The Danger of Analogies

Last week I wrote a piece for the Orange County Register, talking about the dangers of describing the current U.S. conflict with Russia as a new Cold War. In it, I highlighted the problems that arise when policymakers use historical analogies as a cheat sheet to understand today’s foreign policy crises.

Drawing analogies to past crises is a natural human reaction, and one which is widespread among foreign policy decision makers. As I noted:

Political science research demonstrates that leaders often rationalize their decisions by making analogies to prior crises. Policymakers also frequently use historical analogies to justify their choices.

Such analogies range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The prize for most ridiculous, at least recently, goes to those who described the North Korea/Sony hacking scandal as a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor.” But there were also a variety of serious analogies which dominated the news last year.

The idea that the United States and Russia are now engaged in a new Cold War has been mooted by media and by politicians. Yet current tensions with Russia over Ukraine differ in key ways from the cold war: Russia and Europe are far more economically linked than during the cold war, and disagreement centers primarily on the issue of NATO expansion, rather than on ideological grounds. By describing tensions with Russia as a new cold war, policymakers interpret all facets of the U.S.-Russian relationship in a conflictual way, preventing cooperation on other policy issues like Syria.

Another analogy stands in the way of negotiations on Ukraine itself. Opponents of a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis frequently compare the situation to the 1930s appeasement of Nazi Germany at Munich. The Munich analogy has long been a favorite of foreign policy hawks, used to criticize any leader seen as being insufficiently ‘tough’ in a crisis. Unfortunately, in this case it serves as a barrier to diplomacy, with leaders scared to even open diplomatic talks for fear of being seen as ‘appeasing’ Russia.

Still other analogies last year focused on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS was the new Al Qaeda. ISIS was the new Nazi Germany. Each comparison served to vastly exaggerate the threat from the group, which, though barbaric, posed little direct threat to the United States. Such exaggeration contributed substantially to renewed U.S. involvement in conflict in Iraq and Syria.

Analogies are a natural reaction when we try to understand complex new international crises. They also make great sound bites for politicians. But no two situations are exactly alike, and the solution to one crisis is not necessarily best for another, no matter how superficially similar they may be. Such lazy thinking often restricts our policy options unnecessarily.  So when faced with a foreign policy analogy, be skeptical.