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Director's Commentary On Chapter Three

The original title (checking my hard copy print-out) was "The American Arc." In an edit with Mark, I changed it to "The American Trajectory," which Neil liked a lot better. Mark came up with the subtitle, "Of Great Men and Great Powers"--a nice tie-back to the book as a whole.

I will say that I put in more effort on this chapter than any other. To me, it was always going to be the centerpiece of the book--as in, buy this logic and the entire book makes sense. In that way, it is very much like the large chapter 3 in PNM, meaning it's the intellectual anchor to the entire book.

If you look back over the blog, you realize how long it took me to write the intro and the five sections. I was going to have a sixth section about the post-Cold War world, but when I got to the end of the Cold War section, I realized that the first two chapters, plus my first two books, have covered that timeframe in great depth, so the repetition here wasn't worth pursuing. There is good repetition (establishing a theme) and there is everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink repetition, and I felt that re-covering the post-Cold War era would be too much.

While I wrote every previous chapter (the first three that were cut and the 7 sins--I saw the 12 steps [written after this history chapter] as the logical last section of this chapter) off the top of my head (remembering the books and cited articles and simply having them around for examination), this was the first chapter effort that saw me re-read all the involved books (meaning I re-read the highlighted portions). As I reread, I created hundreds of Fortran cards worth of notes with black Sharpie's. I then distributed/cut up those cards into the various chapter sections, taking those for the post-Cold War era and using them in the subsequently written "12 Steps" chapter. That effort alone took 2-3 days, but it really warmed me up to write. From that point on in the writing, I repeated that effort. Prior to starting the book writing, I had distributed the hundred-plus books in piles along my bookcase wall in my home office. So I was working my way through the many piles, going left to right as I plowed through the book.

I will tell you that my blogger readers all liked this chapter the best. Abbott described it as the logical prequel to PNM, which made a lot of sense to me the second I read it. It was also the chapter least altered by Warren. When I got through the days of writing it all out and realized its gargantuan size (about 35k), I knew then that the book would succeed intellectually--as far as I was concerned. It was, arguably, the neatest creative period of my life to date.

Best part: the tremendous partnership with my spouse Vonne on finding the right books. She put in a huge effort and it really made a big difference. There are many ideas in the chapter that never would have seen the light of day without her effort. So if the chapter is the center of the book and those references made it so, then I owe Vonne a huge debt of gratitude for making this book my masterpiece to date, which I feel it is.

And that's a huge gift on her part. One thing any author fears is the sense that his first book was the best (common in academia). I know now that PNM was nowhere near the best I could do, because Great Powers is a decidedly more mature and fluid effort on my part. I also know now that I will continue to grow as a writer.

I will tell you that, before that chapter, I did not consider myself a writer. I considered myself primarily a speaker who wrote. I think that's because I do a lot of my thinking through talking, so stuff has to be very much worked out in my head before I get to the point of writing. I've always known that I do a lot of creating when I write, but this was the first time I have ever thought something out quite extensively before writing and then had it expand way beyond my original expectations, and I enjoyed that sensation immensely. In short, this chapter made me look at my own writing differently, suddenly seeing it as a career and not just integral to my career.

Again, finding that out in this chapter with Vonne's great aid is something I will never forget. This is why I love this lady so much--now for almost 27 years.

Finally, as I note in the acknowledgments, I first got the idea for this effort by reading Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation, one of the most exciting books I've ever encountered. I don't care for his slim-volume polemics, but I can't wait to read his continuation of this historical re-examination.

Tripping through the pages now:


Mark Warren wrote the short opening para. My original draft started with the second para.

The Harlem Globetrotters-v-Washington Generals bit (ruling parties never letting the weak opposition win) yields a great slide in the brief--a real keeper.


The quick trip through early American history comes from a column I wrote weeks in advance with just this opening in mind.


The line, "If a mature, multi-party democracy was so darn easy ..." was inspired by a blog post I came across months ago but cannot place now. If anyone can locate, I would be interested in knowing so I can credit the writer.

The section header, "IN ORDER TO FORM A MORE PERFECT GLOBALIZATION ..." is obviously based on the preamble to the Constitution.

I started the section by stating that there are three fundamental reasons why American grand strategy matters more right now than any other country's and then, true to form (I just did it on the blog), I provided 4 reasons. I caught that one in a subsequent edit.


I made up the bridge argument (we link Europe's post-everything now with Asia's pre-everything now) on the spot when writing. The starting point there is rejecting the notion that the EU is the first multinational union, because America is. Talk about delusions of exceptionalism!


I like the word play on "securities" here.

BORN IN THE USA sub-header clearly tracks back to Bruce. What the section signals is that the chapter is so big that it requires its own preface, which is what this is. I just didn't want the reader to wade into the chapter without knowing what they were getting into.

