How foreign policy makers view pivotal years says a great deal about how they act in 2014Roundup
tags: WW I, WW II, analogies
Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security. Vance Serchuk is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
This year has been filled with multiple, competing foreign policy crises, but 2014 has also been a year of dueling historical analogies.
The trend began in January, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invoked the specter of 1914 in remarks at Davos. In comparing his country’s current tensions with China to those between Britain and Germany before World War I, Abe noted that deep economic interdependence did not prevent war between the two powers. Two months later, with Vladimir Putin in the process of seizing Crimea in the name of Russian speakers, Hillary Clinton suggested that the time was more like 1938. “Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the 30s,” she said, noting that Hitler cited the need to protect ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland and beyond. Then, in June, as ISIS overran northern Iraq, its fighters announced that they were rerunning 1916, this time erasing the century-old Sykes-Picot borders—a strategic setback that, in Washington, set off comparisons to 1975 and the fall of Saigon. It seems that those who remember history are condemned to invoke it.
With all of this historical-mindedness, it is worth reflecting on some of the dates today’s leaders are inclined to invoke, as they debate the dilemmas of the present. In their choice of historical analogy, politicians and policymakers often reveal more about their foreign policy worldview than do conventional partisan or ideological labels. Just how this takes shape can be seen in three sets of competing historical prisms and how each is applied to events in today’s world.
1914 versus 1938. As Prime Minister Abe articulated—and a raft of articles commemorating a century since the outbreak of World War I have emphasized—small, seemingly trivial events can have tremendous, catastrophic consequences. No one in 1914 expected that the assassination of an archduke in a remote corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire would unleash a global conflict that would result, within four years, in 16 million dead and Europe’s empires shattered. Had Austria-Hungary not responded to the incident by provoking war with Serbia, had the European powers not invoked their cascading treaty obligations and mobilized their armies, and had small events not been permitted to spiral out of control, history might have turned out very differently.
The lesson of 1914 seems clear—don’t let minor incidents escalate, maintain cordial great power relations, emphasize diplomacy in resolving solutions, be careful about extending treaty commitments to client states, don’t overreact, be cautious. And so as 1914 partisans watch Beijing establish an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea and drag an oil rig into Vietnamese waters, or see Moscow and its proxies annex Crimea and fell a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, their instinct is to keep eyes on the prize—preserving the great power peace. Are Americans willing to send their sons and daughters to die for the Senkakus or Sevastapol? If the answer is no, then the United States must be prudent to avoid becoming too entangled in the tensions over these obscure places that could drag us into a cataclysmic conflict. We won’t be fully happy with the outcome, but that’s not the point; the goal is to manage global events in a way that keeps silent the guns of August. Rashly extending security guarantees to countries on Russia and China’s respective peripheries, blindly selling them weapons, ramping up the U.S. military presence in eastern Europe and the western Pacific—these things are a recipe for repeating the disaster whose centenary we mark this year.
On the other hand, Secretary Clinton’s invocation of Hitler’s moves eastward in the 1930s provides precisely the opposite lesson. In appeasing the Fuhrer and acquiescing in his seizure of portions of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart made a bad situation infinitely worse. By demonstrating that Britain and France would impose no meaningful cost on Hitler’s appetites they merely fed them, ensuring that the war to come was even more bloody and costly, and waged against a stronger Germany that controlled significant new land to its east....
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