Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts History and Foreign Policy: Making the Relationship Work
History and Foreign Policy: Making the Relationship Work

History and Foreign Policy: Making the Relationship Work

The Power of the Past


History indelibly influences foreign policy.  Consciously or unconsciously, government officials rely on their understanding of the past in seeking to address what is happening today; they seek to render new and complex issues more legible by drawing insights from what has come before  Nor is this necessarily a bad thing, because historical knowledge—when used properly—can have a highly constructive influence on policy.  History can help American officials understand the countries and peoples with which they interact; it can provide perspective and analytical leverage on key problems; it can give statesmen access to the wisdom that their predecessors gained at considerable expense.  One cannot make policy solely on the basis of historical knowledge, of course, but only a fool would ignore what history has to offer. 

Yet if many observers would agree that history is important to good policy, the relationship between historians and policymakers has often been vexing for all involved.  Historians, for their part, often argue that policymakers use history poorly—that analogies are employed carelessly and uncritically, and that the “lessons” of the past often mislead as much as they inform.[1]  Policymakers have their own complaints about scholars—that few of them have the government experience that is so useful in understanding how policy is really made, and that many of them are far better at damning government officials for using history badly than at telling them how to use it better.  The history-policy relationship is essential, in other words, but it is also marked by estrangement, mutual incomprehension, and no little dysfunction.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.  In a recent book that we co-edited, we and the other contributors explored a number of possibilities for making the history-policy relationship more fruitful.[2]  The present essay builds on that work, offering seven propositions about the value that history can bring to policy, and the ways in which historians and policymakers might interact more constructively.  These propositions are by no means comprehensive or exhaustive; they are meant more as a primer than a treatise when it comes to the potential uses and limits of the history-policy relationship. 

The imperative of making that relationship work is particularly pronounced at present.  The United States is facing as difficult a foreign-policy panorama as at any time since the end of the Cold War; challenges to U.S. primacy are evident in nearly all of the world’s key strategic theaters, from East Asia to the Middle East to Europe.  The task for American foreign policy officials is getting harder rather than easier; in these circumstances, it is all the more essential to understand how history can inform effective statecraft.

Proposition #1: Understanding the limits of the history-policy relationship is essential

The first key to any successful relationship is to understand its limits.  This admonition applies in spades to the history-policy relationship.  In an ideal world, history would provide the essential insight that cuts through the complexities of a given policy issue, and clearly illuminate the way forward.  In reality, this virtually never happens, for two reasons.  First, there is rarely a single accepted interpretation of the past; rather, history tends to produce competing interpretations, especially as research advances and new evidence is uncovered.  Second, the differences between two historical situations almost always outnumber the similarities, and so even if it were possible to derive a single correct lesson from the past, uncritical efforts to apply that lesson to the present would be futile and even counterproductive. 

As just a single illustration of these issues, think about one of the most frequently employed historical analogies—the Vietnam analogy.  The U.S. experience in Vietnam is often invoked by both hawks and doves in reference to debates about potential U.S. military interventions today.  But neither the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, nor the policy takeaway therefrom, are fully settled.  There are continuing historiographical debates about the wisdom of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, whether and how the war might have been waged more successfully, whether the “domino theory” had any validity, and so on.  As a result, there are also unending debates about the conflict’s “lessons.”  For some, the key takeaway is the imperative of heeding the limits of American power.  For others, the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and the appalling atrocities that followed in countries like Laos and Cambodia, constitute an argument for using American power more assertively.  Add in the fact that the parallels between Vietnam and whatever conflict is being discussed today are invariably fraught at best, and it is little wonder that history cannot produce a clear policy conclusion with respect to Iraq, or Libya, or Syria, or whatever other issue is under consideration.[3] 

This means two things with respect to the limits of the history-policy relationship.  First, policymakers need to be reasonable in thinking about what sort of insights history can provide.  History cannot offer clear, definitive answers to difficult policy questions.  As is discussed subsequently, what history can do is simply offer assistance in the quest to think rigorously and intelligently about a given problem.  History can certainly conduce to good policy, in other words, but it cannot produce it single-handedly. 

