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Table of Contents




Part One: The Disciplines of International Studies

1. The Past in the Present: Historical Interpretation in International Conflict

What Is History?
Historians and Their Tools
Politics, Power, and History
History and International Conflicts
What Is Good History?
Theories of History
Are There Lessons of History?
Further Reading

2. Peoples, Places, and Patterns: Geography in International Studies

What Is Geography?
Development of Geography
Components of Geography
Maps: Tools for International Studies
Further Reading

3. Anthropology and Intercultural Relations

Cultural Misunderstandings in an International Milieu
What Is Culture?
Levels of Culture
Intercultural Relations
Studying Culture: The Anthropological Perspective
Further Reading

4. Economics and International Development

What Is Economics?
Liberal Economics
Economic Nationalism
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
Development Economics
Non-Western Economics
Further Reading

5. Power, Conflict, and Policy: The Role of Political Science in International Studies

What Is Political Science
Comparative Politics
International Politics
Further Reading

Part Two: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Regional and International Topics

6. North America and International Studies

A Brief History of the United States in the World
Global Challenges for the United States
The United States in the World Economy: Too Big to Fail
The American Dream
Canada and the World
Geography, Trade, and the Globalization of North America
Transforming the Environment
Timeline of Modern North American History
Further Reading

7. Europe and the Modern World

What Is Europe?
Europe’s Slow Progress Toward Liberal Democracy
From the Scourge of National Conflict to the
European Union
The Terrorist Threat in Europe
The Role of Europe in the World
Timeline of Modern European History
Further Reading

8. East Asia, the Pacific, and International Studies: Demography and Development

Introduction: Why Study East Asia and the Pacific?
Geographical Dimensions
Historical Trends
Cultural Complexities
Economic Impact
Political Tensions
Demographic Issues
Asian Economic Development
The Role of East Asia in the World
Timeline of Modern East Asian and Pacific History
Further Reading

9. South and Central Asia and International Studies: Environment and Population

Introduction: Why Study South and Central Asia?
Geographical Realities
Historical Challenges
Cultural Complexities
Economic Opportunities
Political Risks
The Silk Road
Demographic Issues
Environmental Challenges in India
Political Ecology in South and Central Asia
The Future of India
Asia Matters: Global Connections
Timeline of Modern South and Central Asia
Further Reading

10. Sub-Saharan Africa and the International Community

African Geography and Culture
Africa in World History
Challenges to African Political and Economic Development
African State Building and Global Economic Integration:
The Cases of Nigeria and the Democratic Republic
of the Congo
Africa and Globalization: Relations with the United States, Europe, and Asia
African Prospects
Timeline of Modern African History
Further Reading

11. The Middle East and North Africa

The Middle of Where?
From Past to Present
Diversity and Division
From Empires to Nation-States
The Richest and the Poorest
The Problem of Palestine
Political Turmoil in the Middle East
Middle East Prospects
Timeline of Modern Middle Eastern History
Further Reading

12. Latin America

What Is Latin America?
A Shared History
Latin American Economic Development
Latin America’s Path to Democracy
Latin America’s Future
Timeline of Modern Latin American History
Further Reading

Part Three: Contemporary Global Issues

13. International Terrorism

14. The Global Refugee Crisis

15. The Syrian Civil War and the Rise of the Islamic State

16. The Veil Controversy

17. Global Population Projections

18. Global Climate Change

19. The Globalization of Modern Sports


Adopting the Interdisciplinary Approach
Solution-Oriented Analysis
Sources of Innovative Solutions
Further Reading




International studies (ITS) at Miami University, and at many other colleges and universities, has evolved in recent years from a branch of political science or world languages into a true interdisciplinary approach to current global affairs. Through the vision of Dean Stephen Day and ITS Director William Hazleton in the early 1990s, the ITS program at Miami expanded its curriculum and hired new faculty members with joint appointments in ITS and geography, history, anthropology, and political science. The ITS program now serves hundreds of majors, and over five hundred non-majors take the ITS introductory course every year.

The ITS faculty had difficulty finding suitable readings to accompany the unique interdisciplinary approach of the introductory course. Some years ago, we decided to write a text that mirrors the structure of the course and emphasizes an interdisciplinary analysis of issues of regional and global importance. The first half of the course, and the first part of this book, covers the way each discipline—history, geography, anthropology, economics, and political science—contributes to understanding and solving world problems. Part Two examines various regions of the world—North America, Europe, East Asia and the Pacific, South and Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America—while stressing the diversity within the regions and the interconnections among them. Part Three includes essays that analyze contemporary global issues through an interdisciplinary lens. These can be used for discussion coinciding with Part Two of the book.

The authors recognize that the interdisciplinary nature of international studies will draw teachers from various areas of expertise into unfamiliar academic realms. This book is designed to give them a construct with which to teach international studies and an approach to enhance students’ understanding of the complexities of the modern world.

This is the fourth edition of the book. The new edition features up-to-date information on each region of the world and new global issues chapters in Part Three. Each chapter is accompanied by a map and a list of recommended readings, films, and websites. There is a glossary of keywords, which appear in bold throughout the text.

The text also comes with an online teacher’s manual, including course objectives, syllabi, and assignments that have proven effective in the classroom over many years. Please visit

The authors of the text have published extensively in their respective disciplines, and each has a different regional and linguistic expertise. Dr. Sheldon Anderson has written several articles and three books on Cold War history, including a study of Warsaw Pact relations and another on U.S. containment policy. Dr. Anderson also wrote a book on the politics and culture of modern sports. He wrote the introduction, the chapters on history, Europe, and Africa, and two global issues chapters on the refugee crisis and sports and politics. Dr. Stanley Toops is one of the foremost U.S. geographers of the Uyghur region of northwest China. He is fluent in Chinese and conversant in Uyghur, and he has written articles and chapters on geography, tourism, and population in China and Central Asia. Recent works include an atlas of Central Eurasia and an edited collection on China. Dr. Toops wrote the chapters on geography, East Asia, South Asia, and the essays on climate change and population. Dr. Mark Allen Peterson has published groundbreaking work on Middle Eastern and South Asian media and globalization. He is fluent in Arabic. Dr. Peterson authored the conclusion and the chapters on anthropology and the Middle East, and contributed to the economics chapter as well as the essays on veiling, international terrorism, and the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State (IS).

The authors owe a debt of gratitude to many people. We would like to thank our colleagues in International Studies at Miami, Melanie Ziegler, Carl Dahlman, Charles Stevens, Kathryn LaFever, Dilchoda Berdieva, and Ted Holland for their suggestions on updating the book. Stanley Toops would like to thank Simone Andrus for her contributions to his chapters, and students Daniel Kyale, Kristy Fortman, Adanma Ogboo, Hannah Koonce, Ana Contessa, Lisa Dershowitz, and Michael Browne for their work on the maps and tables. Sheldon Anderson would like to thank his family—Kristie, O Maxwell, Lauren, and Mongo—for their patience and support as he worked on this edition of the book. In addition to his coauthors, Mark Allen Peterson would like to thank James Bielo, John Cinnamon, Cameron Hay-Rollins, Linda Marchant, Geoff Owens, Susan Paulson, Dawna Peterson, Douglas Rogers, Christa Salamandra, Daniel Varisco, and Jessica Winegar for their comments on various drafts of chapters, and Lisa Suter for her work on the teacher’s manual. Miami University’s GIS coordinator, Robbyn Abbitt, edited the maps.



