Excerpted from Rethinking American Grand Strategy. Image Credit: Oxford University Press.

Means and Ends

As other essays in this collection demonstrate, the idea of “grand strategy” emerged out of the world of military affairs. Under the famous rubric identified by British historian B. H. Liddell Hart, “strategy” was what generals did, while “grand strategy” fell to politicians and statesmen, charged not only with winning the war but also with securing a viable and sustainable peace. Far-sighted civilian leaders were tasked with thinking through how to amass a nation’s vast resources (economic, cultural, social, military) toward those ends. In this construct, grand strategy was an elite enterprise, undertaken by the daring, powerful, and visionary few, a game of power politics played on a map of the world.

Social movements, by contrast, are often thought to be radically democratic and people-centered, spontaneous uprisings with little cohesion or central direction. Unlike states, movements have no formal power—no standing army or tax-collecting agency to carry out their will. They often have no formal hierarchy or designated leadership, at least not one that can claim widespread legitimacy. By definition, “movements” exist at some remove from established political institutions, outside of parties and governments and official agencies. Their power, if they can get it, comes through mass action rather than through back-room games played by a handful of participants. Partly as a result, they often appear to lack any strategy whatsoever, much less a strategy that could rise to the august label of “grand.”

Such differences can be deceptive, however. Far from lacking in a strategic tradition, the realm of social change over the past two centuries has given rise to an extensive literature in which activists and thinkers have debated which forms of organizing might best fit which situations. Much of that literature focuses what my colleague John Gaddis identifies as the central concern of any grand strategy: “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” If one conceives of grand strategy exclusively as something that states do, there may be little reason to bring these two literatures together. But if one considers it as something more like a methodology, a way of thinking through large-scale questions of means and ends, timing and scale, then there is a robust conversation to be had.

This is the assumption now guiding Yale’s grand strategy program, which has maintained its original focus on statecraft and foreign policy while opening up space for different forms of engagement with large-scale strategic thinking, including exploration in the realms of domestic politics and social movements. The course still includes what might be considered the grand strategy canon: Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz. In addition, it now incorporates thinkers from a long tradition of dissenting and social-movement thought, beginning with the abolitionists of the nineteenth century. The goal in doing this is not only to make space for creative thinking about what grand strategy is and does, but also to engage a set of questions crucial for understanding the challenges of the twenty-first century, when no competent statesman can afford to ignore populist and people’s movements, and no effective activist can avoid the question of how to engage with and influence institutions of power.

My own interest in grand strategy emerged at the intersection of these interests. My scholarly field is American political history, not statecraft or foreign policy, though I have written a good deal on national security topics such as terrorism and domestic intelligence. As a citizen, I have, for better or worse, been as likely to be a protester as a policymaker. (During the run-up to the Iraq War, I was one of those hapless dissenters, aghast at what seemed like an obvious imperial misadventure but, as it turned out, helpless to stop it.)

So why grand strategy? I encountered the program not long after arriving at Yale in 2004, a newly minted assistant professor curious about what was then a small, experimental venture. The campus was already buzzing about its virtues and vices, polarized between those who believed the program offered a visionary correction to the many ills of academic life and those who questioned its methodologies and politics. As Stephen Wertheim and Thomas Meaney have suggested, one of the most frequent critiques was that it engaged in a form of power politics that was less about strategy than about “flattery,” encouraging already over-confident Yale students to see them-selves as part of a lineage of statesmen and power brokers stretching back to the classical world. Another critique was more immediate: that the forms of analysis and habits of thought promoted by the program contributed to hubristic American-led disasters like the war in Iraq.

As I got to know the program, however, I found unexpected points of intellectual crossover and resonance, along with an intriguing experiment in historical pedagogy. First among them was the program’s claim that history and the humanities have something distinctive to offer future public servants, forms of knowledge that provide a perspective fundamentally different from what one might encounter in a policy lab or at a school of international affairs. For academic purists, this might be dismissed as “instrumentalizing” the humanities. Less ominously, it might be seen as creating space within universities for different forms of engagement with history and humanistic thought, a complement to rather than a detraction from the academic research mission. In an age of declining history majors and crisis within the humanities, it seems puzzling (and strategically inadvisable) to insist that historians and humanists sit apart from the world, fiddling with journal articles while the republic burns.

