History’s Guide to Contested Liberalism


The cracks in liberalism are growing. With the election of decidedly illiberal Donald Trump, the rise of nationalist and nativist parties across Europe, and the specter of a resurgent and repressive Russia, the citadel of liberalism appears under siege. A set of political and economic ideas that lifted people from poverty, expanded and protected human dignity, and offered a vision of liberty and justice for all are today lamented on both the left and right. Those policymakers who thought the ideological struggle for liberalism’s primacy in domestic and international politics was settled are shocked by the realization that the battle is far from won. The importance of universal human rights, the rule of law, international organizations, alliances of democracies, global trade, and economic integration, among other facets of modern liberal international and domestic orders, are all hotly contested. History, it seems, does not end.

Historical knowledge can prepare policymakers for this moment of contested liberalism. This is not history as clumsy analogy, shown by Harvard historian Earnest May as often impeding sound policy. Rather, it is what Francis Gavin calls “historical sensibility.” Such a sensibility, Gavin argues, is defined by a “familiarity with the past and its powerful and often unpredictable rhythms.” It is a “practice, mental awareness, discernment, responsiveness to the past and how it unfolded into our present world.” The study of history from such a perspective may offer policymakers a respite from today’s howling winds of illiberalism. But how exactly do policymakers apply historical sensibility to today’s illiberal moment? To start, examine the components of Gavin’s notion in the context of today’s global politics.

Two features of historical sensibility, for instance, are a willingness to entertain multi-causal explanations for complex events and an acceptance of uncertainty in human relations. Consider Trump’s election. It was not likely brought about by only racism and sexism, those left behind by the modern economy, reactionary cultural forces, or any other single cause. If a historical sensibility informs our views, the election was probably a toxic brew of these interconnected necessary conditions logrolling into a unique sufficient condition. Further, nothing about the election was certain until the very end. Those with historical sensibility may be disheartened by Trump’s ultimate ascension but can hardly be surprised by it. A historical sensibility reminds us that anything can happen when uncertainty reigns, and many features of the world today hang in that uncertain balance. Liberalism’s expansion, the strength of domestic liberal institutions, and even American commitment to a liberal world order are all susceptible to shock. And nothing, including foundational liberal concepts about democracy and open economies, is beyond the reach of charismatic leaders and powerfully shifting social, political, and economic forces.

The history of liberalism demonstrates pervasive uncertainty. From its very birth in the Enlightenment, liberalism’s longevity was never a sure thing. Conservative reactionary powers at the Congress of Vienna, for example, repressed liberal forces across Europe, viewing them as a source of instability in the wake of Napoleon’s carnage. Bottom-up social action and top-down political change throughout the 19th century ultimately made liberalism a core tenet for many countries before the calamity of World War I threw the globe into disarray. Liberal and autocratic states clashed, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the victorious allies found they could hardly build a stable, liberal international system without the now powerful but reluctant United States. Soon the roaring twenties gave way to the dismal thirties and liberalism was on the ropes. Nationalist parties and movements gathered steam giving way to Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan while the United States doubled down on isolationism. The communist experiment in Russia, meanwhile, came out of its bloody birth in the Great War offering another alternative to liberalism. From this contested moment came World War II and its results gave way to a new international order pitting a rebuilt, Western liberal system against a Soviet-led, communist variant. Fascism was defeated, but the competition between liberalism and communism remained frozen for some 50 years.

This whirlwind review of the past 300 years suggests policymakers with a historical sensibility should recognize that the liberal moment following the Cold War’s close, the one that has characterized our lives for almost 30 years, is the outlier in history. Liberalism’s future has always been uncertain. It has always been subject to structural and contingent forces interacting with one another in often complex ways. So what is today’s policymaker to do about managing this uncertainty and supporting liberal systems at home and abroad?