Why do international studies? Why take an interdisciplinary approach to global issues? The answers are found in the increasing interdependence of people, nations, and institutions at all levels of human society. Five hundred years ago, Europeans explored the Western Hemisphere and broadened their commercial contacts with Africa and Asia, beginning this gradual globalization process of bringing regions of the world together. The Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century and the high-tech revolution in the late twentieth century have brought many of us to the point today where a phone call is possible between someone riding a train in Peru and a climber standing atop Mount Everest. An Indian doctor can read an X-ray for a patient sitting in a physician’s office in Topeka. A Russian can buy a car built in South Korea, Germany, Italy, Japan, or the United States. Although most people in the world could not locate Bangladesh on a map, the cap they wear might have been made there.

Never before has the world been so integrated. Politics, markets, culture, the media, and information are no longer local but global. The ripple effect of local events on wider regions has grown exponentially in the last century; a century ago events in one part of the world often went unnoticed in another. Today, the proliferation of information through the Internet, cell phones, print media, and television allows people on opposite sides of the globe to experience events simultaneously. What happens on Tokyo’s stock exchange has an instantaneous effect on other markets as they open throughout the day. The extent of the destruction of the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 and the earthquake that shook Italy in 2016 was known to the world within hours. The effects of terrorist attacks are amplified because the media disseminate the chaos of the moment and engender the fear that follows. Suicide attackers often make videos for posting on the Internet after they have struck, which maximizes the sense that these murderers will stop at nothing to claim innocent people’s lives. Beginning in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring of pro-democratic revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, among others, was spurred on by Internet and cell phone connections, as was the growth of the Islamic State (IS) in northern Syria and Iraq.

The boom in world commerce since World War II is unprecedented. World exports totaled $61 billion in 1950, expanding to $25 trillion by 2015. In 1960 trade amounted to 17.5 percent of the world’s GDP. In 2015 the percentage had grown to forty-five percent (el-Ojeili and Hayden 2006, 60; World Bank 2016). International financial and business transactions happen instantaneously on electronic networks. The possibility of a default by the Greek government in 2011 sent shock waves through international markets. Millions of foreign workers send money home using secure global-banking services. Products move around the world on airplanes, ships, trains, and long-range trucks, often without human hands touching the containers. There are about 100,000 airplane departures from approximately 9,000 different airports daily and over 60,000 large merchant vessels plying the high seas (

The ramifications of globalization on traditional political, economic, and social relationships are profound. Journalist Thomas Friedman titled one of his books The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization to capture the conflicts in the interconnected world economy. The Lexus represents the boons that a globalized economy offers individuals across the world—the potential for wealth and the products and services coming from all corners of the earth. The olive tree represents the pressures such an economy puts on traditional local societies and communities, including not only low wages and poverty experienced by too many in this modern age but also the decline of traditional beliefs, practices, and cultures. Even those who seek to conserve old beliefs and values embrace the new technologies. Friedman shows a devout Jew in Israel holding up his cell phone to the Western Wall in Jerusalem so a friend in France can say a prayer at this holy site. Some no doubt feel that the friend should make the trek rather than rely on high tech (Friedman 2000, 29).

This increasing interdependence is usually called globalization, an “intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa” (Giddens 1990, 64). Weapons of mass destruction, global climate change, interconnected and fragile trade and financial systems, armed conflict, burgeoning populations, humanitarian crises, and global poverty are among the many international problems that demand the attention of scholars, policymakers, and citizens. Never before has it been so important to find solutions to these problems, and never have these complex issues been harder to grasp. An interdisciplinary approach is essential to fully understanding the historical, geographical, political, cultural, and economic dimensions of these global challenges.

The authors contend that the complexities of the modern age and the interconnectedness of global people, events, and processes are so strong that a break from traditional methods of research and inquiry is required. Foreign-policy makers and educators are becoming increasingly aware of the deficiencies of strict disciplinary approaches to the globalization processes and international affairs today. By disciplinary we mean approaches connected to the traditional academic disciplines of history, political science, economics, geography, and anthropology. Instead, international studies offers an integrative, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary approach to issues of global importance.

This book breaks new ground by introducing five disciplines applicable to international studies and addressing regional and global issues through an interdisciplinary approach. Four of the five disciplines considered here are social sciences, whereas the fifth, history, tends to fall in the humanities. This is because history does not pretend to be a science. Rather it is the study of past events based on available primary and secondary sources. Professional historians make a good-faith attempt to gather reliable evidence and render the past accurately, but they understand that history is controversial because no two accounts of the past are the same. Historians’ interpretations of the past depend on their own biases, the availability of sources, their use of those sources, and their objectives. Since there is no definitive historical truth, the lessons of history tend to be subjective as well.

Nonetheless, a complete understanding of current international affairs is impossible without knowing the historical context. Historians play a vital role in resolving international conflicts by writing objective historical accounts free of polemic and propaganda. But the advent of the internet and the rapid flow of information from sources of dubious reliability have created new challenges. Different memories or interpretations of past events are at the heart of many international conflicts. For example, the controversy between the United Nations and Iran over Tehran’s quest for nuclear power has its roots in Iran’s resentment of British imperialism and U.S. intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs during the Cold War. And Japanese-Chinese friction often revolves around the brutal Japanese occupation of China during World War II. At the heart of these tensions is the way historical memory is manipulated to create a national identity. Some Chinese view the Japanese as imperialists, whereas some Japanese remember themselves as progressives and missionaries who brought the benefits of civilization to a supposedly backward people.

Geography’s role in international studies is to analyze space, regions, and environments. The physical geographer studies the processes of the natural environment; the human geographer is concerned with human interaction with the physical world. Geographers’ evidence includes demographic statistics, climate studies, health records, and communication networks. The map is a special tool that geographers use in their analyses of the earth and people’s interactions with it.

Geographic study goes to the heart of such international problems as population density, the spread of disease, water shortages, environmental degradation, border conflicts, population flows, use of space, and transportation networks. Hundreds of millions of migrants annually move from one region to another, millions even making leaps from one continent to another, bringing new customs, expectations, and political agendas. Diseases, blights, and bugs travel on the thousands of ships, airplanes, trains, and automobiles moving around the globe daily. Delicate regional ecologies are subject to alien invaders that hitch rides on long-distance transports. The world waits on edge for invisible strains of flu, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and other deadly diseases transferred on the global highways. Global warming, water and air pollution, soil erosion, and desertification know no political boundaries and are best understood through geography’s contribution to an interdisciplinary analysis.

