From Past to Future Historical Lessons and the US-China Relationship

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World War I (2)


The historiography of World War I and the examination of the events that led to war on August 4, 1914 are enormous.  Notwithstanding that very large historical and analytic record, the examination of the approach to World War I is in the process of receiving a new infusion as I suggested  recently in The Flood of Remembrance – 100 Years Since the Great War approach the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak. Indeed this very article and the others that accompany it are part of this new look at an old issue.

The vast historical and international relations research center on two principal issues. First, what was the cause of war 100 years ago?  Was it the rigid alliance system formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?  Was it the military mobilization plans?  Was it the naval race between Germany and Great Britain? And there are many other alternate explanations.  Secondly, and closely related to the first, there is the vast outpouring of academic work attempting to place responsibility for the war: which European state was responsible for the war’s outbreak?  Which leaders were responsible for fateful decisions that ignited this war?

The Anglo-German rivalry of 100 years has presented a too attractive analogy for experts, and indeed politicians, to resist.  I pointed at the Oxford and University of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan who couldn’t resist and in her December NYT OP-Ed  “The Great War’s Ominous Echoes”  MacMillan drew the direct comparison between the Anglo-German rivalry and today’s US-China competition.  Slightly more surprising however was Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s comparison, commented on in the same Rising BRICSAM post, at Davos between Anglo-German rivalry and current Sino-Japanese tensions. Now China was alert to provide a ‘smack down’ to this comparison but I anticipate that such contemporary will continue unabated through the 100th anniversary and beyond.

The dangers of historical analogy have long been known.  But such knowledge has not prevented policy makers – and by extension, I suspect, historians – from making inapt comparisons.  Historians have examined the misuse of history in the service of decisions.  Notable among them is Ernest May a long serving Harvard historian who in the 1970s wrote: Lessons” of the Past:  The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy.  Later with Richard Neustadt, May co-taught a course at Harvard on the “Uses of History” and they wrote Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. 

The preface outlines the errors history is put to.  Summarizing the conclusions, a former US diplomat Robert D Blackwell in “The Second Annual Ernest May Memorial Lecture” described May’s conclusions gathered in his preface:

“… Framers of foreign policy are often influenced by beliefs about what history teaches or portends. Sometimes, they perceive problems in terms of analogies from the past. Sometimes, they envision the future either as foreshadowed by historical parallels or as following a straight line from what has gone before.” A few pages later, he highlights that “policymakers ordinarily use historical analogies badly.  When resorting to an analogy, they tend to seize upon the first that comes to mind. They do not search more widely. Nor do they pause to analyze the case, test its fitness, or even ask in what ways it might be misleading. Seeing a trend running toward the present, they tend to assume that it will continue into the future, not stopping to consider what produced it or why a linear projection might prove to be mistaken…These habits can have important consequences, for they can affect the way statesmen understand their situations and problems.”

A further warning, sparked in part by the Japanese Prime Minister’s comparison was recently provided by Franz-Stefan Gady.  Gady a senior fellow at the East West Institute in Hawaii wrote a recent post at the China US Focus website entitled “Let’s Drop the Anglo-German Historical Analogy Once and For All When Discussing China“.  Gady references a critique of such historical analogies by Yuen Foong Khong who wrote in 1992 a Princeton University Press volume entitled Analogies at War: Korea, Dien Bien Phu and the Vietnam Decision of 1965.   The definition of historical analogy is succinctly put by Yuen Foong Khong as:

… an inference that if two or more events separated in time agree in one respect, then they may also agree in another.

An acute conclusion drawn by Khong is that the choice of analogy is telling.  Use Munich and US officials are incentivized to plan escalation; use Dien Bien Phu and American leadership would draw a very different conclusion.  These officials seem to grab onto Munich as the first thing that came to mind.  Officials were drawn to Munich – and as they say the rest is history.

Thus choice of analogy is critical.  But equally a more thorough comparison – an examination of context – is required.  How many factors are similar enough to enable a comparison and using the conclusion from the historical analogy.  Is, for example, the great power architecture similar?  Can one draw some comparison between the motivations and behaviors of the two countries through historical time?  ow do we analogize a global rivalry for colonies with a possible regional competition in East Asia?  Is the tenor of international relations similar enough to inquire further into the historical analogy?

In the case of Germany and Britain and its contemporary comparison US and China Gady suggests the following:

Using the analogy of Germany prior to World War I is not only alarmist but simply a non-sequitur.  Applying the logic of historical analogies to the British-German naval race, the corollary is the following: if the United States does not increase its naval spending, a resurgent Chinese Navy will lead China to pursue a more aggressive, unpredictable global foreign policy with the aim of guaranteeing “China’s place in the sun,” which sooner or later will lead to war.

Looked at this way only suggests the strained character of these historical analogies. These conclusions well worth remembering as volumes and articles make there debut on the “Approach to War in 1914”.

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