Second, and for this very reason, historians need to be humble.  They need to be humble in understanding that policymakers face constraints and pressures that are virtually unknown in academia, and that these pressures make it all too difficult for government officials to engage in sustained historical reflection.  But this humility must also extend to recognizing that even if a high-ranking official had time for this task, there is only so far that historical knowledge would take them.  This does not mean that history is useless in improving foreign policy; as the propositions that follow show, this is far from the case.  But the path toward a more productive history-policy relationship should begin with a recognition—on both sides—of the limits of what that relationship can offer.

Proposition #2: Analogies can be sources of great insight—but only when used with great care

This admonition is a useful point of departure for thinking about analogies.  Analogies represent the most prominent, and most troubled, aspect of the history-policy relationship.  One needs only examine the history of recent U.S. foreign policy to see how common the use of analogies is in American decision-making.  The use of the Munich and Vietnam analogies, for instance, was ubiquitous in George H.W. Bush’s approach to the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, just as analogies to World War I colored the U.S. response to the Balkan civil wars of the 1990s.  That Balkan analogy, in turn, then influenced the U.S. response to an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Libya in 2011; the Libya analogy subsequently influenced the Obama administration’s approach to another Middle Eastern conflict in Syria.[4]  Now as always, analogical reasoning—the observation that something happening today is “like” something that happened before, and the effort to derive policy insights from that observation—remains the most common method by which policymakers employ historical knowledge. 

The trouble, of course, is that analogical reasoning can be highly problematic.  The use of analogies can reduce policymakers’ sensitivity to the importance of context; it can lead one to overstate the continuities between past and present; it can produce a self-defeating tendency to strip-mine lessons from one episode and apply them to another.  In light of these dangers, scholars often seem to wish that policymakers would simply avoid analogies altogether. 

Yet this will not happen, because analogical reasoning—for all its liabilities—is unavoidable.  It is entirely natural for government officials to seek historical comparisons that they can use to make sense of new information and challenges, especially when those challenges must be addressed in an atmosphere of radical uncertainty and severe time pressures.  “Because policymakers often encounter new foreign policy challenges and because structural uncertainty usually infuses the environment in which responses to such challenges must be forged,” one historian notes, “policymakers routinely turn to the past for guidance.”[5] 

The trick, then, is to use analogies as carefully, critically, and rigorously as possible.  And here, two basic rules are useful.  First, analogies should represent the start of an inquiry into the continuities between past and present, rather than an end to that inquiry.  As we recently wrote, “Observing that the present situation is ‘like’ something that came before need not foreclose further critical examination of context and discontinuity; it can actually serve as an intellectual point of departure for interrogating how the present is both similar and different from what came before.”[6]  If someone argues that U.S. intervention in Syria is likely to become “another Iraq” or “another Vietnam,” this statement should not bring a close to the debate.  Rather, it should trigger critical thinking about both the similarities and the differences between past and present, and about how analytically useful the comparison truly is.  Employed critically, an analogy need not close off intellectual scrutiny; it can actually help sharpen our interpretations of complex situations.

A second rule would be to use comparative analogies—examining two, three, or four episodes that seem relevant to the current episode—rather than just a single analogy.  Doing so can help illuminate multiple aspects of the current problem, flagging potential continuities while also preventing policymakers from being trapped within any single perspective.  Looking at whether the U.S.-China relationship is like the British-German relationship before World War I, or the U.S.-Soviet relationship after World War II, for instance, can push policymakers to think through which of these comparisons is more appropriate—or perhaps even illustrate that the current case is qualitatively different than anything that has come before.  Considering whether Syria is more like Iraq in 2003, or the Balkans in the mid-1990s, can serve a similar purpose.  In sum, analogies can serve the end of good policy so long as they are used to spur intellectual engagement and deep assessment, rather than to discourage them.

