Pick Your Prism

Vance Serchuk and Richard Fontaine

Politico | 2014

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.

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