Historical parallels are simultaneously risky and useful. The risks are two. First, events seldom, if ever, follow exactly the same track twice. Two situations that look very much alike at the outset may reach entirely unlike destinations. Second, parallels may be applied to situations that are entirely dissimilar, either from ignorance or out of a conscious effort to deceive. The neocons’ repeated spotting of “Munich in 1938” in circumstances that have nothing whatever in common with Munich is a mixture of both.
But historical parallels are also useful, which is why we continue to draw them. While they cannot give us answers, they can spur us to ask the right questions. They alert us to look for factors and dangers we might otherwise miss. They can help us avoid making the same mistake twice, though we can always make new mistakes.
Two current situations bring two different historical parallels to mind. The first situations is the growing friction—it is not yet a crisis—between Japan and China over the islands the Japanese call the Senkakus. The parallel is the crisis of July 1914, which led to World War I. Now as then, no Great Power’s vital interests are at stake. The islands are uninhabited and occupy no geographic choke point. Russia received no benefit from Serbia, and the House of Hapsburg had no shortage of archdukes (though Franz Ferdinand was especially able and would have made a fine emperor). Now as then, what is at stake is pride. China wants to show the world she can no longer be humiliated, and Japan is no longer willing to play the role of defeated power. In 1914, Austria (with good reason) was fed up with Serbia tweaking her nose, and Russia wanted to avenge her humiliation by Austria in the Bosnian Annexation Crisis of 1908 (a humiliation Russia actually inflicted on herself through her foreign minister’s incompetence).
The warning the 1914 parallel offers is to us, as an ally of Japan. Just as it was madness for Europe to go to war over the death of an Austrian archduke and Vienna’s resultant ultimatum to Serbia, so it would be insanity for the United States to go to war with China over three islands. Japan is no more a strategic asset to us than Serbia was to Russia; now as then, the “ally” is a strategic liability, not a benefit. Unfortunately, now as then, Washington is allowing a useless alliance to drag us toward a potential war where we have no real interests at stake. Washington has said that if fighting erupts over the Senkakus, we will act militarily in support of Japan. Could this be viewed in Tokyo as a blank check similar to that Berlin gave Vienna, and Paris had already given St. Petersburg? Indeed it could. One hopes Washington understands that this is one parallel we very much do not want to play out any farther than it has already gone, which is to say too far.
The other interesting parallel is that between the war in Syria and the Thirty Years’ War. Like the Thirty Years’ War, the war in Syria is spreading. It is drawing in outside powers. It is driven by a mixture of state and religious motives. It has let loose forces that make a compromise peace extremely difficult. As in 1648, it may be that when peace finally comes, it will be peace of exhaustion. And there may be a whole lot more war to come before the combatants reach that point.
The caution that the Thirty Years’ War parallel raises is for outside powers, including the United States and Russia. The warning is, let this burn out locally, however long that may take. Do not get directly involved, because doing so will not shorten the conflict but lengthen it. Syria and its surrounding region will suffer more, not less, if outside powers use it for their battleground. “Humanitarian intervention” today has its parallel in intervention in support of co-religionists then, and it is no more likely to benefit those it is intended to benefit. By some accounts, the Thirty Years’ War reduced Germany’s population from 16 million to 6 million.
From a Fourth Generation war perspective, he Thirty Years’ War parallel points to something else as well. The Thirty Years’ War began as a contest between religious sects and ended up as a war between states acting on the basis of national interests. The war in Syria began as a war to control a state but has already morphed into a fight between religious sects. Just as the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 established state dominance, so could it be that the war in Syria will end by sweeping away the region’s states in favor of entities based on religion, such as caliphates? As I said, historical parallels help us ask questions, not answer them.