Misusing History

April 22, 2014 Topic: History Region: United States

Misusing History

Stop ransacking the past for analogies. The lesson of history is that there usually isn't one.

IF A HISTORICAL ANALOGY CAN HELP to explain current events, then the most salient one is probably not a war, but the Treaty of Versailles. It created a wounded nationalism in Germany, both through the demand for exorbitant reparations, which Germany finally paid off in October 2010, and through Article 231, the war-guilt clause, which was viewed as an odious national humiliation that had to be avenged. Today it is the malignant spirit of Versailles that hovers over Putin’s Moscow. The triumphalist mood that enveloped Washington after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the zeal to expand NATO up to Russia’s borders, the intervention in the Balkans, the calamitous war in Iraq, and the ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, which has since descended into anarchy—all these have allowed Russia and China to depict the United States as a hypocritical and duplicitous and self-aggrandizing power that, whenever and wherever it can, deploys the idea of exporting democracy as an instrument to subvert foreign regimes it dislikes.

Moscow’s—and Beijing’s—persistent urge to redress their historical grievances should not be underestimated. They are linked by a deep resentment of the West, one that they have sedulously nursed over the past decade. If Washington was animated by a genuine idealism, then that crusading impulse has boomeranged upon it. For the dangerous thing, to borrow once more from A. J. P. Taylor, isn’t when statesmen cannot live up to their principles. It’s when they can.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00277A / CC-BY-SA.