Political science analyzes the power relationships between peoples and the institutions used to mediate their competing interests. Political scientists often employ case studies to identify the variables that explain political behavior, trying to determine if past models are applicable to present cases. Questions of international import are ultimately tied to those who have the power to solve them. Democratic development, international institutions, international relations, and international conflict and conflict resolution are within the purview of political science as it relates to international studies.

Some political scientists have moved from paradigms that seemed to explain international power relationships in the past, such as hegemony and dependence theory, to complex interdependence, which the interdisciplinary approach of international studies seeks to explain. Political relationships are more complicated today because globalization has created greater “power for the powerless” (Havel 1985). For example, international human-rights organizations and the media can disseminate information on a government’s political practices that is difficult to control. The Chinese regime is desperately trying to regulate internet sites that criticize its undemocratic practices. Political scientists are keenly interested in whether China can maintain political repression while participating in a globalized economy.

The global information network can also undermine the power of liberal democratic governments, which can be criticized for the influence of money in politics, the disparity between rich and poor, and racial discrimination. Easy access to information also foments identity politics, which can divide societies into cultural or political groups that oppose each other and make democratic compromise and cooperation nearly impossible. The street protests in Egypt in 2013 attest to the power of social media to rally supporters. Internet commerce also undermines national legal systems. For example, it is illegal in Germany to sell Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but it became one of’s top-ten sellers in Germany in 1999 (Friedman 2000, 37).

Anthropology examines global culture: the similarities and differences of human environments, economic systems, ideologies, political systems, and languages. People understand and explain the world in different ways, which helps to explain why people in one society behave differently from those in another. This elusive concept of culture is a learned system of meanings through which people orient themselves in the world.

Global cultural transfers put pressure on local customs and traditions. Richer countries once dominated these transfers, but now they go both ways. The world’s consumption of McDonald’s burgers and Hollywood films is often cited as an example of the effect of globalization on local eating habits and artistic expression, but Indian Bollywood movies, South Korean cars, the low prices of goods from China, and workers moving from one country to another are also causing profound challenges to local cultures. Indians may be eating barbecue, but Texans are eating curry, too. Anthropology urges us to look also at the flip side of globalization—localization—through which people localize the commodities, services, and ideas that enter their communities from outside, transforming them and making them their own.

Although some scholars highlight a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington 1996) that globalization engenders, others argue that the world is actually experiencing an integration of civilizations that brings peoples closer together. Understanding the cultural elements of behavior is an essential component of a broad international studies education. In this increasingly mobile world, cultural clashes, cultural sharing, and cultural changes are happening faster now than ever before.

Economists study the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. International economics concerns financial relations, trade regimes, and economic development. Economists deal with the most basic yet most complex problems facing any society. For example, what strategies promote economic growth and provide for basic human needs and economic opportunities? Are there any fundamental economic rights, such as medical care, housing, and food?

One of the hot economic debates in the world today pits globalists against economic nationalists. The globalists, or liberal economists, advocate free and unfettered economic relations between states as a means to increase the wealth and prosperity of all people in all nations. Some even argue that war is less likely between open-market economies because the economic costs to an aggressor are too high. Economic nationalists argue that the world’s free-trade regime lowers wages and causes unemployment for workers in developed economies. They also point to the increasing economic disparity between the rich and the poor, both within and between countries. Small businesses in every country struggle to compete against the world’s giant corporations, which can often provide cheaper goods and services and consistently meet demand at lower cost to the consumer. But in some industries small businesses may be more nimble at utilizing or inventing productive technologies than bigger corporations.

The second half of the book introduces seven regions of the world: North America, Europe, East Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Some scholars have criticized the area-studies approach because Westerners arbitrarily constructed these regional labels. For example, if we think of the so-called Middle East as an area comprised mainly of Arab peoples, it also has to include northern Africa as well as southwestern Asia. Iran and Turkey are bookends of the region, but neither of these countries is Arab. Geographically, Russia is both European and Asian, although its cultural and political heritage comes primarily from the West.

The authors are fully aware of the limitations of a regional approach to international affairs. However, even in an era of globalization, thinking about the world in terms of geopolitical regions remains useful for several reasons. First, dividing the world into regions offers a way to manage enormous amounts of information about environments, people, and social relations. Trying to understand international issues in terms of the over 200 countries in the world and recognized dependent areas—each with its unique history, environment, economy, and political and cultural systems—is beyond the scope of any scholar or analytical approach. Trying to attend to every country can lead to a failure to see the forest for the trees.

Second, thinking regionally allows us to aggregate information common to groups of peoples and countries in order to see big pictures. Each region exhibits some common political, economic, linguistic, religious, or historical currents. Most Europeans have a Christian heritage, similar cultural norms, and social democratic political systems. Latin Americans are mostly Catholic, speak either Spanish or Portuguese, have similar economic challenges, and have struggled to establish stable democracies. Although Westerners devised most of the world’s continental designations and national borders, peoples in these regions have constructed their regional identities as well.

The authors have made conscious efforts to illustrate the diversity within the regions as well as their interconnectedness. There are no walls dividing them, but many bridges linking them together. Globalization along the electronic highway, sea lanes, rails, and roads has blurred old regional categories. Understanding the political, economic, historical, geographic, and cultural differences both within and among these areas is the essence of international studies inquiry.

Thinking about the world regionally can also serve as a useful heuristic device that helps us avoid ethnocentric and region-specific thinking. For example, Americans tend to see issues of global terrorism through the lens of Islamic terrorism, because this has become particularly important to U.S. national security. By making a point of looking at international issues in terms of every region, we discover terrorism in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Terrorism is certainly not a Muslim or Middle Eastern activity, although too much of the Western press might arrive at that conclusion. Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are not representative of mainstream society in any Muslim region of the world. That said, terrorist organizations are at the top of the global agenda because of their responsibility for the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, as well as for the urban bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, and in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016. Islamic anger has also been blamed for the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh for allegedly defaming Islam and for widespread (and sometimes violent) demonstrations throughout the Islamic world in reaction to a Danish newspaper’s printing of satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

Globalization creates a new context within which terrorism—a centuries-­old political tool—occurs in the modern world. Indeed, globalization creates a new context within which all political activity operates. First, events themselves are publicized instantaneously, repeatedly, and globally. Modern terrorists know that their acts will gain worldwide attention. Second, all political organizations, including terrorist ones, benefit from the Internet’s global reach. Personal computers and global networks make fund-raising, recruiting, and disseminating information easier than ever before. Third, and in a different vein, globalization and technology also give terrorists and other groups access to points of view different from their own group’s ideology. Finally, law enforcement uses the instruments of globalization to monitor and capture potential terrorists and other criminals.

