Grand Strategy spreads across US

Anna Wang/YH

Anna Wang/YH

Has Colin Powell read Sun Tzu?” John Negroponte, DC ’60, former Director of National Intelligence, wondered aloud one day last spring as the “Studies in Grand Strategy” seminar read the work of the Chinese strategist. By the end of the class, he had an answer: yes. Negroponte had texted the former Secretary of State during the class.

But to be Secretary of State, do you need to read Sun Tzu? Maybe not, but it might be a good idea. This is one of the purposes of Studies in Grand Strategy (GS). Charles Hill, one the course’s three founding professors who worked in the State Department, explains that students interested in GS come to Yale with the idea of doing big things—like becoming president, or senator, or a Supreme Court justice. John Gaddis, another founding professor and prominent Cold War historian, says, “It should train Yale students—undergraduate, graduate, and professional school—for leadership in their respective fields.”

GS emerged from a desire to study ideas in the context of executing statecraft. In the 1990s, Paul Kennedy, the third founding processor, was the premiere diplomatic and military historian in the United States, and began a renaissance in the field. He, Hill, and Gaddis (who are often called the “Big Three”) wanted to build off of Kennedy’s reenergizing of these disciplines and focus on big ideas with practical effects. Though they disagree on the exact story of the course’s origins, the professors were united by a frustration with how micro-histories and the social sciences had taken over the liberal arts curriculum. Hill says that GS was born, in part, because “students were voting with their feet, choosing history over other majors with the idea of doing big things, because methodologies in other majors were social science things where you thought about little corners of the world.”

GS is co-taught by the Big Three, Minh Luong, associate director of the program, and three visiting practitioner-professors. The first semester of the course, taught in the spring, focuses on thinkers and historical actors’ conceptions of “grand strategy.” Most students receive money from the program to pursue a summer project, and all are required to write a report explaining how the concept of grand strategy applies to what they’ve done. In the fall, groups of students design and present policy proposals called Marshall Briefs on specific topics, which the faculty ruthlessly analyzes as if students were presenting to the President. Instead of a final exam or paper, the students elect a president and play out a crisis simulation as the US government. Throughout the course, the students have guest visitors: General David Petraeus, the Commander of the US Forces in Afghanistan, visited the class last year.

Between the big name professors, guests, and big ideas, Grand Strategy had built enough of a reputation outside of Yale that in 2008, Roger Hertog, a former investment banker, held a meeting here to announce that he was interested in funding programs similar to GS around America. The Big Three say that Hertog independently became interested in Yale’s GS program and decided that there should be more like it. Whether the Yale class that first caught Hertog’s eye can be replicated across the US by different professors with their own philosophies is in some ways particularly relevant to Yale as GS enters its second decade and students wonder what a GS after the Big Three may look like.


Thanks to Hertog’s funding and support, similar courses have appeared at Temple University, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Duke, and Columbia. According to an article in last October’s Philanthropy Magazine, this is just one part of Hertog’s broader interest in funding programs and chairs at universities that focus on “big ideas,” such as funding for Birthright trips for American Jews and a summer program in Jewish and western thought at Princeton. Hill is skeptical that grand strategy is really being taught outside of Yale. Often, he says, people “think they’re doing grand strategy but they’re not. They’re not because grand strategy is hard to grasp.”

Unrelated to Hertog’s initiative is what Walter Russell Mead, BK ’76, who was a professor at Yale for several years and co-taught GS here, calls “The Hudson River School of Grand Strategy”; it offers one course, which Mead teaches alone at Bard College. The syllabus is based on Yale’s, and is posted online along with slightly edited transcripts or reports of class discussions on “StratBlog” on Mead says the big challenge of the course is teaching everything himself. “I can’t count on Professor Luong to teach Sun Tzu and Professor Kennedy to teach British naval history.” He says the program currently doesn’t receive outside funding, but may solicit it if he can expand the program.

Some of the professors at the Hertog-funded programs—Matthew Connelly, GRD ’98, who helped found and now teaches at Columbia’s Hertog Global Strategic Initiative summer program, and Jeremy Suri, GRD ‘98, a professor at the Grand Strategy Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison—are Kennedy’s former students. Yale International Security Studies, a broader program of which GS is a part, funds graduate and post-graduate level research, and now has almost 100 former students teaching throughout the US, according to their literature. Though the Big Three may not have a direct hand in the grand strategy programs around the US, their influence is widespread.

Connelly says that when designing the Hertog Global Strategy Initiative at Columbia, “We borrowed aspects of Yale experience—the esprit de corps. Students form up in a tight knit unit, which gets them ready to take on really colossal challenges.” Connelly also places more emphasis on the actual research involved in the program. “We’re training students to do really original research so they can go on to do the same thing when it counts and when the stakes are higher.”

