Profile in Strategy: Charles Hill

Wednesday, November 2, 2011
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Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

“There is no grand strategy today,” according to the great grand strategist of our time, diplomat Charles Hill.

Hill sits quietly in his Yale University office, north of the center of campus, on the silent—and scenic—Hillhouse Road in New Haven. His office is not small, but it is crowded, with books. This suits Hill: his own book, “Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order,” is a book about books—the great books.

Grand strategy, Hill explains, is the art of diplomats: “you must move from one set of problems to another, and take everything into account as you are making a decision. The problem is, you don’t know everything. So you have to decide before you know.” Hill has spent over five decades mastering this craft as a U.S. diplomat.

In diplomacy, literature is relied upon because, as he writes in “Grand Strategies,” “The international world of states and their modern system is a literary realm; it is where the greatest issues of the human condition are played out.” That is why Alexander the Great carried the Iliad with him on his conquests, and why Queen Elizabeth studied Cicero in the evenings. It is why Abraham Lincoln read, and was profoundly influenced by, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and why Paul Nitze paged through Shakespeare on his flights to Moscow as America’s chief arms negotiator.

Charles Hill: Grand Strategy
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Hill, for his part, has always kept the “History of the Peloponnesian War” in his mind as the “manual of statecraft.”

Why Thucydides? He explains: “When you read the Peloponnesian War, you realize that Thucydides is moving from one set of problems to another, and you have to deal with them all—rhetorical problems, material problems, and moral problems. That’s the closest literary work related to statecraft that I can imagine.”

To understand world order—and those who manipulate it for their own aims—requires a literary education, the kind students were once able to find at such places as Yale, where Hill now teaches the humanities to freshman undergraduates.

This is a departure from his days at the State Department, where he helped orchestrate monumental events in the grand strategy of the Cold War. One of his first memories as a diplomat was of being seated behind Adlai Stevenson at the UN during the Cuban missile crisis, characteristically scribbling notes—in grand strategy, no detail can be lost. Later, Hill was a “China watcher” during that country’s Cultural Revolution. And when the Iran-Contra scandal nearly brought down the Reagan administration, Hill’s meticulous notes played an influential role in the Congressional investigations by shedding light on the chronology of then-Secretary of State George Shultz’s knowledge of the arms sale. Over the years, Hill has also served as confidante to Secretaries of State. For Henry Kissinger, Hill was speechwriter and policy analyst. For Shultz, Hill was an executive aide and trusted ally.

These days, Hill embodies grand strategy in a different way. After a long and distinguished career as a diplomat, Hill is now a heralded figure in academia. Beyond his appointment as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, he is the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy, a Senior Lecturer in Humanities, and a Senior Lecturer in International Studies at Yale. Alongside historians John Gaddis and John Kennedy, he teaches one of Yale’s most legendary courses to a select group of elite students—future statesmen—the Grand Strategies course.

And yet, Hill tells me stoically, “There is no grand strategy in our time.” Turning his attention to the turmoil in the Middle East, Hill provides an example. “America’s lack of strategic outlook responding to the Arab Spring is really distressing.”

“What people called the Arab Spring turned into a struggle between three factions: the authoritarian dictatorships that are the target of the protesters, the protesters themselves, and the Islamists who will try to take advantage of the instability in the region.” Hill’s latest book, “Trial of a Thousand Years,” maps the rise of Islamism and its implications for world order.

Literature, Hill is fond of saying, is the greatest tutor of statecraft.

Will the Islamists prevail? “I think that underneath everything, something has happened that is not going to go away. This is the start of something that will transform the region over all.”

But, he adds darkly, American policy makers are “sleep walking” their way through grand strategy. “The most distressing example was Obama’s speech about the Arab Spring.” In that speech, delivered on May 19, 2011, the president spoke at length about the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was a mistake.

Hill explains, “The Arab Spring was the most significant and grand strategic change in the region that has happened in this year. It completely unhinged the narrative of Arab-Israeli conflict that has come to dominate the Middle East since 1967. And Obama missed it.”

As Hill tells me, “For decades, the question asked about the Arab world has been: Do Arabs want freedom? The answer that we heard again and again and again was ‘no, we don’t want freedom. We like things the way they are. We have Islam. We have our governments. This is the way we are.’”

Amazingly, Hill says, “What happened this year is that a new population emerged saying ‘yes, we do want freedom.’” And here is the truly significant part: “This population has put their lives on the line and been killed for freedom—without mentioning Israel.”

But Obama did mention Israel in his speech last spring. “What President Obama did was to turn that narrative back to what it was before—so when his speech was over, people only talked about Israel and not the Arab protests. This set us back 20 to 25 years. And that, simply, is a loss of understanding in the grand strategic sense.”

To Hill, Obama’s “lack of understanding is entrenched in the last couple of generations. It goes back to the upheavals of the sixties, when the curriculum was dynamited, and education became an enterprise that no longer dealt with big ideas,” like civic justice, democracy, and God. The development of those ideas form the “grand narrative of Western civilization,” Hill explains, creating the world we all live in today. After the sixties, when those ideas were dismissed, that narrative was largely forgotten. This is why, to Hill, “there is no grand strategy in our time. There is no meta-historical understanding of the world.”

“We have lost something valuable,” Hill tells me. In the words of Edmund Burke, “When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated.”

Hill is doing his part to restore that loss, educating the next generation of statesmen about the greatest things ever thought and said, about big ideas. “The education of a diplomat, of a statesmen, is found in the humanities.”

That education is “based upon a remembrance and knowledge of the way people thought and acted in the past.” History is the most important element, followed by literature, philosophy, and—as the rise of Islamism has proven—religion. In his book “Grand Strategies,” Hill has recreated this type of education, focusing on the great works of the Western Canon like the “Odyssey,” “The Divine Comedy,” “Paradise Lost,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Waste Land,” and others.

“There is no grand strategy in our time.”

“Those works force you to think outside the box. The problems of literature or philosophy are unbounded. They expose you to uncertainty, which is critical for a diplomat. As a diplomat, you’re placed in a high-stress environment, where you have to make a decision, but where you don’t know all the factors at play. You need to learn to be a leader. You need to exercise your intellectual muscles so they are ready for the challenge that will be put in front of you.”

In diplomacy, “individuals doing things on the most intimate level can affect gigantic questions of statecraft. We all know this. Dominique Strauss-Kahn has proved that,” he says, referring to the recently disgraced contender for the French presidency. But this is an insight that is unlikely to come up in a Political Science department, where most aspiring policy makers find themselves in their undergraduate years.

It is an insight, however, that you find in Shakespeare’s “Antony & Cleopatra.” Or, Hill adds, “in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.” This is why literature, as Hill is fond of saying, is the greatest tutor of statecraft.

“About 15 years ago, my colleagues and I at Yale were realizing that students were voting with their feet. They were not coming to a great university to be told by a graduate student how to work on a small problem about voter turnout. No, students were interested in something bigger than that.” Though grand strategy may be a dying craft, Hill and his colleagues are doing their best to revive it.


When Charles Hill was a small child, his father taught him how to swim by throwing him out of their rowboat and paddling away. Hill, a skinny boy, had to figure out how to keep his head above water on his own. In a way, this experience served as an analog to Hill’s diplomatic career: When you have to decide on a critical diplomatic issue, you have to swim, not sink.

Bridgeton, where Hill grew up, was a farming and fishing town in the “garden part of the Garden State,” New Jersey. Though it was “a very provincial town with no bookstore,” Hill found his way to Bridgeton’s intellectual set. He felt at home in their company, and among their books. Aunt Elsie, his father’s sister, was a decisive influence in this regard. “She had lots of books which she kept handing over to me.” Among them were an “astonishing” book about classical Rome, the writings of Lawrence of Arabia, and the works of the American travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton.

A local influence on Hill was the county veterinarian. Hill and the vet’s son were best friends. The vet, Hill says, “had gone to Penn [University of Pennsylvania] and he had sent his son away to a private high school.” This was unheard of in Bridgeton. Most people stayed in Bridgeton their whole lives.  But this man, “the Socrates of the town,” was a “constant intellectual challenge.” Hill recalls, “He gave me his first edition of ‘God and Man at Yale,’” William F. Buckley Jr.’s book about the politicization of higher education. But Hill was not very political as a child: “Conservative? I hardly knew the word, but that was my inclination.”

Like the town Socrates, Hill went away to college after studying Latin and the classics at his local high school. When he got to Brown University in the 1950s, it was “the classic Ivy League place. The majority of students were graduates of New England prep schools. It was quite sophisticated. I was out of my depth in some sense, but I had enough of a wide reading base that I could hang on.”

He joined a literary fraternity at Brown. “It was the kind of place where you had to read the New York Times Book Review cover to cover each week just to keep up with the pace of conversation.” On the academic front, Hill majored in American Civilization studies, where he studied American literature, philosophy, politics, and history. This was an education in “cultural anthropology,” he tells me.

“The rise of Islamism was a surprise because of a lack of understanding about religion.”

Following Brown, Hill enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. “I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do and law seemed to fit.” But eventually, he was drawn into a PhD program at Penn in American Studies. This was 1960. “I finished the coursework for the PhD, but the Vietnam War was just beginning. That was the time of the draft. I had already gotten a draft deferment for the last couple of years of college and through law school, and my draft board told me that they wouldn’t defer me anymore.”

Then, Hill faced a decision that, as it turned out, altered the course of his life. “I had been at the graduate school for eighteen months after finishing law school, and with the draft coming at me, I had the choice of becoming a lawyer in the military or going into the Foreign Service.”

Hill chose the Foreign Service.

“In a way, I wanted do something that was more romantic,” he says. But it was less than romantic when Hill showed up at a garage in Arlington, Virginia, the site of his introductory training for the Foreign Service. Several weeks into the training, he recalls, “they asked everyone to write down what they wanted for their first assignment and what they wanted to achieve in the far end of their careers.”

Most people listed a European city for their first assignment. Most people said they wanted to be ambassadors at the far end of their career.

“I put down, uniquely in the class, that my goal was to be in the Policy Planning Staff, because I knew that George Kennan and Louis Halle, who had become a hero of mine, were on it. The Policy Planning Staff does foreign affairs from an intellectual angle.” The Policy Planning Staff was pulling the levers of American foreign policy during the Cold War. Kennan was the architect of Cold War containment policy.

Hill continues, “I also said that I wanted to go anywhere but Europe. I had this background that came from the books pressed on me by Aunt Elsie books about Lawrence of Arabia, Halliburton’s books about China—so I wanted to go to places that were different.”

As it turned out, Hill’s first post was in Europe—Salzburg, Austria. “It was essentially a cultural post.” Not exactly adventurous.

But that post was suddenly closed after departmental budget cutting, so Hill was then stationed at the State Department. “I was in the UN bureau. We were there to watch UN-issues and then to inform the European bureau of what was going on at the UN.”

One day, in October of 1962, his supervisors sent him to the UN General Assembly to do some reporting. “This was entirely by chance, but I was at the UN when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out, when the UN was a major location. At the time, our ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, was in famous disputes with the ambassador from the USSR. And I was sitting right there behind Stevenson,” Hill says with a smile.

Hill has made a habit of being in important places when history is made. After his UN-watching assignment, Hill was stationed in Zurich, Switzerland, when a circular from the State Department was sent around to diplomats. “They were asking for volunteers for hard languages, Mandarin or Farsi, specifically. I concluded that there were more posts available in the China field than in the Iran field, so I volunteered to learn Mandarin.”

“Very few people were going into the China field, but it was in the romantic vein I was looking for.”

So Hill was sent to Chinese language training—“back to the Arlington garage, not so romantic,” he jokes.  From there, he was stationed in Hong Kong as a China Watcher in 1966. This put Hill right in the middle of a decisive moment in Cold War history. “The Cultural Revolution had just started and the China watching business was just beginning,” he recalls.

To Hill, the Cultural Revolution was beyond disturbing. To quote his biographer, Molly Worthen, “not twenty tears after the Communist revolution, China’s leaders had produced a generation of youth capable of tearing down thousands of years or tradition and social structures, and eager to do so.”

Maoist China became an archetype for these revolutionaries of the “New Left.”

China’s youth were not alone in their disdain for the past. As Hill remembers, China’s Cultural Revolution created “an immensely destabilizing situation that spread overseas.” Hill experienced this firsthand when he came up for reassignment in 1969. That year, he was sent from Hong Kong to Harvard University on a diplomat-in-residence program.

In the late 1960s, America was a hotbed of revolutionary fervor. Multiple political movements were vying to change society. Hill lists a few of those movements: “There was the civil rights movement, the student movement—which didn’t have any purpose to it—the women’s movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement.”

Though their causes were unique, the activists were unified in one respect: “The revolutionaries were arguing that the American polity was bad.” They thought that the entire American system “had to be totally undone,” Hill says. In this regard, Maoist China became an archetype for these revolutionaries of the “New Left.”

“There came this sense that Maoist China was the model, the exemplar.” As in China—though on a much smaller scale—the upheavals in the United States culminated in a series of chaotic events, like the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the burning of cities, and uprisings on college campuses.

At Harvard, Hill saw the campus rocked by student protests. As he was studiously taking courses on Buddhism and Milton—courses that would eventually inspire him to write “Grand Strategies”—“Harvard was in upheaval with the student strikes.”

After President Nixon decided to escalate the Vietnam War by sending forces into Cambodia, “the students were berserk and the whole place [Harvard] went into revolutionary mode. The campus was in an uproar, and the students all emulated the Red Guards. They would ‘struggle’ professors,” Hill says, referring to Maoist terminology. “They would demand that professors confess their crimes.”

Ever the grand strategists, Hill put together the pieces of what was happening: “I realized that the New Left, inspired by Mao, had gotten into the student movement. The New Left had a whole ideology that had dropped itself down on top of the student movement.”

That ideology’s chief feature was a revolt against society’s institutions and authority figures. Hill explains that the origin of that ideology rests with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings were enormously influential in the lead up to the French Revolution: “Rousseau said that no government is legitimate,” Hill explains. “What this meant for students was that everything about the American system was illegitimate, and only true revolution could bring it down.”

On an international scale, this meant a revolt against the state system itself. The implications for grand strategy were immense. How could grand strategy—which is about crafting and manipulating world order—be carried out, when that order was disintegrating?

Grand strategy may be a dying craft, but Hill and his colleagues are trying to revive it.

“We were on the ropes. We didn’t know what to do. We were losing everywhere—in China, in Vietnam. And we had no moral fiber from which to work our way out of our problems.”


As cultural revolutionaries wrought havoc in the late sixties, another group of revolutionaries were building perilous momentum—and no one noticed. The quiet rise of Islamism would have cataclysmic consequences for world order.

Hill elaborates, “The rise of Islamism was a surprise because of a lack of understanding about religion.” One reason for this is that the “international system put religion on the shelf after Westphalia.” Hill is referring to the Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 established the international system of states that is still with us today. In the aftermath of Europe’s barbaric religious wars, statesmen decided to change the way the international system operated: It would be a “procedural system, not a substantive one,” Hill says. In other words, “you can have whatever religion you want, but just don’t bring it to the negotiating table.”

As a result, “We forgot about religion,” Hill says. Diplomats  “screened out religion” so effectively that when Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamic extremists, and Hill held a senior position at the State Department, “We interpreted it as being entirely political, related to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.” This was two years after the Iranian Revolution, when Islamism changed the international landscape with the establishment of the world’s only theocratic regime.

“It wasn’t until the 1990s that we began to wake up to the threat that religion—Islamism, specifically—posed to the international system.”

In 1993, terrorists made their first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center buildings. “I was at the UN at the time and the shock there was enormous because the UN was a secondary target. But the greatest shock of all was the religious dimension. Only then did we begin to realize that religion had been a big player on our international scene for a long time. We began unearthing videos of Islamists who would kill in the name of Islam. They were screaming Islamists statements.”

In his latest book, “Trial of a Thousand Years,” Hill documents the rise of radical Islam. Explaining the purpose of the book to me, he says, “We still have not gotten our minds wrapped around what religion means for world affairs.”

Ten years ago, on September 11, a “lack of strategic understanding” had catastrophic results for the United States. These days, however, the situation is changing. Hill concludes the interview with a cautiously optimistic speculation about today’s Middle East: “It looks like Islamism is past its peak. It looks like it’s on a downward trajectory now. The Arabs say they want freedom—and that is good—but the question is: are they ready for it? What kind of government do they want? What kind of government will they get?”

No one can know—not even the great grand strategist. But sitting in a conference room at Yale, with copies of the Peloponnesian War resting on their laps, Hill and his students will be doing their best to figure these problems out.

Lead From Behind

Lead from behind. Support through proven methods without imposing your ideologies. Let these countries work out their own issues and give them what help you can when they request it.

---Michael Hinchman