The Grand Ideology of Charles Hill: Episode 1

Austin Bramwell

I am a freelance opinion-monger living in New York City.

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  1. It seems that the only clear exposition of what “Grand Strategy” means is this little bit at the end of the WSJ article you linked:
    “That day, the students were hoping to convince the president-elect to adopt a Rapid Response Health Board in Iraq to respond to public health crises, and set up a Basra Water Initiative as a pilot program to handle cholera outbreaks. Each time a student started to talk, one or more of the professors interrupted. They critiqued every detail of the presentation, from the students’ PowerPoint slides (too busy) to the way they stood (one student hopped nervously while her colleagues were speaking, they noted). But the main criticism was one summed up by Walter Russell Mead, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and one of two new teachers with real-world experience brought in this semester, when describing the Grand Strategy philosophy: “It’s a nice idea, but is it a big idea?””

    Then there’s this little tidbit from the Yale Alumni article:
    “The answer, the scholars decided, was no. So in early 1999, Gaddis, Kennedy, and Hill, despite their different political leanings—center, left, and right, respectively —went on a retreat with New York Times foreign affairs writer Thomas Friedman to piece together a course, for graduate students only, that would help them develop the critical thinking skills required to question authority and wield power effectively.”

    So one of the prime movers behind this couse, supposedly dedicated to forward-thinking policy-making, is a columnist primarily known for making exorbitant sums of money off of consistently making totally wrong predictions about the outcomes of policy? A man who is the inspiration for the term “Friedman Units”?

    It seems that the main cause for celebration of the program is that it attempts to meld practical experience in policy-making with education and theory. This is absolutely a good thing. It’s also something that has been around for ages. I myself took a course while “Grand Strategy” was still a dream that pretty much revolved around exactly the same sort of mock policy meetings that seem to be at the core of “Grand Strategy,” just without the expensive big names making evaluations. It was not a new course, either.

    The emphasis on the “big picture” and “big ideas” strikes me as entirely self-defeating, and as you say, an insistence that policy details be shoehorned to fit within a particular ideological framework. Everything is to be evaluated based on how it serves some particular “big idea” without regard to whether that “big idea” itself can have unacceptable consequences.

    One final note: it seems that if the “grand strategy” behind “Grand Strategy” is effective, a primary result will be to narrow even further the pool of potential candidates for policy-making positions without regard to demonstrated competence. In other words, its primary effect would just be to add another layer of largely irrelevant credentialism to the meritocracy.

    And, because of the dramatic expense involved in the program, this would not be a minor narrowing of the pool, either.Report

    • To elaborate on that last point a little: the premise behind “Grand Strategy” seems to be that consistently good policy-making is impossible without first undertaking the sort of academic path that would include a “Grand Strategy” course, since other paths (according to “Grand Strategy”) fail to prepare future policy-makers for the real world of policy making. In other words, it seems to argue that without a solid academic grounding in “big picture” policy-making, one cannot possibly be qualified for even low-level policy-making positions since that “big picture” needs to govern everything, including the lowest-level policy-making decisions.

      As such, in order to be qualified to enter into a low-level policy-making position, one must first have gone to (an almost certainly elite) undergrad program, obtained entry into (a definitely elite) graduate program, then obtained one of the handful of spots in a “Grand Strategy” course. None of the prerequisites for gaining admission to a Grand Strategy course has a damned thing to do with real-world experience, and the Grand Strategy course itself can only attempt to provide simulations of real-world experience or discussions of real-world experience (which the prerequisites to entry into Grand Strategy are perfectly capable of providing as it is).

      Then -and only then – is someone qualified for even low-level policy-making. Oh – and the government employee who has spent years implementing low-level policy decisions made by others and observing the effects of those decisions first-hand? Not qualified at all.Report

    • Austin Bramwell in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      @Mark Thompson, Thanks Mark — I agree entirely with your excellent comments, particularly about useless hypertrophy of credentialism. Very anecdotally, I have the sense that college students today are more obsessed even than 10 years ago with “getting into” places. Hence the rise of Teach for America, and, at Yale, the renaissance of the secret society system.

      That Thomas Friedman was a consultant for the grand strategy program is just hilarious.Report