Are we living through an era that resembles the 1930s, when authoritarian leaders were on the march, democratic leaders failed to stand up to them, the international system buckled, and the world was dragged into war? Or are we living through something more like the late 1970s, when America, recovering from its long engagement in a losing war and pulling itself out of a prolonged economic slump, began to take the course corrections that allowed it to embark on a period of national recovery and reassert its international ascendancy? People naturally try to wrap their heads around unfamiliar and challenging situations by comparing them to what has come before. And so since Donald Trump’s election, Americans have been searching for the best historical analogy to help them understand what is happening to the global order.
The problem with historical analogies, however, is that they often obscure as much as they clarify. Our present era is not precisely “like” anything that came before it. And so fixating on a single analogy or comparison often causes us to exaggerate the broad similarities between yesterday and today while overlooking the myriad differences. The philosopher George Santayana famously proclaimed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But, in fact, those who rely too heavily on any particular historical precedent are likely to misunderstand the present.
The historian Ernest May and the political scientist Richard Neustadt, both of whom also served as special advisors to multiple administrations, offered a better way. In their classic book, Thinking in Time, they argued that the only way of making analogies useful — rather than dangerous — was to pit them against one another. Specifically, they called for policymakers to examine multiple historical cases when searching for comparisons to the present. Such an approach, they argued, would push decision-makers to think critically about their favored analogies, grapple with differences as well as similarities, and gain a fuller and suppler understanding of the present. A comparative model, they suggested, can help us think more rigorously about the real nature of the age.
In this spirit, it is useful to compare the present to both of the two prior eras that have often been invoked by commentators seeking to make sense of the Trump era and the broader state of the world: the 1930s and the 1970s. Those who argue that we are reliving the 1930s believe that the international scene resembles a gathering storm, as authoritarians advance, democracies retreat, and the system slides quickly toward catastrophe. A somewhat more optimistic analogy, however, holds that the present situation is more like the 1970s — another period in which U.S. leadership and the international order were sharply tested. In this comparison, the United States is again in a funk, with wavering enthusiasm for internationalism at home and major geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges abroad. But, despite such worrying developments, long-range trends are on America’s side, and U.S. power and activism will rebound, just as they did during the late 1970s and 1980s.
So what is the better analogy? Comparing the two periods, in both their similarities and differences, suggests that America — and the world — is closer today to the 1970s than to the 1930s. The international order is not yet crumbling; there are still more reasons for optimism than despair. But the 1930s analogy also yields a critical insight. If the United States and other defenders of the international order lose the willpower to take decisive action in support of the global arrangements that they have worked to construct — as happened during the 1930s — things could go downhill in a hurry. We could end up slipping back, all too rapidly, toward a darker past after all.
A picture dated in 1935 shows German Nazi army parading in Saarland. (AFP PHOTO/FRANCE PRESSE)
The gathering storm
In opening his six-volume history of World War II, Winston Churchill wrote: “It is my purpose, as one who lived and acted in these days, to show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented [and] how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.” This purpose pervades the first volume of those memoirs, The Gathering Storm, which chronicles the interwar years with a sense of foreboding about the disaster to come. Many aspects of this story seem eerily familiar today.
Abroad, the 1930s witnessed the rise of aggressive authoritarian powers and growing instability in key regions of Europe and Asia. A raging civil war in Spain became internationalized, serving as a proving ground for weapons and tactics that would play a prominent role in the larger conflagration to come and ending in the victory of a brutal authoritarian regime. Democracy was being hollowed out from within in key European states and was under siege from the rise of violent, authoritarian ideologies; the democratic powers were too frequently incapable of effective collection action. Rising economic nationalism and protectionism undermined global prosperity and undercut potential geopolitical cooperation to hold back the aggressive powers.
Within the United States, the Great Depression had caused vicious economic insecurity and trauma for many Americans, and protectionism and populism — often of a quasi-authoritarian variety — were on the rise. Disillusion with U.S. engagement overseas was rampant, given that America’s participation in World War I had failed to produce a peace that matched the soaring rhetoric and expectations that accompanied that crusade. There was a growing perception that a conspiracy of coastal elite — the “globalists” of today — had purposefully drawn the country into that conflict in order to advance their own economic interests. As the international security environment darkened in the late 1930s, many Americans favored pulling back from a dangerous world, with isolationist sentiments sometimes reinforced by nativist or even anti-Semitic themes. And yet American abstention from the global order simply exacerbated the brewing chaos, as aggressive dictators suppressed democracy, carved out spheres of influence, and ultimately took the world to war.
