Never Mind Donor Influence. The Problem with "Grand Strategy" was Always WarmongeringRoundup
Aaron G. Jakes is assistant professor of historical studies at The New School. He is the author of Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism.
After four well-regarded years leading Yale’s vaunted Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, historian Beverly Gage has resigned, effective in December. Gage says she faced sudden demands from the program’s conservative funders — former treasury secretary Nicholas F. Brady and investment management billionaire Charles B. Johnson — for external oversight of its curriculum and faculty hiring. The demands reportedly stemmed from the donors’ displeasure over an op-ed a program instructor had written criticizing President Donald Trump. Gage sought support from Yale administrators, but instead they pressed her to grant the donors’ wish that she form a board of overseers that included Henry Kissinger.
Understandably, the story, reported in the New York Times late last month, drew attention for what it revealed about influence peddling at one of the world’s most prestigious universities: Yale is more than wealthy enough to take a principled stand, so why was it so willing to abandon faculty independence and academic freedom in deference to its funders? But the focus on the power of money inside the Ivy League has overshadowed a different, no less consequential story about the history of the grand-strategy program itself.
In the early 2000s, Yale’s program played a significant, underappreciated role in helping the George W. Bush administration build its case for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. As its influence grew, it also became a model on other university campuses for redirecting financial resources and institutional support in higher education toward “globally” oriented, practitioner-based teaching. The consequences for higher education and geopolitics have been significant.
As the Yale program defines it, “grand strategy” names “a comprehensive approach to achieving large ends with limited means.” For the three professors who launched the program two decades ago, this capacious terminology encompassed a criticism of American academia and American foreign policy. When Yale historians John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy first decided to co-teach a seminar on grand strategy with U.S. diplomat Charles Hill in 2000, their fields of expertise — diplomatic and military history and international-relations theory — had fallen out of favor with doctoral students and faculty members in their departments. Newer currents of social and cultural history had overtaken them, as they saw matters, and universities tended to reward work that was narrow in focus and highly specialized. The result was a growing imbalance between conflicting imperatives of depth and breadth. What’s more, this trend in research and teaching at American universities had begun to parallel a disturbing trajectory in American foreign-policymaking after the Cold War: Both tended to get lost in the weeds of particular places and situations, sapping ambition and obscuring the “big picture.”
To these paired problems, the curriculum on grand strategy promised a singular solution. The seminar’s instructors aimed to equip young future leaders so they might restore and uphold American power on a global stage. The demanding year-long syllabus they compiled would roam across a vast expanse of time — from the Peloponnesian War to the present — to analyze historical figures who had achieved great victories through the nimble alignment of aspirations with capabilities. A close reading of texts by authors including Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz and Kissinger himself — most of them drawn from the Western canon and dealing with moments of military conflict — would occur alongside practical simulations of real-world crises, exercises in writing briefing memos, and meetings with a shifting cast of senators, diplomats and national security experts. Admission to the selective program would be by application only from across Yale’s undergraduate and graduate schools.
Attractive as this course of study already was to a student body constantly reminded of its exceptional qualities and eager for networking opportunities, it assumed an altogether different significance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
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