THE FIRST REBUTTAL: HISTORY AND SPREADING DEMOCRACY
Delayed but not denied, here is the first rebuttal in the Spreading Democracy Debate with Cheryl "CKR" Rofer
. CKR's original post can be found here
. Her first rebuttal is here
I'd like to begin by stating that, speaking as someone trained as a historian, it was a pleasure to read CKR's first post because she demonstrated an excellent grasp of the field of history. That's not something I run across every day and it was very nice to see.
CKR drew attention to the methodological core of using history in the formation of solutions for contemporary foreign policy problems:"As people search for a way to get a handle on large events, historical analogy is not the worst of these tools. The problem with history is that events are never quite the same. It’s essential to look at historical context, but discussion in the US too frequently mixes politics in. The analogies of Vietnam to Iraq frequently display these difficulties. Vietnam was a geographical backwater; Iraq is square in the center of the Middle Eastern oil country. Casualties in Vietnam were much higher than they are in Iraq, and to a conscripted army. Both of those statements have enormous ramifications. Each could be expanded into a book. Responsible analysis would examine subsets of those ramifications for similarities and differences, then test theory against them. Politicization takes the facts that agree with me and arranges them against the other guy’s argument."Jonathan Dresner
, a Japan specialist who blogs at Cliopatria
, has argued in the past on HNN that historians are well-trained in terms of analytical skills and an appropriately large cognitive base to render judgments about foreign policy. Naturally, I agree with him but forming policy, as opposed to simply critiquing policy, is an action of synthesis
which requires a mental shifting of gears by the historian whose habitual cognitive state is analysis
. Analysis is a superb tool for deciding how a system works, might work and where it it does not; in other words, for discovering causation and predicting effect. ( Source for Diagram here
This explains why most historians ( and most policy experts for that matter) are best at figuring all the ways a proposed policy will not work. Analysis is fundamentally a tool of criticism and not creativity. Or in the words of John Boyd
, you can get in to a mental cul-de- sac of " Paralysis by analysis". Synthesis, by contrast, is a horizontal -thinking act of creativity which is what you need in order to devise solutions to policy problems. ( For a diagram that explains creative insight, go here
Fortunately, historians have, as CKR wrote " the data". What they need to be of more use in foreign policy discussions is a change of cognitive perspective. Historians also need to be utilized with some balance in terms of field specialty. CKR wrote:"The historical view develops a sympathy with people in past times not unlike that required for dealing with other countries and other cultures. They didn’t use words exactly the way we do. Their concepts were different: look at how the definitions of liberalism and conservatism have changed in America since the late 19th century, although not so much in Europe. And their expectations of what made the good life were different. Ask anyone who grew up in the fifties, or even the sixties or seventies.Unfortunately, politics can make use of history while ignoring or even suppressing this sympathy. Don’t like nuclear weapons? The US never should have dropped the bombs on Japan. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of US deaths, the apparent will of the Japanese to fight up to and beyond an invasion of their islands. Need a club to beat the left? That was some giveaway at Yalta, equivalent to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Never mind that the Soviets already held the territories, the war weariness, the difficulty of driving the Soviets back."
It isn't always overt politicization, though that certainly plays a role in public debates over policy. Unbalanced historical perspectives alone can create a lacuna for policy makers without regard to ideology. Collounsbury
made remarks to this effect in the comments section of my first post in regards to the historical expertise of Bernard Lewis
. Collounsbury has ( if I recall correctly) a degree in history, but more importantly, he is a MENA specialist and is thus a modernist. To him, the limitations of relying on Lewis, an Ottomanist and medievalist, for advice about ME policy was obvious though it would not have been so to a non-specialist( Collounsbury has critiqued the strengths and weaknesses of Lewis at length here
). The answer is simply drawing upon a representative range of specialists to exchange views instead of just one or two so that a check and balance exists in terms of perspective.
Though this is supposed to be a rebuttal I am finding myself in agreement with much of what CKR has to say, despite our differing political views and my more hawkish orientation on foreign policy questions. A good outcome, I believe, for Right-Left dialogues of this kind. I'll have to sharpen my partisan saw for the second rebuttal, just to keep things interesting.