The Case for Applied History

Can the study of the past really help us to understand the present?

Surprised! by Henri Rousseau, 1891.

In An Autobiography, published in 1939, R.G. Collingwood offered an arresting statement about the kind of insight possessed by the trained historian. The philosopher of history likened the difference between those who knew and understood history and those who did not to that between ‘the trained woodsman’ and ‘the ignorant traveller’ in a forest. While the latter marches along unaware of their surroundings, thinking ‘Nothing here but trees and grass’, the woodsman sees what lurks ahead. ‘Look’, he will say, ‘there is a tiger in that grass.’

What Collingwood meant was that, through their familiarity with people, places and ideas, historians are often equipped to see how a situation might turn out – or at least identify the key considerations that determine matters. Collingwood’s musings implied an expansive vision of the role historians might play in society. Their grasp of human behaviour, long-term economic or cultural processes and the complexities of the socio-political order of a given region of the world meant that they could be more than just a specialist in the past. By being able to spot the tiger in the grass, historians might profitably advise on contemporary and future challenges as well.

For around 2,500 years, the notion of the historian-as-commentator has been well established. It origins lie deep in antiquity. Thucydides, for example, imagined his History of the Peloponnesian War as being not merely a history of an epic struggle, but a possession ‘for all time’, which revealed the mainsprings of political ambition and human conflict. It would remain useful ‘so long as men are men’. Historians writing thereafter often saw themselves as not only piecing together the details of a specific event, but offering their readers conceptual tools with which to understand other situations in the world around them – and in that to come. For centuries, statesmen and thinkers used history as a tool to shed light on their own difficulties and to suggest courses of action. When Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince (1532), he illustrated his case by constant reference to examples from the past. Politicians of 19th-century Europe were classically educated and sought a Greek or Roman analogy for every problem. The Victorian historian J.R. Seeley went so far as to declare that history was no less than a ‘school of statesmanship’; a bold assertion of what the discipline might offer us.

Past, present and future imperfect

Historians are not seers; their analogies may be misplaced and their assessments can be wrong. Yet the idea of history constituting a valuable guide for present and future action was an established part of western culture. This makes sense. After all, the past is our sole repository of information about what works and what does not; we have nothing else to draw upon. In our everyday lives we constantly make decisions based on past experience. While two situations may not be perfectly alike, nevertheless we divine patterns and lessons in the past that can help us to make better choices.

In recent decades, however, things have changed. The longstanding view of the historian as being, in modern jargon, ‘policy-relevant’, has fallen out of favour and often arouses suspicion. In 1969 the Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton attacked those who looked for ‘applicability’ in history, a sentiment now widespread. Moreover, academic historians work on ever-narrower subjects, becoming specialists in topics which are sometimes comprehensible to fewer than a hundred fellow scholars. There is a view that the devil is in the detail and that history does not repeat itself. Context, in short, is king. Because no two situations are exactly the same, attempting to draw parallels between events risks distortion. ‘Lessons’ cannot be gleaned across time and space and to affect to do so produces oversimplification. As such, there is now widespread professional distaste for the Thucydidean vision. The possibility of developing the implications of a series of historical events and employing this to illuminate current policy challenges jars with the accepted norms of academic life.

Yet this arguably impoverishes social and political debate, banishing the insights of historians from the public sphere. Some scholars – such as Graham Allison, Andrew Ehrhardt, Niall Ferguson and Martyn Frampton – challenge this. The rediscovery of an older vision of the profession has been labelled ‘applied history’. So how can history help those with responsibility for policy? What does a historical sensibility offer to individuals seeking to navigate contemporary challenges and prepare for future ones?

Most fundamentally, history teaches us to look past the ephemeral and search out the underlying, long-term dynamics of problems. As a matter of routine, historians probe the roots of a situation and endeavour to trace causalities. Indeed, historians ought to grasp causality better than any other expert group. If one can pinpoint the factors that brought a situation about, one can make helpful observations about how likely a proposed course of action is to succeed, or temper one’s ambitions for a simple resolution. For example, a major factor in precipitating the Second World War was the power vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe created by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires at the end of the First World War. This produced a cauldron of instability that the regional states inevitably competed to control; while the ambitions of the Nazis were limitless, what enabled them to pursue their course of action was that they were operating in a geopolitical vacuum. Such a vacuum was unlikely to be filled without a war between the two biggest local powers, Germany and the Soviet Union.

A historical awareness of how states behave towards regional rivals and the impact of the retreat of old power blocs has obvious relevance for policy in contemporary global trouble spots. The ongoing struggle for regional ascendancy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, following the partial disengagement of the US from the Middle East, is a powerful example of this sort of turmoil. So, too, is the looming possibility of war between Iran and Israel. Thucydides’ argument that states go to war because of fear, honour and interest seems as true now as it was in ancient Greece. If Western governments had faced up to the longstanding enmities between ethnic groups in the Balkans that made large-scale violence plausible, even probable, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of lives may have been saved.

