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The Uses and Abuses of Historical Analogies

Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk consider [1] 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.

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18 Comments To "The Uses and Abuses of Historical Analogies"

#1 Comment By Charlieford On December 1, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

Still waiting on some politician or pundit to warn us “This is Grenada all over again . . . we need Operation Urgent Fury II!”

#2 Comment By William Dalton On December 1, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

I thought the lesson of Munich is that it was a mistake for Britain and France to respond by entering into a defense pact on behalf of Poland. This had the effect only of driving Hitler into the arms of Stalin to form the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which not only allowed the two dictators to carve up Poland and the Baltic States, but also gave Hitler license to march through Benelux into France. No pledge to defend Poland may not have saved that country, nor have prevented the inevitable conflict between ideologically charged Nazi German and Communist Russian national ambition, but it may have saved the West from the conflict and prevented World War II.

Lesson of Munich: Once you draw a line in the sand and dare a fellow to cross it, you don’t go back a few steps and draw another line after he crosses the first one.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 1, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

If only this was about appeasement. The sheer speed of changing events and loyalties makes this period more complex than any in history.

There may be one parallel — an inability to mind our own business. An appeasement to avoid making waves could have saved us a lot of grief.

#4 Comment By William Dalton On December 1, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

“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.”

Have these geniuses taken the trouble to actually examine conditions in Bosnia and Kosovo today and compare them to those when both regions were run from Belgrade?

#5 Comment By Johann On December 1, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

Spot on Mr. Dalton. To add to what you said, I often wonder why anyone believes that if there had been no Munich deal then Hitler would not have eventually taken over Czechoslovakia and Poland anyway.

And also, its been my experience that most people who throw out the Munich moment analogy don’t even realize that Neville Chamberlain was still the prime minister when Britain declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. Most think Winston Churchill was the prime minister.

#6 Comment By BD On December 1, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

It’s clear THOSE analogies are wrong. The world we’re facing today is exactly like what we dealt with in the Mexican War. We must annex Texas!

#7 Comment By mightypeon On December 1, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

Actually, the Mexican war is a pretty good analogy for what an actually expansionist Russian president would do in Ukraine.
Fullout invade, take Kiev, then take half of Ukraine in return for leaving the other half.

Putin is thankfully not Polk. And Russia would have, by now, considerably better Casus Bellis to invade.

#8 Comment By tbraton On December 1, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

William Dalton, in addition to the very good points you raise, there is also the consideration pointed out by my exceptional professor back in the 60’s (before he went on to much wider fame), namely, that Munich afforded Great Britain a breather that allowed it to increase its armaments that permitted G.B. to hold off the Germans once war came. The fact of the matter is that G.B. and France were totally unprepared to wage war against the Germans at the time of Munich.

#9 Comment By David Naas On December 1, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

Why NOT “lessons from history”? Why NOT cite what Bully Bob did to you in the fourth grade as excuse to invade Ruritania?

Why not grab for any possible image to bolster a claim for action (or, rarely, inaction)?

Are historical butcherings any more valid than lessons from 1984 or Brave New World?

How about sports or theatre? (I saw it in a movie!()

Why is it necessary to cite an inferior analogy to justify a present insanity?

#10 Comment By Drone’s Club On December 1, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

“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.””

… compensating for being gutless where it counts.

Show me a single hawk with the guts to tell jerks like Sisi or Netanyahu to go to hell.

You can’t. Because there is none.

But they’re all steely resolve and grave purpose when it comes to the bloody consequences of their policies, responsibility for which they nonetheless shirk.

#11 Comment By Rossbach On December 1, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

The crisis in Czechoslovakia in 1938 was not the result of appeasement. The settlement made was a simple recognition of a political reality. Czechoslovakia was an unstable multi-ethnic state imposed upon unwilling populations in the aftermath of WWI. When it finally disintegrated, the Western nations were quite aware that if Hitler did not pick up the pieces, Stalin would. They chose what appeared to be the lesser evil. In any case, there was absolutely nothing that they could have done to prevent the outcome, since neither the UK nor France could have brought troops to the contested area.

