History in Policy

‘Public history’ is something of a misnomer. The degree to which history which can influence policy is ‘public’ is a difficult question. E. H. Carr writes in his What Is History? that, when he was working in a junior capacity at the Paris peace conference in 1919, all the diplomats and their staffs took extra care to empty their wastepaper baskets. They were thinking of the discussions surrounding the peace treaty after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, and the history they used to inform their actions was a titbit of information about that time: that nefarious negotiators spied on their opposite numbers’ plans by going through their waste paper. Carr uses this to illustrate the fallacy of thinking one can ultimately ‘learn from history’ in a way which is total and all-encompassing. Each moment in time presents new and unique challenges. One cannot rely simply on knowing the past to know the present, or indeed to predict the future.

But there is and must be some role for history in the formation of policy. Different political cultures are more or less historical, with some having particularly long memories. Mao Tse-tung used to lecture American envoys using analogies from the founding of the first Chinese empire. Policymakers of all kinds cannot avoid history. They encounter it throughout their lives; they are shaped by it as they grow to maturity; and sometimes, per Tony Blair, they feel its hand on their shoulders. The question for the historian, therefore, is whether to do anything in response to this obvious truth, and, if one has decided to act, how exactly to ensure that historical knowledge – such that it is – can best be used by politicians.

It is an attractive vision: the historian sitting beside the statesman, historians advising leaders using their specific and unique expertise. Some have found it particularly seductive. Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson went so far, before the 2016 presidential election, to argue that the next American president should have a ‘council of historical advisors’, whose job it would be to prepare policy papers involving and invoking historical examples, and to assess modern challenges in light of what has come before.

In a far less ambitious sense, the History and Policy project has a similar aim. Not so much the large conference halls filled with important people – but rather a slow and piecemeal attempt to produce historically literate material for public consumption on issues of the day. The use of this strategy in pursuit of historical education may be significant, but there is little chance of a blog post on Clement Attlee doing much to sway the minds of policymakers, not matter how good its history.

Education in this sense is not the answer – not in the immediate sense. If historians undertook a concerted project to improve the historical sense and literacy of an entire generation, there would no doubt be results, but they would be too difficult to predict; there are too many variables. The people who would have the ear of policymakers in a generation may indeed be better informed historically, but this is beyond the scope of this inquiry. Instead, one must focus on assisting the current generation of leaders.

If historians are to be involved in the formation and elevation of public policy, there must be some overarching sense of purpose. What do historians in particular have to offer that practical specialists in the various areas of policymaking cannot offer? This question cannot be easily answered.

One potential typology presents itself. Advisers of the usual kind, who are from the usual sources, seek to inform politicians, to advise them in decision making, and to plan for the future. Can a historian do any of these thing differently or even better than the current roster of think-tank analysts, civil servants, and internal governmental advisors?

First, the business of informing policymakers. Historians may nominally be suited for this. The way historical knowledge is communicated at least gives them practice in high level communication. But more important than the people this would involve is the content. What can a historical argument catch that strategic planning cannot? History is not, as some suppose, made up of various lessons supported by facts. Margaret MacMillan in her book The Uses and Abuses of History seemed to think so when confronted with the prospect of the Iraq War in 2003, but she was wrong. According to MacMillan, historians of all stripes, upon being summoned to the White House and 10 Downing Street, did their utmost to dissuade President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. But it was to no avail. And rightly so.

The character of the historians’ arguments, as communicated by MacMillan, seemed to be of little real value. They appear to have been doing little more than reiterating some tired sentiments about starting land wars in Asia and how Afghanistan is the ‘graveyard of empires’. No doubt President Trump today, were war on the cards, would be advised by some not to invade Russia during winter. There is nothing unique or valuable about such advice.

Of a different quality, but fundamentally as dull, was the suggestion that Blair and Bush, and their advisors, did not know Iraq. This may be true. Indeed, it is likely. But the way MacMillan paints the historians – all but gasping in horror – does them little credit. And their warnings, if she is to be believed, were again of a generic and even orientalist flavour. The Sunni and Shia have been at war for a thousand years, Blair and Bush were apparently warned. You don’t want to kick that hornets’ nest, they were told.

All of this is not so much historically literate as posturing with a garnish of historical examples. When historians advise politicians, they can seem to do so either arrogantly or badly. The above example takes in both. If one were being generous, one might argue that historians, having been denied the ear of politicians, are desperate to assert the usefulness of their subject. Thus they overemphasise exactly how great an effect it can have on present or future situations. History is not destiny, however. And to suggest that it is, as these historians did, seems personally arrogant and minimises both the agency of individuals and the myriad possibilities of the future.

This, then, is a poor example of historians attempting to inform policymakers. The information was tired and worn and almost valueless, as strategic planners can be counted upon to dredge up clichés of this sort without assistance; and it was not taken, regardless.

In truth, there are few examples of the careful use of historical information improving public policy. One can imagine policymakers who are too historically minded being paralysed by the weight of this knowledge. Being aware of every failed attempt at similar reform or a comparable economic strategy. Analogies multiplying, the number of potentially bad options spilling out before them over the horizon. Fearful policymakers are not necessarily good leaders. In fact, they can lack the strategic willingness to act in order to avert future crises. Henry Kissinger, in a moment of clarity, called this the ‘problem of conjecture’. Historians may simply have too much of a sense of what has gone wrong to be able to inform politicians how to do what is right.

