History and Policy
Shifting global events are reshaping our understanding of policy and grand strategy, urging a re-evaluation of historical perspectives. Historical thinking can provide valuable insights for policymakers.
By Francis J. Gavin, Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor, Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins University
Why are historians less engaged in policy than they should be? Unfortunately, we typically do one of three things. We tell policymakers – and others – that they are doing it wrong. Or we say, history reveals that the world is complicated and uncertain and thus we hedge and focus on context and circumstances. Or we do the precise opposite: claim that this thing in the present is like such and such from the past, and our response should be clear. We drop our appreciation of uniqueness and context and make bold grand strategic claims, which capture attention. In short, what we often offer as historians to grand strategy is often not appealing. Why is that? One hypothesis – we believe the process of historical thought and analysis is so different from the process of policymaking and grand strategy. But it is not.
The value of historical thought
Thinking historically, done well, provides a number of valuable insights and lessons. It helps analysts and policymakers to understand both spatial and temporal perspectives; to push back against the idea of inevitability and path dependence and to think about how structure and agency interact. It challenges core assumptions and beliefs, and surfaces unspoken ones, allowing us to ask better questions, and to recognize when history is being misapplied or misused. Finally, it helps us develop a sense of epistemological humility and prudence while recognizing important opportunities and critical junctures, amongst many other virtues. There are lots of reasons why historians don’t make these arguments. One is a discomfort with proximity to power. Another is our uneasiness with contemporary history. Many of us, understandably, believe you need time and perspective – 20 years, 30 years, sometimes more – before you can make proper historical claims. Yet, like Carr and Croce, we do sense that all history is contemporary history.
A thought experiment: Reimagining history
If you are skeptical, undertake this thought experiment. Imagine you were tasked, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with writing a 300-page history of international relations between 1945 and 1991, with the idea that the book would be used in college classrooms in the United States. How would you structure the textbook? Writing in 1992, odds are that much of your book would be devoted to the Cold War and its consequences, especially as it unfolded in Europe. Now imagine you are asked to update the text every ten years, though the subject remains the same: world history from 1945 to 1991 – and most importantly, the length does not change – you only have 300 pages at your disposal. The next edition, updated in 2002, would be produced right after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the war in Afghanistan, and the impending invasion of Iraq. Noticing how Middle East politics dominate the contemporary landscape, you might increase the space in your 300-page text devoted to past events in that region. You might also observe that the European Union recently developed a single currency and increasingly robust political institutions, necessitating some additional pages on the origins and great success of the European project. The 2012 edition would be updated in the aftermath of a sharp global financial crisis and a fuller recognition of the meteoric economic rise of China, as well as the increased importance of India. Other pages might now be dedicated to the rise of the neoliberal order in the 1970s.
Evolving perspectives: Cold War to global crises
The 2022 volume, written after a devasting global pandemic and in the midst of a climate crisis the Russian war against Ukraine and the return of great power politics, would demand further changes. The ubiquitous role of technology would be highlighted. Profound shifts in how human beings identify themselves, both individually and in relation to their local, national, and global communities, sends you off to understand movements for greater rights and recognition of gender, race, and sexual orientation. Indeed, in the 2022 volume, the Cold War might not be the central focus. Other postwar historical phenomena, from decolonization and nation building to the rise of political Islam to a rights and identity revolution to technology and globalization were distinct historical forces, equal and perhaps more important than the Cold War in Europe that was the focus of your 1992 edition. Your 2022 volume looks much different than your 1992 volume, even though the subject, and the chronological period covered, are the same. No doubt, the 2032 and 2042 editions will look different as well. And needless to say, the whole textbook project would have an entirely different focus if the intended audience were students in Moscow, Beijing, Johannesburg, New Dehli, or Sao Paulo.
The role of historians in grand strategy
In a world burdened by an obsession with certainty and a desire to describe everything in sharp binaries, historians recognize the complex, human element, the one where perspective, chance, unintended consequences, and non-linear patterns matter. This is similar to the world the policymaker inhabits. History, like grand strategy, is messy. To be clear, this does not mean to avoid taking a side in a terrible war or drifting off into a postmodern view where everything and nothing matters. Decision-makers still need to make hard, consequential choices, and not to choose in itself is a consequential choice. Historians, facing an infinite past, make their own hard choices about what to research, who or what to focus on, and why.
Indeed, the world of the grand strategist – of complexity, perspective, radical uncertainty about the future, alternative pasts and alternative futures – is our world. It is why good history and good historians make for good grand strategy. We should continue to call out when people misuse history and avoid hedgehog-like certainty and moral indignation. We should continue to highlight the importance of context, circumstance, and chance. But we should also not be shy about offering, if not our specific insights, then our ways of thinking about and understanding the world.
About Francis J. Gavin
Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Previously, he was the first Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy Studies at MIT and the Tom Slick Professor of International Affairs and the Director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas. Gavin’s writings include “Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age” (Cornell University Press) and “Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy” (Brookings Institution Press. His book, “Thinking Historically: A Guide to Statecraft and Strategy”, is forthcoming.