The American Interest

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Writing Strategy

Charles Hill’s Grand Strategy and Literature surprises and enthralls.

Published on July 1, 2010


Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order
Charles Hill
Yale University Press, 2010, 384 pp., $27.50

On page 14 of his book Grand Strategies Charles Hill introduces Michel Eyquem de Montaigne to invoke his condemnation of envoys who parse the truth in reporting back to their principals. The guilty party in this case is wily Odysseus negotiating with furious Achilles on behalf of haughty Agamemnon: Odysseus fails to tell Achilles that a public display of submission is part of the deal (Achilles might have killed him on the spot). Although Hill later describes Montaigne as “one of the great stylists in French literature (citing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “cut these words and they would bleed”), and that is a literature that certainly privileges style, Hill unaccountably cites Montaigne in English: “A Tricke of Certaine Ambassadors.” Moreover, this looks like the very first translation, published while Shakespeare still lived, by John (Giovanni) Florio, the London-born Italianist, litterateur and edgy thinker, whose French was imperfect. Hill could at least have cited a later translation.

Yes, this quibble is more than a little pedantic, but I have a very good reason for that in reviewing this most unconventional book, a truly masterful synthesis of “Literature, Statecraft and World Order”, in the words of the subtitle. Hill has drawn from a career in diplomacy, a thorough grounding in classical and modern philosophy and a rich appreciation of great literature to produce a kaleidoscopic masterpiece that illuminates all it surveys. That is why whoever reviews this book with an intention to criticize must either nurse some interagency grudge left over from the author’s distinguished diplomatic career, or else load up with the grapeshot of minutiae to throw against the exuberant enthusiasm generated by page after page of inspired writing.

Adult reviewers are not supposed to gush like teenage fans of the rock star du jour, I know. But it is not even over the top to evoke de Montaigne to explain what Grand Strategies is really about. It is such a surprising book that first impressions are bound to mislead. Hill puts before the reader a prefatory list of works cited, one containing every book central to the Western canon from Homer onward, plus a few more. This seems to presage a book that will mimic an anthology, that most dubious of genres, which more often substitutes for than encourages proper reading. But Grand Strategies resembles an anthology no more than a finely aged single-malt Scotch whisky resembles the vat of wet barley from which it started. Hill does not string together extracts but instead distills truly arresting insights from texts more briefly cited than quoted at length. His purpose is to address the largest themes of history through the literature that both reflects and has contributed to the understanding of humanity’s ultimate political circumstances.

Hill’s work may be described as an attempt to reverse the relentless fragmentation of contemporary intellectual habits. Examples will have to suffice to illustrate the richness of his efforts. So it is that beginning from Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Hill arrives at the matter-of-fact but arresting observation that the death penalty is “the foundation stone of civilization”, neatly upending the liberal commonplace that condemns it as the very opposite, as barbarism. In the first play Agamemnon, set in the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War, the king’s wife, Clytemnestra, murders him when he returns after ten years of war as the conquering hero, complete with Cassandra as his captive Trojan concubine. With just a handful of words Hill brilliantly suggests the intended effect, the pathos, felt by the audience as it sees Agamemnon striding in blithe confidence to his imminent doom. Clytemnestra has multiple motives to butcher her husband—to continue her love affair with Aegisthus (in the Odyssey it is he who does the killing), and to retaliate for the humiliating insertion of Cassandra into her matrimony—but the compelling one is the long-fermented revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, whose death was the price exacted by Artemis to release the winds that propelled the Achaean fleet to Troy.

In the play, the only mechanism of redress is individual blood revenge and its extension, the blood feud, upheld by family and clan. There is no civil society, only a heap of families and clans perpetually ready to war against each other, and because justice is pursued by individual agency alone, it must be arbitrary, disproportionate, uncertain and, above all, fatally inconclusive because each killing generates its reciprocal demand for revenge.

That was Greece before the advent of the polis; it is today’s Arab and Afghan tribal societies for the most part, as in other primitive or degraded places around the word—some in the heart of major Western cities—where feuds are the poor substitutes for absent or weak law, and where claims to justice can only be protected by fragile honor instead of by legally defensible rights. It is why the Palestinian brother who may live within minutes of an Israeli all-night discotheque, and whose English is good enough for an aggrieved interview for the BBC nightly news, must nevertheless stab to death his sister guilty of having briefly talked with a boy in the dusk. If the family does not assert its power over its own women, its weakest members, it cannot protect any of its claims, from that patch of grass traditionally reserved for its goats to, these days, parking spots for its cars. And that is why in Afghanistan’s Kunar province one may admire the very tall mud-brick watchtowers that guard the wall compounds of each extended family—somebody had better tell General McChrystal, who is spending my money and other people’s blood for “nation-building”, that in Afghanistan he should first start by building villages, thus adding another century or so to this most quixotic of American wars.

