Condemned to Repeat It

Why Washington's foreign policymakers desperately need to study up on their history.

By now it is painfully obvious that U.S. policymakers blew it big-time in Ukraine. As I argued last week, the United States and the European Union backed the anti-Yanukovych forces in Ukraine in a fit of idealistic absentmindedness, and don't seem to have considered the possibility that Russia would see this action as a threat to its vital interests and would respond in a sharp and ruthless manner. It is the latest in a string of bipartisan foreign-policy failures, a long list that includes the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Afghan "surge" in 2009, and the ill-fated interventions in Somalia, Libya, and several other countries.

There are many reasons for these recurring failures, but one that stands out is the pervasive ignorance of history within the U.S. foreign-policy elite. Speaking at Harvard a couple of years ago, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was asked what kind of training provided the best preparation for a foreign-policy career. His answer was philosophy and history: The former because it taught rigorous thinking and the latter because it helped one understand the broader context in which decisions must be made and gave leaders a clearer sense of both prospects and limits.

In short, a sophisticated knowledge of history is of inestimable value for anyone wrestling with difficult foreign-policy problems. Here's why. 

For starters, knowledge of history helps discipline our intuitions and policy instincts. We all use various theories to make sense of an infinitely complicated universe, and policymakers cannot figure out a course of action to pursue without relying on their own notions about which factors are most important and what is causing what. In this sense, all policy decisions rest on theoretical intuitions: We choose policy X because we believe the desired results Y and Z will follow. But if those intuitions are at odds with historical experience, you're not likely to get the results you expect.

Take for example, Iraq. If George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had known anything about the turbulent history of Iraq from 1958 to 1971, they might have realized that toppling Saddam Hussein would unleash deep internal schisms and drag the United States into a costly quagmire. Instead of succumbing to the neocon's fantasies of a painless war that would pay for itself, they might have decided to stick with the existing policy of containment instead. So, not only does knowing a lot of history help us formulate basic theories that conform to past experience, it can also help us see where our existing beliefs and policy preferences might be wrong.

In this way, history provides the raw data that can help us determine whether ideas that seem convincing at first blush are sound and will therefore work in practice. Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling developed many brilliant ideas about military compellence, for example, but historical studies of wartime coercion suggest that some of them don't work in practice. Similarly, the idea that democratic leaders can bargain more effectively because the fear of "audience costs" makes them less likely to bluff or back down is both clever and intuitively appealing; it just doesn't seem to be borne out in the historical record.

Moreover, we cannot evaluate the uniqueness or the salience of any event or new development without a sense of the historical backdrop against which it occurs. Is Russia's seizure of Crimea an unusual occurrence, a moral crime of unique significance, or is it just business-as-usual in the brutal business of international politics? If you know enough history -- including the Monroe Doctrine, the Mexican-American War, or even the more recent war between Russia and Georgia -- what has happened over the past two weeks wouldn't seem surprising or unprecedented, and your sense of outrage might be tempered even if you still believed it was an illegal act. If Hillary Clinton had read more history and thought about it more carefully, she might not have offered up the simplistic and overheated comparison between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler that she did.

Broad knowledge of history also helps us understand how other people see the past, and this perspective can help us avoid some of the misunderstandings that routinely bedevil diplomatic efforts. If you don't know anything about past U.S. interference in Latin America, for example, you will not understand why many people in that region remain wary of the United States and you might be too quick to interpret their suspicion as a sign of unwarranted anti-Americanism. Similarly, the conflicting narratives that each side tells itself about the past routinely complicate diplomacy between the United States and Iran (for Americans, it's the 1980 hostage crisis; for Iranians, it's the 1953 coup that restored the Shah). If you're ignorant of your opponent's view of the past, you won't understand where they're coming from and their behavior will be nearly impossible to interpret correctly.

Furthermore, the study of history teaches that past events are inevitably subject to competing narratives and interpretations, and that there is no single "true" account of any complicated historical process. That's not a defense of moral or historical relativism, mind you; it simply recognizes that even events and facts that are not in dispute can be understood from different vantage points. Knowing this simple fact of life is the best antidote against the self-serving narratives that governments and misguided patriots routinely invoke to excuse their own conduct and justify suppressing others.  

Awareness of competing narratives also reminds us to ask: "How does this crisis look to my opponent? How does he or she think we got into this mess, and who do they think is responsible?" To take a contemporary example: Vladimir Putin's understanding of the history of NATO expansion is sharply different from the version purveyed by its promoters here in the United States or by politicians in Poland or Estonia. That difference in perspective helps explain why Putin responded as he did to the events in Ukraine, and a more wide-ranging knowledge of history might have warned U.S. policymakers to expect precisely the reaction they got. 