Scholars, politicians, and ordinary people have desperately searched for answers to the terrorist threat emanating from a tiny minority of the fundamentalist Muslim community. A geographer might find answers in the demographic explosion of an unemployed, frustrated, and angry younger population. A historian might place terrorism in the continuum of a long history of conflicts between the Middle East and Western imperialists. A political scientist might approach the problem through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, illegitimate borders, or the authoritarian regimes and lack of democracy in the Middle East. An economist might emphasize the poverty in the Middle East or the region’s frustration with the challenges of modernization and economic development. An anthropologist might ask what kinds of cultural symbols are employed by terrorist organizations to recruit people willing to kill and die for a cause—and why these ideologies attract a relatively small number of people.

International studies, unlike any singular discipline, draws on all of these disciplines in an integrated way for answers. Twenty-first-century challenges, such as terrorism, sustainable economic development, poverty, pollution, global warming, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and interstate and civil conflicts do not stop at national boundaries or disciplinary categories. The notion that any global challenge can be studied or solved with the lenses and tools of one discipline is outdated. This book aims to help students begin to think in an integrated and critical way, relying on valuable perspectives from many disciplines but moving beyond disciplinary boundaries toward complex explanations and understanding.


el-Ojeili, Chamsy, and Patrick Hayden. 2006. Critical Theories of Globalization. New York: Palgrave.

Friedman, Thomas. 2000. The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. New York: Anchor Books.

Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Havel, Václav. 1985. The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, edited by John Keane. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

World Bank. 2016.

Chapter 1

1. The Past in the Present

Historical Interpretation in International Conflict

Historical inquiry combines all of the disciplines of international studies. Historians use geographical, economic, political, cultural, and any other relevant sources—regardless of their disciplinary category—to create an accurate portrayal of the past. History teaches students to evaluate evidence, consider contradictory interpretations, and construct coherent narratives. History is one of the best ways to understand the human experience and the patterns of change within society.

The history profession is divided into several arbitrary and fluid categories. Political and diplomatic history is concerned with the study of power and power relationships. It is the oldest historical tradition, often characterized by biographies of significant people. Politics, law, and foreign policy come under the purview of political history.

Political history is central to understanding current international relations. For example, the rapid growth of the Chinese economy under the tutelage of an authoritarian Communist government has foreign-policy makers debating the future of China’s role in the world. Some realists argue that every great power in history has flexed its muscles and threatened the interests of other powers. China’s political history can provide clues to its likely foreign-policy course.

Economic history involves the study of the exchange of goods and services. Economic historians seek insight into economic trends that might inform future economic and business decisions. Economic problems call for gathering sources relevant to a given question, analyzing their reliability, and interpreting their meaning. For example, if a business wants to expand into a certain market, it must consider the demographic character of the population, the location, the standard of living, and the success or failure of previous business ventures in the area.

Theories of economic development depend on accurate case histories of regions that have experienced economic prosperity. Policies that work in one area, however, may not work in another. Historians of economic development are cognizant that the success of a certain growth strategy depends on factors such as climate, culture, political leadership, infrastructure, and resources.

Two subfields of economic history are business history and labor history. Business history includes the study of the past growth, organization, leadership, and markets of various sectors of the economy, as well as the interaction between business and government. Labor history focuses on the development of working-class solidarity and relations between workers, management, and the government. In the context of international studies, globalization has raised new questions about free-market economics and the plight of wage earners.

Many young students lose their interest in history because teachers concentrate on political history and push students to learn facts to pass standardized tests. An exciting and interesting field that counteracts that trend is cultural and social history, which includes the study of music, sports, religion, and art, as well as the history of urban and rural society, immigration, race, family, population, gender, and disease. We depend on historians to provide an in-depth understanding of many relevant global issues, such as women’s rights, the clash of global and local cultures, the role of religion in regional conflicts, aging populations in the developed world, and the threat of pandemic diseases.

Intellectual historians study the power of ideas to move historical events. Intellectual history concentrates on the development and influence of ideologies such as religion, nationalism, liberalism, Marxism, and feminism. For example, when Vladimir Ilyich Lenin brought a Marxist revolution to Russia in 1917, the idea of a classless society inspired leftists throughout the world for seventy-five years. The Russian manifestation of that idea, however, was a failure, and the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. National allegiances proved stronger than class solidarity as the Soviet Empire broke up on national lines.

Historians can provide a long view of current ideological debates in international affairs, such as the advantages and disadvantages of a global liberal economic system, the efficacy of spreading democracy in some regions of the world, and the influence of religion and nationalism on international conflict.

The progress of civilization depends on reliable histories of science and technology. No scientist or engineer works without a thorough grounding in the past. Isaac Newton once said, “If I see farther, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants” (quoted in Westfall 1993, 643). Technological innovation plays a central role in international affairs. Medical experts debate the causes, prevention, and treatment of disease. For doctors and their patients, accurate clinical studies, and reliable interpretations and histories of them, are matters of life and death. Doctors want to know family medical histories to examine susceptible patients or to make possible diagnoses. Engineers depend on past experience to improve on previous constructs, such as hydroelectric projects, irrigation plans, and transportation systems. For example, careful study of earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, or the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, has spawned new construction plans for buildings that can withstand such calamities. A possible new field of history will examine the social, political, and economic impact of the internet and social media.

The related field of environmental history is devoted to people’s interactions with their natural surroundings. This important new field has generated works on the history of such international issues as water usage, farming practices, food distribution and famine, and marine and forest preservation. The debate on global warming centers around evidence of past climate change and whether human activity is contributing to a rise in global temperatures. Climate history provides a base from which to judge the peculiarities of present weather patterns.

What Is History?

In 2003, author Bill Bryson wrote a thin volume called A Short History of Nearly Everything. On the one hand, the irony in Bryson’s title is obvious, but on the other, there is a commonly held notion that history is everything that has happened in the past. That would be a very long book indeed. The past disappears if no one remembers it or passes it along. History is a written, oral, or visual reconstruction and interpretation of past human endeavors based on available sources.

Students often use the slang phrase “you’re history” in the same way they think about history, that it is something over and done with. The historian’s task is to revisit the past again and again, scrutinize histories for their veracity, and use new sources of information to verify, add to, or revise them.

There is no agreed-upon record of the past. Historians can come to some consensus on what was a major event and when it took place, such as natural disasters, economic depressions, or wars, but they differ on questions of causation, interpretation, and significance. History resembles a criminal trial: detectives compile evidence, and prosecutors use it to reconstruct the crime. Defense lawyers then call witnesses to revise that version of history. The reasonable-doubt standard for conviction always applies to any history.

The word history comes from the Latin historia, meaning “to inquire.” Histories have existed as long as people have reflected on what went on in the past. The first histories were oral and visual. As far as we know, written history is only several thousand years old. Mythical history sought to explain the origins of the world, natural phenomena, and the meaning of life. Parables and morality plays, ostensibly based on real stories, laid down the norms of societal behavior. This early philosophy evolved into the tracts of the five major religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Historians usually remembered the exploits of major political and religious leaders, such as Alexander the Great of Macedonia in the fourth century BCE or Emperor Charlemagne in the late eighth century CE. Written histories were often tales of war and imperial victories or defeats. Family histories traced the lineage of important historical figures, for example, the dynastic succession of ancient Roman or Chinese emperors or the popes of the Catholic Church. Bureaucracies and legal standards were built on keeping records of past practices.