Thinking tools

Perhaps the most accessible tool offered by history is that of the enlightening analogy. It is conventional for everyone, not only historians, to liken one situation to another and to spot parallels. Public officials often employ historical analogy in order to justify their policies. It is a valuable tool for thinking with, yet it is also easy to misuse in crude ways. What historians can do is to subject analogies to close scrutiny and judge whether or not they are appropriate, given the differences and the similarities between situations. Scholars can identify the most relevant analogies and use them to enrich the policy conversation.

Those looking for guidance on how rival power blocs can compete, and even fight, while also co-existing could do worse than to study the interaction between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian states of the Mediterranean in the 16th century. Historical analysis of the fault lines separating civilisations reveals lessons for those responsible for formulating policy today. The range of analogies commonly utilised in public debate is depressingly small – almost any event of significance is related to either the international crises of the 1930s or the economic turmoil of the 1970s. Historians are equipped to enrich that pool with more exotic alternatives.

Related to analogy is precedent. History is a source of precedents that illuminate policy problems. For example, the growth of Chinese power is likely to be a defining trend of the 21st century and threatens to upend the global order; it may pitch an assertive, dictatorial China into confrontation with the US, Japan and others. There is a possibility that such a rivalry could spiral out of control. Thankfully, history is replete with similar situations. We can draw upon countless examples of strategic rivalry, from ancient Egypt to the present, encompassing struggles great and small, in order to suggest policy in the Asia-Pacific region. While competition between major powers often produces conflict, there are examples of more benign outcomes and successful, if strained, co-existence. History can help us to predict how decision-makers in Beijing or Washington might respond to certain acts. In the years following 9/11, those hoping to graft Western-style liberal democracy onto nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which were accustomed to despotic rule and where tribal loyalty was often more significant than other affinities, would have done well to ponder the work of the Middle Eastern specialist Elie Kedourie. His exploration of British and French attempts to create Western-style states in the Middle East during the 1920s is sobering.

Through their expertise, historians are able to make helpful inferences, probe and challenge assumptions and take a problem apart. That is because they are accustomed to studying the full complexity of organised and interactive human behaviour. It is one of the reasons why, in March 1990, Margaret Thatcher organised a secret meeting of leading historians to discuss the imminent reunification of Germany and specifically whether or not there was a serious possibility that a future German government would use its power to dominate Europe. As the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned, history is ‘not a cookbook offering pre-tested recipes’. It does not provide ‘rules’ for action that are consistently reliable. Yet while the historian cannot devise hard-and-fast rules, or state definitively what should be done in a given scenario, it is possible to reason from history. A historical sensibility opens up one’s imagination and cultivates insights that are impossible to acquire in other ways.

Historical anomaly

The armed forces are one of the few institutions that consistently make ‘applied history’ an integral part of their operation. Military establishments study past battles and campaigns in order to improve their performance in future conflicts. Yet this is an anomaly. Kissinger was a rare example of a modern politician who actively used history. He held a doctorate in the subject from Harvard and constantly drew upon historical analogies as instruments to aid him in his stewardship of US foreign policy; there are few better examples of the merits of a historical sensibility in directly shaping policy. He was doubtless influenced by Thucydides’ maxim that ‘the present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future’. Kissinger was acutely aware that, if history teaches anything, it is humility. Radical plans to overhaul the status quo rarely work as intended and often backfire, so one needs to operate with a sense of proportion. Sadly, a Kissinger is almost unthinkable today.

Given that history is so policy-relevant, the scepticism of the majority of professionals about ‘applied history’ is a shame. First, it displays a lack of awareness of the provenance of the discipline. Second, it implies a misunderstanding of causation – the very thing that historians are supposed to be specialists in. If one makes a claim to expertise in cause and effect, one should be trained to discern patterns and project trends forward. Third, it disregards what the public want from their historians (who they largely fund): a willingness to tackle big problems. Finally, the professional wariness about the ‘relevance’ of history is arguably one important reason why thousands of university students fret that their history degree will prove ‘useless’.

History is fascinating in itself, but what makes it so stimulating is that it offers deeper insights into the human condition that are of enduring value. The past is not a foolproof guide to the present or the future – it is simply the only guide we have. Here, Collingwood is again helpful. He believed that the past is ‘incapsulated’ in the present and thus ‘lives on’: when one peels back the layers, one quickly realises that the present is nothing more than the accumulated decisions and actions of the past. History is ‘alive and active’ and stands ‘in the closest possible relation to practical life’.

Robert Crowcroft is senior lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of Attlee’s War: World War II and the Making of a Labour Leader (I.B. Tauris, 2011).