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Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order by Charles Hill (Yale University Press, 2010. 384 pages. Illustrated. $27.50)

Since the 1960s the culture wars combined with revolutions in technology—specifically the rapid advances in information technology—have had a disruptive effect upon the study of literature. In response to the recent mania for technology and information, increasing numbers of academic institutions seem to have reduced or dropped altogether their requirements for the study of what, for lack of a better term, we might call the classics or great books. One result has been that one often meets humanities majors who can perform miracles with a keyboard and who know much about isolated theories associated with their disciplines but less and less about the literature that those theories were designed to illuminate. Graduate programs, responding to pressures generated inside the profession, seem to have narrowed their focus so as to preclude anything resembling a grand or comprehensive synthesis and turned teaching in the direction of rapidly increasing specialization. The outcome, both for the state and for the culture at large, is not salutary.

As Charles Hill reports and as Henry Kissinger describes, “There is no context, no motive. Information is not knowledge. People are not readers but researchers, they float on the surface. Churchill understood context. This new thinking erases [End Page lxix] context. It disaggregates everything. All this makes strategic thinking about world order nearly impossible to achieve.” Hill understandably finds this situation to be deplorable, and in Grand Strategies he seeks to reverse the trend by presenting a strong argument for “the restoration of literature as a tutor for statecraft.”

On the basis of long experience Professor Hill is eminently qualified to write about his chosen subject. Prior to taking pen in hand, Hill spent a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service, a career in which he acted as a senior aide to figures as diverse as George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In addition to earning the Secretary of State’s Medal and several other honors from the Department of State, he also achieved the Presidential Meritorious Service Award for 1986 and Presidential Distinguished Service Awards for 1987 and 1989. At present, in addition to being a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, he is distinguished fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, where he also serves as diplomat in residence and teaches courses in grand strategy and in the humanities.

The practice of statecraft, Hill argues, cannot and must not wait for a comprehensive accumulation of facts. Real leaders and real statesmen have no choice but to make real decisions in real time; consequently perfect decisions made through mastery of all the salient particulars are impossible and are generally outside the realm of probability. As a result, making decisions about the future based only upon a careful study of history carries serious and automatic limits. History, written years, decades, or centuries after the decisions and events it describes, is usually based upon a patient accumulation of facts and tends to praise or criticize people for acting in ways which presuppose that they had more information at hand than they actually could ever have had.

As a basis for making similar strategic decisions, political science carries similar limitations. In seeking the scientific approach, political science attempts to reduce complex problems with multiple variables to something like brief formulaic statements based upon limited parameters. Statecraft and grand strategy suffer under such restrictions; they demand an altogether different approach, the kind of expansive thinking that distinguishes the work of the world’s most creative writers, writers as diverse as Homer and Cervantes, Milton and Thoreau, Schiller and Kafka.

As a prelude to the development of his thesis, Hill offers two telling moments. The first is an incident that almost seems lifted directly from the pages of Brave New World and the quarters of Mustapha Mond: Hill recalls Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s surprise when, upon being invited to meet Mao during their historic 1972 visit—at a time when virtually the only books for sale in China were by Mao, Marx, and Lenin—they entered...


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