Until the late twentieth century, political history dominated the profession. From Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BCE to Edward Gibbon’s late-eighteenth-century History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, most historians studied the political fortunes of the most powerful members of society, most of them men. Many histories were panegyrics to glorify and justify the rule of the dominant political classes. The history of religion and ideas provided the spiritual and philosophical foundations of temporal power. Historical accuracy played a secondary role to the narrative’s didactic purpose.

Figure 1.1 Karl Marx. SOURCE: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-16530.

Influenced by the humanism and rational thinking of Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars, as well as by the rapid technological changes of modern industrial society, some nineteenth-century historians in the West championed a new empirical approach to history. Karl Marx devised a political-economic theory of history based on the “scientific” truth of class conflict. German historian Leopold von Ranke claimed to write history “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist,” or history “as it really was.” Von Ranke and fellow positivists tried to inject the scientific method into the process of writing history. They called for histories based on empirical evidence and historical objectivity. Reference notes cued the reader to the documents used to prove the truth of the history. To reflect this change in the approach to studying history, many history departments shifted from the humanities to the social sciences during the twentieth century.

The Rankean model came under increased fire after World War II, when revisionist history began to question the “scientific truth” of history. Revisionists claimed, often correctly, that conventional histories about the past were myths intended to foster a sense of national unity and national pride. They revealed that many stories of the past manipulated historical facts and ignored non-dominant perspectives. In the United States, revisionists laid bare the lies that the Johnson and Nixon administrations told about the Vietnam War. Civil-rights advocates demanded a truer version of the past to reflect the dismal treatment of minorities in American history. In Europe, historians exposed the brutality of imperial rule, state violence against working classes, and, in light of the Holocaust, Europe’s endemic anti-Semitism and fascist tendencies. Historians examine and reexamine new evidence to reframe the past or to confirm previous accounts.

Today, postmodernist historians deny the existence of any objective histories. They argue that the past cannot be recovered and that no narrative can be an accurate reflection of what actually transpired. Like impressionist and expressionist art, they consider history to be a partial and particular depiction of reality as the creator creates it or the audience perceives it. Observed from different angles and distances, and under different kinds of light, the image changes.

Postmodernists emphasize the cultural mediation of historical memory; in some ways, they argue, historical narratives reveal more about the author’s beliefs and cultural milieu than history “as it really was.” Historians are the filter through which the past is constructed. They bring their own personal, national, or class biases to the trade. They are carried along by the stream of human history, and they influence the cultural context and are influenced by it. Even video and film documentation is dependent on the framing, camera angle, and editing. Scenes can be staged, and in this age of computer imaging, entirely contrived. Because history is merely a representation of the past and is continually shaped and reshaped, postmodernists argue, there can be no objective historical truth.

Professional historians know this, but they still make a good-faith effort to use all relevant sources and write balanced narratives that come as close to the truth about the past as possible. Reliable histories depend on the skill and thoroughness of historians, cogency of their logic, and conscious subordination of the biases that they bring to their work. Sources take good historians where they may not want to go. Writers who start with a premise, fit the sources to prove it, and ignore contrary evidence are more interested in polemical than historical discourse. The resolution of international disputes often depends on histories and historians dedicated to accurate renditions of the past.

Historians and Their Tools

The historian’s task is to garner all available relevant sources to construct a plausible story of the past. Historians scour archives, libraries, museums, and other repositories of documents and artifacts. They often gather data through interviews, although the passage of time limits their utility. Journalists are historians too, but short-term deadlines limit their access to relevant evidence. Historians benefit by drawing on a wider range of sources, although the clues to the historian’s case are always incomplete.

Historical data are often divided into two, somewhat subjective, categories. Primary sources include artifacts, diaries, letters, memoirs, e-mails, autobiographies, interviews, official documents, visual images, coins, stamps, demographic statistics, economic records, and polls. Primary sources are direct evidence about the past from someone involved in the past event, without an intermediary’s interpretation. Theoretically, primary sources are raw objective data that are untainted by bias or the knowledge that historians will use them to construct a history. There is a fine line between primary and secondary sources, however, because it is often difficult to know what motives people had for leaving sources behind. For example, did the minute taker of an important foreign-policy planning session give an honest rendering of the meeting, or did that person intend to exaggerate the wisdom of the participants? Like a prosecuting attorney, the historian must search for other corroborating evidence to find the truth and decide which primary sources are most reliable.

Letters and diaries may seem to be direct and objective links to the past, but the authors often write them knowing that historians will read them later. Autobiographies are also written for posterity; authors are unlikely to provide critical self-examination of their lives. Eyewitness accounts, a staple in the journalist’s trade, provide very different pictures of a single event. The historian is well aware of the irony in the witness-stand pledge to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” There is no such thing. Taken at face value, statistics appear to be the most objective of all primary sources. But as any sociologist knows, statistics are only as good as the data from which they are derived. And even the most accurate statistics can be skewed to fit a political agenda.

Secondary sources are oral or written narratives derived from primary sources. The authors of newspaper articles, journal articles, and books gather sources to interpret what happened in the past. The distinction between primary and secondary sources is muddled when a historian writes a history of histories, often called a historiography. In that case, previous histories become the author’s primary sources.

Historians must make judgments about the reliability of their source material. Both historians and political scientists try to find patterns in the past, but historians are more skeptical about categorizing behaviors and using models to make predictions about the future.

Politics, Power, and History

The victors in power struggles have passed down most of recorded history. The politically powerful have greater access to written, oral, and visual media. Histories often glorify political leaders, praise heroic exploits on the battlefield, or emphasize a particular group’s cultural and scientific accomplishments. Political agendas filter out dissonant historical evidence. The “triumphal” version of American history includes Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America (as though no one lived in the Western hemisphere), the unique democratic character of the American form of government (what about the Netherlands, France, or the United Kingdom?), and the “benevolent” U.S. expansion into the American West and abroad (ask Native Americans). This history typically exaggerates the peculiar democratic and righteous character of the American people and downplays the country’s slaveholding past, imperialism, and ethnic cleansing of America’s native peoples.

The history of the oppressed has always existed, but until recently their stories have been excluded from the dominant cultural discourse. It was only in the last half of the twentieth century that “history from below” became mainstream. Revisionist histories have become common; now historians study Native Americans, colonized peoples, women, the working classes, and other groups hidden from view in the old political histories of “dead white guys.”

Histories of the “defeated” can be just as biased as those of their oppressors, however. Some historians have exaggerated the peace-loving character of Native American or African peoples before Europeans corrupted their cultures. Some Afrocentrists have shaped the historical record to argue that Egyptians and other African peoples were more advanced than the Greeks or Romans, or they have downplayed the lively African slave trade before the arrival of European slavers. Some labor historians portray working-class leaders as intelligent, nonviolent, altruistic champions of the people, and factory owners as inherently greedy, inhumane, and exploitative. Victims of oppression do themselves no service by exaggerating their political and cultural achievements and distorting the historical record. No other group will believe myths based on historical falsehoods.

