Europe faces a clear and present danger. NATO and the Russian Federation are facing off in the eastern Baltic. Rival forces are being mustered across increasingly militarised borders, and eyes are turned to possible flash-points in Kaliningrad and the Suwalki Gap.
Russian cyber commandoes have hacked US politics, allegedly helping to secure the Presidency for their preferred candidate Donald Trump. In turn Trump, who is also accused by some of being a fascist, appears amenable to the appeasement of the Kremlin even after its aggressive interventions in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. Moscow’s populist allies are in the ascendancy across Europe, NATO’s critically underfunded and a post-Brexit EU teeters on the verge of crisis.
Historical analogies abound: it’s 1914 or 1917, it’s the 1930s, Munich, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Yalta and the Berlin blockade all over again. For others the Cold War 2.0 is already up and running.
So, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, where are we headed in 2017, what will result from the Putin-Trump axis, will there be war-war or more jaw-jaw? Surely history and historians can help provide answers to help guide policy through the fog of an uncertain future.
My original plan for this blog was to wax lyrical about my own research into the diplomacy of détente. Possibly also mentioning how General Sir Richard Shirreff’s future history of war with Russia echoes John Hackett’s 1977 World War Three, and to highlight the extent to which the current discussion replicates seemingly similar debates from the 1970s.
However, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the whole historians commentating on current affairs approach, not least when they magically discover comparisons to their most recent book or ongoing research. Of course, some historians have finessed this marketing strategy into a veritable art form.
Yes, I realise the importance of media exposure, of establishing impact, of influencing policy and selling stuff but I find myself increasingly sceptical about the notion that history can illuminate the future. After all there are plenty of issues to consider in discerning the illuminations shed by history’s flickering lamp and its attempts to reconstruct the past without venturing further afield.
Prediction has become big business with significant stakeholders committed to generating endless copy, and I am in no way convinced that historians should collaborate in this growth industry, and indeed many sensibly don’t .
For me the final straw came on 19 December 2016 when the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated. With undue haste many took to social media to make comparisons with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in that summer of 1914. No, it wasn’t. It was gruesome murder of a diplomat, but the rush to reach for analogies is indicative of a worrying trend.
First and foremost, let’s be absolutely clear what I am arguing against here is the incautious use of the notion that historical events are repeating, or echoing, or rhyming. These parallels are especially dangerous when they suggest we can not only predict the future, but when they indicate we know how the future will unfold because we’ve been here before.
We can’t. It won’t.
As Professor Francis J. Gavin recently noted:
History can offer lessons, insights, and even methods, though they are often meagre and must be used cautiously and with care. The most important quality of a historical sensibility, the most valuable gift provided by an immersion in the past, is humility…
It is such humility that is so glaringly absent in these alleged historical comparisons. Unpredictability, the unknown, the very impossibility of knowing what might come next should be one of the central lessons historians communicate to a wider public.
After all, who at the time predicted the outcome of the First or Second World Wars, and who exactly foresaw how and when the Cold War would end? Historians should be well aware of the difficulties individuals have in navigating choices: good, bad and indifferent.
It’s not so much experts we should be weary of, but those who loudly proclaim they know what will occur – especially those beholden to some determinist ideology, palingenetic nationalist delusions or fashionable theories such as the ‘end of history’ or a ‘clash or civilisations’. Though that’s not to ignore or reject the looming threats that clearly exist in the world today, rather to urge caution, and to engage in considered rumination on the nature of the evidence (and propaganda) we have at hand.
After all isn’t this the message we as historians attempt to impart to our history students? A previous American President, himself a historian put their finger on this issue rather well:
For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
Points John F. Kennedy made decades before the coining of such terms such as hybrid warfare or fake news.
The job of the historian should not be prediction, or stating glib comparisons, rather the job of the historian should be to make people stop and think and mull upon the intrinsic complexity of the world, to stress the often bewildering ways in which economic, cultural, ideological, political and social dimensions interacted to shape the world in ways that were never expected.
These are processes that will hopefully continue even after President Trump’s inauguration on 20 January 2017. And I for one will be leaving consideration of that event to future historians to disentangle.
Martin D. Brown is Associate Professor of International History and Associate Dean for Research at The American International University in London. His research focuses on European diplomatic history, particularly British foreign policy during the era of Détente leading up to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. You can find him on twitter @MDRBrown.
Image: Disaster avoided? The moment when the Austrian archduke, following the first attempt against his life, arrived at the City Council of Sarajevo, Mundo Gráfico, 15 July 1914, p. 21, [Biblioteca Nacional de España, via Wikicommons].