Power Shifts: Understanding Global Change Through History

 Nobody can understand the present without a keen understanding of the past. After all, history is all we have to go on in providing the resources for making sense of the world we live in. Successful policymakers often understand this and turn a view of the past to their advantage in interpreting the present. They understand how any good strategy is grounded in a sound view of history.

History and historical methodologies can give policymakers a keener appreciation of what is possible to do, but also of what must be avoided and what needs to be changed. History is mainly about change; relentless, often confusing processes, over which individuals, communities, and even states seemingly have little say. But by studying change at key points in human history, we can prepare ourselves better for taking charge of our future, and for promoting or steering change when needed.

This class looks at major shifts in history from European and Asian antiquity up to today. It looks at power in all its dimensions – material, demographic, technological, ideological, military, or religious – and shows how it has influenced and been influenced by major transformations in global history. Our aim is to better identify the key causes of power shifts, but also to get an impression of the fickleness of established orders in times of tectonic change.

We have prepared twelve new cases specifically for this class. They range from the Peloponnesian War and the origins of Islamic empires up to the invasion of Iraq and US-China relations today.

Through these cases we want to discuss the different dimensions of power and how they shift over time. We also want to look comparatively at how leaders have initiated, steered, or responded to power shifts. The purpose of the cases is to illuminate how people in the past have reacted to major change and how their choices may help us understand the tools and options that are at our disposal when making critical decisions.

FacultyOdd Arne Westad

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