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“You have chosen poorly!” The Problem with Historical Analogies and U.S. Policy

indiana_jones_grail_knightIndiana Jones, despite being chased by Nazi thugs through Europe and the Middle East, manages to select the one Holy Grail among hundreds in a cave chapel in the dramatic finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. His ominous adversary, an American businessman who has allied himself with the SS, predictably fails in his selection and meets his untimely death after which the grail guardian—a wise, gray, bearded old knight—utters the admonition, “He chose poorly.”

Unfortunately in the policy world, we do not have a Grail Knight reproaching foreign policy makers for their choices, especially when they invoke historical analogies to justify a particular policy. With Vice President Biden’s state visit to China this month, and Beijing’s eagerness to discuss the issue of the South China Sea and arms sales to Taiwan, it would be valuable to examine historical precedents regarding U.S. naval policy towards China .

In a recent Commentary Magazine piece, Max Boot uses the recurrent analogy of Wilhelmine Germany and the British-German Naval Race of the early 20th century. He cites former U.S. Representative to the UN, Robert O’Brien, who states, “China has big maritime ambitions, and they are backed up by a naval build-up unseen since Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to challenge British naval power with the building of the High Seas Fleet at the turn of the last century.” Boot gloomily adds, “At least Britain was able to match the German naval build-up at the turn of the 20th century with its own building program…. We desperately need a ship-building and plane-building program to match China’s. Instead, savants in Washington are discussing further cutbacks.” This sort of alarmist historical analogy often leads policy makers astray from the actual reality of a particular issue.

Yuen Foong Khong , author of ‘Analogies at War-Korea, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decision of 1965’, defines historical analogy as “an inference that if two or more events separated in time agree in one respect, then they may also agree in another…. [A]ppeasement in Munich occurred as a result of Western indolence; appeasement in Vietnam is also occurring as a result of Western indolence. Appeasement in Munich resulted in a world war; therefore, appeasement in Vietnam will also result in a world war.” Analogy is thus used to predict possible outcomes of certain policy decisions and provide prescriptions.

Analogies also are used widely for justification or advocacy or to assist in processing difficult information. The problem arises when policy makers select ‘bad’ analogies. As Khong asserts, had the Johnson administration used the French example in Indochina (especially their defeat at Dien Bien Phu) rather than Munich and the Korean War, the fateful decision in 1965 to commit ground troops to Vietnam might have been viewed very differently.

He also makes a compelling argument that ultimately it was analogy rather than domestic political considerations, bureaucratic politics, or the political military ideology that caused President Johnson and the National Security Council to decide to intervene in Vietnam.  Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, offered the compelling rationale at a National Security Council meeting. “I feel there is a greater threat to start World War III if we don’t go in. Can’t we see the similarity to our own indolence at Munich?” Historical analogies are thus powerful tools in the hands of an eloquent advisor.

Taking a closer look at U.S. naval policy towards China and applying the historical analogy of the German-British naval race as used by Max Boot, we might conclude that unchecked, Chinese aggression could destabilize the region and even lead to World War III. At least by applying Khong’s framework, this would have to be the logical conclusion; however, even the most hawkish defense analysts would find this statement difficult to accept. The general consensus of expert opinion is that despite its increasingly martial tone, neither the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy nor the People’s Liberation Army can in any way challenge the United States globally. Thus, using the German-British naval race of the early 20th century as an analogy to illustrate U.S. policy options toward China is simply ill-judged.

Perhaps then if we look for proper historical analogies to use in discussing the rise of Chinese naval power, we might choose the rise of the Italian naval power in the inter-war years. As it turned out, the Italian Navy did not really impact the outcome of World War II substantially. However, like the Chinese today, the Italians were engaged in many military innovations throughout the 1930s, faced a similar strategic outlook and were confronted by a technologically superior force.

The post-World War I Italian Navy, similar to the current Chinese Navy, possessed specific regional aspirations. With the conclusion of the war in 1918, the Italian Navy agreed that it must first dominate the Adriatic Sea and then expand into the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. China has a similar sequential strategy with attempting to control first the Straits of Taiwan and the South China Sea followed by the First Island Chain. Finally, China plans to project power all the way to the Second Island Chain.

