Late on the morning of February 21, 1972, I listened at my desk in the American Embassy Saigon to Armed Forces Radio Vietnam’s relay of an announcer describing the arrival of President Nixon in Beijing. I had been a Foreign Service “China watcher” through the horrendous years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao sent thousands of young Red Guards out to burn books and put an end to China’s traditional culture. After my diplomatic reporting on the Cultural Revolution I had been assigned to wartime Vietnam under a general instruction to look for indications that China might intervene, as it had when Mao ordered human-wave attacks which seized nearly all the Korean Peninsula from American forces in early 1951. For more than two decades, American strategists considered themselves engaged in a colossal struggle against revolutionary communism, an ideology bent on destroying and replacing the established international state system of world order. Now here were Richard Nixon and his chief adviser, Henry Kissinger, presenting themselves to the “Great Helmsman” of the People’s Republic of China.
In the manner of dictators, Mao suddenly summoned the two Americans to his private residence in the sequestered Chungnanhai compound next to the Forbidden City. Kissinger later described Mao’s study in his memoirs: “Manuscripts lined bookshelves along every wall; books covered the table and the floor; it looked more like the retreat of a scholar than the audience room of the all-powerful leader of the world’s most populous nation.”
The few unfrequented bookshops left in China offered little else but the writings of Mao and Marx and Lenin. But here in his lair, Mao had hoarded all the great texts his heart desired. He knew them well, and marked them up. (“If you don’t put your pen in action, it cannot really be considered reading,” he had said.) The Outlaws of the Marsh (or The Water Margin), a tale of bandits in rebellion against oppressive lords, inspired him, and classical Chinese poetry too, much of which concerns matters of war and statecraft; Mao inflicted his own considerable poetic output on the masses. But what are we to make of Mao’s love for the huge eighteenth-century novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, which he boasted of having read five times? He fended off questions by claiming that the novel “showed feudal China in decline”; but far from revolutionary, The Dream of the Red Chamber, replete with the stratagems of an array of girls swirling around a romantically individualistic young man in search of experience and pleasure, all in a marriage plot, has as many examples of statecraft and diplomatic intrigue as the novels of Jane Austen.
What are dictators, generals, and strategists looking for in the books they keep around them or carry with them? Certainly Mao was not made a better person by his extensive reading in classic texts. The works considered in my book, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, address the conundrums of statecraft in ways that may be used for good or ill by people in power. Inhumane leaders have made use of humane letters; the Nazis cultivated the arts. But admirable underlying principles of statecraft can be found in nearly all the texts considered.
Alexander the Great carried the Iliad with him on his eastern conquests, keeping it, Plutarch said, with a dagger under his pillow, “declaring that he esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge.” Prior to sainthood, Thomas More read Roman poets and playwrights. Queen Elizabeth I read Cicero for rhetorical and legal strategy. Frederick the Great studied Homer’s Odysseus as a model for prin-ces. John Adams read Thucydides in Greek while being guided through the “labyrinth” of human nature by Swift, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Abraham Lincoln slowly read through Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and was changed by it. Gladstone, four times prime minister under Queen Victoria, wrote volumes of scholarly commentary on Homer and produced vivid translations—the best kind of close reading—of Horace’s Odes. Lawrence of Arabia, who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks, carried Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, if not in his camel’s saddlebags then in his head.
Through long nighttime transatlantic flights on the secretary of state’s aircraft, when most passenger cabin lights were out and the sound of a deck of cards being shuffled was heard from the press corps seats far in the back, one reading light was always still on. Paul Nitze, the arms-control strategist and negotiator, would be reading Shakespeare. Nitze was the only statesman who spanned the Cold War, from being “present at the creation,” in Dean Acheson’s words, to seeing the day the red hammer-and-sickle flag was pulled down from the Kremlin. Nitze read Shakespeare, he told me, for the plays that interwove principles of statecraft with the foibles of the human condition. On one flight to Moscow, Nitze was struggling through Cymbeline, a work of excruciating plot complexity, bearing, as Auden said, the marks of a late work: obscurity, strangeness, and a certain indifference to its effect on the public. Nitze saw in its portrayal of the ancient Roman-Briton struggle a crucial moment in world history. The play recalls the Aeneid, in which Trojans and Latins fight for empire yet in the end accept a political-cultural accord. But what must they give up to get peace? Nitze related this to his once-famous “walk in the woods” near Geneva in 1982, with his Soviet counterpart Kvitzinsky, a step toward the end of the Cold War that was made into A Walk in the Woods, a 1988 Broadway play.
