Burying and Unburying History: American Strategy in a Faulknerian World


Last Oct. 18, 30 years after the Tiananmen Square protests for which he was blamed and 15 years after his death, former Chinese Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang was finally buried.

Less than a week later, 83 years after he ignited the Spanish Civil War and 44 years after his death, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was unburied from the Valley of the Fallen, the colossal mausoleum built to him.

One historically rooted conflict after another refuses to be buried. Israel and Palestine are still awaiting a deal that could end their century (centuries) of conflict. The Kurds are still stateless nearly a century after the post-World War I Treaty of Sevres was supposed to provide them self-determination. India and Pakistan, having fought four wars, are once again sending tremors amidst Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s provocative efforts to restore Kashmir’s “past glory” and advance a Hindu-nationalist agenda. Any number of conflicts in Africa trace their origins back to colonial powers having arbitrarily drawn nation-state lines. The South Korean and Japanese relationship is still strained by intensified historical grievances from Japan’s colonial and World War II occupations.



Some leaders are exhuming the past to rewrite it. This has long been Vladimir Putin’s strategy, as then-Brookings scholar Fiona Hill wrote back in 2012,  to “manufacture and manipulate history for purposes of the present” with a “historical narrative in which Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile outside world.” Blaming Poland for the outbreak of World War II is only the latest example.

While by no means justifying China’s own imperialism and repression, given the 19th century Opium Wars and European spheres of influence in China, Xi Jinping’s historical narrative does have some basis. Indeed, one wonders when Xi may cite U.S. Secretary of State John Hay’s 1899-1900 Open Door Notes as supporting evidence for his critique of colonialism.

Nor are non-democracies the only self-serving historical revisionists. In 2018, Poland passed the National Remembrance Law, which whitewashed Polish anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazi Holocaust. In March 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, trying to justify his own authoritarian predilections, declared the 1964 military coup launching 20 years of brutal dictatorship a “democratic revolution.” And this past summer, Guatemala blocked efforts to reckon with its history of “dirty wars,” attempting to shut down down relevant archives and kicking out the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.

Indeed, for all that is new in our 21st-century world, William Faulkner’s “the past is never dead, it’s not even past,” keeps playing out.

Yet notwithstanding Faulkner being a great American novelist, American foreign policy has been strikingly un-Faulknerian.

American Foreign Policy Ahistoricism

American foreign policy ahistoricism has three distinct manifestations: historical exceptionalism, historical denialism, and historical determinism.

American exceptionalism — so integral to the country’s national self-conception — has had at its core a fundamental tension. On the one hand, Americans stress their uniqueness. “We shall be as a “Citty upon the Hill, ” Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop declared in 1630, “the eies of all people are upon us.” Then, 19th-century manifest destiny “to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man” took this sense of special mission from origins to continental expansion. Woodrow Wilson pushed the mission globally with his rationale for entering World War I as not just defeating an adversary but “the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.” So too did one Cold War President after another cast America’s role in the exceptionalist frame, as with John F. Kennedy’s “bear burdens and accept risks .  . . not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free” and Ronald Reagan’s “blessed land set apart in a special way.”

On the other hand, the United States repeatedly sets out to remake other countries in its own image, as if they did not have their own cultures and history. José Martí, Cuba’s great 19th century patriot who initially welcomed American intervention to help Cuba gain independence from Spain, grew disillusioned with how the United States was “totally ignorant of the culture and history of her southern neighbors.” South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem was heralded as the “new George Washington.” Part of building the case for the 2003 Iraq invasion was dubbing favored Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi as Thomas Jefferson-like. Yet how could it be true both that U.S. history makes us unique and that, whatever their histories, others should be like us? “Nothing could be more un-American,” historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin captures the irony and contradiction, “than to urge other countries to imitate America.”

The widespread view of the end of the Cold War as the end of history epitomized historical denialism. This was not just a strategic victory of one major power over another, as had happened many times in history only to be followed by a next era of rivalry and conflict, but as Francis Fukuyama wrote, “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism . . . the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Sure, there would still be some conflicts here and there, but the big issues of world affairs were now settled once and for all.

But history quickly came roaring back in Bosnia, Rwanda, and other places where the deeply rooted politics of identity fed ethnic cleansing, genocide and other mass atrocities. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s characterization of the Bosnian conflict  as “centuries old. . . . a problem from hell” exemplified the shift from historical denialism to historical determinism. These were primordial hatreds, constrained for a while by the strategic overlay of bipolar geopolitics, once again released to their natural state of conflict. Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” provided an even more sweeping historical determinism emphasizing cultural differences that were “the product of centuries” and now “dominate global politics.”

