Global Affairs

History as means to better US foreign policy?

A council of historical advisers for the President is a great idea but unlikely to work


LONDON • In a US presidential election campaign dominated by bitter and often obscene personal attacks, allegations of treason and even incitement to murder, here is one idea which is both sane, productive and not motivated by narrow party political considerations.

In an article published in the current issue of The Atlantic, one of America's oldest and most distinguished intellectual magazines, two top academics, professors Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson, both of Harvard University, argue that, if the next president of the United States is to avoid foreign policy disasters, she or he should create a council of historical advisers, a body of experts who would be permanently on call to inform future presidents of the historic context and implications of any foreign policy or military decision they take.

Like all great ideas, this one is both simply stated, and monumental in its reach. Prof Allison and Prof Ferguson argue that many of the catastrophic mistakes of US foreign and security policies since World War II, including decades-long engagements in wars which could never be won and crises which simply had no resolution, could have been either avoided or mitigated if US presidents had at their disposal experts to alert them of the historic context in the problems they faced, and identify lessons from similar past situations.

Prof Allison and Prof Ferguson are not glibly suggesting that all US presidential foreign and security policy decisions should be anchored in historic knowledge; as old hands at the American political system -Prof Allison is famous for his bureaucratic analyses of decision-making - they know that other factors go into a presidential decision and quote approvingly Dr Henry Kissinger's quip that history is not a "cookbook offering pre-tested recipes".

Nor do they argue that the White House should listen to historians who study the past for its own sake. Instead, they are pleading for "applied historians", a relatively new category of scholars who "attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analysing precedents and historical analogues", and are therefore able to suggest "possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences".

Yet it is here that their promising idea hits some very practical difficulties.


There is no question that Western governments - and not only that of the US - frequently ignore the importance of history when they make decisions. The deep historic animosity between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims is a classic case of a key consideration which should have been uppermost in the minds of those who contemplated the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but was not, with disastrous implications.

Repeated military interventions in Afghanistan by both Russia and the West - each one aiming to recreate a state, each one failing to do so because of the same difficulties - are another example. So is the whole gamut of relations between the West and Russia, where history is not only useful, but essential to any coherent policy.

However, it may be too optimistic to assume that if "applied historians" were consulted, their advice would have pinpointed the pitfalls to avoid. For historians, however good, are also victims of intellectual fashions.

Until recently, for instance, few historians of either the traditional or "applied" variety concentrated on the Sunni-Shi'ite divide as the critical shaper of Middle East affairs; they paid attention instead to ethnic differences, to divides between rich and poor nations in the Middle East, or between pro-Western monarchies and anti-Western republics. So, even if then President George W. Bush would have consulted historians on the eve of his 2003 US invasion of Iraq, it's not at all obvious that he would have been warned of the centrality of the Sunni-Shi'ite dimension.

It is also too optimistic to assume that historians agree on what lessons can be drawn from the past. Some historians, for instance, believe that key security problems in today's Asia stem from Japan's unwillingness to follow Germany's lead in accepting its World War II responsibilities and in atoning for past crimes. Others, however, suggest that tensions in Asia stem not so much from Japan's behaviour, but from decisions by Japan's neighbours to refuse offers of reconciliation. For otherwise, why is resentment against Japan so strong in China and Korea, but almost non-existent in, say, the Philippines or Indonesia?

Armies of historians emphasise how the so-called Century of Humiliations shapes China's foreign and security policies today, while others suggest that China's "wounded nationalism" is a construct of Chinese elites rather than China's ordinary people, the overwhelming majority of whom are far more likely to have suffered from China's own leaders, rather than from any foreigners.

Similar disputes rage in other continents. Depending on one's starting point, a good case can be made that Russia will be friendly only if it is allowed to impose a sphere of influence over smaller nations on its borders. But looking at exactly the same history, an equally good case - with plenty of analogues - can be made that it's precisely the existence of such spheres of influence which create instability and plunge Europe into wars.

These are not mere academic disputes, since every argument outlined above is based on solid facts, but leads to radically different approaches and policies. Indeed, that's a point which Prof Allison and Prof Ferguson themselves make, albeit indirectly and perhaps accidentally, in their Atlantic article.

The two Harvard professors suggest that, if a future US president were to create a council of historical advisers, one of the key questions she or he should ask the historians is whether, given the current rising tensions between the US and China, the security commitments which America has made to countries such as Japan are as dangerous to peace today as the pledge which Britain made to defend tiny Belgium in the Europe of the 19th century.

This is a classic example where the choice of the comparison decides the outcome of the argument. For the security guarantee which Britain gave to Belgium is now considered a silly, frivolous move which acted as the fuse pushing Britain into World War I in 1914, and ultimately cost the lives of millions. Any comparison between the British guarantee to Belgium in 1914 and the US guarantee to Japan today will produce the conclusion that the best thing the US should do if it wishes to avoid a war with China is to dump Japan.

However, what if the US guarantee to Japan and the similar American security guarantee to South Korea are not compared to Britain and Belgium a century ago, but to the US security guarantee to Europe after World War II? That was a guarantee which worked as intended, and which consolidated a peaceful Europe despite the risk of war. Choose your historic analogy, and you get a different answer.

And finally, it's worth pointing out that politicians who are obsessed with historic analogies are not necessarily good leaders. Then British Prime Minister Anthony Eden ordered an invasion of Egypt in 1956 because he was convinced that Mr Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian ruler at that time, was the reincarnation of Hitler. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persuaded himself that allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons was tantamount to sitting idly by as another Holocaust was about to befall the Jews. Both historic comparisons were nonsense, and both led to disastrous policies.

Still, there is no question that Prof Allison and Prof Ferguson are right to raise the alarm not only about the current lack of historic perspective in US decision-making, but also about the anti-historic stance which often prevails in the White House.

For, as they remind us, even Mr Barack Obama, an otherwise thoughtful, educated President, proudly proclaimed in January 2014 that "I don't really even need George Kennan right now", a reference to the distinguished diplomat and historian who inspired most Western policy towards Russia during the Cold War. Just two months later, Russia invaded Ukraine, and Mr Obama was confronted with the biggest East-West crisis in a quarter of a century. A bit of humility plus a bit of George Kennan would have gone a long way towards a better handling of that crisis.

So, history as a guide and history as collective memory should be essential elements in the arsenal of a future US president. But it's never likely to trump (no pun intended) good judgment and the need for consultation with America's allies who, incidentally, are likely to have their own views of history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'History as means to better US foreign policy?'. Subscribe