Political analogies run risk of misinterpreting history
Seventy-five years on from Winston Churchill’s historic speech — in which he said, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent” — political analogies continue to be made with the former UK prime minister’s prescient warnings about the impending US-Soviet Cold War.
However, prior events can be misinterpreted by policymakers, just as they can also learn useful lessons. While history can provide a valuable framework for addressing very similar policy challenges, significant differences between past and present conditions must also be called out to guide action and avoid misjudgments.
Three-quarters of a century after Churchill’s eloquent March 5, 1946, address, the iron curtain analogy has been used in diverse contexts, from Belarus to China, in only the last few months. Take the example of China, whose actions before and after the pandemic in a range of policy areas, from security to digital and financial, have led some academics, think-tank officials and policymakers to resurrect the remarkable wartime leader’s words.
Such framing of events in international affairs is, of course, commonplace. In the complexity and uncertainty of sometimes fast-moving developments, policymakers and other influential figures often seek to draw what they perceive as key takeaways from the past while seeking to guide and provide rationales for future actions. But they should beware of making mistakes. On China, for instance, analogies with the Cold War can belie the differences between the openness of US-China relations today compared to those with the Soviet Union after the Second World War, particularly in areas such as economic interwovenness and people-to-people interactions.
None of this is to dispute that some of China’s actions are very troubling, including in Hong Kong, where the new security law has been rightly criticized by much of the international community as a violation of the 1997 “one country, two systems” joint declaration with the UK. But there are dangers in conflating the concerning breaches of freedoms in the territory to date with the sweeping totalitarianism imposed on much of the Eastern Bloc by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
One danger is that it can lead to suboptimal policy prescriptions, such as then-US President Donald Trump’s threat last year to “cut off the whole relationship” with Beijing. In what appeared to be a parallel with America’s containment policy of the Soviet Union, he asserted that this would save the country $500 billion (likely a reference to the $557 billion of US imports from China in 2018), despite the fact most economists believe it would cause significant harm to the US and the wider global economy.
The iron curtain analogy is not the only one that continues to act as a source of confusion, as well as clarity, in international relations. For much of the period since the 1970s, for instance, many US officials have been fearful of “another Vietnam,” referring to the troubled American intervention there. In the period until 9/11, this reduced Washington’s willingness to deploy US military force internationally. That is, unless any action — such as the 1991 Gulf War — had clear, attainable objectives that could be swiftly achieved with a minimum of casualties.
Vietnam also became a key frame of reference when the US-led intervention in Iraq faltered after 2003. This was despite the fact that the two experiences (Iraq and Vietnam) were dissimilar in many respects, including the nature of the insurgencies and America’s objectives in each country.
The iron curtain analogy is not the only one that continues to act as a source of confusion, as well as clarity, in international relations.
However, perhaps the most widely used historical analogy is that of the ill-fated 1938 UK-French Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany. Numerous politicians claimed to have been influenced by it, including George W. Bush during the “war on terror,” Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands conflict, Lyndon Johnson with Vietnam, Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet during the Suez crisis, and Harry Truman over Korea. But not all diplomatic agreements turn out like Munich, just as not all military actions end up like Vietnam. And Suez and Vietnam underscore how Munich was used to guide or justify major foreign policy blunders by the US, the UK and France in the 1950s and 1960s.
These examples underline that the use of analogies is fraught with difficulties — despite the valuable lessons that can be learned from history — due to the constant risk that past crises can be misinterpreted. The coronavirus pandemic has, if anything, only added to the uncertainty of international affairs and extra care is therefore needed by policymakers as they think through the range of options at their disposal in the tumult of the post-pandemic world.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.