Thinking Historically: A Guide to Strategy and Statecraft


12th Annual Alvin H. Bernstein Lecture

Hosted by the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies

Francis J. Gavin, Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy Studies and Professor of Political Science at MIT

November 10, 2016

Scholars of international relations have traditionally been sorted into one of two camps: those in the discipline of history and those in political science. At the 12th annual Alvin H. Bernstein Lecture, Francis Gavin argued for the value of historical perspective and what it brings to strategy and statecraft.

Historical sense is not just having information about the past, but the ability to combine and integrate knowledge, Gavin said. Historians investigate and produce facts, string them together, analyze and infuse them to tell stories.

Gavin shared examples to illustrate five important ways history can help us understand international relations, namely, the concepts of vertical history, horizontal history, chronological proportionality, unintended consequences, and policy insignificance. The most valuable quality gained from an immersion in history is humility, Gavin said. A scholar well versed in diplomatic history can appreciate how so many confident predictions of the future and explanations of the past turn out to be plain wrong.  

Addressing questions from the audience, Gavin commented on the US presidential election, the differences between recent presidents in their understanding of history, and how history can be a burden to scholars as well as an aid.  

Named for distinguished historian and Johns Hopkins SAIS lecturer Alvin Bernstein, the lecture series focuses on the intersection of history and national security policy.