What’s the real lure of ‘Grand Strategy’?

It’s mid-October, the air is turning crisp, and a certain breed of undergraduate is already whispering about the application for “Studies in Grand Strategy.” The course, taught by Yale’s reigning triumvirate of international history gurus — Paul Kennedy, John Gaddis and Charles Hill — is a two-semester, interdisciplinary seminar intended to train an elite group of undergraduate, graduate and professional students in the arts of leadership and strategic thinking. The deadline is Nov. 14. Twenty students will be accepted. Admission is by competitive application only.

As your friendly fellow Elis begin sharpening their claws and hatching bribery schemes in anticipation of the application process, it bears asking: Why all the fuss over Grand Strategy? In the hierarchy of selective programs at Yale (Directed Studies, EP&E, International Studies, Grand Strategy), why is Grand Strategy singled out as the go-getter’s nirvana?

What’s the appeal?

Self-Aggrandizement: Grand Strategy, in case you failed to catch it the first time, is “grand” (cue kettle drums, chorus of angels, 21-gun salute). Truly grand. Note that this is in sharp distinction to “great strategy,” “mediocre strategy” and “not-really-altogether-so-bad strategy,” which were all proposed and thrown out. “Terrific strategy” was judged to be too cute, and was donated to the School of Management, where it was incorporated into a marketing course.

Historical Mandate: Grand Strategy deals with the big, important things in history: war, diplomacy, revolution, constitutions, great books, great men. This focus allows the Grand Strategist to operate unencumbered by inconsequential issues, like the existence of women, which tend to burden the historian and distract him from discovering the unifying themes of human existence. Furthermore, the philosophy of Grand Strategy is rooted in the writings of the ancient Greeks, who are dead, and who used a funny alphabet, and who left us big, shiny, unimpeachable things like the Acropolis, the gyro and democracy. Most of us would be willing to take a swipe at Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, but who are you to argue with Thucydides?

Promise of Universal Efficacy: According to the syllabus, the goal of “Studies in Grand Strategy” is to teach you, as a Future World Leader, “how to connect desired ends with available means” to attain whatever results an individual, corporation or nation might be seeking. You know, it’s like those leadership games you had to play in middle school — how to get a dozen people across a 10-foot gap when equipped with just a 5-foot beam and two folding chairs. Or how to topple a dictator, foment a democratic revolution, and silence one’s political opposition in a small to medium-sized equatorial country.

Manly Vigor: The professors of Grand Strategy are not just men of letters, but also certified Men of Action. Professor Hill earned his stripes in Vietnam, served as a Foreign Service officer under Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, and, as he once revealed in a Yale Herald interview, believes strongly in the manly value of eating meat. Professor Gaddis was the mastermind behind CNN’s definitive documentary on the Cold War. Paul Kennedy publishes in The New York Times and The Washington Post. These professors consult to governments, participate actively in public debates, and use the word “power” to describe military might, not hetero-normative discourses. Pallid academics, Marx-quoting milquetoasts, and employees of the Sociology and Anthropology departments: be scared.

Aloofness from Detail: The Grand Strategy syllabus, to be fair, does cover a few not-so-grand topics, such as public health and the environment. But these topics are covered in one two-hour session apiece, presumably because Future World Leaders shouldn’t be bothered with pedestrian details. In one of his more benevolent moments, Professor Hill takes it upon himself to explicate the minor problem of “culture and religion” in one such two-hour session.

Narrative Allure: Could it be that Yalies flock towards Grand Strategy because, compared to the pessimism and discord of most academic inquiry, it presents a fundamentally richer story? Grand Strategy seems to present a deeply human and compelling worldview. It is a visionary narrative whose vocabulary is peace, war, revolution, tragic heroes and great men. This is the stuff of Shakespeare, of Tolstoy, of Pasternak. We are human; we are story-telling animals. These themes haunt us. If most political science classes were converted into sound, they would be dissonant noise. Grand Strategy, as it imagines itself, would be opera. It is a self-referential world of great ideas, and as long as that world remains hermetic, it is hard to resist its seductive vision. The problem lies in applying this world of ideas to a real world where AIDS and poverty are more pressing issues than Thucydides’ conception of virtue.

Selectivity: They only let in 20 people. We’re Yalies. That’s what we get off on.



Daniel Weisfield is a junior in Calhoun College.

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