- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Applying Lessons of History to Today's Choices and Challenges

| Fall/Winter 2016-2017

It is sometimes said that some Americans live in “the United States of Amnesia.” Less widely recognized is how many American policymakers live there, too. To address this deficit, the Belfer Center has launched an Applied History Project designed to revitalize applied history both in universities and in policymaking. Center Director Graham Allison and board member Niall Ferguson serve as co-directors, and have written an Applied History Manifesto calling for the creation of a White House Council of Historical Advisers. A short version of the manifesto appears in the September print issue of The Atlantic magazine, and a long version is on the Belfer Center’s Applied History Matters website: belfercenter.org/AppliedHistory.

Applied history is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues. The Center’s Applied History Project seeks to institutionalize historical analysis in the tradition of two great Harvard Kennedy School professors, the late Ernest May and Richard Neustadt— to create in universities beginning with Harvard a new and rigorous sub-discipline of Applied History.

Applied historians take current predicaments and identify precedents and analogues that offer clues about what is likely to happen, suggest possible policy interventions, and assess probable consequences. The Applied History Manifesto provides a number of examples in which history has proven useful in solving policy predicaments.

The Project also includes the Ernest May Fellowship at the Belfer Center (which supports students who employ history in the study of strategy and major issues in international affairs), support for professors at the Harvard Kennedy School who teach policymaking in historical context (such as Fredrik Logevall and Arne Westad), and a Faculty Working Group made up of professors from Harvard University and the surrounding area which meets regularly to discuss topics in applied historical analysis. The Project website Applied History Matters features a curated selection of exemplary instances of applied history, a possible list of “assignments” the president could give a future White House Council of Historical Advisers, a basic bibliography, and a catalog of quotations and insights on the topic by scholars and statesmen.

Professors, students, policy practitioners, and the general public are invited to visit the Applied History Matters website and critique or suggest additions to the list of potential “assignments” the president could assign his potential Council of Historical Advisers.


More to Consider:

In the Applied History Manifesto, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson urge the candidates running for president to announce now that, if elected, they will establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers, analogous to the Council of Economic Advisers.

They argue that the charter of the future Council of Historical Advisers should begin with Thucydides’s observation that “events of future history will be of the same nature—or nearly so—as the history of the past, so long as men are men.” Applied history does not offer a crystal ball—but which discipline does? The Project subscribes to Winston Churchill’s dictum, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”

Imagine that President Obama had a Council of Historical Advisers today. What assignments could he give it? How might the Council respond? He could, for example, ask about ISIS: Have we ever seen anything like this before? If so, what did who do, and how did that work out? For this question and a number of others, see the Project’s website.

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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kapur, Arjun. Applying Lessons of History to Today's Choices and Challenges.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Fall/Winter 2016-2017).

The Author

Arjun Kapur