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The case for historical advisers in government


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The Sorbonne-educated Israeli historian, Professor Michael Harsegor, has often suggested, in his programme on Galei Tzaal Radio, that every president or prime minister should have a historian serving as personal adviser. He argues that the whole decision-making process would benefit considerably as many mistakes in modern history could have been avoided had a historian been on hand to offer advice. A similar idea was advanced by Professor Sir David Cannadine [pdf file, 61KB] at the launch of History & Policy in December 2007.

The closest historical example of such a scenario is the appointment of the prominent historian Arthur Schlesinger by US president John F. Kennedy as his Special Assistant at the White House. However, this was an ad hoc appointment; Kennedy did not set up a new unit within the White House headed by a historian. No institutional legacy was left by Kennedy. No permanent post of Historical Adviser to the President was instituted either with the appointment of Schlesinger or in his wake. Indeed, Schlesinger himself resigned in 1964, following Kennedy's assassination. He realised that his role was rendered irrelevant under Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson.

Some may suggest Henry Kissinger's name as a further historical example. They would be wrong. Kissinger was appointed by Richard Nixon as his National Security Adviser, not as a historical adviser to the president. The National Security Council had been an integral part of the executive prior to Nixon's election in 1968. Although Kissinger was imbued with a historical, analytical mind, his appointment to the post was due to his expertise in international relations and national security matters.

Neither Nixon, nor any other US president, either before or since, has had a true historical adviser in the White House and no post of historical adviser to the prime minister has been instituted in any major parliamentary democracy. There are historical departments within ministries, such as in the US State Department and the British Foreign Office. Their role, though important, is hardly central in the decision-making process, even of the ministry to which they belong. Would the appointment of a historical adviser have a relative advantage over any other adviser?

Historians know about the future as much as any other person. The past is not a certain compass to the future, only a possible, general guide. History provides analytical tools that can serve to assess processes, not to anticipate them. One of the salutary lessons history can teach is to be modest in foresight. People usually learn from their last similar experience. That may lead to coherent historical parallels, not necessarily to a better judgment about the policy that ought to be adopted.

History is the tale of the singular. Comparisons are valid, indeed sometimes useful and enlightening. On occasion, comparing one event with another, one leader with another, may help to clarify, sharpen and better understand the issue under discussion. However, as a scientific device, historical analysis is as valid to shape policy and anticipate events as other forms of analysis. Historians are no more immune to making political mistakes than anyone else.

Nevertheless, a historical adviser might have a relative advantage, beyond the preparation of background papers on the history of issues under discussion, in shaping the perceptual and implementation stages of policy.

Leaders and their advisers tend to perceive reality, more often than not, through historical lenses. They engage in historical analogies to help them digest new facts by comparing them with already known events. Usually, historical analogies are drawn by leaders and their advisers for political reasons, to elicit support both at home and abroad for a policy adopted.

The historical adviser would have the tools to elevate these historical analogies to the realm of coherent analysis. He or she could introduce a broader range of options, when it comes to historical comparisons, while cautioning against the dangers of facile analogies. The historical adviser could stress that history does not repeat itself. Paradoxically, he or she could advise leaders on the limitations of history as an instrument in the decision-making process.

The problem, of course, is that a leader may start by employing a historical comparison for political reasons and then be gradually convinced of its truth. The difference between historical analogy as a political tool and as a guiding principle in the shaping of policy can easily become blurred. A leader may truly believe in the analogy employed to advance the cause of a policy already adopted. The historical adviser should have a direct input, to give coherent shape to the historical comparison before it is publicly put forward.

In these ways, historical advisers could be a welcome addition to the decision-making process of a head of government. But only if the leader concerned could accept the need for the historian to have a central role, not in deciding policy, but in helping to shape it, from the distinctive perspective that only a historian can bring.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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With long-established offices in King's College London and the University of Cambridge, H&P is an expanding Partnership currently supported by 6 Higher Education Institutes: King’s College London, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, The University of Edinburgh, University of Leeds, and The University of Sheffield.

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