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Hoover on Charles Hill and Hill on Grand Strategy

Lexington Green sent this extended profile/interview with Charles Hill by Emily Esfahani Smith. The tone of the article is somewhat hagiographic because Hill is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and….well…. this is in Hoover’s journal 😉  If you can get past that, it is a worthwhile read about a deep thinker and scholar of grand strategy.

Profile in Strategy: Charles Hill

….In diplomacy, literature is relied upon because, as he writes in “Grand Strategies,” “The international world of states and their modern system is a literary realm; it is where the greatest issues of the human condition are played out.” That is why Alexander the Great carried the Iliad with him on his conquests, and why Queen Elizabeth studied Cicero in the evenings. It is why Abraham Lincoln read, and was profoundly influenced by, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and why Paul Nitze paged through Shakespeare on his flights to Moscow as America’s chief arms negotiator.

Hill, for his part, has always kept the “History of the Peloponnesian War” in his mind as the “manual of statecraft.”

Why Thucydides? He explains: “When you read the Peloponnesian War, you realize that Thucydides is moving from one set of problems to another, and you have to deal with them all-rhetorical problems, material problems, and moral problems. That’s the closest literary work related to statecraft that I can imagine.”

To understand world order-and those who manipulate it for their own aims-requires a literary education, the kind students were once able to find at such places as Yale, where Hill now teaches the humanities to freshman undergraduates.

This is a departure from his days at the State Department, where he helped orchestrate monumental events in the grand strategy of the Cold War. One of his first memories as a diplomat was of being seated behind Adlai Stevenson at the UN during the Cuban missile crisis, characteristically scribbling notes-in grand strategy, no detail can be lost. Later, Hill was a “China watcher” during that country’s Cultural Revolution. And when the Iran-Contra scandal nearly brought down the Reagan administration, Hill’s meticulous notes played an influential role in the Congressional investigations by shedding light on the chronology of then-Secretary of State George Shultz’s knowledge of the arms sale. Over the years, Hill has also served as confidante to Secretaries of State. For Henry Kissinger, Hill was speechwriter and policy analyst. For Shultz, Hill was an executive aide and trusted ally.

These days, Hill embodies grand strategy in a different way. After a long and distinguished career as a diplomat, Hill is now a heralded figure in academia. Beyond his appointment as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, he is the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy, a Senior Lecturer in Humanities, and a Senior Lecturer in International Studies at Yale. Alongside historians John Gaddis and John Kennedy [ sic] , he teaches one of Yale’s most legendary courses to a select group of elite students-future statesmen-the Grand Strategies course.

And yet, Hill tells me stoically, “There is no grand strategy in our time.” Turning his attention to the turmoil in the Middle East, Hill provides an example. “America’s lack of strategic outlook responding to the Arab Spring is really distressing.”

Hill retains the diplomat’s gift for understatement.

Read the rest here.


Book Review: Grand Strategies by Charles Hill 

Trial of a Thousand Years, by Charles Hill-a review

5 Responses to “Hoover on Charles Hill and Hill on Grand Strategy”

  1. M Says:

    Paul Kennedy, not John Kennedy

  2. Joseph Fouche Says:

    When someone writes "There is no grand strategy in our time", I mentally strike out the passage and replace it with, "Americans are stupid for not pursuing my political agenda and they really, really, really should". Strategy is an expression of a political community’s elite’s effective consensus. The consensus strategy of American elites since the 80s has been co-option of foreign and domestic elites through the lure of invites to all the right parties and access to the enhanced looting possibilities of modern financial engineering. Gorby’s recent birthday party in London where the former leader of the world’s second most powerful country was paid off with a serenade by C-list Hollywood celebrities vindicates this strategy. The success of this strategy also shows up in its surprising resilience in the wake of the huge shock of the last three years. Despite that shock, so far the lights are still shining in Davos. That the only challenge to the power of the Davos consensus comes from groups whose strategic incompetence is even worse than its must be a huge relief.

  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi JF,
    Definitely understand your point, however Hill’s Grand Strategies doesn’t go down that path. I’m currently reading a narrative history of the Persian-Greek struggles, with Herodotus close-by since he and Thucydides wrote the book(s) and are frequently quoted by the author (Tom Holland). Darius and other Persian leaders used the methods you describe above, "the lure of invites…" Hill suggests that by reading history and corresponding literature, strategists will have better insight into how the world works, hopefully enough to make good choices.

  4. zen Says:

    Hi M
    "Paul Kennedy, not John Kennedy"
    Thanks. I won’t change the text because it is a direct quote but I added an editorial notation.

  5. Madhu Says:

    How about Dickens and strategy? Or Dickens and the texture of our Washington culture?
    If you were required to write a Dickension description of Washington’s strategic "culture", how would you do it?
    I think that would be fun, sad, illuminating, and horrifying. What would be included?
    Defense contractors, procurement specialists, private security firms, Congressionals and staffers, globe-junket-traveling Senators, think-tankistan, media hangers-on, print journalists and cable news talking heads, GWU and other university students, CSPAN filming local events, the Pentagon, Langley, Foggy Botton, tourists in springtime, and museums and museums and museums, embassies/consulates, food trucks, glitzy Washintong Post reviewed restaurants, sports teams, retired military and governmental folk, local tailors and Brooks Brothers, the White House, lobbyists, comfortable suburbanites and long-suffering DC city dwellers in poorer neighborhoods – bereft of good governance even when surrounded by governing types of all stripes.
    Governing Types Of All Stripes. That’s what I might call my pseudo Dickension tome. I worry, zen and others, I tend to worry….

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