History Isn’t a Playbook: Misguided Analogies and Great Power Competition

May 26, 2016

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On October 8, 2009, a day before President Obama and his team reviewed General Stanley McChrystal’s troop proposals for Afghanistan for the first time, George Packer noted that two well-known books about decision-making during the Vietnam War — A Better War (1999) and Lessons in Disaster (2008) — had been circulating among members of the administration.  While sympathizing with the analogies between Afghanistan and Vietnam, Packer memorably expressed concern about “this official binge of historical consciousness”:

The similarities teach certain lessons that are more or less permanently true, but they cannot serve as fixed guides to each new and unique situation.  Thinking-by-analogy can be just as dangerous as historical amnesia: because A looks like B, there’s a strong temptation to abandon the immense difficulty of understanding B on its own terms, and instead to let the outcome of A do the thinking for you.

I find myself revisiting Packer’s admonition now that I am working with the staff of the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council to consider how the United States can pursue a foreign policy grounded in “dynamic stability.” In a report last April expounding that notion, Barry Pavel, Peter Engelke, and Alex Ward explain that while “U.S. policymakers should continue to seek stability in key regions,” they must also “leverage dynamic megatrends that are unfolding across the globe.”  They cannot undertake these tasks, however, if they misinterpret the trends that are shaping world order — an analytical error that is more likely if they indulge misguided historical comparisons.  Writing in these pages in early 2014 to caution against facile analogies, Lawrence Freedman cited a few episodes that are often invoked improperly:

Need to keep a war limited, recall how MacArthur’s dash to the Yalu in 1950 drew China into the Korean War.  Alternatively, worried about the limits, note how Saddam Hussein was let off the hook at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.  The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis advises the provision of an escape route for your adversary even while being firm.  Northern Ireland is available to show how terrorists can be brought into a political process while the end of the Cold War provides guidance on how to ease deep international tensions.

While the reflex to analogize is natural, it can also be dangerous.  If we assess that a present situation is similar to one that has occurred and been examined in detail, we feel that we have a playbook of sorts from which we can proceed.  The trouble, though, is that historical episodes can only go so far in illuminating contemporary challenges.  Indeed, the sorts of comparisons that tend to be made nowadays obscure the uniqueness of today’s world order. Consider two oft-articulated arguments: first, that contemporary Sino-U.S. distrust is comparable to German-British antagonism a century ago, and second, that strategic tensions between major powers herald the resumption of 1930s-era great power competition.

The recent centenary of World War I’s beginning occasioned many anxious commentaries about the possibility, perhaps even inevitability, of war between the United States and China.  There are important similarities between the cases, beginning with the inexorable tensions between rising (or resurgent) powers and leading ones.  The United States and China are economically interdependent, just as Britain and Germany were on the eve of war.  And just as it seems inconceivable that the two pillars of today’s world order would countenance armed conflict, let alone engage in one, it seemed unimaginable that Europe would self-destruct following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  After all, notes Margaret MacMillan, “there had been many political assassinations in previous years,” none of which “had led to a major crisis.”

But there are also crucial differences.  The United States and China both have nuclear weapons whose enormous destructive power serves to limit the likelihood of an armed confrontation between the two.  Unlike Britain and Germany, moreover, the two countries are separated by vast bodies of land and water.  In the 20th century, ideological rifts and territorial designs played a central role in precipitating armed conflicts. Competition between the United States and China, by contrast, centers more on economic diplomacy and institution-building.  And where Germany was an overt revisionist, China poses a gradualist, nuanced challenge to today’s liberal world order — an order of which, importantly, it has been the principal beneficiary since embarking on economic reforms in the late 1970s.  Surveying “seven salient similarities and seven instructive differences between the challenges confronting Chinese and American leaders today and those facing world leaders in 1914,” Graham Allison concludes that “the probability of war between the U.S. and China in the decade ahead is higher than I imagined before examining the analogy — but still unlikely.”

Similarly, it has become increasingly common to hear that we are witnessing a return to great power competition.  While there surely is interstate competition, it is a far cry from that of the 1930s and 1940s.  There is no equivalent of Nazi Germany, which perpetrated the Holocaust and laid waste to European order, or of fascist Japan, which killed millions of Chinese and wreaked havoc on the Pacific order.  Nor is there any collectivist framework to challenge democratic capitalism; if anything, the principal threat to the latter’s legitimacy may be its own underperformance.  Paul Kennedy memorably observed in Fall 2013 that:

If there are neurotic Kaiser Wilhelms or bullying Mussolinis or murderous Stalins around today, they are not—thank heavens—to be found in Beijing, Moscow, or New Delhi.

