Commentary Magazine

Grand Strategies, by Charles Hill

Grand Strategies:
Literature, Statecraft, and World Order

By Charles Hill
Yale, 368 pages

Literature can and should be a “tutor for statecraft,” Charles Hill says, and his new book—based on classes he taught at Yale University—shows how it might be done. Acareer diplomat who served as an aide to Secretary of State George Shultz and policy consultant to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Hill is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. In Grand Strategies, he sets out to restore an older tradition in which literature once served (to use a phrase from Andrew Marvell) as a sense-talking aid to “reason, so miscall’d, of State.”

Early on, Hill recalls the “long nighttime transatlantic flights on the secretary of state’s aircraft.” While most passengers dozed and the press corps in the back of the plane shuffled cards, “one reading light was always still on.” Paul Nitze, the arms-control negotiator, would be wide awake, tirelessly reading Shakespeare. The plays, he told Hill, “interwove principles of statecraft with the foibles of the human condition.”

Although Grand Strategies “is intended almost as a primer of statecraft and its essential ideas,” it would be more accurate to say that the book retells the story of the modern international state system. The fact that it reads the ideas of statecraft from literary texts (rather than official documents and diplomatic memoirs) would be enough to establish the book’s uniqueness. It is fascinating to follow how Grand Strategies traces the emergence of the state in modern history, using literature instead of political events as the points on Hill’s timeline. The texts he discusses are arranged not in the order of composition but rather in order to illustrate the chronological development of the state as idea and reality.

Hill examines the various ways in which great writers have reflected upon governmental power, including representatives from the classical age (Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil), the early-modern period (Machiavelli, Milton, Swift), the English novel (Dickens, George Eliot, Conrad), and modernism (Proust, T.S. Eliot, Kafka). The surprising addition to his book is the discussion of Chinese writers (Cao Xueqin, Liu E, Ma Jian). Hill served early in his career as a Chinese-language officer in Taiwan and retains his love of the literature, although not of the Chinese Communists, whose concept of human culture (he observes) is rooted in terror. Perhaps Hill’s most startling omission is the Romantics, who believed themselves elevated far above the mere mortals who got their hands dirty in politics and policy.

The reading list is eclectic in the best sense of the term. Hill sifts literature for what it has to say about his theme—“the construction and critique of the modern international state system.” He says his diplomatic training obliged him to master the “close reading of communist texts,” which proved invaluable in the consideration of literature as well. The best passages in Grand Strategies are those that dwell upon unfamiliar books (or books that are deceptively familiar), such as The Oresteia and Robinson Crusoe and Muriel Spark’s novel The Mandelbaum Gate, not only arousing the desire to read or reread them but also to join with Hill in discovering within them a “dimension wholly apt for statecraft.”

From his reading, Hill adduces six fundamental changes that must occur for a civil society to emerge from barbarism. The seat of governance must shift from family to state; private interests must take a backseat to the public good; status, reputation, and social connections must be replaced by legal contract; a gentleman’s “point of honor” must yield to justice; justice must be administered by an established and equitable process; and the primary unit of social organization must cease to be the clan or extended family and become marriage. The greatest literature is about one or another of these changes. As Hill says, “Literature’s greatest subject is the founding and preservation of a polity.”

Few present-day literary critics are likely to agree. Nearly everybody now thinks that literature, by definition, is “oppositional.” In deciding upon a literary career, writers sign up for lifetime membership in what Lionel Trilling called the “adversarial culture.” Hill tells a story about a speech delivered by George Shultz in 1986 to a meeting of International PEN, the association of writers that exists to defend freedom of expression around the globe. “Don’t be surprised that Ronald Reagan and I are on your side,” Shultz said. The hall erupted in outrage.

The only time literary types take any interest in power is when they wish to pose as fearless speakers of truth to it. Otherwise they are the public champions of private lives, private affairs. Philip Roth imagined draping a banner across the Clinton White House during the Lewinsky scandal: “A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.” Thus the writer, when he must defend a politician, does not adopt the tones of Andrew Marvell’s “Horatian Ode,” which praises Oliver Cromwell as “just/And fit for highest trust,” nor of John Dryden’s “Astraea Redux,” which praises Charles II as an absolute monarch whose “goodness only is above the laws.” That is, he does not defend the president as a statesman but merely as another ordinary man caught in the foibles of the human condition.

This act of self-limitation helps explain why novels and poetry today have shrunk in importance. Grand Strategies is addressed to readers like Hill who still have a deep sense of the transformational power of books and writers, who still believe that “only literature lasts,” that it alone “can capture the multifarious whole” of human life, that “only the word can heal the ravages of the Faustian modern age.”

Grand Strategies offers an alternative literary history in which the principal function of great books is to be political. If only by challenging contemporary writers to conceive of politics as something more than the scolding of men and women from the past for not holding the opinions of the present, Hill has performed an indispensable service. And if he manages to persuade even one young would-be diplomat or politician to open Daniel Deronda or The Castle and read it through, who knows what service he will have performed for the international order?

About the Author

D.G. Myers is the author of the Commonplace Blog (

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