The past provides role models. Take the well-known economic historian Charles Kindleberger, for instance. An author behind the Marshall Plan as a young man before becoming an MIT professor, he looked carefully at the early 20th century with keen historical sensibility. He concluded that a lack of American economic leadership during the Great Depression hindered the world’s ability to restore stable, mutually beneficial economic relationships. Consequently, rather than turn toward protectionism in the future, the leading global power must engage internationally through the provision of economic public goods to underpin global stability. Kindleberger’s specific recommendations still apply today (for instance to Germany and the euro), but his larger method is more important. He drew his policy recommendations from careful historical analysis rooted in the knowledge that uncertainty reigns in world­­ affairs, particularly when not challenged. Moreover, he accepted that multi-clausal explanations are common, especially in complex interactions like global economics, and nothing is possible without a decisive decision to act.

Beyond a healthy respect for multi-causality and uncertainty, Gavin’s historical sensibility also calls for empathy towards the pivotal people of the past. Many today are dismayed by the state of affairs, but those who set aside enmity to better understand the motivations behind Trump voters, Brexit supports, and skeptics of liberalism’s legacy will be better placed to rejuvenate liberalism’s promise. Surely empathy does not necessitate sympathy, but to honestly understand the concerns of those at the forefront of the assault on liberalism will help inoculate domestic and international institutions from reactionary forces that may tear them asunder. To say that “free trade is good,” for instance, but not recognize that some have won and others have lost in the process, and then take action to assist those upended by the effects of trade is to turn a blind eye toward reality. A bit of empathy, developed though historical study, will go a long way in restoring vision and offering liberal solutions to modern challenges.

The best way to develop empathy as a policymaker sitting in Washington, London, Berlin, or elsewhere is through the simple act of reading. In fact, reading histories, biographies, and even works of fiction offer the surest route to understanding those with whom you disagree but must deal. Histories give context for the intellectual origins of those engaged in the great debates of the day and offer vicarious experience. Biographies provide comradery for the policymaker, reminding her that no problem in the world is new and that even the greats struggled to find workable solutions to the challenges of their age. Meanwhile, works of fiction open windows into the human experience, and like author John Dufresne argues, are the lies that tell a truth about the world. It was the empathy of Abraham Lincoln that Doris Kearns Goodwin called “an enormous asset to his political career.” From an early age, the president voraciously read books and collected stories, becoming acquainted with legal works, Shakespeare’s plays, and the Bible, among other contemporary pieces of fiction, crafting what Eliot Cohen called a “thoroughly disciplined and educated mind.” Lincoln even found time to attend plays while prosecuting the war to preserve the country. More than just hone his powerful command of language, this connection to the arts and books surely helped inform the president’s empathy, developing his understanding for the motivations of those around him in government and those opposing him in the American south.

Policymakers hoping to navigate this illiberal moment also benefit from understanding what Gavin calls the “powerful hold history exerts on cultures, leaders, and nations.” We are where we are today because of where we were yesterday. Nothing changes overnight. If events around the world concern policymakers, it is not because they sprung from the ether. For all the horrors of the world, more people today live in democracies, benefit from integrated economies, and enjoy fundamental freedoms than at any other point in history. The weight of history is with liberalization. Centuries of progress are unlikely to be turned back by any single or small grouping of reactionary current events. A series these events, however, left unchecked and strung together to form a new recent history, could surely turn the tide against classical liberal precepts. Historical sensibility reminds us of this dynamic.

Examine the case of Italy. Following its unification in 1861 until at least 1915, Italy was among the ranks of generally liberal European states. As a survey of the recent histories shows, Italy of this era featured an elected government, expanding suffrage, protection of civil rights, and — at least for a portion of time — an open economy. But a combination of forces ultimately led to fascism taking its earliest root here. By the 1890s, Italian political leaders focused on orderly “scientific” fixes to social and political challenges rather than appeals to individual rights and the rule of law. Meanwhile, the havoc of international competition, manifest in World War I, and long-standing structural deficiencies at the state-level, including a small ruling elite, undermined the Italian liberal experiment. Capitalizing on these forces, Benito Mussolini and his fascist allies came to power in 1922.  All told, Italy did not become a fascist state overnight, even with Mussolini in power. Rather, a series of political, social, and international events gradually paved the way in the years leading up to and throughout the course of the 1920s. Historical sensibility helps those practicing it to see the paving stones for what they are and appreciate how they may come together to form a road to the abyss.

