contributor perspectives

Jan 21, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

12 mins read

Learning the Lessons of Long-Term History

Board of Contributors
Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
Learning the Lessons of Long-Term History
(Central Press/Hulton Archive/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.

By Ian Morris

"The farther backward you can look," Winston Churchill supposedly said, "the farther forward you are likely to see."

This will be the principle guiding my columns, even though Churchill's claim was not, on the face of it, very radical. I suspect most strategic forecasters would say his one-liner is, in fact, just a truism. Of course the only way to forecast the shape of things to come is by looking at the shape of things that have already been; and that being the case, it is obvious that the more of history we look at, the more of the future we should be able to foresee.

And yet when forecasters actually create their predictions, they often appear to be operating under rather different assumptions. All too often, the past is not a place where big patterns play out, revealing trends that might well continue into the future, but rather one that functions as a grab bag of analogies to be plundered in search of insight. Take, for instance, the observation that China's rise in the last 30 years has certain things in common with Germany's rise a century ago. This is undoubtedly true, but what does it tell us? Different commentators draw wildly different conclusions from the same analogy — some illuminating and some not.

The Use of Analogies

Logicians like to distinguish between two kinds of analogies: the "formal" and the "relational." Arguments made from formal analogies identify similarities between well-understood and less well-understood cases, and, on the basis of these similarities, predict that other attributes of the cases will also be the same. The Germany-China analogy is a formal one: We look at Germany in the 1910s (a well-known case) and China in the 2010s (a largely unknown case), see similar economic booms and military build-ups and conclude that the second case will end as badly as the first.

Arguments made from relational analogies, by contrast, begin by identifying large patterns that link many well-known cases. They then locate lesser-known cases within this web of interconnections and try to understand how they fit into the larger structure. As a simple example, this time last year we might have looked at the behavior of Russian states since the 16th century and observed that access to warm-water ports has always been a life-and-death issue for them; we might have then concluded that the 2014 Russian government would choose to run great risks rather than let Ukraine bring its Crimean facilities into the West's embrace.

Formal analogies are easier to make than relational ones, but they generally produce less useful information. This is true in part because formal analogies too easily lend themselves to cherry-picking and often tell us more about an analyst's assumptions than about the external world. We are all familiar with forecasters whose formal analogies seem trapped in an eternal 1938, where every contemporary actor is cast in the role of a Chamberlain, a Hitler or occasionally a Churchill.

Stratfor is one of the glowing exceptions to this rather gloomy generalization. From George Friedman's Geopolitical Weekly to the Global Affairs column under Robert Kaplan's leadership, Stratfor's writings reveal its preference for treating the past as a source of large-scale relational analogies rather than of one-off formal ones. My goal is to take this line of thought further.

In my future columns, I will try to locate current geostrategic questions within the broad trends of history, identifying the forces that not only drive these trends but also disrupt them. From the patterns of the past, I believe, we can make large-scale projections about plausible futures. These forecasts will not always tell us what is going to happen, but they can at least limit the range of possibilities more effectively than any formal analogy — no matter how well chosen.

Trends in Long-Term History

Creating these projections will require more history than forecasters normally bring to bear. Our historical perspective must stretch back many thousands of years because that is the scale on which the most important processes have operated. I will regularly look back 15,000 years to the beginning of agriculture at the end of the last ice age. Sometimes I will go back 7.5 million years to when mankind's predecessors began evolving away from our last common ancestor with the other great apes. Occasionally, I may even go back 3.8 billion years to the origins of life on Earth.

A number of recent books, from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel to Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, have shown how much sense this approach makes of the world we live in. Building on this tradition, I have suggested in my own books that the main lesson of long-term history is that three main forces have worked together to shape how societies have developed.

The first of these forces is biology. We are animals, and like all other animals, we have evolved to have specific physical, social and psychic needs. We crave love, honor, respect and justice while also knowing hunger, fear and anger; we care for others while using cunning and force to get what we want. Once we understand our own biology, much of what has happened in history becomes clear, as does much of what is yet to come.

The second force is sociology. Our biological evolution has made us just like other animals and also completely different. Biological evolution gave us gigantic, superfast brains. These have fed back into the evolutionary process by allowing us to invent cultures as no other animals have. Culture is something we can change in response to circumstances rather than waiting, as other animals must, for our genes to evolve under the pressures of natural selection. As a result, though we are still basically the same animals that we were when we invented agriculture at the end of the ice age, our societies have evolved faster and faster and will continue to do so at an ever-increasing rate in the 21st century.

The third and final force is one that will not surprise Stratfor's subscribers: geography. Biology and sociology are global forces, applying to all humans and their societies whenever and wherever they live, but thanks to geography, no two places are the same. Geographical differences are what account for the very different paths of development that we see around the world.

History has been the product of these three forces, and the future will be, too. History has been messy and complicated, though, because the interaction of these forces has constantly changed what each means individually.

As societies have grown bigger and more complex, the world has shrunk. Space no longer means what it did 1,000 (or even 100) years ago. Some virtual reality enthusiasts even suggest that geography is now losing its meaning altogether. How we act as groups has changed, too, as societies have mushroomed from dozens of people to billions, shifting from the free-and-easy lifestyles of hunter-gatherers to the hierarchy and tradition of peasant societies, and back toward new kinds of equality in our own industrial age. This process has now gone so far, in fact, that culture is on the threshold of changing our biology. We know how to make better-than-perfect eyesight and genetically enhanced babies; we have created artificial life and invented machines that think.

