The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Yale program drew fire over donor meddling. Its real problem was promoting war.

The prestigious course in ‘grand strategy’ helped build the case for Bush’s foreign policy adventures, and it hurt academia along the way

Gen. Colin Powell, left, and Henry Kissinger at the Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington in 2007. (Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)

After four well-regarded years leading Yale’s vaunted Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, historian Beverly Gage has resigned, effective in December. Gage says she faced sudden demands from the program’s conservative funders — former treasury secretary Nicholas F. Brady and investment management billionaire Charles B. Johnson — for external oversight of its curriculum and faculty hiring. The demands reportedly stemmed from the donors’ displeasure over an op-ed a program instructor had written criticizing President Donald Trump. Gage sought support from Yale administrators, but instead they pressed her to grant the donors’ wish that she form a board of overseers that included Henry Kissinger.

Understandably, the story, reported in the New York Times late last month, drew attention for what it revealed about influence peddling at one of the world’s most prestigious universities: Yale is more than wealthy enough to take a principled stand, so why was it so willing to abandon faculty independence and academic freedom in deference to its funders? But the focus on the power of money inside the Ivy League has overshadowed a different, no less consequential story about the history of the grand-strategy program itself.

In the early 2000s, Yale’s program played a significant, underappreciated role in helping the George W. Bush administration build its case for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. As its influence grew, it also became a model on other university campuses for redirecting financial resources and institutional support in higher education toward “globally” oriented, practitioner-based teaching. The consequences for higher education and geopolitics have been significant.

As the Yale program defines it, “grand strategy” names “a comprehensive approach to achieving large ends with limited means.” For the three professors who launched the program two decades ago, this capacious terminology encompassed a criticism of American academia and American foreign policy. When Yale historians John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy first decided to co-teach a seminar on grand strategy with U.S. diplomat Charles Hill in 2000, their fields of expertise — diplomatic and military history and international-relations theory — had fallen out of favor with doctoral students and faculty members in their departments. Newer currents of social and cultural history had overtaken them, as they saw matters, and universities tended to reward work that was narrow in focus and highly specialized. The result was a growing imbalance between conflicting imperatives of depth and breadth. What’s more, this trend in research and teaching at American universities had begun to parallel a disturbing trajectory in American foreign-policymaking after the Cold War: Both tended to get lost in the weeds of particular places and situations, sapping ambition and obscuring the “big picture.”

To these paired problems, the curriculum on grand strategy promised a singular solution. The seminar’s instructors aimed to equip young future leaders so they might restore and uphold American power on a global stage. The demanding year-long syllabus they compiled would roam across a vast expanse of time — from the Peloponnesian War to the present — to analyze historical figures who had achieved great victories through the nimble alignment of aspirations with capabilities. A close reading of texts by authors including Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz and Kissinger himself — most of them drawn from the Western canon and dealing with moments of military conflict — would occur alongside practical simulations of real-world crises, exercises in writing briefing memos, and meetings with a shifting cast of senators, diplomats and national security experts. Admission to the selective program would be by application only from across Yale’s undergraduate and graduate schools.

Attractive as this course of study already was to a student body constantly reminded of its exceptional qualities and eager for networking opportunities, it assumed an altogether different significance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. As faculties at universities across the United States scrambled to offer insights about how best to process the attacks, the grand strategists claimed vindication for their ideas. In a volume of essays on “The Age of Terror” written mainly by Yale faculty members in late 2001, Gaddis declared that “our foreign policy since the cold war ended has insufficiently served our interests” and attributed this “failure of strategic vision” to an inability to “see how the parts of one’s policy combine to form the whole.” Hill leaned on a comparison to the classic western “High Noon” to condemn the demoralizing effects of a perceived leadership vacuum; after years without the reassuring presence of the United States as its courageous sheriff, the “fear of danger to themselves” had overwhelmed the global community’s “willingness to fight to restore law and order.” To eradicate the rising threat of terrorism, the United States should “restore its credibility as an international presence for stability and security.”

Beverly Gage on how McCarthyism was never defeated

Less publicly, Hill and Gaddis met with President Bush and key advisers on numerous occasions to offer guidance on a systematic overhaul of American foreign policy. I know this because I was, at the time, a third-year history major in an intensive seminar that Gaddis was teaching on historical biography. He then supervised my undergraduate thesis. Over many conversations in which I benefited immensely from his extraordinary generosity as a teacher, Gaddis also described to me the relationship that was developing between the faculty members running grand strategy and the Bush administration. He spoke often about how much attention the president devoted to the reading of history. Given the widespread reporting about Bush’s requests for condensed briefing materials and his plainly limited understanding of the region in which he was about to launch a second war, others might wonder whether the president’s appetite for biographies of Abraham Lincoln and “the first George W.” represented an appropriate use of his time. But as Gaddis portrayed him — in office hours with students, quotes for the press and published commentaries of his own — Bush was far more erudite than many observers were willing to recognize; his eagerness to draw enduring insights from the past, for example, embodied the very approach to global leadership that the seminar on grand strategy sought to impart to its students.