If they had followed the same policy in the German-Polish border dispute of 1939, they could have prevented a local border war from becoming a general European War. Conversely, if they had given a war guarantee to the Czechs, WWII would have started a year earlier, when the Western powers were even less prepared for general war than Germany was.

#12 Comment By Ken_L On December 1, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

Conservatives do seem to be getting more creative in their use of historical analogies, even if they are no more enlightening. I have read Obama’s use of executive power with respect to illegal immigrants compared to both King Charles 1’s refusal to convene parliament, and King John’s actions at the time of Magna Carta. In the latter case the writer seemed to think the barons were representatives of We the People, which was somehow touching.

#13 Comment By tbraton On December 2, 2014 @ 1:03 am

“Conversely, if they had given a war guarantee to the Czechs, WWII would have started a year earlier, when the Western powers were even less prepared for general war than Germany was.”

We are in agreement on this point. I guess if war had come a year earlier France would have fallen to the Germans in 20 days rather than the 40 days it actually took. Only Great Britain appeared to benefit by the delay of WWII.

#14 Comment By Oldeguy On December 2, 2014 @ 11:56 am

Might it be more accurate to caution against superficial historical analogies ?
With the Centennial of WW1 this year, I went on a binge of reading a series of excellent studies of the outbreak that have been published this year.
My interest had been piqued by a lifelong puzzlement as to why a European Civilization that so thoroughly dominated the world could have been so brainless as to have very nearly destroyed itself.
After wading through reams of very well done minutiae, the answer ( for me at least ) emerged.
There was an enormous gap between the basically sane “Man In The Street” and the paranoid, delusional “Serious Men Of Affairs” in the Chancelleries all over Europe. The Serious Men pondered fearfully the advances of their neighbors as “growing threats” and labored like beavers to ensure their national survival when the “inevitable” conflict came.
If a 1914 Edwin Snowden equivalent had somehow managed to publish verbatim accounts of the lunacy being indulged in Secrecy, national leaders would have been placed in sanitaria, sedated, and not allowed out until “well”.
Useful analogy-I think so.

#15 Comment By tbraton On December 2, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

“If a 1914 Edwin Snowden equivalent had somehow managed to publish verbatim accounts of the lunacy being indulged in Secrecy, national leaders would have been placed in sanitaria, sedated, and not allowed out until “well”.
Useful analogy-I think so.”

Well, the two leading “Edwin Snowden” types of our day, Julian Asange and Edward Snowden himself, appear to be the only ones in the sort of captivity you envision for the exposed national leaders. I believe Asange is still in the Ecuadorean embassy and Snowden in Russia under the protection of asylum.

#16 Comment By tbraton On December 2, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

“, national leaders would have been placed in sanitaria, sedated, and not allowed out until “well”. ”

I responded in part by stating that “I believe Asange is still in the Ecuadorean embassy and Snowden in Russia under the protection of asylum.” Upon rereading my posted message, I was struck by my accidental use of the word “asylum.” The pun was purely unintended, but it does pick up, ironically, on Oldeguy’s reference to “sanitaria.” I guess both Asange and Snowden are in “asylum,” come to think about it. And we used to mock, with justification, the political practice of the former Soviet Union, the “Evil Empire,” for putting political opponents (real or imagined) into insane asylums.

#17 Comment By Eric V On December 5, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

Many of the same things can be said about the race debate going on right now.

#18 Comment By Just Dropping By On December 6, 2014 @ 10:30 am

I often wonder why anyone believes that if there had been no Munich deal then Hitler would not have eventually taken over Czechoslovakia and Poland anyway.

The one quasi-legitimate argument that I’ve seen relating to the consequences of Munich is that it greatly facilitated Germany’s takeover of Czechoslovakia compared to how much effort it would’ve taken the Germans to defeat the Czech army. (The theory being that Germany would’ve still eventually taken over the country, but been bloodied enough in the conflict that it would have delayed future German military action against other countries long enough for the Western powers to get themselves better organized.) I can’t independently evaluate the plausibility of how much resistance the Czechs could have put up, but I’ve never seen anyone argue that the Czechs would have folded overnight either.