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History’s Largest Lessons
A historian of the ancient world believes that in every era humankind has reacted to the demands of waging war in surprisingly similar ways, and that to protect our national interests today Americans must understand the choices soldiers and statesmen made hundreds and even thousands of years ago
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
But how do you pick the right analogy? For example, one could decide that a collapse of Russian power is always eventually reversed, and so the United States is looking at a momentarily diminished country and should either appease it or protract its powerlessness. But if flux and change are the constant, maybe Russian power is over. Given your theories, how do you determine what you’re looking at?
There is no way to determine from historical analogies what the real danger is at any particular time. And 1 shudder a little at the use of the word theory . I would not like to associate myself with the view of the political scientists who suggest that there are theories of politics that are in some way analogous to theories in the natural sciences because I don’t think that a theory derived from the study of history has direct predictive power. The difficulty in human affairs is to assess the facts at a particular time; at least that’s one of the major difficulties.
So, yes, there are contradictory possibilities. All I’m saying is that history suggests that Russia almost always possesses a minimum quantity of power, that in its current situation it is probably less strong than is natural, and that its power is very likely to increase considerably. However, it’s perfectly possible that this will not happen and that the new arrangement, which seems to me rather fragile, may turn out to be a lasting one, and Russia’s ability to menace its neighbors will be decreased permanently.
Again, how can history help us tell? In 1815 Russia was the most powerful European state. In 1856 it still appeared to be but proved to be the weakest, because of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on military strength. In 1878 it looked pretty formidable again; then after 1905 Russian power seemed to be out of the equation but actually was on the upswing very soon. So how do you determine these things in anything other than the shortest run?
In my view America represents something relatively new in the history of international relations.
I’m sorry, but the best you can do is find out the available facts and then be smart. All that historical knowledge can offer us is a variety of appropriate, or at least plausible, analogies. They may contradict one another, but they give us at least some sense of what possibilities to look for.
In the case of our own near future, which nations might conceivably fit the 1920s and 1930s model of powers that are only momentarily militarily insignificant or weak? Do you consider Japan and China such? For the last two thousand years China has usually been a much stronger power than it has been for the last two hundred.
You left out Germany. In all these cases it is prudent to expect problems sometime down the road because these states have traditionally possessed much more relative military power than they do now. Therefore one should look for the return to such a condition, both because it’s possible, as demonstrated by their past power, and because of the role of honor; formerly powerful states regard great strength as their normal condition and feel dissatisfied with any lessening of their power. And it’s discontent that shakes up the international situation. I think it’s entirely possible that Japan will not again be a military power. But one shouldn’t count on it, because Japan has all the things necessary, for the moment, to be a serious military power if it demonstrates the will. Of course, you can’t tell which way it’s going to go—both are possible—but if one of them is possible, you must not forget it just because right now Japanese political culture disdains military power.
Let’s take the Chinese. They’re still more backward in technological and other ways than Japan and Germany, but their sense of their uniqueness, of their cultural pre-eminence, may be even more powerful. Given my own proclivity for taking these ways of thinking very seriously, the Chinese, should their capacity make it possible, might be the most dangerous of all. Now, if things go badly—a time of troubles, a period of internal conflict, and this is entirely possible—China could be torn so seriously as to take it out of the picture for a long time. But my own judgment is that this is unlikely. There are a well-organized and powerful military and a well-entrenched bureaucracy, both hell-bent on hanging on.
If they do, we’ll be dealing with a China that’s got both strength and prosperity. That kind of China has historically been brusque, arrogant, and aggressive in its dealings with its neighbors, as it is now. The likeliest area of Chinese rambunctiousness is Taiwan. There is a tremendous emotional commitment to resuming control of Taiwan, and we won’t be able to walk away from Taiwan, no matter what we pretend. Another area is South Korea, which is a flourishing and increasingly liberal and democratic society. Again we can’t walk away from it. And last, Japan. China may well attempt to browbeat Japan. The United States could very easily find itself in a confrontation with China over any of these places.
But will China be able to continue economic modernization with the regime in place? Sustained modern economic growth seems to require the rule of law—at least the sanctity of contract—and the evidence suggests that this remains incompatible with communist state power.