Multiculturalist genuflections aside, there can be no civilization without the existence of laws applied by procedure-bound third parties, and that is what is created before our eyes in the third play, The Eumenides. Here Aeschylus, the cunning manipulator of our strongest emotions, becomes a constitutional engineer. In the second play Orestes had rejected but then yielded to his sister Electra’s urging to kill his mother Clytemnestra, in revenge for her killing of their father Agamnenon, in revenge for the latter’s sacrifice of his sister Iphigenia. In the third play the utterly fearsome Erinyes, the Furies, who punish the most elemental crimes of patricide and matricide, come out of the ground to track down and kill Orestes, who is seemingly doomed. Not even his patron Apollo can protect him from the Erinyes, who can smell the invisible trail of blood Orestes leaves wherever he goes, as befits all primitive, monstrous deities.

But then Athena intervenes, not with godly weapons to overcome the Erinyes by force, but instead by persuading them to submit the case to a trial—and a fully formed and perfectly complete trial it is, with a jury of Athenian citizens in addition to the god Apollo as the advocate for the defense, and the Erinyes as the prosecutors for the dead Clytemnestra. At the end, the mortal votes on each side are equal but Athena casts her vote for acquittal, establishing the principle that hung juries cannot convict, for mercy must prevail over severity. Thus individual revenge and the blood feud give way to courts, allowing a civil society (originally merely the Thomist translation for polis) that obeys laws, respects contracts and therefore has at least the prerequisites of democracy, to emerge from the clans forever defending their ever-fragile honor in lawless brutality. That is where the death penalty comes in to seal the transformation: Writes Hill, “only when the victim’s kin are convinced that the state will exact [proportionate] justice in response to murder will they entrust that power to the state.” In the first Godfather film, we see human progress undone, when the successful, post-immigrant Sicilian-American undertaker who had rejected the mafia withdraws his loyalty from the state to kiss Marlon Brando’s hand (the bacio le mani of my own Sicilian childhood) because his daughter’s violators were insufficiently sentenced—they are duly rubbed out.

With the transition from familial self-help to the state thus illustrated, it is for Hill a short step from the adventures of Xenophon’s Anabasis to the principle that democracy as an institution is constituted precisely by the democratic principle itself. In other words, democracy is a function above all of principles firmly lodged in people’s minds. It has little to do with the machinery of elections that even foreign occupiers can operate, or with the formation of seated parliaments (China has the largest, Burmese dictators will soon inaugurate the newest). When Xenophon’s 10,000 Greek mercenaries stranded deep in Achaemenid Persia are left leaderless after the treacherous slaughter of their commanders (beware of Iranians offering parleys), they do not scatter or degenerate into a passive herd as Persians and others would have done and still do. Instead they promptly assemble to debate democratically what course of action they should pursue, and to choose Xenophon as their elected—and thus revocable—leader, who remains subject to decisions by the full assembly.

All this happens in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War with its residue of unemployed fighters, but, more important, it happens long after the establishment of democracy in Greece. That is why, as Hill writes, “The Ten Thousand shape themselves into a polis on the march”, quite spontaneously. We are much before and yet much ahead of the very expensive and mostly useless UN electoral expeditions that briefly interrupt anarchy or dictatorship for bouts of voting, with all the household furniture of democratic elections but not the hearth heat of their unquestioned legitimacy. Afterward, those who have the guns rule just as arbitrarily as they did before.

Hill’s scheme in Grand Strategies is not chronological in an ordinary sense; it is conceptually chronological. He first deploys the wisdom resident in literature to explain the advent of civil society in a law-ordered state. Only then does he venture into the “Creative Disorder” beyond the state, and after that to ideas of bringing order to that realm as well. It is here that Hill engages the Enlightenment and America as a new idea born of it, then the post-Enlightenment specters of total war and what he calls “the imported state.” In the end he bends his text recursively to discuss “The Writer and the State”, bringing full circle the interpenetration of the literary imagination and the conduct of statecraft. For here literature does not so much reflect statecraft as inspire it.

This approach requires Hill to spackle his attentions to places hither and yon. Thus, early on Hill mentions in passing Mao’s infinitely selfish literary vocation: the former librarian, an avid reader, lived among the Chinese classics he strove to deny to his subjects. He had a special passion for the late Qing dynasty masterpiece Dream of the Red Chamber, whose hero was the center of female attention just as Mao was, but also very kind to women—as Mao was not.

