On July 1, 2022, the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy (GS) joined International Security Studies (ISS) as the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs formally opened its doors as Yale’s first new school in over a generation.

Earlier this summer, ISS Executive Director Ted Wittenstein (above, at right) sat with GS Interim Director Michael Brenes (above, at left) and Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs Arne Westad (center) to discuss this program’s storied history and future directions. The following is a transcript from the interview, edited for clarity.


Wittenstein: Mike, what is grand strategy compared to strategy or other forms of decision making? How do you think about that concept in terms of how to teach and inspire students at Yale?

Brenes: I think about grand strategy as a set of tools that one can apply to a variety of different problems that we are confronting today. Grand strategy comes out of the 20th century and First and Second World Wars, particularly the challenge of how to amass resources (economic, political, and diplomatic) to win a major military conflict. So grand strategy often is considered in the military context and we certainly think and teach about military and diplomatic issues at Yale. But grand strategy is also a set of tools that one can apply and use to think about problems beyond the military.

Grand strategy is a way of thinking, and it can apply to whenever one seeks to amass resources and personnel to tackle a problem. In class, for instance, we think about how to run a political campaign, or how to organize politics at a local level. We have students interested in military history or China policy, but we also have students who are interested in social movement organizing or tackling issues like climate change. Those students can learn from each other because we have a common set of tools for thinking about grand strategic challenges.

Wittenstein: Arne, you’re a historian of the Cold War and of modern China, among other fields. Can you give us an example a classic text or principle of grand strategy, and how that might be relevant to understanding the current volatile state of global affairs that we find ourselves in today?

Westad: I think of the leadership examples set by Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II. Their main task was to wage a war and defeat an enemy. But they drew on what they had learned, both from politics and their own lived experience, and from their study of history. They were thrown into something they could not know, but were prepared to overcome.  There were at least two things that stood out for both of them that are very relevant for today.

The first principle has to do with limitations, constraint, and prudence. If you seek to achieve any great objective, you have to understand how you limit the kind of immediate aims that you set for yourself. This is a very important principle that strategists have written about from Sun Tzu and Thucydides to today. How does one fashion short-term goals in order to eventually prevail against an overwhelming and ruthless enemy?

The second principle is that in order to have a successful strategy, you often need to be gradual and flexible in terms of how to adjust your means and ends. Students need to learn that they cannot have one very clear plan from the outset about what they want to achieve, and then stick with that come hell or high water—that is the opposite of what grand strategy should be. A successful strategy builds gradually towards a great aim. There has to be a plan, or at least a program.  But there also have to be adaptability, malleability, the dexterity to change tack.  And the courage to go for broke when the aim is truly within reach.

Those two lessons were very important when the GS program was set up, and remain really important for us today. GS is a program that has gone through several different phases in terms of its development. First with the three founding fathers of the program – Professors John Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and Charlie Hill – and then through leadership of Professors Betsy Bradley and Beverly Gage. All of them have contributed to this broader understanding of what grand strategy is and how we can teach it.

They also all knew that there is no one way in which you can teach grand strategy, and there is no one field in which grand strategy is applicable. The broad applicability of grand strategy has made this not just the signature class for ISS and the Jackson School, but also a signature class for Yale. After almost 25 years, GS remains one of the most popular undergraduate courses in the university.

Wittenstein: Mike, if there’s no one way to study or teach or practice grand strategy, how do you think about that, then, in the context of a year-long course? How do you teach the GS seminar at Yale, and what are the core components of the curriculum?

Brenes: In the first semester, the Spring semester, we read some classic texts of grand strategy. So we read Thucydides, we read Machiavelli, we read Sun Tzu, and we read some also not-so-classic texts that have not been applied to grand strategy that have been included in the syllabus over the years by various the directors of the program, such as Saul Alinsky and Frederick Douglass among others. The spring semester is devoted to learning from these texts and historical lessons of grand strategy, utilizing a co-teaching format where I teach along with other faculty at Yale but also outside faculty who are experts in these texts.

Our hope is that by the end of the semester, students have a firm sense of what grand strategy is, how it is studied, and how to apply these lessons to their own interests. And then in the summer, students go off to pursue their own summer project on a topic that they feel is of relevance to themselves, but also to the world. It is really an independent project, and so the hope is that, now that they have historical foundation, they can think about how to bring grand strategy into practice.

Then in the following fall we bring practitioners into the classroom who are experts in foreign policy, political service, social movement organizing, and they teach alongside faculty with the students in small seminars. And the idea is that by the fall, the students gain greater appreciation for the challenges one confronts in the world when seeking to bring about positive change.

So GS is not just a seminar in an academic sense, but students actually go out in the world as agents of change, which is a unique component of the class and vital to us as a program.

Wittenstein: Arne, another distinctive element of GS is the integration of practitioners into the curriculum, side-by-side with academics. Starting with the late Professor Charles Hill, ISS’s first diplomat in residence, and later people like Ambassador John Negroponte, Ambassador Victoria Nuland, and now National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, distinguished practitioners have been a core part of the curriculum, much like they are in the Jackson School. How does the combination of scholars and practitioners enhance the classroom experience?

Westad: Practitioners are a fundamental part of the GS program and also part of what we want the Jackson School to be. GS serves as a meeting place, where we bring together scholars and practitioners and people who have different backgrounds, and who think about issues from different perspectives. That is part of the secret sauce of the GS program which has made it so incredibly successful.

With the launch of the Jackson School, we now have even greater resources to enhance the distinguished practitioner component of this program. We are eager to further expand the circle of people that we draw into GS from across Yale and from around the world.

Wittenstein: International Security Studies originally founded the Grand Strategy Project in 2000, and, with the launch of the Jackson School, both programs will be within the Jackson umbrella. How does GS align with the broader research mission of ISS, and how do you view these two programs as complementing and enhancing each other?

Westad: ISS and the Grand Strategy Program have, from the very beginning, been integrated through faculty, practitioners, and administrative staff, but also through how they operate intellectually.  Scholars and practitioners have long been affiliated with both programs, as they will continue to do within Jackson. But, at the same time, we want to innovate and we want to innovate in ways that are both pedagogically important and sound, but also in ways that aligns the GS program with the significant changes in global affairs underway. We are witnessing the largest shift in world order since the Cold War ended. Moreover, with the Jackson School, there is a terrific opportunity to draw on all the other resources that the new School has to offer. So the timing here is just incredibly good for much of this to come together.

Wittenstein: Mike, Grand Strategy has been around at Yale for over 20 years now. Yet the world has changed in ways that have forced all of us to sort of re-alter our conceptions about global affairs. As you think about the future of GS and building upon this terrific tradition, what are some future directions or areas of exploration that you’re most interested in?

Brenes: The GS reunification within the ISS orbit is a fantastic opportunity for considering the problems that we are confronting today, whether they are international or domestic in scope.

The challenges of climate, Ukraine, China, and racial or economic inequality are not exclusive to the United States alone. America is not just leading the world alone, so we have to think about alliances and cooperation amongst nations. Working closely with ISS and Jackson will help equip our students with the skills to grapple with the grand strategic challenges of the 21st century.