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Mr Kerry, teaching history
Mr Kerry, teaching history

U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, made a reference, on two separate occasions, to the Munich Agreement of 1938 as he endeavoured to elicit support for President Barak Obama’s policy in Syria.

During a conference call with Democratic Party members of the House of Representatives on the 2nd of September, Kerry told them that they faced a “Munich moment” as they weighed whether to back President Obama’s call for a limited military strike against Syria.

Speaking in Paris on the 7th of September, during a press conference, Kerry described the situation in Syria as “our Munich moment.”

The Munich Agreement, and the policy of appeasement it represented, is one of the most widely used historical analogies by decision-makers and their advisers in shaping foreign policy, and in selling it to the wider public at home and abroad.

The logic of this comparison runs as follows: a dictator with aggressive intentions has to be stopped, as early as possible, the way the dictators of the 1930s were not. The policy of appeasement that was pursued by Britain and France in the 1930s in order to accommodate those dictators, particularly the German leader, Adolf Hitler, was a failure and millions of people paid with their lives for it.

Following World War II, Munich became a by-word for appeasement, which, in turn, became a by-word for surrender. Just by invoking the term “Munich” both the speaker and his audience knew what was meant by it. Few words in political parlance became so laden with historical connotations as this one did.

Historical comparisons can be employed in the decision-making process as a further tool in order to shape foreign policy. It can also be deployed as a political devise aimed at convincing a domestic audience, or as part of a public diplomacy strategy to elicit international support.

Historical analogies help those who shape foreign policy to deal with a complex situation by simplifying it into a familiar cognitive terrain. The same would be true of the audience being exposed to them. However, the aim of the decision-maker in drawing historical comparisons in public as Kerry has done in the Syrian case is not primarily to elucidate, but to persuade. Kerry, in drawing historical comparisons, has been trying to market a policy, not to educate his audience.

To be sure, the implication of his words is that anyone who does not support President Obama’s policy is an appeaser. What would you rather be, a Chamberlain or a Churchill? 

Simple, perhaps even simplistic, but this is not an intellectual exercise intended to find out the truth, but a marketing device designed to elicit support.

This is not to say that a decision-maker who advances a historical analogy in public does not actually believe in it.

However, policy is ultimately decided upon behind closed doors, not in the full glare of the TV cameras or even in a conference call with members of Congress. When historical comparisons are advanced in public, the primary aim is to sell a policy, in the same way that other means of persuasion are used to achieve that goal.

Decision-makers can make use of history in shaping foreign policy in two different ways: one by analogy, the other by chronology. In other words, they can either compare a historical case with a present situation by endeavouring to find common features between the two or learn a historical process that has led to the present situation so as to understand it better.

Historical analogy can be effective or deceptive. If used with caution, fully aware of its limitations, drawing the distinctions no less than the similarities entailed in the two cases under discussion, it can certainly help in elucidating a new reality. However, if historical analogy is employed as a mathematical formula, or as a kind of a scientific formula, it might actually distort reality and lead to decisions that are less optimal.

In the same vein, though sometimes effective in eliciting support, historical analogy as a marketing tool tends on occasion to simplify reality more than is warranted and can thus lead to derision by a sceptical audience.   

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