Teaching Grand Strategy

By Thomas Cavanna

Thomas P. Cavanna recently published a 2,500-word piece for an H-Diplo-ISSF roundtable on “Teaching Grand Strategy.” In this piece, Cavanna explains how he has conceptualized his course “Grand Strategies in history: from the Ancient Greek City-States to America’s 21st Century Hegemony,” which he has taught at the Fletcher School since spring 2019. 

Teaching grand strategy is a daunting but incredibly exciting intellectual experience due to the breadth of knowledge that it requires to mobilize. First, grand strategies are about the long-term, call for an interregional (if not global) scope of analysis, rely on multiple instruments of power (as well as the way these instruments work in synergy with one another), and constantly evolve as great powers face new developments and compete with each other. Second, major debates exist about the very definition of grand strategy, its degree of [ir]relevance, its causes, and the ways in which the concept should be studied. Third, because of these conceptual and theoretical tensions, the field is splintered in multiple disciplinary and methodological clusters that tend to talk past each other. 

At the Fletcher School, I teach a course entitled “Grand Strategies from the Ancient Greek City-States to America’s 21st Century Hegemony.” This course is designed for graduate students, but my approach would remain the same if I were to teach it to undergraduates. I strive to provide my students with a comprehensive macro-level understanding of the topic. Therefore, straddling history, theory, and policy, the course spans the last 25 centuries, covers the main debates of the literature, explores cases across different regions of the world, and de-constructs the concept of grand strategy from multiple angles. 

Two key reasons explain that macro-level philosophy. First, I think that aiming for the ‘big picture’ was a coherent way to reflect the ‘grand’ characteristics of grand strategy. Second, I believe that this approach helps students integrate the essence of the concept while remaining flexible regarding how it can be applied. Indeed, one of the key benefits of grand strategy is its heuristic dimension, i.e. the fact that, regardless of concrete policies, the intellectual process of “grand strategizing” itself can prove extremely valuable to understand a complex and fast-changing world.[1] From that perspective, the course is designed to help students learn how to synthesize complex trends and develop a higher vantage point. However, even as it promotes this intellectual ideal, the course reckons with the uncertainties and hazards of statecraft, the role of chance, and the inherent limitations of the human mind, including the eternal temptation of hubris. To read the rest of this article, please visit the H-Diplo-ISSF roundtable on “Teaching Grand Strategy”: READ MORE

[1] Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 7-8.

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