Learn history to cultivate a tragic sensibility


Over at Foreign Policy on Tuesday, Harvard professor Steve Walt held forth (click here) on the ills besetting professional international-relations schools. Check it out. Nor is this a new theme for Professor Walt: he wrote a mostly approving after-action report (click here) about elder statesman Henry Kissinger’s visit to Harvard six years ago, when Kissinger said much the same thing. It’s worth remembering that Kissinger cut his teeth many decades ago researching the Congress of Vienna, the gathering that fashioned a lasting peace following the defeat of Napoleon. What he knows about diplomacy and martial affairs, he inferred from history.

Chief among the IR schools’ failings, writes Professor Walt, is their indifference to history, IR theory, and strategy. What he says saddens the heart of this two-time graduate of a professional IR school, mainly because it rings true. (It gladdens the heart of this teacher in a department whose strategy courses rest on the bedrock of history and theory.) It feels as though schools demand less and less in these areas. Without that demand signal, students tend toward courses that are mainly about the processes of international negotiations, institutions, economics, and so forth. In other words, about abstractions.

My fifteenth and twentieth class reunions at the Fletcher School are drawing nigh, but even in yesteryear some of my classes seemed estranged from the lives of real human beings–present or past. At times, in fact, I felt like I was back in grade-school civics class, studying how a bill becomes a law under the U.S. Constitution. As though that simple algorithm encompassed the whole of politics. Which it does . . . if you ignore political parties, special interests, ethnic and religious groups, sectional interests, and on and on. Anyone who thinks that algorithm describes how a bill becomes a law should review how Congress and the Obama administration came to “sequester” domestic and defense spending, with baneful effects that ripple through the armed forces and many other sectors to this day.

Process tells us little about real life.

IR schools’ habit of discounting the human factor in politics, reducing complex events to numbers we can graph, and emphasizing bureaucratic flow charts exacerbates a self-defeating trait in American society: we wake up every morning and see a world made new. As Henry Ford once quipped, history is more or less bunk to Americans. That’s history means something is past, with no relevance or value for us today. For us history begins today–every day!

Except it doesn’t. It’s good not to be a slave to past misdeeds or enmities, but our forbears handed down much of value to us. Their achievements should inspire us, while their faults and frailties warn posterity that there are things never to repeat. Forgetfulness is not a virtue.

Now, I find little to quarrel with in Professor Walt’s diagnosis, but I would put the accent elsewhere. Even he seems to regard history as a mechanism. It’s an expedient that helps us understand that people from other countries, regions, and traditions see the world differently, and to factor that in when trying to persuade them to do what we deem worth doing. There’s no gainsaying that. We need not have sympathy with foes, or even see the world precisely as allies and friends do; empathy with how others see and interpret the world is a must.

But empathy is not enough. I would go beyond Walt’s pragmatic view of history’s value. Studying history instills a tragic sense about human affairs while reminding us how little is new under the sun.

Statesmen and military folk possessed of that tragic sensibility will know and grok going into some competitive venture that powerful motives drive antagonists to thwart our will, that antagonists are resourceful and have ingenuity of their own, and thus that we’re unlikely to get our way in full. Fortune is fickle, there are limits on our ability to gather, process, and distribute information, and deploying gee-whiz armaments or sensors is no guarantor of strategic or political success in any event. Heck, no one has even managed to repeal Murphy’s Law–or is likely to.

One hopes professional IR schools will get back to their roots in history, theory, and philosophy–and regain the sense that there are stubborn limits and barriers to our aspirations. That’s a sensibility worth passing on to the next generation of our diplomatic and military corps.