The Power of Historical Analogy

4 07 2014

I’m fascinated by analogous reasoning, particularly when people try to apply historical analogies to understand the present. Those who study decision-making debate the extent to which historical analogies shape thought and action in the present. Some people, such as Professors A.J. Taylor, J.T. Rourke, are clearly pretty sceptical of the theory the historical analogies structure many decisions. I’m in the other camp and think that they exert a powerful influence on decision-makers in both the public and private sectors. In fact, one of my research projects right now looks at the impact of historical-analogous reasoning on the strategies of entrepreneurs in a particular field of technology.

The newspaper coverage of the centenary of the First World War has included many historical analogies between the pre-1914 rise of German manufacturing prowess and the recent growth in China’s GDP. An article that appeared in the Times of India, is an example.

The Times of India observes:

Exactly a century ago, on June 28, 1914, the assassination of the archduke of the Austro-Hungarian empire in Sarajevo triggered World War I.

In Asia, the rise of China and territorial disputes between China and its neighbours have raised concerns that Europe’s past could become Asia’s future.

[For context, it should be noted that India’ new Prime Minister is Sinophobic and wants to build a defensive alliance with the United States]/

The popularity of the Anglo-German historical analogy for viewing the current relationship between the US and China is noted here as well: Franz-Stefan Gady, Let’s Drop the Anglo-German Historical Analogy Once and For All When Discussing China

Gady writes:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did it: He compared the relationship between Japan and China to the one of Great Britain and Germany prior to World War One. In particular he referred to the Anglo-German arms race and used the historical analogy to warn of a new arms race in Asia. It appears that it is virtually impossible to discuss the rise of China without sooner or later making a historical analogy to 1914. It is, however, typically used to describe the relationship between the United States and China.

The Anglo-German historical analogy often leads policy makers astray from the actual reality of the rise of China and its military build-up. If we use historical analogies at all we should get them right!

The Globe and Mail newspaper actually had an online debate between two distinguished historians, Sir Richard Evans and Harold James, on this topic. Here are Sir Richard’s opening remarks:

Sir Richard J. Evans : As we enter the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, journalists and historians in Britain and the United States have begun to suggest that there may be similarities with the world in our own time. “A century on,” wrote The Economist on Dec. 21, 2013, “there are uncomfortable parallels with the era that led to the outbreak of the First World War.” The catastrophe that overtook Europe and the world in 1914 was unleashed, says the magazine, by Germany, a rising power that challenged the supremacy of the British Empire, the global superpower of the day. Now, the magazine claimed, “the United States is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly.” Others, notably the historian Niall Ferguson and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have echoed this alarmist view.

How plausible are these parallels? Do we really need to worry that history is about to repeat itself right on cue for the centenary of the First World War?

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