Discover more from Gideon's Substack
Grand Strategy. Huh. (Good God.) What Is It Good For?
Not everything -- but not absolutely nothing.
Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest (photo by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr.com)
This subject may be way too obscure for some of my readers, but I haven’t been able to get this story from my alma mater out of my head, so I might as well write about it.
The Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy is one of Yale University’s most celebrated and prestigious programs. Over the course of a year, it allows a select group of about two dozen students to immerse themselves in classic texts of history and statecraft, while also rubbing shoulders with guest instructors drawn from the worlds of government, politics, military affairs and the media.
But now, a program created to train future leaders how to steer through the turbulent waters of history is facing a crisis of its own.
Beverly Gage, a historian of 20th-century politics who has led the program since 2017, has resigned, saying the university failed to stand up for academic freedom amid inappropriate efforts by its donors to influence its curriculum and faculty hiring.
The program in question was established in 2000 by Yale professors like William Gaddis and Paul Kennedy who studied the large sweep of history from the perspective of the imperial centers of power, and who fretted that Yale students who were headed to those imperial centers too often lacked the tools and context to see the world in that way: grandly, sweeping. They worried we were raising a national leadership without a sense of history and unable to think beyond the next day’s headlines. A few years later, in 2006, former Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and mutual-fund billionaire Charles Johnson endowed the program with an eight-figure gift, and subsequently made a nine-figure gift to the university at large.
Gage, whose work as a historian focuses on social movements, was put in charge of the program in 2017, aiming to integrate an understanding of such movements into the curriculum. If you think for even a moment about who founded the program, and who funded the program, it should have been obvious that Gage would have raised hackles. But those hackles weren't actually raised until another professor in the program penned an anti-Trump op ed, which irritated the donors and prompted them to look into what they were funding. They weren’t happy with what they discovered, and began making demands, including for formal oversight of the staffing and curriculum via an advisory board that was provided for in their initial gift, but never actually set up.
So one way to read these events is as a story about left-wingers trying to infiltrate and undermine a program intended and funded for a particular purpose. In this version of the story, the one congenial to the political right, Brady and Johnson are the heroes. If Yale had simply followed the original agreement, there would have been no fuss made and no threats to academic freedom. Gage’s resignation, in this view, is shameless grandstanding intended to give the university a black eye for not supporting her ideological corruption of the program.
Another way to read them is as a story about the real threat of cancel culture out there: the influence of right-wing money. Jeet Heer’s piece does an excellent job of airing that point of view. Academic freedom means the freedom to choose the faculty and the freedom of the faculty to choose the curriculum. Allow donors to interfere with that, and you seriously chill the process of inquiry and debate, and turn the university into a propaganda factory. And a propaganda factory will not even generate the results its own propagandists hope for, as the sorry evidence of support for the Iraq War by the founders of the program attests.
Myself, I don’t fundamentally read it either way, but rather as a case of bad donor management. Indeed, as an alumnus, the whole thing rings a bell to me.
In the early 1990s, the Bass Brothers gave Yale $20 million to endow a program in Western Civilization. Yale was happy to take the money, but in their view many of the things the Bass Brothers wanted to fund already existed, so they proposed to use their money for these efforts and, money being fungible, this would free up funds for other endeavors. Needless to say, the Bass Brothers weren’t happy about this, since they intended to fund an increase in spending. They began to demand a detailed accounting, and approval over who got funded. Yale wouldn’t agree to this, so they lost the gift.
I thought at the time that it was pretty shabby of Yale’s management to behave in this way. Either they genuinely agreed that what the Bass Brothers were proposing was a good idea, or they didn’t. If they did, they should have done it. If they didn't, they should have crafted a proposal that they could execute on that the donors would be willing to support. This is undoubtedly glib of me, since I don’t have to manage relationships with multi-million-dollar donors, but I don’t see how it’s a wise strategy to say “sure honey” and hope the donors don’t notice when you wind up doing something rather different than what they thought they were funding—particularly when you know you’re going to do that from the start.
And it looks to me like, in this case, that’s precisely what Yale was hoping to do after Brady and Johnson complained. They were going to set up the board they wanted, staff it largely in accordance with their wishes, and then . . . wait for them to lose interest so they could go back to doing what they wanted. I think that’s a shabby way to treat people who are giving you a lot of money, and I think it’s a shabby way to treat faculty who deserve an administration that backs them up in public. In that sense, I think both Gage and the donors have real points, and it’s the Yale administration that deserves the bulk of the criticism.
But the real question is: what does Yale want? Do they think a program in “grand strategy” is a good idea? If so, why? And how is that reflected (or not reflected) in how they fund it, staff it, and supervise it?
The original founders of the program thought it was a problem if the next generation of American leaders hadn’t read Thucydides or studied the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps that’s a myopic view of the sort of thing future leaders need to be exposed to. Maybe it’s also important—even more important—for them to read Fanon and study the Cuban Revolution. Maybe one way that “grand strategy” has gone badly wrong in the past is by not understanding social movements that do more to shape world events than the decisions of “great” men in conference rooms, and so we get surprised by Mao’s victory in the Chinese civil war, or by the resilience of the Viet Cong and the Taliban. More pointedly, maybe one reason we’ve gone so wrong in recent years is that we don’t really understand much of the world, and so are easily taken in by entrepreneurial advocates of, say, invading Iraq or bombing Libya, who convince us that so long as we fight the oppressors we will be hailed as liberators.
But here’s the thing: Samantha Power, the anti-genocide activist, was inside the Obama administration pushing for the bombing of Libya despite having no warrant to do so under international law. Joschka Fischer, the former far-left activist and Green Party leader, was the German Foreign Minister who supported taking NATO to war against Serbia in violation of the organization’s charter. When you rise to power within a large and powerful state, that state’s power becomes your power. You necessarily learn to think according to the incentives of your position—and you also start to think of the position and its powers as an extension of you. But they aren’t an extension of you, and the incentives of your position aren’t likely to be what you would call, in some abstract sense, the right thing to do.
That’s something worth exposing the next generation of American leaders to early. Yes, they should read Fanon—but they should also realize that if they get jobs in the State Department, they won’t be in a position to simply put America on the side of the wretched of the earth, both because America’s interests won’t allow it and because everyone else will understand whatever we do as being done by America, and therefore in some sense intended to advance those American interests. Recognizing that reality most definitely doesn’t compel you to become Henry Kissinger. But it should compel you to think: why do I want to be at the center of power? What am I aiming for?
I think the right answer ought to begin with “to be a responsible steward of that power, not to squander it or abuse it, but to use it, where I can, to help my country and for the good of humanity.” That might sound a bit modest, but we can, and have, done a lot worse. If I were deciding who to put in charge of Yale’s grand strategy program, I’d be looking for someone who saw things similarly, and if I were seeking to incorporate social movements into the curriculum, it would be at least in part with a view to showing those would-be grand strategists just how complex and uncontrollable the world is, and how important it is to have on-the-ground knowledge to check your government’s delusions of grandeur.
Meanwhile, if I were a big donor worried about the next generation of American leaders, my first preference would be that fewer of them be Yale alumni like myself. Why not fund a program in grand strategy at Howard instead?