Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ukraine Isn’t Munich—or Vietnam or Berlin

Historical analogies can harm more than help in understanding crises.

By , an assistant professor of international relations at Central European University.
Adolf Hitler greets British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938.
Adolf Hitler greets British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938.
Then-Nazi leader Adolf Hitler greets then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Universal Images Group via Getty Images

We’re fighting a Vietnam redux. It’s 1938 all over again. The Guns of August are around the corner. A new Cold War has begun.

A raft of historical analogies has swirled around Ukraine coverage that purports to explain a war few experts saw coming. Do peacemakers like French President Emmanuel Macron risk being duped like former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich? Or is this moment another 1914, and a wider European mobilization lurks around the corner?

The analogies writers apply to Ukraine shape how it’s understood—and how the public thinks the war will end. If this is really akin to World War I, Europe’s rulers should be careful not to escalate in the face of Russian mobilization—the opposite of what Germany announced it would do this year. But if the moment is like the 1938 Munich Agreement, negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin will encourage him to take more than just the four oblasts in eastern Ukraine.

We’re fighting a Vietnam redux. It’s 1938 all over again. The Guns of August are around the corner. A new Cold War has begun.

A raft of historical analogies has swirled around Ukraine coverage that purports to explain a war few experts saw coming. Do peacemakers like French President Emmanuel Macron risk being duped like former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich? Or is this moment another 1914, and a wider European mobilization lurks around the corner?

The analogies writers apply to Ukraine shape how it’s understood—and how the public thinks the war will end. If this is really akin to World War I, Europe’s rulers should be careful not to escalate in the face of Russian mobilization—the opposite of what Germany announced it would do this year. But if the moment is like the 1938 Munich Agreement, negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin will encourage him to take more than just the four oblasts in eastern Ukraine.

Thinking about today through the lens of the past has a long provenance in the corridors of power. American administrations throughout the 20th century used historical analogies to frame the crises they faced, likening them to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, mission creep in Vietnam, the humanitarian disaster in Somalia, the bipolar tensions of a new Cold War—and, of course, everyone’s favorite analogy, appeasement at Munich. Putin himself has deployed historical analogies (including World War II appeasement) to justify the war in Ukraine, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has countered with his own.

There’s a reason that historical analogies like these are never in short supply. Analogical thinking is deeply embedded in the world’s cognition—how experts make sense of new situations—in what international relations academic Aidan Hehir calls an “inherent psychological compulsion.” Experts can’t help but think analogically. But because the choice and application of analogies is open to individual biases and errors, their use at the highest levels of policymaking carries serious risks.

For the last several decades, scientists have argued analogies are not just rhetorical devices but cognitive heuristics—mental shortcuts for making sense of the world. Baked into fundamental cognitive processes, heuristics help experts process new information by simplifying its complexity and organizing it according to preexisting mental structures. Without these shortcuts, people wouldn’t be able to function, overwhelmed by the phenomena of day-to-day life.

When people think analogically, they transfer meaning from one thing to another, understanding something present in terms of something past. But as with any shortcut, analogies have a downside. Heuristics distort the underlying phenomena of life, producing cognitive biases, such as the halo effect, confirmation bias, and overconfidence. Outlined by English philosopher Francis Bacon and popularized by psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, these biases mean experts’ first and often most powerful judgments can be the most misleading. When experts use a historical analogy to understand the present, they risk importing the errors and biases inherent in the shortcut.

Owing to these possible dangers, political scientists and historians have intensely studied the use of historical analogies in foreign-policy decision-making using the “Analogical Explanation” framework. According to the framework, a decision-maker searches for an event in the past (called a “base” or “source”) that appears similar to the current event (called a “target” or “destination”). They then transfer or “map” knowledge of the base to the target, using the former to fill in information missing in the latter. A four-step formula describes the process:

Historical event (base) has property X.

Current event (target) also has property X.

Historical event (base) has property Y.

Current event (target) therefore has property Y.

Property Y in the last step is an inference: something missing in the current event but present in the historical one. Political scientist Yuen Foong Khong, a pioneer of the framework, summarizes this stage: “[I]f two or more events separated in time agree in one respect, then they may also agree in another.” Analogies used this way to allow decision-makers to comprehensively frame a whole situation, helping them define it, weigh its stakes, and assess possible solutions. They guide policymakers toward certain options and away from others.

