A Strategic Education?

I can be frugal and self-privating, excessively so at times, but one big reason I am so is that I grew up in a family of hoarders. For most of my life in California, I lived in a five-bedroom house with my mother, father, brother, and a few pets here and there. We barely had enough space for ourselves. My mother, especially as I entered high school, became preoccupied with running a small part-time business of visiting the department stores of Los Angeles and Orange County, on the lookout for great deals in women’s clothing. Having found that the market in, say, West Texas, was grossly underserved in its need for XXXL women’s bras, Mom would buy up the stock in Costa Mesa, put them online for sale on EBay, and would net a nice profit. It started off like a fun and profitable hobby, but by the time that I graduated from high school, the house became ever more filled with women’s clothing of varying shapes and sizes. I spent the summer after my freshman year of college sleeping on couches at home because my bed had been invaded by moo-moos and leggings.

A familiar sight from the bookshelves of my childhood

I have less harsh feelings towards my father’s obsession. On the one hand this might be because his – military history books – had its own organized space. True, his office also eventually became a den of messiness, with the spines of books like John Erickson’s The Road to Stalingrad and The Road to Berlin desperately stressed as they strained open-faced under towers of books balanced on top of them. But the chaos remained confined to one small space. When I live with others, it seems, I can tolerate – and even relish – obsessions in others, so long as they don’t conquer more than one room with a door that locks.

And yet another reason why I tolerated the military books obsession more than the women’s clothing one was that I had myself become more interested in history and writing as a young man. Spurred on by excellent teachers at my high school and reading secondary history texts by scholars like Paul W. Boyer, I found American history fascinating. The interaction between domestic politics and foreign policy, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, had made the world that I still lived in, and I wanted to either write this story, or try to be a part of the redux in my own life. Still, Dad’s books remained largely unread. Military history seemed too dry, too removed from current affairs, too boring, and, generally, too poorly written, to capture my interest.

Promises to Keep by Paul Boyer

Paul Boyer's "Promises to Keep": One of My Favorite American History Textbooks

I became interested in why I never picked up military history the way my father did recently while reading an oldish op-ed piece by Peter Berkowitz, a scholar at the Hoover Institution. In the piece, entitled “Our Elite Schools Have Abandoned Military History,” Berkowitz laments what he sees as the decline in the teaching of military history at places like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford. There are, he underlines, precious few courses at these schools focusing either on strategy or tactics.

True, he excepts, some places like Yale continue the tradition, sort of, with courses like Grand Strategy. He also singles out Scott Sagan, a professor of political science and policy big-shot at Stanford. But by and large, if you want to get a course that will go in-depth on Thucydides, Sun-Tzu, and Clausewitz, good luck, at least if you’re attending an elite university.

Charles Hill

Charles Hill: One of the teachers for Yale's Grand Strategy Course

So is he right? And if military history as Berkowitz describes is indeed in decline at elite American universities, is that really such a bad thing? I feel semi-entitled as someone to comment on this issue, given that strategy-ish stuff is something I claim to have an interest in. I’d like to think that my obscure writings on the history of the USSR or Germany give me some background to talk about this stuff.

Perhaps more concretely, I just concluded a month-long stint as an analyst in Wikistrat’s Grand Strategy competition. I wrote stuff like this, and my team was doing pretty well going into the last week (fingers crossed). But at the same time, many of the other teams involved in the Wikistrat competition, which I touched on in a previous post, came from more traditional backgrounds to policy analysis than I did. I’m a historian by training, grounded in languages and literatures, in theory, whereas most of the other contestants are coming out of political science and “policy studies” departments.


Wikistrat: part of my life for the past month

I might start by saying that I think that history and the humanities are the best place to start to get this kind of education, although they could be doing things a lot better than they do now. Or at least that other disciplines don’t do such a good job here. During the Wikistrat competition, something I was struck by again and again looking at the political science teams was their intense reliance on models and simulations to make points that seemed either obvious or hopelessly speculative to me. One team, trying to predict whether China would become a democracy by 2050, constructed an elaborate risk simulator. It looked as though the models underpinning it had come out of thermal physics departments. Another team, meanwhile, trying to argue that Pakistan’s ISI would cease to dominate the political scene in the country, had constructed a computer program that modeled social network dynamics in order to predict how the shape of Pakistan’s élite would change over the next twenty or thirty years.

