We live in an era with a plenitude of information but a paucity of understanding
Joseph Nye, JFK School of Government, Harvard College
There is so much connectivity, but also not an understanding of all the various pieces of the news that come into us
Madeleine Albright, MSNBC, 27 July 2014
…members of what used to be called America’s foreign policy establishment are no longer doing the job of keeping foreign policy rational and informed. Instead, hungry to coin the next Big Idea, they are in the business of advancing simplistic, glib mythologies. The result is that Americans are often presented with a fantasy world of nightmare scenarios rather than with explanations that lead to rational choices.
Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing, 2007.
…we as a democracy can only have a foreign policy as sophisticated and as intelligent as the American people. And, unfortunately, the American people are not very sophisticated nor very well informed about the world. In fact, they’re abysmally uninformed.
And an uninformed public is very susceptible to demagogy, to anxiety, and to its cynical exploitation in the course of the struggle, the competition for power.
…I mean, there are any number of indices now available that show how little Americans know about the world — about what’s happening in the world, about global history, about global geography. It’s really appalling when you look at some of the data.
And we don’t have the mass media that really, systematically and on a broad basis, inform the public in any depth about international affairs. A little bit here, a little bit there, in the news programs and so forth, but by and large, most of the public is distant from it. The figures are not very impressive in terms of viewership. Newspapers, similarly.
A Conversation With Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former White House National Security Adviser, Counselor and Trustee, Center for Strategic and International Studies,
Council on Foreign Relations, 29 March 2012
Historical knowledge is more than merely of curiosity value. You can’t really be a good citizen if you don’t know where the institutions of your country came from, if you have no sense of where the structures around you originated. I think that applies as much to world citizenship as to national citizenship.
There are a great many clichés about historical ignorance – when one encounters it a high level, one realises just how vital historical knowledge is.
I’ll give you a simple example. This week in the discussion about whether or not the United States should take action to prevent Colonel Gaddafi slaughtering his own people, according to a senior White House aide, the President opposed and continues to oppose military action, including a no-fly zone, on the grounds that the best revolutionaries are always ‘organic’… what he meant was that there’s no foreign intervention in good revolutions.
For the President of the United States to say such a thing is absolutely staggering, because, I don’t know about you, but they looked like French ships to me just off Yorktown at the decisive battle of the American War of Independence.
Historical ignorance is a dangerous thing, and it’s a dangerous thing at most levels of society too.
I think we have produced a really exceptionally historically ignorant generation over the past 30 years and I think that is going to have really quite serious consequences for the way in which politics can operate in the Western world. And I don’t think it, incidentally, is just a problem for England or Britain, it’s a problem that one encounters in all kinds of countries, even countries with quite good reputations for historical education.”
Niall Ferguson, Professor of History, Harvard University, What History should British children be taught? University of Oxford, 9 March 2011
At 15 minutes, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1eaNLN7Tjf8
– unlike our leaders, China’s leaders apply history. There is no more historically-minded leadership elite in the world, to my knowledge, than the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.
Niall Ferguson, Professor of History, Harvard University, 22 March 2017
I was frankly surprised that academics, of all people, would accept official descriptions of “strategy” as a form of systematic group thinking, based on detailed information and guided by rational choices. It is true that decisions are thus rationalized these days, but that is all. The decisions of war and peace are not made by highly trained experts after systematic analyses, but by whoever happens to be in charge, usually because of entirely unrelated political strengths, and informed mostly by passing conceits. It happens very rarely that foreign countries that are to be the scene of military ventures are actually studied, in their inevitably complex and ambiguous reality. Instead they are imagined in order to fit whatever ambitions are projected upon them—and not even the possession of the most perfect maps, nor any amount of specific intelligence can be a safeguard against that recurrent and often irremediable error. Napoleon, for example, imagined a Russia full of oppressed serfs ready to rebel to support his army—a strange assumption after poor peasants in Spain had already fought strenuously for their oppressors and against their French liberators. More recently, an Iraq ripe for democracy was disastrously imagined.
Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century CE to the Third, 1976, updated preface to the 2016 edition, p. xii.
Leaked details from [British Prime Minister Theresa] May’s disastrous dinner with [President of the European Commission Jean-Claude] Juncker suggest Brexit could be far worse than anyone imagines
All of the facts have been available to British journalists writing on Brexit for months. Nothing is new. But with one or two exceptions the entire UK coverage of Brexit is written entirely from a UK-UK point of view with the routine clichés thrown in of insulting Jean-Claude Juncker.
One cannot blame Theresa May and her mono-lingual No 10 team. Not since its 1930s coverage of Germany has the majority of the British media, including the BBC, been so poor in covering the main challenge to Britain’s future in half a century.
If British citizens, businesses, inward investors and even MPs are not told any of the core publicly available facts about the position all 27 EU sovereign governments are taking on Brexit then the final outcome may be far worse than anyone imagines.
Denis MacShane is the former Europe Minister and a Senior Adviser at Avisa Partners, Brussels.
1 May 2017
American political history as a field of study has cratered.
The drying up of scholarly expertise affects universities’ ability to educate teachers — as well as aspiring lawyers, politicians, journalists and business leaders — who will enter their professions having learned too little about the nation’s political history. Not least, in this age of extreme partisanship, they’ll be insufficiently aware of the importance that compromise has played in America’s past, of the vital role of mutual give-and-take in the democratic process.
Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?, New York Times, 29 August 2016
Fredrik Logevall is a professor of history and international affairs at Harvard and Kenneth Osgood is a professor of history at the Colorado School of Mines.
The upshot is badly informed politicians, policymakers, businessmen and publics, virtually all of whom suffer from appalling historical and geographical ignorance not only of the wider world, but also, as we now know, their own backyard.
Their inability to “connect the dots” as the world undergoes tectonic shifts beneath their feet is proving disastrous for both domestic and international politics and has profound implications for the global economy and investment.