He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’–George Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling” (1936)
The resignation of Beverly Gage, professor of history at Yale and director of the Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy Program, is the great brouhaha of the last weekend.
You can read the specifics in this New York Times article; the short version is that Nicholas Brady, a former Treasury Secretary from the Bush senior days and one of two mega-donors funding the program, objected to an article written by a program professor condemning Trump for demagoguery. This caused him and Charles Johnson, who together endowed hundreds of millions of dollars to Yale to create and support the program, to look closer at its current curricula. Brady and Johnson did not like what they found and have been using various legal mechanisms to try and either change the way the course is taught or pull their money from the program.1
Jennifer Schuelleser, “Leader of Prestigious Yale Program Resigns, Citing Donor Pressure,” New York Times (6 October 2021).
I am not a graduate of the grand strategy course, but have followed its development over the last decade and a half. I first became aware of it back in 2007. The Tanner Greer of 2007 was then a high school junior, and he could imagine no greater joy than being a student in a bespoke class on statecraft taught by John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy (the program’s original directors). It was my personal dream curriculum. Over the years its readings (and its hundreds of “suggested readings”) have guided my leisure hours. My habit of collecting syllabi to create reading lists for myself began with the first Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy syllabus pdf I downloaded. I still search the internet once a year or so to see if the latest syllabus has been uploaded as a publicly available pdf. I have collected six or seven at this point (I will upload copies of all of these to the member’s forum).
Subsequent experience with the world has left me a little less starry eyed about the program. My high school self did not understand the extent to which programs like these are fundamentally Ivy League networking clubs. That is not, alas, what the Ivy League student most needs. Yale is a sick institution, home of the “excellent sheep” who have sold out their souls to leap through higher hoops. The process of getting into Yale breeds an insecurity in its student body, who are ever striving for more exclusive sources of external validation. The relationship these sheltered strivers have to their privileges veers on the pathological. The problem, as C.S. Lewis told a different body of honored students a century ago, is that the pursuit of the “inner ring” is all consuming.2 It leaves little space to ponder—much less study—big questions. Thus Yale is left with a coterie of students towering in their IQ yet puny in their learning. Providing Yalies with the high of applying to yet another resume-buffer that only the very best and brightest of the best and brightest can finagle their way through is the Ivy League equivalent to giving away cocaine in a halfway house. Wining and dining with David Petraeus and Victoria Nuland feeds the complexes of students who have less need of high powered connections than of being brought down a notch.
C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring,” Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, 1944.
Yet there is more to the Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy program than networking, and many aspects of the course were intentionally designed as an antidote to other ailments common to the Yale experience. A few years ago Natalia Dashan wrote a persuasive reflection on her time at Yale: in her eyes, Yale’s largest problem is that it is training the next generation of American governing elites while refusing to admit that it is doing so.3 Here the Grand Strategy program earns high marks: if it is about any one thing, that thing is the wise and intentional use of governing power.
Natalia Dashan, “The Real Problem of Yale is not Free Speech,” Palladium (5 August 2019). The essay meanders; skip to the fifth section to get to meat of her argument.
As John Gaddis tells the story, the program’s genesis was a conversation he and Paul Kennedy had with a Clinton administration appointee involved in the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. The pair was shocked to discover that the appointee had not given any thought to the long term ramifications of this decision. They set out to create a program that might teach future officials—for who were Yalies, but the appointees of future administrations?—to think past their inboxes. They wished to create students who could see beyond their narrow area of specialization, men and women who could think strategically on the long term.4
The story is amusing and slightly horrifying:
“Let me begin with the event that caused us to begin teaching this class. The date was September 24, 1998. A NATO briefing team had invited itself to Yale to make the case for the Clinton administration’s policy of expanding the alliance eastward…. Our colleague Bruce Russett raised his hand and asked whether NATO expansion might not cause difficulties with the Russians, perhaps undermining President Yeltsin’s efforts to democratize the country, perhaps creating an awkward situation for the new or prospective members of the alliance as Russian power revived, perhaps even driving Russia into some new form of cooperation with the Chinese, thereby reversing one of the greatest victories for the West in the Cold War, which was the Sino-Soviet split. There was a moment of shocked silence. Then one of the briefers exclaimed, in front of our entire audience: “Good God! We’d never thought of that!”
John Lewis Gaddis, “What Is Grand Strategy?,” Karl Von Der Heyden Distinguished Lecture, Duke University, February 26, 2009, pp. 2-3.
Their solution was a three-part, year-long program. In the spring section of the course, students would travel through 2,000 years of strategic thought. This semester would be something like a remedial course in great books stapled onto a survey of the diplomatic history of the last four centuries of Western geopolitics. Over the summer term students would be required to go on some ‘odyssey’ research project, preferably one that forced them to live in some distant country and get ground level experience in the world abroad. The final semester, in the fall, would be a review of the ten or so most pressing international problems of the day, each week reading some new hot book on some new hot problem. On each of these weeks students would be required to give briefings on the chosen issues. The final week of this semester would be a capstone crisis simulation, where students would take on the role of president, national security council members, and so forth. In these roles they would be forced to respond to an unexpected geopolitical emergency.
I always found the first semester (which is a clear descendant of the US Naval War College’s more rigorous “Policy and Strategy” program—see a copy of a recent syllabus here) the more interesting of the two.5 Most of the hot new books read in semester #2 do not retain much value when they are no longer hot and new. The first semester’s readings have more staying power. They are what gives the course its unique flavor. They are also at the center of today’s controversy. Let us compare this section of the course from 2010 to the syllabus from 2020.
Gaddis admits this freely in ibid, p. 8:
“Yet another precedent has been the famous“Thucydides” curriculum in “Strategy and Policy” at the Naval War College, set up by Admiral Stansfield Turner when he became president of that institution in 1972. By sheer luck, I had the privilege of helping to teach that course as a young and very green academic. Decades later, I asked Turner where he got the idea of starting it with Thucydides. “Oh,” he said, “I got it from Yale, back in the days when you used to teach that sort of thing.”
Isn’t this a fun syllabus? The general shape was consistent in the pre-Gage era, with slight variations in content based off of the instructors available. This particular year’s guest instructor was Walter Russel Meade. Here is one of the readings from 2015, when Adam Tooze was the guest lecturer in question:
A few comments on this set of syllabi before we move to the Gage era of the course. Any university course on “strategy” tends to be taught in one of two fashions, each a reflection of a wider divide in the study of foreign policy and warfare. This divide is sometimes conceptualized as the difference between “security studies” and “strategic studies.”6 The first group usually hails from the international relations subfield of political science; its scholars tend to favor social science theorizing or statistical analysis over historical narrative. Many of their theories focus on the structure of the international system as a whole; at its base, their work is search for common causal mechanisms and laws that explain consistent patterns in war and peace. Trace the intellectual genealogy of this field and you find early Cold War academics trying to stave off nuclear war. The field tends to view conflict with same horror as their Cold War ancestors: most members of this discipline would defend the field’s existence on the grounds that increased understanding of geopolitics might avert the next descent into great power war.
See the debate at War on the Rocks a few years back: James Holmes, “National Security Education: The View From Newport,” War on the Rocks (23 June 2014); Joshua Rovner, “The Warring Tribes Studying War and Peace,” War on the Rocks (12 April 2016); Adam Elkus, “Professor, Tear Down This Wall: Is the Divide Between Security Studies and Strategic Studies Permanent?” War on the Rocks (18 April 2016).
Strategic studies types will sometimes make similar claims for their field, but their perspective is fundamentally different. The classic texts of this tradition are not about preventing wars, but winning them. The founding question of the discipline is “how can military power best be used to achieve political aims?” With the ‘grand strategy’ mania of the last few decades the strategist’s toolkit has widened to include economic, diplomatic, and ideological statecraft, but the general focus of the field is the same: strategic theory is a toolbox for identifying and securing a country’s interests. The field is thus prescriptive, analyzing problems of war and peace from the perspective of the statesmen who must work through them. Scholars of strategic studies are often former practitioners themselves, and are more likely to be employed in war colleges or policy-prep schools like SAIS whose aim is to train the next generation of decision makers. The natural home of the strategy studies scholar with no practical policy experience is a history department. Most have spent years trawling through archives, carefully piecing together what the diplomats and generals of the past thought of some crisis most people have now forgotten about. As tenure lines in diplomatic and military history have been drying up, scholars in strategic studies are a diminished breed.
Most courses of this sort are thus taught by political scientists specializing in international relations and security studies. (To have sense for what that might look like, here is an impressive syllabus on “grand strategy” by Dan Nexon). Yale’s Grand Strategy program is fundamentally different in focus from these. The readings of the security studies courses are centered on positive accounts of geopolitical change. The Yale Grand Strategy program centers its readings in historical narrative or prescriptive guidebooks of statecraft. These readings do not ask students to analyze international affairs from the disinterested heights of the ivory tower. Instead they invite students to consider what they would do were if put in the same position as the diplomats of days past. At its base the course is about getting students to think seriously about wielding power.
Another notable feature of the old Brady-Johnson program was its geographic and historical scope. The course began with works written more than 2,000 years ago; about 50% of the course considered historical developments that pre-date the industrial revolution. The remaining 50% covered the a global catalogue of historical actors. Only 3-4 readings each year covered the American experience. The rest looked far past our borders.