While both applications looked nice, both seemed to me cases of disciplinary specialists entranced by the “rigor” and “science” of what is inherently a business of predictions and unreliable contingencies. Given that someone like Sagan, the Stanford professor whom Berkowitz singled out as a paragon of strategic analysis, has built much of his work around emphasizing the inadequacy of preparation within organizations, and the spontaneity of organizational response to unintended shocks, this obsession with creating computer models seems a little desperate to me. Combine it with a near-total divorce from an interest in the places themselves, and what you are left with, it seems to me, is a class of analysts whose discipline (“policy studies”) is actual a method without any subject.

If more political science grad students read "The Limits of Safety," maybe they might recognize the limits of bizarro polisci modeling

The humanities (but especially when tied in conjunction with more technical disciplines) can, at their best, allow one to escape from this focus on hyper-quantitative methods as the key to all mythologies. But they have to be pitched in the right way. Increasingly, as I turn some of my energies in this and coming months to some online education efforts for groups like the Turkmenistan Youth and Civic Values Foundation, I give more and more thought to teaching and how best to present complex topics. For most of the work I handle at the moment, which has more to do with college applications procedures, being a successful student, and so on, the matter is sufficiently simple – if voluminous – that I don’t think this presents a huge challenge. But for other topics, like, say, German history, or the history of the Cold War, some organizing principle and teaching philosophy is going to be necessary if you want to have a hope of having students absorb all of the material.

I have been lucky in my time at Princeton and other institutions, like Göttingen and Oxford, to have sat in on lectures and seminars with professors and teachers who were masterful at this task of designing courses that imparted not only material but also an analytic scaffolding for how to fit further material on.

Putting Soviet history into global context, rather than just seeing it as Russian history Mk. II, is illuminating.

In my senior year at Princeton, I was lucky enough to take Stephen Kotkin’s “The Soviet Empire” course, a highly demanding lecture course on Soviet and Russian history from more or less 1914 to 1991. While Kotkin, a distinguished historian of the Soviet Union, did a great job of presenting the factual content clearly and passionately, what made the course stand out for me was his focus on the USSR as an actor in a global competition for prestige, power, and wealth. Soviet domestic politics were framed less as historiographical episodes that historians would quibble about in the 1970s and 1980s than as real policy and personal contests within the bureaucratic apparatus. The course was, in other words, about more than Russian history. It was about how one builds a personal dictatorship inside the hull of a pre-existing state apparatus, and how one tries to make a remarkable anti-market dictatorship compete with other empires in the late 20th century.

Later, at Oxford, I took a course entitled “From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism” with Avner Offer, an Israeli-born economic historian. The course was ostensibly about how the UK and the United States went from generous welfare states in the 1950s to the market ideology of Thatcherism and Reaganism and, later, the Third Way as represented by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. But again, analytic framework was key for imposing logic onto a hugely complex subject history.

In Offer’s mind, “policy norms” – the assumptions and intuitions that guided policy makers at any one time – were decisive. The real task of the historian approaching this problem – but also looking at policy shifts at other times in history – was to identify the institutions, patronage networks, and mafias from which ideas, backed by wealth, flowed. By linking cadres of policy entrepreneurs and intellectuals in other times to the policymakers themselves, you might come closer to understanding the huge economic shifts of the period and why leaders implemented the policies that leveraged these changes.

Bosom buddies for Market Liberalism

Unfortunately, as Berkowitz underlines, many of the current underlying norms and institutions in American and global academia today hinder not promote this. I’ve recently become a big fan of New Books in History, a podcast run by Marshall Poe, a tech-savvy professor at the University of Iowa. While most of the conversations are excellent, one conversation with historian Robert Gellately, a professor of history at Florida State, disturbed me.

At the time of the interview, Gellately had just released his latest book, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe, a tripartite political biography leveraging Gellately’s experience as a historian of Germany (for which he is most known) with a newfound interest in Russia. The book, which I have not read, sounds great. Still, Gellately noted in the talk how hard it was for people to recognize him as anything other than a historian of Germany – even after having spent years toiling in Russian archives and learning the language, indeed, hardly spending any time in Germany. Earlier in his career, when still hungry for postdocs and any academic work to feed himself, mentors strongly pressured Gellately to present himself as a historian of Germany and nothing more.

Academic historians, in other words, are pressed like coffee beans in an espresso machine to conform to disciplinary and geographic boundaries that have ossified within history departments. The fact that this is occurring at the same time when prominent American commentators have pointed more than even to the need for global, strategic education is depressing.

Robert Gellately: Trapped into the Paradigm of German Historian?

