A council of historical advisers on foreign policy: a misguided idea revived

I first encountered in the 1970s the idea of a council of historians to provide foreign policy guidance to the president. It was a proposal made by Ernest May in his classic The Lessons of the Past. I had my doubts then. Encountering the idea today in the form resurrected by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic, I find my doubts even more pronounced.

Certainly a massive gap separates the work of professional historians and the policy world. Arguably that gap is wider today than earlier because the nature of the historical enterprise has expanded dramatically beyond what policymakers are schooled in. Scholarship has in recent years become more diverse in its interests, broader in its coverage, and more sweeping chronologically. By contrast, the past that rattles around in the mind of those in the policy community tends to be dated, often shaped by readings in college decades past. It also tends to be invoked opportunistically to support some already fixed line of policy.

So what is wrong with the idea of a council of historical advisers when it seems to address a real problem? Three things do the most to put me off.

First, there is a practical concern. Where does the multiplication of council of experts end? The economists are already formally represented at the highest level. Once historians get their nose in the policy tent, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, international lawyers, scientists of various stripes, and so forth will all want to be heard. Imagine the poor policymaker faced with so many kinds of experts with a seat at the table, all eager to help and all quite capable of generating an avalanche of well intentioned guidance. Faced with the choice between getting overwhelmed or keeping the experts at arms length, guess what the harried president or presidential adviser is most likely to do?

Perhaps even more worrisome is the question of which historians deserve a seat at the table. Historians disagree in their understanding of major issues and hence in the interpretive significance they would draw for policymakers. Neither of the alternative solutions seem satisfactory: create a council diverse in its composition and inchoate in its advice or opt for a more homogeneously composed body wedded to a predictable and limited perspective.

Beyond this fairly obvious point about diverse points of view is the tendency of historians who have things to say to policy to approach their role in dramatically different ways. There has long existed a kind of court historian who plays a therapeutic role in relation to the policy world by gazing admiringly on its achievements. There is also a kind of historian that aims at helping policymakers do their job better but within their framework of assumptions and current concerns. Yet a third mode of doing history takes a step back from work-a-day policy concerns and asks questions not about policy per se but about the context — both international and domestic — in which policy operates. While history in the third mode might be the most useful in bringing a fresh perspective to a policy community heavily invested in a particular set of assumptions and convictions, its subversive, disruptive influence is unlikely to be welcome.

The ultimate reason for regarding the historical council skeptically derives from classical realism. History is a critical tool that makes the most difference when it is part of the mental armory of the policymaker. A sense of the past offers both the self-knowledge and the knowledge of others essential to the wise management of great-power relations. Farming out historical wisdom is a poor substitute for a disciplined mind steeped in the historical approach as a way of understanding the world.

The gap between history and policy will not be easily closed because the sources are so deep. The U.S. policy community operates within a national culture estranged from the discipline of history whether in its K-12 educational curriculum, its media coverage, or its political discourse. This doleful situation is not likely to be much helped by the instruction of a council of historians however well intentioned.