A Framework for Foresight: Methods to Leverage the Lessons of History

history map 2

The Scottish poet, novelist, and historian Andrew Lang once quipped that politicians use statistics the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: “for support rather than illumination.” Indeed, the same line might be applied to the way policymakers use, or rather misuse, history. From incongruous analogies to procrustean parallels, the lamentable catalogue of abuses has prompted some historians to question the value of historical lessons and analogies as signposts for strategists.

In a recent article, historian Joseph Stieb warned policymakers against drawing too many lessons from history due to the endemic danger of distortion and misapplication. His warning is well founded, but he overlooks instructive methods applied historians have developed to mitigate the very pitfalls he laments. These techniques constitute a checklist to evaluate analogies, question presumptions, and place situations in their proper historical context; they prompt policymakers to systematically scrutinize historical parallels and substantiate their assertions with evidence instead of instinct. Their employment will not eliminate misuses of history but would refine how historical lessons are sourced and applied in decision-making.

Historical analogies are ineluctable in the decision-making process. The past, Robert Crowcroft notes, is “our sole repository for information about what works and what does not; we have nothing else to drawn upon.” Parallels from the past enable strategists to orient themselves in complex and dynamic situations. They provide an indispensable adaptive technique to inform judgement, recognize patterns, and understand perennial drivers of crisis and conflict. Notwithstanding the persistent danger of distortion, policymakers would find themselves in a worse predicament without lessons from history. It would be foolish, therefore, to abandon these instruments of orientation, especially without a sufficient replacement. When judiciously curated and applied, historical analogues can be invaluable aides for preventing war and managing fractious foreign partners. Despite their limitations, analogies, axioms, and lessons will continue to inform and influence how decision-makers orient, decide, and act on the world stage. Historians, therefore, should endeavor to ensure policymakers use them with greater precision.



Methods for Thinking In Time

In their classic work Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, the late Harvard historians Richard Neustadt and Ernest May sought to survey, analyze, and ameliorate the haphazard uses of history that had contributed to the foreign and domestic policy debacles of their time. Writing in 1986, the authors assessed that in the preceding decades, debate over an emergent situation too often jumped directly to what was to be done, with insufficient attention given to background and historical context. Key presumptions were accepted without close evaluation and references to history, when they did arise, often came in the form of simple analogies from the remembered past of the proponent. Under the relentless pressure of time, the need for a decision would drive leaders toward an ill-conceived course of action. History, like intelligence, is a critical decision-making input, and the probabilistic judgements it shapes form the essence of decision.

In the spirit of reform, Neustadt and May devised a series of “mini-methods” aimed at slowing the “plunge toward action” and facilitating a more systematic framework for applying history to decision-making. The foremost method, one they hoped would become a standard staff practice, aimed at preventing emergent assumptions and analogies from becoming answers. As a situation emerged, decision-makers were instructed to list known, unclear, and presumed facts (from the standpoint of the decision-maker) that distinguished the current state from the past. When analogies invariably arose, they would list the likenesses and differences between the two situations while highlighting phrases that captured distinctions. May counseled that unless at least three points of difference and similarity were noted, further discussion was warranted. It stands to reason that this simple exercise would prune the endemic false analogies that distort our contemporary discourse.

Over the course of almost 300 pages, Neustadt and May outline nearly a dozen methods for enriching and improving decision-making through a more systematic and structured application of history. Understanding “issue history” and placing persons, organizations, and events in their proper context are central aims of their system. Through simple timelines, practitioners can trace salient events as far back as practicable, noting trends and changes. Asking journalist’s questions (i.e., who, what, where, when, and why) would flesh out the remaining details and further contextualize the emergent picture. Other techniques include placing bets and odds on expected outcomes and asking Alexander’s Question(that is, what new evidence might change a current presumption). Finally, before reaching a decision, placement would improve the “starting stereotype” of key persons and organizations by placing them in their proper historical context and noting the key events and experiences likely to have shaped their outlook and perspective.

U.S. Army officers may note the similarity between these methods and elements of the Military Decision-Making Process. Indeed, many applied history techniques complement that process, as well as the structured analytic techniquesused by the U.S. intelligence community. Considering this complementarity, an impactful application for these techniques would be their integration into official decision-making processes. Proper issue history and placement of the Iraqi people in 2002, for example, would have produced a more sophisticated understanding of the population and its complex sectarian dynamics before the decision to remove Saddam Hussein (who was routinely compared to Adolf Hitler in the decades preceding the 2003 U.S.-led invasion). A comparison of likenesses and differences between Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 might have clarified why the counterinsurgency tactics which succeeded in the former state might not work as well in the latter. Asking Alexander’s Question might help planners reassess presumptions that underpin Western war aimsin Ukraine. For example, if Ukraine is unable to significantly increase domestic armaments production in the coming months, it might be unable to sustain its forces in the field, necessitating a reevaluation of when to negotiate peace.