True, there are some promising lights. While I have never met him, the work of Jeremy Friedman, a Princeton PhD who was around campus at the same time as myself, is a good example. His work focuses on the clash between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China in the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s, and his dissertation, to my knowledge, draws on archives in Central America, Angola, Russia, and China – not bad! Similarly, Kyle Haddad-Fonda, a fellow Rhodes Scholar here whom I interviewed for the Historical Gadfly recently, works on Sino-Egyptian relations in the 1950s. And I’m engaged in a project right now on the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s in global perspective, trying to incorporate sources from Moscow, Dushanbe, East Berlin, Kabul (via expatriated collections), and, if I can fit it all in, maybe even Havana and Tashkent.

The focus in all of these kinds of projects, more than their shared concern with the Global Left in the Third World in the 20th century, is on global history and strategy as great powers sought influence and prestige all over the world. These projects are informed by time spent in places, by languages, and by a balancing act between specialization in one culture and a global perspective on the other. Executed well, they can contribute both to historical scholarship while also informing us about the shocks that made the structure of the world we live in today.

And yet … I have met, in many of the same archives where Kyle and Jeremy have worked or will work, plenty of other younger scholars who seek to toe the party line of doing “strictly” German or Russian history – and they may have better conventional job prospects than the people working on more international topics. Improving the caliber of “strategic studies” or what Berkowitz wishes to call his proposal will require, on the one hand, either a restructuring of university departments (to feed the people like myself interested in these issues!) or creativity and entrepreneurialism by people shut out of the mainstream institutions to take over the educational channels as the old specialists in one country or one period become marginalized and uninteresting to new student bodies.

At the same time, as a friend and collaborator on Wikistrat wrote to me recently, maybe Berkowitz’ and my own intuition about academia as the proper location for this kind of strategic analysis may be misplaced. This friend, who in part may be trying to justify what seems like a resolve to work in investment banking after a two-year scholarship stint at Oxford, had just finished reading Evan Thomas’ and Walter Isaacson’s The Wise Men, a history/biography of the six American men (and friends) who, together, made huge contributions towards the postwar order: Dean Acheson, Chip Bohlen, George F. Kennan, Robert A. Lovett, W. Averell Harriman, and John J. McCloy.

"The Wise Men" are studied by Strategic Studies, but they didn't study Strategic Studies themselves. Say that backwards ten times fast ...


In this person’s – we’ll call him Dean’s – analysis, “part of what made this group so effective was the loyalty, selflessness, and dedication to service for service’s sake of each individual. They were, however, only human–they liked wealth and power (the realist in me says anyone who denies this about themselves is lying). It seems to me that the ability to balance this contradiction came from the nature of their careers. They all were tremendously accomplished in areas outside of government, and, more superficially, they all had sources of wealth that came from outside of government. Their efficacy seems to have come from their confidence, which in turn seems to have come with their security.”

In other words, maybe the focus of strategic studies as an area of education is the wrong way to go about things. As Dean points out, some of the most distinguished grand strategists of a previous American generation came from humanistic educational or law backgrounds, went into their careers – diplomats, lawyers, bankers – and could later come back to strategic issues buoyant in the knowledge that they had succeeded elsewhere.

In our current world, however, where we view “strategic studies” or “policy studies” as an area of study in their own right, or expect of historians (as I just did above), that they should be ready to provide policy-relevant analysis without having existed or survived in the world outside of educational institutions, we create perverse incentives. Young people can become interested in a field like foreign affairs because they have a genuine passion for the field. Maybe they get lucky at falling into the right institution or social setting at the right time, and they make the right contacts that propel them on the route towards Wunderkind-dom. One builds their empire of prestige or notoriety, but in this rush for celebrity, as my friend wrote, “it takes too long to learn a language or engage in the serious business of thinking. Far better to play the game and move up the ladder quickly, you can always figure things out later. One can’t afford to be honest or selfless–and, if the occasion calls for it, loyal–in a truly important undertaking, because you have nothing to fall back on.

If I did have a monster Internet following, it might be harder for me to take time out to actually learn things as opposed to posturing.

There are sure plenty of ways to navigate through this journey of trying to be a well-informed, interesting, and employable global citizen. As Berkowitz himself underlined, part of the challenge will be revamping university departments, and trying to tear down the existing barriers between the policy world, the military world, and the academy – less as one more step towards the formation of a social power élite, let’s hope, than as part of a cosmopolitan, intellectually open group of talented individuals. Anything that moves us closer towards the world that Dean described – where smart people with hopes of contributing to their country’s future in some constructive way can hope to build careers both in “strategic studies” as well as in realms outside of it, without the fear of being permanently exiled to Goldman Sachs or the Foreign Service – is a good thing. Barring all of this, restructuring the geographic divisions within humanities departments, as well as the geographically Balkanized nature of graduate education itself, will all be a plus, too. We might be one step closer towards providing a strategic education in that world.

And if none of it works out, I can always go back home to sell women’s clothing on EBay.


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