Asking these questions does not require us to accept another's interpretation, but it can reveal how they see things and how much work has to be done to move them where you want them to be. Knowing how different historical narratives are constructed is key to that process. 

Gauging the effectiveness of different policy instruments also depends on careful historical analysis. Economic sanctions are an increasingly popular tool of statecraft, for example, but the history of past sanctions campaigns tells us that they are rarely effective as tools of coercion and helps us identify the special conditions under which they are more likely to work.  Unfortunately for those who are calling for tough sanctions against Moscow, these studies suggest this reaction won't put much pressure on Moscow and is more likely to lead Putin to dig in his heels.

A firm grasp of history and proper historical reasoning helps us guard against misplaced analogies and dubious historical "lessons." Historical analogies are a central part of most policy discourse, and advocates for one policy or another routinely invoke some past incident to justify their preferred course of actions today. However, as the late Ernest May showed in "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy, such analogies are usually misleading.  Or as Andrew Bacevich showed a few days ago, a lot of recent commentary about Ukraine is replete with historical howlers that would merit a failing grade, even in colleges where grade-inflation is rampant.

To take an infamous example: Ever since World War II, U.S. policymakers have used the supposed lessons of the 1938 Munich agreement to justify hard-line policies. Overreliance on one infamous incident makes no sense, however, because Munich was not a typical historical event. Far from being a normal national leader, Adolf Hitler was a genocidal megalomaniac with a near-suicidal willingness to jeopardize the future of his own country and the lives of many millions of others. Leaders like Hitler are rare -- fortunately -- yet U.S. officials have treated the Munich experience as if it were a representative and revealing example of how international politics typically works. It is hard to think of a historical error that has had more damaging long-term effects.

Finally, history makes us aware of the enduring continuities of world politics -- such as the preoccupation of most states with security and their willingness to act ruthlessly when threatened -- while simultaneously helping us recognize change over time. The anti-slavery movement, the illegitimacy of colonialism, the emergence of the global human rights movement, and the changing role of women in many societies are all developments that cannot be fully appreciated without a deep understanding of the past.  

A solid grounding in international history should therefore be part of every aspiring foreign policymaker's intellectual training.  Unfortunately, that's not what most young people learn these days as they prepare for foreign policy careers. In the United States, at least, future foreign policy managers are more likely to go to law school instead, which is good for honing one's argumentative skills but doesn't teach much history (and certainly not world history). In schools of public policy and international affairs (including my own employer), the emphasis is on economics, statistics, "leadership," and other aspects of policy analysis or management, with a smattering of ethics or philosophy thrown in on occasion. Students sometimes learn the rudiments of international relations theory and get some practical skills in memo-writing, and maybe they do some in-depth study on policy areas like arms control or human rights.  You'll undoubtedly learn some basic history if you're interested in a particular region, but it will probably focus on the post-World War II period and will almost certainly be taught from a U.S. perspective. Neither a wide knowledge of history nor a sophisticated understanding of historical method and reasoning are likely to be offered. And then we wonder why American policymakers often appear to be so ignorant about the past.

The bottom line: U.S. President Barack Obama (and his successors) would be better off with fewer policy wonks, pollsters, and lawyers in their inner circles, and with a few more well-trained historians instead. (I'm a political scientist, by the way, so I'm not promoting my own discipline here.) And if I had a magic wand and could transform how aspiring foreign policymakers were trained, studying lots of history would be mandatory while some of the other subjects students are now forced to study would become optional.

My advice: If you have your heart set on a career in international affairs, reading plenty of history and learning how historians think would be excellent preparation. Given the paltry comprehension of history currently on display in Washington, D.C., such knowledge would make you nearly unique, and thus uniquely valuable.

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Boots on the Ground

Should NATO troops help enforce an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement?

Will U.S. peacekeepers be heading to the West Bank?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently stirred controversy when he suggested that a U.S.-led NATO force might backfill Israeli soldiers as they withdraw from Palestinian areas under a two-state peace agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced skepticism about foreign peacekeepers, most recently in his March 4 speech to AIPAC in Washington. Hamas meanwhile has said that they'd view NATO as a hostile occupier. For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry cautiously noted in February that a third-party force is "something for the parties to work out."

Controversial though it may be, Abbas's proposal is not going to fade quickly. Indeed, if negotiators in the peace process start making progress on other contentious issues, the question of how to transition Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) out of the West Bank in a way that both sides would find reassuring will loom ever larger. Negotiators shouldn't wait to shift gears toward implementation challenges. They should start thinking now about how to surmount obstacles to a successful security transition. In doing so, they'll need to focus on six critical questions.

