The Shallow Drafts of Charles Hill
In my first post in this series, I claimed that Charles Hill, Yale’s “Diplomat in Residence,” had won “uncritical, almost fulsome praise.” You can strike the “almost.” According to Edward Luttwak’s review, Hill’s book Grand Strategies is not just “a truly masterful synthesis” (truly masterful, mind you) but also “a kaleidoscopic masterpiece that illuminates all it surveys.” Luttwak confesses to “exuberant enthusiasm generated by page after page of inspired writing.” But can a book be both kaleidoscopic (creating an endless series of different patterns) and a synthesis (fitting disparate phenomena into a single pattern) at the same time? I suspect that Luttwak doesn’t understand the concept of “grand strategy” anymore than Hill does, which explains why he cannot even find consistent grounds for praise.
In any case, I still demur from the consensus. In Chapter 3 of Hill’s appearance on Uncommon Knowledge, he unwittingly reveals the poverty of his concept of grand strategy. Discussing the Peloponnesian War, Hill relates how Pericles advised the Athenians not to fight Spartan soldiers on land but to withdraw behind Athens’ walls. An unforeseen event then undoes Pericles plan:
Hill: Then suddenly the plague strikes Athens. And that’s bad fortunate. Nobody foresaw it. What do you do about that? It’s not in your plan. How to deal with something that suddenly comes up that is just an absolute disaster. An oil spill. What do you do? Were you prepared? No. In fact, he told the Athenians to come into the city: The plague is worse because they’re all crammed together. And on down the line. It goes again and again with 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 — innumerable factors that the grand strategist has got to — you won’t know the answer, but you’ve got to at least have the sense that there’s something out there, there, there, there or behind you.
The plague in Athens is a quintessential example of the role of chance and contingency in history. A biological accident decimated the Athenians and thereby changed the course of history. Hill doesn’t see it, but the role of chance and probability undermines his whole concept of grand strategy. In Chapter 1, we saw that Hill laments that students no longer learn “the sweep, the meaning, the narrative of history.” But the plague in Athens shows that sweeping interpretations of history are invariably wrong. It is not just that they overplay some facts and overlook others, though that is certainly true. Rather, endemic to grand narratives is the “representativeness heuristic” — that is, if there is a large effect, then there must be a large cause. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War: a big event which must have a big cause, right? Wrong. The cause of Athens’ loss was a tiny virus.
Hill ignores the implications of the Athenian plague, namely, that grand narrative is specious. No sooner is he finished with Ancient Greece in Chapter 3, but he is making sweeping claims about America in Chapter 4.
Robinson: [Discussing the Declaration of Independence] So it is no accident, it is no mere rhetorical flourish that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
Hill: Exactly. Exactly. And here is where America becomes universal. Because everybody in the world, no matter what ethnicity, or what color or what gender or what religion, they’ve all got souls. And America is for that universal purpose. It also means freedom. Because the soul is independent and has rights. And so America stands for that. It’s a very simple idea but it’s huge.
America, in other words, is the embodiment of a Big Idea, namely, human equality (an idea that Hill attributes to the School of Salamanca rather than, say, Locke). Hill ignores everything else that makes America America, from the mores of the settlers who happened to come here to the vast quantities of land that made equality of condition possible. Instead, Hill’s interpretation of America is quasi-metaphysical. America, he says, is “for the universal purpose” of freedom. Even in 1776, of course, freedom could be enjoyed in any number of countries. Nor has America ever offered the blessings of American freedom to everybody. America, therefore, is not “universal.” It is just one country among many. What is Hill even talking about?
We find out later in the chapter:
Hill: You can see in one section [of Grand Strategies] after another that America is really distinctive. The debate that’s been going on: “Is America exceptional”? Certainly the faculties and the intellectuals say no it’s not, the president says no it’s not.
Robinson: Let me quote you. President Obama speaking in France last year: “I believe in American exceptionalism. Just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That’s the president of the United States.
Hill: Then he doesn’t understand America. And may be what John Bolton was driving at when he says “this is the first post-American president.”