The description of the two arcs appears originally in the book proposal. To me, it is the core logic of the entire book. Because TR is the great connection between the two historical arcs, he constitutes the seminal figure for Great Powers.


The sequence of this-these sentences ("This is the world we have created. These are the force we have unleashed.") was inspired by two lines in the eulogy I wrote for my Dad ("That's the world John Barnett saw. This was his life.")


I like the notion of comparing interdependence in international affairs to the Golden Rule. I consider the Golden Rule (my version comes from Jesus, but there are ones in almost all faiths) to be the quintessential political construct of human philosophy. All pluralism begins is based on this notion.

The "democracy of tribes" notion comes from Tony Zinni. I neglected to cite him in the endnotes on this. My mistake.

"... the needs of the many against the needs of the few" comes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.


The early nod to the Brits here, courtesy of Walter Russell Mead, is amended later in the chapter, thanks to my education at the hands of the Dutch in The Hague last year. The Dutch example yields New Amsterdam/New York, and that centerpiece city defines a great deal of the American System's ethos. See Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World, which the Dutch gave me as a going-away present, along with a gorgeous china plate. The Dutch maintain that the Glorious Revolution is oversold.


One of my favorite paras in the book found here, beginning "In construct, then, America was built for speed, for the cutting edge, and for both producing and attracting ambition . . ."


Lexington Green helps me here on England.

It would have been tempting to go on and on here about Alexander Hamilton. Chernow's book is simply brilliant.


Key bit of logic: Hamilton's 1791 Report on Manufactures as the first great "catch-up" strategy--and still the best.


I had the same problem with Henry Clay. I was stunned how hard it was to find a decent book on such a seminal figure. Luckily, Vonne found one explicitly on the American System, which was great (Maurice Baxter).


The Hamilton quote on America hopefully not needing to rely on Britain in 50-60 years is rightfully compared to Deng Xiaoping's thinking vis-à-vis the U.S. in the 1990s.

Nine and a half pages to do U.S. history through 1850. You will spot the pattern in the chapters: each section reaches a bit ahead at the end to explain the arc, but then the next one backtracks a chunk to put the section in historical context.


The track-back here goes to Andrew Jackson


Another Lexington fix where he talks me out of a dubious claim regarding America's official name.

Daniel Walker Howe's What God Hath Wrought drives this early section, along with Kagan. His "nonparty politics" observation is a key one regarding the "era of good feelings." His rather harsh but fair take on Jackson also helped me a lot.


The Jackson-Putin comparison is a favorite of mine. We forget that all our "great" presidents had a tendency to expand the power of the presidency in ways that, in their initial expression, were downright dictatorial. This is true of Jackson and Lincoln and TR and Wilson and FDR, to name but a few.


A quick social history of the 1830s and 1840s.

Saudi Arabia as today's version of the pre-Civil War South: a long-time bit by me. Send in the guest workers/slave and we send out the oil/cotton and don't bug us about how we do things here cause it's none of your damn business.


Wish I had had the time to compare Hillary Clinton as SECSTATE to Lincoln's choice of Seward.


Great fix here by Safranski regarding a statement on the war.


Never could find the "terrible math" line attributed to Lincoln. Widely quoted, but I dare anybody to find the source.

Heather Cox Richardson's West from Appomattox was as big a book to me in this chapter as Kagan's, or Howe's, or Morris's bio of TR. Simply, it is a brilliant book.


The one-out-of-every-16-new-Americans bit on the Homestead Act comes from a DeSoto piece that actually argues against its impact. In his version, only 2m out of 32 million new immigrants take advantage of the act. His glass-half-empty became my glass-half-full.


The Richardson thesis on America's middle class ideology is a key input to my take on globalization today. Again, it's simply brilliant. Finding her and Kagan were crucial. Naturally, Vonne found me Richardson.


"... go all wobbly" is a reference to how Margaret Thatcher helped George H.W. Bush suck it up on Saddam way back when. The statement occurred during a phonecon.

Another key para where I list all the tools of frontier integration in the American West and how they all reappear, slightly altered, in today's globalization. It begins "Yes, in this process of global integration there will be insurgencies galore . . ."

Preview of closed-frontier argument links me, I would argue, to Fukuyama's End of History argument.


Again, I went from 1839 to 1870 in less than ten pages, so exhaustive history this is not.

THE AMERICAN SYSTEM MATURED, THEN EXTRAPOLATED: My original was something along the lines of "The American Global System Proposed, Then Imposed." Mark altered.


I repurpose the seven-generations-of-Barnetts argument from the Esquire piece, "The 55th State," and then brainstorm a quick 6 degrees of separation that's really a homage to my grandfather and the stories he loved to tell.


The John Hays section was proposed by Safranski.


