Charles Hill and the Greening of American Diplomacy
So I had planned a running critique of Charles Hill’s appearance on Peter Robinson’s webTV program, Uncommon Knowledge. Alas, I got through just one chapter before getting rudely sidetracked by the need to make a living. So, this response to Chapter 2 comes a little late; we’ll have to see about the others.
As I observed in my first post, the more Hill explains his concept of “grand strategy,” the more dubious it sounds. In Chapter 2, it gets only more so:
Robinson: You present [your book] Grand Strategies as an act of restoration. This book is an effort to reestablish an understanding and appreciation of the international system by first — if I’m reading it correctly — reestablishing a way of thought, almost a mode of consciousness.
Grand strategy as a “mode of consciousness” – sounds trippy! It is ironic that Hill attacks the 1960s, for it seems that grand strategy has a lot in common with hippie culture. (Hill, incidentally, is a baby boomer.) Both hippie culture and grand strategy denigrate technical knowledge or knowledge that can be written down. Both favor instead “modes of consciousness” that supposedly produce an alternative sort of enlightenment. I might further add that both hippies and grand strategists gravitate to charismatic gurus. You need a mentor teach you the Tao of correct thought.
Robinson: [Quoting Hill’s book] “Statecraft cannot be practiced in the absence of literary insight.” How come?
It is not surprising that Hill compares grand strategy to literary criticism. The literary critic typically has extreme confidence in his opinions, despite the lack of any obvious grounds for preferring one set of opinions over another. Is Satan the true hero of Paradise Lost? Does Jane Austen embrace or reject the mores of the society she depicts? In answering these imponderables, you don’t see critics weighing the evidence, acknowledging weaknesses or qualifying their judgments. Each critic sallies forth, boldly proclaiming his reading correct, notwithstanding the many equally satisfying alternatives. Both “grand strategy” and “literary insight” are products more of hubris than knowledge.
Hill: This also goes to the question of education because literature has been sidelined, again, I believe in large part because of the changes, the many cultural revolutions of the 1960s that began to say “You want to have a literature curriculum that represents the ethnicity of the author not the value of the work.” So the so-called canon was ripped up.
Robinson: All those Dead White Males.
Hill: All those Dead White Males.
Ok, stop right there. I believe in the Western canon as much as the next man, but the idea that the canon has been “ripped up” is simply false. If you want to study, say, Spinoza, you have ample chances to do so at a place like Yale, often under the tutelage of the best scholars in the world. Nor have students been brainwashed into thinking that they should avoid all those evil Dead White Males. On the contrary, many desperately want to learn what The Rape of the Lock was about or what cogito ergo sum means. It’s true that many students also graduate utterly ignorant of these things. The does not mean that an education in “the best of what has been thought and said by man” is somehow unavailable.
Hill: Literature is essential to the idea of statecraft and grand strategy because literature is pre-disciplinary. If you look at the Iliad, the Odyssey, you can tell that in there is philosophy, and history and politics, and social science even, and military history. It’s taking place before those different parts of the intellect were portioned out and little fences put around them. So you say “Well I don’t do that because I’m a political scientist. I’m not an historian.”
Again Hill again dismisses technical knowledge in favor or some more elusive form of enlightenment. “Grand strategy,” you see, is “pre-disciplinary,” meaning, that it does not respect artificial intellectual boundaries. As a disciple of New Age religion might say, grand strategy “holistic.” But specialization is a sign not of intellectual decline but advance. A discipline does not even become a discipline until after some theoretical breakthrough. Without Mendel, there would be no genetics; without Chomsky, no linguistics; without Planck, no quantum physics. A “predisciplinary” mindset is one in which none of these discoveries is conceivable in the first place. Hill yearns to return us to our intellectual infancy.
Robinson: Alright, Charlie, I’m not going to give you a chance to prove the relevance of literature. Aeschylus. Oresteia. 5th century BC. You claim in Grand Strategy that this is “The central character in the transition from the primieval cycle of revenge to a civil society based on judicial order.” Talk to me about that.
Hill: That’s something you can see not only in Aeschylus and Oresteia — though that’s the first case, brilliantly put forward in a trilogy which we have — but it’s still something going on today. Societies do this in different points. It is in American folklore, the Hatfields and the McCoys. It is — do you have a society where revenge is the way you maintain order? Somebody in your family wrongs somebody in my family, I’m going to get you back because I’m going to have somebody in my family wrong somebody in your family, and back and forth. In the Oresteia, this is cascading down generation to generation. And that’s the way that that society ran itself. The blood feud was the way you kept order and in some rough sense justice.
Now this is just bizarre. Given a chance to prove the relevance of literature to statecraft, Hill cites a text – Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy — to illustrate a anthropological claim – that primitive societies are marked by blood-feuds – that the text in question has nothing to do with. The Oresteia are indeed about vendettas – but the vendette are within a single family, namely, the House of Atreus. A blood feud, by contrast, is a vendetta between families. If anything, the the extreme intra-family hostilities in the Oresteia undermine the clan loyalties that make blood feuds possible. Contrary to Hill, the Oresteia is not inconsistent with tribalism.
Hill: In the Oresteia, that crosses over into a civil society when suddenly the parties involved say, we gotta stop this. And Athena, a literary character, and she begins to run a process that enables the parties to say “we will let a system of justice arise that will satisfy us in a way that revenge blood feud used to do, but in a way that’s much more orderly. It will not force us to retaliate and take revenge. The larger society will have laws and justice will be applied in that way.
So Athena bestows the blessings of rational justice. Isn’t Athena, um, like, a goddess? That the gods end the cycle of revenge in Oresteia doesn’t seem to trouble Hill, but it should. For, if it takes divine intervention to create civil society, then we should not presume that we know how to do it ourselves. The Greeks had a religious ideology to undergird their concept of the polis and their superior, more civilized methods of justice. Without something similar, tribal societies should be left alone.
Yet Hill draws the opposite lesson:
Robinson: So there’s this struggle between civil society — the legitimate law enforcement — and the old clan system of honor and family is still going on. Here’s how write about it in Grand Strategies, “Eons long struggle between the clans and the civil society of statehood is still alive in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle east.” Is President Obama aware of that?
Hill: No I don’t think that he is. I think that it’s not understood by Washington, and it’s not just this administration but the one before — that we are here dealing with a very large system that has been built over centuries.
Just for the record, you obviously can’t glean patterns of clan loyalties in the Middle East from reading Aeschylus. The relevance of Aeschylus to Middle East policy is obscure to say the least.
Why are we there? And here’s a grand strategic point to it. These are all connected. What you do in Afghanistan and what you in Iraq is connected to each other. I think General Petraeus . . . fully understands this but I think that Washington does not, because you here them saying “well we have to get out of this area and focus on this one. We wrap it up over here and move from A to B. With no sense of the reality, which is that every part will reverberate, will have something to do with the other parts.
Ok, so the entire Middle East is beset by tribalism, which prevents the emergence of a modern, rational state, or Gesellschaft, if you will. But then Hill draws a “grand-strategic” point that is utterly nonsensical. If the Middle East is not capable of modernity – or, at least, as we learn from Aeschylus, it would take a miracle to teach it to them — then the correct policy is to leave them alone. Hill, by contrast, complains that we are not nation-building in as many areas in the Middle East as possible. It is unclear how the tribalism of the Middle East means that nation-building must be done on some vast semi-continental scale. Does Hill think that the only thing preventing the Afghans from creating a modern state is that they are waiting for the Iraqis to go first? I don’t see where he could get that in Aeschylus, or anywhere else.