Lessons on History and Statecraft from a Rocky Mountain Seminar

August 9, 2016

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Each summer, the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin runs a week-long summer seminar in history and statecraft for doctoral students and newly minted PhDs. Held just below tree line in the Rocky Mountains, the week offers a “masterclass in the bridging of history and political science in the making of policy.” As participants in this summer’s seminar, we have collected some insights and ideas for students and scholar-practitioners alike to consider, in hopes of adding to the already robust discussion on similar themes found elsewhere at War on the Rocks:

History hems policy options. There is often a temptation by policymakers, pundits, and politicians, not to mention social scientists, to rip pressing issues from their greater historical context. Yet, how we arrive at a policy choice today is in large part determined by both near-term and distant historical processes. These may be structural — for example demographic shifts, economic transitions, social movements or the like — but they are also the series of contingent decisions made by policymakers who came before. To address the most pressing policy issues of today necessarily requires placing them into their historical context — a context that illuminates national interests — and acknowledging how that context may limit potential options. Policymakers from the president down should actively seek out historical knowledge to help comprehend current events.

History offers analogies. Scholars, policymakers, and politicians alike are hard-wired to evaluate security policy through heuristics, the most common being historical analogy. Historical analogies not only provide context and orientation to the problem at hand, allowing historians to speak truth to power, but they can also elucidate the range of potential policy options and outcomes available to policymakers, and offer valuable comfort by showing the threat of the day is not without precedence. During the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, for example, national security policymakers at both the U.S. Departments of State and Defense debated the nature and character of post-war reconstruction operations. Richard Haas, then-director of Policy Planning at the State Department, drew on a series of cases in the Balkans and southeast Asia to argue for the importance of “winning the peace” in the immediate, postwar period. Peter Rodman, then-assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, in contrast, saw a more apt analogy in postwar-France, where the Allies rejected an occupation government in favor of the indigenous resistance forces led by Charles DeGaulle. Each was using history both to advocate for a policy position and to inform a policy choice. Consequently, both were exposed to the risks and rewards of historical analogies.

Applying history to policymaking is not without its perils. Historical analogies are almost always unavoidable in policy circles, but the dangers of drawing analogies to devise policies are manifold. For one, analogies can be egregiously imperfect or laden with what one speaker called “historical bias.” Oftentimes we rely on historical examples that fall within our own borders, limiting those that inform our thinking. Of greater concern, however, the historical accounts can themselves be unsettled, with specific historic details not yet established or known. The Munich Conference of 1938 remains the most convenient fallback analogy for policymakers who favor aggressive, interventionist foreign policy, while more dovish officials tend to favor “lessonsdrawn from the Vietnam War. Such analogical thinking is often superficial, with not enough thought given to critical differences between the situation at hand and the historical comparison. Academic and professional historians offer an account of events that relay the past, but they do so through argumentation and interpretation, marshaling documentary evidence to capture the truth as closely as possible to the available written record. This endeavor does not service the often short-term and immediate needs of foreign policy, which can instead depreciate the vast store of historical knowledge to mere “trivia” or “cherry-picking” to support of existing points of view. Scholars should therefore aim to make policymakers historically-minded, so that they are better able to distinguish good history from bad. Even if few analogies resonate with a present crisis, history can assume an operational role and provide space for reviewing policy in multiple lights, from different angles, and at varying scales. Having a realistic understanding of its possibilities and limits can do a great service.

History and policymaking are both about processes. History’s relationship to policy and statecraft is frequently portrayed as a plea to understand past transgressions so as to avoid similar outcomes in the present. Indeed, historical misconceptions, a lack of deep knowledge, and uncontested assumptions can and have resulted in poor policymaking. And yet history, as a discipline, goes beyond simply getting “the facts” right. History, like policymaking, is about processes. Historical thinking fosters certain analytical techniques, which offer not only insight into the past, but can also help decision-makers interrogate assumptions, recognize change over time, and shape the means of engagement based not on supposed inevitabilities, but rather on a range of alternative possibilities.

