In the blog War on the Rocks, Michael Neiberg published an interesting piece on a phenomenon that has recently taken off among commentators of the international scene:
As we approach the centenary of World War I’s outbreak, a number of observers have tended to compare the current international situation to the one existing in 1914. In these scenarios, the United States assumes the role of Britain in 1914: a sated, world power that seeks to defend the status quo. China is the new Germany, an important regional power that increasingly throws its weight around in world affairs. However, these are not the only analogies made to 1914. As Neiberg points out, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, has likened the current situation between his country and China to Anglo-German relations before World War I. Commentary inspired by the crisis in the Ukraine has Russia as the new Germany and one of the Baltic states as the new Belgium. Others have framed Syria as the new Balkans, a cockpit of great power competition.
Obviously, this means of understanding the past is not unique to our time. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy turned to Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962), an account of World War I’s outbreak, for guidance in finding a peaceful resolution. And during the 1990s, observers repeatedly claimed that the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia would precipitate a new Balkan crisis much like the one that had led to world war in 1914.
Of course, 1914 is not the only date to which statesmen refer in times of trial. In 1956, during the Suez crisis, Anthony Eden, Britain’s Prime Minister, saw Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s leader, as a reincarnation of Hitler. Eden did not hesitate to compare the situation in Egypt to the Munich crisis of 1938. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush (who was a World War II veteran) described Saddam Hussein and the Middle Eastern situation in much the same way.
As Neiberg points out, there are real problems with seeing the contemporary world through 1914 lenses or the lenses of any other year for that matter. For one thing, although Great Power competition was a long-term cause of World War I, the Great Powers were actually getting along relatively well in the summer of 1914. What really lit the powder keg of Europe was a conflict between a weak, declining Great Power (Austria-Hungary) and a rogue, medium-sized country (Serbia). Reckless decision-making on the part of these two states, coupled with irresponsibility among several of the Great Powers (particularly Germany and Russia), led to a world war. In other words, the Great Power competition between Britain and Germany was not a major factor in the outbreak of the war. If that’s the case, what does that say about relations between the new Britain (America) and the new Germany (China)? In other words, how useful is the 1914 analogy in getting the United States right with China today?
Even more important is the general difficulty with making historical analogies of the sort that Neiberg criticizes. 2014 is clearly not the new 1914. Politically, economically, socially, culturally, and technologically, the world has changed immensely in the last 100 years. Not only that, unlike the leaders who guided the fortunes of the Great Powers in 1914 and blindly headed into the abyss (in the same way that we all blindly head into the future), our statesmen have the benefit of hindsight and know what happened in 1914. The problem, of course, is that knowing what happened in 1914 is not immediately relevant to what we see today. George Santayana’s claim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (which has become something of an axiom), is incorrect because history never repeats itself; circumstances are always different.
If historians always dwell on the uniqueness of events, what then is the value of history as we survey the present? A potential answer to this question emerged when Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2013), spoke at the NHIOP last week. An audience member asked what we could learn from the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Logevall’s response was cautious and rightfully so. As he pointed out, events do not teach lessons; people construct various lessons from events. The lesson Logevall himself learned from the Vietnam experience was that American power is limited and that policymakers needed to remember that ends have to be balanced against means.
Some people may have been disappointed by this response because they expected a more specific answer. Perhaps they anticipated something akin to The Princess Brides’s “Never fight a land war in Asia” (a dictum endorsed by even higher authorities such as Douglas McArthur when he command UN forces during the Korean War and Robert Gates when he was Secretary of Defense).
However, as Logevall’s answer suggests, the study of history does not provide precise answers as we tackle today’s problems. Rather, the study of history cultivates judgment, and that is where its true value lies.