Security Studies Program Seminar

History and Policy in the Nuclear Age

Francis Gavin
Director, Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law
University of Texas at Austin

February 17, 2010

In this talk, Gavin addressed two main questions: First, how do we as scholars make our work more useful to policymakers? Second, how can the rigorous study of history help policymakers make better decisions?

Before turning to these questions, Gavin noted that there are three main reasons for the lack of fruitful relations between the policy and scholarly communities, particularly scholars of history. First, policymakers generally are not interested in the past for its own sake. They face time constraints and want parsimonious, clear-cut advice. Historians, on the other hand, resist making generalizations across time, and reject parsimony. Second, historians generally have a deep suspicion of power and the wielding of power. Historians are largely prejudiced against focusing on issues directly relevant to aiding political elites. Some scholars may fear being corrupted by being included in the policy making process. Finally, policy is only a very small part of the past historians seek to reconstruct and explain. Historians largely focus on other factors: cultural or intellectual variables, geography, structural shifts, etc.

However, it is possible for policy makers to use knowledge of history to their benefit. Historians should seek to overcome their training and prejudices and make a better effort to engage with policymakers.

There are five key concepts that historians can utilize to provide analysis that can help policymakers, regardless of their specific interpretations of history.

  1. Vertical History. When looking at historical events, we should look at its temporal origins and spatial location, and try to determine sequence and causality over time. Causes can be proximate or long-term, but they are often contested by different scholars. History can explain complexities of causes and the deeper roots of phenomena. This distinguishes history from political science to a large extent. For example, when looking at U.S. policy in the Middle East, proximate causes include oil, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and domestic support for Israel. Based on vertical historical research, longer-term causes include Soviet interest in the Middle East during the Cold War and the U.S. desire to balance this, as well as the power vacuum created by Britain’s withdrawal from the region.
  2. Horizontal History. In addition to how things relate over time, we can look at how they relate over space and in depth during the same time period. What are the linkages that are not readily apparent? For example, the United States was hemorrhaging dollars in the 1950s and 1960s. Kennedy and Eisenhower were obsessed with fixing this balance of payments deficit without strict monetary policies that could weaken the domestic economy. In order to deal with this issue, Eisenhower and Kennedy focused on the deficit driven by the U.S. troop presence in Western Europe, which in turned linked into NATO alliance politics, the German consideration of nuclear weapons, the balance of power with the USSR, and the doctrine of flexible response. The whole picture only makes sense by exploring the linkages amongst these diverse issues with horizontal history. Policy environments are highly complicated and involve many different issues; how policymakers actually work becomes more transparent with horizontal history.
  3. Chronological Proportionality. How do we assess the long-term significance of a policy issue? Many contemporary issues that seem to be important turn out not to be in the long-term, and vice versa. Media coverage can be highly misleading here. Was Vietnam as important historically as it seemed at the time? The NPT was being negotiated at the same time, and had arguably greater long-term consequences. Détente with USSR/ thaw with China were also key, but were underappreciated at the time relative to Vietnam. The most well known issues are not necessarily the most important in the long-term sense; policymakers should bear this in mind.
  4. Unintended Consequences. Ironies, dilemmas, and unintended consequences are prevalent throughout policymaking history. For example, the long term consequences of the US loss in Vietnam may in fact have had positive unintended consequences: it led to wiser policies for the rest of the Cold War, deepened the Sino-Soviet split, prevented Sino-Soviet balancing against US in the region, made the USSR more comfortable in its ultimately self-defeating involvement in Afghanistan and Africa. There are almost always unintended results of policies—policymakers should bear this in mind: it is perhaps the most critical insight from the study of history.
  5. Policy Insignificance. The making of policy is not always as important as it seems to policymakers. In reality, policy can only affect certain, limited things. History can provide policymakers with the confidence to do nothing when it is wise. For example, the perception of permanently weakened US power in the mid-1970s was actually followed by the subsequent period of amazing American growth in power via globalization, soft power, etc—this was not really the result of any conscious policy. Many forces that have the biggest effect on policy environment are not the result of policy decisions.

In conclusion, time pressure combined with the uncertainties and complexity of historical analysis largely explain the divide between policy makers and academics. Historians may not be able to provide specific policy guidance on a particular issue, but the five concepts mentioned will help policy makers to dig deeper in their analysis and take a more long-term, thoughtful approach to the formation of policy. Both historians and policymakers can benefit from each other. They share important interests and concerns.


Rapporteur: Nick Miller

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2010