How not to learn from history: The US- China Relations

How not to learn from history: The US- China Relations by Yuen Foong Khong

At a crucial National Security Council meeting in July 1965, during which President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers were deliberating whether the United States should intervene militarily in South Vietnam with 100,000 troops, US Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr delivered the coup de grâce to those vacillating about the intervention: ‘I feel there is a greater threat to start World War III if we don’t go in [to save South Vietnam]. Can’t we see the similarity to our own indolence at Munich?’1 Thirty years later, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also felt it necessary to remind her interlocutors, when dealing with ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, that her ‘mindset is Munich’,2 not Vietnam. Her pro-military intervention mindset pitted her against the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, whom she needled with her famous comment ‘What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’3 Powell was so dismayed by Albright’s willingness to send US troops in harm’s way that ‘I thought I would have an aneurysm’.4

The point of departure of this article is that what Lodge and Albright were doing is unexceptional: when confronted with new challenges, they looked to the past for guidance. But as the Vietnam debacle and Powell’s reaction to Albright suggest, it is also true that looking to the past to assess the present (and future) is strewn with risks. The invocation of the Hippocratic ‘do no harm’ oath by the editors of this special issue undoubtedly applies to decision-makers predisposed to ‘learning’ and applying the lessons of history in dealing with foreign policy challenges. Scholars who have examined how policy-makers use historical analogies in international affairs agree that in most of those cases, their analogies—insofar as they shaped the decision—have led to suboptimal outcomes, or what the editors call ‘failures’.

This article attempts to do two things: first, to glean from existing studies of ‘failures’ in using the lessons of history in international affairs a set of ‘how not tos’ that can help steer the process of using history away from the wrong paths towards something better; and second, to examine the extent to which these ‘how not to’ proscriptions have informed the way policy-makers and analysts are using history in a contemporary case. I will proceed as follows. In the first part of the article, I draw on existing analyses of how policy-makers have used the ‘lessons of the past’ in their foreign policy decision-making to suggest a few ‘how not to’ proscriptions on using history.5 My survey of the existing literature on the pitfalls of analogical reasoning in international affairs leads us to four related ‘how not to’ strictures: (1) do not settle or fixate on the first or most evocative analogy that comes to mind; (2) do not dismiss differences between your favoured analogy and the case in question; (3) do not neglect alternative analogies; and (4) do not shirk from ‘testing’ the observable implications of your preferred analogy. Decision-makers who show awareness of these ‘how not tos’ in using the lessons of the past, I argue, are less likely to commit the errors that plague the unaware.

The second part of the article explores the extent to which these four ‘how not tos’ manifest themselves in a contemporary case of ‘learning from the past’. The case I have chosen is how the United States and its strategic partners are using historical analogies to interpret the nature and trajectory of US–China relations today. Research indicates that four historical analogies figure prominently in the contemporary worldwide debate about the nature and challenge posed by China’s rise: Athens–Sparta (or ‘the Thucydides Trap’), the First World War, the Second World War or Munich, and the Cold War. Of these four, the Cold War analogy is emerging as the key interpretative schema and it will be the focus of the analysis here. I shall pay special attention to how policy-makers (former and current), rather than scholars, use the analogy, because it is the use of analogies by those with policy influence, such as former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Mike Pompeo, that shapes thinking and debate in the policy sphere.

The use of the Cold War analogy is not limited to the US policy community. China’s leaders, for example, often accuse the United States of adopting a ‘Cold War mentality’ in its diplomatic approach to Asia in general, and China in particular, but they seldom spell out what that mentality involves other than to imply a hegemonic US bent on retarding China’s rise.6 Other policy-makers in Asia, Europe and Africa—as I will show below—are also latching on to the Cold War parallel to make sense of US–China relations and the implications for their respective countries and regions.7 My focus, however, will be on the analogy’s usage by the United States and its strategic partners (Australia in particular). This focus is justified by the fact that the most systematic and detailed articulations of the analogy are to be found in debates within the US. This should not come as a surprise, given that the United States (and its strategic partners in Asia) are the ones most in need of getting the ‘diagnosis’ about the nature and stakes of the China challenge right if they are to construct appropriate strategies to meet the challenge.

My analysis of how the Cold War analogy is being deployed suggests that its users have avoided the worst pitfalls of analogical reasoning in foreign affairs. The most prominent users of these historical analogies show awareness of the first three of the above proscriptions; all, however, shy away from the fourth—the need to test the prognostications of their favoured analogy. Although this is far from perfect, the signs point to the Cold War analogy being used in ways that avoid the general pattern of superficial and poor use documented in existing analyses of analogical reasoning in foreign affairs.

Authored by Yuen Foong Khong | International Affairs, Volume 98, Issue 5, September 2022 | Download the complete report from here.

Similar Posts