If this thesis is correct, and the Great Powers, while sometimes complaining about one another’s actions, generally act in a restrained manner, then perhaps we may look forward to a long period without a major war, rather like the unprecedented peace among the Great Powers that existed after 1815 under the Concert of Europe.

Many wars would still take place, but they would be local conflicts, not cause enough, despite their atrocities and inhumanity, to drag a major actor directly into the fighting.  The Great Powers, in turn, would set aside their own differences to keep the bloodshed local, putting pressure upon their own client states if necessary to stop them from upsetting the international apple cart.

Begin with Russia: It has scored some minor annexations in recent years, it is complicating U.S. policy in Syria, and it has exploited accumulating stresses on the European Union — whether the ascendance of populist parties, economic underperformance, the refugee crisis, or the potential for a “Brexit” — to test the Union’s cohesion.  But the suggestion that it is engaged in “great power competition” with the United States belies Russia’s place within the evolving world order.  Sergei Guriev notes that its economy is “doing worse than at any time since [the 1990s].”  Its demographic outlook is bleak, and the coercive leverage it has over Europe on account of its energy reserves, while still formidable, is declining.  Despite the growing appearance of a Sino-Russian strategic axis, Russia is, in fact, becoming more of a Chinese supplicant.  Meanwhile, Russia’s objective of a Eurasian Economic Union that bridges Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific is growing more elusive.  Russia does not have the capacity to offer a viable alternative to the present world order; instead, it is constrained to chipping away at the margins and frustrating Western (principally U.S.) objectives where possible.

Turning east, there is intense competition between the United States and China, but it is of a far different character than the great power competition of eight decades earlier.  While China is investing in asymmetric capabilities to contest the U.S. Navy’s presence and operations in the Western Pacific, it recognizes that engaging in an arms race with the United States would be futile, and it has had little success earning strategic trust with its neighbors (Yan Xuetong argues that it “has only one real ally, Pakistan,” and a recent article notes that China’s effort to win international support for its “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea has only had “limited success”).  Instead, it is more likely to try and secure their participation in its preferred regional order by making them increasingly dependent on Chinese trade and investment.  China is already the largest trading partner for most countries in the Asia-Pacific, including Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea. It is steadily internationalizing the renminbi and has launched “One Belt, One Road,” the most ambitious campaign of geo-economic statecraft since the Marshall Plan. Further, it has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, inaugurated the Silk Road Fund, and made progress in negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The United States can temporarily counter China’s magnetic economic pull by boosting its military presence in the Asia-Pacific and strengthening its defense partnerships there, but its best hope for entrenching its regional presence in the long run is to rival China’s economic initiatives.  U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter argued last April that securing the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is as important to that end as fielding another aircraft carrier.  While many of China’s neighbors fear its regional ambitions and desire an enduring, multifaceted U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific, they will find it difficult to oppose its strategic preferences if China comes to wield a veto over their economies.  If the United States wishes to consolidate its perch and preserve a stable Sino-U.S. equilibrium in the region whose trajectory will be most decisive in shaping world order, it must prioritize the conduct of economic statecraft over the application of military force.

While World War I and 1930s-era great power competition are far from the only phenomena that observers invoke too liberally, they illustrate two broader, symmetric fallacies: exaggerating the applicability of historical episodes to present challenges, and straining to find antecedents when they either do not exist or are tenuous at best.

I argued in August 2014 that “our world is heading into uncharted territory,” and have become further convinced of that judgment in the interregnum.  The resurgent importance of geo-economics in world affairs; the ruinous reordering of the Middle East; the confluence of challenges to the European project; the proliferation of “gray zone” challenges; the difficulty of forging norms to govern interactions in cyberspace; and the impact of social media on decision-making and policy execution; are just a few of the phenomena that should caution observers against assuming that today’s world order is simply a variant of one we have witnessed before.


Ali Wyne is a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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2 thoughts on “History Isn’t a Playbook: Misguided Analogies and Great Power Competition

  1. A useful caution provided that it isn’t used to justify dismissing any history earlier than last week as irrelevant. On balance, American politicians (and military leaders) haven’t been uniformly noted for their historical depth.

  2. One can view history as a chance to learn where preparation made for a successful endeavor and where luck just played out. But one blinded by the “exceptionalism” propaganda probably won’t. The British lack of preparation for World War II was rooted in unwillingness to devote the effort, but they got lucky that the US needed the work. Who does the US count on for their windfall?