The conflict in Georgia has unleashed a stampede of hyperbole in the United States, as media commentators compete to cast aspersions on the Russians and extol the virtues of the Georgians. Yet the merits of this narrative are dubious, particularly given that most US observers have substituted argument by historical analogy for analysis of the (morally ambiguous) roots of the dispute. This inhibits, rather than promotes, understanding of the issues involved, and confuses the policy choices facing the United States.
Argument by historical analogy leverages the writer’s (apparent) historical erudition to disguise a lack of specific knowledge of the countries, ethnic groups and leaders involved. When successfully executed, this intellectual backflip can make an ideologically-driven theory seem like a common sense conclusion drawn from meaningful evidence.
The US commentariat frequently indulges in this bad habit. While real expertise in particular foreign countries is thin on the ground, there has been a rich harvest of ideologically formed opinions on both the Right and the Left:
- Here comes Hitler: The erstwhile -- and very dead -- fuehrer made his usual star turn. Influential foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan claimed that the “precise details” of the Georgia-Russia dispute did not matter, because it was an outrage on the order of Nazi Germany’s seizure of Czechoslovakia. He also claimed that the initiation of the conflict on August 8 (via a Georgian offensive) would be seen by history as a date as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
- Cold War redux: On the Left, John Judis implied that Republican presidential contender John McCain’s condemnation of Russia’s actions risked a “new Cold War”. The problem, of course is that Judis’s ‘new’ Cold War would lack most of the features of the historical Cold War. The actual event occurring in Georgia was a hot war, as Judis’s New Republic blog colleague Leon Wieseltier pointed out.
Historians know better. In his seminal 1970 book Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, David Hackett Fisher of Brandeis University devoted a special section to the “fallacy of the false analogy”. For Fisher, the key point is that no historical event is precisely like another, and that such comparisons falsely simplify immensely complicated issues.
Of course, history (or the popular understanding thereof) often has a powerful influence on how current events are perceived -- not least because policymakers, like journalists and pundits, are often tempted to reason by false analogy. Avoiding ‘another Munich’ (when the United Kingdom and France essentially surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler) has been used to justify a great many un-analogous policies ever since -- and led to more than a few major policy blunders in turn. Despite Kagan’s claim, in policymaking command of the (present) details is a surer guide to wise policy choices than the lessons of the past.