A Council of Historical Advisers?

After World War II, a Council of Economic Advisers was established to provide American presidents with expert economic analysis. It now numbers some twenty government and academic economists.

Last fall two Harvard historians, Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison, recommended the creation of a historical equivalent:

Were a Council of Historical Advisers in place today, it could consider precedents for numerous strategic problems. For example: As tensions increase between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, are U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and other countries as dangerous to peace as the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality, which became the casus belli between Britain and Germany in 1914?

The council might study whether a former president’s handling of another crisis could be applied to a current challenge (what would X have done?). Consider Obama’s decision to strike an imperfect deal to halt or at least delay Iran’s nuclear program, rather than bombing its uranium-enrichment plants, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped he might. Obama’s deliberations have significant parallels with Kennedy’s decision during the Cuban missile crisis to strike a deal with Nikita Khrushchev, rather than invading Cuba or learning to live with Soviet missiles off Florida’s coast.

Indeed, Allison and Ferguson don’t want to stop there. They see this council as helping birth a whole new branch of the discipline of history:

We not only want to see applied history incorporated into the Executive Office of the President, alongside economic expertise; we also want to see it developed as a discipline in its own right at American universities, beginning at our own. When people refer to “applied history” today, they are typically referring to training for archivists, museum curators, and the like. We have in mind a different sort of applied history…

Mainstream historians take an event, phenomenon, or era and attempt to explain what happened. They sometimes say that they study the past “for its own sake.” Applied historians would take a current predicament and try to identify analogues in the past. Their ultimate goal would be to find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences. You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics. But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians. Applied history can try to remedy that.

In fact, Harvard’s famous Kennedy School hosts an Applied History Project:

In the earliest days of historical writing in Ancient Greece and Rome, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and others viewed history as a vital teacher for statesmen. Into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, historical knowledge maintained a central place in strategy and statesmanship, inspiring such leaders as Bismarck and Churchill. In more recent times, however, the history-policy relationship has atrophied. Today, policymakers too often retreat to facile historical analogies, while historians become more and more distrustful of policymakers’ misuse of their craft.

But Princeton professors Jeremy Adelman was among the many historians who wasn’t entirely sure that Allison and Ferguson’s idea was a good one:

Saving history and America at the same time means taking current problems, finding historic precedents from which we can learn, and bridging the gap between ailing mainstream historians and practitioners who need more informed coordinates about what’s going on in the world. That’s fine — good, actually.

But: It represents only one slice of what historians have to offer. What happens to pasts that are not so readily repurposed for the future as decided by today? Whose past gets summoned? And who is the past to serve if relevance drives the agenda, shakes up status differences, and allocates resources?

…Ironically, the historical ignorance that Allison and Ferguson rightly decry as saturating the Bush White House reflected prior campaigns to make history more current. After the Cold War, when big funders and universities bailed on training in foreign languages and learning about exotic parts (bundled in stigmatized and downsized “area studies”), they laid low our capacity to understand Others — precisely when that skill was about to acquire a whole new valence with the rise of China, the flow of Latin American migrants, and the transformation of the Middle East. Universities are still recovering from the narrowed vision of what they thought was happening to the world in 1989.

What do you think of the notion of “applied history”? Should the president appoint a Council of Historical Advisers?


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