"We Can Always Learn More History:" An Interview with Historian Seth Center

tags: historians

Samantha Benthien is an intern with the History News Network. 


Seth Center is senior fellow and director of the Brzezinski Institute’s Project on History and Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). His scholarship employs a historical lens to examine the contemporary national security agenda, develop applied history findings to inform responses to future challenges, and connect diplomatic and military historians to the policy community (You can read more about Dr. Center from the CSIS website here).


When did you decide you were interested in history?


I was fortunate to have terrific undergraduate professors at Cornell University like Michael Kammen, Walter LaFeber, and Sherman Cochran. That experience led to graduate school at the University of Virginia, where I had equally terrific professors including Melvyn Leffler (my dissertation advisor), Brian Balogh, and Philip Zelikow. Mentorship is exceptionally important in helping aspiring historians become professional historians.


How did that initial interest ultimately lead you to become the senior fellow and director of the Brzezinski Institute’s Project on History and Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies?


Serving in government allowed me to use historical methods for practical purposes like explaining the origin of a particular diplomatic problem or the evolution of a part of the US government. It’s not a traditional academic job, but it does use the same historical methods. Think tank historical work is similar--it’s about leavening policy dialogue that usually runs through presentist concerns with a little bit of historical perspective.


Prior to joining the CSIS, you served at the National Security Council (NSC) as the director for National Security Strategy and History and at the U.S. Department of State as a historian. How was historical research and analysis utilized to inform policy?


History is ubiquitous in making foreign policy, conducting diplomacy, explaining actions, and understanding partners’ approach to the world. Unfortunately, history can be as recent as yesterday in government. Because people are constantly moving and shifting jobs, why we are who we are and how we got here is often as distant as ancient history. A good historian can help an organization think about the costs and benefits of sustaining a current path or changing course.


History can help recapture the original reasons a decision was made and help to surface whether current assumptions are still valid. It can help policymakers think through alternative policy choices. History can provide a sense of proportion and scale. It can help answer the question of “are we confronting something new?”; “How important or significant is the event we are facing?”


History comes in two forms. First, comparison or analogy. History can provide similar episodes in the past to help understand or assess current conditions. Making a current event to a past event can help clarify what is novel and what is familiar, and then allow one to think about how to respond to a current situation with more precision, or at least better judgment. Second, history can illuminate the deeper roots of a specific situation or event. This type of history is particularly useful in helping to understand the evolution of a diplomatic relationship or to understand how a competitor is approaching a situation.


One of the goals stated on the CSIS website for the project on history and strategy is to forge the “connections needed for policymakers and historians to be more useful to each other.” Why is this relationship between policymakers and historians so important? What makes applying a historical lens, in your opinion, effective in informing policymakers?


Time and urgency are important dynamics in policymaking. History and historical reflection often takes time and history is produced without any particular regard for any urgent contemporary concern. The challenge for getting history to policymakers is to ensure it gets to the reader in a timely matter so they can think about its meaning and implication before they have to act. Often windows for analysis and action are tight, historians have to hit those windows to be effective.


When advocating for your research to those who do not already have an academic foundation of historical knowledge, what is the most difficult aspect of communicating the value of considering historical ideas or concepts?


Time is almost always the biggest barrier. Getting busy people to consider the past and take the time to read about what has come before is usually the initial barrier. The second challenge is the natural tendency to see issues as unique or without precedent, which discourages looking backwards. That tendency is amplified when the most common historical comparison might suggest a particular analysis or course of action could produce disaster.


Are there any unexpected or insufficiently discussed ways in which history is useful today?


We can always learn more history. In an ideal world, policymakers would possess or seek to understand the history of a particular problem before making a decision, and also consider what similar situations in the past might illuminate the challenges of a particular situation and help anticipate the best ways to move forward.


Taking on common and popular historical myths is always frustrating for historians. Changing basic interpretations of events or people once they have formed in the popular imagination is tough--that’s true for academic historians and historians in the policy world.


Is there a particular accomplishment or project that stands out since working at the CSIS? Why was this achievement valuable?


One interesting project we are working on is exploring why the Cold War has become such a prevalent analogy for understanding the current US-China relationship. We have asked historians to assess the many ways the analogy is being used in an effort to inform current policy debate with historical knowledge. An interesting and important question has emerged: if the dissimilarities outweigh the similarities, then should the analogy be used at all? History does not lend itself to basic mathematical formulas, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. We are trying to make the comparison a little more precise by sharpening the distinctions between the past and present.


The HNN website states that “the past is the present and the future too.” What does that mean to you, and do you agree or disagree?


Basically, we confront very few truly novel challenges in the world. A deeper knowledge of history can help us focus on what those novel challenges are. For the rest of the problems, we should consider how we have responded as individuals, institutions, and nations so that we can anticipate future action, and, in an ideal world reduce risks and mistakes.







comments powered by Disqus