Opinion Articles


History & Defence: Need for long-term reflection at a time of great change


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European security and defence are in crisis. The refugee emergency, the collapse of Schengen, the war in Syria, and the crisis in Ukraine are on the front pages every day. International Relations experts, strategists, game theorists, psychologists, and economists are abuzz. They engage with policy-making, they offer their expertise and they are called upon on a regular basis. New jargon and new theories are coined with enthusiasm every other week. Think tanks churn out an unprecedented number of reports and social media are eagerly spreading them around.

Where are the historians?

If we look at the list of experts called upon by the Foreign Affairs and the Defence Select Committees over the past two years, for example, we find no historian. The most influential think tanks hardly ever employ trained historians and it is even rare to find historians among the experts called on by the Ministry of Defence for their annual Historical Analysis for Defence and Security Symposium.

It goes without saying that, like all aspects of government’s life, policy-makers working on defence and strategic reform need sound historical awareness to navigate a complex series of urgent issues. It is crucial to point out, however, that it is precisely in the fields of strategy and defence that long-term historical perspective and in-depth knowledge of the complex cultural, social and political contexts are essential to ensure effective strategy, the attainment of one’s own goals and the creation of long-term conditions of stability, cooperation and good governance. The lack of historical understanding and awareness can be expensive for all parties involved, on all levels.

One of the reasons why historians have so far kept out of this field is certainly due to the perceived state of Military and Diplomatic History as disciplines. Against the backdrop of the changes in our society at the time, four decade ago, historians moved away from traditional diplomatic and military history and focused on social, cultural and political issues.  Still today, there is a sense that military and diplomatic history are nothing more that a remnant of the ‘Great Men’s History’ tradition. In other words, these branches of the discipline are often viewed as stuffy, old-fashioned, conservative and – at times – even suspicious. Yet, over the past decade military history and diplomatic history have undergone a phase of radical transformation. New sources and new approaches have made them much more than the chronology of ‘what a clerk said to another’ or the sum of cannons and bayonets on the field. Thanks to the cross fertilisation with cultural studies, translation, history of science and technology, intelligence, propaganda and geography, we now have vibrant and exciting fields of enquiry. Most importantly, in their new version military and diplomatic history can be much more useful to policy makers as they promote a round and much more complex understanding.

Let me illustrate this point with examples taken from my own field of research. I work on the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). It is undeniable that over the past decades, NATO has thrived. It has expanded to 28 members, it has revised its strategic concept so to include new notions of security and its operations today range from traditional defence and deterrence to crisis management, protection of human rights and natural disaster relief operations. Today, in theory, the Alliance could operate on a variety of missions, at any time, anywhere.

In this very moment, NATO is monitoring Russian movements on the Eastern flank. It is operating in the Aegean Sea in collaboration with Frontex, the European Union’s border ‘management’ force. NATO also runs Operation Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden to protect commercial vessels from piracy attacks. It is on high-alert on the Southern Flank were tensions between Russia and Turkey are at an all-time high. The public is often unaware of these missions as they are routine operations that run smoothly in the background. The media often find them either too boring or too irrelevant to be worth reporting. Yet, this context is precisely what we need to take into account right now.  

The British Government is looking into how to implement the Strategic and Development Spending Review of 2015 and the country as a whole is discussing the possibility of a Brexit. The impact that both sets of decisions may or may not have on NATO membership and on the country’s security and defence must be considered with careful attention. Policy-makers need to know how the Alliance has been developing up to now, what are the long-term trends and in what direction it is moving. Only by knowing the details of this context, can policy-makers evaluate how best to spend the national defence budget. For example, it is pointless to duplicate everything at national level and there is a strong argument for the Alliance’s members to specialise in what they do best. Members – the rationale goes – should contribute to the Alliance according to their expertise, geographical position and military capability. Yet, history tells us that arguments regarding national sovereignty and the need to be self-sufficient in defence terms run Alliance-wide military and strategic planning into the sand. In recent years, however, the economic downturn has strengthened calls to promote specialisation and regional cooperation and steady progress has indeed taken place.

Similarly, NATO’s planning is linked to the development of the European security framework within the European Union. Over the past decade, the two organisations have worked effectively together and, most recently, they have shared resources, intelligence and know-how in the field of anti-cyber warfare. The trend points towards ever-closer relations. Hence, we need to examine to what extent a renegotiated relationship with the EU would impact on Britain’s security as well as on Britain’s position within NATO.

This is a time of fast-paced change in European defence and security. Historical evidence suggests that discussing now how the defence budget should be spent over the next ten years, is not only counter-intuitive but promises to be a waste of time and money. Hence, long-term historical perspective points to a time to pause and reflect.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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