Figure 1.2 Landing of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean. SOURCE: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-02516.

When leaders distort the historical record to suit their political aims, tragedy often results. The French were fully appreciative of American military assistance in World War I, but their military histories stressed the sacrifices and heroism of the French forces for winning the war and the success of trench warfare in defending Paris. These histories downplayed the role of American soldiers in turning the military balance in favor of the Allies in 1917. Acting upon these false assumptions about why they had won the war, the French built the massive Maginot Line along the French-German border. This costly, sophisticated line of defensive fortifications did not save France from the German onslaught in 1940.

Soviet scholars ran a historical enterprise that was dedicated to “predicting the past.” In other words, the past had to be cast in a way that squared with Marx’s theory of history as class struggle. Thus peasant revolts were part of an inexorable struggle against the aristocratic classes, and the middle classes were deemed keepers of an inherently oppressive democratic-capitalist system. After his death in 1924, Lenin was permanently encased in a glass mausoleum for all Soviet citizens to view for eternity. Although Marx had focused on classes rather than individuals to explain historical progress, paradoxically there was room for sainthood in “scientific” Soviet history. Russians are now divided about whether to bury Lenin.

The leaders of the Soviet Communist Party could do no wrong; even Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956, in which he exposed Joseph Stalin’s crimes, did not result in a serious revision of Soviet history. The system survived by hiding the Party’s culpability (Khrushchev included) for the ruthless suppression of any opposition, the collectivization that resulted in mass starvation in the 1930s, and the incarceration and murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people during the Great Purges. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, allowed a policy of glasnost (openness) in the late 1980s that finally released Russian historians from seventy years of lies and distortions. Once Gorbachev revealed the falsehoods of Soviet history, the system could not survive. The Chinese Communist leadership today knows that they must control their version of the past lest they meet the same fate as the Soviet Union.

Some historians credit nuclear deterrence for keeping the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There is no evidence in newly released documents from Soviet and U.S. archives, however, that either side contemplated a first strike except in response to a direct conventional military attack on a friend or ally. Will the deterrent principle prevent nuclear powers India and Pakistan from going to war again? If we believe nuclear weapons prevent war, some countries may try to build their own deterrent nuclear arsenal. Nuclear proliferation could be the result. In the age of weapons of mass destruction, the stakes are obviously too high for the public to tolerate the willful use of inaccurate histories to make and justify policy decisions.

History and International Conflicts

The current state of international affairs cannot be understood without a thorough comprehension of the way history is constructed. Contradictory versions of the past are at the heart of the most intractable international conflicts today. Collective memories are often fostered to serve national political goals. Nationalist histories are usually not concerned with individual rights and responsibilities; rather, they tend to champion one nation over another and often elicit demands for retribution to right past injustices. Such histories became important to nations seeking independence from colonial control during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; see Map 1.1 for an image of when these struggles took place worldwide. This “our group has done no wrong” version of the past is a major obstacle to political compromise.

For example, some Irish Catholics interpret the centuries-old British presence in Ireland as imperial conquest rather than settlement. Many Irish Catholics still blame the British for the loss of their land, the potato famine, and the lingering poverty in the Northern Irish Catholic community. Oliver Cromwell, the Union Jack, and the English crown are reminders of British imperialism and frustrated national expression. In contrast, Northern Irish Protestants driving through Belfast might take a nostalgic look at the giant cranes of the defunct dry dock where the Titanic, a symbol of the modern economic progress and relative wealth of their community, was built in the early twentieth century. The presence of British political institutions in Northern Ireland is a comforting reminder of their close links to the British Empire.

Map 1.1 Year of Independence.

Diametrically opposing versions of history are used to justify Israeli or Arab claims on Palestine. Israelis reference the Hebrew Bible to make the “we were here first” argument. That is ancient history to Arabs, who argue that their presence in Palestine over the last 1,200 years is a more legitimate historical claim. Arab Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in the area for centuries before European Jewish immigrants began arriving in significant numbers after World War I. Israel has won the three wars against Arab states since partition in 1947, prompting many Israelis to shrug and say that might makes right. Israelis celebrate the birth of the new Israeli state in 1948, while Palestinians term it the nakba (catastrophe).

Most Israeli and Palestinian history books give different versions of the Palestinian flight to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1947 and 1948. The Israelis certainly terrorized some of the Palestinian community into leaving the UN-designated area of Israel, as Palestinians maintain, but many Arabs left of their own accord. Whether or not Palestinians have a right to return to their homes in Israel hinges on this historical debate, which contributed to the failed peace process of the late 1990s. The tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that both sides have legitimate historical claims to Palestine.

Figure 1.3 Irish woman during the famine begging for help from American ships. SOURCE: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-103220.

Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin justified taking Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 because of Russia’s presence there for centuries. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ceded the region to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, never imagining that the Soviet Union would break up, leaving Crimea in an independent Ukrainian state. China goes back centuries to claim the “historic waters” of the South China Sea and to the so-called “eleven-dash line” drawn by the nationalist Chinese government in 1947. China’s assertion of this maritime border far beyond mainland China ignores similar historical arguments made by Vietnam and the Philippines and contradicts the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Historians make semantic choices that often reveal bias. Palestinians might refer to their suicide bombers as martyrs on a political, military, and religious mission, while Israelis label them criminals and mass murderers. Nationalist Serbs embrace their militias in Bosnia during the Yugoslav Civil War in the 1990s as heroic defenders of the nation, not rapists or mass murderers. The Nicaraguan Contra rebel group fought the leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s. They were paramilitary remnants of the thuggish deposed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, but President Ronald Reagan gave them the moniker “freedom fighters.” Some observers claim that the Janjaweed bands operating against the indigenous populations in the Darfur region of western Sudan are government supported; the government prefers to call them “rogue bandits.”

Figure 1.4 The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is a disputed holy site for both Jews and Muslims. SOURCE: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-137057.

When nationalists are confronted with criticism of their people, they react with denial and verbal attacks on other peoples. They view history as an inexorable struggle of nation against nation and, therefore, criticism of one’s own history as treasonous. Serbian nationalists point out that Croatians and Bosnian Muslims committed mutual atrocities during the war. This is true enough but does nothing to exonerate Serbian criminals.

India and Pakistan use opposing versions of history to stake their claims to Kashmir. When the British granted independence to India in 1947, the state fell into communal strife between Muslims and Hindus. Two new Islamic states of West and East Pakistan (today Pakistan and Bangladesh, respectively) emerged, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions of people displaced. Whether Muslim-majority Kashmir should be part of these Islamic states or part of India depends on the details of the complicated processes by which rajahs turned over their states to these newly formed nations more than sixty years ago. Pakistan and India have fought three wars since then, and low-level fighting over Kashmir continues. Both states have nuclear weapons, making the area one of the most dangerous threats to regional and world peace. Historical dissonance persists over which side was the aggressor and how many people were forced to leave their communities.

