The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age

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Release Date: 
May 2, 2023
Princeton University Press
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“As war rages in Eastern Europe and war clouds gather in the western Pacific, The New Makers of Modern Strategy is especially timely and relevant to today’s world.”

When Edward Mead Earle edited Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler in 1943, he adhered to the traditional notion or idea that history and experience are the greatest teachers. Four decades later in 1986, Peter Paret, Gordon Craig and Felix Gilbert followed Mead’s lead in updating Makers of Modern Strategy to the nuclear age. Now, Hal Brands, one of America’s most thoughtful contemporary strategists, has continued that tradition with The New Makers of Modern Strategy, which brings strategic thought into the digital age.

Brands and the contributors to this volume understand that in the age of artificial intelligence, cyber conflict, and space warfare, strategists can still benefit from reading Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Jomini, Mackinder, Mahan, and other classical thinkers. The 45 essays collected here are divided into assessments of these and other foundational strategists and statesmen during the age of great power competition, the lessons of the global wars of the 20th century, and Cold War and post-Cold War strategies.

And the contributors include some of today’s best strategic thinkers, historians, and observers of international politics, such as John Lewis Gaddis, Williamson Murray, Lawrence Freedman, Walter Russell Mead, Toshi Yoshihara, Thomas Mahnken, John Maurer, Mark Moyer and Hugh Strachan, to name just a few.

As war rages in Eastern Europe and war clouds gather in the western Pacific, The New Makers of Modern Strategy is especially timely and relevant to today’s world. Geopolitics is back in vogue. Great power rivalry has superseded conflicts with smaller powers and non-state actors. American and Western statesmen need to understand what Brands calls “the enduring realities of strategy” if they are to successfully deal with the current crises.

History, Brands writes, is an imperfect teacher, but it is the best we have. Thucydides taught us that nations go to war as a result of fear, honor, and interest. Machiavelli taught us that all leaders make moral compromises to protect their countries and advance their own interests. Clausewitz taught us about real war and the political goals that should guide military actions. Jomini instructed us on the eternal “principles” of war. Mahan showed the connection between “sea power and national greatness.” Alexander Hamilton and 19th century British statesmen understood how economic power translates into geopolitical preeminence.

Several essays in the book emphasize the value of strategic restraint and lament the costs to great powers who engaged in imperial overstretch and endless wars. Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte lacked any sense of restraint and nearly bankrupted France with wars, while the American statesman John Quincy Adams epitomized shrewd, careful, realistic, and responsible statecraft. Charles Edel credits Adams with laying the foundations for the American century, though Adams would have scorned the Wilsonian aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Williamson Murray’s essays on decisive war versus attrition and strategies of total war contain gems of wisdom. Swift, decisive victories are chimerical. Attrition warfare is the norm. Statesmen and generals who accept this reality—like Prussian-German Chancellor Bismarck, President Abraham Lincoln, and Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Dwight Eisenhower—produce victories. Those who don’t invite defeat. Winston Churchill, one of Britain’s great war leaders, warned that wars are never easy or smooth—they are full of “unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” Clausewitz called this “friction.” Others have called it the “fog of war.” We are seeing it play out daily in Ukraine. 

Strategists, however, are not just concerned with war but also postwar orders to maintain peace. Andrew Ehrhardt and John Bew provide an interesting look at how historian Arnold J. Toynbee during World War II used history to envision a postwar world order based on Anglo-American sea power married to Eurasian continental allies—an early conception of what became the NATO alliance. This was “grand strategic thinking—the leap from the confines of immediate challenges to paint on a larger canvas.” Toynbee’s historical approach, Ehrhardt and Bew explain, “illuminated the strategic horizon in a way that others were not capable of.”

The United States suffered from a lack of grand strategic thinking in the Pacific and Asia during the Second World War, according to Naval War College professor S.C.M. Paine. There, the United States fought the war “without consideration of the civil war in China.” The result was a communist victory in the civil war, which spawned subsequent costly wars in Korea and Vietnam. Mao Zedong and his communist allies in the Soviet Union fought the war in Asia with much more successful long-term strategic views than American leaders. America paid the price for that strategic error in Korea and Vietnam, and we are paying the price for it again today in the western Pacific.

During the Cold War, U.S. strategy broadly settled on containment and factored nuclear weapons and delivery systems into strategic equations. Eric Edelman’s essay reviews the important debates between early nuclear strategists, including Bernard Brodie, William Kauffman, William Borden, Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and others. Edelman writes that the study and debates about nuclear strategies are likely to make a comeback with “the emergence of China as a nuclear peer competitor” and growing North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. What Wohlstetter called the “delicate balance of terror” is already affecting the 21st century strategies of great and medium powers.

Other essays assess the strategic failures in Korea and Vietnam—Daniel Marston faults the Truman administration and military leaders for the Korean stalemate, while Mark Moyer highlights the strategic ignorance of President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in Southeast Asia. And the failures in Korea and Vietnam occurred in the context of containment and fears of nuclear escalation. Missing from Brand’s book, however, is any discussion of alternate Cold War strategies, such as James Burnham’s proposed strategy of “liberation.”

More attention, too, should have been paid to the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of “triangular diplomacy,” which brilliantly exploited the growing fissures in Sino-Soviet relations, and could be a useful model for U.S. strategy today. Sergey Radchenko’s essay on Leonid Brezhnev’s approach to the Cold War discusses it, but Radchenko’s focus is Brezhnev’s response to triangular diplomacy instead of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s formulation and implementation of the strategy.

One of the best essays in the book is Thomas Mahnken’s discussion of arms races and arms control and “strategic competition” from World War I to the end of the Cold War. Mahnken rightly praises the contributions of Andrew Marshall and Ronald Reagan to America’s Cold War victory. Marshall the theorist provided “deep insight into Soviet decision-making,” while Reagan the political leader successfully implemented a strategy to undermine Soviet power economically and politically. Mahnken calls the Reagan policy a successful strategy for competition, and the United States is in need of another such strategy today.

Perhaps the most important essays in the book are Toshi Yoshihara’s discussion of Sun Tzu’s strategic logic which continues to inform China’s strategic thinkers, and Elizabeth Economy’s analysis of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategy for “rejuvenation” which envisions China replacing the United States as the world’s leading power. The more Western statesmen and strategists understand China’s strategy, the more likely the Western powers can formulate and implement a counter-strategy to contain China’s ambitions.

The United States in a fit of post-Cold War hubris—characterized by Christopher Griffin as “dilemmas of dominance”—became strategically distracted by peripheral conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East during the Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama administrations, while China quietly emerged as a global superpower and grew closer to a revived Russia. Meanwhile, as Joshua Rovner explains, strategy has moved into new domains, including cyberspace.

But regardless of what new domains of conflict emerge, history teaches that strategists will still confront the dilemmas of ends and means, strengths and weaknesses, technological change, rival political systems and ideologies, power balances and imbalances, human ambition and errors, and what Machiavelli called fortuna.