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Tue. October 04, 2022
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Foreign Policy and Learning from History
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by Yoav J. Tenembaum Decision-makers are often said to learn nothing from History. Many of them, however, have; or, at least, have tried to. Prior to the Versailles Peace Conference, following World War I, the British Foreign Office produced a document on the Vienna Conference, which followed the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The document, written by Charles Webster, British historian and diplomat, was aimed at shedding light on the last big international peace conference that had taken place; what worked—and why, and what didn’t work—and why. It could be argued that the outcome of Versailles had precious little to do with the international order established at Vienna. Maybe. But at least the British Foreign Office tried to learn from history. It produced a document the sole objective of which was just that. The disappearance of a whole generation of young people during World War I led statesmen in Britain and France to harbor deep-seated fears of another, even more destructive war. Technological progress had led to the development of air forces capable of reaching deep into enemy territory and dropping lethal weapons on civilians and soldiers alike. The aerial bombardments during the Italian attack on Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) in 1935-1936 and the German attack on Guernica on 26 April, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War had given a first, bitter taste of the destructiveness of future warfare. Avoiding war became the ultimate rationale of foreign policy. Maybe they were wrong to let their fears dominate their decisions as they faced the peril of Nazi Germany. They were certainly not wrong in depicting an image of utter destruction, hitherto unknown, concerning a future European war. Statesmen in the 1930s were also motivated by the belief that, in part, World War I came about as a result of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of diplomatic dialogue aimed at averting a war. The policy of appeasing Nazi Germany was partly the result of that lesson. Following World War II, decision-makers in democratic countries had learned that a policy of appeasement with regard to dictatorial regimes was both morally untenable and pragmatically unwise. Indeed, appeasement became a byword for undignified surrender. The rhetoric in the United States during the Cold War, the images depicted in shaping policy towards Communism, were imbued with the lessons learned from the failed diplomacy of the democracies in the 1930s. This was, no doubt, partly aimed at eliciting public support. But it was also due to the fact that many of the people involved had lived through World War II and were determined to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. One can hardly overstate the influence wielded by the memories of how the failure of Versailles, appeasement, and the subsequent War on decision-makers in the West. One of the most fascinating examples is that of Anthony Eden during the Suez Crisis in 1956. A prominent opponent of appeasement in the 1930s, Eden served as British Prime Minister when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser took over the Suez Canal company in a unilateral move. Eden identified Nasser with the dictators of the 1930s. If he were not stopped immediately and without hesitation, Nasser, like Hitler and Mussolini, would continue to expand and become a menace to the whole Middle East. Eden was not alone in thinking in those terms. Although one may ascribe Eden's comparison between Nasser and the dictators of the 1930s to political expediency, there can be little doubt that he sincerely believed in it; indeed, that he was motivated by it. The national trauma of Vietnam led the United States to distance itself from a policy of foreign intervention. The trauma of the hostage crisis in Iran, in turn, tilted the balance again towards a policy of intervention. The invasion of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands by Argentina in April 1982 produced among ministers and members of parliament in Britain a comparison between the Argentinean military government and the dictators of the 1930s. The Argentinean dictators had to be stopped like the dictators of the 1930s. Historical analogies were advanced in this case as well for public consumption, but they also became an additional element in the decision-making process of the British government. The same comparisons with the dictators of the 1930s emerged as regards Saddam Hussein especially during the first Gulf War. Arab leaders have equated Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel to the Crusades: a foreign invasion with only a transitory existence. On the other hand, Menahem Begin, Israel's prime minister between 1977 and 1983, feared Israel becoming another Czechoslovakia (1938): a democracy surrounded by non-democratic regimes being asked to cede territory under the principle of self-determination and thus putting its own future in danger. Decision-makers do learn from history. Those who protest that they don't, usually mean that they don't learn the right lessons, i.e. the lessons they ought to learn. To be sure, history can serve as a powerfully motivating force, as a guide, or even as an excuse. To learn from history entails a realization that history, contrary to what many believe, does not repeat itself. Historical events or phenomena may seem similar. One may learn by drawing on similarities, not by devising mathematical-like formulae. But even then, the possibility of error is as likely as in any other human endeavor. That is surely a historical lesson one ought to learn. Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum lectures at the Diplomacy Programme, Tel Aviv University, Israel. His recent article "The Right of Self-Determination – A Further Principle" was published in American Diplomacy.

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