The New Makers of Modern Strategy

From The Wall Street Journal:

A group of generals is called a “glitter”; a group of historians an “argumentation.” There is no colorful group noun for academic analysts of strategy. Perhaps, like owls, they form a “college.” In “The New Makers of Modern Strategy,” Hal Brands, a professor of strategy at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, gathers a college of 45 such experts. All are wise after the facts of their field, and each attempts the historian’s equivalent of the owl’s neck rotation—a sweep that, taking in past and present, looks to the future.

Strategists must prepare for the next war. “The New Makers of Modern Strategy” is the third collection to bear this title. The first was published in 1943, when applied strategy was a matter of life and death and the future of democratic states uncertain. “If strategic studies was a child of hot war,” Mr. Brands writes, “it matured during the Cold War.” The second “Makers of Modern Strategy,” published in 1986, absorbed the “nuclear revolution,” redefined the “relationship between force and diplomacy,” emphasized resources and the long haul, and examined the challenges of the Cold War’s hotter regions, such as irregular warfare and counterinsurgency.

This third edition, “The New Makers of Modern Strategy,” returns to those topics, and adds AI, drones, cyberwarfare and other developments altering the familiar patterns of conflict. America’s post-Cold War “holiday” from history is over, Mr. Brands writes, and great-power political competition is back. China is challenging the U.S. for hegemony, and other “revisionist actors” such as Russia and Iran seek to alter the international order. Strategies of “hybrid” warfare, which mixes civilian and military methods, expand the “gray zone” between peace and war. This collection is a handbook for a crowded, unstable world in which America’s leaders need “strategic discipline and insight.”

Lawrence Freedman opens the first section, “Foundations and Founders,” with a lucid definition of terms. Next, Walter Russell Mead examines the legacies of Thucydides and Polybius: “they integrated strategy, the art of winning wars, and statecraft, the art of building and leading states.” Toshi Yoshihara then pivots to Asia, with an essay on Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” Sun Tzu, he writes, cannot be identified as “a historical figure in a specific time and setting,’ and “The Art of War” was “not written by one author in a single act.” Sun Tzu is the Homer of Chinese strategy. Mr. Yoshihara surveys Chinese civilization and explains its military ethos, suggesting an underlying universal logic. Even so, it seems impossible to translate Sun Tzu’s elusive elixir of shi (described with kinetic metaphors about water, diving hawks and rolling boulders) into the American anthropology of “strategic culture.”

Machiavelli, the founder of modern political thought, also wrote an “Art of War.” Matthew Koenig asks whether Machiavelli fits best into a “Western tradition” that seeks to use “overwhelming force on the enemy’s center of gravity in a decisive battle of annihilation,” or into the “Eastern tradition” epitomized by Sun Tzu, which “prioritizes deception and winning without fighting.” Mr. Koenig concludes that Machiavelli’s amoral realism “may lean East.”

But the Western tradition includes such deceivers as Odysseus’ Trojan Horse and Joshua’s Hebrew spies. It also includes Machiavelli’s “full-throated defense of democracy” in “The Discourses on Livy”—a proposal to revive the Roman republic’s strategic culture in the modern state. That state-building meant harnessing military means to political ends: If this integration seems obvious to us, that is because modern Western strategy rediscovered the Roman way through the trials of war, and also its errors.

Samuel Huntington, summarizing the ideas of Clausewitz, once wrote that war aspires to be an “autonomous science” but functions as a “subordinate science.” Strategy is too important to be left to soldiers. It is also too complex to be left to politicians. Mr. Brands’s second and third sections examine the professionalization of the military in the age of early modern state-building, the integration of economic and political strategies, and the testing of these full-spectrum theories after 1914.

Veteran armchair strategists will know Napoleon Bonaparte, Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.F.C. Fuller, but they may be caught off-balance by Priya Satia writing about Gandhi’s “consummately coercive” passive aggression and S.C.M. Paine on Mao Zedong’s strategy of “nested war.” Ms. Paine’s account of how Mao fought three wars at once—nesting a Chinese civil war within a war with Japan, and the war with Japan within World War II—suggests parallels to the emerging Western understanding of strategy as multilevel and multidimensional. It also shows that Mao, like Eisenhower, was a largely unsung genius of grand strategy.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


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