cover image On Grand Strategy

On Grand Strategy

John Lewis Gaddis. Penguin Press, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-1-59420-351-0

Yale historian Gaddis (George F. Kennan: An American Life) draws on decades of teaching to produce a fine summary of the complex concepts explored in his Grand Strategy seminar, full of vivid examples of leadership and strategic thinking, from the Persian king Xerxes to Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s WWII strategies. Leaning on political theorist Isaiah Berlin’s work for this study’s intellectual backbone, Gaddis takes his central metaphor from Berlin’s epigraph: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The book shows the pitfalls of “hedgehog” leadership, which inflexibly concentrates on “one big thing,” often with disastrous results. Xerxes’s 480 B.C.E. invasion of Greece and the Spanish king Philip II’s ceaseless quest to return Catholicism to England, culminating with the Spanish Armada’s 1588 defeat, are prime examples. In contrast, Pericles’s early leadership of Athens and Abraham Lincoln’s presidency are likened to the fox’s knowledge of “many things.” That knowledge, of one’s ultimate objectives, capabilities, and limitations, and of conditions that present opportunities, gives great leaders flexibility and a sense of proportionality that support grand strategy: “the alignment of potentially infinite aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” Gaddis brings a deep knowledge of history and a pleasingly economical prose style to this rigorous study of leadership. (Apr.)