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The Uses and Abuses of Historical Analogies

Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk consider the different historical examples that policymakers and politicians cite in their foreign policy arguments:

In their choice of historical analogy, politicians and policymakers often reveal more about their foreign policy worldview than do conventional partisan or ideological labels.

That’s true as far as it goes. What tells us even more about a person’s foreign policy assumptions is how often he falls back on historical analogies and how varied those analogies are. For instance, when a neoconservative or hawk invokes 1938 in response to every single crisis or major event overseas, that mostly tells us that he probably has a very superficial grasp on the particulars of current events. If everything can be reduced to a comparison to the Munich conference and its aftermath, there is no need to make the effort to understand the present-day crisis on its own terms. It also suggests that the person making this comparison is more concerned to score ideological points rather than he is interested in offering relevant analysis. By the same token, citing 1914 as a cautionary tale is potentially just as misleading. While there are tensions between major powers, there is much less danger of a a war between them today than there was a hundred years ago. Invoking the start of WWI can be just as lazy and reflexive as shouting, “Munich!” We should always want our government to be careful “about extending treaty commitments to client states,” and we should always want it to exercise caution and not overreact to foreign crises, but most of the “lessons” they draw from 1914 don’t need the example of 1914 to make sense to us.

Historical analogies can sometimes be useful when they are used to inform a debate and give an audience greater perspective on current events, but they are very often used in crude attempts to shoehorn modern events into convenient ideological stories that advocates for a certain set of policies want to tell. Used this way, analogies are necessarily misleading. They are intended to mislead people so that they accept a policy recommendation that may or may not have made sense decades ago in a completely different situation. They are also used to substitute for analysis of the current situation on the remarkably blithe assumption that “if it worked there, it will work here.” It was this sort of pseudo-historical thinking that informed much of the Bush administration’s overconfidence in its ability to turn Iraq into a Western-style democracy: “we did it after WWII.” When Iraq war supporters weren’t relying on memories of the post-WWII occupations, they allowed the experience of post-1989 eastern Europe to misinform them about what to expect after regime change in Iraq.

We saw the same sort of shoddy argument during the Libya debate, relying on the Kosovo precedent as “proof” that a “good” intervention could “work,” and the Bosnia example has been endlessly used as a crutch for the extremely bad idea of intervening in Syria. Not coincidentally, this involved exaggerating the success and ease of the earlier Balkan interventions in order to make intervention in Syria seem more appealing. To the extent that opponents of the Libyan war even talked about Iraq, it was to point out the obvious dangers of overthrowing a country’s government with no plan for what followed, but opponents of intervention in Libya didn’t need the Iraq example to make the case that destroying the Libyan government would be destabilizing and irresponsible.

The authors continue:

Parallels from the past too often are put forward less to focus debate and discussion than to shut them down.

I agree. That’s why it is instructive to pay attention to which side in these debates most often reaches for historical analogies to use as cudgels in this fashion. It is most often the proponents of “action” and “leadership” that are quickest to resort to these analogies, because they tend to be the ones most prone to making dire and alarmist warnings. Describing the present as a replay of the 1930s or 1970s is commonplace among hawks, because they are eager to portray their policy preferences as bold opposition to appeasement and/or “decline.” In general, supporters of a more restrained foreign policy don’t rely on these comparisons as often or as much to argue against specific interventions, since they are only too aware of how often the historical record has been abused in previous debates.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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