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What Happens When Diplomats Fail to Understand the History of Nations Where They Serve — from the Perspective of the People in Those Nations?

History Shock

When History Collides with Foreign Relations

By John Dickson

University of Kansas Press


Reviewed by Nathalie Vadnais


John Dickson gleans insights from 25 years as a foreign service officer, much of which included hard lessons that came from not having a deeper knowledge of a host country’s history. That leads time and again to what he terms “history shock,” wherein dramatically different interpretations of history have blocked diplomatic understanding and cooperation.

Dickson served with the Peace Corps in Gabon 1976–79 before joining the U.S. Information Agency in 1984; he later served with the State Department when the two agencies merged. He uses vignettes describing personal interactions and an analysis of his experiences in Mexico, Cuba, Canada, Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere. “By cherry-picking those events that helped construct a nation that is exceptional,” Dickson writes, “the United States has consistently overlooked that slice of its history that does not correspond to its self-image.” And by “neglecting history, we are less able or willing to draw on memory to aid in how we learn, make decisions, behave, or develop new strategies.”


This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated May 22, 2022.

Nathalie Vadnais is an intern with WorldView. She is completing a degree in international studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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