“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” -Archilochus
The dichotomy between hedgehogs and foxes, originally proposed by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus and popularized by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, has been used to describe the contrasting styles of strategic thinking and decision-making. While hedgehogs tend to have a single, overarching idea or principle that guides their actions, foxes are more adaptable and open-minded, employing multiple strategies and perspectives to pursue their goals. I have been on a journey to explore how this metaphor is applied to US strategic thinking, and provide examples of both hedgehog-like and fox-like approaches to national security challenges.
Hedgehog-like Strategy: The War on Terror
One prominent example of a hedgehog-like strategy in US history was the War on Terror, declared by President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. The US government and military were focused on defeating terrorist organizations, particularly al-Qaeda, and disrupting their operations. This single-minded focus was evident in the use of force, including the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the establishment of detention facilities at place like Guantanamo Bay to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists. The US also increased surveillance and intelligence gathering, and cooperated with allies to track and disrupt terrorist networks.
This hedgehog-like approach was marked by its unwavering determination to defeat terrorism and its focus on a single objective. Despite the complex and evolving nature of the terrorist threat, the US government and military remained committed to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliates. This focus on a single objective helped to sustain the US effort over a prolonged period and to mobilize the resources necessary to achieve its goals. However, the hedgehog-like strategy also faced criticism for its perceived over-reliance on military force, its disregard for international law and human rights, and its failure to address the root causes of terrorism.
Fox-like Strategy: Containment in the Cold War
Ponder US strategic thinking demonstrating a more fox-like approach. Consider the containment policy pursued during the Cold War. Rather than pursuing a single, rigid strategy, the US employed a range of tactics, including diplomacy, economic aid, and military intervention, to contain the spread of communism. The US used diplomacy to negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and to build alliances with other countries. At the same time, the US provided economic aid to countries in need and used military force when necessary, such as in the Korean War.
This flexible and adaptive approach allowed the US to respond effectively to changing circumstances and to employ a range of strategies to contain the spread of communism. By employing a “fox-like” strategy, the US pursued its goals in a complex and unpredictable international environment. The containment policy helped to avoid a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union, while also advancing US interests in promoting democracy and stability around the world. However, the fox-like strategy was not without its challenges, as it required constant reassessment and adjustment in response to new threats and opportunities.
So Who Wins?
Sure the case studies might lead one to believe the fox is best, but quite simply–it depends. Neither “fox” nor “hedgehog” is inherently better; the metaphor highlights the differences between two approaches and suggests that the most effective strategy depends on the situation. In some cases, a fox’s versatility and quick thinking may be more advantageous, while in other situations, a hedgehog’s unwavering focus on a single goal may lead to greater success.
Isaiah Berlin, a British philosopher and historian of ideas, popularized the use of the fox and hedgehog metaphor in his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Berlin used the metaphor to distinguish between the two different approaches to understanding the world and human behavior: the hedgehog, who embodies the idea of a single unifying principle that governs everything, and the fox, who embodies the idea of multiple, conflicting perspectives and experiences.
Berlin viewed the fox as the superior of the two, as it acknowledges the complexity of the world and the multiple perspectives and motivations that drive human behavior. He argued that hedgehogs, by contrast, reduce the world to a single idea, oversimplifying it and ignoring the nuances and contradictions that exist in human life.
Jim Collins, a management consultant and author, has also written about the fox and hedgehog metaphor in his book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t”. In his book, Collins uses the metaphor to describe the importance of having a “hedgehog concept” for companies and organizations. A hedgehog concept refers to a company’s understanding of what it can be the best in the world at, and what drives its economic engine.
According to Collins, the hedgehog concept serves as a powerful tool for focus and decision-making. He argues that companies that have a clear hedgehog concept are able to sustain long-term success and outperform their competitors, while companies that lack a clear hedgehog concept are more likely to struggle and fail to achieve greatness.
In this context, Collins’ take on the fox and hedgehog metaphor is that companies should aim to have a clear and concise hedgehog concept, which can guide their decision-making and help them achieve long-term success.
John Lewis Gaddis, a historian and expert in grand strategy, has also discussed the fox and hedgehog metaphor in several of his books. At times he seems to believe one is better. In the 2004 book “Surprise, Security, and the American Experience”, Gaddis applies the metaphor to the field of grand strategy and argues that statesmen who are fox-like in their approach to foreign policy are better suited to navigate the complex and unpredictable international environment.
Gaddis argues that fox-like statesmen are able to respond effectively to surprises and changing circumstances, as they have a range of strategies and options at their disposal. Hedgehog-like statesmen, on the other hand, are too focused on a single principle or strategy, which can lead to inflexibility and a failure to respond effectively to new challenges and opportunities.
In his 1982 book “Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War,” he argues that the most effective strategy for the United States during the Cold War was a combination of both approaches. He believed that policymakers needed to be adaptable and flexible in responding to changing circumstances, but also needed to have a clear overarching vision and set of principles to guide their actions.
In his 2018 book “On Grand Strategy,” Gaddis argues that a combination of fox and hedgehog approaches is necessary for success in grand strategy. He emphasizes the importance of having a general understanding of the big picture, or a “grand strategy,” but also being flexible and adaptable in tactics, or having a “operative strategy.” In other words, a leader must have the vision of a hedgehog but the agility of a fox to navigate complex situations.
Historical Fox: Niccolò Machiavelli.
In his book “The Prince”, Machiavelli argued that successful leaders must be able to adapt to changing circumstances and employ a range of strategies to achieve their goals. He famously wrote that “it is better to be a fox than a lion if the lion is unable to defend himself”.
Machiavelli’s philosophy was marked by his pragmatism and his recognition of the complexities and ambiguities of political life. He believed that leaders must be flexible and able to employ a range of strategies, rather than adhering rigidly to a single principle or ideology. This approach is often seen as embodying the “fox-like” mentality, as it acknowledges the multiple perspectives and experiences that exist in the world and allows for the use of a variety of strategies to achieve one’s goals.
Historical Hedgehog: Winston Churchill.
Churchill is widely remembered for his unyielding determination and steadfastness in the face of the Nazi threat, which he described as “an unbreakable will to victory”.
Throughout the war, Churchill remained focused on the objective of defeating Nazi Germany and preserving the values of democracy and freedom. He is often remembered for his speeches, which rallied the British people and inspired them to continue fighting even in the face of adversity.
In this sense, Churchill’s approach to strategy can be seen as a “hedgehog-like” mentality, as he was focused on a single objective and pursued it with unwavering determination. He is often remembered for his steadfastness and his unwavering commitment to his principles, which helped to sustain Britain through one of the most challenging periods in its history.
The hedgehog and fox metaphor provides a useful framework for analyzing US strategic thinking and decision-making. While some US leaders have demonstrated a hedgehog-like focus on a single objective, others have shown a more fox-like adaptability and willingness to consider multiple perspectives and strategies. The examples of the War on Terror and containment policy in the Cold War illustrate the strengths and limitations of both approaches, and highlight the need for a balanced and nuanced approach to national security challenges. Ultimately, the choice between hedgehog and fox strategies depends on the nature of the problem, the available resources, and the broader geopolitical context.