How would an international peacekeeping presence be viewed? Peacekeepers would need to be seen by the Palestinian public as tangible evidence of outside support for their independence, lest they become lightning rods for radicalization or magnets for foreign jihadists or Hamas spoilers. Managing such dynamics could be the biggest challenge that a peacekeeping force would face. An energetic public affairs strategy -- a collaboration of troop-contributing countries, the Palestinian Authority, civil society, and the private sector - would need to show how the force advanced the goal of a peaceful, sovereign Palestine and how extremist attacks against it could jeopardize that goal. Equally important would be a strategy for engaging Israeli stakeholders to convey credible assurances that the third-party force would not tolerate activities that would directly threaten Israelis' security.

What would the peacekeepers' responsibilities actually be? While the final peace agreement would be the ultimate decider on these terms, peacekeepers could be tasked to assist in the return or resettlement of Palestinian refugees, as well as stabilize areas within the borders of a Palestinian state. (They should not be responsible for managing any mutually agreed-upon land swaps, as no third-party force would have the political credibility to do so; only Israeli government entities have the strength and credibility within Israel to implement those parts of agreed-upon land swaps that require the relocation of Israeli settlements.) They could also help the Palestinian Civil Police continue to build its capacity, or support the delivery of essential services to underserved communities. This is a very diverse menu but not unusual for a complex peacekeeping mission.

What "stress tests" would peacekeepers likely face? In addition to the extremist/spoiler problem, one could imagine civil disturbances flaring in urban areas (especially greater Jerusalem) or at newly established border crossings. If local police were overwhelmed, a third-party force would surely get the call and would need to be prepared to respond. Hamas-style cross-border rocket attacks are clearly Israel's greatest concern and would immediately trigger pressures for IDF air strikes or commando raids, unless third-party units were willing and able to quickly suppress the threat. Security along a Palestinian state's eastern border would also be a grave concern, given how stressed Jordan is by the Syrian conflict. Border and riverine operations, enabled by overhead reconnaissance and Amman's active cooperation, would be vital for denying access to foreign fighters. A stronger U.N. peacekeeping presence and mandate on the Golan Heights could be an important supporting factor, as well.

How "American" should a third-party force really be? If this idea gets traction, Israelis as well as Palestinians would likely want to see an American commander at the helm of peacekeepers, as well as a sizable U.S. force presence. Given America's decades-long commitment to Arab-Israeli peace processes, it would not be surprising if Washington policymakers accepted a "boots on the ground" presence. The U.S. challenge, alas, is that the country could not shoulder this burden itself. Allies and partners would surely need to be in the mix, but who they are and how effective they might be as implementers of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would attract much more intense scrutiny than how they have operated in, say, remote Afghan provinces. Indeed, a patchwork of national caveats on permissible actions by troops could rob the operation of its credibility and raise risks to all.

How would Gaza and an unstable Sinai figure into the mix? As post-Mubarak Egypt has progressively lost control of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel has lost a valued buffer zone. This might ramp up pressures on a third-party force to grow its area of operations beyond the West Bank, possibly to replace the Multi-national Force and Observers (MFO) that was established by the Egypt-Israel peace pact of 1979. The United States has contributed troops to the MFO since 1982. Whether a heavier international presence in Sinai might raise tensions with Hamas-dominated Gaza or, alternatively, offer a secure means by which Gaza could rejoin the West Bank as part of a Palestinian state without threatening Israel poses a challenging "fork-in-the-road" issue that our negotiators will need to ponder.

What would the exit strategy be? When defining successful outcomes, strategists and operators usually resonate to a "conditions-based" exit strategy, while authorizers and appropriators are more comfortable with a firm date on the calendar. But the real issue here is political. Would a third-party force ever be able to withdraw? For his part, President Abbas has referred to a permanent NATO presence, and surely some members of the Israeli Knesset might ask, "After our international buffering force departs, then what?"

Over the long term, success will hinge upon Israelis and Palestinians living peacefully by themselves, side by side. That said, as peace talks move forward, negotiators will need to engage intensively with mission planners, operators, intelligence experts, trainers, and logisticians on how best to shape a strategy for effectively implementing an agreement, in particular the role of third parties. Given the blend of high hopes and deep angst that a peace treaty would surely generate, stakeholders must agree in advance on the size, composition, capabilities, and tasking of a third-party force.

It would be tragic if poor treaty implementation turned into the Achilles heel of this peace process. Yet it's also true that any third party signing up for a peacekeeping mission -- including the United States -- would be highly motivated to get the job done right. The stakes are incredibly high; the world will be watching intently. And if Israelis and Palestinians could agree on a role for NATO, a successful closure to one of the world's longest-running conflicts would also be a fitting legacy for the world's oldest collective defense alliance.

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