Christopher McKnight Nichols (left) and Andrew Preston (right) Photo Credit: Mina Carson (The Oregon Historical Society) and, respectively. Graphic design by Daniel Fermín.

Award-winning historians Christopher McKnight Nichols and Andrew Preston spoke (virtually) with Public Seminar editorial intern Gregory Coleman to discuss their new book Rethinking American Grand Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2021). Edited by Nichols and Preston with fellow historian Elizabeth Borgwardt, the collection of curated essays discusses what American grand strategy is, how we can approach it, and what it means in our ever-changing world.

Gregory Coleman [GC]: What made you think that now was a good time for this book? 

Andrew Preston [AP]: The idea for this book began in 2014, in the Obama years—a comparably stable and normal time. Elizabeth Borgwardt, the third editor, and I had a conversation at a conference and she said: “Wouldn’t it be cool to do something on grand strategy that wasn’t just generals and statesmen and the great powers, and people like Bismarck and Kissinger moving pieces on a global chessboard?”

And then we mentioned it to Chris Nichols at another conference, and he got funding for a conference at Oregon State. But it took a long time to move from idea to conference to book. And by the time the book came out in 2021, the whole political landscape had completely changed. Yes, it’s timely now. But I think it could have been timely ten or fifteen years ago, too. 

Christopher McKnight Nichols [CMN]: That’s exactly what I was going to say: this is a book that emerged conceptually out of the post 9/11 world. That was the generational moment—not the Trump years or the Obama years. As historians, we are mostly looking backwards but a second volume would talk more about United States-Asia policy, and some of the major questions on the global stage confronting the US now. If the US is to have a grand strategy for the next century, a big piece of that puzzle will have to do with Asia.

GC: How did you decide which essays, which voices, which perspectives, interacted best to tell the story of grand strategy?

AP: Coming out of the conference, there were so many ideas fizzing around: not all the chapters were ready for primetime yet, and we wanted to add chapters. We had three or four different structures in the planning stages and Chris came up with the final structure.

CMN: That’s kind of you to say, although I think of it as collaborative. We wanted to start with the section on frameworks, and with a scholar who’s really well known in the field, so we chose Hal Brands at Johns Hopkins. He writes about the fallacies in grand strategy and how to conceptualize it better. And his definitional framework is what a lot of our authors riff on, reject, or embrace.

Then, we wanted someone who’s really changing and driving grand strategy thinking, so we chose Beverly Gage at Yale to write about social movements. And then the third chapter, about global health, is by Elizabeth Bradley and Lauren Taylor. 

The second section is a historical sweep, from the Revolution to the present. It gives you a sense of the strengths and limits of thinking in those areas. The third section recasts main figures, the fourth is a really innovative section of new approaches, and then we end with two reflections about the origins of the idea of Anglo-American grand strategy in the mid-twentieth century. Those authors, Mary L. Dudziack and Fredrik Logevall, have made major interventions, and they end the book by helping us think about grand strategy as a historical concept. 

GC: There are some authors whose definition of grand strategy doesn’t quite square with others, but the ideas build upon one another. It must be a delicate dance to make sure that all the authors have the space to ensure that they are heard without pulling the rug out from under each other.

AP: One of the things that helped get us around that was the introduction: we have our own theory, our own definition, of grand strategy but the contributors to the book didn’t know what our definition was until they read the book. We wanted the concept to be as capacious as possible, knowing that the pieces might not fit perfectly together. And people accepted that, even though they had strong feelings about what is and isn’t grand strategy. 

The big tension is: how do you make a book capacious and not stretch it to the point where it becomes shallow and can’t really carry the load, theoretically or analytically? I think we were successful, but that’s up to the reader to decide. 

CMN: I totally agree with Andrew, and as the work came to us in drafts and then in different stages, we saw authors connecting. Instead of a point-counterpoint, the chapters meshed conceptually. The “Recasting Figures” section is a good example of this. One chapter that I often cite is David Greenberg’s essay on George Kennan. Greenberg is not a foreign relations scholar, and is not a scholar of grand strategy, so was coming to this from a very different perspective, as were other contributors. But Kennan is the iconic figure in grand strategy because he articulated containment policy at the beginning of the Cold War.

What is the point-counterpoint that would teach us more about Kennan? It’s unclear but in lining him up with other recast figures like Woodrow Wilson and W.E.B. Du Bois, you see ways that you might recast other figures who aren’t represented in the book. The reader might note that we don’t have a lot of nineteenth-century figures, or ask: why don’t we have more activists in there? The point is that you can apply this lens of analysis, these approaches, these new frameworks, to other areas and people. 

