History & Policy


As the annual Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom progresses toward its conclusion, the students will shortly divide into three separate modules for the final term. One of those, the ‘Ends’ module, will draw the students into deeper consideration of the dynamics and processes underpinning the formulation of policy and strategy. Having already been exposed to more abstract considerations of these subjects earlier in the course, the intention behind this phase of the course is to revisit these ideas and to understand their formulation and implementation in a more practical sense. Exposure to concepts will be reinforced by their application to case studies, and there will be a particular emphasis upon aspects of strategy and policy as yet untouched by the course, notably understanding (to an extent) the range of psychological and cognitive influences upon decisionmaking and which are such a crucial aspect of how states choose to exercise power in the international arena.

One thing the students will be asked to consider is the relevance of history to contemporary policymakers. How, exactly, does a grasp of historical precedence inform decision-making in a useful sense? How does a knowledge of the past inform one’s understanding of the present, and the future? – particularly when the past is such an ideologically contested morass of rival interpretations. These debates strike to the heart of a debate of growing significance within the academic discipline of history itself – that of the utility of history to policy and to government.

There are many both within and beyond the profession to whom the notion that a study of the past can inform debates about the present appears deeply problematic, if not entirely fanciful. If historians have not yet reached consensus over the causes of the First World War, the notion that they can point to the future with any degree of certainty seems highly dubious. Facile statements along the lines that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them are complicated somewhat by Christopher Bassford’s pertinent observation that even those who learn from the mistakes of the past are also destined to repeat them; such frailties being a fundamental aspect of human behaviour as explained by a number of cognitive and psychological constraints.

But history has a role, surely? Otherwise, as Niall Ferguson laments, the international arena is ceded in perpetuity to the political scientists, the economists, the lawyers and the tech-geeks, who will continue to grip the attention of the policymaking elites. An elite, moreover, whose numbers will less and less be drawn from history departments as that subject slowly eats itself in the solipsistic cosmos of the modern university. Thus, as Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations in Obama administration observed, hugely important decisions as to how the US will choose to confront the rising power of the Chinese, for example, will be taken in policymaking environments where,‘[H]istory is not present enough in senior decision-making discussions, there is just not enough knowledge of history in the room’. Her point, ultimately, was that the expertise required to ascend to senior policymaking positions is rooted in alternative intellectual traditions that may not necessarily suit such situations.

And one might argue, if noting the objections above with respect to ideological contests and the often facile tendency toward crude and simplistic comparisons across time, that history is rightly shut out of the room lest the historians within engage in lengthy yet ultimately profitless intellectual sparring. But if one steps back from the pointless requirement to identify the concrete ‘lessons’ of history and instead adopts the perspective offered by the French historian Marc Bloch, then a far more profitable intellectual approach offers itself. As Bloch himself states, ‘the traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future’. The emphasis then should be not upon seeking to understand direct similarities between specific events past and present, but to discern the themes across time that underpin their direction of travel.

An illustration of this is superbly illustrated by a gifted young historian, Martin Bayly. Nephew of the great Imperial historian Christopher Bayly, Martin’s PhD on the subject of early British involvement with Afghanistan (written while at DSD) was subsequently published in 2016 in the form of Taming the Imperial Imagination: Colonial Knowledge, International Relations, and the Anglo-Afghan Encounter, 1808-1878 (Cambridge University Press). So, what might possibly be the relevance of that particular period to contemporary policymakers and analysts considering, say, the problems of Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11? Or perhaps the problems of Syria and Libya today? Popular understanding would suggest that the utility of history in this instance lies in providing lurid warnings of the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, the inherent resistance of indigenous peoples to external actors, and the impossibility of imposing political control over an ethnically and tribally stratified society. Such observations are not entirely misplaced, but they are hackneyed. They also obscure facts that lend an entirely different perspective of matters if one takes Afghanistan as the historical template. For example, the British may have suffered military reverses in Afghanistan on a number of occasions, but they protected and indeed enhanced their strategic interests over decades of engagement with that country. Similarly, although portions of the Afghan population were highly resistant to the British presence, significant segments were entirely receptive and the ‘popular’ revolt of 1841 was caused not by widespread xenophobia but by the economic turmoil of military occupation and the disenfranchisement of specific elites by British advisors. Lastly, the trope of a perpetually unruly people must somehow account for the four decades of calm and stability under the Shah regime 1933-73. Too often then, crude and ill-defined stereotypes of past events are invoked by the unthinking to provide ‘lessons’ going forward.

But such basic correctives are not the value of Bayly’s contribution to the debate. His is a far more discerning and thoughtful reflection on the experience of the early Anglo-Afghan encounter and its impact upon the machinery of government. As a consequence he captures ideas of relevance to any modern or future policymaker. These might centre upon the way in which powerful States conceptualise ‘unknown’ spaces and, in their attempts to subsequently conquer and control such spaces, the ways in which complex understandings are simplified for policy ingestion, thus converting knowledge into a form of ‘policy science’. Additionally, one might wish to consider his portrayal of the growth of ‘knowledge communities’; networks of ‘experts’ articulating the seemingly simple cause and effect relationships of highly complex problems, helping the state identify its interests and framing the issues for collective debate. Consider too his unveiling of the way in which renewed interest in the regions in which these experts specialised, and their courting by the policy elites, meant that the manner in which they presented their work might be deliberately crafted to attract such policy attention. All of these issues were not only symptomatic of the early British encounter with Afghanistan, but are the sorts of timeless observations – examples of Bloch’s historical ‘curve’ into the future – that genuinely matter in the way that we interpret undertakings of the sort seen in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and visualise those to come. This is the sort of informed understanding of the past that really matters to those in the corridors of power, those who will always be prone to believing that it doesn’t apply to them.

Roll on the Ends module!

Image: group of Afridi fighters in 1878, via wikimedia commons.


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