Policy relevance requires adaptability, from historians and political scientists alike. The seminar encouraged participants to refine our understanding of the often invoked, but ill-defined, objective of “policy relevance.” Doing so requires scholars to be nimble and willing to adjust — if not lessen — their expectations about their relative ability to influence decision-making, discursive context, or public debate. The internal and external dynamics driving policy are much more nuanced than the average American and many academics would assume. Policy relevance ultimately requires thinking strategically about the actors involved, about the avenues available for influence, and about the appropriate resources one needs to marshal within the fluid dynamics of policymaking in order to reach a particular audience.

History, political science, and the art of statecraft need not be mutually exclusive. Historians and political scientists want to have their moment in the limelight — the time to present their unique research, theoretical contributions, or other groundbreaking findings. But after a week of discussions with experts from both side of the purported divide, it became clear that there is a lot more room for overlap and collaboration within these fields than what one may think. Any empirical work in political science requires cases, and the only cases to which we can turn (other than those created through experimental study) are rooted in the historical record. But political scientists are trained to derive theoretical connections among the universe of cases, not necessarily to conduct or recognize good historiography. Meanwhile, historical inferences can be simplified with good theory. One notable historian at the Clements Center seminar lamented the “feeling of despair…when you know something is true but you can’t prove it, because it’s not in the archives.” While the world is probabilistic and complicated, social science can tell us whether certain variables tend to predict others, irrespective of overwhelming evidence in a particular case. Its strength is in its ability to connect the dots by tracing universalities between discrete events. Historians can inform their work with knowledge of political science theory, thereby more efficiently ranking potential causal factors. Ultimately, as Bismarck put it, politics isn’t a science, it is the “art of the possible” — an art that requires an interdisciplinary and publicly-minded mentality attuned to both history and political science in support of sound policymaking.

The way forward. What is needed now is better cross-pollination between the two fields. Moving forward, the Clements Center summer seminar and other similar programs can promote a better understanding of what makes good scholarship through fuller discussion and open dialogue on our respective (1) states of the fields, (2) methodology, and (3) epistemology. Political scientists may not become qualified historians with only a week of exposure and vice versa, but we can and should strive to learn how the pieces fit together. The comparative advantage of a political scientist does not usually lie in conducting original within-case historical research; time is better spent theorizing across cases rather than trying to build a “wheel” from scratch that historians long ago invented. But political scientists must know that the history cited is good history, and why. Similarly, the strength of political science is in thinking carefully about causation and research design, a process which may also benefit historians. Historians can inform their work with knowledge of political science theory, thereby more efficiently ranking potential causal factors. To be sure, there are political scientists who excel at interpretative methods, just as there are historians who are natural empiricists. Formal training in one field or another, however, tends to eschew interdisciplinary approaches. There are reasons for this, since expertise requires specialization, but also costs. In lieu of two PhDs per person, greater dialogue can achieve the same kind of disciplinary symbiosis.

Marrying the strengths of history and political science offers clear advantages to both: history can provide political science with greater validity, and political science can offer history greater efficiency. Political science excels at mapping broad relationships (the forest) for predictive or generalizable purposes; history cuts through the noise (the trees) with more granular descriptiveness. Both are concerned with truth and discovery, yet each has complementary strengths. Through reciprocal exposure via programs like the Clements Center summer seminar on history and statecraft, our respective products can be synthesized on the “assembly line” of knowledge in a way that presents the best of both worlds, not just the best of each world. Such an approach promises to reduce the transaction costs of scholarly research, as well as heighten each discipline’s relevance to those in the policymaking sphere who inevitably, and even unconsciously, depend on it.


Justin Key Canfil is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, jointly enrolled for a minor at Columbia Law.

Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore.

Brad Potter is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.

Laura Weis is a PhD candidate in History and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Hillary Briffa, Cindy Ewing, Austin Knuppe, Jahara “Franky” Matisek, Tom Reinstein, and Tommy Sheppard also contributed to the thinking behind this article and are all, with the authors at various stages of completing PhDs and participated in the third annual University of Texas at Austin Clements Center Summer Seminar held in Beaver Creek, Colorado.

Image: Daniel Mayer, CC

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!