Writing for Foreign Policy at the end of 2002, Gaddis credited Bush with “the most sweeping shift in U.S. grand strategy since the beginning of the Cold War.” In effect, having helped elaborate a rationale for Bush’s foreign policy, he was praising the White House for soliciting his advice while adopting the stance of a neutral observer. As an argument for the war in Iraq that would begin a few months later, the piece supplemented the administration’s falsified claims about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s links to al-Qaeda with a “visionary” strategy. The president’s critics were wrong to cast him as a petulant Hamlet, obsessing over Saddam Hussein out of “filial obligation,” Gaddis insisted. “Shakespeare might still help, though,” if the analogy were shifted to Henry V’s victory at Agincourt. A crushing victory over one adversary, he explained, can “shatter the confidence of others, so that they’ll roll over themselves before you have to roll over them.”

According to Gaddis, the war in Afghanistan was already an overwhelming success of this sort. If the Bush administration could “repeat the Afghan Agincourt on the banks of the Euphrates,” the knock-on effects would be far more profound. “We can set in motion a process,” he continued, “that could undermine and ultimately remove reactionary regimes elsewhere in the Middle East, thereby eliminating the principal breeding ground for terrorism.” Preemptive war would become the means to make the world “safe for democracy.” For the Bush administration’s neoconservative supporters, this lofty “doctrine” would only gain in importance as the other weak pillars of their case for war continued to crumble.

There were ample grounds for skepticism at the time. Many scholars of the modern Middle East pointed to histories of colonial conquest and nation-building in the region as more-relevant bases for comparison than Shakespeare’s historical dramas. They tried to explain that the forms of Islamist extremism against which the United States had launched its “war on terror” were in part a reaction against prior acts of foreign intervention and military occupation — and thus unlikely to be quelled by more of the same.

But to warnings of this kind, “grand strategy” provided a ready response: The wonks and worrywarts were too small-minded, too mired in the details to see the larger picture. Invoking the transformative power of “big ideas” became a way of dismissing those who had devoted their lives to learning and teaching about the places the United States had, once again, decided to bomb and invade.

Gaddis would go on to consult on the writing of Bush’s second inaugural address and praise the president for his ambitious “doctrine” through the end of his second term. By 2018, however, when Gaddis published a book titled “On Grand Strategy,” he made no mention of Bush, his wars or the role the Yale program had played in helping legitimize them. The book’s long historical arc ends in the middle of the 20th century, a comfortable distance from that more recent and more troubling past. Yet even as the application of Bush’s “strategic vision” led to decades of destruction, carnage and geopolitical catastrophe, the academic program that had provided it with an aura of intellectual gravitas continued to gain funding, enrollments and institutional support.

A Pyrrhic victory for plutocrats at Yale

Agnostic or perhaps uninformed about the real-world failures of “grand strategy,” students and donors alike have flocked to the program’s alluring mix of leadership training, networking opportunities and instruction by some of the country’s most high-ranking generals and foreign policy advisers. Yale has catered to this demand by developing a menu of programs in global affairs, security studies and public policy. As enrollments and majors in the humanities have dwindled — Gaddis and Kennedy’s own department of history now graduates roughly half as many majors as it did two decades ago — numbers in these new programs and courses have soared. Grand strategy’s institutional success has, moreover, inspired imitations at universities across the country and around the world.

When Gage, who will remain at Yale, became director of the grand-strategy program, she sought to expand the varieties of world-altering “strategy” that merited attention in the curriculum. Within the usual roster of practitioner-instructors from the Defense Department and National Security Council, for example, she began to invite those who worked in civil rights law and racial-justice activism. It is a shame that Yale administrators were unwilling to protect her vision for the program from donor interference. On this score, even the surviving founders of the program are in agreement. To their credit, Gaddis and Kennedy have voiced public support for Gage’s directorship and criticized the administration’s violation of her academic freedoms.

The greater shame of the grand-strategy program, however, lies in the misbegotten wars it long ago promoted and the collateral damage it has caused to the kinds of deep scholarship — unencumbered by leadership playacting and A-list networking — that might help avert such wars in the future.