In big data an advance may be found. States are newly collecting vast troves of information about their citizens and their foreign allies and adversaries. Vast amounts of information are being gathered, but how are they marshalled? Governments at present have many statisticians, but they may lack the creative aspect; historians have been working with datasets of this level for some time. Their ability to inform policymakers of uses for this new cache of information may be of use. Historians working with incomplete data have to use lateral techniques to reconstruct and model with plausibility. Perhaps the same skills may be helpful in dealing with the reciprocal problem: having entirely too much data. The effects this could have on public policy may be extensive, especially as the era of big data becomes more entrenched. Historians will be able to draw upon years of extensive data collection to map changes in any number of variables, allowing policymakers new insights into familiar figures. But though historians may be useful in themselves, what use does public history have in this area? This is difficult to describe, not least because this area is so speculative. One cannot draw any conclusions from it, for better or worse.

To return to a strategic level, in terms of informing policymakers about the past, historians have competition. Foreign policy analysts such as Michael Doran, who wrote a book about American policy in the Middle East in the mid-twentieth century entitled Ike’s Gamble, and Michael Knights, whose book Cradle of Conflict deals with the past 30 years of war in Mesopotamia and how it has forged aspects of American and regional military policies, use historical methods and historical examples, but do so with a present-minded, utilitarian focus. Joel Rayburn, a former Marine colonel who is now in government, wrote Iraq after America with a similar ambition. These books are effective examples of their kind. They are not intrinsically historical, but they contain enough history to inform policymakers.

Unless by a process of transfiguration books such as these are considered public history, these books do a better job of informing policymakers of what they need to know than public historians appear to be able to do. The truth appears to be that until public history can develop a unique method of presenting the results of historical research, historians will be reduced to mouthing platitudes in the drawing rooms of policymakers.

Second, should public history advise policymakers? The above example suggests not. If a level of essential historical context is provided by professionals, is there any use for public history at all? One inclines towards the negative. There are no essentials in policy advice that a practitioner of public history can grasp that others cannot. There is no information hidden in history that cannot be found anywhere else.

What historians may be able to provide, then, is an intellectual method which may be conducive to advising policymakers. In mature democracies, much like how states learn from each other and take examples of policy initiatives from other states, lessons are taken from the past with regularity. Constitutional traditions prove important aspects of contemporary debate, in the legal arena and in other areas. Can historians afford not to participate in discussions about the past? And would it not be preferable to take some of these interjections into history away from politicised figures? The answer to the former is seemingly obvious, and so is the answer to the latter. But in truth, historians cannot themselves escape the political. And for practitioners of public history to be engaged in advising policymakers does not render policy more historical; but rather renders history more political. The work of every member of Allison and Ferguson’s council of historians would be scrutinised beyond reason. Their standing in relation to colleagues and contemporaries would come under political pressure. There would be jockeying for position, the onset of historical-political careerism. Historians cannot remain aloof from a politics to which they wish to contribute.

The historians themselves who contributed to political life would become public figures, necessarily. But they would become political figures, in much the same way as the law – in the form of the Supreme Court and its appointments – has been politicised in some countries, for example the United States. The historians whom states decide to patronise will either be promoted or disdained on the basis of this association, and this will distort the historical profession. In this sense, this is not necessarily an argument that public history cannot advise the formation of policy, but that it should not, for the sake of keeping history as distinct from politics as is possible.

Assisting policymakers plan for what is to come is a wholly different question. It involves historians not only seeking to inform and advice, both of which come with political baggage, but also attempting to use information gleaned using historical methods to assume what might occur the future and make that information available to policymakers. Carr, who wrote a great deal in What Is History? about causation, was not confident of the historian’s ability to predict the future. Historians are more aware than most people about the randomness of events, the fact that in any given circumstance possibilities abound.

Can a historian in good conscience offer advice about future events based upon the past? This is not an absurd question. Historians are certainly assumed to understand both the past and causation; other advisors, of all sorts, engage in predictions. Would it be wrong for a historian to do so, using the expertise gained from and transmitted by public history in the formation of predictions, expectations, and practical suggestions of how to proceed. The above politicisation would become more or less inevitable. Politicians may seek to create brains trusts of historians, in the Allison—Ferguson mould, to help them make decisions. And there might be some utility in that. Politicians certainly like to feel well-advised.

But this utility works both ways. The question at hand is not simply about employing limited expertise. It concerns whether public history is of any use in the formation of practical policy. And one can only say that, so far as prediction goes, it is not. Historians are generally well-informed. They, like all academics, are expected to know that of what they speak; but the second they leave the past and begin to talk about the future, they have, if not abdicated their expertise, then decreased its value perceptibly.

Historians have many predictions which never come true. Paul Kennedy in his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers thought that the Soviet Union and the United States would together decline and collapse after engaging in military overreach. The world is still waiting for the latter nation to fall. And other predictions of a similar nature have not come to pass. The end of history advanced by Francis Fukuyama did not come about either. Liberal democracy may be the final form of government – there is not enough evidence to say either way – but it has not won out yet.

Historians who engage in public history are not typical historians, but they still share the fundaments of the profession. And engaging in prediction and planning for policymakers is, if not ahistorical, then unhistorical. Historians who do so cease being historians and become jobbing foreign policy analysts, say, or would be domestic reformers. Thus public history cannot engage with public policy on a predictive level, because it ceases being history at all when it does so. This is so essential to the formulation of policy, which is the operative aspect of the question. And for this, as well as for the threat of their own politicisation, historians would do well to avoid the possibility of engaging with public policy. And in truth, there is every possibility that, like those who sought to advise Bush and Blair in 2003, they would have very little useful to say in any case.


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