The study of history and cultivation of a historical sensibility also inculcates a profound sense of humility about what can and cannot be predicted about the world. Even our best models in the social sciences are still approximations and offer only imperfect probabilities. A mistake in the assumptions underpinning them could dramatically skew results while cognitive biases easily cloud their interpretation. Indeed, the most consequential political events can be among the most difficult to forecast in a meaningful way. One might think that elections, thanks to their abundance of data, are among the more “predictable” cases. Consider a particular event from the recent past. In 2016, FiveThirtyEight.com offered one of the most accurate assessments of the U.S. presidential election, but even on the eve of Trump making history it gave the upstart populist candidate only about a one in three shot of winning the White House. The safe bet of the models was still in line with the conventional wisdom of the pundits. Both proved off target. To their credit, the FiveThirtyEight team was cautious about predictions and often took fire for being among the most pessimistic about Hillary Clinton’s chances, but few others followed. A kind of technical hubris seemed to descend on many poll and model watchers. The humility that comes with a historical sensibility underscores how even sophisticated predictions may be overturned by faulty assumptions, poor samples, inaccurate data, or most especially by old fashioned wishful thinking, bias, or misinterpretation.

Humility in turn breeds the most important consequence of Gavin’s historical sensibility —prudence. Those policymakers thinking in historical terms about the future of liberalism, those humbled by the complexity of history, are naturally more cautious about the ways of the world. Consider how Carl von Clausewitz advocated for the study of history as essential to a military commander’s education. The Prussian strategist argued that history trained the mind of a commander, staving off a formulaic approach to the world in favor of a sense for what was possible. Policymakers fearful of a world tilting toward illiberalism but who employ historical sensibility will more likely identify threats to liberal order and innovative opportunities for buttressing classical liberalism at home and abroad. The form these threats and opportunities take will not be facsimiles of the past, but they will certainly be products of the past, bound up with where liberalism has been before and the forces that pulled it to contemporary crisis. Prudent policymakers will recognize these deep historical connections and draft contingencies suitable for a variety of possible futures with them in mind.

What does prudence look like in practice? One prudent policymaker taking a historically informed view of the Cold War was George Kennan. In his famous 1946 “Long Telegram” and subsequent “X Article,” Kennan’s careful study of Russian and Soviet history fed into a sober analysis of the Soviet Union’s strengths, weakness, and the beginnings of an American policy to contain the rival superpower. While surely anti-communist, Kennan decried the “hysterical anti-Sovietism” of some quarters and saw it as a function of an ill-informed public. Likewise, he viewed the sanguine attitude of some at the State Department as equally misguided. His study of the Soviet threat, meanwhile, drew carefully on historical knowledge, rooting the behavior of post-war Soviet leadership in long-developing Russian political and social trends. The man serving as the deputy chief of mission to the Soviet Union, who spoke Russian, and who made a careful study of Russian history, ultimately offered up a pragmatic and clear-eyed assessment that many policymakers to this day laud for its incisive and farseeing read on U.S.-Soviet relations. This type of prudence is possible today, but only with an appreciation for historical sensibility.

We undoubtedly live in turbulent, uncertain times. So fraught is the moment that some are already declaring the United States an illiberal democracy while others wonder if a global liberal order will survive. Is liberalism perfect? Not at all. Yet, what Winston Churchill once said about democracy applies equally to liberalism writ-large: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Liberalism is not a dead philosophy, but a living one capable of adapting to modern challenges. Its underlying tenets are surely worth defending; they are the best that has been tried from time to time. And through a careful study of history, not as a toolbox of old approaches or as a mechanism for simple diagnostics, but as a means of refining our judgment and developing contingent generalizations about the world, wise policymakers may prepare themselves to discover sustainable and liberal alternatives to the powerful forces of populism, nationalism, and autocracy at work today. These answers will come in different shapes and sizes, but there is no better time than the present to turn toward the wisdom of the past for a more secure future.


A. Bradley Potter is a PhD candidate in international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) whose research examines the role of historical knowledge in policymaking and wartime decision-making, especially war termination. He is presently a George L. Abernethy Fellow at the JHU-SAIS, Europe in Bologna, Italy.