The Morris quote is such a stunner. It really jumped out at me regarding perceptions of China today.


Super-synthesizing social history of U.S. in 1870s-1880s.


That scary 36-year period from 1865-1901: three assassinated presidents in 36 years. We've gone 46 years now without a single one.

My third great favorite para of the book here does TR's life in one fell swoop. Much effort here.


Love the bit about Lincoln giving away 10% of America and TR taking 7 percent back.


TR's "stationary state" is one of the great futuristic imaginings in the history of political science. It is beyond brilliant when you consider what came next. TR is my favorite president on that basis alone, with Hamilton as my favorite non-president.


Lots of references from my abandoned A-to-Z chapter.


Safranski and Green got me to add the bit on Root, second American winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.


1870 to 1912 in another ten-page tight history.

A GLOBAL AMERICAN SYSTEM, AN AMERICAN CENTURY = Warren title. Cannot remember mine.


Great bit about the logic of diplomacy and how the neocons forget that history.

I start this section with a quick, overarching history, because I want to then move into the 14 points section where I make direct comparisons between Wilson (proposing) and FDR/Truman (imposing). I just felt that doing the former and then the latter would be too repetitive, so better to do them both comparatively in one fell swoop.


Another mega-paragraph that compresses history considerably, doing both WWI and WWII as a continuous thread. Much fun to write.


Then we're into another list, which was created in obvious homage to Wilson's "14 Points." Much like the 12 steps, you organize the list in rough chronological order. It was here that I knew I was losing control of the chapter's length when you consider that I planned to do the entire history in 5,000 words!


My bit on the "original wise men" around TR. You don't have them and there is no "wise men" opportunity whatsoever come the end of WWII. The groundwork had to be laid.


I made up the rebranding bit when sitting down with PLA long-range planners in Beijing a couple years back.

The economic leverage bit (#2) pertains nicely to today's financial crisis.


A reader (either Stuart or Louis) gave me Elizabeth Borgwardt's New Deal for the World book. It was a key influence here and a good example of how I crowdsourced the book. Her analysis of the Atlantic Charter, which begins the book, is the strongest opening of any such historical retelling book that I've ever seen--very cool.

Interesting that two of the most important histories for my arcs thesis were written by women.


Interesting to learn of Lippman's gov service around WWI.


Last line on page, another good fix by Green to note that Churchill gave up his empire to save his civilization.


My homage to Keynes, to whom Hank Gaffney turned me on as arguably the only true grand strategist of the 20th century because he actually included economics in this thinking. His "remedies" chapter at the end of the Economic Consequences of the Peace book is simply unbelievable in its foresight. The only thing that comes close to such a firm imagining of the future is Hamilton's vision.


Cool Borgwardt bit: the Atlantic Charter as the first great expression of human rights.


I try to end each of the 14 points with a quick nod to Bush. Here, it almost seems cruel to compare. On grand strategy, Bush-Cheney come off like kids.


Comparing the postwar planning efforts of Wilson, FDR and Bush is frighteningly illuminating. I like this point the best in many ways.


My thank-you para to Dean Acheson, who really does have the quintessential "wise man" career. His autobiography, Present at the Creation, won a Pulitizer and it was well deserved. Not only interesting but incredibly funny at points. The man had a great sense of humor.


A conversation I would have loved to witness: Keynes' one F2F with FDR.

I quote my Mom on the Great Depression: "Everybody wanted work, but nobody had any money." A scary similarity to today, yes?


Lex Green wanted a third reason added here to explain why FDR chose Truman: he had chaired a long-running commission on the war effort, rooting out corruption. Lex felt this helped Truman to deeply understand the economics of war and thus put him in a great position to deal with the postwar adjustment. Lex got me that idea too late to stick in, but I think it's a great one.

I love the Allen Drury quote. I've read all his novels, which all curiously seem to feature some blackmailed homosexual at the core. Drury was gay by many accounts, and a fastidious life-long bachelor in others. The funny thing is, there was a Defense Department report on the Cold War that said no case of such blackmailing was ever discovered--a wonderful plot device that told us much about Drury but nothing about America.


I love the WAPO story that ties Truman to FDR and Wilson and TR and Lincoln. It fits my thesis perfectly. It also says that when people think of great presidents, they think of those who were true grand strategists.


Historians argue that Harding won in 1920 because women got the vote and he was a handsome devil. A complete loser, though, as a president. Some claim he was inducted into the KKK during his term.

I love arguing that, without FDR's idealism, we never would have won the Cold War. Creating the West made globalization possible. Isn't it amazing to realize the two members of the same family are our two greatest presidents? TR as the set-up and FDR as the closer on our American System-cum-globalization translation.


