Classic strategic thinking, in the Western tradition, is not about rigid doctrines – realism, liberal internationalism, etc. – and the debates between them. Instead, it encourages statesmen to clarify larger principles and aims for their state about war, peace, and justice; and to develop the judgment to pursue those principles in the dynamic and confusing circumstances of a particular time and place.

This seminar will investigate the causes of war and peace, and some of the strategies that states and leaders have pursued to contend with armed conflict and promote international order, stability, and justice. It will consist of two sessions per day over a one-week period. Each morning, students will discuss readings by two great theorists of strategy – Thucydides and Machiavelli – and then classic American statements, all with a view toward asking how a liberal democracy should conceive of grand strategy and the kind of strategic thinking that statesmen in liberal democracies must undertake to serve both interests and ideals. Each afternoon, students will participate in a seminar led by an expert or policymaker to help probe the relevance of the seminar’s broad themes to the challenges that America faces today. Past guest lecturers have included Elliott Abrams (Council on Foreign Relations), Walter Russell Mead (The American Interest), and Paul Wolfowitz (AEI), among others.

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Paul Carrese on American grand strategy


Paul Carrese

Paul O. Carrese is the founding Director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. He is author of The Cloaking of Power: Montesquieu, Blackstone, and the Rise of Judicial Activism, and co-editor of three other books on George Washington, constitutionalism, and U.S. grand strategy.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Thucydides introduces strategic thinking as striving for broader or comprehensive awareness of one’s own culture & state – of the physical and cultural and intellectual context of one’s state, and the political and intellectual presuppositions shaping strategic debate or options; but also awareness of these factors for one’s allies, adversaries, or enemies. He focuses our attention by posing large questions:

  • What exactly was this long, terrible, “great” war between the Athenians and the Spartans?  Why did it start?
  • What does Thucydides mean by stating that, in his judgment, the war was “inevitable”?



We discuss here one of the most famous episodes from Thucydides, the “Melian dialogue” between the empire (Athens) and the small state of Melos.

  • What ideas from Thucydides’s account of these states, their aims, their contexts, and their leaders can educate our thinking about the 21st century situation of war, peace, and international order?
  • What does Thucydides reveal about the role or situation of middle to smaller powers among great powers?

We meet the champion of the Athenian demagogues, Cleon and his surprisingly effective opponent, Diodotus – debating whether to use genocide as a tool of empire; the stunning appearance of the un-Spartan Spartan leader, Brasidas, who turns around the war for Sparta; and the debate between two Athenians, Alcibiades and Nicias, on whether to undertake the Sicilian expedition (America’s Vietnam scenario); and, finally, the Syracusans’s innovative, daring response to the attempted Athenian invasion

  • What does Thucydides teach about leaders trying to turn around a bad situation to gain advantage, security?
  • What kind of imaginative, unexpected thinking do they need to undertake?



Machiavelli tells us to “get real” about politics: war, which includes the constant maneuvering to either prepare for or avoid open combat, is the normal, everyday condition of politics – both in domestic and international affairs.  Therefore power, and the mixture of force and fraud that will be most effective in securing and maintaining power, is the central question for rulers and strategists.



Machiavelli teaches a new conception of religion in relation to politics; a new acceptance of the limits of moral principles and the reality of “dirty hands” among strategists and rulers; and new advice on how a strategist and ruler must manage domestic politics, his advisers and deputies, as well as adversaries and allies.

  1. Is Machiavelli not such a bad guy – does he just want to “Make Italy Great Again”?  Is he simply telling us that the strategist must be a patriotic, blending military and political leadership in order to provide for one’s country, one’s people, in an independent state?
  2. Or, is his ambition to change our conceptions of politics and strategy, his new orientation to human greatness at the expense of any fixed moral and religious beliefs, in the end the path to human and political self-destruction for those who attempt to “defeat fortune,” control human destiny, and establish their reputation for greatness?
  3. To what degree can a liberal-democratic strategist use the classic realism of Machiavelli?



In this session, we argue against a focus on doctrines or schools of strategy, instead pointing strategists toward the enduring factors that always must be discerned and considered – about their own state and other states: geography; history; culture, philosophy, & religion; economic factors; government type & institutions (including military culture). Thus strategists must develop judgment, ensure debate through institutional structures, and make prudent decisions in the context of both historical understanding and the current moment, situation.

We will examine efforts by great liberal-democrat leaders to harmonize (balance & blend) distinct “schools” or concerns of foreign policy or strategy, e.g., realism, liberalism, nationalism, so as to secure both the interests (security, power, prosperity) and ideals (liberty, moral principles) of a liberal democracy in matters of war, peace, and international affairs.

  1. What is grand strategy? How does it differ from national security and/or foreign policy? Why is it important?
  2. Is it necessary for U.S. foreign policy to be guided by a school or doctrine?
  3. What do you think should constitute U.S. grand strategy?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Foundations of Grand Strategy

Assess grand strategic theory and practice in Thucydides and Plutarch.

Nuclear Strategy & World Order

Explore the ways nuclear weapons have transformed the world we inhabit today.

Chinese Grand Strategy

Explore the implications of China’s global rise for U.S. primacy and the liberal international order.

Grand Strategy

Examine foundational texts on grand strategy and international order. 

World Order & American Foreign Policy

Explore the nature of the world order and America’s role in shaping it.

U.S.-Russia Strategic Competition

Consider the nature of the Russian challenge to the United States.