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  • The Big QuestionWhat lessons from history keep being forgotten?
  • Erin Bryk, Robert Stevens, and Lisa Thomson
  • United Kingdom:The Best Education
  • John Bew (bio)

It has become fashionable to talk about the “return of history” in international affairs. Against this backdrop, policymakers are often urged to “learn lessons” from history and are lambasted for their failure to do so. From Vietnam to Iraq, we have seen this pattern play out time and time again. Viewed over the long term, this means that debates over politics, strategy, and foreign policy can appear somewhat cyclical. One can see this in the most recent “rediscovery” of the writings of Machiavelli. It is easy to forget that there have been many “Machiavellian moments” in the past, from the tumults of 17th century England to the era of revolutionary change and state formation in mid-19th century Europe. In reality, our view of the past is often mediated through the rediscoveries of previous eras.

This means learning from the past is easier said than done. History does not lend itself easily to the PowerPoints or executive summaries on which our policymakers increasingly rely. It is a forbidding task to quantify things like perception, mood, and moment—the often indiscernible patterns and habits and instincts that constellate to form the zeitgeist. A genuine understanding of history requires a patience that is not easy to reconcile with the urgency of policy.

A good starting point is to view the past as a source of wisdom rather than revelation. History does not provide fundamental or eternal truths, and certainly no basis for a “scientific” understanding of the world. As the diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder has written, there is a danger that we presume “its lessons and insights lie on the surface for anyone to pick up, so that one can go at a history like a looter at an archaeological site, indifferent to context and deeper meaning, concerned only with taking what can be immediately used or sold.”

At its best, history bequeaths a way of thinking about the political or intellectual challenges that confront us today—something that might otherwise be defined as “historicism.” This approach does not regard the past as a source of immutable lessons, formulas, or rules, but trains the eye to look beyond immediate appearances—to search for context, complexity, and contingency. It is not the preserve of the left or right, of liberal or conservative. It is an ecumenical creed. It can be practiced by Marxists, who stress the need to look at the socioeconomic base as well as the superstructure, or Burkean conservatives, who take tradition and custom as living forces, and warn us against overdosing on rationalism.

In some forms, historicism can go too far and succumb to fatalism, overcaution, relativism, a cultish emphasis on empiricism, or an unimaginative and overly assertive insistence on “the real.” But a training in history remains the best education for those who aspire to change the world, as it helps people achieve a truer, deeper understanding of what’s around them. [End Page 1]

John Bew

JOHN BEW is a professor of history and foreign policy at the War Studies Department, King’s College London and the author of “Realpolitik: A History” (Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • Burundi:Troubled Doubles
  • Roland Rugero (bio) and Aminadab Havyarimana

The question that had been haunting me was simple: Who is “Umurundi”—the Burundian? After months of confusion, it was during a conversation with a Senegalese mzee, or old man, about a flag that I was finally able to put the answer into words.

In the early 1990s, President Pierre Buyoya introduced a second national flag to symbolize national unity. The older, and still official, flag already represented unity; its three central stars stand for our three major ethnic groups: the Hutu, the Twa, and the Tutsi. “Poor people you are, Burundians. You are double even at the national flag” the mzee told me.

That would have been bearable if the flag was the only duplicity. The Burundian tragedy is that we’ve internalized our history of divisions. Our past is one of antagonisms: Hutu against Tutsi, but also Burundi versus Elsewhere, Good...


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