Paul Kennedy is the J. Richardson Dilworth professor of history. He is a respected authority on such issues as globalization, the population explosion and the information technology revolution. He is the author of more than 13 books, including the 1988 best-seller “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” and his recent work “Preparing for the 21st Century.” On Tuesday, Kennedy spoke with contributing reporter C. Wallace Dewitt.
The News: What do you see as the role of the study of history and of historians in approaching current events? What sorts of services can a historical pundit provide? Predictions of future events? Analysis of the morality of historical actions?
PK: It’s a question all historians should wrestle with. [First,] nobody knows the future and anybody who claims he does is a charlatan. So we’re guessing about the future, and as we guess about the future we’re looking for indicators which we think might help us to anticipate it. In that sense, historians are no different from anybody else.
Secondly, we have to admit that history is used as a grab bag. A kind of Irish stew. Some historians will use an analogy with appeasement, others will use analogies with the Cold War or the age of Kipling. There are various things that you can pull out of [history].
And I want to make historians humble and I want to make us suspicious of politicians and journalists who say, “The lesson of history is…” There’s just too many lessons of history.
[One function of historians is to] help us understand cultures and regions that are different from ourselves. You might say that’s the most practical and utilitarian function [of history], probably also the most acceptable because even if you were raging to get at the Taliban and you were full of fury, you might accept that having somebody know about the mind of the enemy is a good thing.
Secondly, we’re looking at broad global forces here. Incidents happened on the 11th of September, but they fit a pattern that we can see happening.
We can detect as historians the rise of terrorist actions, whether it’s in subways in Japan, or it’s the [Irish Republican Army] blowing up the London Underground, or it’s the attacks on the World Trade Center a few years ago. So we can put things into a pattern and ask larger questions about why international terrorism is on the rise.
A third function that a historian may be able to offer is what I call a cautionary [function]. A historian who has looked at ups and downs, progress and regress, over centuries is always a bit more cautious about whether we are in a New World Order or not.
Because he’s heard Woodrow Wilson say that and he’s heard Mr. Gladstone say that, and he’s heard some Renaissance prince say that. The historian’s more likely to have a sense of unease when he hears that the whole world has changed, that we’ve now reached a new niveau.
The News: Is it possible for a nation like Afghanistan under the Taliban and a nation like America to exist in this world without causing a cataclysmic clash of civilizations?
PK: It’s really is the biggest problem that global society faces. The whole United Nations charter, the whole post-1945 system building assumption is that varied cultures and languages and states and religions can coexist, that they’re not fundamentally antagonistic and they’re not destined to go to war and conflict is not inevitable. That’s been challenged a bit by Sept. 11.
You might have said well, we have our world and our American values, our openness, our separation of church and state, and if six thousand miles away there is a majority of people who prefer their world, [we could say], “Well, we’ll just keep a distance.” [As Robert Frost wrote,] “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The separation has broken down ironically and chiefly because of things which we have done. We invented the communications revolution, we developed the internal combustion engine, we need oil, we have special relationships with Israel which are intricately connected with American politics.
We are in their face, and some of the more radical members of those who think that the secular world is inherently evil and has to be hurt have decided to use our modern technology to hurt us.
What we can see in the current debate is a lot of good-minded people in the middle saying of course Islam is a benign religion, of course it’s extremists who are doing all the damage, and once we deal with the terrorists and extremists we will go back to a harmonious U.N. vision.
But you can also see those like Charles Hill and like Donald Kagan who say, “No, this is uncompromise-able, this has to be taken to the finish, those guys will never compromise.” And certainly when you look at the Taliban and other fundamentalist messages, they’re saying it’s uncompromise-able.
Like human beings in many other crises we’ve sort of divided into those who think the lines are clear cut and drawn, that it’s us versus them, and others who say, “The world is messy but we think we can pick away through to a better synthesis or compromise.” And I don’t think we’re going to get this fundamental question easily resolved. I think we might be arguing about this in ten years time, don’t you?
The News: How would you characterize the tenor of discussion on campus, among the students and faculty these days, in regards to the state of the world at large?
PK: First of all, this is something significantly more than anything else which has happened in the controversies on campus in the 18 years I’ve been here.
So many members of the faculty as well felt affected and a large number of them felt that they had neglected the outside world. Various people in area studies who were on a narrow focus are now beginning to make comparisons with what might be going on in their part of the world. Faculty interest and faculty anxiety and faculty desire to know and faculty desire to speak went up phenomenally.
There surely was in certain parts of the faculty an inability to escape from debates on the Vietnam War. If you were suspicious of U.S. government power during the Vietnam War, in most cases your first instinct was to be suspicious of giving the U.S. military a carte blanche to blow up South Asia.
If you were one of the smaller number of Yale faculty who were less antagonistic to trying to stop communism in Southeast Asia 25 years ago, you were more inclined to go with more mainstream American anger and desire for action.
The News: As a great power in the world today, is it morally and pragmatically responsible for America to upset regimes and set up democracies? Should the grand strategy of America include this nation building as a component?
PK: That’s a question which should be answered at both levels. I would say the moral theologian would caution the U.S. government about the idea that just because as a consequence of our actions we get rid of those nasty regimes, just because we’d like to see democracy and human rights and women’s rights in those places doesn’t give full moral justification for doing it.
The secular-strategic is also one that’s going to lead, and already has, to different strategic experts being on different sides of the fence.
If you’re a great power realist, you believe that the biggest challenge you have is the rise of China. From [this standpoint], for us to destabilize the entire Middle East and then to have deal with the consequences of having the Marines in and rescuing the Sadat and Mubarak regimes, you would say [setting up democracies is] crazy.
You can’t afford to get sucked into that big hole and not be able to deal with events in Taiwan Strait or elsewhere.
Others think this is a chance to improve the long-term position of the West by stamping out not just the Taliban, not just bin Laden, but toppling Iraq and by getting rid of the Islamic republic in Iran. If that could be done by the wave of a magic wand, then probably America would have stable, grateful platforms.
The point is that the problem with that on a strategic side is, and here’s the cautionary historian again, we’ve got so many examples of the West trying to do nation-building for other cultures and because there are voices within the other cultures who cry out for human rights and cry out for democracy, we think everybody is for democracy and human rights.
We discover that many societies really dislike a foreigner interfering. They may not like their lousy, repressive regimes, but they’re their lousy repressive regimes.
I would say, both at the moral end and at the strategic international security end, you’re going to hear people arguing both ways, and that’s why all of the comparisons with Pearl Harbor, et cetera just fall into the dustbin.
We don’t have [as clear a] moral equivalent [as we did in] the fight against the Axis, and we don’t have as yet the strategic clarity of saying we will take out these three fascist nation states.