Leading scholars and policymakers explore how history influences foreign policy and offer insights on how the study of the past can more usefully serve the present.
History, with its insights, analogies, and narratives, is central to the ways that the United States interacts with the world. Historians and policymakers, however, rarely engage one another as effectively or fruitfully as they might. This book bridges that divide, bringing together leading scholars and policymakers to address the essential questions surrounding the history-policy relationship including Mark Lawrence on the numerous, and often contradictory, historical lessons that American observers have drawn from the Vietnam War; H. W. Brands on the role of analogies in U.S. policy during the Persian Gulf crisis and war of 199091; and Jeremi Suri on Henry Kissinger's powerful use of history.
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About the Author
Hal Brands teaches in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He is the author of three books on U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, most recently What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (2014).
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He is the author or editor of six previous books on international affairs, including Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy (coedited with Robert Hutchings) and Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama.
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The Power of the Past
History and Statecraft
By Hal Brands, Jeremi Suri
Brookings Institution PressCopyright © 2016 HAL BRANDS AND JEREMI SURI
All rights reserved.
Introduction: Thinking about History and Foreign Policy
During the summer and fall of 2009, the U.S. policymaking community engaged in what one observer called an "official binge of historical consciousness." Amid intense debate over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, policymakers sought insights from two books that seemed to be locked in a duel over the history of America's earlier conflict in Vietnam. White House officials skeptical of expanded intervention, including President Barack Obama, devoured Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster, a book that chronicled the folly of incremental escalation in Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s and argued implicitly against a similar approach in Afghanistan. Inside the Pentagon, however, the favored historical work was Lewis Sorley's A Better War, which argued that the U.S. military had developed an effective counterinsurgency strategy during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and asserted that the United States might have salvaged a favorable result in Vietnam if not for the collapse of public support and political will at home. The "moral" of Sorley's book, and one that military leaders deemed applicable to the Afghanistan debate, was that the U.S. military could master counterinsurgency if given the requisite time, backing, and resources. In 2009, as in other periods of policy transition, arguments about history were central to both sides of the debate about American national security.
The Presence of History in Policy
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 in which 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 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 an appealing fashion. Sometimes, as in the Sorley-Goldstein debate, these uses of history are explicit and deliberate; most often they are implicit, even unconscious. "Even when people think they are striking out in new directions," observes Margaret MacMillan, "their models often come from the past." Either way, 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-dimensional, and biased in their thinking about the past. Facile historical analogies litter the documentary record of U.S. foreign policy; misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and oversimplifications 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 in which history appears to be used more as an ex post facto justification for a policy already decided upon. It is small wonder that even as historians encourage policymakers to use history in official deliberations, they often cringe when it is actually done. History and policy have an intimate, but frequently dysfunctional, relationship.
The purpose of this book is to work toward a more fruitful interaction between the production of historical knowledge and the making of U.S. foreign policy. The volume aims to explore the dynamics and intricacies of that relationship and to offer insights on how the study of the past can more usefully serve the present. The chapters in this book bring together a distinguished group of thinkers: historians and policymakers who have long grappled with these issues in their research and professional endeavors. In the essays that follow, the contributors explore a series of interrelated questions: How and why do policymakers use history? How has policy benefited or suffered as a result? What are the potential avenues for using history more successfully, and what light can history shine on the dilemmas confronted by contemporary policymakers? How can scholars and policymakers improve the relationship between knowledge and practice? What are the limits of historical utility for policymaking? As a whole, this volume aims to shed light on the complex nexus of history and policy, and to engage policymakers and historians alike in thinking through the requirements for creating and deploying a more usable past.
This is not, of course, an original endeavor. The effort to use history to elucidate lessons of leadership traces back to Herodotus, Thucydides, Sallust, Petrarch, Niccolò Machiavelli, Edward Gibbon, and many other writers who came long before us. A more recent scholarly literature on the history-policy nexus is anchored in influential volumes written by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt in the 1970s and 1980s, and supplemented with additional, and often more specialized, works in the years since. This scholarship is still quite valuable — it offers useful frameworks for thinking about the history-policy relationship, shows just how pervasive the links between history and policy can be, and illustrates many of the pathologies that commonly afflict the relationship between the two through a spectrum of historical cases and examples. Nonetheless, and without slighting the contributions of these earlier works, we believe that there are at least five key reasons why renewed attention to this subject is necessary.