Key line: "Again, if Roosevelt had not created that liberal economic order, then Truman's subsequent initiation of the containment grand strategy would have gone nowhere over the long run." I actually think FDR is vastly underappreciated, if you can believe it.

The word-prophet-deliverer concept appeared in my very first conversations with Neil about the proposed "How to become a Grand Strategist" book. It is, therefore, the "oldest" part of the book.


The "boys will never come home" bit is an old one for me, re-imagined here with help of some good Heritage Foundation research.


I just had to get in the "nukes killed great-power war" bit. It's how I frame the Truman-MacArthur story, where Truman proves himself to be every bit the far-sighted grand strategist. His sacking of MacArthur is one of the great, grand strategic acts of the 20th century--arguably the most important after FDR's blackmailing the Brits on their imperial trade preferences and just above Nixon's opening to China. Those three choices explain the entire second half of the 20th century, which sure beat the hell out of the first half.


Truman as TR realized is a favorite concept.


35 pages to do the Wilson-to-Truman story. But it was worth it. Warren kept threatening to cut it down, but the 14 points were all worthwhile, in my mind, especially since all are tied into today's issues.



I start with a mini-history of the Cold War before turning to my two big characters: Nixon and Reagan.


This is ground I covered in PNM, so I wanted to get through it quickly.

On the subject of the Soviet withdrawal from the world struggle against the West beginning in the early 1980s, I remind you that this was my Harvard Ph.D. dissertation subject. That retreat began once Brezhnev died and Soviet hardliners began rethinking the logic of trying to spread revolution in less-developed countries. Reagan accelerated that but did not trigger it by any means.


My ode to Nixon and Kissinger uses both of their autobiographies and Margaret MacMillan's book on Nixon meeting Mao. Basic point: Reagan completes Nixon like Truman completed FDR, but without Nixon and FDR, neither Reagan or Truman would have been possible in terms of their global impact.


I love the bit about Reagan doing to the Sovs what Arbatov spuriously claimed Gorby did to us: deny your opposition an enemy. In the grand scheme of things, Reagan's trick was deadly to the USSR, while Gorby's only spooked our Pentagon.


The rapid wrap-up of the Cold War and a quick treatment of illusions (in the manner of Kagan's The Return of History and the End of Dreams, a marginal effort of his that slays an ideological straw man and little else).

I will never forget writing, "Now I hope you're beginning to see why I bothered telling you all of this." The second I typed that sentence I knew this book would work. It is the epiphany-within-the-epiphany that was writing this chapter. It was one of the most exciting intellectual moments of my life. The sentence was inspire by a line from Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book. The book was my favorite as a kid. I "read" it countless times in bed before I could even read (as it says inside the back cover, "This Book is to be Read in Bed"). Like most such books in our family's vast library, it was missing its cover and was significantly repaired with duct tape, so I was never quite sure what the title was. The line appears on the first page:

The news

Just came in

From the County of Keck

That a very small bug

By the name of Van Vleck

Is yawning so wide

You can look down his neck

This may not seem

Very important, I know,

But it is. So I'm bothering

Telling you so.

It's weird, but I wait years and years to work in bits like that.


A mini-retelling of the book's core logic.


The ending line of the chapter is a gem, IMHO. Naturally, I had to end with a reference to TR:

Theodore Roosevelt's cautions against the dangers of the stationary state still ring true: There is no path but forward, there is no choice but to make globalization truly global, there is no state of being more stable than America's continued state of becoming.

I love that rendition of bold statement, then colon, then trio (very sermon-y) of amplifying statements with no "and" between two and three. Some editors will freak at that sentence construction, but I love the rhythm.

I wrote this entire book so I could attempt this chapter. It was a glorious journey.

Reader Comments (2)

"Heather Cox Richardson's West from Appomattox was as big a book to me in this chapter as Kagan's, or Howe's, or Morris's bio of TR. Simply, it is a brilliant book."

Glad you found it useful. I'm currently re-reading it as I've finished one project (ms off to editor) and am casting around, trying to get my head around the next.


January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlrblyth
The comment about America's need for a perpetual state of "becoming" parallels a lot of work in corporate strategy that views a corporation as a complex adaptive system. I don't know enough about poly sci to know whether it has begun to widely adopt CAS models to describe group behavior.

Complexity theory based corporate strategy argues that stability and survival come from adhering to a "Semi-Coherent Strategic Direction" which creates a flow of strategic advantages. The corporation itself is constantly "becoming" or reinventing itself in order to better fulfill its purpose, a consequence of which is the perpetual realization of a semi-coherent strategic direction. Strategy is thus considered an emergent property of a complex adaptive system: in this case, the system is defined by the interaction between the purpose and values of the corporation (which form its social structure) and the actions of the agents in the rest of the industry.

See, for instance, the first chapter of "Competing on the Edge" by Brown and Eisenhardt (1999).

January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

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