Defense of the nation becomes synonymous with defense of the national myth. At the end of the twentieth century, an Indian education minister mandated a revisionist version of Indian history texts to recast former Muslim rulers of India as uncivilized, brutal despots. In 2003, a U.S. author published a much-acclaimed book that some Indians believed maligned the reputation of a seventeenth-century Hindu king. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee warned foreign authors not to “play with our national pride. We are prepared to take action against the foreign author in case the state government fails to do so” (Dalrymple 2005, 62).

Who are the keepers of authentic Chinese history, the nationalist Chinese in Taiwan, or the Communist regime in mainland China? In the Marxist version of Chinese history, the Taiwanese leaders are the bourgeois capitalist lackeys of Western imperialists. The nationalists teach their children that the Red Chinese overthrew the legitimate Chinese government in 1949, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the process. They point out that Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s caused a famine that killed thirty million Chinese and that Beijing has yet to hold a free democratic election. At present, the differences in these histories are a clear reflection of the political stalemate across the Strait of Taiwan.

Figure 1.5 Japanese soldiers in Manchuria in the 1930s. SOURCE: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-22229.

Another potential Asian flashpoint is the Chinese-Japanese relationship. Despite—or perhaps because of—a tremendous increase in economic intercourse between the two countries in the past decade, contested nationalist histories create tensions. It strikes a raw nerve in China when the Japanese whitewash the brutality and cruelty of their invasion and occupation of China in 1937, or when the Japanese downplay the destruction of the incident the Chinese call the “rape of Nanjing.”

Japanese leaders often pander to right-wing nationalists by paying homage to fallen Japanese soldiers at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where convicted war criminals are also buried. The Chinese leadership is always outraged at this pilgrimage, which they view as an implicit sanction for Japanese aggression in China. Japanese nationalists prefer to emphasize the industrial progress that Japanese imperialists brought to continental Asia.

In 2007, the Japanese prime minister claimed that women in conquered areas—so-called comfort women—willingly entered into prostitution to serve Japanese soldiers. Some Japanese scholars have discovered convincing documentary evidence that the Japanese army had a program to set up military brothels in Korea, China, and Southeast Asia.

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” lamented Stephen Dedalus, an Irish character in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s Haines, an Englishman, understood the plight of the Irish: “I can quite understand that an Irish man must think like that, I dare say. We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame” (Joyce [1922] 1984, 38). It is a sign of a mature democratic society when scholars enjoy the freedom to criticize their own people for crimes against humanity. Germans have conducted a thorough examination of the Holocaust and other atrocities committed in their name by the Third Reich. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has tried to reconstruct the crimes of the South African apartheid regime in an effort to move race relations and democracy forward. Confronted with a mountain of physical evidence of the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in Srebrenica in 1995, the new democratic government in Belgrade has hunted down and prosecuted the perpetrators. In contrast, authoritarian regimes imprison or kill their critics, rather than seek absolution for past crimes committed by the state.

What Is Good History?

If all history is subjective, how can we trust any rendition of the past? The recent worldwide expansion of written and electronic media now puts thousands of different sources at one’s fingertips. Much to the chagrin of history teachers, students can cull sources from websites of unknown credibility.

Obviously, some sources are more trustworthy than others. The historical field, like medicine or law, has professional historical associations and professional journals. For example, the American Historical Association publishes the American Historical Review, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations publishes Diplomatic History. Articles are refereed by other historians. Reputable publishing houses and university presses put prospective books through a similar vetting process.

Some university presses will even operate at a loss to ensure that important new research is published, even if the work is not marketable to a general audience. Histories published by a reputable university press are generally more reliable than private television productions, the popular press, blogs, or other websites of doubtful reliability. Universities and research centers in the free world hire historians on the basis of their professional training and prior publishing record. These institutions afford scholars the opportunity to write without fear of political reprisal or pressure to turn a profit.

Popular histories are less accurate narratives of the past, but they have a great capacity to influence public opinion. If authors must convince an editor of the marketability of their work, they will be tempted to embellish the story. A question often posed regarding historical novels and movies is whether or not they are historically accurate. It is a fair question if one recognizes that the producer will add dramatic effect whether or not it has any connection to the known historical record. Movies such as Titanic, Lincoln, and Twelve Years a Slave, or novels such as The Da Vinci Code, attract mass audiences because they combine realism with a captivating, if not entirely accurate, version of past events.

Theories of History

Historians construct theories of the past to explain and understand the human condition. Theories guide the historian’s method, approach, and sources. For example, Western historians have tried to explain Europe’s rise to global ascendancy in the last five centuries. Some theorize that the key factor was Europe’s advantageous geographical and climatic position, the balance of power among European states that spawned intense scientific and technological competition, or Europeans’ navigational skills and resistance to disease. Others emphasize Christianity and its peculiar rational means to understand the Bible and the world. Historians use available evidence to test these hypotheses, although theory will often determine the direction of their research.

The historical debate about the origins of humans between evolutionists and those who believe in intelligent design hinges on the testability of these respective approaches. Evolution can be verified or disproven through observation, but intelligent design is a belief that cannot be subjected to the rigors of the historical method. Intelligent design is not provable.

Some people think of history as providential (Benjamin 1991, 12–13). From this perspective, meaning in life derives from the belief that a higher power is operating in the world, if not always in explicable ways. God must have had some reason for unleashing the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005, the catastrophic flooding in Louisiana, or the earthquake in central Italy in 2016. Some people believe that God has given their nation a special mission to fight evil (often another nation), promote global freedom, or spread their religion and culture. This view, like other determinist theories of history, reduces the importance of individual free will and responsibility. Most professional historians leave the question of divine intervention and the meaning of life to philosophers and theologians and instead concentrate on the historical events they can observe.

Another way to make sense of the past is a progressive view of history. In the early nineteenth century, German philosopher Georg Hegel wrote that as new ideas challenged old traditions, a new synthesis would result to develop better political, economic, and social structures. In other words, through education and rising standards of living, people can rid society of past wrongs such as slavery, war, and inequality, and learn to live in peace and harmony. This is an essential element of Western thought, and it provides the rationale for universal education and liberal democracy. Marxism is also a progressive view of history. The end of history will be a utopian, classless society, in Marx’s words, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Marx, 1875).

A more pessimistic theory of history is that the past is cyclical. In other words, there are discernible patterns in the past that are likely to repeat themselves. In the history of capitalism, for example, economies have cycles of growth and recession. Some realists argue that any new rising power will challenge the power of the older, and a military clash is likely. Those who adhere to this view of history foresee an inevitable Sino-American conflict over dominance in Asia.

These theories of history bring some rationality and meaning to our daily lives. We are most uncomfortable with the randomness of historical events. When we read of a murder in the newspaper, we are comforted to find out that the perpetrator knew the victim. No one wants to contemplate walking down the street and being killed by a stranger. Random violence has no meaning, and there is no way to avoid it. Terrorists can create a disproportionate fear in people, although we have a greater chance of getting hit by lightning than dying in a terrorist act. Over three thousand people simply went to work on September 11, 2001, and died in the terrorists’ attacks. Highway deaths worldwide vastly dwarf the terrorists’ death toll, but people’s fears of dying in a car crash are not great enough to create the political will to do much about it.