Often echoed in  Chinese newspaper editorials, China, like Italy in the 1930s, feels boxed in and claims the right of an emerging power to a strong and powerful navy because the “Chinese nation’s existence, development, and great resurgence all increasingly rely on the sea.” Mussolini in 1926 forcefully asserted that “a nation which does not have free access to the oceans cannot be a great power; Italy must become a great power!” He reiterated this point in 1939 when he argued, “The bars of this prison are Corsica, Tunesia, Malta, and Cyprus…. The fundamental aim of the Italian foreign policy must be ‘to break free of this prison….’”  The strategic straightjacket for China, as Robert Kaplan put it in his book Moonson, is Taiwan; for Italy in the 1930s it was Malta—both islands often referred to as unsinkable aircraft carriers. The Italian Navy’s prime obsession during the 1930s, especially during the Mediterranean Crisis in 1935, was the conquest of Malta, which greatly troubled Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, the head of the Italian Navy ministry, since he, much more than Mussolini, was aware of the inherent weakness of the Italian Regia Marina.

Another similarity between Italian strategic thinking in the 1930s and current Chinese strategy now is striking. Afraid to face the might of Great Britain—the most powerful naval force of its time—starting in 1936, Italy began to develop an access denial strategy based on light cruisers, destroyers, and submarines to defend the coast and to cooperate with the air force in creating torpedo bombers squadrons, light surface-assault craft, underwater assault techniques and the rapid construction of motor torpedo boats.

Today, China likewise aims to implement an access denial strategy to offset the powerful U.S. Navy by developing an anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21-D, with the ability to target U.S. carrier groups within 1000 miles of the Chinese coast. They possess over 50 high speed anti-ship cruise missiles carrying patrol boats, and since the 1990s, China has more than quadrupled its submarine fleet, capable of firing anti-ship cruise missiles. Additionally, the new Lyang II Class Guided Missile destroyer is equipped with a sophisticated phased-array radar system similar to the Western Aegis system. Like the Italian example demonstrates, this is largely a sign of perceived weakness and should not be misinterpreted.

Closely analyzing French and British Naval policy towards Italy in the 1930s, one also notices how little both navies factored in cultural and psychological aspects (e.g., some naval historians argue that due to their experience in the 19th century, the Italians had developed a keen aversion to large sea battles, after a devastating defeat by the Austrian Navy in the Adriatic in 1866, which made any aggressive Italian action in the 1930s less likely), which also today are neglected in alarmist statements on the Chinese Navy. The French for example greatly overestimated Italian naval strengths throughout the 1930s, which substantially influenced their policies. The British more accurately assessed the Italian Navy’s fighting strengths, yet their forces to protect global commerce and the far-reaching British Empire could not withstand the loss of even a single battleship. This is similar to the United States’ fear of losing a single aircraft carrier to Chinese missiles; the psychological impact would be just too shocking to contemplate.

If there are so many parallels between the Italian and Chinese navies, why has this analogy not once appeared in any Congressional hearing or serious policy paper? Using the analogy of Germany prior to World War I is not only alarmist but simply a non-sequitur. Applying the logic of historical analogies to the British-German naval race, the corollary is the following: if the United States does not increase its naval spending, a resurgent Chinese Navy will lead China to pursue a more aggressive, unpredictable global foreign policy with the aim of guaranteeing “China’s place in the sun,” which sooner or later will lead to war. The intra-wars Italian navy was, at least in magnitude, a formidable force, and, although equipped with modern battleships and cruisers, was untested by war, badly trained, and lacking an aggressive offensive doctrine, European political rhetoric to the contrary. If, however, we can instill in foreign policy makers an apposite analogy, we can draw a more rational conclusion regarding the Chinese Navy and the Communist elite, which would help us develop a more prudential naval policy vis-à-vis China.

Coming back to India Jones and the Last Crusade, before the Grail Knight lets any of the contesters for the Holy Grail select their choice, he delivers a firm warning. “Choose wisely, for while the true grail will bring you life, the false grail will take it from you.” While this might seem Biblically prophetic, when applied to the field of policy, misused historical analogies can certainly diminish a country’s power and influence and indeed shorten the ‘life’ of a nation.  Alarmist statements supported by superficial historical analogies should be taken, as the ancient Italians used to say, cum grano salis.


About the Author

Franz-Stefan Gady is an associate at the EastWest Institute. 
  • http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=17017398&trk=tab_pro Jay

    Thanks for this article. So sick and tired of reckless writing on this subject by all manner of pundits and policy hacks. Very grateful for the carefully considered treatment here.