Proposition #3: History can provide analytical leverage on key policy debates      

Just as analogies can be useful if employed with care, so can history be used to gain analytical traction in key policy debates.  Historical knowledge can arm policymakers with the information needed to interrogate assumptions, to sharpen analytical perspectives, and to cut through facile—if commonly accepted—arguments and generalizations. 

Consider one question at the center of policy debates today—the question of whether America is in inexorable long-term decline, and geopolitical retrenchment is therefore necessary.  History can remind us that this is not the first time we have had this debate, and that on several previous occasions—in the 1950s, the 1970s,  the 1980s, and others—predictions of American decline have proven badly overstated.  Those predictions have ultimately proven erroneous because they underestimated fundamental, long-term American strengths—like the attractiveness of American ideals and the resiliency of the U.S. economy—while also underestimating the long-term difficulties that America’s authoritarian rivals would have to confront.[7]  This history by no means proves that predictions of decline will again prove incorrect today, of course—but that is not the point.  The point, rather, is that this history can inform a clearer analysis of the question under consideration.  It can push us to take a harder look at straight-line projections of American decline, for instance, and it can remind us to consider American strengths as well as American weaknesses in any geopolitical net assessment.  Moreover, this history can remind us that the critical strategic question to ask is whether—and how—this time is different than previous waves of “declinism,” and it can thereby help us grapple with issues of decline and resurgence in a more structured and rigorous way.

Or consider a second question that has been the subject of much debate in recent years—the question of how the acquisition of nuclear weapons might influence a country like Iran’s behavior. History can help here by reminding us that we actually have some experience with rogue-state adversaries—from the Soviet Union to Mao’s China to North Korea—that have developed nuclear weapons, and so we can mine this experience to examine how their behavior changed after they acquired the bomb.  To be clear, this experience is not entirely reassuring, for it generally indicates that, even as the worst fears regarding rogue-state proliferation have never been realized, such proliferation has still often had an emboldening effect on the policies pursued by American adversaries.  Nor does this experience conclusively resolve how a nuclear Iran might behave, because the Iranian case has its own unique characteristics.  What a historical perspective can do, rather, is to remind us that we have seen this type of problem before, to provide insights into what sort of effects rogue-state proliferation has had in the past, and to focus our analysis on the ways in which the Iranian case is similar and/or different from its historical antecedents.  On this and other issues, knowing the past can render the challenges of the present more tractable, by offering new and potentially useful ways of framing hard issues, and by giving us greater analytical insight into the problems we confront.

Proposition #4: History is essential to understanding others and understanding ourselves

History may not provide direct answers to particular policy problems.  Yet as we have seen, historical knowledge can significantly illuminate the context in which crucial decisions are made.  In particular, history can help us better understand the nature of the people and societies with which we interact; it can also help us understand our own tendencies, and our own role in the world. 

With respect to the former issue, history can be the key that unlocks the motives and characteristics of the players the United States encounters in world affairs.  History won’t tell us what Vladimir Putin will do tomorrow in Ukraine or Syria, for instance, but understanding how Putin interprets the history of post-Cold War relations between Russia and the United States can certainly shed light on the worldview that informs such decisions.  Similarly, understanding Chinese narratives regarding China’s “century of humiliation” is critical to making sense of how Beijing conducts itself vis-à-vis the outside world today.  As yet another example, understanding jihadist movements such as ISIL means understanding the historical narratives and grievances—however perverse—that provide the basis for their extremist ideology.[8] 

Ignoring the insights that history can provide about other people and other societies, conversely, can be quite dangerous.  There were many mistakes made in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  But one of the most severe was the insufficient attention paid to what Iraq’s history as a country dominated by suffocating dictatorships and riven by sectarian cleavages would mean for its prospects for a rapid transition to democracy.  Looking more closely at Iraq’s troubled history would have provided greater insight into its probable post-liberation trajectory; it might have promoted greater sensitivity to what might happen when the shattering of the Iraqi state unleashed the powerful forces that Saddam’s regime and other Iraqi dictatorships had historically repressed. 

