History and policy

In a thought-provoking recent paper, Petri Hakkarainen asks an important question: what role should history play in foreign policy? (The paper is part of the History and Policy-Making Initiative, which was launched jointly by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Graduate Institute in 2015.) Hakkarainen, a Finnish diplomat, argues that “we seem to be living in increasingly ahistorical times, dominated by myopic presentism” – in other words that policymaking is insufficiently informed by history. “The tendency to see arising policy challenges as one-off events, detached from the past, not only misleads us in the present but also blurs our vision ahead.” At the same time, historical analogies can also be misleading. So how can policy be informed by history without being misled by it?

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A pre-history of Indian foreign policy

Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War is a brilliant synthesis of the history of India’s struggle for independence and the history of World War II. In most versions of the story of how India finally became independent in 1947, the impact of World War II tends to be underplayed. Conversely, in most histories of World War II, India’s role in it tends to be underplayed. What Raghavan does in India’s War is to bring these two histories together. That alone makes this an important book – a contribution to an emerging global history that simultaneously connects and challenges Western narratives centred on the war and non-Western narratives centred on decolonisation. But it seems to me that India’s War is also more than that. It can be seen as a kind of pre-history of India’s post-independence foreign policy. As such, it illuminates not just the past but the present and the future.

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The West and the anti-West

Last month I took part in a workshop run by the Transatlantic Academy in Washington on the development of the relationship between China and Russia – and its consequences for the West. Immediately after the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin signed a series of trade deals with China, including a $400 billion deal to export Russian gas to China. Since then, the two countries have also agreed to “co-ordinate” the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt. Beyond China’s need for energy and Russia’s need to replace trade with, and investment from, Europe, the two countries also share an interest in challenging U.S. power and in creating a “multipolar world”. So should the West worry about a relationship? And if so, how should it respond?

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Germany, the east and the south (2)

In my book, The Paradox of German Power, I argued that, since the euro crisis began in 2010, EU member states seemed to have adopted a mixture of bandwagoning and balancing in relation to Germany. In particular, I suggested that the countries of central Europe, whose economies had been integrated with Germany’s since reunification, seemed to be forming “a kind of geo-economic equivalent of a German sphere of influence”. Meanwhile, the eurozone “periphery” seemed to be under pressure to form what George Soros called a “common front” against Germany. In short, the east was bandwagoning and the south balancing. However, since then, I’ve started to wonder whether perhaps I underestimated the complexity and fluidity of coalition building within the European Union. Instead of two blocs within Europe, there seems to be an even more complex and fluid dynamic of shifting coalitions.

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Germany, the east and the south

I can still remember how, in a late-night discussion at the Brussels Forum in March 2013, Estonian President Toomas Ilves urged the audience to read an article entitled “Why Poland is the new France for Germany” that had been published a few months earlier by my former ECFR colleagues Ulrike Guérot and Konstanty Gebert. The Civic Platform government of Donald Tusk – which the article said was “committed to joining the Euro around 2016” – had put behind it the fraught relationship that had existed between the two countries while Jarosław Kaczyński was prime minister between 2006 and 2007. As a result, the article suggested, some in Germany – which, in the context of the euro crisis, was increasingly frustrated with France’s perceived failure to reform its economy – increasingly saw Poland as its closest and most important partner in the European Union.

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International relations in Europe

Since my book, The Paradox of German Power, came out, I’ve had some interesting discussions about the implicit assumptions about the nature of international relations in Europe on which it is based. In particular, especially in Germany, some have questioned whether the concepts I use make sense in the context of the European Union. The EU, they argue, has transformed international politics into domestic politics. So does it make sense to use concepts like hegemony in this context? Thus discussion of the “German question” – a phrase that implies continuity with pre-World War II Europe – inevitably raises broader questions about how to understand the way in which international politics in Europe has changed. How exactly has European integration transformed relations between European states?

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Parallel pasts

A few weeks ago I attended a conference in Berlin, organised by the European Council Foreign Relations (where I worked for five years), on relations between Europe and Japan. What particularly struck me as I listened to the discussions during the course of the day was the lack of common ground between the German and Japanese participants. There are striking parallels in the histories of the two countries – one in Europe, the other in Asia – that go back a century and a half. As a result, policymakers in the two countries now face similar challenges. But instead of creating a sense of empathy between participants from Germany and Japan, the history they share seemed to create tension between them. I wondered whether, because the history that the two countries share is such a difficult one, it may separate them rather than bringing them together. In other words, perhaps Germany and Japan are divided by their parallel pasts.

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