Who produced the greatest strategists of all time, dead and alive? America or Europe?
Before wading into that minefield, we need some criteria, some points of orientation. The key should be a body of strategic theory, writings of general nature. Just making history or writing about it doesn’t count here. That excludes two sets of people who might otherwise be considered strategists or military writers: great military historians — like Hans Delbrück or Douglas Porch — and exceptionally gifted commanders, such as Napoleon or perhaps Petraeus.
First the old strategists of Europe. Most would go by one name only: Clausewitz, Jomini, Ardant du Picq, Hubert Lyautey, Joseph-Simon Gallieni, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, Frank Kitson, Basil Liddell Hart, Robert Thompson, C.E. Callwell, Roger Trinquier, André Beaufre, David Galula, T.E. Lawrence, Giulio Douhet, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Helmuth von Moltke, Engels, Lenin — to be fair in this little contest, we should not include those thinkers who predate the United States, such as Thucydides or Machiavelli.
Contrast this with America’s greatest classic writers of strategy: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, and Samuel Huntington. (I hesitate to count John Boyd; he really didn’t write enough.)
Certainly I missed great men, and perhaps a woman? But historically, it seems, Europe churned out far more strategic thinkers than anybody else. Well, in a way that’s what you would expect from a continent that has produced both the enlightenment and literary achievements of breathtaking scope — and more wars and more bloodshed than any other patch of earth on the planet. An interesting note: given that France lost most of the time, they’re doing pretty well in terms of strategists. Compare that to Russia or Italy.
You think this is a Euro-centric view? It is. The West’s intellectual, economic, and military dominance made it a bit difficult for non-Western strategic writers: they’re either very old, such as Sun Tsu, or former insurgents, like Mao, Marighella, or Che Guevara. (The jihadists’ outstanding writer, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, is really not that impressive. A dumb ideology is unlikely to produce brilliance.) For the time being, we’re still waiting for China and India to come forward with great thinkers, not just tall buildings and cheap cars.
So how about living strategists? Given that America eclipsed Europe in terms of geostrategic weight some time in the first half of the 20th century, and given that the United States attracts the best brains in all fields, you would expect strategic tomes adorned with stars and stripes all over the place. But no.
Among the great living military thinkers in the United States are Peter Paret (born in Berlin and partly raised in France), Edward Luttwak (with Romanian, Italian, and English roots), Eliot Cohen, and of course perhaps the most impressive, Thomas Schelling.
Europe — or rather the UK — has Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Michael Howard, Hew Strachan, Colin Gray, and a few on the continent, among them Gérard Chaliand in France and perhaps Herfried Münkler in Germany. If we liberally count in Israel, there’s at least Martin van Creveld and Shimon Naveh to add to the list.
Again, the list is certainly not comprehensive, and perhaps it tilts too much into history. But whatever the metric, Europe is doing pretty well, then and now. Although it clearly seems we’re past our prime. The same cannot be said about the United States, which is probably still near the height of its power. For that, the strategic record is surprisingly thin. One thing to note is that — if I’m not mistaken — there are only two American goyim among the strategy heavy-hitters, either dead or alive, Alfred Thayer Mahan (a commander also known for crashing ships into stationary objects) and Thomas Schelling (who since veered off into economics). Better do something. Importing promising new strategists from Australia, of all places, is a good start.
But on a more serious note, this brief comparison raises a more pressing question. Why the dearth of strategic writing in recent years? A veritable strategy book should have a half-life of more than a few years, or even decades. Describing events in a historic or journalistic fashion doesn’t do the trick. Merely crunching numbers and explaining some dependent variable also won’t cut it. The academy’s incentives, it seems, are bad for strategy. But strategic thought really should be more interesting that just history or political science: after all it is the art of shaping realities — yours and your enemy’s — not just describing and explaining them, constructivist or whatever.