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contributor perspectives

Mar 21, 2018 | 16:49 GMT

10 mins read

Applying the Lessons of the Past

Board of Contributors
Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrives at Heston airport outside London in 1938 with the Munich Pact he and Germany's Adolf Hitler signed.
(CENTRAL PRESS/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

This truth I hold to be self-evident: that while the past is not a very good guide to the future, it is the only one we have. Anyone who wants to be prepared for the things to come — whether those things involve climate change, finance, politics or your social life — must begin by looking at the things that already have been. We need to identify not only the trends that have shaped the world but also the countervailing forces that might disrupt them and send the future down an entirely new path. Strategy and planning, in short, are branches of applied history.

I was therefore delighted when my Stanford University colleague Niall Ferguson, a historian, in collaboration with the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, invited me to speak at a conference here at Stanford in early March on the theme of applied history. The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about the conference — though what drew their interest in both cases was not the ideas up for debate but the fact that all 30 speakers at the event were white men. To be sure, such an extreme demographic imbalance is remarkable in this day and age, but it is remarkable less for what it says about the organizers than for what it says about the strongly gendered world of strategic forecasting. There are certainly plenty of female historians who have applied their knowledge of the past to the problems of the future, but there are just as certainly far more male historians who have done so. The supply-side factors mean that conferences on applied history will, other things being equal, usually be weighted toward men, and in this case, none of the female historians whom Ferguson and Allison invited could accept, leaving the platform to "multiple Steves and Pauls," as The Chronicle of Higher Education put it.

Applied historians of the future, analyzing the long-term trend of rising female participation in American professional life, might find this conference an interesting example of why general trends do not always hold in specific cases. But that's an issue for another column. For now, I want to turn from the conference's demography to the issues it raised.

Cautionary Tales

Even the best academic conferences — and this one, despite the controversy, was very good indeed — are generally rather mixed bags, combining some presentations that are innovative and exciting with others that are predictable or even downright dull. The main benefits of going to conferences, however, often come not from listening to accounts of specific findings but from taking part in the larger discussions around them, which sometimes diverge significantly from the official theme. In this case, the chatter over coffee and food regularly turned from how academic historians should apply their insights to the future to whether they should be doing so.

Ferguson and Allison were very clear that they thought the answer to this question was yes. In fact, they told us they hoped that the conference might ultimately lead to the creation of a Council of Historical Advisers for the White House, giving policymakers access to the profession's insights on every issue. This proposal generated lively discussion, including entertaining accounts by actual policymakers of the levels of historical awareness in 21st-century Washington. It also raised a question that is rarely made explicit: Do we really want historically informed leaders? Is there any evidence that such people actually make better decisions than those who are historically ignorant?

It's easy enough to think of well-read leaders whose knowledge of the past did not always help them. Napoleon, for instance, was a voracious consumer of ancient history who applied lessons from the campaigns of Alexander the Great and Caesar with devastating effect on the battlefields of Central Europe. But he appears to have learned far less from ancient politics and diplomacy. In his efforts to emulate the great men of antiquity he consistently overreached, alienating allies and squandering chances to make his conquests permanent. And Hitler was even worse. Despite being obsessed with history and spending long hours cloistered with professors, he consistently drew disastrous conclusions from the past.

Would political leaders really change their convictions because historians tell them they are flying in the face of the evidence? I suspect they would be more likely to change their historians.

Still, it is far from clear that these cautionary tales prove applied history is worse than useless. Perhaps all they show is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If Napoleon or Hitler had had Councils of Historical Advisers, after all, they might not have marched on Moscow. Then again, perhaps their advisers would only have emboldened them. Someone would have had to choose the council's members, and even if that activity had been beneath a fuehrer's paygrade, the selectors would still have had to answer to him and would still have been involved in their own murderous struggles with other branches of the bureaucracy.

It seems very likely that politics would capture any council, and, when we get right down to it, politics and history are just different kinds of activities. Politics is about power, while history is about truth (although many historians think it naive to say so). Would presidents and prime ministers really change their convictions because historians tell them they are flying in the face of the evidence? I suspect they would be more likely to change their historians, replacing naysayers with yes men whose interpretations of the past better fit their views. Given the ambiguity of so much historical data, leaders seeking historical justifications for their policies usually can find a reputable scholar who says more or less what they want to hear. Moreover, when truth and power prove irreconcilable and no reputable historian will support a leader, power usually wins. There is a long and disgraceful tradition of academics willing to sell their authority to people in high places.