But Hill returns to China only after seven chapters replete with felicitous distillations, from Thucydides and Virgil all the way to T.S. Eliot and Pasternak, with Milton’s Paradise Lost, that most political of epics, quoted more amply than other texts and to very good effect: After all, nothing in English literature exceeds its sheer descriptive force, with Satan notoriously having the best lines, once he “rises from the Burning Lake.” (Personally, I have always viewed the casually malevolent and quite un-tragic Satan of the Book of Job as more profoundly evil, that being the one essential political text Hill overlooks; in it, even the most absolute of powers must at least answer back when Job demands an explanation for his undeserved suffering.)

One of Hill’s distillations, in a splendid chapter on the impact of the Enlightenment on the international system, is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the period of his life when that supreme ideologist of both revolution and the authoritarian state was secretary to the French Ambassador to the Serenissima, the Venetian state. His Excellency was thus served by His Irreverence, and is duly roasted in Rousseau’s Confessions as a self-indulgent fop wholly preoccupied with his pleasures and pretensions of rank. The Venice of the 18th century was no longer a great power. Its naval strength was spent, its army was inconsequential, and its diplomats could only report and no longer persuade. But Venice remained a worthwhile listening post, there being no other real cities nearer than Istanbul to the east, or Naples to the south, while Vienna to the north was the capital of the greatest of the powers, the Hapsburgs with all their dynastic offshoots.

Logically, given his politics, Rousseau should have used his position to undermine rather than serve the French monarchy, but when word came from the enemy capital Vienna that a Hapsburg agent was on his way to subvert the Abruzzesi subjects of the Naples Bourbons, then key French allies, Rousseau acted swiftly to warn the French Ambassador in Naples, whose timely warning in turn enabled the Bourbons to secure the threatened area. Kim Philby, the privileged British intelligence official and ideological Soviet agent, was much more consistent—he always strove to use any piece of intelligence that came his way to inflict maximum damage on his own side.

China reappears in a later chapter on “The Imported State”, that peculiar phenomenon of our times that reproduces the outer forms of the Western state in many countries where its civic and juridical foundations are only inchoate, very weak or simply absent. At best, that results in roles that bear familiar names while functioning quite differently, as in the case of Japanese Prime Ministers who have little of the power of their European counterparts, or Saudi “ministers” who remain at their posts for decades because they are in reality royal brothers, sons or nephews rather than appointed officials. At worst, it results in outright role reversals, as in too many African states, with their soldiers who never defend but only prey on their own countrymen, habitually extortionist policemen, utterly non-serving civil servants and entirely self-serving office holders. (I once found access to the offices of the Anti-Corruption Ministry of a major African country blocked by doormen demanding “sweet bread.”)

As he does throughout the book—and it is a far more difficult thing to do than it may seem to the smoothly guided reader—Hill deploys the most effective of all possible witnesses to make his case on Africa: Chinua Achebe. That veteran Nigerian author (Hill quotes A Man of the People), who brilliantly blends the most limpid British English imaginable with Igbo pidgin, and others of his ilk, teach us more about Africa than university African Studies departments. Academic Africanists rarely display Achebe’s courage in depicting the sheer normality of malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance, and the persistence of post-colonial decline. Instead they will relentlessly focus on the successful exception of the day—it used to be the Côte d’Ivoire until it was utterly devastated by a bit of disagreement between the government and the opposition party, while Ghana is doing very well right now and not for the first time: Africanist optimism once celebrated the leadership of Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, a military dictator, though admittedly a benign one as these things go.

The post-colonial state can at least be blamed on the colonizers, who damaged or destroyed native political forms, and then left behind their monstrous creations. The disasters of the first wave of African military coups were inflicted by soldiers who had been selected and trained by the colonial powers, indeed by soldiers who had been especially praised by their European superiors. There is the case of Emperor Bokassa, who ruined what had been the Central African Republic after winning French combat medals, and Uganda’s Idi Amin “Dada”, who was a very fine soldier indeed by all accounts, before an unresisted dictatorship allowed him to show that he was an even better butcher.