First, notwithstanding more recent contributions, discussions of the history-policy relationship are still dominated by the books written by May and Neustadt de cades ago. This is not inherently a bad thing; the fact that these books have few peers today demonstrates the continuing validity of some of their insights about how history is used and how policymakers might use it better. But it also indicates that there is a need for a fresh look at the long-standing questions — questions whose relevance has only increased in the context of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Scholarship on topics of foreign policy, international development, and military force has evolved since the 1970s and 1980s, and new studies of history and policy must take this research into account. Accordingly, our aim in this book is less to criticize landmark works in the field than to revisit some of the issues they raise (as well as other questions) in a focused, rigorous, and up-to-date way.
Second, renewed exploration of the subject is necessary because historians as a whole have not done enough to cultivate sustained dialogue with the policymaking community. Scholarly books and articles that explicitly address the history-policy nexus, or attempt to engage current policy issues directly, are still the exception in a profession that generally views presentism as a sin rather than a virtue. "The American historical profession," writes Jill Lepore, "defines itself by its dedication to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present falls outside the realm of serious historical study."
Historians are often wise to be cautious about seeking to extract policy insights from a meditation on the past. The differences between two time periods are almost always more important than the similarities; lessons ripped from one context and dropped into another can easily mislead more than they can inform. Sir Michael Howard put this best when he wrote that he was "conscious above all of the unique quality of an experience that resulted from circumstances that would never, that could never, be precisely replicated." Yet while the uniqueness of each historical occurrence is true enough, it is no excuse for historians to shirk engagement with contemporary policy debates and issues. As any informed observer can attest, the inescapable reality is that perceptions of history do influence policy — in ways both positive and negative. What ever the limits of using history for policy, writes Jeff rey Record, "it is clear that policymakers invariably will continue to be influenced by past events and what they believe those events teach." If historians as a whole seek to serve their broader society, they are therefore obligated to promote the most accurate and effective use of history in policymaking. Bringing together in this volume a group of leading scholars and practitioners to consider how this might be done, we hope to catalyze a broader and more sustained interest in these issues both within and outside the historical community.
Promoting this discussion seems all the more imperative in light of the third reason for this book: that the events of the post-9/11 era have once again demonstrated the inextricable links between history and policy, and the corresponding necessity of getting that relationship right. As one might expect, American officials have consistently sought historical reference points in their efforts to deal with the immensely challenging and often frightening problems of the present era. The administrations of both President George W. Bush and Barack Obama have regularly invoked historical analogies, narratives, and insights in choosing or justifying policies, and they have relied heavily on the presumed lessons of the past in charting routes forward. One need only look at the multitude of historical frames used by the Bush administration in devising and defending its response to 9/11: the cautionary tale of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, the perceived lessons of World War II and the Cold War, and the successful postwar demo cratizations of Japan and Germany, among many others. Likewise, President Obama's administration invoked "the lessons of Iraq" in responding to uprisings in Libya and Syria, and its reading of the Vietnam War had a powerful effect on the initial "surge" and subsequent drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. As the essays in this volume illustrate, there is no shortage of contemporary policy issues that demand greater historical awareness. In these circumstances, scholars have a responsibility to engage the history-policy relationship as constructively as possible.
Fourth, we believe that there is great value in exploring the history-policy nexus through a collective endeavor such as this one. The subject under consideration is broad and complex, and the multitude of cases one could study to gain a better understanding of it is virtually infinite. At best, then, any single set of studies can only be suggestive rather than exhaustive or definitive, and it is crucial to draw on a diverse set of approaches and interpretations in analyzing the questions posed above. That is what we have done in this book. The contributors have long been engaged in thinking about these issues, and here, as elsewhere, they have done so in a wide range of creative and insightful ways. Their essays cover a broad span of subjects thematically and temporally — from the use of force to anti–human trafficking efforts, from the lessons of the humanitarian interventions of the nineteenth century through the applications of history during the administrations of Bill Clinton, Bush, and Obama. To the extent that a single book draws together such diverse perspectives and insights, it casts brighter light on an often obscure and slippery subject, and demonstrates just how pervasive the history-policy dynamic truly is.
Fifth, and perhaps most important, we believe that there is a need for work that treats the history-policy nexus as an authentic dialogue, not simply as an opportunity to tell policymakers what they are doing wrong and what they ought to be doing instead. It should be self-evident that one cannot fully appreciate the intricacies of the history-policy relationship without fully engaging both historians and members of the policymaking community. Policymakers may understand aspects of the relationship that elude talented historians, and vice versa. And as we make clear in the forthcoming chapters, both communities have obligations to meet if this relationship is to become a healthier one. Accordingly, this book draws on contributions from both of these "tribes" — leading historians whose work represents the cutting edge of scholarship on key policy issues, and several individuals with significant, high-level experience in the shaping of American statecraft . In bringing these two groups together and putting them in dialogue with one another, the book offers positive avenues for improving the historical content of policy and the policy content of history. We see great possibility in these integrated endeavors.
