Good Reading: “Grand Strategies” by Charles Hill

Is the “modern statesman” an oxymoran? Has the quality and skill of foreign policy deteriorated as the classical education has been displaced by the social and behavioral sciences? In his new book  Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, former diplomat and Yale professor Charles Hill seeks to reconnect the practice of statecraft with its ultimate literary origins. As Hill argues, an understanding of literature is essential for the conduct of international affairs because it informs the values by which strategy is developed, and only literature can grasp – however tenuously – the fundamentally intangible factors that drive history.

Of all the arts and sciences, only literature is substantially and methodologically unbounded. Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of “how the world really works.” This dimension of fiction is indispensible to the strategist who cannot, by the nature of the craft, know all of the facts, considerations, and potential consequences of a situation at the time a decision must be made, ready or not. Literature lives in the realm strategy requires, beyond rational calculations, in acts of the imagination. (p. 6)

To be more specific about why literary insight is essential for statecraft, both endeavors are concerned with important questions that are only partly accessible to rational thought. Such matters as how a people begins to identify itself as a nation, the nature of trust between political actors or between a government and its people, how a nation commits itself to a more humane course of governance – all these and many more topics dealt with in this book – can’t be understood without some “grasp of the ungraspable” emotional and moral weight they bear. A purely rational or technocratic approach is likely to lead one astray. (p. 7)

What follows in the rest of the book is literary commentary on works ranging from the Iliad to The Satanic Verses, with an emphasis on key points in the evolution of the state. Accordingly, the book is also a rare defense of the Westphalian state system, which has been under siege for the past century, and for which Hill sees no viable alternative. The focus on the concept of the state provides a stable reference point when reading the more vague and nuanced language that is the vein of all literary commentary. Hill covers a lot of ground, and it would greatly help if the reader is familiar with the many works that he examines.

The book is slightly mistitled. As the quotes above indicate, the focus is not on strategy per se, but on the underlying questions that determine world order and drive strategy – questions of national identity, legitimacy, religion, and the role of the individual in the state. But it is certainly worthwhile reading, especially for the many Americans who have unfortunately – but not entirely without justification – dismissed modern literature as nothing more than a medium through which to lie, libel, and incite without consequence.

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One thought on “Good Reading: “Grand Strategies” by Charles Hill

  1. I just finished it myself. And I agree that “Literature, Statecraft, and World Order” are really what the book is all about. Even if you disagree with his interpretations of certain works, his overall message is rather clear. I have only had one International Affairs course so far that emphasized great books, and even then most of the other professors taught it without literature.

    It would be an interesting exercise to identify what other recent works might meet Hill’s standard for political insight – or if modern literature has less value even for literary-minded statesmen.

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