It can be hard not to hear these echoes of the 1930s in today’s events. Democracy is again under strain in many countries, and aggressive authoritarian powers are again advancing; many of the key democratic powers are demoralized and internally divided. A raging civil war, this time in Syria, has again become an arena for great-power competition; doubts about America’s commitment to maintaining a stable global system are again severe. As Robert Kagan and others have compellingly observed, the 1930s analogy certainly captures a widespread contemporary sense of dread about the state of the international order and the destabilizing uncertainty created by an apparent American turn away from internationalism. Whatever the limits of the comparison, the 1930s still stand as an apt warning about how quickly things can spin out of control — and what happens when the defenders of international peace and stability retreat from that task.
There are, however, crucial differences between then and now. During the 1930s, the very idea of democratic governance was under mortal threat in a world of rising authoritarian states. We may be living through a chastening democratic recession today, but there are still more than 110 political democracies in the world, and the Western democracies still possess a clear preponderance of global power relative to any authoritarian adversaries. In the 1930s, there were no strong coalitions in place to check Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and imperial Japan, and it proved impossible to form those coalitions until the global system had already broken down. Today, in Europe and the Asia-Pacific alike, coalitions that were created with the express purpose of preventing acts of aggression by revisionist states are already in place. This is not to argue that either NATO or America’s five treaty alliances in the Asia-Pacific region have deterred territorial land grabs by Russia in Ukraine or China in the South China Sea. But the core geopolitical mechanisms for checking further aggression do exist, have been quite successful in the past, and are in the process of being reinvigorated due to the pressures emanating from Beijing and Moscow.
Additionally, whereas the 1930s witnessed the effective collapse of the League of Nations in the face of external aggression, international institutions from NATO to the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund are not yet breaking down and remain important forums for confronting global challenges. Meanwhile, the world’s most significant regional organization, the European Union, is in crisis, but its outright collapse still seems unlikely, and its two most powerful states, Germany and France, remain committed to their common mission. In the interwar years, America was absent militarily from key theaters; today, U.S. forces remain forward deployed in Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and the Persian Gulf, fortifying friendly regional powers against coercion and intimidation. And while Russia, China, and Iran continue to undermine regional stability and threaten democracies on their peripheries, it pushes the analogy too far to hold that any of these states are the equivalent of Adolf Hitler’s Germany or even imperial Japan — bent on domination and willing to risk global war to achieve it.
Today’s domestic landscape also differs from the 1930s in critical ways. The United States currently has a president who has questioned key aspects of American global leadership, but political and other elites — in Congress, the media, the foreign-policy establishment, the business community, and elsewhere — are largely committed to internationalism. The situation in the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was powerfully constrained by an assertive and largely isolationist Congress — was far more daunting for advocates of a more active American role in global security. The public disillusion with internationalism that followed World War I was pervasive and severe; for all the weariness that has resulted from U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the complaints often heard about the burdens of American leadership, public opinion polling still shows relatively strong support for U.S. alliances, free trade, maintaining American military primacy, and other traditional foreign-policy goals. American foreign policy and international security clearly are not headed in a positive direction today, but the analogy to the 1930s risks overstating the problems and perils of our current situation and unduly deprecating the strengths and resources at our disposal.
Soviet and German leaders meet to sign a treaty between the Soviet Union and West Germany on Aug. 17, 1970 in Moscow. (AFP/Getty Images)
The darkness before the dawn
So what about a more optimistic analogy? Darkness might mean a gathering storm, but it also could herald the arrival of a brighter future. The night before the 1980 presidential election, after a long period of national doubt and soul-searching, Ronald Reagan intuited that national renewal was at hand, declaring that “at last the sleeping giant stirs and is filled with resolve.” Such a vision seemed out of place with the dejected mood of the country. “Many of us,” he said, addressing the American people, “are unhappy about our worsening economic problems, about the constant crisis atmosphere in our foreign policy, about our diminishing prestige around the globe, about the weakness in our economy and national security that jeopardizes world peace, about our lack of strong, straight-forward leadership.” Reagan’s description purposefully built off Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech of the previous year. Though Carter nowhere mentioned the word “malaise,” in the speech, he spoke of America’s “crisis of confidence,” which was “threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
In many ways, this was an accurate reflection of the national mood at the end of the 1970s. During that decade, the United States faced a raft of serious challenges — severe economic competition from other leading powers, the rise of the Soviet Union as a global peer competitor in military terms, the stagflation and national humiliation caused by the oil shocks. There were concerns that the United States was turning inward in the wake of Vietnam, as leading congressional observers even sought to withdraw significant numbers of U.S. troops from Europe. Economic nationalism was on the rise. Richard Nixon’s first treasury secretary, John Connally, artfully expressed the ethos: “Foreigners are out to screw us. Our job is to screw them first.”
