"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" goes a famous saying. It's hard to miss some variant of the phrase being employed when policymakers are asked to make a decision on a suddenly pressing issue. The traditional study of international relations, defended by intellectual giants like Hedley Bull is based on this motto, relying heavily on historical analogies and examples. Perhaps most importantly, American policymakers favor the use of history as a guide to the present over other methods employed by social scientists.
But how useful is history - referring specifically to the use of analogous cases as a basis for policy recommendations - in helping us understand or explain current events? Does Syria have the potential to become the new Iraq? Will Russia become...well, a Russia, but from a few centuries prior? I argue that history is of limited utility to the present for two reasons. First - and this reason is oft-repeated in the quantitative literature - is that any historical act is idiosyncratic, a function of unique individual, historical, cultural, and political forces, and therefore unlikely to be present in the same form ever again. Second - the reason I will focus on - is that each political decision is probabilistic and uncertain, enacted by individuals with free will, who not only could have made a different decision, but perhaps would have if given multiple opportunities to make a choice.
Let's start with a thought experiment. In 2003, soon after the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Paul Bremer - the civilian administrator of Iraq - disbanded a 400,000 man strong Iraqi army, a factor that strongly contributed to the ensuing chaos in Iraq. Was Bremer so certain of the righteousness of his decision that he never entertained making a different one? If Bremer is asked to make a decision on the fate of the Iraqi military 10 times, would he make the choice to disband it 10 times out of 10? For the sake of argument, let's assume that he had a 20% of keeping the Iraqi military intact. In those 20% of cases, Iraq would be more stable, wouldn't go sectarian, and perhaps we wouldn't be talking about ISIS today. If our world existed in those 20% of timelines, would we use the analogy of Iraq to dissuade an occupation of a Middle Eastern country?
So what does that mean? It means that at multiple points, decisions could have been made that turned Iraq from a failure to something resembling success. These decisions, while influenced by all sorts of factors and constraints, were not impossible. Kennedy could have bombed Cuba during the Missile Crisis. Gorbachev could have reacted to Reagan's bellicosity with inflammatory language and policies of his own. Bush could have planned for Iraq's reconstruction. On the basis of these key figures making use of their free will and making a choice that was not foreordained, the success or failure of major policies would have been reversed. The same people who'd want to use the failure of nation-building in Iraq to argue against an occupation of Syria or the people who could point to Reagan's peace through strength approach to argue for a tougher line against Russia today would be unable to use those cases to support their policy positions had some key figure decided to walk down another path at a major crossroad.
A realist or a liberal, each with their own teleological view of history - one based on the necessity of power politics and the other on the inevitability of progress - might argue that those leaders did not have a real choice. Kennedy had no choice but to eschew violence against Cuba because the national interest demanded it. Spain would have become a democracy after Franco, regardless of Juan Carlos' actions, because democracy is a superior system favored by most. My response is that history is replete with examples of rulers and other key figures making different decisions in similar circumstances. It only takes one additional step to acknowledge that the same individual could have both taken and not taken a given decision. The memoirs and biographies of these individuals are full of doubts and uncertainties. It stands to reason that other options were available and had some positive probability of being chosen. The consequence of these different choices would destroy the validity of any analogy that seeks to learn lessons from the past.
The less complicated reason for treating individual cases from history with suspicion is because each case is ultimately unique. Had a few thousand Floridians voted a different way, it would be President Gore responding to the 9/11 attacks and not President Bush. The relationship between Alawites and Sunnis in Syria is not identical to the relationship between the Twelver Shia and Sunnis in Iraq. The individuals in key positions have different personal histories, personalities, and worldviews. Even if we accept that the leaders of two analogous countries face identical incentives, it does not follow that they would respond to those incentives in the same manner. With decisions arising out of a complex confluence of individual, state, dyadic, and systemic-level factors, it becomes impossible to pinpoint a specific cause for a given decision, assuming such a cause even existed.
What is the take-away point here? It is that history is contingent on decisions taken by individuals, responding to unclear incentives, making decisions after indeterminate events. To use any episode in history as evidence for the success or failure of a particular group of policies risks falling for the same pseudo-objective historical interpretation trap Carr warned about half a century ago. Not only is each analogy provided to support a preferred policy ignoring potential analogies not provided, but it ignores the real possibility that the analogous case could itself have ended very differently. If there is a past that we need to labor to avoid, it is a past of using uncertain histories to make certain policy prescriptions.