I just went to a talk by a guest historian about historians’ obligation to engage in politics. The talk was straightforward. The speaker’s point was the following and she just gave a bunch of examples.
Historians should engage in political debates because, if we don’t, others do and misuse histories. Politicians make all sorts of historical analogies, but history is too complex to find patterns in as political scientists try to do.
Sigh. I am not disappointed because her argument was a simple and old one, or because she did not really have an answer to the question of how historians should contribute to the foreign relations of North Korea and Iran. I was disappointed because there was a typical and sad misunderstanding about historians and political scientists again. I encounter this too many times. Both parts think the other is too naive — historians think political scientists reduce the complexity to patterns nonsensically, and political scientists think that historians are bogged down with details that no one else would care.
She also made a typical mistake in thinking that political scientists are the ones who do politics, and historians those who don’t. That is absolutely not the case. Politicians pick their own advisors both in history and political science. And in both fields, there are a variety of opinions in the first place, and It is an illusion that historians would think in one way and political scientists would in another. I remember the major neo-realist IR scholars, who appear more supportive of conducting war usually, were very vocal in criticizing Bush Jr.’s decision to invade Iraq, and tried to stop it. It is absolutely not the case that historians knew the mess was coming and political scientists didn’t.
I am very uncomfortable with the idea that non-historians would “misuse” histories too. Wait. Do historians never misuse histories? Historians are trained in doing histories but they do not have a monopoly over it, or a monopoly over the right use of it.
Come on, historians. Get over poli-sci-phobia. Sometimes, precisely because there are too many historical analogies, we need the skeleton view of the essence of events that good political scientists can provide. If you want to criticize IR scholars, at least give us a bit more interesting and useful message that we can chew on!