In these circumstances, doubts about the staying power of the United States and the postwar international system were pervasive. Defenders of that system fretted that the American era was coming to a close; enemies of the free world were often exultant. “The retreat of American power” could “become a rout,” James Schlesinger, the former secretary of defense and secretary of energy, wrote in 1979. “The trend could well become irreversible in many respects.” “Imperialism is not able to face the crises,” Leonid Brezhnev had told Warsaw Pact leaders the year prior.
And yet the 1970s proved not to be the death knell for American power and the free world system erected after World War II, but simply a difficult moment that served as prelude to renewal. By the late 1970s, the world was again turning in America’s direction — democracy was spreading, globalization was racing ahead, America’s primary great-power competitor was sliding into irreversible decline. And by the early 1980s the United States was pursuing assertive and broadly effective strategies for re-establishing its global ascendancy and pushing the positive trends along. Within a decade, the Cold War had ended on American terms, as democracy and markets were advancing — with U.S. assistance — further than ever before.
If focusing on the 1930s analogy thus leads one to fear that the end of the international order is nigh, looking at the 1970s encourages the conclusion that perhaps the future is relatively bright after all. In this view, the United States and the international system it anchors still have tremendous and unmatched strengths vis-à-vis the competition, the long-term trends are working in Washington’s favor, and America is simply experiencing one of its periodic moments of doubt and introspection rather than a more fundamental turn away from internationalism — just as occurred during the 1970s.
So how well does this analogy fit? In some ways, emphasizing the 1970s comparison risks understating the difficulties and challenges America faces today. For all the disillusion occasioned by Vietnam, America did not elect a president who repudiated key traditions of U.S. foreign policy as vehemently and frequently as Donald Trump did during the 2016 campaign. American “soft power” took a beating amid the domestic upheaval of the 1970s, but that weakness may ultimately prove to be minor compared with the loss of prestige the United States is already suffering as a result of Trump’s presidency.
From a global perspective, the Soviet Union may have been an authentic military peer rival during the 1970s, but even at its peak its sclerotic, command economy never threatened U.S. economic primacy as China does today. And in the 1970s, the United States was able deftly to play China and the Soviet Union against each other; today, Washington has fraught and deteriorating relations with both powers as they challenge international norms and geopolitical arrangements to which they were never genuinely reconciled. The 1970s were a difficult period, no doubt, but the comparison may — at least in some ways — encourage too rosy a view of what America confronts today.
Yet if the 1970s are far from the perfect analogy, the period does nonetheless illuminate important aspects of the contemporary moment. It reminds us that, today as in the past, America’s competitors face long-term challenges that make ours look relatively modest by comparison. Russia is, after all, a declining economic power and a demographic basket case; its military power thus rests on extremely precarious foundations. China is already dealing with slowing economic growth, a rapidly aging population, and a massive debt bubble, and its sense of geopolitical self-confidence hardly conceals its leadership’s transparent nervousness about growing social unrest and other signs of dissatisfaction with a corrupt and ruthlessly authoritarian political system.
Similarly, the 1970s analogy reminds us to take into account long-range U.S. strengths that no adversary can match and to factor in emerging trends that may play to America’s advantage. Washington’s unequaled collection of allies, its relatively healthy demographic profile, its culture of innovation, and its repeated resilience in the face of macroeconomic shifts falls into the first category; an energy revolution that is giving America new economic and geopolitical leverage is but one example of the second.
Moreover, the experience of the 1970s underscores that assertive challengers often overplay their hand, thereby risking overreach and exposing vulnerabilities for the United States and its allies to exploit. An overconfident Moscow took on numerous Third World commitments during the 1970s, allowing Carter and then Reagan to punish that overextension through support to anti-communist guerrillas. Should Russia and China continue their revisionist behavior today, they are similarly likely to encourage geopolitical blowback, if only by driving their rivals toward closer cooperation with one another and with the United States. Additionally, we can learn from the 1970s that our current traumas are neither unprecedented nor particularly severe by historical standards. In its effects on U.S. political stability and American power, the Vietnam War was far worse than anything the country has experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan over the past 15 years.
