Don’t Bring a Doctoral Thesis to a Foreign Policy Fight

Writing recently in the Atlantic, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson argued that many past policy failures could have been averted if presidents had listened more to individuals like themselves: trained historians whose knowledge of the past would not only help contextualize modern events, but help shape solutions to current policy problems. Nor would halfway measures serve to rectify the issue. It would be insufficient “for a president to invite friendly historians to dinner, as Obama has been known to do” or “appoint a court historian, as John F. Kennedy did with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.” Rather, Allison and Ferguson “urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers” that “would mirror the Council of Economic Advisers,” be located in the Executive Office of the President, and consist of three full-time members and a small professional staff.

Courtesy of The White House, © 2014

Courtesy of The White House, © 2014

Allison and Ferguson’s plea for injecting academic knowledge into the policymaking process, well intentioned though it may be, both will and should fall on deaf ears in Washington, D.C. Academic knowledge rarely translates smoothly to a policy environment, and nowhere more so than with the localized information that historians specialize in. If there is a social science that can provide valuable insight to policymakers, it is political science, not history, and even then research demonstrates that the national security elite rarely buys the knowledge that academics try to sell them.

Setting aside the self-serving and parochial nature of the argument—Allison and Ferguson’s plaintive whine that “for too long, history has been disparaged as a ‘soft’ subject” arouses far less pity than they might have hoped—their analysis does raise two interesting questions. First, how often is policy failure the result of a lack of information as opposed to other causes? Second, what relevant information might historians, political scientists, or other academics be able to provide to rectify these shortfalls?

A lack of relevant information is rarely, if ever, a proximate cause of foreign policy failure. Policymakers are far more likely to be inundated with information and competing viewpoints but parse such information based on their own preconceived notions and interests than they are to miss information completely. Take the decision to invade Iraq in 2003: the presidential administration of George W. Bush was well aware of the tentative nature of the intelligence on Iraqi WMDs, which did not definitively point to Saddam Hussein possessing such weapons. Moreover, there were both academic and public debates on the costs and benefits of going to war. Nevertheless, the “marketplace of ideas” intended to correct these ideas failed to do so in the face of a concerted elite-led campaign against opposing views. It is difficult to imagine Allison and Ferguson’s proposed council of historical advisors substantively shifting the outcome away from war.

Separate from the question of whether or not politicians will listen to historical or academic information when it is provided to them is whether or not that information actually has intrinsic value for the policymaking process. In the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it quite clearly did. The foreign policy realists who argued against going to war accurately noted that Al Qaeda posed a far greater threat to U.S. interests than Saddam Hussein and that there was no quick exit strategy from the conflict once begun.

More importantly, though, the Iraq case belies Allison and Ferguson’s implicit claim that historical advice, above that of other academic disciplines, is what policymakers should listen to. Indeed, when thinking about historical corollaries to invading Iraq, the closest proximate case is the 1991 Gulf War, a quick, decisive conflict that bears little to no resemblance to the drawn out counter-insurgency operations in the same country from 2004-2011. Furthermore, Ferguson’s critique of U.S. Iraq policy also bears remembering. Rather than arguing against the invasion itself, he instead criticized the temerity of U.S. politicians and their failure to fully embrace an imperial outlook. Given the situation, it is difficult to imagine more chilling or inappropriate policy advice.

Political scientists are often vindicated in their assessments while historians flounder because of their ability to artfully sidestep a critical defect that is endemic to the study of history. The historian, driven to understand the specificities of a single historical case, will far too often miss the forest for the trees and struggle to disentangle the relevant lessons from any historical analogy for contemporary policy. In contrast, the goal of political science is to systematically understand the general connections between multiple cases, a more useful exercise for policymakers since unique historical circumstances rarely if ever repeat themselves. The converse accusation, that political scientists miss the tree for the forest, is rarely as stinging. Certainly historians can, at times, systematically analyze multiple cases, but in doing so they are often discretely sidling up towards their political science brethren.

It would be disingenuous, though—and as a political scientist in training myself, equally parochial—to argue contra Allison and Ferguson that political science will always succeed in shaping good policy. With few exceptions, namely specialized regional knowledge, policymakers are uninterested in many of the insights that political scientists have offered them. This gap is itself partially a result of political scientists asking questions that lack policy relevance. Rather than blanket calls for the introduction of academic knowledge into the policymaking, a robust and measured understanding of the limited role that academic knowledge can play in optimizing policy outcomes is far more useful.

By vastly overstating the potential benefits of historical analysis to the policy process, Allison and Ferguson play into the pre-conceived notion that academics are, in truth, disingenuous peddlers of one-size-fits-all solutions. Their well-intentioned argument thus unwittingly does more harm than good in motivating either the general public or policymakers to look toward academic knowledge as an inspiration for better policymaking.

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  • David Anderson

    I’d suggest looking into the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress…essentially a historical and case study based research organization. It was established by a doctoral historian at the behest of President Eisenhower to provide the sort of case study analysis on policy that he had learned from in battle studies as a junior military officer.
    At present the Center regularly publishes reports on collected case studies of the Presidency and the Legislature and runs a Presidential Fellows program that brings in bright undergrad students to work on more limited projects each year. I’ve been a Fellow in the past and continue to mentor current Fellows. They do some interesting and impressive work and the Center itself has produces some great, insightful pieces, but I don’t think they are as regularly consulted or attended as they were in decades past. Strengthening that relationship might be a first step towards the sort of solutions you advise.

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