The top 10 books on grand strategy
By Will Inboden Inspired by the recent spate of top 10 reading lists offered by some of my fellow Foreign Policy colleagues, and Peter Feaver’s discourse below on the meaning of "Grand Strategy" (not to mention Peter’s exposure of me as a "lurking" alum of the Yale Grand Strategy program’s inaugural class), I thought I ...
By Will Inboden
By Will Inboden
Inspired by the recent spate of top 10 reading lists offered by some of my fellow Foreign Policy colleagues, and Peter Feaver’s discourse below on the meaning of "Grand Strategy" (not to mention Peter’s exposure of me as a "lurking" alum of the Yale Grand Strategy program’s inaugural class), I thought I would offer my own list of ten books that are essential reading for anyone interested in grand strategy.
An important disclaimer: there are a few books that are so canonical that they should automatically appear, almost template-like, on any grand strategy syllabus. Such are Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Read those before you read any of the others I mention below. And for those of you who are either graduate students or who otherwise have almost limitless time on your hands, an exhaustive reading list can be found here.
For the rest of us who have less time but still an interest in the subject, my ten recommended grand strategy books follow, in no particular order.
Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy. Along with George Kennan, Kissinger is the twentieth century’s leading American scholar-practitioner of diplomacy. Any of his books are worth reading; this one is his best. A magisterial overview of the global order from Westphalia to the end of the Cold War, Diplomacy also distils Kissinger’s own lifetime of learning from his doctoral dissertation to his years as a globetrotting statesman.
Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. "The Romans won their victories slowly, but they were very hard to defeat," observes Luttwak. This is because "the superiority of the empire…derived from the whole complex of ideas and traditions that informed the organization of Roman military force and harnessed the armed power of the empire to political purpose."
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History. The beginning of wisdom in approaching grand strategy is to appreciate the limits of power and human insight. Almost six decades since its writing, Niebuhr still speaks with prescience today:
Modern man’s confidence in his power over historical destiny prompted the rejection of every older conception of an overruling providence in history. Modern man’s confidence in his virtue caused an equally unequivocal rejection of the Christian idea of the ambiguity of human virtue… We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimatized."
Perhaps nothing better illustrates Niebuhr’s complexity than the fact that (in an irony he would no doubt appreciate) he is today both embraced and argued over by leading voices on the political left, right, and center.
George Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900-1950. While seemingly modest in size and scope, this book best embodies the wisdom and worldview of one of America’s foremost strategic thinkers. Though not always correct, Kennan is unfailingly insightful and eloquent.
Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000. A bestseller and instant-classic when it was first published in 1987, by a decade later Kennedy’s concluding warning of imminent American decline because of "imperial overstretch" seemed dated and unduly alarmist. But now today, just over two decades since publication, the book’s lessons from history appear as relevant as ever.
Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation. President Truman’s Secretary of State conceived the challenge facing American strategists at the outset of the Cold War thus: "The enormity of the task…began to appear as just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole thing to pieces in the process." That Acheson and his comrades succeeded is an inheritance we all enjoy; that he left such an elegantly-crafted memoir is an inheritance only his fortunate readers will enjoy.
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Not only a classic of English literature, it also has all of the elements of grand strategy in narrative form. A clear vision and an ambitious goal, but an uncertain connection between means and ends. The navigation of uncharted and hostile territory, with imperfect information, limited resources, endless diversions, insidious enemies, and inconstant allies. Fortunately, in perhaps the ultimate test of any grand strategy, it has a happy ending.
Geoffrey Parker, The Grand Strategy of Philip II. Not all grand strategies succeed, but some of the best lessons come from those that fail. In the sixteenth century Philip II of Spain ruled "the first empire in history upon which the sun never set." Yet as Parker authoritatively describes, despite "uniquely favourable international circumstances Philip failed both to preserve what he had inherited and to achieve the dynastic and confessional goals that he had set."
Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. If Philip II’s grand strategy foundered most spectacularly with England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Mead’s book explores the success of the grand strategy which emerged eventually among the victors. The empire and international system created by England and eventually inherited by the United States (the "Anglo-American maritime order") has, in Mead’s telling, displayed remarkable resilience not only in maintaining American power, but in shaping many of the norms of the modern world. Not without considerable handicaps and hubris, of course — Mead scores the countless follies of the English-speaking peoples as much as he celebrates their success.
Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Lincoln’s challenge was not just to win a war but to preserve the very existence of a nation. Grand strategy involves all elements of national power, and Lincoln had to draw on manifest military, economic, diplomatic, intellectual, rhetorical, and even spiritual resources in the campaign to defeat the Confederacy without extinguishing the very possibility of America. Of the countless biographies of Lincoln, Guelzo’s is one of the very few studies of how the ideas and worldview of our greatest president shaped his policies. It is a book worthy of the man.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
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