The grand strategy program appeared to be a place to do something that isn’t often done in academic history circles but that happens to be the way many people relate to history and the humanities: it allowed for learning lessons and making imaginative connections across vast differences of culture and context. The grand strategy program also embraced the idea that the university and the “real world” were not mutually exclusive realms—that policymakers and practitioners might have something to learn from academics, and vice versa. This entailed more than bringing a diplomat or politician or activist to campus for a talk. It meant co-teaching: sitting together week after week, reading the same texts and discussing the same problems. At its best, this approach required everyone—students, practitioners, professors—to acknowledge the value but also the limits to their ways of knowing the world.

Perhaps most provocatively, the program insisted on generalization, on pushing past boundaries of discipline and expertise in order to take on breathtakingly large—or, if you will, grand—questions about both the past and the present. At its most extreme, this might be interpreted as the rejection of a scholarly mission that favors careful specialization over synthesis. Seen in the context of a modern university education—just two of the thirty-six credits required of Yale students—the program appears more modest in its aims, a counterweight to rather than a replacement for more specialized classes.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the program offered a place to think about, well, strategy—not simply the “what” of policy but the “how” of getting things done. In the program of 2004, this mostly meant studying challenges faced by world leaders: statesmen, diplomats, presidents, princes. Today, it also means thinking about the actions of social movement leaders and ordinary people, faced with ambitions and visions for changing the world but all too often at a loss about how to do it.

Running the World and Changing the World

There is some peril in the effort to join these two worlds together. As many of the chapters in this collection note, “grand strategy” is already an amorphous term, at once a subject and a methodology, a form of planning that questions the ultimate utility of planning itself. Adding in another category of analysis further muddies the waters: If grand strategy is not primarily a matter of statecraft and national security, then what is it? There may be good reasons that policymakers and activists often view each other as adversaries rather than allies—the “blob” versus the “mob.” Certainly these divisions seem to be relevant to students on campus, who tend to self-sort into one group or the other. Students who want to run the world take classes like Grand Strategy and vie for internships at the State Department, eager to make their way up through the established order. Students who want to change the world, by contrast, often renounce allegiance to institutions and formal politics, looking with scorn on less imaginative strivers who aim to exercise power over their fellow citizens.

Within the realm of strategic thought, however, there has long been significant intellectual overlap between military, political, and social-movement approaches. Far from standing apart from questions of war and peace, stability and instability, conflict and diplomacy, nearly every significant movement for social change has actively engaged these questions, including the real or potential use of violence. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, abolitionists hotly debated means and ends and tactics, from “non-resistance” through “terrorism” and on up to total war. The woman suffrage movement wrestled with its own daunting strategic challenge: how to exercise power within a system that excluded women from traditional political methods but also from the skill and ability to bear arms. The labor movement of the nineteenth century employed a wide variety of violent and non-violent tactics aimed at the grand end of altering the balance of power between employers and employees, even of transforming capitalism itself. Around the world, still more radical movements, many of them at least nominally Marxist in orientation, produced vast literatures on the virtues and vices of revolutionary strategy as well as the complex task of transforming members and leaders, after victory, from revolutionaries into statesmen.

In modern Western democratic societies, social-change strategists tend to favor non-violent methods, but debates rage nonetheless: How ambitious or limited should a movement’s ends be? What are the best means of achieving those ends: litigation, street protest, persuasion, electoral power? How can leaders best promote resilience and discipline in the face of resistance, friction, and unexpected events? Who are those leaders and how do they maintain legitimacy? Who is their enemy, and how should the conflict be framed? Such questions take particular forms in the mass organizing context of the twenty-first century but they resonate strongly with the concerns that statesmen and generals have faced for centuries—a fact that many social-change strategists have long recognized.

Excerpted from Rethinking American Grand Strategy, published April 2021 by Oxford University Press.

Rethinking American Grand Strategy is a collection of essays edited by Elizabeth Borgwardt, Christopher McKnight Nichols, and Andrew Preston. To learn more about the book, read Public Seminar’s interview with editors McKnight Nichols and Preston.

Beverly Gage is professor of twentieth-century American history and director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University. Her courses focus on American politics, political thought, social movements, and governance, broadly conceived.

One thought on “The Blob and the Mob: On Grand Strategy and Social Change

  1. —-“But if one considers it as something more like a methodology, a way of thinking through large-scale questions of means and ends, timing and scale, then there is a robust conversation to be had.”—-

    Agreed. And I would add the most delicate among those are timing and scale.

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