GC: Was the Yale program in grand strategy a specific, guiding idea that organized your approach? 

AP: I was a postdoc at Yale at the time when it was founded, and a fly on the wall. I audited, or sat in on, the Grand Strategy class a lot, because, if you’re going to take on this concept, you’re going to have to take on that very famous course.

GS, as it is called, was founded in 2000, I think, or 1999. The course and the field almost became synonymous but we didn’t set out for the book to be a supporting pillar for GS—or a critique of it—you just couldn’t do a project like this and ignore it. 

And so, we refer to the course quite a bit, and we refer to the history of the program, right in the first paragraph of the book. A lot of people do the same in their chapters. It’s very, very important but not the be-all and end-all.

CMN: I had a fellowship at Yale while I was in graduate school, and I presented in the program but we also self-consciously selected some contributors who were distant from the grand strategy world. The rethinking project was what we really intended, doing that through history. We wanted historians to take deeply-rooted historical approaches to rethinking grand strategy. 

The subtext of Andrew’s comment is also that the Yale Grand Strategy program, as well as the one at Duke, and in the United Kingdom and all over the world, have been broadening their perspectives, too. So our project is in parallel to what’s happening in the pedagogy in these programs, even though our project isn’t of those programs. 

What’s really gratifying for us so far is a lot of those programs—from the service academies to the mothership at Yale—are teaching pieces of this book already. 

GC: You said that Andrew has done the work of unpacking the title for audiences at various conferences. 

AP: Yes, working backwards: why grand strategy? Because the term was ubiquitous. There were all these programs that Chris referred to, popping up all over the place especially in the US and the UK. It’s becoming an important field, but we thought that the meaning of the phrase needed to be explored a little bit more. So, that’s the first part. 

American? It’s not just because that’s the country Chris, Liz, and I mostly study. We’re scholars of foreign relations so we study other countries too, but our main focus is on the United States. e make a case in the introduction that because of the scale of all types of American power—economic power, cultural power, political power, the learning environment, and military and diplomatic power—the United States is an ideal case study.

And then, what we wanted to do was to rethink grand strategy. We didn’t want to reinvent it. We didn’t want to say that the old way of looking at it through generals and wars is military history, but we did want to say it is wrong to think of grand strategy as only military history. I’m pretty sure at the service academies, as Chris mentioned, if they read Laura Briggs’s chapter on the politics of reproduction and adoption, that would be totally new. That’s what we want. But we didn’t want to say the old way—Clausewitz, Bismarck—is wrong, but rather that we can also bolt on some other things: bring them together in conversation to create something new.

GC: Was there any part of what some authors were saying that you hadn’t thought about before? What surprised you?

CMN: On one hand, I would say we were pleasantly surprised by many of the contributors. On the other hand, we had a sense of where we were headed. One very specific example: I’ve written a lot about the 1918 flu pandemic, but most of what I wrote and researched years ago never made it to press because nobody cared much. People were much more interested in World War I or Wilson, and Wilson never once mentioned the flu pandemic publicly. You can only find a couple veiled references in his papers, so in retrospect, that’s a big gap. 

Our book will hold up infinitely better because we do consider disease. Our third chapter, by Elizabeth Bradley and Laura Taylor, is on PEPFAR, George Bush’s program for AIDS relief to Africa, arguably the best thing that the Bush administration did. By some accounts, it saved 17 to 20 million lives. It was bilateral policy that was also somewhat unilateralist. 

There are a number of problems that Bradley and Taylor diagnose, but the core conceit of that chapter is that if you use the grand strategy lens to look at public health, the US’s policies have been, and can be, much better understood in a global framework. As importantly, the United States needs to have a robust global public health grand strategy.

And wow, isn’t that true? We’re living through a moment when the US did not have one and we had an administration that showed outright disdain for that approach. The consequences are that hundreds of thousands more Americans have died unnecessarily, and the same could be said on a far bigger scale around the world. 

I guess the only other thing I’d say is that when we were thinking about the definitional framework and the rationale for the book, one of the things that we emphasized was that theory can bear little resemblance to the complex reality around us. A theory of grand strategy can’t be based largely on military strategy or statecraft. A theory that doesn’t take account of gender, race, the environment, public health, a wide range of cultural, social, political, economic issues that are really salient and urgently pressing, can’t be that useful. 

GC: If readers are looking for ways to make a change, what should this book teach them? 

