Scholars warn of ‘history deficit’ in foreign policy

Printed from:

It’s an idea as old as history itself: turning to the record of past affairs to glean lessons for the present and insights for the future.

But all too often in modern academia, history professors don’t have much of an opportunity to communicate with those in other academic disciplines such as international relations. In fact, they’re not even in the same family of academia. History, you see, resides among the humanities while international relations dwells in the social sciences along with political science, linguistics, and sociology.

Two scholars at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs are hoping to change that with the launch of a new Applied History program.

“For too long, history has been disparaged as a “soft” subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty. We believe it is time for a new and rigorous “applied history”—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues,” noted historian Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, announce in next month’s edition of The Atlantic. (A longer manifesto appears on Harvard’s website here.)

The maxim that those who don’t learn the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them seems to be the fundamental inspiration behind the efforts. But it’s about more than just avoiding classic pitfalls. The two authors say that a deeper engagement with history could also yield important insights that help preserve American power and dominance on the stage of world affairs.

The authors note that a deeper appreciation of applicable historical circumstances might have better informed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and more recent efforts to integrate Ukraine into Europe. It could also prove useful in better understanding the behavior of ISIS and rising tensions between the United States and China.

The presidential election, the authors say, give them little hope that what they call the “history deficit” can be overcome in future administrations. The two scholars call for the creation of a presidential council of historical advisers that would overcome this deficit and help shape important policy decisions in ways that others in the foreign policy establishment cannot.

Ferguson and Allison identify several critical foreign policy questions that such a council of historical advisers could tackle:

— What unlikely but possible strategic upheavals might we face in the medium-term?”

— Will ISIS buy or steal a nuclear weapon?

— Will Chinese and Japanese forces clash in the East China Sea, sparking a wider war?

— Will the Saudi royal family be deposed?

— Will the European Union disintegrate?

— Will Russia invade a Baltic state?

“Of course, building future scenarios is part of what intelligence agencies do. Yet, currently, historians play a very small part in this process. Applied historians do not have crystal balls. But they do have certain advantages over those who would try to answer such questions with models and regression analysis.

The two scholars know that dramatic events that were dismissed as implausible before the fact are in hindsight frequently described as inevitable. Their study of previous sharp discontinuities encourages an ‘historical sensibility’ that is attuned to the long-term rhythms, strategic surprises and daring coups de main that run through history,” Ferguson and Allison write in their manifesto.

The Belfer Center is leading the way so far with the launch of a new applied history website that has more information on their vision for applied history and a list of Harvard scholars connected to the project.

The site also has an interactive page with a list of “assignments” and a form where the public can submit feedback.