Leaders shape history less than they think—with some exceptionsby Archie Brown / February 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Mistaken though he was in elevating his own hopes and expectations into inexorable laws of history, Karl Marx aptly wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Getting the balance right in historical and political analysis between the limiting conditions imposed by political, economic and social context and the part played in effecting change by particular individuals is never easy. Even to speak of getting it “right” is a simplification, for the relationship between context and personality will continue to be debated for as long as historians and social scientists thrive.
But, as Margaret MacMillan makes clear in her new book, bad history (generally in the form of inappropriate historical analogies) rationalises, and sometimes engenders, bad politics—from Balkan conflicts to turmoil in the Arab world. As if it were the only fragment of history they have ever learned, politicians mouth clichés about fascism and appeasement, invoking images of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Neville Chamberlain, even when the threats and their settings are very different from those posed in the late 1930s. From Anthony Eden and the 1956 invasion of Egypt, to Tony Blair as junior partner of President George W Bush in the 2003 occupation of Iraq, the “lessons of Munich” have been repeatedly disinterred to justify misguided, and profoundly ignorant, policies in the Middle East.
We do well to be sceptical of any politician who begins by saying “History tells us that…” a particular course of action is required, since history tells us no such thing. For the makers of foreign policy to understand the complex histories of the countries they are dealing with, and to be aware of how the leaders and peoples of those countries perceive their histories, is, however, a promising start. It is one reason why it is rarely a good idea for prime ministers to concentrate great power within their own entourage and to downgrade or even disparage the knowledge available in any foreign ministry worth its salt. Boneheadedness masqueraded as sophistication when the former ambassadors and the officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the best understanding of the turmoil and carnage a United States-led invasion of Iraq was likely to unleash, were dismissed in 10 Downing Street briefings as “the camel corps.”