Historian Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which emphasizes how great-power miscalculations spiraled into World War I, had a “profound impact” on former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis. As former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy recalled, his brother was struck by the “stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur” that led the period’s great powers to “tumble into war.” The analogy cautioned the president against taking policy options during the crisis that might provoke escalatory counter-responses from Moscow.

Analogical reasoning suffers from several general problems. The analogy itself may be poorly chosen. The practitioner may have misidentified the analogy’s suitability, perhaps by recalling the most available case—what’s most on his or her mind at that moment or something drawn from personal experience—rather than the one that fits best. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then-U.S. President George W. Bush repeatedly and publicly compared then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, an analogy also deployed by his father and which foreclosed negotiating with the Iraqi dictator. (George W. Bush’s administration later switched analogies to the American occupation of Korea.) Poor analogies convincingly pressed by influential policymakers can dominate the decision-making process, blocking rival understandings and new information that doesn’t fit the analogy. Practitioners may also pick a fitting analogy but reason about it poorly, confusing what’s important in it with what’s superficial or contextual. Leaders with low “cognitive complexity” may suffer from these problems more than others, employing unsophisticated analogies in unsophisticated ways. Unless handled with care, analogies mislead.

In his landmark 1992 study Analogies at War, Khong showed how these errors plagued U.S. policymakers in Vietnam. Former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson weighed the consequences of backing down in Vietnam using the Munich analogy, which likened nonintervention in Vietnam to Chamberlain’s fateful appeasement of Hitler in the Munich Agreement.

But Vietnam was no more analogous to Munich than future cases where U.S. foreign-policy makers used it to understand other dictators, such as Hussein. Hehir has convincingly shown that U.S. foreign-policy makers understood former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic primarily through the lenses of the Dayton and Munich Agreements, leading to deliberate American bullishness at Rambouillet and the subsequent NATO-led airstrike campaign. Political scientists Rose McDermott and David Houghton likewise document how the Carter administration reviewed many analogies when it faced the Iran hostage crisis before settling on Israel’s successful Entebbe raid, where the Israelis successfully freed a planeload of hostages with minimal casualties. As a result, both former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Entebbe analogy’s main proponent, underestimated the mission’s likelihood of success. In the mid-1990s, U.S. policymakers understood Rwanda through an “Africa” schema of tribal warfare, analogizing it with the failed humanitarian mission in Somalia. Throughout the 20th century, analogies powerfully framed U.S. decision-making—and often led its elites toward poor policy choices.

Historical analogies are particularly tempting in times of ambiguity and uncertainty, such as in the crises above and this current moment. In times like these, experts look for easy certainties that eliminate anxiety and reassure them about the future—what psychologists call “cognitive closure.” Analogies help, making the inconstant appear constant by drawing on the patterns of the past.

As the recent Russian mobilization shows, the war in Ukraine is fraught with unpredictability. Analysts continue to debate its fundamentals: Is it sui generis? Who is winning? What does Putin really want? What caused it, where is it going, and when will it end? If analogical reasoning is an unavoidable human compulsion, it is only natural that experts now look to the past to make sense of the present. Is Ukraine akin to another Munich and Putin to Hitler—and will it lead to another world war? And if not these, which cases should guide us?

History is the school of statesmanship, but its lessons are not all of equal value. Experts should think carefully about which analogies they choose, what lessons they think they provide, and to whom. Analogies promoted in the public sphere can be picked up by those in power—regardless of their accuracy. The competition of politics means sophisticated analogies are as likely to be abused as properly used. Powerful but simple historical analogies that draw Manichean lines of good and evil, like Munich, are especially seductive.

And experts should manage expectations. Extraordinary statecraft requires a level of high cognitive complexity that is probably rare. As historical analogies about Ukraine accumulate, experts should remember analogical reasoning’s broad limitations, underscored by this line from its most prominent recent examiner: “All historical analogies are suspect.”

Christopher David LaRoche is an assistant professor of international relations at Central European University.

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