Historians' Books

The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft

Hal Brands , Jeremi Suri |

Examining the course of American statecraft over the last century, one cannot escape the conclusion that history—historical knowledge, insights, lessons, analogies, and narratives—permeates the ways that the United States interacts with the world.  From World War I to the Cold War to the War on Terror, American officials have frequently drawn on their perceptions and understandings of what came before as reference points in seeking to deal with the dilemmas of the here and the now.  They have used history to gain perspective on the world and its challenges; to impose familiarity on novel and perplexing issues; to channel the perceived verities of the past in grappling with the uncertainties of the future; or simply to frame and market their policies in appealing fashion.  History— an understanding, whether accurate or inaccurate, of the past—is omnipresent in foreign policy.

This is not to say that policymakers use history as historians might like them to use it.  Numerous scholars have noted that policymakers are often selective, uncritical, one-sided, and biased in their thinking about the past.  Facile historical analogies litter the documentary record of U.S. foreign policy; misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and over-simplifications of the past are legion.  Indeed, some of the most frequently used historical reference points for U.S. foreign policy—the Munich analogy, for instance—tend to obscure more than they clarify. And for every case in which policymakers seem genuinely interested in learning from history, there is another where history appears to be used more as an ex-post facto justification for a policy already decided upon. Small wonder that even as historians encourage policy-makers to use history in official deliberations, they often cringe when this is actually done.  History and policy have an intimate, but frequently dysfunctional relationship.  In our new edited volume, The Power of the Past, we explore ways for making this relationship more fruitful and productive.

The Nature of the History-Policy Relationship

There is no single model for how historical knowledge shapes the policy environment or guides particular decisions.  Analogical reasoning is probably the most common way in which policymakers directly apply history to policy issues. Many of the contributors to our new book demonstrate just how compelling—if sometimes misleading—this type of reasoning can be. Analogies are, however, but one pathway through which the past influences the present.

Personal experience—an individual’s own history—is another such pathway.  Past experiences provide the intellectual framing through which we interpret current events, and they powerfully shape how new challenges and opportunities are perceived.  Likewise, historical narratives—the inherited accounts of what happened and why—profoundly influence the cultural milieu in which policy options are considered and decisions made.  Historical symbols and metaphors—the notion of containment, for instance—can also shape policy, by providing the reference points that pull officials toward certain solutions and away from others. In some cases, policymakers even bring their own understanding of history as an intellectual endeavor to bear on their approach to contemporary problems.  This was certainly true of Henry Kissinger, who relied less on simple analogies than on his studied reflections about how historical forces interacted with policy opportunities.  This list of pathways for history’s influence on policy could easily go on, but the key point is that any discussion of the history-policy relationship must begin with an acknowledgement of just how many diverse forms that relationship can take.

Discussion should also begin with a recognition that the policy insights to be drawn from history are not always as objective or unarguable as we might like them to be.  One of the difficulties inherent in applying historical knowledge to policy is that reasonable observers can draw entirely different—and contradictory—implications from the same historical episode.  For the Clinton administration in the early 1990s, was the “correct lesson” to be drawn from 1914 that great powers should not meddle in longstanding ethnic and national conflicts in the Balkans?  Or was the “correct lesson” that decisive intervention was imperative, lest those conflicts fester, metastasize, and trigger systemic instability?  Smart people could and did make both arguments, based on plausible readings of the past.  For decades, intelligent observers have also drawn diametrically opposed conclusions from the U.S. war in Vietnam.  For some, the key lesson of that conflict is the need to respect the limits of American power; for others, the history of the war, and its aftermath, show the danger of not using American power assertively enough. 

We should not attribute these disagreements to bias on one side or the other, for as historians surely understand, interpretive disputes are the rule rather than the exception even when history is studied rigorously.  The fact is that history does not lend itself to a single, incontestable set of policy-relevant takeaways; it lends itself, particularly with new research, to continuing contestation and debate.

These points should be a source of humility and self-awareness for historians and policymakers alike.  Policymakers should realize that history shapes their actions in myriad ways and through numerous channels, whether they perceive that to be the case or not.  Policymakers and historians should also understand that history almost never produces a single “correct” answer to a policy problem.

Historical Analogies

A second theme of our book concerns the utility—and limits—of historical analogies.  Analogies are unavoidable in policy-making, they are often misleading, and they can be immensely useful if treated with care.

