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History and statecraft

An international conference at the GCSP

Historical awareness and wisdom in policy-making often go hand in hand. Yet the fast-paced policy environment tends to shorten the attention spans of decision-makers, leaving the valuable historical resources increasingly untapped.

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GCSP - Maison de la paix (4th floor)

Under the umbrella of the History and Policy-making Initiative, a joint initiative between the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, an international conference on History and Statecraft took place from 11 to 12 May 2016 at the GCSP. Twenty speakers, both academics and practitioners, from different continents participated with the objective to open the debate on the role and relationship between history and policy-making.

During the first panel on the Uses and Abuses of History: The Power of the Past, three elements came forward, namely the need for a better use of history, the importance of historical thinking and the need for a global history. In the context of policy-making, history is often misused in the discourse of nationalism. Politicians tend to be more selective in the historical elements they choose to legitimise actions, which might not be approved by everyone.  One element to counter this tendency and to get a better understanding of change is to try to think more historically. History must be seen as dynamic and not linear. According to one of the panelists, the historian should also be regarded as an artist, someone who narrates a story. Today, there is too often a feeling of an unprecedented era, while in fact the past more often than not re-emerges.  To have a better understanding of the dynamic nature of history and the different backgrounds of policy-makers, a global history should be adopted in the educational system and not be only limited to a national perspective.

The need for a better understanding and objective approach on the past was also a recurring theme in the panel Wars, the World and Lessons Learned. The classic dilemma if states fight because they possess arms or if arms are being built because of the need to fight, is a recurring question policy- makers need to grapple. One of the big mistakes the decision makers tend to make is to found their decisions on domestic motivations. The international implications of those decisions are not always fully understood. Now that we live in a modern society, which is more complex than during the Cold War, a better historical understanding is therefore necessary.

In the panel Legacies and Lessons: Beyond the Cold War the main focus was on the importance of not extrapolating the wrong lessons from the post-World War II era. Whereas many of the uses of the Cold War in the present may not be completely faulty, self-congratulatory and triumphalist views of the past tend to miss the complexity inherent in the original. For example the significance of economic, social and political dislocation as a source of threat in the early Cold War is too often neglected at the expense of military developments. Engaging and understanding one’s adversary continues to be as essential now as it was then. Rhetorical traps need to be avoided and moral ambiguity tolerated, if good judgment is to be nurtured – this might well be one of the key lessons to be drawn from the Cold War for policymakers in the present. For the historians themselves, the task is to write thoughtful and good history, but also to think of ways to operate in different registers, finding lessons from their textured and complex material that can be communicated to various audiences.

The panel Internationalisms and Transnationalisms highlighted the need for historians to think about how they explain history to the public. One of the panelists argued that there is a tendency to underestimate the willingness of policy-makers to engage with history. Unfortunately, they seem to be trapped by their own timeframe. People should be able to think in time, but often there is not a lot of time to think. The gap between historians and policy-makers will only widen if a distinction is being made between both groups. The role of the media was also discussed during this panel. There has been a shift in the images used by humanitarian organisations; the recent picture of the dead migrant toddler on the beach is one such example.

Perception of time and nostalgia were central themes in the panel Ideologies, Religions and Civilisations. There exists a misleading ‘safety of the familiar’, which becomes a problem. There is a feeling that the economic crisis and the rise of extremism of the 1930s are repeating themselves to an extent in the 2010s. History seems to be a careful mix of repetitions, but the real challenge is to move away from events from the past, step away from the concept of simplification, and look to the current context. One of the panelists argued that the European Union has learned and is still learning to resolve social inequalities and should be capable to resist the rise of extremism because of the democratic experience and memories.

In the last panel Diplomacy, History and Crises, the requirement for a change in education of future historians returned. Historians need a better understanding of the work of policy-makers. Scholars ought to broaden the type of activities in their education by engaging more in the policy process and attempt to write policy papers.  These opportunities must give them a sense of how difficult it is to make the right decision in uncertainty. On the other hand, policy-makers should be more aggressively oriented towards history since history always influences our actions.

One of the recurring themes, which are also the lessons to take away from this conference, is the need to revisit the educational system for policy-makers and historians. Both need a better understanding of the work of the other to make it possible for a better exchange of information between both disciplines, which will hopefully lead to a more fruitful co-operation. A second theme, central to the conference, is a necessity for a better understanding of time. Historians need to comprehend the timeframe in which policy-makers work, while policy-makers at their turn need to see the whole picture the historians are presenting. This then connects to the last theme which is the use and explanation of history. Both politicians and historians have to acknowledge the power they have with their understanding of the past, and have to be therefore conscious of the way they explain this to the public. They cannot fall into the trap of simplicity, but must highlight the complexity of the issues at hand.

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