Limited in our human ability to reason from scratch, we often reason by analogy. Indeed, much education is assembling a professional toolkit of analogies that finds an earlier situation, behavior pattern or set of symptoms is like a present one. Sometimes it works.

But more often, one situation diverges from another, and analogies fail. As Whittle Johnston used to ask his graduate students at American University, “Do the elements of analogy outweigh the elements of disanalogy?”

Concern over the current administration’s intellectual toolkit prods us to ask this question of several situations facing us. As North Korea rages intransigent and bellicose, the World War I analogy appears: A rising Germany challenged Britain, France and Russia while weak clients (Austria-Hungary and Serbia) drew their big allies into total war. Could North Korea spark a war that draws in America and China? 

A poor analogy. In 1914, two tense alliances faced each other, each ready to back their clients all the way. Now Beijing denounces Pyongyang’s risky bluster while urging a cooling-off conference. Xi Jinping seems to have taken up President Trump’s recent offer on trade in exchange for China’s help on North Korea, leaving Pyongyang without allies. A new analogy that North Korea is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion” ignores Soviet readiness to defend Cuba with nukes, which were already in Cuba. North Korea has no protector or usable nukes.

The World War I analogy may better fit Syria, where Russia has sworn to keep the Damascus regime in power. But Moscow, understanding what caused war in 1914 (Trump not so much), has not countered the U.S. cruise missile strike, and Trump has ordered no follow-ups. Sarajevo triggered escalation; Syria has not.

Worries over Hezbollah starting an Israel-Iran war bring up analogies of one country arming and training terrorists to attack another. Bulgaria sponsored the ferocious Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) until Sofia shut it down in 1934. No war resulted. Serbia armed and trained Bosnian Serbs in the 1992–95 genocidal war, but it stayed inside ex-Yugoslavia. 

Nasser armed and trained Palestinian fedayeen in Gaza; their raids into Israel provoked the 1956 Sinai Campaign. North Vietnam’s control of the Viet Cong initially drew the U.S. into a small war that became a large one. Pakistan’s arming and training of Islamic terrorists could provoke India, governed by Hindu nationalists, to lose patience and strike Pakistan, as they did over Bangladesh in 1971. But notice, all of these have elements of disanalogy.



A prominent analogy is that we are in a new Cold War, again facing a Russia-China alliance. Both are hostile to us, but the two operate independently and no Stalin figure commands them. Ideology has disappeared, although some caution that ideology was always a con; the roots of the Cold War were nationalism and power, which still motivate.

The Sino-Soviet bloc existed only from Mao’s takeover in 1949 to the withdrawal of Soviet aid in 1960. In 1972, Nixon utilized the Sino-Soviet split to our advantage. The Trump administration is trying to play the Nixon game by shifting our kind words from Russia to China. But opportunities for leverage today are limited. In the 1960s, Soviets and Chinese were skirmishing along their border. Today, no border dispute troubles the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which aligns Moscow and Beijing (but is not yet an alliance).

An analogy between the Soviet and Russian economies might work. The Soviet economy slumped in the 1970s and by the time of Gorbachev’s appointment in 1985 was in severe decline. Moving without plan and too fast, Gorbachev pushed the Soviet Union into collapse. Deng Xiaoping — gradually and years earlier, starting with private farming and small businesses — transitioned China’s economy into spectacular growth (now slowing).

The Russian economy — the key sectors of which, namely energy, are tightly state controlled — could run down as badly as the Soviet economy. Putin’s oligarchic regime takes no steps to invigorate Russia’s economy. Russia needed oil at $100 a barrel to subsidize false prosperity; now oil is about $50 and likely to stay low. Skimming billions and stashing 

it overseas does not grow Russia’s economy (doesn’t help ours much either).

Few predicted or even anticipated the Soviet collapse. Only a handful, mostly economists, saw it coming. Most foresaw Gorbachev successfully carrying out reforms to partially marketize the Soviet economy. Instead, his clumsy attempts made things worse. Actually, a good American capitalist should have noted inefficiency and decay in the Soviet economy and concluded that all we had to do was wait. Precisely what happened, but anyone suggesting that would have been laughed out of Washington.

The Point: Don’t get too scared by scary analogies. Ask if they reasonably fit the current situation. Few do. Instead, unexpected threats are coming from out of left field — cyberattacks, climate change, widespread drought and waves of migrants. Our problems are less likely to be analogies with the past than nations unprepared to cope with this strange new world.