Historians and Policymakers
This book is divided into three sections, each of which engages a core aspect of the history-policy relationship. In each section, a group of leading scholars and/or policymakers explores a diverse set of subjects clustered around a single overriding question or theme. This approach combines the benefits of ecumenism and of structure. It offers a sustained approach to key issues in the history-policy relationship while also leveraging the broad range of experiences and expertise that the contributors possess.
In part I, four leading diplomatic historians explore the complex and varied ways that history does influence U.S. foreign policy. In chapter 2, Jeremi Suri begins this section by examining how one prominent statesman — former secretary of state Henry Kissinger — has conceived of the relationship between historical knowledge and diplomatic practice. History, notes Suri, has long been essential to Kissinger's understanding of how talented practitioners can and should wield power, and Kissinger has used history to anticipate some of the deep structural forces at work in the international system. He has also made use of his historical knowledge to pursue possibilities for creative statecraft that can exploit or subtly shift broader international currents.
In chapter 3, Mark Atwood Lawrence provides a deeply textured analysis of the numerous historical "lessons" that American observers have drawn from the Vietnam War in the de cades since that conflict ended. He notes that the Vietnam analogy has been interpreted in different — and often contradictory — ways by policymakers and pundits, and he evaluates the ways in which lessons drawn from that conflict have both informed and misinformed debates about post-Vietnam foreign policy. He concludes by reflecting on the utility and limits of the Vietnam analogy as a tool for informing statecraft .
In chapter 4, H. W. Brands builds on Lawrence's analysis by explicitly examining the role of analogies in U.S. policy during the Persian Gulf crisis and war of 1990–91. He reveals how two par tic u lar analogies — those of Munich and Vietnam — were pervasive in shaping the George H. W. Bush administration's confrontation with Saddam Hussein. These analogies, Brands argues, had both salutary and less salutary effects on the quality of American statecraft , demonstrating both the power of analogical reasoning and the need to treat such reasoning with great care.
Finally, in chapter 5, Jennifer Miller analyzes the interplay between historical narratives — prevailing understandings of the recent past — and U.S.-Japanese relations after World War II. Focusing on debates over Japanese rearmament, Miller shows that narratives forged from complex international interactions had a powerful role in shaping the U.S.-Japanese relationship. Shifts of policy, in turn, required efforts to revise those historical narratives. The chapters in this section thus cover a broad chronology and subject matter; together they demonstrate the rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory qualities of the relationship between history and policy.
Part II is prescriptive as well as descriptive: it engages the question of how historical knowledge can and should inform better policy. In this section four top scholars — including two with significant policymaking experience — analyze particular themes or episodes in the history of U.S. foreign policy, and they offer insights into how to make those subjects more "usable" in dealing with contemporary global challenges. Starting off the section, Thomas Mahnken and William Inboden combine the insights derived from their scholarly work with those gained during their time in government. Mahnken in chapter 6 analyzes how understandings of America's Cold War– era strategy of containment continue to inform — and mislead — discussions of contemporary problems. He suggests how policymakers and pundits might apply a firmer grasp of containment's history to clarify options, alternatives, and debates on a range of foreign policy questions today.
Excerpted from The Power of the Past by Hal Brands, Jeremi Suri. Copyright © 2016 HAL BRANDS AND JEREMI SURI. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Introduction: Thinking about History and Foreign Policy Hal Brands Jeremi Suri 1
Part I How History Does Influence Policy
2 Henry Kissinger, the Study of History, and the Modern Statesman Jeremi Suri 27
3 Policymaking and the Uses of the Vietnam War Mark Atwood Lawrence 49
4 Neither Munich nor Vietnam: The Gulf War of 1991 H. W. Brands 73
5 Narrating Democracy: Historical Narratives, the Potsdam Declaration, and Japanese Rearmament, 1945-50 Jennifer M. Miller 99
Part II How History Can and Should Influence Policy
6 Containment: myth and Metaphor Thomas G. Mahnken 133
7 Grand Strategy and Petty Squabbles: The Paradox and Lessons of the Reagan NSC William Inboden 151
8 The Ambiguities of Humanitarian Intervention Michael Cotey Morgan 181
9 The Shadow of White Slavery: Race, Innocence, and History in Contemporary Anti-Human Trafficking Campaigns Gunther Peck 209
Part III Policymakers' Insights
10 History, Policymaking, and the Balkans: Lessons Imported and Lessons Learned James B. Steinberg 237
11 Looking Forward through the Past: The Role of History in Bush White House National Security Policymaking Peter Feaver William Inboden 253
12 The Nature of History's Lessons Philip Zelikow 281
About the Authors 311