This is unusual for courses of this type. A large number of strategic studies surveys on “strategy” or “grand strategy” are really surveys of American diplomatic history (for an example, see this course here and this one here). This is not that surprising: most historians feel most comfortable traversing the diplomatic or military history of their area of expertise, and this field is dominated by Americanists. Retired practitioners also tend to be most familiar with the American experience. The traditional Brady-Johnson syllabi challenge this paradigm, taking it as a given that the American experience is a limiting one.
There are several assumptions built into the traditional Brady-Johnson course (i.e., “grand strategy” is a proper object of study; a mix of great books and historical readings are the best way to do teach it, etc.). I will reserve my disagreements with these assumptions for a sidenote.7 Even within the framing of the course itself, there are some notable holes in the syllabi. The first is a general lack of readings on economic statecraft. In recent years we have seen intense debates on questions like:
My personal take is that “grand strategy” does not really exist, but is largely a post-hoc reconstruction of historians looking for patterns in the past. Those patterns exist, they just are rarely planned out in advance. More important than any pre-planned strategy are the incentive structures operating in the bureaucracies that implement policy and strategy (another way to make the same point: strategy isn’t what you plan, it is what you do, and strategy is done by thousands of officials, diplomats, and officers at any given time). Secondary to these incentives are broad conceptions of right, wrong, honor, interest, friendship, “the enemy” etc. that are shared among officials and thus give a similar flavor to their decisions over time.
- “Should the United States use the SWIFT system to punish Iran?”
- “Will crushing the Huawei supply chain secure American interests?”
- “How should the West respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative?”
- “Do IMF interventions do more harm than good?”
- “Does it make sense to bail out failing members of the Eurozone?”
- “Do the geopolitical benefits of free trade agreements outweigh their political and economic costs at home?”
- “Does America need an industrial policy to compete with China?”
Only in the years where Adam Tooze was a guest instructor do any of the readings prepare the Grand Strategy Yalies to deal with this suite of questions.
A second problem is that the old course case studies seem too altogether Western. It is interesting that even in the heyday of the War on Terror, little time in the course was spent on the historical case studies or theoretical frameworks from the Near East. A similar thing could be said today in reference to China. A few years ago I imagined what additional units might look like that provide the same attention to ancient China that the old syllabi gave to ancient Greece or Rome (I have strange hobbies, I know). Here is what I developed:
A similar unit on 20th century Asia wouldn’t hurt; it is a travesty that S.C.M. Paine’s The Wars for Asia: 1911-1949 is not included on any of these syllabi. If any work of history deserves a place on a syllabus like this, that is it.
These critiques are offered lightly. Fourteen weeks is not so long a time to survey the universe of strategic history. Anything I (or anyone else) might add in requires taking an equal amount of material out. It is always difficult to decide what must be jettisoned in order to include one’s own favorites.
Which brings us to the readings chosen by Beverly Gage.
You’ll notice a few things about the Gage syllabus. Like the Kennedy-Gaddis version of the course, the Beverly Gage program is firmly grounded in the strategic studies perspective: the course is still about the wise use of power. It still is unsatisfied with the positive description of social laws. It still asks students “What would you do?” It is just that the things she imagines her students doing are a bit different from that imagined at the course’s conception.
Gage organizes her readings around three themes: “generals,” “princes,” and “peoples.” Many, though by no means all, of the readings found on the pre-Gage syllabi are squished into the “generals” and “princes” sections. Strategy for generals concerns victory in war; strategy for princes concerns achieving political goals in the domestic sphere; strategy for peoples concerns success and failure for social movements.8
Much of the controversy involves Gage’s addition of “peoples” to the syllabus. This is Gage’s historical specialty so something of this sort is to be expected. It makes no sense to keep the Spanish Armada case study when Paul Kennedy is no longer teaching the course. Likewise, it makes little sense to put Beverly Gage in charge of the program without some readings on the strategy and tactics of substate activism. Unsurprisingly, these readings are the strongest of the course.
This is a less questionable development than many have argued. There is nothing inherently less rigorous or unserious in the close study of social movements. I believe it is a tremendously important topic: the history of American social movements and strategies of social change are recurring theme of my writing here at the Scholar’s Stage. Nor is the focus on social movements a complete betrayal of the original program’s vision: Civic leaders wield real power in our society; that cadre of elites are just as in need of wisdom, long term vision, and a sense of responsibility as staffers on the National Security Council.
But there is a cost to orienting two thirds of a syllabus around domestic politics and social movements. To fit that stuff in other stuff must be left out. The older course’s broad, international perspective is one of the casualties of Gage’s winnowing. The new course is America centric. 50% of Gage’s readings are devoted to theorists or case studies from American history. Three of those readings cover the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. There are plausible arguments for the decision to devote such a large percentage of the class to a single, in-depth case study, but this is a fundamental departure from the course’s original vision.
