The Uses of History: Lessons from a Georgetown Classroom

Whenever proponents of a policy cite a historical analogy as their main justification, listeners should beware.


The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner.” My students at Georgetown University and I certainly learned together this past semester, but that did not surprise me. What I was not expecting was how applicable what I learned in the classroom is to being in the Foreign Service. I had the good fortune to spend the 2012-2013 academic year as a Rusk Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. The highlight of my fellowship was developing and teaching an undergraduate seminar on U.S. policymaking in response to the Arab Spring.

I conducted the course from a practitioner’s perspective, but sought to develop more general lessons from the specific issues at hand. (I think I succeeded, at least at the macro level. One student, following a simulation of a National Security Council meeting on Syria, exclaimed: “That was a great exercise. I never realized policymaking was so f------ hard!”)

My students were far from alone in resorting to historical analogies to justify preferred policies.

One of the central questions we considered in the course was when the United States should use force, with Libya and Syria as case studies. On the surface, there are many similarities. Both countries were run by unfriendly dictators, and threatened by humanitarian catastrophes (which have come to pass in one). But I also sought to tease out the many differences between the two, exploring why President Barack Obama chose to intervene militarily in Libya but not (at least directly) in Syria.

The students did an excellent job of identifying these contrasts, ranging from terrain and demography to geopolitical complexity and the nature of the regime. Historical analogies frequently came up in the conversation: Rwanda, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. But I didn’t let the class dwell on them.

For their final papers, I asked the students to write a memo advocating for a course of action—different in some way from current U.S. policy—on an issue of their choice related to the Arab Spring. Syria, drone policy in Yemen and assistance to Egypt were the most popular topics.

Any Analogy Will Do

Those writing about Syria universally advocated U.S. military involvement, whether through providing weapons and training to opposition fighters (using U.S. military advisers), imposing a no-fly zone or supporting a NATO-led ground intervention. What struck me most about these papers were their uses of history and analogy. One cited Kosovo as a precedent, and another raised the U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan—only to dismiss their relevance to Syria.

It seemed to me that my students picked (or interpreted) an analogy to fit the position they had decided on, rather than taking a broader view of history to inform their decision-making process. Rather than probing deeply into similarities and differences, they reached quick conclusions. A NATO intervention worked in Kosovo, so it could in Syria. Conversely, U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan need not occur in Syria, given the many dissimilarities.

I quickly recognized that my students were far from alone in using historical analogies to justify preferred policies. At a seminar on Bahrain on Capitol Hill, one panelist argued that it was natural for the Bahraini government to crack down on protesters. After all, he observed, other governments do the same when significant portions of the population rise up—look at Kent State in 1970. (No, I’m not kidding!)

The panelist beside him flinched. When asked subsequently to explain her objections, she invoked the American Revolution—for reasons that remain unclear to me—as a counter-analogy to argue against crackdowns.

To go back to Syria, consider the op-ed by Turkish political scientist Soner Cagaptay and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey in the May 17 Thinking in Time. They argue for arming the rebels or imposing a no-fly zone, pointing to Bosnia and Kosovo as “proving the value of American leadership.” Or take the campaign by Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., invoking his service in the Vietnam War, to urge Washington to impose a no-fly zone and undertake other military actions beyond the current policy of furnishing light weapons to the opposition: “I’ve been in conflicts where there was gradual escalation, and that approach doesn’t win.”

FSOs can fall prey to our own assumptions or preconceived views as easily as anyone else if we are not careful.

Whether the arguments cited above are right is not the point. There’s no doubt history can be a useful tool in developing and defending one’s position. Sen. McCain, Amb. Jeffrey and others are right to draw on their extensive experience and historical knowledge. But a quick reference to historical-analogy-as-justification should prompt listeners to raise their antennae. Such rhetoric is seductive, for it says: “Trust me; I’ve learned the lessons of the past.”

An analogy isn’t necessarily a bad starting point, of course. But how is Kosovo like Syria? How isn’t it? What are the problems each situation presented to the United States? Are the regional and domestic contexts similar or different? And how do the key countries and leaders involved see the situation?

It is easy to cite an analogy to justify one’s position. But as my Georgetown student so succinctly put it following our simulation, assessing a foreign policy challenge is much harder.

For the most difficult problems in foreign policy, asking the right questions rarely leads to an obvious answer (except, perhaps, in hindsight). But ideally, it will lead to a way forward that is both informed and clear about our assumptions, why we have made them and what (if anything) might cause us to change them. Thinking in Time by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May (Free Press, 1988) expands on this framework to offer a marvelous guide for using historical reasoning in the policy process.

The Foreign Service Angle

What value can a Foreign Service officer bring to the table in an internal policy debate? On the surface, there’s an easy answer. Our knowledge of a given country or region—its leaders, influences, economy, people and culture—can inform recommendations, giving policymakers a nuanced understanding of the situation under consideration.

Examples abound: George Kennan’s Long Telegram; the contributions made by three FSOs who participated in President John Kennedy’s ExComm; the China hands’ analysis of the prospects of the Communists and Nationalists; and the efforts by State Department professionals to improve post-invasion governance in Iraq.

But FSOs can fall prey to our own assumptions or preconceived views as easily as anyone else if we are not careful. Any doubters should read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), a recent classic in the fields of psychology and behavioral economics. As I read it, I recognized how easily I have fallen into many of the traps he identifies: such as, assuming others think like me and being unduly optimistic.

One example comes from my work as an economic officer in Venezuela. Because President Hugo Chavez’s economic policies seemed absurd, it took me longer than it should have to understand, then frame for policymakers, why they worked for him (at least initially). I first had to identify my underlying assumption—there is never a good reason for sustaining economically damaging policies—and then allow Pres. Chavez’s political success to inform it.

I overcame my preconceived views first and foremost by seeking the views of a range of academics and practitioners who were struggling with the same questions. Their perspectives challenged mine and, over time, helped me reframe and refine my analysis. It wasn’t necessary to be an expert on Venezuela’s economy, politics or history. But it was necessary to keep an open mind, developing new insights that allowed me to weave an increasingly coherent explanation for why Chavez pursued “21st-century socialism” despite the economic ills it was causing.

If I teach another foreign policy course, I’ll know better how to weave history into it, and be better prepared to advise students on effective ways to use it in the policy process. By all means, they should dive into history and consider how it informs debates about current issues, but they should not settle for easy answers.

Meanwhile, as an FSO in the field, I will be much more conscious of ways to help policymakers avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve highlighted here—and, I hope, of my own blind spots. For that, I thank my students.

David Galbraith was a Rusk Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University from 2012 to 2013, and is currently on a detail at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. His previous Foreign Service assignments include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Venezuela and Washington, D.C. The analysis and views offered in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the Department of State.