Much Can Be Learned From Studying History

There are very few real surprises in history. Most often the events considered a surprise or world changing are at best a failure to place happenings in their proper context. At worst, they’re a continuation of trends that began a long time ago.

Historian David Graff once said that what gives an event iconic status is “the ability…to be shocked by it.” To that extent, the events of the past few weeks should neither be shocking nor a surprise to anyone. If more people understood history, the world would have a better understanding of what is happening right now.  

For more than 75 years experts have warned that an inevitable confrontation was brewing that would have unpredictable consequences for the world. For 75 years, those experts were ignored.  So why did this come as such a shock to most people? It would help to relearn some history.

George Kennan was the #2 man in the American embassy in Moscow at the end of World War II. At the time he waged a lonely fight to make world leaders understand that the aspirations, dreams and motivations of all nations were unique and influenced by their own histories.  

Kennan, though a high-ranking insider, was a keen student of history. He understood that Russia’s sense of identity was rooted in an unshakeable fear of repelling invaders, often at great cost. He predicted accurately that the Soviet Union’s fear of an increasingly unified Europe would necessitate buffer states between it and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, instead of heeding this advice and strategizing how to incorporate it into policy, the West found itself continuing to struggle alongside its most inscrutable international counterpart.

Even after the fall of the Soviet Union Kennan worried the West was in the process of creating a self-fulling prophecy that would lead to conflict with Russia. In 1997, at the age of 92, he wrote that expanding the West’s sphere of influence “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era.”

The optimistic years following the dissolution of Soviet Union, when it appeared the rivalry between the great powers was at a close, brought promise and high expectations. This era was also very traumatic for ordinary Russians. Not only had they seen their country lose great-power status, but economic and political instability were widespread. Little was done to improve economic recovery or understand how best reincorporate it into the global system.  Russians were left feeling dejected and exploited. Under this context, those latent fears inherent in Russia’s national psyche began emerging once again.

Conflict may have been avoided by looking at the trends and listening to the experts most aware of the historical context. During the Clinton era, Defense Secretary William Perry nearly quit when his advice against rapid eastern expansion went unheeded. Clinton ignored these critics, as did his successors.  Instead of helping Russia better reintegrate itself to the world, the world breathed a sigh of relief and took a victory lap. This does not excuse what is happening now by any means, but nor should the world be surprised by recent events and the difficult days that lay ahead. 

Everyone wants the current crisis to come under control and end quickly. We don’t know what the future holds if left unabated  What we do know, is that this is a failure to read and absorb the lessons of history – something everyone everywhere should strive to do better.

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