But President Obama admitted that America is exceptional! Evidently that’s not enough for Hill. America, you see, has to be exceptionally exceptional: that is, American “exceptionalism” must consist in denying (contrary to, you know, actual fact) that other nations are “exceptional” too. Anything else would be un-American! All this jejune talk about “American exceptionalism” –whatever that means — simply amounts in the end to an ideological rationalization for American hegemony. Put aside whether American hegemony is a good thing or not. The mush-mindedness of all this – America stands for an Idea and is divinely appointed to spread this Idea to the remotest regions of the globe – is stupefying. Yet this is what passes for intellectual discourse at Yale.
Just as a counterpoint to Hill, I can’t help but quote William Graham Sumner:
There is not a civilized nation which does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do. . . . Now each nation laughs at all the others when it observes these manifestations of national vanity. You may rely upon it that they are all ridiculous by virtue of these pretensions, including ourselves. The point is that each of them repudiates the standards of the others, and the outlying nations, which are to be civilized, hate all the standards of civilized men.
We assume that what we like and practice, and what we think better, must come as a welcome blessing to Spanish-Americans and Filipinos. This is grossly and obviously untrue. They hate our ways. They are hostile to our ideas. Our religion, language, institutions, and manners offend them. They like their own ways, and if we appear amongst them as rulers, there will be social discord in all the great departments of social interest. The most important thing which we shall inherit from the Spaniards will be the task of suppressing rebellions. If the United States takes out of the hands of Spain her mission, on the ground that Spain is not executing it well, and if this nation in its turn attempts to be school-mistress to others, it will shrivel up into the same vanity and self-conceit of which Spain now presents an example.
Sober, clear-headed, analytic: a refreshing contrast to Hill. In chapter 5, Hill finally applies his concept of “grand strategy” to recent events:
Hill: [describing the Reagan foreign policy team] They saw things in the larger, in the entirety or close to it. They saw that — it used to be the case that when the alarm bell rang in the operating center of the state department it might be a coup d’etat in the Seychelles. So you might say “who cares about that?” But everything matters. They saw the connections. but at the end of the cold war it became partial, it became demarcated. [For Clinton and Bush 41 by contrast] You do things on one side of an issue. You don’t think of the whole thing because the tensions aren’t there. The feeling was not there that there’s a real danger out there that is of great magnitude.
Hmm, yes, the “feeling” of real danger was not there. Maybe that’s because…. there was no danger! The Cold War had ended. In the Cold War, for geo-strategic and ideological reasons, every corner of the globe became just another theater of the Soviet-U.S. conflict. That’s why “everything mattered”: it wasn’t the superior wisdom of American statesmen then but the circumstances that they faced. Hill seems to think it was a good thing that, until the end of the Cold War, every matter of policy had to be considered in light of some over-arching objective, never mind the costs to the U.S. or others. To less fevered minds, however, the “demarcation” of issues after the Cold War was a blessing.
Hill: Only in the last decade or seven or eight years have we begun or some of us have begun to sense the magnitude of that danger again. Because of the rise of Islamism. Because as in the Cold War, where communism. Here we go back to Westphalia. Communism was opposed to every one of those procedural elements. The state had to be destroyed, smashed. International law was a tool of the bourgeois capitalist classes. Human rights was a farce. Against all of that, they would, the communist ideology, which was a religion in effect, was “We will destabilize the international system, we’ll overthrow it, and we’ll replace it.” That’s the same agenda that Islamists have. So in some sense the 1990s were a lost decade where we didn’t understand problems. Today I think people do understand it, but not Washington.
So communism and Islamism share ideological similarities. Never mind that the Soviets had the world’s largest land army and intercontinental missiles aimed at major American cities, while Islamists are poor, ignorant, persecuted, few, and don’t even control a single state. To view Islamism as a threat comparable to communism is absurd. Evidently, Hill’s favorite maxims – “take everything into account” and “be one upon whom nothing is lost” – are not to be taken literally. On the contrary, for Hill, the statesman should ignore any relevant facts that get in the way of constructing a specious ideological narrative.
Listening to Hill, one is reminded that a little learning a dangerous thing. Hill takes a fairly conventional neoconservative ideology and adorns it with a few pleasing references to Thucydides and Montaigne. Do not be fooled. This is not knowledge but sciolism. (Indeed, Hill admits his hostility to actual knowledge.) As guides to international affairs, his teachings are worse than useless.