In times of geopolitical uncertainty, our memories are more important than ever

Remembering the past can help us keep a close eye on sudden changes in the world around us

A statue of the Soviet-era leader Vladimir Lenin in the capital of the self-proclaimed state of the Donetsk People's Republic (PDR) in eastern Ukraine. AFP

A few days ago, as the conflict in Ukraine got under way, an acquaintance asked me whether I felt that current events seemed different from past events of a similar nature, whether the world largely appears more unified and whether humanity appears to be moving forward to a better place without the prejudices of the past. My quick answers were one Yes and a couple of No’s, along with a suggestion that some knowledge of history might help him to begin to understand the complexities of the modern world.

Thirty years ago, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published an influential essay titled “The End of History and the Last Man”. This argued that, with the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the dissolution in the same year of the old Soviet Union, humanity had reached a stage where there should no longer be any serious competition for liberal democracy and the market economy.

Many of the developments of the three decades that have followed, like the invasion of Iraq, the turmoil that followed on from the outbreak of what has been misleadingly described in many places as the “Arab Spring”, and the invasion of Ukraine, suggest that the notion that, in one sense, history had come to an end was, at the very least, presumptuous. Fukuyama’s argument, I suspect, has few supporters today.

One lesson to be drawn from the past 30 years, surely, is that, far from no longer being important, a knowledge of history remains of enormous significance. A neglect of the lessons that it offers is, perhaps, partly the reason why new crises and new political and humanitarian disasters arise, even if they take on different shapes from those to which we have become accustomed. The world’s geo-political structure is never set firmly in stone, though the changes within it may sometimes be gradual and at other times cataclysmic. History can help to ensure that we are not taken completely by surprise.

I derive great pleasure from being involved in the study of the more distant past. It is also important, though, to look at and to study more recent history, of periods within living memory.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared the 'End of History'. Reuters
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History can help to ensure that we are not taken completely by surprise

Earlier this week, I had the duty of delivering a eulogy for my old friend, Jocelyn Henderson, who died late last year, not long after reaching the milestone of her 100th birthday. Our relationship dated back over 45 years, to the early days of the UAE federation. Over the course of those years, we had discussed a whole range of topics, trivial and important, but one of the aspects I much valued was the ability to discuss the latest news with someone who had witnessed past events.

I am sure that, had she still been alive, Jocelyn and I would have swapped views on the conflict in Ukraine within the context of other European and global events of the past few decades. She remembered the Second World War and all that followed, while my own memories date back quite a few decades, too.

We remembered the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, of which I was a witness and, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union over 20 years later. We could recall the arrival in Abu Dhabi in 1990 of refugees from Kuwait, after the invasion by Saddam Hussein, and could view later developments in Iraq in that context. The images of the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001 remained fresh in our memories. We discussed subsequent events, too, until relatively recently, informing our own perspectives through our own recollections.

The importance of recent, as well as more ancient, history, I suspect, receives insufficient attention today, both in terms of formal education and in other ways. I understand the eagerness to look forward, to plan for the future, to strive for progress and to reach for the stars. That is natural and important, too, and we should look for the appropriate balance.

I remain convinced, however, that there remains scope for greater study of our past as well, not just in terms of the Emirates, but more widely. If, by learning about the past, we can draw lessons for today and tomorrow, that can be of benefit to all. It can also help us to keep a close eye out for signs of impending sudden changes in the world’s geopolitics and thereby prepare for them. History can help us understand today’s events, in all their complexity. That, in turn, may also help to inform the approach one adopts towards them.

My friend Jocelyn Henderson always retained her curiosity in the world around her, and in what is yet to come in the future. At the same time, she fervently agreed with the oft-quoted saying by the UAE’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, that “he who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn”.

She believed that a knowledge of history can prepare us, guide us and inform us. I wouldn’t disagree with that.

Published: March 03, 2022, 8:00 AM
Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National