Why the President Needs a Council of Historians
It isn’t enough for a commander in chief to invite friendly academics to dinner. The U.S. could avoid future disaster if policy makers started looking more to the past.
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It is sometimes said that most Americans live in “the United States of Amnesia.” Less widely recognized is how many American policy makers live there too.Speaking about his book Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama, the American diplomat Dennis Ross recently noted that “almost no administration’s leading figures know the history of what we have done in the Middle East.” Neither do they know the history of the region itself. In 2003, to take one example, when President George W. Bush chose to topple Saddam Hussein, he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority. He failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.
To address this deficit, it is not enough for a president to invite friendly historians to dinner, as Obama has been known to do. Nor is it enough to appoint a court historian, as John F. Kennedy did with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers. Historians made similar recommendations to Presidents Carter and Reagan during their administrations, but nothing ever came of these proposals. Operationally, the Council of Historical Advisers would mirror the Council of Economic Advisers, established after World War II. A chair and two additional members would be appointed by the president to full-time positions, and respond to assignments from him or her. They would be supported by a small professional staff and would be part of the Executive Office of the President.
For too long, history has been disparaged as a “soft” subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty. We believe it is time for a new and rigorous “applied history”—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues. 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, one that follows in the tradition of the modern historian Ernest May and the political scientist Richard Neustadt. Their 1986 book, Thinking in Time, provides the foundation on which we intend to build.
Imagine that President obama had a Council of Historical Advisers today. What assignments could he give it?Start with the issue that the president and his national-security team have been struggling with most: isis. Recent statements indicate that the administration tends to see isis as essentially a new version of al-Qaeda, and that a top goal of U.S. national-security policy is to decapitate it as al-Qaeda was decapitated with Osama bin Laden’s assassination. But history suggests that isis is quite different in structure from al-Qaeda and may even be a classic acephalous network. When we searched for historical analogues to isis, we came up with some 50 groups that were similarly brutal, fanatical, and purpose-driven, including the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution. By considering which characteristics of isis are most salient, a Council of Historical Advisers might narrow this list to the most relevant analogues. Study of these cases might dissuade the president from equating isis with its recent forerunner.
The U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis illustrates the value of this approach. That September saw the biggest shock to the world economy since the Great Depression. In a stroke of luck, the chairman of the Federal Reserve at the time, Ben Bernanke, was a student of earlier financial crises, particularly the Depression. As he wrote in his 2015 memoir, “The context of history proved invaluable.” Bernanke’s Fed acted decisively, using unprecedented tools that stretched—if not exceeded—the Fed’s legal powers, such as buying up mortgage-backed and Treasury securities in what was called quantitative easing. Bernanke’s knowledge of the Depression also informed the Fed’s efforts to backstop other central banks.
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.
Finally, the council might consider grand strategic questions, including perhaps the biggest one of all: Is the U.S. in decline? Can it surmount the challenges facing it, or will American power steadily erode in the decades ahead?
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump offer answers to these questions. Indeed, Trump proposes to “make America great again,” implying that decline has already occurred, and to put “America first,” reviving a slogan with, to put it mildly, a problematic history. The presidential campaign thus far gives us little confidence that America’s history deficit is about to be closed.
We suggest that the charter for the future Council of Historical Advisers begin with Thucydides’s observation that “the events of future history … will be of the same nature—or nearly so—as the history of the past, so long as men are men.” Although applied historians will never be clairvoyants with unclouded crystal balls, we agree with Winston Churchill: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”