Rise and
Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000.
A bestseller and instant-classic when it was
first published in 1987, by a decade later Kennedy's concluding warning of imminent
American decline because of "imperial overstretch" seemed dated and unduly
alarmist. But now today, just over two decades since publication, the book's
lessons from history appear as relevant as ever.
at the Creation. President Truman's
Secretary of State conceived the challenge facing American strategists at the
outset of the Cold War thus: "The enormity of the task...began to appear as
just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis.
That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free
half, out of the same material without blowing the whole thing to pieces in the
process." That Acheson and his comrades succeeded is an inheritance we all
enjoy; that he left such an elegantly-crafted memoir is an inheritance only his
fortunate readers will enjoy.
Pilgrim's Progress. Not only a classic of
English literature, it also has all of the elements of grand strategy in
narrative form. A clear vision and an ambitious goal, but an uncertain connection
between means and ends. The navigation of uncharted and hostile territory, with
imperfect information, limited resources, endless diversions, insidious enemies,
and inconstant allies. Fortunately, in perhaps the ultimate test of any grand
strategy, it has a happy ending.
Parker, The Grand
Strategy of Philip II. Not all grand
strategies succeed, but some of the best lessons come from those that fail. In
the sixteenth century Philip II of Spain ruled "the first empire in history upon
which the sun never set." Yet as Parker authoritatively describes, despite
"uniquely favourable international circumstances Philip failed both to preserve
what he had inherited and to achieve the dynastic and confessional goals that
he had set."
Russell Mead, God
and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. If Philip II's grand strategy foundered most spectacularly with
England's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Mead's book explores the
success of the grand strategy which emerged eventually among the victors. The
empire and international system created by England and eventually inherited by
the United States (the "Anglo-American maritime order") has, in Mead's telling,
displayed remarkable resilience not only in maintaining American power, but in
shaping many of the norms of the modern world. Not without considerable handicaps
and hubris, of course -- Mead scores the countless follies of the
English-speaking peoples as much as he celebrates their success.
Lincoln: Redeemer President. Lincoln's
challenge was not just to win a war but to preserve the very existence of a
nation. Grand strategy involves all elements of national power, and Lincoln had
to draw on manifest military, economic, diplomatic, intellectual, rhetorical, and
even spiritual resources in the campaign to defeat the Confederacy without
extinguishing the very possibility of America. Of the countless biographies of
Lincoln, Guelzo's is one of the very few studies of how the ideas and worldview
of our greatest president shaped his policies. It is a book worthy of the man.