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Can lessons from the past guide us through the present?

Guardsmen on parade. Credit: Getty

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May 16, 2018   4 mins
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May 16, 2018   4 mins
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May 16, 2018   4 mins
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May 16, 2018   4 mins

Earlier this week, the History Jury turned their minds to dangerous misperceptions of the past.

Today, the question is: what lessons from history are we ignoring? 


Victoria Schofield: Protectionist policies can lead to hardship rather than prosperity.

The lesson in history is the Smoot-Hawley Tariff enacted by the US administration of Herbert Hoover in 1930 and which intensified nationalism in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. Initially framed to protect American farmers, its enactment – against the advice of over 1,000 economists – had the reverse effect. Although not directly responsible either for the Great Depression or the outbreak of war, its passage contributed to a substantial decline in global trade which provided those who were willing to attempt to alter the politico-economic status quo ante, notably Germany and Japan, with a reason for doing so.

We may like to think that we have learnt from the consequences of Smoot-Hawley with the introduction of the World Trade Organisation and a general commitment to open trade. But with nationalism on the rise and the slogan of America First emanating out of the United States, the mood can again change; President Trump’s new protectionist initiatives have already sounded an alarm bell, as witnessed by the over 1,000 economists who have now written to him. For us in Britain, as politicians argue about the exact nature of our trade and investment policy as a  ‘third country’ outside the EU, we should remember that tariffs and quotas aimed to appease some political interests serve to make the world poorer.


Paul Lay: Military investment goes hand-in-hand with technological innovation

Peace dividends are superficially attractive. Which government would not wish to lavish greater sums of money rewarding its supporters and bribing its opponents?

When the Cold War came to an end – along with, as some suggested, history itself  – and before the eye-opening atrocities of 9/11, when Monica Lewinsky was the biggest thing in the news cycle, humanity appeared to be on course for verdant, postbellum uplands. But, as the historian David Edgerton suggested in his 2005 study Warfare State: Britain 1920-1970 and reiterates in his latest magisterial work, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, technological innovation and a well-funded fiscal-military state go hand in hand.

Part of the return, in addition to enhanced security, is prosperity. It is no surprise that the two most technologically innovative and advanced countries on Earth – the US and Israel – should also be ones who spend serious money on the military, the source of such transformational technologies as the internet. And China is advancing on that front, too, aided by an expanding, scientifically literate workforce. The parlous state of British investment in its armed forces and the apparatus that surrounds it is a far greater challenge to our future prosperity and security than Brexit.

Britain has been a major military and intelligence player for centuries. It should not stop being one when, all around us, we see growing uncertainty, fragmentation and instability. The era of the fiscal-military state is not over yet.



Allan Mallinson: There are limits to military force.

Tacitus’s famous “And where they make a desert, they call it peace” was not a bad warning that the sword has its limits. Insurgencies can be mitigated by strong military force, but force does no more than buy time, during which statesmen may employ other means to deal with the root causes of the trouble. Everyone seems to agree with this in theory, and yet, in practice, military force is too often the first recourse, and then politicians, bereft of ideas or will, come to believe that the military alone will achieve a result.

The problem of first resort to force is further exacerbated where that force is “stand-off” – that is (usually) airpower. The problem with airpower is that while it can be extraordinarily precise, the targeting of its air-delivered bombs and missiles – the product of intelligence gathering – is reliant on people on the ground. And people on the ground, unless they are your own, are ultimately not very reliable.

The other problem is that airpower looks impressive, a substantial contribution to the battle; aircraft are inherently awe-inspiring, as are explosions on the ground, whether monitored from the air or witnessed on the ground. The danger is that it can quickly seem sufficient.


Eliot Cohen: History teaches us nothing.

History has no lessons.  Context, yes, and indeed, if read widely and well, a kind of wisdom and insight into people, places, and events, but nothing directive. As Sir Hew Strachan once said to me, politicians want answers, and they some times hope that historians can provide them. But what historians can really provide is good questions. That should suffice.

Victoria is an expert on India and its neighbours, worked as an independent broadcaster for the BBC World Service in London and New York in the 1980s and 1990s, and is author of – among many books – Afghan Frontier: At the Crossroads of Conflict (2010).


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