A related omission: we have a section on “generals,” “princes,” and “peoples” but no section on “diplomats.” A course on grand strategy with no readings on diplomacy! The art of diplomacy—especially the diplomacy of war termination and building stable order after war—was the central focus of the original syllabi’s historical case studies. Readings on Metternich, Bismarck, the British Victorians, Wilson, FDR, and the Cold War were fundamentally about diplomacy. This must be at least a part of the reason Nicholas Brady demanded Gage teach her course more like “Kissinger would have taught it.” If the old course were to be reduced to one textbook, the most likely contender is Kissinger’s tome Diplomacy.
This is not an unreasonable demand on Brady’s part. In the Washington Post Daniel Drezner dismisses Brady as a “plutocrat …who [thinks he] must be pretty smart to get so rich, and therefore [his] ideas have merit.”9 But Brady is more than a pompous moneybag! Brady is a retired statesman of note. His most famous action as Secretary of the Treasury was developing the “Brady Plan,” which saved a dozen Latin American governments from insolvency. The Brady Plan was just as much a geopolitical move as an economic project. One might expect—and Brady certainly seems to have—that a program devoted to “grand strategy” would produce graduates capable of parsing Brady’s decisions. In other words, when Brady signed over millions of dollars to Yale, he did so in the hope that Yale would train the next generation of statesmen-officials like himself. Instead they are using his money to train the next generation of social activists.
Daniel Drezner, “A Pyrrhic Victory for Plutocrats at Yale,” Washington Post (5 October 2021)
Whether program graduates lose much in this exchange is hard to say. When I wrote about Gage’s syllabi on twitter last year, one graduate of the Kennedy-Gaddis version of the program explained his frustrations with the course. It had done remarkably little to help prepare him for his career in national security; what he actually needed was a class that outlined the legislation governing Congressional oversight of the national security bureaucracy and a clearer understanding of the relationship between the NSC and the OMB.
There is some truth to this: the protagonists of grand strategy are the grand men—presidents, supreme generals, and kings. But the average Yalie will never be president. The grand strategy alumni will instead will be filling jobs with titles like “Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs” or “Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs.” Grand strategy is above their paygrade. Their job is to link initiatives developed a layer or two above them to their niche responsibility. This is hard, valuable work that a preoccupation with “grand strategy” can distract from. I am reminded of a comment from Dov Zakheim’s memoir of his time working in the Rumsfeld Pentagon:
Alas, the key lesson of the past decade is that even the best policy goals are not likely to be fulfilled without equally good plans for implementing them. The politics of high policymaking is sexy, alluring, and magnetic to journalists and others outside government. The politics of implementation, of translating intentions into reality, on the other hand, is hard for those without government experience to grasp without some technical knowledge, analogous personal experience, a willingness to account for the views of others whether elsewhere in government or other governments, and a willingness to modify or even abandon preconceived notions that clash with harsh reality
Unfortunately, the attitude of far too many self-absorbed policymakers and pundits mirrors that of the infamous Leona Helmsley, wife of a wealthy hotelier, who, when asked why she didn’t pay her taxes, remarked haughtily “Taxes are for the little people.” To those who saw (and many still see) themselves as “big thinkers” and important persons in foreign policy, implementation and execution—the guts of making things really happen—is for the little people. Implementation is not deserving of the time and attention of the best and the brightest. And, invariably, it is the little people—the taxpayers whom Leona Helmsley so casually dismissed, and, more importantly, the troops—who bear the brunt of the consequences of high-minded indifference to practicality.10
Dov Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the War in Afghanistan (Washington DC: Brookings, 2011), 294.
It is possible to go wrong in the other direction, of course. Technical wonkery is a poor replacement for strategic thinking. But strategy must be adapted to the level one operates in, and too few readings in the course take the perspective of the undersecretary. From this angle, Gage’s focus on social movements may be the right call: a Yale graduate is more likely to be leading a social movement than they are to sit as a principal on the National Security Council. There are only a few spots at the top of the American imperium; most will not go to graduates of Gage’s program.
But the shift in the program’s focus is telling in another way. Remember Natalia Dashan’s critique of Yale as an institution afraid to openly recognize the responsibilities it shoulders. America is, and for several generations yet will be, a superpower. This superpower has produced—and is in part itself a product of—a colossal state apparatus. This state must be governed. Its governing class will disproportionately hail from institutions like Yale. These facts are unlikely to change. The Brady-Johnson program was a tacit admission of these realities.
Even that tacit admission wisped away. A program conceived to teach future elites how to wisely use state power has morphed into a program teaching them how to wisely oppose it. This transformation is one more illustration of Dashan’s thesis. At Yale we see the American predicament made concrete: an entrenched governing class that enjoys the privileges of elite status but refuses to prepare for the responsibilities of elite station.