You don’t have to watch US cable news for very long before somebody asks about history and Trump. Can you find a comparison? A precedent? Or is Donald Trump so far beyond normal that we’re in uncharted territory? If someone round the table has written a history book, they might scratch their head, and then reach for an obscure presidential factoid. It can sound good. But does it point us in the direction of illumination?
When it comes to international affairs, the choice of analogies narrows. As I’ve shown in a previous post, nearly all international events are sooner or later compared to Munich 1938, when Neville Chamberlain famously ‘appeased’ Hitler, apparently delaying an inevitable war at terrible cost. And those events that are not immediately comparable to the Hitler-Chamberlain talks can often find suitable or unsuitable analogies somewhere else in the Second World War.
Take two examples from the last couple of weeks.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, agreed in 2015 and set for completion in 2019, will deliver natural gas direct from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. This means that Ukraine will lose revenue, because Russian gas will no longer be pumped across its territory. To critics in Ukraine and the EU, it’s a German-Russian carve-up, benefiting the German and Russian economies while placing EU energy supplies at the mercy of the Russian government. According to a report in the Financial Times, the former Foreign Minister of Poland, Radoslav Sikorski, has compared the deal to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.
Meanwhile, on the day of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, the American website Politico published an article claiming ‘Putin’s attack on the US is our Pearl Harbor’.
You can make of these comparisons what you will. The problem in the end is not that even the Second World War has limits as a provider of historical knowledge, but that arguing by analogy often confuses the nature of historical knowledge itself. Instead of seeing a web of structures, contingencies, and unique events that might throw oblique but helpful light on the present day, analogies are like silver bullets that almost always whistle by their targets. To switch metaphors, arguing by historical analogy is like placing a sign in the ground that might or might not be pointing the right way. But that doesn’t matter. The main thing is that it looks like a sign.