Sunday, September 12, 2010

Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, by Charles Hill

This book has quite a title, and amazingly, it lives up the grandness of its title. Hill, a former Foreign Service officer, now teaches a course at Yale with John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy entitled "Grand Strategy". Based on this book, and the biography of Hill that I'm currently reading, that would be one heck of a course.

Simply put, this book tours the world, in time and place, and considers regimes, society, and international relations through the lens of great literature. In the Prologue he considers Cao Zueqin's The Dream of the Red Chamber, Dante's Comedia, and Conrad's The Rescue. From there, Hill takes us through the Classics (Homer, Thucydides, and on to Virgil, among others), and then into medieval, Renaissance, early modern, and Enlightenment authors. Nearer to our own time, he discusses Rushdie, Liu E, Ma Jian, and others. A truly amazing tour. (I throw in the Chinese authors of the benefit of 1HP, as I have only heard of them here.) Each of these works of literature, philosophy, and history reflects and molds the order of the society in which it was written. Hill makes the case for considering these works by relating a tale about Chairman Mao, who kept a copy of The Dream of the Red Chamber (among many other literary works) and claims to have read it five times. As Hill notes, this doesn't make Mao a humanitarian (far from it!), but it shows that he was a student. Hill also worked with long-time American diplomat Paul Nitze, and he reports that Nitze would be found reading Shakespeare on long flights across the Atlantic, where he traveled to negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviets.

Hill discusses these numerous texts, explicating their perspectives on society and statecraft. The scope and depth of his erudition is impressive. However, I'd say that this book isn't just for those interested in international relations. Indeed, I'd argue that relations between nations isn't so different than relations between individuals. (No agency problem—or is there?) In any event, even if you took this book as a reading list, you'd have years of great literature to read.

I'll write more about Hill after I've finished his biography, but if he's representative of the caliber of the men and women of the USFS, the we have some very capable persons there. A highly recommended book for anyone interested in literature or international relations.

1 comment:

one hungry panda said...

Mao was certainly a student - please see Jonathan Spence's short bio (one of the Penguin Lives series). Run, don't walk, from Jung Chang and John Halliday's bio of Mao - it is politically motivated work of historical fiction (please see the review by Spence).

Mao actually ran a bookstore in Changsha before his days as a revolutionary leader. Moreover, any educated Chinese person has read Cao Xueqin's "Dream of the Red Chamber" - it's like the Odyssey or any other epic tale that is considered foundational to Western Civ. Also "The Water Margins" and "Journey to the West." These three works of fiction are the foundation of Chinese Civ. Spence's bio in fact does suggest that Mao was ideologically humanitarian before his corruption after he became a paranoid and deluded leader (absolute power corrupts absolutely...). In this, he is I think more similar to Lenin than to Stalin.

I have never read Liu E's work but would like to (he has written about the Boxer Rebellion, a particular interest of mine). I am an admirer of Ma Jian's work. He captures some of the harshest aspects of 1980s/90s Chinese society in a way few others have.