The Challenge

Perhaps this is the wrong way to think about a Council of Historical Advisers. Nowadays, professional historians hesitate to claim that they can actually answer questions about the past. Rather many suggest that all historians can do is use their skills to lay out the range of interpretive possibilities and to add layers of nuance. (One of the most frequent comments you will hear in the Q&A sessions at historical seminars is "Let me complicate that idea for you.") Following this logic, several participants at the Stanford conference suggested that instead of aiming to give politicians potted answers to simplistic questions, a Council of Historical Advisers should instead try to cultivate a "historical sensibility" in our leaders. If policymakers learned to think like historians, the reasoning went, they would be more aware that even subtle differences between a contemporary crisis and an apparent historical analogue could mean repeating actions that worked well in the past (or avoiding ones that worked poorly) might produce wildly unintended consequences.

There is certainly a place for this kind of advising. In my own admittedly limited experience with policymakers, I have found that they tend to fall into two distinct camps. The first seems trapped in a perpetual 1938. Every issue is another Munich: American leaders always seem to be acting like Neville Chamberlain and their opponents are always behaving like Hitler, leaving the analyst to play the part of a latter-day Winston Churchill crying in the wilderness. The second camp, by contrast, inhabits an eternal 1968, where Americans find themselves forever cast in the role of Lt. William Calley, slouching toward My Lai and about to burn the village to save it — unless the analyst, cast now as the journalist Seymour Hersh, blows their cover.

A bit more nuance would often be a good idea. I suspect, however, that few of our harried policymakers would bother to consult a Council of Historical Advisers that answered every question by saying, "It's complicated." Such a council might well be of use only to politicians who approach it already armed with profound historical sensibilities of their own, which would put them in a position to evaluate the council's subtle and conflicting arguments.

Even subtle differences between a contemporary crisis and an apparent historical analogue might produce wildly unintended consequences.

Twenty-four centuries ago, when Plato was pondering how to set up an ideal state, he concluded in The Republic that no government would be truly successful until kings became philosophers and philosophers became kings. But that, he reflected, could never happen. Here he was perhaps too negative. Some modern policymakers have not merely possessed historical sensibility but have been historical practitioners in their own right. For instance, William Gladstone, who served an unequaled four terms as the United Kingdom's prime minister between 1868 and 1894, also found time to write two books about ancient Greece. We may not see his like again, but even the most powerful elected leaders do sometimes surround themselves with officials of this caliber. Henry Kissinger and Ben Bernanke probably set the gold standard. Before serving eight years as national security adviser and secretary of state, Kissinger published a major work on the 19th-century European state system, and before serving his eight years as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Bernanke published an equally important book on the American economy in the 1930s. Needless to say, historians disagree over how well Gladstone, Kissinger and Bernanke used their historical knowledge, but these policymakers nonetheless seem to refute the argument from Napoleon and Hitler that we should not want politicians to try to apply history. The challenge is how to do so skillfully — which is where a Council of Historical Advisers would come in.

A Market-Based Model

We historians sometimes like to say that our craft is a marketplace of ideas, in which researchers compete against rivals to sell their theories to skeptical and critical consumers. Like many cliches, this one has a core of truth. I had a fascinating couple of days at the Stanford conference, listening to the arguments for and against a Council of Historical Advisers, but I could not help feeling that organizations very like what Ferguson and Allison had in mind already exist.

These organizations are to be found in the private rather than the public sector. They act as freelancers rather than civil servants, selling their services in the marketplace to individuals, businesses and governments. The market's invisible hand at least partly mitigates the problem of power trumping truth, because subscribers will pay for the services of these organizations — Stratfor among them — only if they think they are worth the price. Organizations that pander to potential customers by telling them what the company thinks they want to hear will not last long in a competitive marketplace.

The market-based model of applying history clearly works. The critics of the Stanford conference are surely right that having a wider range of voices in the mix will produce better results, though it is not obvious that the solution some of them urge — more central planning, but this time with gender and racial diversity — will work any better than the current marketplace of ideas. Day in and day out, subscribers of all kinds use the information that companies like Stratfor offer in planning how to act on matters large and small. Each of us can have our own Council of Historical Advisers — which seems to me the best way to apply the lessons of the past.

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He is currently Stanford University's Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and serves on the faculty of the Stanford Archaeology Center. He has published twelve books and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. Dr. Morris' bestsellers include Why the West Rules -- for Now (2010) and War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014). His most recent book is Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, released in 2015 by Princeton University Press. He received his doctorate from Cambridge University.

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