‘School for Statesmanship’: As the Annual Meetings Begin, a 'Policy-Relevant' Week Requires a Sense of History

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"The future need not run in the ruts of the past. It is possible to jump the tracks and take a new direction. Only by delving deep into the past can we hope to project ourselves imaginatively [for] any meaningful distance into the future." -- "The History Manifesto"

Just in time for the Annual Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, along comes an insightful essay – by historians at Harvard and Brown universities, not Bank or Fund economists – that helps put the event's meaning into perspective.

Anyone who has experienced the week-long whirl of diplomacy, economics and finance – a pop-up university amid an ad-hoc global village – recognizes the Annual Meetings and Spring Meetings as the year’s most intense hothouses of global knowledge-exchange. Bank and Fund staff anticipate every such marathon with a mixture of excitement and anxiety: As exhilarating as it is exhausting, the coming Bank-Fund week will be a tsunami of scholarship on international relations.

You will scarcely be able to cross 19th Street NW this week without spotting a Nobel Prize-winner, a Foreign Minister or Finance Minister, a portentous professor or pontificating pundit. Economists expounding, statesmen scurrying, speechwriters scribbling: Packed into the precincts around 19th and H Streets NW, the weight of the world will seem to burden every panelist at every seminar. At the end of each week-long sprint, each April and October, one often gazes into an overfilled notebook – alongside a stack of newly issued policy reports – in a state of dizzied disbelief, wondering: What does it all add up to?

Maximizing the value of such a cavalcade of expert knowledge requires a sense of global imagination, policy realism and academic insight – along with, crucially, a long-term perspective on the lessons that history can teach us about “the art of the possible.” That’s the memorable takeaway from a timely essay in the Guardian this week by Harvard historian David Armitage and Brown historian Jo Guldi, who assert that a sense of history must help shape policymaking in real time.

History “is a critical science for questioning short-term views, complicating simple stories about causes and consequences, and discovering roads not taken.” Rigorous economics always undergirds the work of the Bank and the Fund – yet those who strive for the greatest understanding from Annual Meetings week would be wise to also view the proceedings through the lens of disciplines like history, political science and sociology.

“Historical thinking – and not just by those who call themselves historians – can and should inform practice and policy today,” according to Armitage and Guldi, the authors of the new work, “The History Manifesto." That remark recalls an insight, during a recent Bank forum, by the Stanford scholar Francis Fukuyama: that the Bank and Fund should heed the viewpoints of a wider range of social-science disciplines – especially political science – even as its dollars-and-cents decisions as a lending institution are guided by economics.

(For those seeking insights into Fukuyama’s latest blockbuster, “Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy”: Fukuyama will deliver a livestreamed speech at the New America Foundation on Wednesday, October 8 at 12:15 p.m. – in an example of the Annual-Meetings-week “knowledge spillover effect” that energizes Washington’s realm of think tanks.)

“History can upset the established consensus, expand narrow horizons and, in Simon Schama’s words, ‘keep the powerful awake at night,’ ” according to Armitage and Guldi. “In that mission lies the public future of the past.”

Historians can play a vital role by helping policymakers overcome the “short-term-ism” that is an inevitable factor in the shaping of public policy: “To be ‘policy-relevant’ is almost by definition to focus on the short term,” say Armitage and Guldi. Yet “short-term-ism is an increasingly inadequate way to face up to contemporary national and global challenges.” From political science to management science, scholars continue to underscore the perils of impulsive short-term thinking, empasizing the importance of setting long-term strategy.

Surmounting short-term-ism, the insights gained through historical research can inform wiser economic-policy choices and “transform [the] public debate” – with Armitage and Guldi pointing to a supremely policy-relevant scholar whose work is now helping inspire the Bank’s focus on “shared prosperity”:

“A recent example of how taking the long view can transform public debate is Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century.’ Piketty has shown that standard [and now-outdated] analyses of [the way modern capitalism intensifies socioeconomic inequality] rested on short-run data collected in the historically anomalous decades after the Second World War. His analysis of more than 200 years of data on Western incomes reveals instead that inequality within societies is more likely to grow than [decrease,] and that [inequality] has been accelerating since the 1970s.”

Piketty’s work epitomizes the synergies that social scientists can gain when they cross the boundaries of their narrow academic departments – and Piketty's impact illustrates the policymaking power that scholars can mobilize when they patiently conduct a data-driven stress test of long-held dogmas. Piketty's insight into economic inequality "has profound implications for tax policy, social welfare and social cohesion more generally,” note Armitage and Guldi. "But the pattern only emerged when the long-run trumped the short-term.” Bank staff will recall that Piketty’s breakthough insights – which the Paris School of Economics scholar himself calls “as much a work of history as of economics” – have been cited many times by World Bank President Jim Kim as a key factor in broadening our understanding of “shared prosperity.”

History can breed hope, as the most stirring of Armitage’s and Guldi's “policy-relevant” insights reminds us: “The future need not run in the ruts of the past. It is possible to jump the tracks and take a new direction,” argue Armitage and Guldi. “Only by delving deep into the past can we hope to project ourselves imaginatively [for] any meaningful distance into the future.”

Cutting through the week's thicket of datapoints, debating points and Talking Points, Annual Meetings participants would be wise to keep Armitage’s and Guldi's far-sighted perspective in mind. An understanding of history can help policymakers “to ask about the rise of long-term complexes over many decades, centuries or millennia and to distinguish what is temporary or contingent from what is enduring and cumulative among our current global discontents. . . . This can liberate us from the assumption that history can be reduced to path-dependency, as some economists might argue.”

As policymakers this week carom from speech to seminar to panel to plenary, they might not readily recall the insights that Armitage and Guldi cite: from Cicero (history is “a guide to life”); from former French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France (“gouverner, c’est prévoir”); or from Winston Churchill (“the longer you can look back, the further you can look forward”). Yet a knowledge of history can help Annual Meetings-goers more fully appreciate the spirit and spectacle of the Bank-Fund events by recalling, along with Armitage and Guldi, the viewpoint of 19th-century Cambridge historian J.R. Seeley, “who thought [that] history was nothing less than a ‘school of statesmanship.’ ”

For one fast-forward week of policy scholarship, the global pivot-point of 19th and H Streets NW is poised to become such a school for statesmanship. At the epicenter of global strategy, policymakers will be best-positioned to succeed this week if they take the long view – inspired by a sense of history-making opportunity and antipoverty urgency – as they focus on achieving the vital goals that animate the work of the Bank and the Fund: eliminating extreme poverty and building shared prosperity.


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