AP: My shorthand answer would be that power comes in many forms; if that’s all that someone takes away from the book, then I think we’ve done our job. It’s not just military power. It’s not just hard power. It’s not even just soft power in the kind of sense that people use it to mean the US gets what it wants in the world by deploying culture. And to me, that’s what the core message of the book would be.

CMN: I would double down on that answer to say also, based on Beverly Gage’s chapter, that there are hidden strategies and strategists in the historical record. Those who, say, aspire to work for the National Security Council—it’s very obvious to them that they’re doing policy planning and probably thinking about grand strategy. It’s probably a lot less obvious if you’re a Black Lives Matter activist that you, too, are participating in strategies that might be understood as grand strategies.

GC: You started the book in 2014 and so much changed since then: I know there must have been revisions because Donald Trump is referenced as president.

CMN: Yes, there were a lot of revisions, but one thing that remained useful throughout was the takeaway: that there are definitional structures, and that the classic way of thinking about grand strategy remains useful—the matching of necessarily limited means to long-term aspirational ends.

That’s a kind of John Lewis Gaddis meets Paul Kennedy definition. And that works as well for international groups, mission movements, and environmental justice advocates as it does for people in the State Department or military planners thinking about executing some combination of battle strategy, pacification, and peace operations. 

We didn’t intend this, but if you’re thinking about the book in relation to something much smaller scale—your everyday life, or an organization you’re involved in—a definitional framework is useful. What are your necessarily limited means and what are your long-term aspirational ends? What do you really want to achieve? And what’s the biggest thing that you might want to achieve? 

In higher education, we’re confronting that all the time because there’s so much narrow thought. How do we just get to the next term and not have to shut down if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19? Not, what do you really want to achieve in the end? At Oregon State, we’re reforming our baccalaureate core around the question: what do twenty-first-century students need to know? It’s a big question. What about racial and social justice? Students don’t have an infinite number of credits, college costs money, and college is tough. 

You have necessarily limited means to try to transform the citizens of the next generation. People don’t tend to think that the next meeting is strategic planning but I’m thinking about that all the time. What’s the big thing we hope to accomplish? We may not get there but how do we strive for that?

GC: For the people who aren’t yet knowledgeable about grand strategy, but who want to be, do you have any reading recommendations?

CMN: Biographies, compelling accounts of history, even historical fiction, are a good place to start. In a couple months, I’m interviewing Erik Larson who wrote The Devil in the White City among other things. His book The Splendid and the Vile, about Churchill and England under threat, is a really great read. Historians might quibble here and there, but he does a very good job of making history accessible and interesting. 

AP: Novels that came to mind that aren’t really about strategy, but are definitely about the human condition, warfare, the Cold War, and race and gender, are Viet Thanh Nguyen’s two-volume set, The Sympathizer and The Committed. They are about the Vietnam war but also the human wreckage of the war: opportunities missed, bad decisions made, and how individuals deal with these much larger forces—and deal with them badly in almost every case. The Vietnam War is one of my specialties, and I find that these books are incredibly good and deeply researched.

I think one of the best books ever written on politics is Gore Vidal’s historical novel Burr, about Aaron Burr, written in the early 1970s. People rediscovered it because of Hamilton, the musical, but it’s one of the best treatises on politics without being a treatise. 

CMN: I have one more: one of my favorite books is about how you go through life when you don’t have much power but still attempt to achieve big things. It’s a biography of Lucy Parsons by Jacqueline Jones called Goddess of Anarchy. Parsons’s husband was one of the Haymarket bombers, and she’s a woman of color who changed her life several times to achieve particular ends. It gets at what Beverly Gage talks about in her chapter: how small movements can gain power over time, and that they can and should be understood in terms of the strategies they deploy. 

Read an excerpt from Rethinking American Grand Strategy, courtesy of the editors and Oxford University Press.

Gregory Coleman is a journalist and MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.

Christopher McKnight Nichols is an American historian and Director of the Oregon State University Center for the Humanities. He specializes in the history of the United States and its relationship to the rest of the world, particularly in the areas of isolationism, internationalism, and globalization. Nichols was honored by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era with the Roger D. Bridges Distinguished Service Award in 2015.

Andrew Preston is a Canadian historian and professor of American History at the University of Cambridge. He specializes in American foreign relations, primarily since 1898. Preston’s teaching and research interests lie in the motivations behind America’s behavior in the world at both the elite and popular levels; foreign policymaking in Washington; and the intersections between politics and culture—particularly religion—on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Preston was awarded the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize for his book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.