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The Dangers of History Analogies

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China Power

The Dangers of History Analogies

Recent years have seen various Asian leaders use historical analogies to describe current events. This is dangerous.

The Dangers of History Analogies
Credit: Flickr/ World Economic Forum

July 25 marks the 120th anniversary of the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), or the War of Jiawu in Chinese. Three days later comes the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. With these anniversaries, a huge wave of historical comparisons are being thrown all over the place.

History has long played an important role in the contemporary affairs of the Asia-Pacific region. However, in recent years we have witnessed history being invoked much more frequently and explicitly by various actors. Do these historical analogies and “lessons from history” really provide us with useful guidance for current issues?

To answer this question, we need first to know why people rely on historical analogies. In his book Analogies at War, Yuen Foong Khong argues that leaders use historical analogies to perform specific cognitive and information-processing tasks essential to political decision making. A historical analogy signifies an inference based on the notion that if two or more events separated in time are similar in one respect, then they may also be similar in others. In other words, because event A resembles event B in having characteristic X, and knowing that A also has characteristic Y, it can be inferred that B also has characteristic Y; in logical shorthand, AX:BX::AY:BY. These historical analogies often form the basis of foreign policy and political propaganda.

According to Khong, humans have “limited computational capacities.” Consequently, human beings have to rely on some sort of simplifying mechanism to cope with and process the massive amount of information they encounter in their daily lives. Historical analogies serve as one such cognitive shortcut to help people make sense of complex issues. They help resolve conflicting information in ways that are consistent with the expectations of the analogy.

Leaders also often use historical analogies to justify policies. For example, scholars have discussed how U.S. policymakers routinely resort to historical analogies in defending various foreign policies. From World War I to Operation Desert Storm, American policy makers repeatedly invoked the “lessons of history” as they contemplated taking their nation to war. People have been discussing how differently America reacted to the 9/11 attack in comparison to the attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as analogies between the Iraq and Vietnam Wars.

Political elites also use historical analogies to persuade and influence opinions. For example, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Abe said that rising tensions between China and Japan today were similar to the competition between Germany and Britain before World War I. According to Abe, a “similar situation” existed in both cases because strong trade ties were not sufficient to overcome strategic rivalry. Obviously, he wanted his audience to view modern China as being as dangerous as Germany in 1914.

In China, the nation’s long history, especially the so-called “century of national humiliation,” has provided the current Chinese leadership with plenty of historical analogies to draw upon. For example, in recent weeks, especially following Japanese cabinet’s approval of the right to collective self-defense, many Chinese commentators have drawn parallels between today’s Japan and Imperial Japan, and portrayed collective self-defense as proving that militarism is on the rise in Japan.

Even though some historical analogies sound convincing, they are often wrong. As such, relying on them to understand a new situation could have disastrous results.

A number of factors affect the strength of historical analogies, including: the relevance of the known similarities, the amount and variety of the examples in the analogy, and the number of shared characteristics among the things being compared. For example, today’s China and Japan indeed share some similarities to Britain and Germany before 1914, such as close economic ties and security rivalries. At the same time, the size, amount and level of the economic ties between the two groups of states during the two periods of time have significant differences. Furthermore, the basic structure of the world has changed from one of imperialism to one of globalization.

Also, although modern Japan undoubtedly shares many similarities with pre-war Japan, the country’s political institutions, decision-making structures, society and foreign relations have all experienced dramatic and fundamental changes. Thus, many so-called similarities are actually incomparable and irrelevant.

It is therefore irresponsible for scholars to spread various historical analogies and “lessons of history,” and it is dangerous for political leaders to use historical analogies to mobilize support. These ready-to-use analogies could make people believe everything is doomed, and therefore not make strong efforts to uphold peace and to create new opportunities for reconciliation.

We are not handcuffed to history, and history is not destiny.

Zheng Wang is the Director of Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. His book Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations won the International Studies Association’s Yale H. Ferguson Award. The Japanese version of the book 中国の歴史認識はどう作られたのか was published by Toyo Keizai Inc. in May 2014.