Nitze would probe one intellectual dimension after another in search of aids to his thinking about the vagaries of statecraft. When explaining how the United States needed to approach the USSR, Nitze described a diplomatic version of Niels Bohr’s principle of complementarity: “Light can be both wave and particle at the same time”; the United States would have to be adversarial and accommodating at the same time. But then Nitze would return to a literary reference, quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
“Two things” were never enough for Nitze; he wanted more expansive examples; a favorite was the literature of fishing. Our 1960s-era Boeing 707 could not fly from Europe to America without refueling, always at Shannon. As Nitze looked out of the taxiing aircraft at the bright green Irish landscape fingered by dark water, he recalled that in the days of piston-engine aircraft stops here, there always was time to get off the airfield to “wet a line and kill a salmon.” Nitze seemed to consider literature, angling, and diplomacy as so obviously interlinked as to require no explanation. Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler and Thoreau’s version of Walton in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers were noted. Years later, I shared Nitze’s sense when I read, in Gore Vidal’s novel of the fifth century BC, Creation, a Cathayan version of a Compleat Angler scene. When Baron K’ang sends an agent to neutralize Confucius, he finds the sage wearing an old quilted robe, sitting cross-legged on the damp riverbank: “Confucius proved to be a master angler. Once a fish had taken the hook, he would ever so delicately shift the line this way and that; it was as if the line was moved not by a human hand but by the river’s own current. Then, at precisely the right moment, he would strike.”
But how to get the hook into the quarry in the first place? And at what risk? And how to avoid getting hooked? (Baron K’ang never hooked Confucius.) For these “ungraspable phantoms” of statecraft, Nitze had to read Moby-Dick.
The great matters of high politics, statecraft, and grand strategy are essential to the human condition and so necessarily are within the purview of great literature. Tolstoy’s War and Peace treats them directly. What has not been much recognized is that many literary works read and praised for insights on personal feelings, such as Jane Austen’s Emma, possess a dimension wholly apt for statecraft—in Emma’s case, the gathering and misanalysis of intelligence.
The literary works in Grand Strategies form a logic chain across the centuries to illuminate ideas and actions affecting world order. Each text illuminates one or another facet of the centuries-long process leading to the current world order, providing ways, old and new, to think about it, literature above all being a supreme way of knowing. Classical works delve into diplomacy and strategy prior to the state, then consider how the formation of states called forth structures for international interaction—often unstable or oppressive, acquired and maintained at great human cost.
The book introduces these ideas in more or less the order in which they become salient issues in statecraft. Starting with use of stratagems, intelligence, and diplomacy and proceeding through core concepts such as the tension between divine and secular legal orders, the awakening of national consciousness and identity, the variety of forms of polity, and the nature of war and its impact on society, Grand Strategies is intended almost as a primer of statecraft and its essential ideas.
On the most profound level, and one of urgent significance today, the texts I examine reveal across time the construction and critique of the modern international state system, launched in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the religion-inflamed Thirty Years’ War, and which by the mid-twentieth century had become the recognized system through which states on every continent had agreed to conduct their official interactions. But by the opening of the twenty-first century, the system had deteriorated from within and was assaulted from without by yet another violent, ideological, world-spanning movement. The book throws a new angle of light on the foundation stones of world order, their weakening condition, and what needs to be done.
Perhaps most profoundly through literary lenses, “America” as a new idea for the world revealed layers of meaning, mainly in a democratic direction, for the project of constructing a modern international system.
The Enlightenment as the tutelary spirit of modernity produced both the idea of reasoned progress and the revolutionary movements that would aim to destroy and replace the emerging international state system. The novel, rising in accompaniment to the modern age, reveals this momentous dichotomy.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Westphalian system had by adoption or imposition reached every continent to establish diplomatic, legal, commercial, security, and narrative mechanisms. While not amounting to anything approaching world governance, something of a moral order took form in which state, community, and individual aspirations could interact among disparate peoples.
None of the premodern “world” systems devised within the various regions of the world proved able to cope with the destabilizing forces of modernity. The expansion of global exploration and consciousness required a new conception, grounded in agreed procedures and resistant to substantive, religious, or ideological dominance. The genius of the 1648 Westphalian system—the basis for today’s international order, such as it is—was its one big “hedgehog” idea: that there must be many “foxes,” organized through agreed procedures, to accommodate human diversity. Literature reveals the sources and motivations behind acceptance of the state as the basic unit of world affairs, and explores answers to the next question: what form of governance could best serve a state’s people? As we see, only literature lasts, while history requires constant revision.
