Ixnay on the Council of Historical Advisers to the President

Obama's Cabinet

In an article entitled “Don’t Know Much about History,” which appears in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Graham Allison (a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) and Niall Ferguson (the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and a Hoover Fellow) have resurrected the call for a Council of Historical Advisers to the President.


One Thing after Another is all about making historically informed decisions, and this blog relishes the kind of influence that might accrue to historians (but only up to a point). However, the arguments Allison and Ferguson present on behalf of this initiative are problematic and seem to show a mistaken understanding of history’s true power or jurisdiction.

Allison and Ferguson lament that “for too long, history has been disparaged as a ‘soft’ subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty.” What they would like to see is a “new and rigorous ‘applied history’—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogies.” Through these means, applied historians would “find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences.” Practitioners of this history could provide the President and his Cabinet with the advice on which sound policy could be framed. Allison and Ferguson argue that if historians had counseled President George W. Bush in 2003, he might have realized that regime change in Iraq would probably lead to a Shiite regime beholden to Iran. They also claim that if President Barrack Obama had understood more about the history of Russia’s relationship to the Ukraine, he would have handled Russia’s annexation of the Crimea better.

These examples seem ill-chosen. It would not have required a historian to make the kind of judgments that Allison and Ferguson would have preferred to see in both cases. Even more questionable and significant, though, is Allison and Ferguson’s faith in history’s ability to provide definitive answers to contemporary problems. Unfortunately, when it comes to worthwhile questions, history is only occasionally definitive; more frequently, it is a running conversation or debate among historians that may have a tendency toward an answer. History, after all, is a part of the humanities. Allison and Ferguson envision a situation where applied history would be to mainstream history what medical practice is to biochemistry or what engineering is to physics. The analogy is instructive. Biochemistry and physics are natural sciences. For sure, these fields are characterized by debate, and their models of the natural world are constantly revised to account for various anomalies. Nonetheless, biochemists and physicists can speak with more confidence and exactness about a host of phenomena in their fields than a historian can in his. Yes, historians deal in facts, and in history there are wrong answers. But historians do not and cannot establish historical theories that bear some resemblance to scientific theories—largely because historians cannot isolate the effects of each independent variable in an experiment that can be reproduced. It is for this very reason that in many previous posts, One Thing after Another has inveighed against the careless and over-frequent use of historical analogies. Events across time are usually too dissimilar to do the work of replicated experiments.

The kinds of questions that Allison and Ferguson propose sending to such their council also do not inspire much confidence that they fully appreciate this point about historical analogies. For example, they ask: “As tensions increase between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, are U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and other countries as dangerous to peace as the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality, which became the casus belli between Britain and Germany in 1914?” One Thing after Another is not really sure how the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality was dangerous to the peace in 1914. It is sure, however, that questions such as this one are based on mistaken premises:


The short answer is that the causes of war in Europe in 1914 (let alone the circumstances of that time and place) are not really comparable to the potential causes of war in Asia in 2016.

Or what about when Allison and Feguson propose posing “what if?” questions to this council, such as: “What if Obama had enforced his ‘red line’ against the Assad regime, rather than working with Russia to remove Syrian chemical weapons? Was this decision, as critics maintain, the biggest error of his presidency? Or was it, as he insists, one of his best calls?” It is hard to see what historians bring to the table in assessing this moment from the very recent past, unless Allison and Ferguson have a particular historical analogy in mind. This suggested question probably comes from Ferguson who is a big proponent of counterfactual history and even edited a collection of essays entitled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997). Such exercises are useful in pointing out that developments in the past were often contingent and not determined. However, counterfactual claims in history are impossible to prove, and they are uncertain ground from which to issue strong judgments of policy.

Finally, Allison and Ferguson suggest a whopper of a question for the council to tackle: “Is the U.S. in decline?” On its face, this issue is not necessarily one for historians to study (it does not have a historical dimension). If Allison and Ferguson believe they can use historical analogies to crack this nut, it is hard to see what state or empire from the past they propose employing for the purpose. Assyria? Rome? Spain? Austria-Hungary? Britain? All of these comparisons present huge challenges. This question of decline does bring Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) to mind. Kennedy was an ambitious historian who sought to gain entry into policymaking with this book. In other words, Kennedy did the kind of applied history that Allison and Ferguson recommend. While The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was influential in its time and had the appearance of a magisterial work, it aged fairly quickly, its findings were not always useful, and its predictions were not necessarily fulfilled.

At this point, one may ask, if a council of historians cannot offer us much help through a new “applied history,” what’s the point of studying history? One Thing after Another responds (patiently, since it has been over this point before in previous posts) that history does not provide precise answers about questions arising from our immediate predicaments. At most, it helps us understand how certain situations came to be. In general, though, it should hone our judgment, provide insight into human nature, inspire empathy, and inform (but not determine) our decisions. Such an answer might be too “soft” for ambitious historians, but it is important that they do not promise too much, overreach, and bring unwarranted discredit on the discipline when they cannot deliver.


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