In the previous post, I referred to the idea, attributed to Mark Twain (though I’ve never been able to find a reference), that “history rhymes”. It is meant as an alternative to the idea that history simply repeats itself. Instead, it is suggested, the patterns of history are more complex than this: there are connections between past and present but they are complex and subtle rather than direct ones. The task for analysts of the present, as the historian Charles Emmerson put it in a thoughtful essay, “is to listen for those rhymes and to calibrate our hearing to catch them.” The implication is that history is somehow like poetry. It is an intriguing idea. But if one takes it seriously, it raises lots of further questions. How, exactly, does history “rhyme”? Are there rules of what we might call “historical prosody”? If history rhymes, does it also have something like metre?
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?