As noted above, analogical reasoning is perhaps the most common way that policymakers use history, and it is a practice that many historians view with deep suspicion.  The entire endeavor seems to reek of indifference to the importance of context and complexity, to suggest that an insight—usually an over-simplified one—drawn from one distinct experience can apply accurately to another.  As one scholar has written: “Reasoning by historical analogy can be dangerous, especially if such reasoning is untempered by recognition that no two historical events are identical and that the future is more than a linear extension of the past.”  There is much truth in this assessment. One has only to look at the influence of the Munich analogy on U.S. policy in Vietnam, or on British policy in the Suez crisis, to understand how badly the uncritical application of historical analogies can distort policy.[1]  When analogies dull policymakers’ sensitivity to the particularities of their current context—to the differences between two situations separated by time and space, or to the danger of devising historical “laws” from a single episode in the past—they can have pernicious impacts indeed.

Those impacts can be especially problematic when analogies become politicized.  Precisely because analogies can be so powerful and evocative, there is a temptation for policymakers to invoke them less as an opening for critical inquiry than as a rhetorical blunt object.  The Munich analogy, the Vietnam analogy, and countless others have often been deployed not as a means of carefully interrogating the past for insights about the present, but as a political device to sell a particular policy or discredit an opponent’s alternative. This rhetorical tactic is part and parcel of democratic politics, of course, but it is an invitation to simplistic and overwrought readings of history—and a key reason why so many scholars are skeptical of whether policy-makers can really use analogies with integrity.

This caution about analogies confronts historians and policymakers with a real dilemma. Policy-makers inevitably grasp for comparisons to make sense of new information and uncertainty. This is why historical analogies are so unavoidable—they help decision-makers under intense pressure to make sense of their challenges and opportunities.  For all its drawbacks and abuses, analogical reasoning is therefore a perfectly natural way to bring the wisdom of experience to current dilemmas.  As Yuen Foon Khong writes in his highly critical study of analogical reasoning during the early escalation of American intervention in the Vietnam War:  “Because policymakers often encounter new foreign policy challenges and because structural uncertainty usually infuses the environment in which responses to such challenges must be forged, policymakers routinely turn to the past for guidance.”[2] Historians may deplore the way that analogies are routinely misused in policy decisions, but it is unrealistic to think that analogies will ever be purged from that process.

The good news is that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Historical analogies do not always have a negative impact on policy debates; at times, they push decision-makers in helpful directions that open new possibilities and protect against dead-ends.  One can argue that the Munich analogy actually served U.S. policy-makers well in the case of the Korean War, for example, by encouraging the Truman administration to meet a Soviet-backed assault on South Korea that, if successful, might have destabilized the postwar environment irreparably.

This point touches on a fundamental reality about historical analogies.  Although the uncritical or selective deployment of analogies is obviously fraught with peril, a more discerning use can be quite illuminating.  Carefully employed, analogies can help spark the intellectual curiosity that leads to sharper, textured interpretations of complex situations, integrating attention to details with insights about the relationships between different actors and events.

The key here is to understand that analogies should serve as the beginning of an inquiry into the continuities between past and present, rather than an end to such an analysis.  Observing that the present situation is “like” something that came before need not foreclose further critical examination of context and discontinuity; it can actually serve as an intellectual point of departure for interrogating how the present is both similar and different than what came before.  If a leader is warned that some foreign intervention will become “another Vietnam” or “another Iraq,” for instance, such admonitions can provide useful frames of reference for exploring how applicable these comparisons really are—and thus better fleshing out the true dynamics of the challenge.  Likewise, the comparative use of analogies—looking at the current events in light of not just one prior episode, but two, three, or four—can reveal potential continuities between past and present, while also underscoring the need to avoid becoming locked into any single analogical paradigm. 

Historical Sensibility

The rigorous use of analogies is a starting point for understanding history as more than just a repository of facts and comparisons.  Ernest May and Richard Neustadt observed that during policy discussions President Harry Truman frequently invoked historical details gained from his readings about other eras.  He invoked these details, generally, to constrict debate and focus it on a few “necessary” options, rather than to open new questions and perspectives on pressing problems.  In contrast, General (and later Secretary of State) George Marshall had read little history, and he rarely based his policy arguments on facts about the past.  He pushed his advisors (including Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Charles Bohlen) to explore new opportunities and use knowledge of past efforts to inform creative adjustments in the present.[3]

The launching of the Marshall Plan stands out as an endeavor in constructive historical imagination.  Marshall’s landmark speech at Harvard University in June 1947 did not include many detailed facts or any long excursions into the history of America or Europe.  Rather, Marshall began with a basic proposition, drawn from an understanding of how societies had struggled to recover from war in the past.  Marshall focused on what he called the “fabric of European economy”:

The feverish preparation for war and the more feverish maintenance of the war effort engulfed all aspects of national economies.  Machinery has fallen into disrepair or is entirely obsolete.  Under the arbitrary and destructive Nazi rule, virtually every possible enterprise was geared into the German war machine. Long-standing commercial ties, private institutions, banks, insurance companies, and shipping companies disappeared, through loss of capital, absorption through nationalization, or by simple destruction.  In many countries, confidence in the local currency has been severely shaken.  The breakdown of the business structure of Europe during the war was complete.

