Five ways to use history well

I have discussed the topic of the use of history for decision makers in a previous post about Richard Neustadt and Ernest May‘s analog framework. Historian Francis Gavin gave a very interesting speech for the Longnow foundation on the same question, but from a different angle. Gavin lays out five key concepts which, if properly understood and employed, should provide a firmer grasp on how historical analysis can be of benefit to decision makers.   I would also argue that they can benefit not just the policymakers but also the public at large.  These concepts are vertical history, horizontal history, chronological proportionality, unintended consequences and policy insignificance.

  1. Vertical history is about understanding why events occur, i.e. the chain of events and the causality that leads to a particular situation.  For instance, the US involvement in the Middle-East seems a natural thing until one realizes that until the 1960s the Middle-East was a low priority for the US.  What triggered US involvement was the Six Day War in 1967, which led to the sudden withdrawal of Britain and the increased involvement of the USSR which saw the region as attractive for developing its sphere of influence.  Because of the Vietnam war and resulting financial pressures, the US couldn’t simply replace the British with a direct presence.  Instead, it started providing massive military and political support to whatever ally they could find in the region that was willing to support their aims.  There were three in particular: Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran.  This produced consequences for U.S. policy that persisted well beyond the Cold War until today.
  2. Horizontal history looks at the interconnection of events over space. In the 1960s, the United States began hemorrhaging dollars and losing its gold supply. The administration was very concerned about this, but it was loath to do what it would normally have done:  increase interest rates.  Instead, it sought to reduce foreign expenses.   One way to do that was to reduce the number of Americans abroad, in particular the 300,000 US troops living in Germany with their families. The Germans, however, were not pleased. and started to feel insecure, leading them to ask for nuclear weapons.  In the end, the US worked out a series of deals that ended up becoming the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Who would know today that the NPT resulted from a balance of payment problem?
  3. Chronological proportionality is about assessing the long term consequences of events, knowing what matters and what doesn’t in the mountain of everyday facts.  We sometimes fail to acknowledge that what we are presented in our newsfeed – be that a newspaper or on the Web- is there because it was selected by someone, i.e. we get the news through a filter.  Hence the initial importance of a fact – its press coverage- tends to have absolutely no relation to its long term significance.  We could construct a matrix to display the initial attention (hi-lo) vs. the long term significance (Hi-Lo) of a fact. In short, dramatic events can crowd out other critical events or tectonic shifts.  A great example of this phenomenon is the Vietnam war.  The war made headline news for years, and picking any history textbook shows it is still considered one the main events that shaped the 1960s and 1970s. What is its long term significance? Probably not much. The Six Day War in 1967, in contrast, got much less coverage, but led to sustained US involvement in the Middle-East and still is of major importance today, more than 40 years later.
  4. Unintended consequences is a classic concept:  we are not always able to measure the real consequences of a decision, and sometimes a positive results will turn out to be a negative one in the long run, or vice versa.  Gavin develops the example of  losing Vietnam war.  At that time, it was seen as a catastrophic event in the US.  The war was essentially lost on political grounds: Vietnam became communist and the US presence in South-East Asia was greatly weakened, all this at great internal cost. However, Gavin contends that as a result of its loss, the US was not a threat to China in the region anymore.   Given the increasing tension between China and the USSR, losing the Vietnam War therefore meant that a rapprochement between the US and China became possible.  Hence the US gained a key allied in its struggle against the USSR at one stroke.  Had the US prevailed in Vietnam, it would have continued to pose a threat to China, making a Sino-US rapprochement impossible; it might even have induced China and the USSR to mend their differences.
  5. Policy insignificance is the realization that the world is not driven by the policy making process and, as a result, it should give policy makers the confidence to… do nothing.  Gavin develops the example of the US situation in US in 1975. It was clearly a depressing sight. The country has just lost a war that had led to countless casualties and deep domestic divisions.  The US economy was stagnant, while the communist world seemed to be progressing inexorably.  The future looked bleak.  Yet, 20 years later, America was roaring on all cylinders.  The fact that there was no indication in 1975 that the US was about to begin a three-decade economic surge, and that this rebirth had nothing to do with policy makers but everything to do with the entrepreneurial spirit, is an indication of what political insignificance means.  As Gavin concludes: “It should sensitive people in positions of great responsibility to the fact that things can and will go wrong, and the only thing that we can predict with any certainty is that things will turn out much differently than you had ever planned.”

As Gavin notes, having historians advise decision makers is probably utopian; however, these concepts can be useful when decision makers face uncertain and complex situations.

Frank Gavin’s conference can be seen here on ForaTV.  You can also view my colleague Milo Jones’ MA Thesis on the use (and abuse) of historical analogies in the journal Foreign Affairs here.

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3 responses to “Five ways to use history well

  1. Pingback: Three Videos on Forecasting and Strategic Surprise « Silberzahn & Jones

  2. Really interesting. Thanks for posting this one. Ancient Romans said that “Historia magistra vitae”, but most human beings stubbornly refuse to learn from history…

  3. Pingback: Using History to Make Policy | Globo Diplo

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