From Augustus to FDR, why a nimble mind is the key to successful leadership

In On Grand Strategy, historian John Lewis Gaddis offers a timely historical overview of the constituents of leadership from the classical era to the present.

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Every age imagines it can see its own leaders straight, as mere politicians; nothing better than apparatchiks, conformists and time-servers who have wormed their way up to the topsoil of political life. Where, each generation asks, are the authentic statesmanlike beasts of earlier eras who bestrode the terrain of domestic and international affairs?

These days we experience disillusionment of the most deflationary kind. Many of us don’t ask for superheroic leaders; our desires are modest, to witness nothing more uplifting than the return of semi-competent government-as-usual by mediocre party hacks. We have had enough of ignorant populists, buffoonish Brexiteers and a leader of the free world constrained in utterance by a child’s vocabulary. We don’t ask for Churchills or Washingtons, Gladstones or Jeffersons. A Harold Wilson would be enough, or a John Major.

John Lewis Gaddis, an eminent historian of the Cold War, who has for 20 years co-taught a seminar at Yale University on grand strategy, offers a timely historical overview of the constituents of leadership from the classical era to the present. Despite the title and the slick marketing, this is far from being a manual for today’s cod-Churchillians. Gaddis’s advice does not come cheaply or off-the-peg, but is conveyed by epigrams that capture tensions, counterpoints and constraints. In lieu of glib, worthless answers, Gaddis emphasises the neglected importance of framing the right questions.

Unusually perhaps in a grand strategist, Gaddis’s oracle is not a general, civilian war-leader or theorist of war, but the most gentle and pacific of philosophers, the late Isaiah Berlin. Gaddis organises his discussion around Berlin’s celebrated classification of thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes. Drawing on a line in a fragment by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus to the effect that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing”, Berlin contrasted two different types of wisdom, one derived from a single totalising vision, the other improvised from an array of multiple perceptions.

Here, as Gaddis acknowledges, experimental work in recent decades by the political psychologist Philip Tetlock has demonstrated the superiority of free-range versatility to more programmatic kinds of political analysis. Tetlock gathered his evidence from 284 political experts drawn from across the political spectrum, who were assigned, cumulatively, the challenge of 28,000 political predictions. These predictions were later tested against actual outcomes. Those observers who were more tentative and less closely tethered to particular ways of thinking – the foxes – significantly outperformed less agile hedgehogs.

Moreover, Isaiah Berlin in his political philosophy emphasised the incommensurability of ends. Our ideals of liberty and equality, he argued, were unattainable as a package, and the perfect attainment of one came at the cost of the other. Trade-offs were the inevitable lot of the politician. Politics, it transpired, is an art, more akin to juggling than to the inexorable implementation of deep-laid plans and programmes, however well-intentioned.

Nimbleness and a sensitivity to the constant demands of adjustment, recalibration and modification are the qualities which Gaddis prizes in a leader. The leaders he singles out are not the standard canon of greatness: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon. Rather, Gaddis celebrates a less flashy, grey pin-striped greatness, accomplished by stealth and the deft, restrained exercise of power. He commends Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, who successfully steered Rome’s late Republican civil war into the safe haven of the Principate, becoming the first emperor, Augustus. In preference to Napoleon, moreover, Gaddis praises Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, whose policy of caution and deep withdrawal saw off the Frenchman’s invasion of Russia in 1812. A cocksure Napoleon in Russia is an example of something much less ennobling than hubris: “The greatest military genius since Julius Caesar assumed the attributes of a dog who’d chased a car and caught it.” Kutuzov, on the other hand, emerges here as an exemplar of the prosaic virtues Gaddis admires: “Few figures in history have done more by appearing to do less.”

Franklin Roosevelt also encapsulates this kind of mature, incremental leadership. Gaddis devotes considerable attention to the delicacy of FDR’s inner compass and his gyroscopic ability to adjust tactics in the pursuit of longer-term strategic goals.

Earlier in his career, during the mid-1970s, Gaddis taught “Strategy and Policy” at the Naval War College to officers who had served in Vietnam, some several times, and who didn’t want to talk about the subject. At all. In any case, there were then few histories available on the subject of America’s traumatic war in south-east Asia. Nevertheless, Admiral Stansfield Turner, the President of the College, possessed that most prized of all leadership skills, the capacity to lead by indirection. Every officer received a copy of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. Beginning with general resemblances – walls, navies, empires and so forth – then proceeding via the strategies of the Athenians and the Spartans, the students got to Vietnam by way of “a 2,500-year detour”.

The crux point was the question of why the Athenians sent an army to out-of-the-way Sicily? What had a faraway island to do with questions of Athenian security? “At which point there was silence, followed by a falling away of all constraints.” Soon, these tight-lipped veterans of Vietnam could talk of nothing else. A focus on ancient history had enabled the Naval War College to engage in “post-traumatic stress therapy before it had a name. Thucydides trained us”.

Gaddis is an unembarrassed believer in the practical, including the emotional, utility of the past to the present: “Without some sense of the past the future can be only loneliness.” Nevertheless, he has little truck with overspecialised history of the sort that the academy produces in abundance; knowledge of historical particulars needs to be supplemented with some general insight – something more than mere stories or a morass of detail – if it is to shape strategic thinking. Complexity must be conveyed in a usable form. A set of “teachable moments” quarried from the past provides intellectual capital, which is all leaders are able to draw on when they get to the top. Improvisation is, of course, absolutely necessary, but it is not simply a matter of making things up as one goes along. Planning is a prerequisite, but in the face of fluctuating circumstances versatility – preferably an informed flexibility – becomes unavoidable.

Gaddis honours the aphorisms of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Machiavelli – an author who never “confused power with PowerPoint” – and the “inward eye” of Carl von Clausewitz. Nevertheless, there are a few unsettling and surprising inclusions, not least St Augustine, who is acclaimed for his exploration of tensions and oppositions: order and justice, peace and war, the things of Caesar and the things of God. Nor does Gaddis ignore the strategic lessons that can be drawn from fiction, from Tolstoy especially.

Trump is never once mentioned by name. But there are resonances and reverberations, so subtle that they don’t quite rise to the status of allusions. When we read that after Augustus the Julio-Claudian empire “set standards unsurpassed since for dysfunctional ruling families” our minds drift to figures far removed from Caligula, Messalina and Nero. However, we obtain some reassurance from Gaddis’s remark that the Roman and Chinese empires developed diversified systems of power so robust that they were able to withstand “terrifyingly bad rulers”. 

Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews

On Grand Strategy
John Lewis Gaddis
Allen Lane, 368pp, £25

This article appears in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire