The New Makers of Modern Strategy

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The New Makers of Modern Strategy. From the Ancient World to the Digital Age. Edited by Hal Brands. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2023.

Reviewed by Dr John Reeve

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The publication of a successor to the two classic earlier volumes of similar title is an event in the study of strategy, certainly in the English-speaking world. Weighing in at over 1100 pages, the book is composed of substantial individual essay contributions by a team of forty-six leading scholars, many of them famous thinkers and writers in the field.

Any book with contributions, for example, by Lawrence Freedman on the history of the idea of strategy, Hew Strachan on Clausewitz, Margaret MacMillan on strategy and the First World War, Williamson Murray on strategies of decision and attrition, Brendan Simms on the geopolitics of Hitler and Stalin, and John Gaddis on grand strategy is unlikely to disappoint. The dust jacket declares that over a quarter of a million copies have already been sold.

The book has an admirable breadth of conception. The introduction by Hal Brands sets out its parameters. Its predecessors (the first edited by Edward Mead Earle and the second by Peter Paret, published in 1943 and 1986 respectively) were products of their times, of the early twentieth century era of total war and of the Cold War. Today’s world is further changed and contested, and scholarship has also advanced. Hence new points of reference are required to complement established areas of concentration. These involve not only questions of technological change and new domains of warfare, but also of peacetime rivalries and strategies of non-violence. But the book follows in the footsteps of its predecessors in seeing strategy and strategic studies as deeply informed by the study of history which is, as Brands says, still the best teacher we have. The book’s structure is essentially chronological, with sections on foundational thinkers, great power rivalry from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the age of global war in the early twentieth, the bipolar period of the Cold War, and the post-Cold War era. Its geographical span is wide, taking in not only Europe, America, Russia and China, but also Japan, Korea, Israel, the Arab world and Africa.

But it is thematically that the real breadth of the volume is evident. There are the essential and updated treatments of great power relations, high intensity conflict, irregular warfare, total war, nuclear strategy, détente, arms control, and the economics of strategy. Chapters pay attention to Thucydides, Sun Zi, Machiavelli, Napoleon, Jomini, Mao, Churchill, Roosevelt and others. There is, somewhat curiously, no chapter devoted specifically to air power, which may be cause for debate, although it features throughout. But there are also chapters reflecting the changed nature of the world and shifts in academic emphases: on the strategies of American Indians, of democracies, of anti-imperialists such as Gandhi, of Nehru and non-alignment, and on the fatal dominance of theory over military expertise and historical experience during America’s Vietnam War. An entire section of eleven chapters (roughly a quarter of the book) is devoted to strategy in the post-Cold War world, with attention paid inter alia to American strategy from George H W Bush to Barack Obama, the revolution in military affairs, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism after 9/11, strategies of Jihad, Xi Jinping and the strategy of China’s restoration, new domains of conflict in space and cyberspace, and a strategic revolution in the nature of intelligence. A notable omission at the chapter level, it must be said, is the strategic implications of climate change which are, as we know, already potentially enormous.

It is possible to mention only a few chapters in detail, reflecting a naval interest, all of them topical. John Maurer gives a lucid account of Mahan as a strategist for great powers in peacetime as well as wartime, contrasting his ideas with those of Corbett and the Jeune École. Part of Mahan’s vision was to understand, before Mackinder announced his theory of Eurasian geopolitics, the vulnerability of the British empire and the need for the United States to step forward and assume maritime grand strategic leadership against continental competition. Theodore Roosevelt recognized immediately the merits of Mahan’s first book and its essential message about naval history as a guide to policy and strategy. This is an essay full of contemporary resonances, concluding on the current influence of Mahan in China. It would have been excellent to be a fly on the wall when Mahan met Churchill at the Admiralty in 1912.

Strategy as a dialogue between continental and maritime influences is a theme which runs through the book. Sarah Paine, who has done much to highlight these issues in recent years, contributes a penetrating essay on Japanese grand strategy between 1894 and 1945, supported by a detailed account of the wars against China, Russia and the United States, explaining how Japanese leaders transitioned from successful maritime to unsuitable continental strategic modes which wrecked their country.

Tom Mahnken, in a telling analysis, employs the Anglo-German naval race and the US-Soviet relationship during the Cold War to explore strategies of peacetime competition. Fisher’s response to the German naval challenge, via qualitative improvement of the British fleet, forced his opponent to compete on his terms without adequate financial resources or geostrategic underpinnings. During the Cold War, US strategists, empowered through study of the Soviet system, ultimately combined arms competition and reduction measures to help bring the rivalry to a favourable and peaceful conclusion.

There is actually an additional unwritten case study, a highly topical one, implied by such contributions – of the strategy of the British Empire, not as a distinct great power but as a variegated alliance, highly commercial, largely democratic, multi-cultural, and functioning effectively as a global maritime consortium, with interior lines of communication, well into a new era of strategic competition. Paul Kennedy once pointed out how this remarkable phenomenon kept its show on the road until finally defeated by relatively inadequate resources (and arguably not, it might be added, by grand strategic mistakes).

The topicality and value of the book lie principally in its being food for thought about the strategic agenda for the next quarter of a century and beyond. The pace of change – technological, geopolitical, economic, cultural and ideological – is accelerating. Thoughtfulness, informed by historical perspective, will be at a premium in the development of strategic ideas and policies. This is a book which can be savoured, pondered, discussed, disagreed with, mined and returned to frequently by strategic practitioners, planners and theorists, by historians, political scientists and academics in cognate disciplines, by their students, and by the general reader likely to be absorbed by issues of statecraft, peace and conflict, past, present and future. It is a volume to place on one’s bookshelf, within easy reach, alongside its two predecessors and the classics of military-strategic theory. The book is currently available in hardcover and one hopes that in these straightened times a paperback version will appear reasonably soon. But its purchase can be justified as an intellectual investment or for a Christmas list. It is very highly recommended.

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