Home / Articles / History and Statecraft: A Complicated Marriage
“Those who consider the matter for a minute or two,” writes Philip Zelikow, a former official in the George W. Bush State Department and now professor of History at the University of Virginia, “realize that historical reasoning is as common in public affairs as oxygen is in water.” And yet, as the contributors to The Power of the Past agree, in institutional terms, the relationship between history and policy is “intimate but frequently dysfunctional.” The dysfunction is not for lack of awareness or trying. The craft of bringing historical knowledge to bear on contemporary policy problems has long been the aim of astute decision makers and has produced no shortage of corresponding academic volumes. Perhaps, the most notable of these—Ernest May and Richard Neustadt’s Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decisionmakers (1986)—is an explicit influence on the editors and contributors here.
The aim of The Power of the Past, then, is not to stake a novel claim to the past’s relevance for the present, but to renew the appeal for a connection between history and statecraft in a policy and professional environment that currently discourages meaningful collaboration. The editors, Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri, are two historians uniquely suited to this endeavor: in addition to publishing numerous books and articles on the history of U.S. foreign policy, Brands recently completed a year-long Council on Foreign Relations fellowship in the Defense Department, while Suri has become a leading public historian on topics ranging from U.S. nation-building efforts abroad to the foreign policy in the 2016 election. In this volume, they bring together a dozen essays that highlight the complexity of history’s lessons for policymakers, the diverse pathways through which historical knowledge has found purchase with decision makers over time, and the shared responsibilities of professionals in both groups to continually deepen their mutual understanding.
The breadth involved in exploring the nature of the history-policy relationship is a strength of this work. Notwithstanding the book’s rather functional structure—organized around how history can and should influence policy, and policymakers’ insights on the “pathways” of history’s influence—the essays are most effective in provoking conceptual questions and demonstrating the type of historical thinking that the editors seek to encourage. For this task, Suri and Brands have assembled an impressive, methodologically diverse—not to mention bipartisan—group of scholars and policymakers. An impressive roster of historians, anchored by H.W. Brands and Mark Lawrence, is augmented by several younger historians and tenured academics with policy experience. The aforementioned Zelikow and Jim Steinberg, the latter a former deputy national security advisor under President Bill Clinton and deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama, do more than represent policymakers, with each providing an impressive conceptual chapter. If the “fit” of the essays is at times incongruous, policymakers and academics alike will nonetheless benefit from reading the volume holistically; the rigorous critical analysis of how history has influenced policymaking in various episodes will provoke thought about the way that history can and should influence future policy challenges as well.