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Filmed on Monday July 12, 02010

Frank Gavin

Five Ways to Use History Well

An authority on foreign policy, historian Francis Gavin is a professor of international affairs at the University of Texas, director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and author of Gold, Dollars and Power (2004).

Policy makers typically ignore or misuse history. They are attracted by simplistic theories and analogies and take little account of huge events outside their policy-making domain.

Scholarly historians can cure those blindnesses but are seldom invited to. Specifically, trained historians can help improve policy decisions by bringing the perspectives of vertical history (deep causes), horizontal history (complex linkages), chronological proportionality (many big deals aren't big for long), unintended consequences (irony abounds), and recognizing the limits of policy.

Francis Gavin is an historian at the University of Texas specializing in international policy.

History-savvy Policy

Why do policy makers and historians shun each other? Gavin observed that policy people want actionable information, certainty, and simple explanations. Meanwhile historians revel in nuance, distrust simple explanations and also distrust power and those who seek it. Thus historians keep themselves irrelevant, and policy makers keep their process ignorant.

Gavin proposed five key concepts from history that can inform understanding and improve policy dramatically...

Vertical History. What are the deep causative patterns behind a current situation? For example, America's deep involvement in the Mideast appears to be caused by concern about oil and terrorism and by support of Israel. But none of those elements applied in the mid-60s when we dove into the Mideast. Britain was Israel's keeper in those days and in financial trouble, the US was overextended in Vietnam and in financial trouble, and Soviet influence was the main threat in the Mideast. After the profound shock of the Six-Day War in 1967, Britain withdrew and America took over on the cheap with its "Pillar Strategy"---we would support Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. That arrangement drives everything today, and policy people have almost zero memory of its origins.

Horizontal History. The interconnecting events of a particular moment---all the things simultaneously on the plate of a decision maker---profoundly affect decisions. For example, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 60s were obsessed with America's balance of payments deficit and had to draw down our troop commitment in Germany, but Europe was obsessed with keeping Germany from building nuclear weapons, and so the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was invented as a workaround. That situational artifact leads US policy 40 years later.

Chronological Proportionality. "The New York Times always gets it wrong, and they're the best of the media," Gavin noted. Dramatic events take our attention away from what's really going on. For example, the Vietnam War dominated American attention in the 1960s and still looms large in every policy discussion. But the war was of no real geopolitical consequence, particularly when compared with the huge consequences from other little-noted 60s events---the Six-Day War, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, growing stability in Central Europe, and the thaw in relations between China and America. That raises the question: what is Afghanistan distracting us from these days?

Unintended Consequences. Suppose America had won in Vietnam? We would have had to commit huge resources to Southeast Asia indefinitely, and China and the USSR would have had to ally in the face of our military presence there. With our humiliating defeat, China and the Soviets split permanently, China and the US became friendly, and America profoundly reassessed and improved its own policies and institutions. So it goes in real life: things turn out differently than we expect.

Policy Insignificance. What policy people do is often not the main event at all. For example, in the mid-70s policy makers in Washington were trying to fix an America they saw in a steep decline and locked in an endless Cold War. They paid no attention to three events going on in California. Apple's computer in 1976 signaled a coming American dominance in computer and information technology. Also in 1976 a California wine (Stag's Leap) defeated the best French wines in a blind-taste contest, signaling our competitiveness in high culture internationally. And in 1977 "Star Wars" became the highest-grossing film ever, signaling American dominance of world pop culture. America's greatest economic and cultural boom took off, totally without Washington's involvement or even awareness.

During the Q&A Galvin noted that Kennedy got the Cuban Missile Crisis right by locking all the dangerous heavy-hitters in a small room for thirteen days while he applied his own "historic sensibility" to finding a back-channel way to defuse the crisis rather than exacerbate it. These days, Gavin observed, policy people are worrying excessively about terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation when in fact nuclear weapons are on the wane everywhere and have been for decades.

Historians, he said, can bring a well supported, authoritative, helpful message to the public discourse and to policy makers at such times: "Don't freak out."

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