The back-and-forth between biology, sociology and geography has produced bewilderingly complex historical outcomes that are likely to become even more complex in the coming century. But far from making forecasting impossible, this mass of details regularly reduces to a few simple underlying trends that allow us not only to see the significance of current events but also to estimate where they might take us.

The View from 30,000 Feet

Like every analytical method, long-term history inevitably has its blind spots. For the strategic forecaster, the most obvious is its abstraction. This technique gives us the view from 30,000 feet. So for instance, no amount of knowledge about history and archaeology could have told us a month ago that Islamists were planning to murder 17 people in France, or that at least four more would die in related protests in Niger. But then again, detailed studies of terrorist networks or biographies of rootless and troubled radicals cannot easily tell us where all this violence is leading either.

What long-term history does tell us is that these recent events are not unique, isolated episodes. Over and over again, societies have felt that the world has turned against them and have turned inward, searching for meaning in the past and indulging in outbursts of religious violence. We can see this pattern in the Roman Empire and in China, during and after the 3rd and 12th centuries, respectively. Since the 17th century, this trend has become increasingly important in the Muslim world.

Until at least 1600, the Islamic lands were the center of gravity of the western end of the Old World. Europeans marveled at the skill of Middle Eastern craftsmen and at the size of the Indian Ocean's economy. Turkish armies took Constantinople in 1453 and besieged Vienna in 1529 and in 1683. Christians lived in constant fear of a Muslim conquest of Europe. By 1700, however, the tide was turning. Armed with deadly new tactics, fueled by logistical breakthroughs and funded by ingenious fiscal reforms, Europeans pushed the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals back. After 1800, Europe's industrial revolutions widened the gap, and by 1900, London ruled almost everything from present-day Pakistan to Malaysia, while Persia, Turkey and the Arab lands had essentially become parts of informal European empires.

Struggling to make sense of this harsh new world, more and more Muslims have turned toward angry, fundamentalist versions of their faith since the 18th century. Ultraconservative Wahhabism has spread across the Arabian Peninsula, and some radical Muslims, no longer confident of winning conventional wars against Europe, have pinned their hopes on terrorism. State-sponsored religious fervor took thousands of Christian lives in Greece in the 1820s, many more in the Balkans in the 1870s and 1.5 million in Armenia in 1915. Other radicals turned to insurgency. Muhammad Ahmad, known in London as "Mad Mahdi", created an early al Qaeda-like group in Sudan in 1881. Britain invaded Egypt the next year, only to see Ahmad's army wipe out a 10,000-strong Egyptian column and its British leader in 1883. The following year, the Islamists took Khartoum, killing Britain's famous General Gordon in the process.

By that time, an age of asymmetric warfare had begun, pitting demoralized but highly motivated Muslims against the forces of modernity and globalization. British armies were sucked into unhappy adventures in Afghanistan and in Iraq and were unable to suppress Islamists in Sudan until 1899; British troops remained mired in Sudan and Egypt until 1956.

It is no coincidence that since 2001, American troops have been fighting similar Islamist enemies who use similar tactics of terrorism and insurgency in similar parts of the world. For 200 years, the Islamic world has been retreating in the face of the West's economic and military power and has been fighting bitter rearguard battles. To be sure, only a tiny minority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims sees violence as the answer, but recent events suggest that the extremists' rage is only intensifying.

There are many details that could be debated, but long-term history points toward two conclusions. First, this kind of downward spiral into rage and violence rarely ends until the affected region or population emerges once more as a global core of development and prosperity. In the case of the Muslim world, that will mean engaging with modernity, democracy, openness and toleration, as well as ending its blame of Europe and America for all of its problems. It will mean continuing upheavals, but the successes of Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey — despite their many remaining issues — show that it can be done. The Arab Spring uprisings suggest that from Algeria to the Arabian Gulf, significant numbers of people would like to move in the same direction, even if the subsequent backlashes and civil wars show that it will not be easy.

The second conclusion is that this process could take a very long time indeed. The Ming dynasty pulled China out of its 12th-century collapse in the 14th and 15th centuries, but the downward spiral began again in the 16th century. The Qing dynasty reversed the decline in the late 17th and 18th centuries, only for it to return with a vengeance in the 19th century. China's current recovery can be traced back only as far as the end of the country's civil wars in 1949, or perhaps just to the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, and there is no guarantee that China is secure. The Roman Empire fared even worse, reviving from its third-century crisis in the fourth century, only to collapse again between the fifth and seventh centuries. It then took the better part of 1,000 years, until at least the 15th century, for Europe to recover fully. A relational analogy between Islamist violence and Chinese and Roman history is not comforting.

I will close by paraphrasing Churchill again. Long-term history seems to suggest that given time, the Muslim world will eventually return to the broad, sunlit uplands from the abyss of its current dark age. How long that takes, though, and how rough the ride is will depend on details that are harder to see from 30,000 feet. Long-term history is not the only tool a strategic forecaster needs, but it does provide an all-important macro perspective, without which we would struggle to construct relational analogies. History is perhaps an imperfect guide to the future, but I will try to show in my upcoming columns that it is the best one we've got.

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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