In 1909 a group of men met on an estate in Wales to save Western civilization. Troubled by the erosion of British world power, they believed the decline could be reversed if statesmen turned away from the mundane tasks of modern diplomacy and channeled the wisdom of ancient Greece instead. The Greeks, in reconciling rulership with freedom,
had made the West great, and supplied a model for their Anglo-Saxon heirs. No longer should the empire run itself; members of the group, including Lloyd George and Lord Milner, would train men of penetrating insight to direct imperial affairs more self-consciously than ever before. Drawing protégés from Oxbridge, the Round Table, as the group called itself, aimed to impart the lessons of enlightened leadership to a new generation. They produced countless articles and monographs. Chapters of the society flourished all over the empire. Ten years later, they had disappeared: nationalism had swept away their plans to knit the colonies closer together. British ascendancy ended sooner than any of them could have imagined.
The mantle of world leadership soon passed to the United States, and it’s here, where the ruling class is now experiencing its own crisis of confidence, that the Round Table is having something of a second act. Anxiety about America’s place in the world intensified after 9/11 but first became acute in the late 1990s, when the ills of the post–cold war world no longer appeared transient and seemed to demand concerted US leadership in response. This was the moment when liberal interventionism and neoconservatism ascended to the political mainstream and the grand narrative of “globalization” entered into wide circulation. In New Haven, historians John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy put forth a different response. Opposed to the Clinton administration’s ad hoc policy-making, they conceived a series of “grand strategy” seminars at Yale that aspired to train the next generation of leaders.
Joined by former diplomat Charles Hill, a onetime adviser to Henry Kissinger, Gaddis and Kennedy taught select students—those lucky enough to be accepted into the yearlong seminar—that lessons of leadership should be gleaned less from the social sciences dominant in US policy circles than from the humanities, beginning with Thucydides and plunging forward through the Romans, Machiavelli, Metternich and finally Ronald Reagan. Grand strategy, as Gaddis has explained in a recent speech on the subject, exposes students, “in a properly distilled form, to the accumulated wisdom of those who have gone before,” all of which is supposed to instill in its recipients the sensibility to formulate the grand strategy that has eluded Americans since their cold war enemy collapsed. Such a strategy would relate the broadest possible ends to the means of achieving them and therefore invigorate US global leadership with a new, singular purpose.
Ten years on, grand strategy is flourishing. Not only has the Yale seminar grown into a campus juggernaut, securing a $17.5 million, fifteen-year endowment in 2006, but since 2008 it has inspired spinoffs in half a dozen top US universities, funded in part by right-wing financier Roger Hertog. Kennedy has likened the spinoffs to Benedictine monasteries, “all doing their own versions of grand strategy but still belonging to the Order of Saint Benedict.” For $4,448 you can even send your high school “scholar-leader” to Yale for a two-week Grand Strategy summit on the fine arts of “critical and strategic thinking, social networking, professional etiquette, financial and asset management” and more. Grand strategy is now a popular idea, too. A string of op-ed writers, including Jackson Diehl, Niall Ferguson and Fareed Zakaria, have criticized the Obama administration for lacking one. The charge was repeated during the Republican primaries by Newt Gingrich and, in effect, answered by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who presented the administration’s revised military posture as a new “American grand strategy in an age of austerity.”