If history can thus be indispensable to understanding others, it can be equally essential to understanding ourselves.  As Walter Russell Mead has written, grappling with the history of U.S. foreign policy can provide greater awareness of the enduring ideas and impulses—from Wilsonianism to the Jacksonian tradition—that have long shaped America’s interaction with the world, and that continue to inform American actions today.[9]  It can make us more aware of the critical role that the United States has played for the past several decades in building and upholding a liberal world order, and of the profound consequences that a departure from that traditional role might thus entail.  It can help us understand, as Stephen Sestanovich has written, how the United States has often been prone to alternating cycles of underreach and overreach, and thereby provide some caution against extremes on both ends.[10]  The list of examples could go on, but the key point remains: understanding oneself and one’s interlocutors is crucial to good policy, and history can be profoundly useful with respect to both of these tasks. 

 Proposition #5: History can be a source of strategic perspective and patience

Foreign policy is inherently crisis-driven—it responds to often-unforeseen events that require rapid decisions, and it rarely permits time for adequate reflection.  Yet successful long-term strategy depends on maintaining a degree of perspective and patience.  It requires setting a proper long-term course, and then weathering the inevitable storms and controversies without being tossed off of that course.  And it requires doing all of this even as one’s policy is being criticized and condemned by the political opposition at every turn, and as every bump or setback is being touted as conclusive evidence that the strategy itself is irreparably flawed. 

History can, in such circumstances, be quite useful.  Understanding the history of American foreign policy demonstrates that even the most successful U.S. strategists—from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan—confronted innumerable obstacles and difficulties along the way.  It also reminds us that such statesmen got lots of things wrong, even as they generally got the biggest things right.  Truman, for instance, made an ill-fated U.S. commitment to Indochina and stumbled into an escalated war in Korea, even as he also erected the containment policy and built the positions of strength that would ultimately help win the Cold War.  Reagan was responsible for disasters like the Iran-Contra affair, and for initially escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, even as he articulated and executed a very successful grand strategy that eventually helped wind down the Cold War on American terms.  Moreover, both Truman and Reagan logged such historic achievements even in the face of significant public criticism, even amid perpetual bureaucratic and partisan wrangling, and even amid crises that might have derailed their strategies altogether.

One should certainly not read the experiences of these administrations as evidence that a president should simply toss aside all criticism, ignore all negative feedback, and blindly persevere with his or her chosen course.  For as noted below, history can—and should—also be a goad to introspection and critical reflection.  What these cases do illustrate, however, is that controversies and setbacks are part and parcel of any administration’s foreign policy, and that a degree of strategic perspective—and strategic patience—are therefore necessary in keeping any strategy on course over time.  A knowledge of history can help keep policy intellectually anchored amid all the inevitable disputes and difficulties; it can also help steel leaders against the despair that might otherwise flow from those difficulties.[11]

Proposition #6: History can help policymakers understand the sources of success and failure

If history can thus be a source of perspective and steadiness, it can also inform the introspection that is essential to effective policy.  It is comparatively easy to discern whether a given policy initiative has succeeded or failed; it is often far less obvious why what initiative has succeeded or failed.  Did a policy succeed because a decision was thoroughly considered via a structured and systematic process, and then implemented faithfully and skillfully by the bureaucracy? Or did it succeed simply because an administration got lucky?  Conversely, did a given policy fail because the policy was itself flawed in some fundamental and avoidable way?  Or was the policy reasonable in light of the information and choices available, and simply confounded by circumstances that not even a skillful leader could control? 

These questions are not merely of academic interest.  There is a robust literature suggesting that policymakers often seek to replicate their previous successes, and to avoid recommitting their previous mistakes.[12]  And so making good policy today or tomorrow presupposes that government officials truly understand why some initiative succeeded or failed in the past.  Yet because of the inherently chaotic and crisis-driven nature of policymaking, those officials rarely have the opportunity to go back and assess their performance to date in any systematic manner.  Instead, their judgments about these issues tend to be more impressionistic (and sometimes, more self-serving) than they ought to be. 

