THE MAKERS OF AMERICAN STRATEGY

Wall Street Journal on September 25, 2015, published a review by Richard Aldous on David Milne’s book “Worldmaking: The Art and Science of Diplomacy”, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 600 pages, US 35.00. The review begins with George F. Kennan. Excerpts below:

In September 1945, a month after the end of World War II, a U.S. congressional delegation arrived in Moscow. Waiting for them was the No. 2 at the U.S. embassy, George F. Kennan, who wasn’t best pleased at having to play chaperone to junketeering politicians. “Sometimes I’ve been charged with being an elitist,” Kennan complained later in an interview. “Of course I am. What do people expect? God forbid that we should be without an elite. Is everything to be done by gray mediocrity?”

…David Milne tells the story of the hundred or so years when a sequence of public intellectuals shaped the discourse and practice of U.S. foreign affairs with confidence and élan—and guided America to its place as the world’s No. 1 power.

Mr. Milne, a historian at the University of East Anglia, presents nine men— Alfred Thayer Mahan, Woodrow Wilson, Charles Beard, Walter Lippmann, Kennan, Paul Nitze, Henry Kissinger, Paul Wolfowitz….” Each, he writes, “consciously engaged in a process of worldmaking, formulating strategies that sought to deploy the nation’s vast military and economic power—or indeed its retraction through a domestic reorientation—to ‘make’ a world in which America is best positioned to thrive.” The danger in writing such a book is that it will turn out to be not much more than a series of short biographies. That Mr. Milne succeeds, and brilliantly, is due in no small part to the vivacity and jargon-free clarity of his prose. But he also has a clever, thoughtful thesis that, while developed with great brio, he is careful not to overstate.

He believes that the traditional distinction between realism and idealism has become tired and offers another binary: art versus science. Some thinkers, like Mahan, Kennan and Mr. Kissinger, are drawn primarily to history, philosophy and literature; others, like Wilson, Nitze and Mr. Wolfowitz, incline toward the social sciences of politics, economics and international relations. While the former tend to impart “a sense of tragedy and caution” in considering foreign affairs, the latter believe that the world is malleable and that historical precedent can be transcended.

Kennan and Nitze perfectly illustrate the differences in thinking and approach. In 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson tasked both men to write papers on whether the U.S. should develop the hydrogen bomb. Such was its potentially destructive capacity that the decision was as much a philosophical as a military one.

By temperament and training, Mr. Milne is inclined toward the artists rather than the scientists, and as the book goes along, it becomes clear that Kennan is his touchstone.

In the end, Mr. Milne sides with the artists because he sees history as the best bet for policy makers to “study dilemmas, contextualize threats, compare their magnitude to the resources available, weigh humanitarian and reputational imperatives, and offer appropriately calibrated responses.”

The debates contained within “Worldmaking” have obvious contemporary resonance. Beard’s retrenchment, Wilson’s and Mr. Wolfowitz’s exceptionalism, the conservative realism of Kennan, Nitze and Mr. Kissinger, and Lippmann’s internationalism: All are suggestive of current debates.

Lippmann warned about populism and decisions made in fear of “the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd.” Mr. Kissinger points us back to the 19th century to illustrate “credibility” on the world stage. Mr. Wolfowitz goes even further back to the classics to skewer contemporary moral relativism. All subscribe to Kennan’s view that foreign policy doesn’t fit on a “bumper sticker.”

Six of Mr. Milne’s thinkers achieved their initial fame and influence by publishing books or articles that transformed the way people thought about government and the world. When Theodore Roosevelt read Mahan’s “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” (1890), his biographer Edmund Morris tells us, TR “flipped the book shut a changed man.” Eisenhower ordered that a 24-page synopsis of Mr. Kissinger’s “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy” (1957) be distributed to members of his administration, and Vice President Nixon was photographed with a copy of the book tucked under his arm. Wilson’s “Congressional Government” (1885) was a popular success.

In contrast, Paul Nitze wrote for an audience with security clearances, excluding the public. Mr. Wolfowitz, similarly, has produced no major book on the history, philosophy or theory of foreign policy.

Productive strategic thought, Mahan pointed out a century ago, requires us to “stop grubbing in the machine shops” of detail and “get up somewhere where [we] can take a bird’s eye view of military truths, and see them in their relations and proportions.”

The scientists and the artists take different approaches to gain that “bird’s eye view.” Wilson, Nitze and Mr. Wolfowitz sought an objective truth that could help them effect fundamental change in global affairs. Mahan,… Lippmann, Kennan, and Mr. Kissinger would counter that the world cannot be perfected, that the best that America can do is put its hand on the scales of power as a counterweight to the evils of the world.

…as Mahan wrote in 1897: “Let us worship peace, indeed, as the goal at which humanity must hope to arrive, but let us not fancy that peace is to be had as a boy wrenches an unripe fruit from a tree.”

Mr. Aldous, the author of “Reagan and Thatcher,” teaches history at Bard. He is writing a life of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Comment: Mr. Aldous is correct in his review of the Milne book hold up Mahan as one of the most important geopolitical thinkers to shape American geostrategy since the 19th century. Here one can only point to the excerpts from an article by geopolitician Francis P. Sempa on this blog in February 2015:

In his memoirs, From Sail to Steam, Mahan credited his reading of Theodore Mommsen’s six-volume “History of Rome” for the insight that sea power was the key to global predominance. In “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History”, Mahan reviewed the role of sea power in the emergence and growth of the British Empire. In the book’s first chapter, he described the sea as a “great highway” and “wide common” with “well-worn trade routes” over which men pass in all directions. He identified several narrow passages or strategic “chokepoints,” the control of which contributed to Great Britain’s command of the seas. He famously listed six fundamental elements of sea power: geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, size of population, character of the people, and character of government. Based largely on those factors, Mahan envisioned the United States as the geopolitical successor to the British Empire.

Eight years before the Spanish-American War resulted in the United States becoming a world power with overseas possessions, Mahan wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The United States Looking Outward,” (1890) in which he urged U.S. leaders to recognize that our security and interests were affected by the balance of power in Europe and Asia. Mahan understood that the United States, like Great Britain, was geopolitically an island lying offshore the Eurasian landmass whose security could be threatened by a hostile power or alliance of powers that gained effective political control of the key power centers of Eurasia. He further understood that predominant Anglo-American sea power in its broadest sense was the key to ensuring the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia.

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