West Point cadets learn "secrets" behind grand strategy

By Mike Strasser, West Point Public AffairsFebruary 15, 2012

Cadets learn grand strategy
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WEST POINT, N.Y. (Feb. 15, 2012) -- America's global strategy--seemingly chaotic and somewhat illogical under foreign scrutiny--has actually proven to be a winning strategy for more than 300 years, according to Walter Russell Mead, professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College.

Mead taught Grand Strategy at Yale for several years before introducing the course at Bard College, and on Feb. 8, in front of nearly 100 cadets and invited students inside the Haig Room, he revealed the "secret plan for world domination."

It's not so much a secret strategy as it is inherent in the nation's framework, Mead admitted, and it isn't even ours originally.

The global strategy that America adopted early on descended from the British system, which in turn was modified from the Dutch.

"The operating system on which the world power system still runs--Version 1.0--was introduced by the Dutch around 1600," Mead said. "Version 3.0 was introduced by the Americans around 1945, and the British will tell you the American version is still in beta testing and may still be lacking."

The Dutch introduced a free society which invited everybody to participate openly in economic, religious, social and intellectual pursuits without fear of persecution. Whereas Galileo faced the Roman Inquisition for his earthly theories, 17th century Holland was a proving ground for inventors, businessmen and educators.

The Dutch became incredibly wealthy by effectively becoming world traders, while forming influential alliances in pursuit of a balance of power. The strategy allows other countries to benefit from this international system and provides the same game plan to those who wish to duplicate the same practices.

This is the system that invites Germany into NATO after the country's strongest faction attempted to destroy the global order. After World War II, both Germany and Japan were allowed not only to rebuild their economies but also their militaries.

"It's an innate part of the plan," Mead said. "If other countries are enjoying this world system that you build, then maybe they won't want to destroy it."

In peacetime, the strategy works to bring other countries into the fold, but in war, it can act as a weapon--severing countries from economic, financial and social benefits.

Some countries may strategize in complex, long-range plans. Otto von Bismarck engineered a series of wars that made Prussia a dominant force in that region before uniting Germany as its first chancellor.

Mead said a leader of that vision has decades to create a balance of power, whereas a U.S. president has eight years at best to govern--and during the presidency, there may be a revolving door of state secretaries and other political appointees while seeking balance among various ideological, economic and political interests.

"What sort of grand strategy exists in a democratic republic that keeps changing its mind, that elects presidents from different parties with different views, different instincts and different policies," Mead asked. "Can we even speak of strategy in the American context? Most foreigners and many Americans say you can't. I would argue that if you look at American policy over the centuries, you see patterns; you see we keep on being concerned about similar things."

Though the strategy was pilfered from our allies, it is uniquely American in its values and beliefs, Mead said.

"Our grand strategy is inherent in our society, rather than being imposed on our society by intellectual, political or social elite," Mead said.

It is so embedded in society that it appears to be secret, or, even non-existent.

"It seemed to me Professor Mead first aimed to address the idea that America 'has no foreign policy' because we don't seem to be consistent with a policy or an approach to any region or country," Class of 2012 Cadet Chase Cappo said. "To outsiders, our operations (have) such blatant inconsistencies that they make no apparent sense. Furthermore, I think Professor Mead implied American policy ought not be judged on the short term, but more in the grandiose and overall affect as time passes."

Therefore, when qualifying American policies, one must think beyond State of the Union speeches and into grand strategy, Cappo concluded.

Class of 2012 Cadet Zachary Koenen, an international relations and Chinese major, was in attendance at this lecture and admires Mead as one of his favorite scholars in strategy and political science.

"What I've always found most interesting about Professor Mead is his ability to step back from the present and see things as part of a larger picture," Koenen said. "This broad perspective also keeps him above the smaller political debates of the present and, I think, makes him a much more unbiased scholar."

Koenen enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek approach to grand strategy as a secret plan for world domination, but said the lecture showed conclusive results that it works.

"Many people when they think about the world system established by the United States go back to World War II or maybe the League of Nations at best," he said. "In reality, the American tradition is a continuation of a much older free-trade system. Our grand strategy has always been economic in nature and I think that's apparent when you look at how America has best performed in the world--economically."

Col. Isaiah Wilson, American Politics, Policy and Strategy director and associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences, teaches a senior-level Grand Strategy course at West Point.

Koenen said it has fundamentally changed his thinking on both his profession and international and domestic politics in general. Cappo described the material as "intense."

"Some of the best discussions come from analyzing historical events, like the Peloponnesian War, then applying Athenian worries and actions to our own," Cappo said.

Wilson said grand strategy isn't structured as formally as the program of study offered at Yale or Bard College, but the subject matter has always been deep-rooted in West Point academics and in the leader development mission.

"What we do here at West Point is and has always been about American Grand Strategy," Wilson said. "If graduates of West Point are to effectively serve the American people as Army officers, they must understand the larger political context in which wars are fought. War is a means to an end, and an armed forces officer who does not understand the war's purpose may ultimately undermine it."

Mead's visit was his third to West Point, and this latest collaboration between the two schools launched the inaugural West Point-Bard College "Hudson School of Grand Strategy Symposium."

Cadets provided campus tours for Bard College students and Tikvah fellows, and Mead followed up with a two-hour seminar on war, morality and statesmanship with a focus on U.S.-Israel relations.

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