Here is where history—and historians—can help.  Policymakers can and should commission internal histories that examine major policy initiatives and provide perspective on why they succeeded or failed.  These exercises can provide a more critical view of whether an administration’s previous practices should be replicated or avoided; they can help officials more systematically interrogate the ups and downs of their own record.  History—in this case, very recent history—can be a critical means of introspection and self-evaluation. 

There are, in fact, some good historical examples of this approach.  John F. Kennedy famously commissioned Richard Neustadt (a historically minded political scientist) to write a retrospective report on the Skybolt fiasco in the early 1960s, as a way of gaining insight on what had gone wrong and thereby better addressing critical issues in the U.S.-UK special relationship.[13]  Similarly, Lyndon Johnson’s administration prepared internal histories of its approach to key policy issues, in hopes of better informing the initial efforts of its successor.[14]  Other examples could also be cited, but the key point is that historical work offers a way of more intensively examining the successes and failures of the past, and better positioning policymakers for the future.

Proposition #7: Improving the relationship means conquering mutual incomprehension, and bringing the tribes together

If there are feasible ways of improving the history-policy relationship, then why does such improvement often seen so difficult to achieve?  Part of the difficulty, it would seem, stems from mutual incomprehension.  Diplomatic historians may spend their careers studying foreign policy, and policymakers may read lots of biographies and other history. Yet one cannot escape the impression that these two groups really do not know each other.  Too few historians have spent time in the policy world, gaining the concrete experience that would better familiarize them with the time pressures, the limited options, and other constraints that continually shape statecraft.  And to be fair, too few policymakers really know that much about the work that professional historians do, and the potential value they can bring to the process.  So when these two communities do interact, the resulting mutual unfamiliarity and even incomprehension makes those interactions less useful than they might otherwise be. 

What this means is that there is a critical need to promote more consistent and deeper interactions between the policymakers’ and historians’ tribes.  Historians need to seek out opportunities to serve in a policy capacity, so as to sensitize themselves to the issues, pressures, and concerns with which policymakers are so intimately familiar.  They need to bring policymakers and their perspectives into historians’ conferences and other professional gatherings.  Most broadly, the historical discipline needs to ensure that it is intellectually open to the sort of policy-relevant analysis that is sometimes shunned within the profession, and that this type of work is affirmatively rewarded. 

These responsibilities, however, are not a one-way street—policymakers also need to seek out opportunities to form a more enduring intellectual partnership with the historical profession. They need to look for opportunities to bring historians and other academics onto their staffs; they need to engage leading historians on key questions of policy and strategy.  Above all, they need to recognize the value that historical knowledge can bring to decision-making, and make the intellectual investment necessary to use history well.  To the extent that such steps can be taken, these two communities can be made more comprehensible to each other, their interactions will only become more fruitful—and U.S. policy will only become more effective.


[1] See, for instance, Ernest May, “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

[2] Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri, eds., The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2015). 

[3] See Mark Lawrence, “Policymaking and the Uses of the Vietnam War,” in Brands and Suri, eds., Power of the Past.

[4] See the chapters by Mark Lawrence, James Steinberg, and H.W. Brands in Brands and Suri, eds., Power of the Past.

[5] See Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 252.

[6] See Brands and Suri, “Introduction: Thinking about History and Foreign Policy,” in Brands and Suri, eds., Power of the Past.

[7] See Josef Joffe, The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies (New York; Norton, 2013).

[8] Bruno Tertrais, “The Revenge of History,” The Washington Quarterly 38, 4 (Winter 2016), 7-18.

[9] Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2001).

[10] Stephen Sestanovich, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama (New York: Knopf, 2014).

[11] This and other uses of history are described in William Inboden, “Statecraft, Decision-Making, and the Varieties of Historical Experience: A Taxonomy,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37, 2 (2014), 291-318.

[12] See, for instance, Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), esp. chapter 6.

[13] See Richard Neustadt, Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).  The Skybolt Crisis resulted when the United States decided to cancel development of the Skybolt Air-Launched Ballistic Missile, upon which the United Kingdom—at U.S. encouragement—had already decided to base its nuclear deterrent in the 1960s.

[14] These histories can be found in the Administrative Histories file at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.