Recent events are supposed to have taught us to doubt whether the past provides any guide to the future. The global war on terror, tsunamis and earthquakes, and the financial crisis all seemed so improbable that we have come to expect “black swans” to be lurking around every corner. The exceptionally rare event is now taken as the rule, and the rule dictates that history is random and inexplicable. Since everything comes down to a roll of the dice, historical explanations and future forecasts are deemed to be equally speculative.
Is history really just one damned thing after the other? To the extent we actually believe that, we give up trying to distinguish between likely and unlikely scenarios, more and less useful forecasts. Those who succeed in resisting the need to situate themselves in time will eventually become disoriented, trying to find their way without a map or a compass. When they hear that hindsight is no more reliable than foresight, most people are simply discouraged from learning about the past. And without history, they have no basis for comparison against potential threats and opportunities. The blank spaces in their mental maps are filled with warnings—“here be dragons”—and they become prey to conspiracy theorists and panic-mongers.
My work seeks to offer new, more productive ways to think about the history – and future – of world politics. My current research is on planning and predictions, especially for planetary threats like nuclear war and pandemics. These are challenging subjects, since the historical record is vast and a large but indeterminate part of it remains classified. I am therefore working with computer scientists and statisticians to try to uncover the scope and nature of official secrecy, and perhaps even venture predictions about what a fuller accounting might reveal.
My last book, Fatal Misconception, is a global history of the campaign to defuse the “population bomb.” Population control sought to remake humanity— seemingly with the best of intentions — but succeeded in causing untold suffering. Wealthy foundations, foreign aid agencies, and the United Nations made “family planning” a means to plan other people’s families. Beginning with eugenics, the temptation to breed better people culminated in the sterilization camps of India and the horrors of China’s one-child policy. This history serves as a cautionary tale against what could be even more dangerous attempts at social engineering, including coercive pro-natalism and genetic “enhancement.”
My first book, A Diplomatic Revolution, describes another fight over the future: Algeria’s struggle to end the French empire in North Africa. Paris considered it the beginning of a “Clash of Civilizations” between the West and the whole Islamic world. It happened a half century ago, when Algerian nationalists mobilized Muslim immigrants across Europe, staged urban terror to attract the international media, and finally won over the U.N. without winning control of any national territory. By harnessing the cause of national liberation to global trends they succeeded in rewriting the rules of international relations, inspiring revolutionaries worldwide – from the ANC to the PLO to the Black Panthers. Revised for French and North African editions as L’arme secrète du FLN, this is a textbook case of how a counter-insurgency campaign can win all the battles and still lose the war.
Seeing the deeper continuities with the distant past requires an international and global perspective, and it will increasingly require that historians work in teams – especially considering the exponential growth of digital archives and the extraordinary promise of computational methods. I have therefore been working to build programs to promote these new approaches, including a dual masters degree with the LSE, a summer research laboratory on history and prevision, a University Seminar on Big Data and Digital Scholarship, and a book series for Columbia University Press. My courses at Columbia include Hacking the Archive, International and Global History since World War II, The End of Empires, and The Future as History.
In addition to publishing in academic journals and starting new research programs, I have written articles on foreign policy for The Atlantic Monthly, The Wilson Quarterly, and The National Interest and commented on current affairs for the media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Radio France Internationale, and the BBC. I have also served as a consultant for the Department of Homeland Defense and the Gates Foundation.
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