The U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis illustrates the value of this approach. That September saw the biggest shock to the world economy since the Great Depression. In a stroke of luck, the chairman of the Federal Reserve at the time, Ben Bernanke, was a student of earlier financial crises, particularly the Depression. As he wrote in his 2015 memoir, “The context of history proved invaluable.” Bernanke’s Fed acted decisively, using unprecedented tools that stretched—if not exceeded—the Fed’s legal powers, such as buying up mortgage-backed and Treasury securities in what was called quantitative easing. Bernanke’s knowledge of the Depression also informed the Fed’s efforts to backstop other central banks.
To be sure, historical analogies are easy to get wrong. “History is not, of course, a cookbook offering pretested recipes,” observed Henry Kissinger, the most influential modern practitioner of applied history. “It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.” Amateur analogies were commonplace in the wake of September 11, ranging from President Bush’s invocation in his diary of Pearl Harbor to the parallels drawn by his administration between Saddam and the Axis leaders in World War II. To guard against such faulty parallels, May advised students and policy makers to follow a simple procedure: Put the comparison you are considering—for example, isis and the Bolsheviks—on a sheet of paper, draw a line down the page, and label one column “similar” and the other “different.” If you are unable to list three points of similarity and three of difference, you should consult a historian.
Were a Council of Historical Advisers in place today, it could consider precedents for numerous strategic problems. For example: As tensions increase between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, are U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and other countries as dangerous to peace as the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality, which became the casus belli between Britain and Germany in 1914?
The council might study whether a former president’s handling of another crisis could be applied to a current challenge (what would X have done?). Consider Obama’s decision to strike an imperfect deal to halt or at least delay Iran’s nuclear program, rather than bombing its uranium-enrichment plants, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped he might. Obama’s deliberations have significant parallels with Kennedy’s decision during the Cuban missile crisis to strike a deal with Nikita Khrushchev, rather than invading Cuba or learning to live with Soviet missiles off Florida’s coast.
A president might also ask the council “what if?” questions. What if some action had not been taken, or a different action had been taken? (These questions are too seldom asked after a policy failure.) In this spirit, the next president could ask the council to replay 2013. What if Obama had enforced his “red line” against the Assad regime, rather than working with Russia to remove Syrian chemical weapons? Was this decision, as critics maintain, the biggest error of his presidency? Or was it, as he insists, one of his best calls?