Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

Government Policy Must Be Informed By A Thorough Knowledge of History.

A friend just sent me this interesting article by Stephen Walt from Foreign Policy (thanks HR2):

‘Condemned to Repeat It: Why Washington’s foreign policymakers desperately need to study up on their history’.

A. Walt laments ‘the pervasive ignorance of history within the U.S. foreign-policy elite’, and blames this ignorance for what he sees as a string of US ‘foreign-policy failures’. He cites Henry Kissinger as saying that anyone wanting to pursue a career in foreign policy should study philosophy and history: the former taught ‘rigorous thinking’ and the latter ‘helped one understand the broader context in which decisions must be made and gave leaders a clearer sense of both prospects and limits’ .

Walt identifies 7 reasons why a ‘sophisticated’ knowledge of history is of value in understanding FP questions:

1. History enables us to ‘discipline our intuitions and policy instincts’. It is a record of previous experience and provides a reality check for which policies are likely to be possible and which are likely to be failures, and in both cases what some of the likely consequences of a particular action are likely to be (e.g. no one with any knowledge of Iraqi history would have been surprised that the American-led invasion in 2003 led to a chaotic collapse of Iraqi society).

2. We can only understand the nature and significance of a particular event if we have knowledge of its historical context.

3. We can only understand the attitudes of present-day policy makers and general populations if we know their particular views of that historical background (e.g. Americans tend to define their relations with Iran in terms of the 1980 hostage crisis but Iranians define it in terms of the American-backed coup in 1953 that restored the Shah [an event which most Americans seem unaware of]; Latin American wariness towards the US is rooted in previous experience of American interference in the region). Lack of such knowledge makes it unlikely that their behaviours will be understood.

4. Without embracing historical relativism, awareness that there are various and competing narrative and interpretations of the past helps us to understand why others may see events differently from us.

5. A knowledge of history makes it less likely that we will draw fatuous parallels, analogies and lessons from the past.

6. History reveals that there are many continuities in state behaviours (e.g. a preoccupation with security and a ‘willingness to act ruthlessly when threatened’).

7. There are clear historically-based changes that have to be recognized (e.g. the rejection of slavery and colonialism, the global human rights movement, the acceptance of women’s rights).

B. To remedy this ignorance, Walt believes that it is vital that anyone who aspires to play a role in FP must be trained in history. Unfortunately, they presently are not: instead the emphasis is on law, economics, statistics and ‘leadership skills’. Again, at present, even if FP aspirants have studied some history, it is likely to have been ‘bitty’  and partisan — there will have been no training in historical methodology and reasoning.

The full article can be read here:

BTW, there is an interesting anecdote related by Tony Judt in his excellent Thinking the Twentieth Century in which he tells of a group of Yale graduate students in history who feared that their acquired skills in diplomatic history and foreign languages would not make them employable [p. 281 in the Vintage ed].

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2014 by in History, The World Today and tagged , , , .
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