Marshall did not pretend that the events in Europe after World War II were “like” any past moment, but he drew on the historical knowledge that conditions of suffering and stagnation bred extremism and instability.  Marshall and his colleagues also drew on the historical knowledge that prolonged turmoil in Europe had negative repercussions for the United States.  Despite the heavy burden of debt from World War II, and the fears of a return to pre-war conditions of economic depression, American leaders in the late 1940s used this history to justify an unprecedented commitment to European recovery.  American aid was “logical” to restore “normal economic health in the world,” Marshall said, “without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”[4]

Marshall then went one step further. He had learned from his own military experiences in the Philippines and other areas that the United States could not impose solutions.  Acheson, Kennan, and Bohlen gained similar lessons for their experiences in Washington and Europe during the war.  The resulting emphasis on multilateralism and partnership in reconstruction was unprecedented in American history, but it was the best route forward because of the knowledge that isolationism and unilateralism had failed to produce intended results in the past.

Many of Marshall’s successors have sought to replicate the achievements of the Marshall Plan in other regions.  They have been less successful, in part, because they have tried to replay past policies, rather than understand broader historical trends. Marshall and his colleagues did not make that mistake in 1947.  They saw strong historical reasons for why postwar turmoil in Europe was dangerous, why Washington should care, and why America should build on-the-ground partnerships with local Europeans.  Their sense of historical change led them to reject the standard American facts about separation from Europe and investment for foreign trade rather than local-driven development, and to embrace experimentation with new and bold solutions.  Historical thinking about alternatives offered an escape from the imprisonment of the past.

This is the best way to understand how a historical sensibility—rather than a mere repetition of historical facts—can help policy-makers confronting proliferating challenges under conditions of uncertainty.  Reading history offers an opportunity to think about the broad dynamics (economic, geopolitical, and cultural) that are influencing contemporary events, whether recognized by current actors or not.  Fernand Braudel called this perspective the longue durée.[5]  Policy-makers must take the time to develop (and continually reassess) their understanding of how their immediate crises fit into the longue durée.  Otherwise, they will never get ahead of the daily pressures.  Putting out fires is a technical skill; anticipating where they are most likely to occur, and how they can best be prevented, requires historical awareness.

A historical sensibility is not only about broad dynamics.  It also focuses on contingencies and tipping points: places where a focused effort can make an enduring difference.  These are the “windows of opportunity” that a policy-maker can only identify correctly if she understands the relationships between various actors, trends, and events.  In the late 1940s, American policy-makers perceived a window of opportunity in postwar Europe because they recognized the potential partners on the ground, the areas where their incentives would align with U.S. interests, and the extent to which the disjunctures caused by the war had created an opening for decisive action.  Reading history can give policy-makers the knowledge to identify similar moments and devise plans for them today.  A historical sensibility helps one to see the links between various crises and the potential points of leverage for pushing events toward a new result.  A historical sensibility builds agency through awareness of connections, and the places where they are susceptible to influence.

This is something that the greatest analysts of statecraft have long understood.  Clausewitz famously argued for a historical sensibility in generals because only that would allow them to understand the complex interplay of forces that shaped events on the battlefield, and to identify—and exploit—the opportunities as they arose.[6]  The same logic applies to foreign policy writ large.  A sense of how the international landscape is evolving and where the spaces for productive action might exist—these are key issues for effective leaders.  Reading history reminds us that we must lift our heads above the chaos of our inboxes to find a broader order in events, and exert influence at critical junctures.  American policy-makers did this in 1947 because they thought in historical terms about the past and future of postwar Europe.  Our new book aims to encourage similar ways of thinking.

This essay is excerpted from Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri, eds., The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft (Brookings Institution Press, 2015).


[1] Record, Jeffrey Record, The Perils of Reasoning by Historical Analogy: Munich, Vietnam and American Use of Force since 1945, Occasional Paper No. 4, Center for Strategy and Technology, Air War College, March 1998, 23.

[2] Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 252. 

[3] See Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 247-59.

[4] The “Marshall Plan” speech at Harvard University, 5 June 1947, available at: http://www.oecd.org/general/themarshallplanspeechatharvarduniversity5june1947.htm (accessed 26 July 2013).

[5] For a succinct statement of Fernand Braudel’s historical philosophy, see Fernand Braudel, On History, trans. Sarah Matthews, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

[6] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), passim.

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