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Making the Case for History: Using Historical Analogies in Policy Analysis

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a January 2012 visit to Ecuador. Photo by Miguel Ángel Romero/Presidencia de la República del Ecuador.

The conflict between Iran and Israel, which has escalated steeply in recent weeks, is likely to be a critical campaign issue for both President Obama and the Republican candidates. What can history tell us about this conflict? How useful is history as a tool for understanding the present?

Fareed Zakaria has been pilloried in certain circles for his recent analysis of the growing tension between Israel and Iran. The two-cent version of Zakaria’s argument is that Israeli concerns about an Iranian nuclear weapon should be allayed by the fact that the Cold War never featured a nuclear exchange, nor even sustained direct combat of the conventional sort, between the two superpowers. Conversely, Germany’s decision in 1914 to press what appeared to be a momentary advantage over Russia and France, a decision of the sort Israel may be contemplating vis-à-vis Iran, produced the horrors of the First World War. Right after Zakaria’s words were published, criticisms of his analogies began to fly. “Historical analogy is the glib man's substitute for analysis,” academic Martin Kramer surmised from his webpage devoted to Middle Eastern politics. WINEP associate fellow and former NSC senior staff member Michael Singh concluded Zakaria was guilty of “cherry-picking” analogies to support preconceived notions, and thus “shoe-horned” his historical examples into painfully contorted versions of themselves to advance his argument. 

Of course, a little searching turns up praise of Zakaria’s argument as well as more castigation. That these different evaluations separate neatly along ideological lines does not alleviate charges that historical analogies mainly reinforce what we already believe to be true. Such perceptions of analogous reasoning are not limited to those with blog accounts. Presidential historians, political scientists, and others have observed that lessons taken from history are often simplistic, misrepresented, and thus misapplied. When using historical analogies for policy analysis, writers (including this one) will often throw in a caveat along the lines of “analogies can obscure more than they reveal,” probably leaving the reader wondering what the point of the whole exercise is in the first place. 

Nevertheless, ubiquitous warnings about poor historical reasoning should not lead to the abandonment of analogies to the past as a way of making sense of the present. Even press and internet critics of analogous reasoning usually acknowledge this point, without providing much elaboration about what making good use of history actually entails. Even less acknowledged is that the elimination of analogous reasoning is virtually impossible if we want to make sense of the present whatsoever. 

The inferences we draw about current events always rely on comparisons to other, similar events, whether this is acknowledged or implicit. Experimentation, that predominant method of science, relies fundamentally on analogous reasoning: what happens if I compare two groups that are similar in every way and then “treat” one, leaving the other as a “control”? Any resulting difference in outcomes must have arisen from that difference in treatment, since the two groups were analogous to one another in every important respect. Of course, true experiments can be hard to perform in the social world. I can’t picture the review board that would approve of a study proposing to give nuclear weapons to a random sample of countries, then sitting back to see how their behavior differed from a control group of non-nuclear states. This is why social scientists are often left with methodological substitutes for experiments that nevertheless try to copy their basic logic. For instance, comparative case studies of countries essentially represent reasoning by analogy. Why do some nations become democracies after long civil wars, while others get mired in autocracy? Despite both groups’ similarities, our hunch is that there are important factors shared by countries in the first set that are absent in the second, and we need to dig deeper to find what these similarities are. We may find it useful, and even necessary, to compare events in countries from different years—that is, use historical analogies—to shore up our theories about what’s going on.

What if you are of the mindset that most cases in the social world are more different from one another than they are similar—that it is ridiculous to try to approximate experiments used in the natural sciences as if we were dealing with simple chemical substances rather than people? Then you probably advocate in-depth studies of a single case rather than drawing from numerous cases to reason about the specific issue at hand. But even here, one is implicitly using analogies to arrive at final conclusions. On what basis do we argue that an Israeli military strike on Iranian facilities is likely to lead to greater long-term security for the Jewish State, or disastrous armed conflict that will diffuse throughout the region? Such claims are either based on our background knowledge of other cases from other regions and/or times that we think is valid and informative, or we are drawing analogies from previous episodes of tension between Israel and Iran. We are inevitably choosing some analogies, historical or not, to make up our minds while simultaneously neglecting others. Zakaria’s crime is making his historical analogies explicit, instead of allowing them to lurk in the background.

If analogous reasoning can’t be escaped, can it be improved? This is where historical knowledge is especially important. Using the Israel-Iran example, historical knowledge of coercive diplomacy allows us to catalogue the multiple paths which have existed and ended either in war or peace. It is indeed dangerous to infer that, because a past war was preceded by event X, and we observe something like X in the present, war now is inevitable. However, if we can elaborate by saying that X led to war because it caused steps A, B, and C to occur, and X in our present case has directly led to A and B as well, we can be more confident that we are on a particular path to war that has unfortunately proven itself in the past. The ability to carefully trace the processes by which events are unfolding in the present and have occurred in the past is what separates superficial or “glib” analogies from informed analysis. Informed analysis, however, is a subset of analogous reasoning more generally. To dismiss historical analogies as a default response is to delude ourselves about how we actually understand the world.

Aaron Rapport is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University in Atlanta.  In 2009-2010, he was a Miller Center Fellow and a fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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