For some decades now, the international state system has been deteriorating, intellectually disparaged from within and assaulted by a series of rival systems from without. But literature, once paramount as a way of knowing, was evicted from its place in the pantheon of the arts by popular cultures of entertainment sometime in the later mid-twentieth century, and statecraft has suffered from the loss. Today, both the state order and literature are under assault. Whether the present international system can be shored up and repaired or must be transformed, statecraft cannot be practiced in the absence of literary insight.
Statesmen have looked at literature not only as another source of strategic insight but as a unique intellectual endeavor. Of all of the arts and sciences, only literature is substantially and methodologically unbounded. Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of “how the world really works.” This dimension of fiction is indispensable to the strategist who cannot, by the nature of the craft, know all of the facts, considerations, and potential consequences of a situation at the time a decision must be made, ready or not. Literature lives in the realm grand strategy requires, beyond rational calculation, in acts of the imagination.
Dante, in the final canto of Paradiso, sees God as a book. The leaves of a notebook—squaderna—telling of people, chance happenings, and their consequences, are scattered around the world, but God, the poets know, has bound them into a single volume. In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation:
Bound up with love together in one volume,
What through the universe in leaves is scattered;
Substance, and accident, and their operations.
All interfused together in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple light.
Dante immediately gives a literary example: Neptune, startled by a shadow moving across the ocean floor, looks up to see the ship Argo skimming the sea’s surface, Jason and the Argonauts bound on the first international intervention, to Colchis to strive to win the Golden Fleece. This is literature: the interruption of the light reveals the light, which was not understood because perfect. Imperfection—the conflicts, stratagems, and surprises of world affairs—can convey an ineffable, transcendent sense of things. Clausewitz called it the coup d’oeil: an integration of experience, observation, and imagination that “constructs a whole of the fragments that the eye can see.” Imprinting it “like a picture, like a map, upon the brain.” The approach is like a poet’s, involving the quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss, or would perceive only after long study and reflection. Oswald Spengler, at the end of The Decline of the West, a kind of tome-poem, praises something similar, the sense possessed by a judge of “horseflesh.” A statesman requires such a sense, but in every category of life literature can capture the multifarious whole.
This is all the more necessary in our time because of the hegemony of the social sciences, particularly political science, which by self-definition must confine itself to a narrow band of problems capable of scientifically replicable solutions—leaving the biggest questions beyond its reach. There is as well in the field of literary studies the supposition that high politics and strategy are at best incidental and somewhat suspect subjects for literature. If a great book takes up such themes, those do not constitute the source of its greatness, which must lie elsewhere.
So the argument of my book is that the world should recognize high political ideas and actions of statecraft as aspects of the human condition that are fully within the scope of literary genius, and ones that great writers have consistently explored in important ways. They were not simply using political circumstances as a background for their characters’ dramas but were instead thinking deeply and significantly about the ideas themselves. The great authors not only reveal themselves aware of statecraft, some are themselves strategists, exploring ideas fundamental to statecraft and international order.
To be more specific about why literary insight is essential for statecraft, both endeavors are concerned with important questions that are only partly accessible to rational thought. Such matters as how a people begins to identify itself as a nation, the nature of trust between political actors or between a government and its people, how a nation commits itself to a more humane course of governance—all these and many more topics dealt with in the book—can’t be understood without some “grasp of the ungraspable” emotional and moral weight they bear. A purely rational or technocratic approach is likely to lead one astray. A virtue of the books I examine is that, while not slighting rational thought, they manage to convey the inchoate aspects of affairs within and between states to attentive readers.
To put it as Paul Nitze would, in a “logic-chain,” it is that 1) statecraft is protean, incessantly assuming different forms and presenting new predicaments beyond the ken of established methodologies; 2) some of the greatest classical texts—the Iliad, the Aeneid—deal with such challenges through their unboundedness, intertwining what would later be labeled as history, theology, psychology, literature, and philosophy before those modern disciplines were formalized; 3) literature, however, largely has remained unbounded, able to probe realms of statecraft which other disciplines have placed off-limits; and 4) some major works conventionally catalogued as nonfiction have jumped over methodological walls to become “fellow travelers” of literature. This is why no apology is given for those books read in Grand Strategies that commonly have been cataloged under history, law, or philosophy, rather than literature. Almost every truly great work of “nonfiction” has achieved its extra level of superiority by soaring above and beyond factual analysis. Kant’s Perpetual Peace is an imagined story of mankind’s political development over eons: Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War is an epic “ring composition” transcending history; T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a novel traveling under the cover of autobiography.
Literature shows its relationship with statecraft to be reciprocal. Literature informs leaders whose actions may later become the stuff of literature. One might say that the Trojan War was fought in order to supply material for the Iliad, and the Iliad transmogrified resurfaces in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Rescue: