History Chair Discusses Global Affairs at Upper School Assembly

History Department Chair Dr. Gerry Protheroe, who teaches world history and advanced European history at Browning, along with advising the Model UN, is an assistant professor at NYU’s Center for Global Studies. His keen knowledge of world history and current affairs was evident as he addressed the Upper School boys at their October 3 assembly. Director of Publications Melanie McMahon reports:

While his presentation covered the gamut, Dr. Protheroe's main focus was the important legacy of World War I as we face issues in the 21st century. He explained that while WWI and the Cold War seemed easy paradigms for older generations to grasp, today’s students are often unclear as to what is happening globally. Furthermore, back in the 1990s, “everything looked good.” “There was a great feeling of optimism,” said Dr. Protheroe. “Now that’s disappeared, so understanding the history of our past is essential to grasping the present state of global affairs.”

In respect to the Middle East situation today, Dr. Protheroe noted that back in 1918, there were one million soldiers in the Middle East because Britain thought it must destroy the Ottoman Empire. The British, he explained, hoped to get the Arabs on their side against the Ottoman Empire. He discussed the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, a secret agreement that was concluded by two British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, as well as the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, which led the Jewish community in Britain and America into believing that Britain would support the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East. In short, to better understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, he advised the boys to first study those two topics.

In turning to the threat of ISIS, Dr. Protheroe talked about Iraq in terms of its creation and historical figures Winston Churchill (Britain’s colonial secretary at that time), T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) and Gertrude Bell (sometimes referred to as the “female Lawrence of Arabia.”) He called Iraq “Churchill’s folly,” referring to the creation of this monarchy after World War I that forced three “unfriendly” groups to live under a single ruler.  Christopher Catherwood’s book, “Churchill’s Folly” explores the creation of Iraq which consisted of Sunni Muslim Kurds and Arabs, and Shiite Muslims under the imposed Hashemite king Faisal.

Adolph Hitler and Vladimir Putin were also discussed and assessed by Dr. Protheroe in regard to their aggressive moves into Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine, respectively. The hostile actions of both men, according to Dr. Protheroe, were “products of perceived humiliation.” “Putin is not interested in a Soviet Union, he said, “but rather, a Czarist Russia.” He mentioned the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in Ukraine this past July as an act of terror and an example of the serious crisis faced by Ukraine under Putin’s threat. “Just how far is Putin prepared to go?” he mused.

Before a final Q and A segment with the Upper School boys, Dr. Protheroe addressed the continuing dispute over the group of East China Sea islands called the Senkakus by Japan and Diaoyu by China. These islands are controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan as well.

With so much strife going on globally, Dr. Protheroe recognizes it is difficult to make sense of the world as it is right now. He mentioned New York Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas Friedman who cover politics and foreign affairs, which led to this advice to the boys: The key to understanding all that’s happening in the world is to study history and read newspapers as closely as we can, especially as U.S. political parties and their leaders ultimately affect and, indeed, can hamper solutions to many of the world’s crises.