Relevance of History in the Study of Foreign Policy

Social scientist, unlike their natural science (by this I mean physical, chemical, biological etc) counterparts, do not have the luxury of labs and fancy equipment to generate knowledge. In fact it is sacrilege among the most conservative of the natural science community to even think that social ‘science’ is a science; such circles often dismiss social scientists as heretics or charlatans. However I ague that though the natural scientific community may have a point, social science is not heresy at worst and through the instrumentality of history I intend to demonstrate this point.

The argument over the ‘scientificness’ – for want of a befitting term – of social science has been a raging debate among academics. The two protagonists in this drama are the natural and social scientists. The natural scientists – if I may call them that – opine that social science is no science owing to the lack of consistency in findings. This they attribute to the erratic behaviour/characteristics of its main subject matter: human beings. Human beings – unlike a rock, or the element phosphorous – are unpredictable as they are diverse and therefore what ever theory that one comes up with may not be universal, a mainstay doctrine in the natural scientific world. Any conclusions that social scientists would make would be mere conjecture, they would say.

On the other hand, social scientist oppose this opinion. Their argument is that even in the natural scientific world, not all test will provide the same result even though the elements and conditions in those tests were identical. In most experiments the results are simalar but not strictly the same thus there are degrees of variation. In their defense they state that human behaviour – albeit erratic – can be studied and quantified. The results derived from such studies can be used to inform policy. It is here that history is relevant.

Foreign Policy analysis is a specialized branch within the wider International Relations study (others would argue that it is directly linked to Political Science and others say that it is multidisciplinary and thus novel). It focuses on the decision making process of not only traditional (Ministry of Foreign Affairs/State Department) but other groups within the political space that impact on the foreign policy decision making of a nation. These other groups include political parties, civil society organizations, media and public opinion among others. Recently (I think), the study has taken a multidisciplinary approach incorporating political psychology which measures rationality among other aspects of foreign policy decision making process.

History goes a long way in establishing pattern in human behaviour; importance of human behaviour in foreign policy decision making cannot be gainsaid. Indeed human behaviour is erratic but only viewed in isolation of other factors such as time and space. To understand the foreign policy decision making process of Kenya, we need to look at history, first to establish a coherent pattern, two to establish reasons behind those decisions and lastly to make strategic predictions of how such policies will react in the future. Some examples would suffice.

Kenya’s foreign policy has been fairly consistent from independence. It has religiously followed a pattern of development since the independence of the country and enlisted foreign policy to market Kenya as a good development destination. To make such a conclusion one must look through history to be sure. From the Kenyatta and Moi era to the Kibaki regime, history is replete with examples of how Kenya’s policy has been consistent in the promotion of its development agenda through ‘development patners’.

Similarly, one can never fully understand American foreign policy unless one consults history. American policy provides a good case study of policies that were radically new in their time; it never emphasized balance of power as did the ones in continental Europe. In fact it is considered to have introduced a moralistic/idealistic (borderline utopian) outlook of international affairs. All the acts encouraged abroad were marked against a moral score card. It is by realizing how the state was founded – through the bloody fight for freedom from oppression and tyranny and the belief in good over evil – can one find therein the greatest motivation of American policy.

Therefore, I dare say, history provides evidence of verifiability of human behaviour. The term that ‘history repeats itself’ – though vehemently challenged by some strident history academics provides fodder for my argument. Nothing in human behaviour is entirely new. If one digs into history one can find a chain of evidence of a behavioural pattern that is considered ‘new’ today: fashion fads come quickly to mind. Since foreign policy decisions are made by human beings; human beings that can be studied by consulting history then it follows that one must study historical record of state behaviour to comprehensively analyse a states foreign policy. All in all foreign policy study (as with all social scientific subjects) can be studied accurately.