China’s case is entirely different, for none of the foreign intruders on its soil during the century of impotence that ended in 1945 tried to create a colonial state, except in miniscule Hong Kong and Macao. Successive versions of the Western state were thus entirely made in China, native imitations rather than foreign impositions. But in China, too, these structures were erected without foundations, yielding monstrous mutants of the original model. That was true of the first republic proclaimed by the heroic idealist Sun Yat-sen in 1911 but soon appropriated by warlords. It was also true of the subsequent militarized party dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, whose leaders contrived to be both true nationalists and truly unpatriotic at the same time (why else issue bank­notes if not to change them into theft-worthy U.S. dollars on the black market?). It was true yet again of the Chinese copy of Stalinist communism established in 1949, whose dour stability could not satisfy Mao’s destructive urges, and it was even true of the anarchic “Cultural Revolution” variants that intermittently followed, and of today’s China—very successful in many ways, yet still a monstrous mutant that seeks to conjugate free markets with captive minds.

New books on contemporary China are published every day, and not all of them are obsolete on arrival (as is the very latest, Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order). But once again Hill’s seemingly tangential textual starting points yield a deeper level of analysis. This time his text is Liu T’ieh-yün’s The Travels of Lao Ts’an, written from 1904–07 and set in the final years of the final imperial dynasty. The author, better known as Liu E, had worked as a flood-control engineer, and also directed dike-repairing coolies in the Yellow River flood of 1888. He had a full classical education, too, but made his living peddling the traditional remedies of Chinese medicine in the countryside. From village to village, his encounters record a vanishing world: “The calligrapher warming his ink-stone over an inn’s brazier; the witty lady in her patterned jacket and tight-fitting trousers which revealed her ‘gold lotuses’”—slippered, bound feet.

In the novel, Lao Ts’an and two friends, bent on imitating the great poets by drinking the night away in a seaside pavilion, see a great ship in distress in a dangerous storm. It is misgoverned China. Its sailors are robbing the passengers while the captain (the emperor) sits passively not knowing what to do. Lao Ts’an and his friends take to a fishing boat to bring modern navigational gear to the captain—Western technology to the rescue of the sinking Chinese ship of state, its hull breached by foreign depredations. One passenger arouses others to take action, collects money from volunteers, and is nowhere to be found when the trouble begins: a typical revolutionary. (Prominent opponents of the Ch’ing dynasty went into exile, leaving their followers behind to be punished.) When Lao Ts’an’s rescue boat reaches the ship, “the would-be rescuers are denounced by the passengers because the equipment is foreign.” Indeed, the passengers tear planks out of the ship to throw at the boat, an allegory of patriotism defeated by nationalism.

That is the prefatory story to many more, like one in which three friends trapped by snow in a well-furnished cave contend with late-imperial China’s central dilemma: identity or effectiveness, authenticity or modernity. Hill carefully describes the complexity of the references and metaphors used in the stories—and here Taoist mysticism enters the picture—but the overall purpose is very clear nonetheless: to argue against revolutionary action, in favor of allowing organic change to unfold, as the Taoist doctrine of wu-wei prescribes.

That may seem so much precious twaddle, but consider this: to transit from capitalist growth and inequality before Mao’s victory in 1949, and back to capitalist growth and inequality in the years after Mao’s death in 1976, China went through 27 years of agrarian mass murders, two bouts of collective Cultural Revolution hysteria (the 1968 outbreak included episodes of cannibalism, notably in Guanxi province), chronic depression as the norm for adult Chinese, extreme economic deprivation and more than one deadly famine. That is a colossal amount of suffering merely to go from point A back to point A again, and while China’s Chinese are less miserable by the day, Taiwan’s Chinese ascended to a much higher prosperity much faster, without having to go through 27 years of hell followed by more years of post-Mao poverty.

After Lao Ts’an, Hill writes of his boyish passion for Shanghai, before moving on to many more themes inspired by a galaxy of texts, ranging from Kipling’s Kim (trust no India expert who will not defend its merits) to one of Pope John Paul II’s characteristically political homilies. No review can do more than exemplify a work that deserves all the time a reader devotes to it.

As I began with one quibble, let me end with another. Hill’s is a highly opinionated excursion. He makes his way through varied literature written for varied reasons. Hill does not deploy his authors to illuminate history and politics generally. Rather, there are points he wants to stress, for he sincerely believes—and with good reason—that if today’s statesmen and diplomats read and experienced all that he has, they would come to the same insights. It is all worthwhile and not infrequently brilliant, even if here and there a practiced reader should hold a variant of Hill’s wisdom.

But I do object, formally at least, when Hill writes of grand strategy as if it were a synonym for statecraft. He should instead recognize it as the highest and only decisive level of the paradoxical realm of strategy, where diplomacy and force, guided or misguided by intelligence, finally interact. There, an actual criticism; you heard it from me. Now I leave you to the joyful prospect of reading every page, not a few of them more than once.



Edward N. Luttwak is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (Harvard University Press, 2010).