During the recent foreign policy crises over Syria's use of chemical weapons and the Obama administration's negotiations with Iran, the Munich analogy was heard from both sides of the political spectrum. Arguing for airstrikes against Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the nation faced a "Munich moment." A few months later, numerous critics of Barack Obama's diplomatic discussions with Iran evoked Neville Chamberlain's naïve negotiations with Adolph Hitler. "This wretched deal," Middle East historian Daniel Pipes said, "offers one of those rare occasions when comparison with Neville Chamberlain in Munich in 1938 is valid." The widespread resort to the Munich analogy raises the question: When, if ever, are historical analogies useful for understanding present circumstances?
Since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, one important purpose of describing historical events was to provide models for posterity. Around 395 B.C., Thucydides wrote that his history was for "those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it." Thus he proclaimed his history to be "a possession for all time." Nearly four centuries later, the Roman historian Livy wrote his history of the Roman Republic from its foundations to Augustus in order to show "what to imitate," and to "mark for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful in the result."
Both historians believed the past could inform and instruct the present because they assumed that human nature would remain constant in its passions, weaknesses, and interests despite changes in the political, social, or technological environment. As Thucydides writes of the horrors of revolution and civil war, "The sufferings . . . were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases." Good history must take into account that "variety of the particular cases," but an unchanging human nature will over time and space work similar effects. The past, then, can provide analogies for the present, provided they are based on "exact knowledge," and the "variety of particular cases" is respected.
In contrast, the modern idea of progress--the notion that greater knowledge of human motivation and behavior, and more sophisticated technology, are changing and improving human nature--suggests that events of the past have little utility in describing the present, and so every historical analogy is at some level false. The differences between two events separated by time and different levels of intellectual and technological sophistication will necessarily outweigh any usefulness. The progressive improvement of human nature, however, is a cultural idea, not a scientific fact. If the gruesome twentieth century shows us anything, it is that the destructive passions, irrational motives, and dangerous weaknesses of human nature still persist. As long as the important differences between past and present events are respected, the similarities can be useful for understanding our own predicaments.
An example of a historical analogy that failed because it neglected important differences was one popular among those supporting the Bush Doctrine during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush Doctrine was embodied in the president's 2005 inaugural speech: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world." Promoting democracy and political freedom in the Middle East was believed to be the way to eliminate the political, social, and economic dysfunctions that presumably breed Islamic terrorism. Supporters of this view frequently invoked the transformation of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union from aggressive tyrannies into peaceful democracies to argue for nation building in the Muslim Middle East.
Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, used this analogy in his 2004 book The Case for Democracy, which was an important influence on President Bush's thinking. Yet in citing the examples of Russia, Germany, and Japan as proof that democracy could take root in any cultural soil, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sharansky overlooked some key differences. Under Soviet communism, a highly religious Russian people were subjected to an atheist regime radically at odds with the beliefs of the masses. Communism could only promise material goods, and when it serially failed to do so, it collapsed. As for Germany and Japan, both countries were devastated by World War II, their cities and industries destroyed, the ruins standing as stark reminders of the folly of the political ideologies that wreaked such havoc. Both countries were occupied for years by the victors, who had the power and scope to build a new political order enforced by the occupying troops. As political philosopher Michael Mandelbaum reminds us, in Germany and Japan, democracy was introduced at gunpoint.