Europeans often observe that Americans have little knowledge of history and lack perspective in assessing foreign policy. Americans retort that Europeans worry too much about history and neglect the reality of the current world.
There's truth in both views. After World War II, when the United States emerged as a global power, it suddenly needed to understand the history and cultures of many countries in order to support its new leadership role. Europeans grudgingly accepted this because the continent was in dire straits, after five years of war and occupation, and desperately needed U.S. help.
Many U.S. colleges and universities, including the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan (my alma mater), suddenly found themselves in great need of history and political science courses, in European, Latin American, and Asian studies. They hadn't been offered before the war. New professors had to be hired to teach these courses in order to accommodate the huge influx of veterans who returned from war in Europe and the Pacific.
The State Department established the Foreign Service Institute to train an expanded diplomatic corps in the languages and cultures of many foreign countries. It also launched an ambitious research program that produced studies on the histories, politics, and economic conditions of nearly one hundred countries where the United States planned to establish economic aid programs and provide military equipment to bolster defenses.
With this vast expansion of area studies and foreign languages, less attention and interest was given to the study of American history and politics, and foreign policy. Today, professors who specialize in U.S. foreign policy find that many of their students are not adequately prepared in American history to understand the complexity of foreign policy problems Some students who acquire high school AP (advanced placement) credits don't have a sufficient level of knowledge of U.S. history.
For example, many students today don't know that the 1846-48 war with Mexico, which vastly expanded U.S. territory in the west affects U.S.-Mexican relations today. Every Mexican student knows this history well, and it accounts for the view expressed by a diplomat when asked why Mexico doesn't restrict the flow of illegal immigrants to the U.S.: "They're just going home," he said with a smile.
Similarly, many students don't appreciate that the Spanish-American War in 1898 propelled the United States into major power status nearly half a century before World War II. Acquisition of Spanish possessions in the Western Pacific, including the Philippines, made the United States a Pacific power and led to war with Japan in 1941.
Deficiency in appreciating American history shows up in the current debate about why the Electoral College, not the popular vote, decides the winner of the 2016 presidential election. Why is Hillary Clinton, who polled two million more votes nationwide than Donald Trump, not the president-elect?
The answer is federalism, the bedrock of our constitutional system that accorded states specific powers in relation to the federal government. One of these was the indirect election of the president; another was giving each state two senators regardless of population. Without these compromises, the constitution would not have been ratified by the states.
Americans are right to place their emphasis on dealing with the present and not be preoccupied by the past. But as the Trump administration takes the reins of power next month, it should not reject the lessons of history, either here or abroad, in formulating a wise and effective foreign policy.
File last modified on Monday, 12-DEC-2016 10:42 AM EST