Finally, the experience of the 1970s also cautions us not to panic about the state of American internationalism. Yes, the Trump phenomenon is deeply disturbing for those who wish to see a globally engaged America contributing constructively on issues including international trade and combating climate change. But we have lived through periods of American disillusion with the world before, as the experience of the 1970s reminds us, and the logic of global engagement and activism has generally reasserted itself after a fashion — usually in response to threatening developments abroad. Indeed, the fact that public opinion polling on support for U.S. alliances and honoring America’s overseas commitments actually looked much worse in the mid-1970s than it does at present (after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, for instance, only 36 percent of Americans felt that “it was important for the United States to make and keep commitments to other nations”) provides some antidote to pessimism today.
If there is a single key lesson to be learned from the 1970s, then, it is that we have been here before — that challenges to American engagement and the international system are not new, that they have often been more severe than they are today, and that American power and leadership have repeatedly proved more resilient than predicted. Near the end of his presidency, Jimmy Carter told the National Security Council that if the United States could just weather the near-term storms that were battering its geopolitical position, the longer-term horizon looked fairly promising. Present traumas and travails notwithstanding, a similar case for such optimism could be made today.
U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders arrive for the group photo on the first day of the G-20 economic summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
But — and this is a huge “but” — such a forecast is dependent on America’s proactive efforts to correct course and grapple effectively with the forces shaping the international landscape today and in the future. What doomed the international system in the 1930s was not necessarily the overwhelming strength of the authoritarian powers — overall, Nazi Germany remained militarily inferior to Britain and France until 1938 — but the fact that their opponents did not react strongly or cohesively enough until it was nearly too late. And when the United States eventually pulled out of its 1970s malaise, it was not simply because the geopolitical winds began blowing in its favor. It was also because U.S. officials began to pursue far-sighted policies that allowed them to take advantage of their good fortune.
It is now well established that the Reagan administration — building on foundations laid by Carter — employed a multipronged offensive for taking advantage of Soviet weaknesses, made up of a historic military buildup, covert action against Soviet forces and proxies in the Third World, ideological and economic warfare, and other methods. U.S. officials also worked diligently to revitalize American alliances in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Washington developed — first under Carter and then under Reagan — a policy of using U.S. leverage to encourage political liberalization overseas, and it consistently employed American leverage to promote market-oriented reform that helped globalization spread. At home, the policies associated with Reaganomics broke inflation and touched off two decades of robust economic growth. In all of these areas, America played to its strengths — and its opponents’ weaknesses — and took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.
What remains to be seen is whether the United States and its geopolitical partners can do so again today. Until November 2016, the signs seemed at least partly promising. The Barack Obama administration had already started to firm up the U.S. geopolitical posture in some key areas — reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank, for instance, and progressively accelerating the fight against the Islamic State — and most observers deemed it likely that a Hillary Clinton administration would only have accelerated this trend. But Donald Trump was elected, of course, and so far he has been headed in a rather different direction — projecting incompetence and unpredictability in foreign policy, alienating rather than reassuring America’s partners, squandering rather than maximizing America’s advantages, and exacerbating rather than healing America’s domestic divisions. As noted, there remains some reason to think that Trump’s apparent indifference to global order is not matched by a broader public turning away from American internationalism, and the administration is still charting its course in foreign affairs. Yet Trump’s rise has at least raised the possibility that the United States may not return to a posture of constructive, multilateral assertiveness and instead turn inward or pursue a narrow, destructive unilateralism.
And if the United States takes the latter path, then things could get ugly indeed. The one fundamental geopolitical fact of the post-World War II era — and the one primary reason why the experience of the 1930s has so far not recurred — has been imperfect but indispensable American leadership. Should that leadership fade, the cohesion and effectiveness of the democratic world could fade. The challenges to international order could intensify. The revisionist authoritarian powers could deem this their moment of opportunity. In this scenario, the 1930s might no longer seem like such a bad analogy after all.
History is never a perfect guide to the future, of course, and it rarely provides concrete, specific lessons about what policies the United States should pursue today. But history does provide reference points that can help us make sense of our own moment, as well as warnings about what might occur if America falters. Let us all hope that this administration — or, perhaps more likely, its successors — finds the purpose and wisdom necessary to make sure that we someday look back on the present as a prelude to renewal, not a prelude to disaster.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of several books, including Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order and What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft From Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. He served as the special assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic planning from 2015 to 2016. (@HalBrands1)
Charles Edel is an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. He served as a special assistant to the secretary of state on the Asia-Pacific region in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning. He is the author of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic.
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