This was very much how 9/11 was seen. While Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda had such contemporary political objectives as forcing the United States out of the Middle East and undermining the Saudi monarchy, the prevailing U.S. view of al-Qaeda was of Salafi jihadist restorationism tracing back to medieval times, as Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon called it, “a sacrament … intended to restore to the universe a moral order that had been corrupted by the enemies of Islam.” So too with ISIL, as its objective of “returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse” was seen as running much deeper than issues like Shia rule in Iraq and the Syrian war.

Towards a More Faulknerian U.S. Foreign Policy

In sum, while historical exceptionalism and denialism each privilege America’s own history in ways that give other countries’ history too little weight — their pasts that are never dead — historical determinism’s past is so not dead as to dictate the present. Four elements, a mix of perspectives and policies, are key to American foreign policy striking a better Faulknerian balance.

First, recognize history’s shaping effects without lapsing into fatalistic determinism. Going back to Bosnia, it was the Clinton administration’s shift from throwing up its hands at that problem from hell to an engaged military-diplomatic strategy that achieved the Dayton Accords. India and Pakistan could well have had two more wars were it not for the Clinton administration’s diplomacy in the 1999 Kargil crisis and the Bush administration’s 2001-02 diplomacy following the Pakistani terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. American partnership couldn’t negate South Korean and Japanese shared history, but it did help contain it for over 50 years. The Kurds and Turks have historical tensions — though not at the level of the Trump administration’s version of “fighting each other for centuries” — and 200 American troops deployed as a buffer-deterrent kept those tensions from escalating.

Second, the United States should neither concede to nor be wholly dismissive of Russian and Chinese historical exploitation narratives. Given that debate continues among American scholars over what was and wasn’t promised about NATO expansion, the Russian perspective can’t simply be written off or ignored. It can and should be contested, especially in the context of Russia’s justifications for Crimean annexation and Ukrainian military interventions. But the United States should avoid wholesale rejection of Russian views and positions, as well as any lingering illusion of liberal-democratic conversion. A historically grounded strategy would both accept what Angela Stent calls “the limits of partnership” while also engaging in what Henry Kissinger termed a “dialogue about the emerging world order” geared to “develop[ing] a strategic concept for U.S.-Russian relations within which the points of contention may be managed.”

As to China, there is plenty of room to contest Chinese historical claims — like the South China Sea nine-dash line as well as rationales for Uighur concentration camps and the Hong Kong crackdown — without resorting to the clash of civilizations portrayed by a top Trump State Department official, or the new Cold War espoused by an array of Democrats and Republicans. For all of Xi’s invocations of “China’s renaissance” and his people’s “indelible contribution to the civilization and advancement of mankind,” scholars such as Alastair Iain Johnston and Ketian Zhang show Chinese foreign policy in many respects follows strategic precepts characteristic of any great power.

Third, the United States should stop enabling allies whose historical revisionism endangers their own democracies and runs contrary to U.S. values. For example, while Trump’s role has by no means been the only factor in Poland’s turn, the speech he gave in his 2017 visit filled with “racial and religious paranoia,” and the one he did not give as the first American President since 1989 to snub the Warsaw Ghetto, played right in to the so-called Law and Justice party’s effort “to define Poland’s future by changing how it thinks about its past.”  Elsewhere, Bolsonaro brazenly portrays himself as Brazil’s Trump and Guatemala bartered cooperation on immigration for the Trump administration’s silence on keeping Guatemala’s history against its people buried.

Fourth, the United States should reckon more seriously and effectively with its own history. The United States has done much good in the world through its foreign policy and through its people and society. But claims of American exceptionalism and standing for U.S. values are and should continue to be tempered by the anti-democratic covert actions we’ve taken, military interventions we’ve launched, and human rights we haven’t supported. Similarly at home, Americans can take pride in who we are and what we have achieved while doing much more to reckon with what historian Jill Lepore calls “these truths” about the ways in which the United States came to be. While there is no moral equivalence here with inherently repressive states, there should also be no sanitizing.

The dawn of a new decade seems an apt time to consider history and how it is used. For all that is new, our world is and always will be one in which, as is inscribed on the National Archives, “what’s past is prologue.”



Bruce Jentleson is William Preston Few Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, Sanford School of Public Policy. He is the author of The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from 20th Century Statesmanship (W.W. Norton, 2018). His most recent policy position was as Senior Advisor to the State Department Policy Planning Director, 2009-11.

Image: White House (Photo by Tia Dufour)