war on the rocks

Still the One and Only School of Statesmanship

January 7, 2019

Sir John Seeley was the Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge and is best known as the author of the 1883 masterwork The Expansion of England. Yet 13 years prior to the publication of that famous treatment of British imperialism, in an 1870 lecture delivered to an audience of students, Seeley offered what surely remains one of the most arresting statements ever made about the power — and purpose — of historical scholarship. He asked, “Why should History be studied?” There was one reason above all others: “History is the school of statesmanship,” Seeley confidently declared.

In Seeley’s mind, the thing that made history worthwhile as an academic discipline was its status as a source of education for decision-makers and others involved in the public realm. Seeley did much to ensure that the curriculum at Cambridge largely echoed his vision. Of course, while Seeley expressed it in an undoubtedly provocative fashion, his argument had a long lineage, with roots deep in antiquity. The idea that studying the past could help one to navigate the present, and respond to future challenges, was an old idea, one that went back to Thucydides and Polybius.

It is one of the more welcome developments within a troubled modern historical profession that some scholars are fighting to reassert this conception of history. After decades of ever-narrower specialisms and esoteric topics, a growing number of academics have been pushing back and making the case for historians’ engagement with policymakers — or what has been termed “applied history”. In these virtual pages, Francis J. Gavin explored the linkages between history and contemporary statecraft, Andrew Ehrhardt discussed the presence of historians at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and Todd Greentree examined the limits of historical analogy for policymakers. Elsewhere, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson made a plea for American leaders to learn to think historically. Ian Morris, meanwhile, argued for the imperative of leaders expanding their range of historical analogies so they are not trapped in “a perpetual 1938.” Kori Schake warned about “bad” uses of history and examined the problem of hegemonic transition within the international realm. Margaret Macmillan has scrutinized the selective fashion in which policymakers identify “lessons” from the past. Institutions like the Belfer Center at Harvard and the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London are spearheading the effort to rebuild productive linkages between historians and policymakers.

Of course, much of the profession remains hostile to applied history. Yet whatever objections could be mounted to Seeley’s argument about “the school of statesmanship,” it did have one, singular, strength. It represented an attempt to make history a discipline of genuine public utility. It was a call to demonstrate the enduring importance of the past and its relevance to both the present and the future.

What exactly is it about studying the past that makes history so useful? Thankfully, the answer to that question can be expressed in a single word: imagination.

A historical cast of mind opens up, and fertilizes, one’s imagination. It raises awareness of the primacy of contingency and possibility in human affairs. It underlines the importance of improvisation and outside-the-box thinking. It brings home, painfully, the need to develop a keen sense of limits. It helps us to grasp the consequences of getting decisions wrong. It serves to illuminate pathways through dense forests. And, yes, it offers inspiration from past examples.

Statesmen who have utilised history as a tool in this way — Winston Churchill and Henry Kissinger being two prominent 20th-century examples — do so as a way of stimulating thinking and weighing options. Those who argue that applied history is problematic because the granular level of detail in any given circumstance does not recur elsewhere are right — and, yet, they perhaps miss the point.

Thinking this way is not primarily an act of detail. Rather, it is an act of imagination. For decision-makers to get bogged down in the kind of granular detail that professional historians are accustomed to working with would be both a questionable use of their limited time, and intellectually counterproductive. It would only overwhelm them and turn their feet to clay. Instead, thinking this way is about asking whether multiple different, yet still analytically comparable, events from the past can help us in the present. Can we identify situations that are similar enough to current challenges to help us to frame provocative questions, test relevant assumptions, and converse fruitfully about policy options? If we can, that is a worthwhile exercise. And as Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May argued in their classic 1988 text Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, even marginal improvements in policymaking constitute valuable gains.

Of course, different temperaments will judge the “lessons” of history in contrasting ways. Churchill himself always oscillated between an optimism that things would work out in the end and an anxiety — probably derived from Edward Gibbon — of the tragedy of civilizational collapse. Neville Chamberlain’s own reading of modern European history was immensely fatalistic. History is, therefore, not a key that can unlock all doors. Its “lessons” will be seen through the lens of the individual mind. Moreover, the very writing of history is an unavoidably subjective and politicized activity. As the Italian philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce famously observed, “all history is contemporary history.” Yet, for all this, there is no better learning tool, for the simple reason that the past is our sole source of knowledge about human affairs.

The kind of forensic work done by historians in their scholarship and the more flexible, wide-ranging conversations necessitated when they engage with policymakers or pen op-ed pieces are fundamentally different exercises. They are not the same thing — and we should be bolder in saying so. Historians should be able to wear different hats at different times. The pioneering philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood wrote in The Idea of History that history “is a special form of thought” — and it is one with numerous levels. Letting loose a barrage of derision at those who seek to contribute to the policy conversation is simply an abdication of societal responsibility.

Very few occurrences under the sun are genuinely new. Most political and strategic problems have recurred countless times. History lends perspective to this. It can thus help us to rise above the pervasive recency bias of contemporary culture — that which leads to baseless claims that every crisis is “unprecedented,” or each election is “the most important ever.” History offers a database of experience upon which we can draw. Analogising is certainly not a risk-free exercise — and both historians and policymakers will frequently dispute what the “real” lessons of a past episode are. But given that evolution has equipped human beings to learn partly through making cognitive linkages between current events and prior experience, it is one that cannot be avoided and must therefore be embraced. Moreover, analogizing is how decision-makers will most frequently come into intellectual contact with a historical perspective.

In truth, the debate over the merits and viability of the concept of applied history has already been won. For many decades, it has arguably been the lifeblood of military training and planning for professional armed forces across the globe. Military establishments utilise the past as a repository of wisdom and possibilities. They explore what worked for their predecessors — and what did not. Doctrine and strategy are imbued with the resultant insights. There is arguably no better illustration of the possibilities, and merits, of an attentive historical imagination.

To borrow from James Mattis, speaking about the importance of owning a personal library stuffed full of good history books, the past “serves as a garden of the mind to which you can return again and again.” Those who elect to attend Seeley’s school are afforded an opportunity to stroll through that garden to their heart’s content.

 

Robert Crowcroft is a senior lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Edinburgh. His writings include The End is Nigh: British Politics, Power, and the Road to the Second World War, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2019. He was recently co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History, 1800-2000.

Image: U.S. Naval War College