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Learning from history with a humble and curious mind

Ambassador Christian Dussey, GCSP Director, reflects on the lessons that can be learned from the First World War.

What can we learn from the fateful years of the “war to end all the wars?” A hundred years ago, the world witnessed the end of an unnecessary conflict that lasted four years and led to almost  thirty-eight million casualties, a war that shaped the history of the twentieth century and whose consequences are still felt today.

This weekend in Paris, President Emmanuel Macron is about to welcome more than 60 world leaders to mark the centennial of the 1918 Armistice and the first Paris Peace Forum. He invited his guests “to reflect on world governance while we commemorate the end of World War I and recognise our collective responsibility,”  warning that “nobody, not even the wealthiest and the best-educated, blocked the rise of Hitler in one country and Mussolini in another1.”

Today, as the world faces turbulent times, we urgently need to listen to “the echoes of history and avoid replaying the discordant notes of the past2.” Let’s reflect on some key elements:

On pride and vanity

Crisis and war reveal character. Faced with high responsibility, danger and stress, civilian and military leaders react differently and display a wide range of personality traits and emotions: overconfidence (French General Joffre believed that “victory… would come not out of the best plan but out of the strongest will and firmest confidence, and these, he had no doubt, were his3”), doubt and introversion (German General Moltke) or irritability (British General Sir John French). Boldness and confidence can be decisive in battle. Too often, however, blunders have been caused by pride and vanity. Leadership, both civil and military, requires walking the thin line between a confident ego and an arrogant posture. Humility in command is a significant asset.

On the danger of misunderstanding and misinterpretation

In crisis, as in conflict, misunderstanding and misinterpretation are common occurrences. They sustain and fuel what Clausewitz called ‘the fog of war.’ August 1914 faced a series of events that fell into that category. The fear of inadvertent war was pointedly described by the French Prime Minister, Viviani, who said that he was “haunted by a fear that war might burst from a clump of trees, from a meeting of two patrols, from a threatening gesture … a black look, a brutal word, a shot!” He exhorted everyone to remain calm (“du calme, du calme et encore du calme”).

On civil-military relations

In wartime, as in time of intense crisis, the relationship between civil and military leadership is regularly fraught with tensions and sometimes conflict. It is a perennial problem according to Eliot Cohen, who wrote a thoughtful study of supreme leadership in times of war4.  It came to the forefront several times during the first month. For instance, at the outset of hostilities, General Moltke said to the Kaiser: “I cannot stop [the mobilisation].” The same tensions appeared on the French side, which saw serious divergences in strategy between the military leadership and the French Minister of Defence on whether, or how, to protect and defend Paris. At the time, it was not unusual to see a total disconnect between military planning and national security strategy5.

On the failure of imagination

The Great War gave way to common mistakes and failures:

  • Stubborn application of preconceived theories such as the cult of the “offensive à outrance”;
  • Wrongful use of lessons learned from previous conflicts, most notably the German-French war of 1870;
  • Compartmentalisation of thinking. Moltke said to an official who expressed the need for an economic general staff: “don’t bother me with economics – I am busy conducting the war”6;
  • Groupthink, when the cabinet of a Minister or a General shares common views and refuses critics.

While the majority felt like the Kaiser (“you will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees”), others (Generals Moltke, Joffre, Kitchener) had a sixth sense, an intuition that led them to believe they were at the outset of a long war. As Barbara Tuchmann wrote, “one constant among the elements of 1914 - as of any era - was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they subjected to be true7.”

How can these lessons be put into practice today?

  1. We need to reemphasise the use of history in the decision-making process: as we face rapid changes in the international and domestic scenes, taking time to pause and reflect before coming to a decision has become even more critical. We tend to forget history, and especially lessons learned from history. But we forget them at our own peril. “The use of history can stimulate imagination: seeing the past can help one envision alternative futures…” emphasised Harvard professors Neustadt and May8. But more importantly, they stressed “it is about how to use experience, whether remote or recent, in the process of deciding what to do today.” This is why at the GCSP we insist on learning from history.
  2. Decision-making is a critical leadership competency: analysing the risks and ways that led to inadvertent war during the past century, Stanford University scholar Alexander George posits that one of the variables that always had an impact, besides just the incentives to avoid war and the opportunities for constructive crisis management, was the level of skills and capabilities for crisis management. Decision-making plays a central role in crisis management. If we don’t understand decision-making, ours, the one of our partners and adversaries, how do we expect to influence it? What roles do national and organisational culture, history and geography play in decision-making? What can we learn from new discoveries in neuroscience to improve our decision-making abilities? If we want to avoid what happened a century ago, we must invest more in understanding how we make decisions and in improving our decision-making abilities.
  3. We must improve our ability to learn, anticipate and adapt: “Regulations are all very well for drill but in the hour of danger they are no more use… You have to learn to think.” This was the advice given by the creative French General Ferdinand Foch, Commander of the French Ecole de guerre” (War College), prior to the Great War. Rigidity in thinking and especially the lack of imagination are at the source of many blunders. Analysis of military misfortunes reveals that “learning, anticipating and adapting,” were essential to avoid disasters9. We have hence to continue focusing on these three factors.

So the choice is ours. Let’s learn from history with a humble and curious mind, and be a little wiser in addressing today’s challenges.


[1] http://www.courrier-picard.fr/146984/article/2018-11-04/notre-pays-est-un-tournant-historique

[2] https://blogs.imf.org/2018/11/05/when-history-rhymes/?cid=sm-com-TW

[3]Tuchman, Barbara W. (1962): The Guns of August, New York, N.Y.: Ballantine Books, p. 215.

[4] Cohen, Eliot/ Gooch, John (1990): Military Misfortunes, New York, N.Y.: Free Press.

[5] Keegan, John (1998): The First World War, London: Hutchinson.

[6] Tuchman, Barbara W. (1962): The Guns of August, New York, N.Y.: Ballantine Books, p. 398.

[7] Ibid, p. 27

[8] Neustadt, Richard E. / May, Ernest R. (1986): Thinking in Time. The Uses of History for Decision-Making, Preface, New York, N.Y.: The Free Press.

[9] Cohen, Eliot/ Gooch, John (1990): Military Misfortunes, New York, N.Y.: Free Press.