Casinos have capitalized on people’s desires to believe in logic and patterns of the past. Roulette wheels now have a “history board” informing potential players of the numbers and colors that have hit in the last several hours. Suppose, for example, that “red seven” has not come up all day. By what mathematicians call the law of independent trials, red seven has no better odds of hitting on the next or any subsequent spin of the wheel than does any other number, including those that have already come up, perhaps even several times. Nonetheless, people passing by the history board impulsively plunk their money down on red seven on the expectation that it is due to come up.

Historians try to identify some patterns in the past to help understand the present, but historians do not agree about which variables caused events. Causation is one of the trickiest problems in writing about the past, and historians’ conclusions can have far-reaching effects on future policies. If Germany were mainly responsible for the catastrophe of World War I, then the Germans should have paid with an even harsher treaty than Versailles. If one believes that U.S. containment policy caused the fall of Soviet communism, not Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s bold new foreign policies, then American leaders might exaggerate U.S. power to influence world politics in any way it wants. The essential question in the war on terror is this: Did U.S. policies cause September 11, or did the terrorists merely hate the United States because it is free? How historians answer these questions has a direct impact on the way we think about the present. The dilemma for policymakers is that historians have many different answers to the same questions.

Historians often elevate their particular focus on the past to create a theory of causation. Environmental historians might emphasize climate, environment, geography, and natural resources to explain human development (Diamond 2003, 2005). Political historians study power relationships and the influence of leaders’ decisions on social systems and people’s lives. Marxists believe that economic relationships are the main determinants of human history, while intellectual historians raise the significance of ideas to cause change. International studies not only employs an interdisciplinary approach to global issues but also recognizes that many independent or interdependent forces can influence human behavior and cause historical events.

Are There Lessons of History?

An old history essay question asks students to compare and contrast certain events, implying that there are discernible patterns of history from which to draw lessons. People often express the belief that “history tells us” to make a particular choice, but the relationship among the past, present, and future is a conundrum, a puzzle with many missing pieces. Geographers can help us understand where we stand and where we are going, but history cannot always tell us what will happen along the way or if or when we will get there. Human agents can alter history in unforeseen ways, and events take accidental turns that are dependent on random occurrences.

Policymakers frequently invoke historical analogies to make and justify decisions, in the belief that history teaches particular lessons. Yet historians and philosophers are not so sure. Hegel said that what we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. Aphorisms such as “history repeats itself” or “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it” are based on the notion that history is something we can know and build predictive models from.

Historical analogies provide clarity, rationality, and logic to current affairs, and historians often contribute to the idea that history teaches great lessons by declaring that certain works are “definitive” or “the last word.” Obviously, decision making requires comparison to previous policy successes and failures, but historical analogy drawn from unique events can lead policymakers down a dark alley. Erroneous presumptions about what happened in the past constrain an accurate analysis of and creative thinking about the present.

Definitive lessons of history are impossible to derive from different accounts and interpretations of the past. Many scholars have debated the causes of World War I, but what lessons do policymakers draw if there is disagreement about how and why the war started? Economists would make a killing in the stock market if economic history allowed them to predict the ups and downs of the stock exchanges.

Policymakers are often blinded by their beliefs about the past that may not have any application for the present. For example, American policymakers during the Cold War consistently used the appeasement of Hitler before World War II to argue against accommodation with the Soviet Union, which they cast as a similarly aggressive, totalitarian dictatorship. The United States acted on the erroneous assumption that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, the dominos in Asia would fall like the East European countries had to the Nazis in the late 1930s. The failure in Vietnam created another “lesson of history” that warned against armed intervention into civil conflicts, with devastating consequences in places like Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. In the run-up to the United States’ war in Iraq in 2003, the George W. Bush administration argued that if the United States could successfully occupy Germany and Japan after World War II, it could surely handle the occupation of Iraq, a much smaller country. That historical analogy turned out to be wrong, as well.

Historical events, unlike scientific experiments, can never be replicated. History often yields analogies for decision makers that are more dangerous than using no history at all. Historian Barbara Tuchman cautioned, “The trouble is that in human behavior and history it is impossible to isolate or repeat a given set of circumstances” (Tuchman 1981, 249).


Although past histories cannot provide blueprints for the future, a thorough grounding in contemporary world history is essential for understanding current global issues, and honest and accurate histories are indispensable for human progress and reconciliation of international conflicts. The issues confronting future generations are simply too important to ignore past history.

Many international conflicts today cannot be resolved without agreement about what happened in the past, from Japan acknowledging its aggression in the Far East in the 1930s to Israel admitting that many Palestinians were forced from their homes when the state of Israel was created after World War II. Professional historians are charged with writing histories that are as true to the facts as possible and to act as critics of those who warp the story of the past for political or economic gain.

A thorough reading of history is an essential part of a comprehensive understanding of the world today. All of the other social sciences of international studies are based on an accurate picture of the past. Political scientists use case studies to develop theories of political behavior. Likewise, economists examine previous trends to analyze the present and hypothesize about the best economic policies. Geographers depend on accurate measurements of previous climatic and environmental developments to explain current affairs. Finally, anthropologists are essentially historians of people and their social behaviors.


Benjamin, Jules. 1991. A Student’s Guide to History. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Bryson, Bill. 2003. A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York: Broadway Books.

Dalrymple, William. 2005. “India: The War over History.” New York Review of Books, April 7.

Diamond, Jared. 2003. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: Spark Publishers.

———. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Press.

Joyce, James. [1922] 1984. Ulysses. New York: Garland Publishing.

Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” 1875.

Tuchman, Barbara W. 1981. Practicing History: Selected Essays. New York: Knopf.

Westfall, Richard S. 1993. The Life of Isaac Newton. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Further Reading


Anderson, Sheldon. 2008. Condemned to Repeat It: “Lessons of History” and the Making of U.S. Cold War Containment Policy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Carr, Edward H. 1961. What Is History? New York: Vintage Books.

Collingwood, R. G. 1946. The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gardiner, Juliet. 1988. What Is History? London: Humanities Press International.

Hoffer, Charles, and William W. Stueck. 1994. Reading and Writing American History: An Introduction to the Historian’s Craft. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

Howard, Michael. 1991. The Lessons of History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


American Historical Review.

Cold War History.

Diplomacy and Statecraft.

Diplomatic History.

Journal of Contemporary History.

Journal of World History.


Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Welles, director.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Stanley Kramer, director.

Rashomon (1950). Akira Kurosawa, director.

The Thin Blue Line (1988). Erroll Morris, director.

Triumph of the Will (1934). Leni Riefenstahl, director.


American Historical Association.

International Interdisciplinary Organization of Scholars.

Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

World History Association.

WWW Virtual Library: International Affairs.

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