On the main CSD website, we will soon be posting the latest summary in the Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy series, Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. These summaries are not designed to break new ground or to offer new interpretations, but rather to introduce readers – especially younger scholars – to a text or document that has enduring value in the study of strategic affairs. We also want to remind, ah, veteran scholars of the thought-provoking books that they enjoyed years ago and perhaps might want to reexamine – or to read for the first time texts they have always meant to get to, but haven't. We particularly want to call to your attention to forgotten, neglected or misunderstood classics.
That is not to say that we put particular writings forward as authoritative statements of strategy and diplomacy. Great and influential minds can and do disagree about these issues. We can benefit from understanding and thinking through those disagreements – and from notable books which, in retrospect, may have gotten things wrong, at least at the time. Luttwak's The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire certainly falls into the category of a controversial, but highly influential, treatment of its subject. Luttwak has recently published an assessment of Byzantine grand strategy, the conclusions of which can be found here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/10/19/take_me_back_to_constantinople
Much of Luttwak's argument (save perhaps that of the attack on China) actually passed for conventional wisdom at the time among conservative and even moderate circles. Which perhaps made it disappointing that Luttwak was so "conventional." He did not challenge the reader with the sort of imaginative analysis of the nitty-gritty of Russian and Soviet imperial strategy along the frontier that had marked his treatment of the Roman Empire. Many of the overarching factors he identified -- such as the Soviet failing economy and regime pessimism – were indeed accurate, but in the event Soviet grand strategy followed an entirely different course. Had the composition of the Politburo in 1984-1985 been slightly altered, or had American national security policy at the time been different, or had the German Bundestag rejected deployment of American INF systems, perhaps events would have taken something like the path suggested by Luttwak. Prediction is indeed very difficult, especially about the future (a line attributed variously to Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra); or perhaps differently put, grand strategy must account for contingency and human choice as well as long-term patterns.
A personal reflection:
in the mid-1980s I was teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School, and
re-read The Grand Strategy or the Roman
Empire to help develop several classes, including one on European security. That class consisted of Army and Air Force
captains and majors. At one point, I
made some offhand remark about the challenges of combat in built-up areas. This generated a remarkable and detailed discussion
about the changes in the West Germany road system and urban/rural population over
the past several decades. I wondered to
myself what book they had consulted to gain such information. It then occurred to me: these were military brats, who spent a good
bit of time in Europe while growing up, and who now had one or more postings
there in their own right. For them,
Europe was not simply a place on the map but a way of life that was constituted
and defended in a particular, familiar way, together with the locals (who were
not always fervent allies). Some of
them, in the course of things, had a German parent or a German spouse. They were reflecting personal and
institutional memory, not study. (A quick survey of the class confirmed this
impression.) It also occurred to me that
a significant percentage of their then pre-teen children would, in the course
of things, make the transition from military brats to military service and would
in turn extend that memory and that way of life along the civilization
All of this made perfect sense in light of Luttwak's book about the nature of grand strategy. I would not have been surprised at the time if I had been told that the children's children of my students – and we are now not far away that point today – would still be stationed where their grandparents and great grandparents had been, defending the Fulda Gap. But I also would not have been shocked to be told that, although American military forces would still deployed in Europe two or three decades hence, they would be in much smaller numbers with a much different configuration and mission; that the line of defense would no longer be in central Europe and the presumed civilizational threats would stem from elsewhere. Those children's children will have different experiences of Europe -- no longer the frontier it was once – and perhaps have their memories shaped instead by the defense of different lands, even if that experience is geographically remote.