Will historians make good or bad policy advisers?

Niall Fergusson and Graham Allison recently pitched for US President to have a Council of History Advisers.

It is sometimes said that most Americans live in “the United States of Amnesia.” Less widely recognized is how many American policy makers live there too.

Speaking about his book Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama, the American diplomat Dennis Ross recently noted that “almost no administration’s leading figures know the history of what we have done in the Middle East.” Neither do they know the history of the region itself. In 2003, to take one example, when President George W. Bush chose to topple Saddam Hussein, he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority. He failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.

The problem is by no means limited to the Middle East or to Bush. President Obama’s inattention to the deep historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine led him to underestimate the risks of closer ties between Ukraine and Europe. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” President Obama told The New Yorker for a January 2014 article, referring to the great Cold War–era diplomat and historian. By March, Russia had annexed Crimea.

To address this deficit, it is not enough for a president to invite friendly historians to dinner, as Obama has been known to do. Nor is it enough to appoint a court historian, as John F. Kennedy did with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers. Historians made similar recommendations to Presidents Carter and Reagan during their administrations, but nothing ever came of these proposals. Operationally, the Council of Historical Advisers would mirror the Council of Economic Advisers, established after World War II. A chair and two additional members would be appointed by the president to full-time positions, and respond to assignments from him or her. They would be supported by a small professional staff and would be part of the Executive Office of the President.


Nevile Morley, Professor of in classics and ancient history at the University of Exeter does not agree. One tends to overgeneralize using historical lessons:

Historians have feared the obsolescence and irrelevance of their discipline for at least half a century – a theme that’s become more prominent in the past few years – and have quietly resented the influence of (in their eyes) the reductionist, simplistic and, above all, short-termist social sciences. ‘Editorials apply economic models to sumo wrestlers and palaeolithic anthropology to customs of dating,’ complained Jo Guldi and David Armitage in their History Manifesto of 2014. ‘These lessons are repeated on the news, and their proponents are elevated to the status of public intellectuals. Their rules seem to point to unchanging levers that govern our world.’ Allison and Ferguson likewise object to the ‘spurious certainty’ offered by social scientists. Presidents, they argue, should base their decisions on evidence drawn from reality – the lessons of the Great Depression, John F Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis or the 50-odd ‘brutal, fanatical and purpose-driven’ groups that the historical record offers as possible analogues to ISIS – rather than abstract, supposedly timeless economic or political theories.

Though, it does not mean history brings no lessons. Just that we should be careful in comparisons:

The past is not a neutral body of data, objectively coded so that events can be matched to one another for analytical purposes. Rather, it is always the product of a process of interpretation and representation. Some events are more familiar than others and come pre-loaded with meaning, which is why Nazi analogies are so popular and so invariably unhelpful. Though professional historians can draw on a wider range of potential examples, with a great deal more detail and complexity, much then has to be stripped away in order to make the analogy persuasive, and more persuasive than other analogies. Is Donald Trump Mussolini, Nero, Alcibiades or George Wallace? Do US commitments to Japan and the Philippines more closely resemble the 1839 treaty governing the neutrality of Belgium or the early years of the Delian League?

One possible answer is: yes and no. Any historical example will present both similarity and difference to the present, and reflecting on both these aspects can give us a better understanding of our own situation and its possibilities for good and ill. (Potentially, at least; I remain skeptical that Thucydides could ‘explain’ Trump). We can use the example to think with, without having to claim that it is somehow objectively more relevant than other pieces of the past, or that it embodies any invariant universal principle.

A debate worth having across countries.. Should we have historians as advisers?

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