Peter Feaver runs Duke’s American Grand Strategy program and says that he modeled the program off Yale’s in some important ways—the focus on diplomatic and military history—while emphasizing Duke’s advantages in American history and policy. This emphasis on what is now called international history is, in some ways, a return to the way in which decision-making was studied many years ago. Feaver says, “It’s so old-school that it’s fresh.”


The material isn’t the only thing that’s old school—the teaching philosophy is too. The Marshall Briefs and the crisis simulation at the end of the course are designed to put pressure on to students to perform well in order to replicate what it’s really like to work in an intense, policy-making environment. Mead, in a Dec. 6 2009 blog post, calls GS’s teaching philosophy “teaching at both ends”—disciplining the rear-end with stress and even humiliation while educating the head. Gaddis says, “We try to give our students a sense of what it’s like to work under stress, which is inescapable in any leadership role. Beyond the class, it’s our hope that exposure to stress under simulated conditions will better prepare them to cope with it under real ones. Think of it as a kind of coaching.” One student from the 2010 class says, “The Marshall Brief comments can be fairly scathing. You work for hours and haven’t slept for days, and you get told that you’ve done nothing right. I understand in the abstract the life lesson, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t want to cry my eyes out. In GS, there can develop an aura of anxiety.”

This aura and the selectivity of the class create a certain mindset that many current and former students say adversely affects the course. One current student, an economics major, says, “The attitude with which some people approach GS is disappointing—this idea that you are chosen for this, that you are special because of it, that this is a great thing—there’s a sense with some people in the class that they’ve spent the first two and a half years of Yale working to get into this class, that this class is an end in itself.”

Just as each program teaches grand strategy in different ways, there are about as many definitions of grand strategy as there are students and professors. The most common is Gaddis’s: “The calculated relationship of means to large ends.” Feaver, who runs the Duke program, says, “Grand strategy refers to the efforts to globalize and coordinate all of the elements of national power—diplomatic, military, economic, psychological and soft power kinds of things, in pursuit of a national goal.” Hill thinks grand strategy is about how to make decisions that can’t be answered by other disciplines and involve uncertainty: “How do you act when you don’t have all the facts and can’t delay?”

Against this conception is some skepticism about whether grand strategy even exists. One current student and history major says, “Grand strategy can only exist in a retrospective way for historians to map out what at the time were ad hoc reactions to complex situations.” As a sign of this, he says, “The professors in the class inevitably paint grand strategies or grand strategists as goodies or baddies almost arbitrarily according to success insofar as how they think history’s supposed to progress.”

Mead sees grand strategy as a deeply personal mode of thought. He says that studying grand strategy in the realm of statecraft has taught him to think about his own life more strategically. “Grand strategy is how are you trying to conduct yourself in the world—how do you try to manage your affairs in this world? It pushes you back to first principles. That may be in a way something that happens more naturally at twenty than at my age—you spend a lot of time in your teens and twenties asking basic questions. At my age, you tend to take that a little more for granted. But I think it’s a good thing to keep coming back to those questions.”

3 Responses

  1. Stephen R. Ganns says:

    Invaluable program at Yale.
    A few thoughts on Egypt:

    Let’s review the recent events in Egypt against some of the data and principles of Sun Tzu.

    Intelligence, and the use of agents were central to Sun Tzu’s strategies and methods. Today, this would constitute having a good and reliable “intelligence estimate” or assessment of the situation leading to predictions of a high probability. Another attribute of intelligence is that it is covert or secret–the elements of surprise and “mis-direction” contribute majorly to probable victory.

    SunTzu laid out and codified many principles which would be too numerous to mention in this blog–although it would make a great subject for a written piece to analyze current events: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: the Turmoil in the Middle East, etc.–against his strategies.

    Simple fact: these are campaigns, well thought out and planned, utilizing the workable principles of war. Yes, social media acted as a light speed facilatator, and yes a students organized the various tactical maneuvers the public sees on television. But make no mistake–these events were well thought out in advance, coordinated, timed, planned using intelligence far superior to the “opponent’s” intelligence. Any other assertion is simply folly.

    Who had the accurate intelligence assesment in Egypt? Who has the accurate intelligence assessment in the other countries currently undergoing social unrest in the Middle East? Who’s winning the coordinated campaign? Who ’s using the correct principles of warfare? Who stands to gain from these events?

    I guess eventually, we will know.

    Stephen R. Ganns

  2. Jignesh says:

    Part of the “grand strategy” is for the “leaders” to take orders from people behind the scenes. There isn’t much stress: whenever they have to make a decision some relevant business person (himself taking orders) tells them what to do. The only guys who need to know Sun Tzu are guys like Hertog.

  3. […] begun by Hill along with Yale professors John Gaddis and Paul Kennedy, as reported in the Yale Herald.  The course, which focuses on studying literature, history, and philosophy, was designed to […]

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