Methods in Practice: A Salient Success Story

In their work, Neustadt and May examined numerous case studies from the preceding three decades of American history. Several of these were classified as “horror stories” in which misconstrued historical analogues, erroneous presumptions, and insufficient knowledge of important issues led policymakers into fateful miscalculations. The salient success story of the book, and a clinic in the effective use of history in decision-making, is the management of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the methods outlined in Thinking In Time would not be codified for another quarter-century, their presence can be seen throughout the reflective and systematic approach that President John F. Kennedy and his team took to applying parallels from the past to their debates and decisions in the pivotal autumn of 1962.

As the crisis developed that October, analogies with the recent past made their usual appearance. In a departure from standard practice, however, Kennedy and his Executive Committee (ExComm) subjected these analogies to rigorous evaluation. The compelling moral analogy between a proposed American strike on Cuba and the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, persuaded Kennedy against launching a precipitous aerial attack, while less instructive parallels with the Suez Crisis (1956) or the Berlin blockade (1948–49) were dropped. Neustadt and May note that, “the proceedings of the ExComm [were] distinguished by the extent – unusual – to which analogies were invoked sparingly and, when invoked, were subjected to scrutiny.” Of course a thorough analysis of National Security Council debates since the crisis might produce comparable cases of effective analogizing, but the persistent embrace of specious analogies to frame contemporary security issues suggests that the systematic evaluation that guided the Kennedy administration has dissipated over time.

Beyond their effective evaluation of analogies, the ExComm paid close attention to the history of relevant issues, individuals, and organizations as well as their sources and context. ExComm members continuously evaluated thepresumptions that underpinned their assessment of the situation. Kennedy consulted a wide range of experts and exhibited an impressive openness to reevaluating his own suppositions as new information was presented. He exhibited empathywith his Soviet counterpart, endeavoring to view the crisis from his vantage. His reading of Barbara Tuchman’s now-classic The Guns of August months before the crisis inspired him to think in historical terms. He was determined that future historians would not write a similar work about how his administration had stumbled into catastrophe. It would be simplistic to assert that a sophisticated application of history was responsible for defusing the crisis, but it would be imprudent to ignore the pivotal role it played in framing and sharpening decisions.

Parallels and Patterns

In the spirit of Kennedy, Neustadt and May encouraged future policymakers to accumulate a robust stock of historical knowledge on which their methods could be applied. They assert that good judgement rests on historical understanding, even if that understanding is largely intuitive or unconscious. Herbert Simon, a pioneer in the study of decision-making, noted that intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition. The richer the repository of history in the mind, therefore, the greater the range of potential pattern recognition. Of course, the environment in which one operates invariably impacts the capacity for intuition. In his landmark work Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman warns that “intuition cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment.” Complex environments, however, are not inherently disordered, and some stable regularities can exist amid chaos. All this is to say that there is a sound theoretical basis for asserting that a deep knowledge of history can stimulate the pattern recognition that forms the basis of intuition. It is essential, however, to employ techniques that help to distinguish intuitive gold from pyrite.


The established methods and practices of applied history provide a framework for more effective decision-making. Their adoption and refinement would systematize how lessons are framed and help wean policymakers from their propensity to embrace specious historical analogies and act before getting their facts straight. These methods, even faithfully applied, do not guarantee positive results, but they can provide, as Neustadt and May hoped, “a little sharper sense of purpose here, a little clearer sense of danger there.” In a broader sense, their adoption could help leaders foster what Francis Gavin calls “historical sensibility,” which he defines as “a familiarity with the past and its powerful and often unpredictable rhythms.” This sensibility, he clarifies, is “less a method than a practice, a mental awareness, discernment, responsiveness to the past and how it unfolded into our present world.” Systematic methods for analyzing and applying history exist, in part, to ensure the discernments and actions of those who seek to cultivate a historical sensibility are… sensible.

Along with questioning the conceptual value of analogies and lessons, historians should remind policymakers of the wealth of resources available to improve their search for guidance from the past. Moreover, leaders should take steps to integrate existing and emergent methods of applied history into formal planning and decision-making processes. These methods, combined with other established analytic techniques, would invariably sharpen and improve debate and the decisions that follow. The national security community should further commit to closing the “history deficit” that starves decision-makers of fuel for intuitive judgement. A lack of historical sensibility results in a blinkered perspective on available options, and a lack of methodological rigor results in tainted water being drawn from an already shallow well.

Finally, policymakers should train themselves to think in time-streams. This involves examining present issues with a sense of the past and future, honing the mental instinct to readily connect discreet phenomena over time and repeatedly check for connections. In this way, leaders will assess their actions in the broader current of time, with the ensuing humility, perspective, and prudence that placement inspires. The continued march of folly through Washington indicates that too few policymakers have embraced a sophisticated framework for applying the past to the present. After his victory at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington famously told a contemporary that the battle had been “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” with victory or defeat hinging on ostensibly minor actions and decisions. In deciding matters of state, the “little sharper sense of purpose here” and “little clearer sense of danger there” can make all the difference.



Joe Donato​ is a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve who currently serves as a contemporary historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Out of uniform, he is Deputy Director of Operations, Joint Staff at Onebrief, Inc. Joe served as a political-military advisor to the commander of a combined joint task force in Iraq from 2018–19, and a John S. McCain Strategic Defense Fellow at the Department of Defense from 2020–21.

Image: David Rumsey Map Collection