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Book Review: Grand Strategies by Charles Hill

Grand Strategies by Charles Hill

Charles Hill, senior Cold War diplomat, Hoover Institution fellow and a co-founder of Yale’s popular Grand Strategy Program that amounts to a crash course in the kind of classical liberal education that universities once imparted to undergraduates but today pride themselves in doing so no longer. The popularity of Hill’s program,  therefore, is with the students moreso than campus activists or the faculty:

…Despite whispers of words like “elitist,” “conservative,” and “cult”-words considered synonyms by many at Yale-The Grand Strategy seminar, only a few years old, has become one of the university’s marquee classes. Grand Strategy, like Professor Hill, has its own myth. The liberals on campus call the class Grand Fascism. They are kidding, but only in part. Many Yale students and faculty are suspicious of the program. Students awed or repelled by Grand Strategy are the same ones who are awed or repelled by Professor Hill, and for the same reasons: the aura of power, the whiff of elitism, the promise of an answer to life’s messiest questions.

If the Grand strategy Course at Yale is a distillation of classical liberal education, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order is Hill’s reification of the course as an education for the reader on how the evolution of the Western civilizational worldview makes possible grand strategy. The book is an intellectual tour de force by Hill, at some times an idiosyncratic one and at all times an interesting one. I have read many, though very far from all, of the classic texts that Hill critiques and uses to shape his argument but having a large library under your belt is not a prerequisite from understanding Grand Strategies. Far from it, one suspects Hill wrote the book with his seminar students in mind.

Hill examines the protean and mythopoetic relationship between cultural foundations and expressions of power and political wills in conflict represented by diplomacy and war, both navigated by grand strategy constructed from cultural vision. A recurring theme in Grand Strategies is the heroic structure of the epic tale, with the descent into the Underworld and revelation of the heroic destiny by the shades and an ascent (not always successful or as ideally envisioned) to a creative, transformative new order. The reader meets Achilles in many guises, marches upcountry with Xenophon, is cast out of Heaven by Milton, confronts Hobbes‘ Leviathan, defies Rosseau’s general will and exorcises the evil represented in Dostoyevskii’s The Possessed. And this only is a tenth of the narrative.

While I frequently found myself in agreement with Hill’s discernments of the texts, some of them struck me as strained or highly debatable, such as Hill’s reading of Plato as a wry ironist ( Hill borrows from Leo Strauss here but goes further, if I recall correctly, than Strauss did), something that Carroll Quigley, Karl Popper or many classicists would have disputed. Hill’s final chapter, “The Writer and the State” is entertaining and contains a laudatory anecdote about Hill’s former boss, the impressive SECSTATE George Schultz , but it lacked some of the gravity of earlier chapters.

Erudite and visionary, Grand Strategies is a grand synthesis by Charles Hill with lessons to learn on every page.

(Special hat tip to J. Scott Shipman who pushed me to read and review this book)

6 Responses to “Book Review: Grand Strategies by Charles Hill”

  1. zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Book Review: Grand Strategies by … | ReviewTica Says:

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  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    This is clearly a book I shall have to read.
    There is, as we all know, a great deal of thought now poured into the question of how to travel backwards or forwards in time — the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explores the relevant paradoxes, a Princeton astrophysicist tell us how dismantling Jupiter might facilitate it, DARPA is almost certainly onto it — but what’s really needed isn’t forward or backward travel in time, but additional hours  laterally provided within the twenty-four, with no interruption of sleep or sabbath.
    For the express purpose of reading such books.

  3. J. Scott Says:

    Zen, Excellent review! I agree on the last chapter, btw. For me, one take away was the integral role of "stories" (fiction) in defining/shaping culture and ultimately, strategy. I’ve given away several copies. Many thanks for the review!

  4. Lexington Green Says:

    Strauss on Plato on Socrates on irony:  This 5 part lecture here is excellent:http://tinyurl.com/5tkful4

  5. seydlitz89 Says:

    Nice review.  I too really liked the book, but unlike you have yet to put down any ideas from this fascinating work . . .

  6. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » The DARPA arts Says:

    […] so that (and Hill‘s work, which Zen reviewed recently) gives us the significance of the arts in strategic thinking which, one hopes, is practiced before […]

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