What can we learn from historical analogies

The use of analogy is popular among policy-makers with limited time and energy to understand the details of specific historical cases in comparison to contemporary events.

Analogies are of critical importance to inductive reasoning. They assume regularities and correlations that occurred in the past will hold in the future. This may, or may not be the case, as Oxford political scientist Yuen Foong Khong argues "The chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies". So what then should Beijing take away from the fact that many American and Japanese commentators are seizing on the First World War analogy to explain (and supposedly predict) Chinese behaviour?

The argument advanced by those that liken modern China to Willhemine Germany is that China, just as Germany did, will start a war in pursuit of great power ambitions. This, however, is a rather out-dated historical argument. Reputable historians are loath today to blame Germany exclusively for the start of WWI. Instead, the war is seen as the by-product of numerous forces including rampant nationalism across Europe, increasing economic competition and the pursuit of colonial possessions overseas, as well as a complex system of alliances.

The use of the WWI analogy seeks to paint China as the aggressor, much like the out-dated scholarship of World War I blamed Germany for the war. Dismissing the analogy out of hand, however, would be a grave mistake. There is also a lesson to learn.

Germany was not solely responsible for the war. But it did make a series of choices that set large parts of Europe ablaze. The central problem for German leadership was how to secure a country at the heart of Europe, surrounded by great powers. To achieve this objective, Germany needed to be able to fight a major war against enemies on two fronts simultaneously. Berlin therefore required a large army for defence, but this in turn made Germany's neighbours feel insecure. This is what experts call a 'security dilemma'. This situation, however, was not inevitable.

In 1871 Otto von Bismarck managed to unify Germany and stave off war for three decades. Having defeated Denmark, Austria and France, in isolated conflicts, Bismarck realised in the future he would not have the luxury of fighting bilateral wars. As such, he pursued a series of policies isolating his primary concern - France - through the development of positive relationships with Russia and Austria. It was a difficult balancing act. But Bismarck nevertheless managed to avoid the development of an alliance amongst European powers that could threaten Berlin's interests.

Kaiser Wilhelm failed to manage relations as well as Bismarck. Soon, rather than isolating Germany's rivals, he isolated Germany. Russia sided with France, and the Kaiser's pursuit of direct naval competition with Britain, to give him more power in the race for colonies, prompted London to focus on Berlin, rather than Moscow as a source of concern. The result was a naval arms race with London. In effect, Wilhelm sacrificed the primary national interest of Germany - the territorial integrity of the German homeland - in an attempt to achieve a secondary aim, the accumulation of colonies.

Beijing today, threatens to undermine its own success with similar policies. It is difficult for the United States, or any other state for that matter, to argue against China's right to develop a blue water navy. Whether or not American military planners like this reality, it is a reality. But rather than assuaging the concerns of the United States, and those of China's neighbours, recent aggressive moves by Beijing leave China isolated.

The most egregious decision was China's implementation late last year of an air defence identification zone over the Senkaku Islands. In doing so, China prompted neighbours to rally to the United States and to side with Japan - a paradoxical outcome given Japan's difficult relations with many other Asian states.

The WWI analogy is far from perfect, but it would behove China to learn from the Kaiser's mistakes. Beijing would be smart to rethink its current policy.

The current tensions in Crimea should only serve to reinforce a more transparent and engaged Chinese foreign policy if Beijing is truly interested in peaceful relations with the United States and its allies in Asia.


The writer is associate professor of international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and a DAAD fellow at the Military Historical Institute in Berlin.