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?

It seems to me that the way Hakkarainen frames the dilemma for policymakers is right. They need simultaneously to avoid two dangers. They need to avoid facile or misleading historical analogies – which is what much that has been written about history and policymaking focuses on (for example Ernest May’s classic book “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy, which was published in 1973 and focuses on how historical analogies led the United States to get Vietnam wrong). But this can lead to a tendency to reject all historical analogies as false based on the idea – itself somewhat facile – that each situation is unique. So I particularly like Hakkarainen’s idea of “myopic presentism”. The challenge, therefore, is to make better use of history, not less use of history.

However, it seems to me that the crucial question then becomes: how do we distinguish between helpful historical analogies that illuminate the present and unhelpful historical analogies that mislead us? Sometimes, people cynically abuse history to justify policies that are actually driven by other interests. Clearly, this is unhelpful. But as Hakkarainen rightly points out in the paper, well-intentioned attempts to understand the relevance of history to a given situation can also be unhelpful or mislead us. So is there a way of thinking in general terms about the way we should approach historical analogies, or is it just a matter of looking at these things on a case-by-case basis? I like the idea, attributed to Mark Twain (though I have never been able to find a reference) that “history rhymes”. But how exactly does it rhyme?

I am especially interested in these questions because of my work on the relevance of German history to the current situation in Europe. In particular, I have argued that the “German question” has re-emerged in “geo-economic” form – in other words, that there is a kind of recurrence in German history, albeit a dialectical one. I’m not comparing two completely different countries as in some of the cases that May discusses, so in that sense I I’m on solid ground. But I am comparing two different historical periods separated by the caesura (to use another metaphor from poetry) of 1945. Is that legitimate? Many Germans tell me it’s not. They say that the historical analogy I make – basically between developments in Germany after unification in 1871 and after re-unification in 1990 – is inappropriate. So how do we decide if a historical analogy is legitimate?

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One thought on “History and policy

  1. Pingback: History and poetry | Hans Kundnani

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