Hitler analogy won't change fate of Crimea, Ukraine

Demonstrators wearing the Ukrainian flag and holding posters, some featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin as Hitler, during an anti-Russian protest in front of the Russian embassy in Vilnius on March 3.

WASHINGTON - American politicians remain sharply divided over how the United States should handle the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

Yet they are united in believing that Russia's military incursion and its seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region are dangerous developments, similar to previous historic events which doomed humanity to massive bloodshed.

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton spoke for many when she recently compared Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine to those of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War II.

Nor is Mrs Clinton unique in using such historical analogies. Earlier this year, Philippine President Benigno Aquino accused many of his neighbours of "appeasement", 1930s-style, for allegedly failing to respond to China's military moves in the South China Sea.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also berated China for its military posture by using an earlier historical analogy: that of the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany in the early 1900s which led to World War I. Not to be outdone, some Chinese commentators are accusing Mr Abe of "venerating Nazis", while North Korean officials routinely refer to the Japanese premier as "an Asian Hitler".

But while the political temptation to use historical analogies may be understandable, it is also highly counterproductive. It's liable to be misunderstood; forces governments into adopting rigid positions precisely when political flexibility is required; and invariably aggravates the handling of any crisis.

The attractions of using historic comparisons are self-evident.

With just one carefully constructed reference to the past, politicians are able to describe what are often highly complex events in an instantly recognisable manner.

They are also able to do so in a way guaranteed to attract media attention: just accusing the Russian President of aggression in Ukraine would not have generated many headlines, but comparing Mr Putin to Hitler certainly does. This is diplomacy through catchy one-liners.

But is it wise? To start with, although the number of historical analogies which can be used is theoretically limitless, today's politicians are forced to use only a very restricted number of such historic episodes if they want to reach a global audience.

So, for example, if President Aquino wanted to draw on his country's history to criticise Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea, he could have used the example of the Sangley Rebellion, a previous Chinese attempt to seize Filipino territory which took place in 1603.

But, since Mr Aquino realised that nobody would understand what he was talking about, he stuck to the tried-and-tested comparisons between Chinese behaviour today and Europe's on the eve of World War II.

The need to use historic comparisons familiar to most people alive today means that, although the fad for using such analogies is growing among politicians, the number of examples they end up exploiting remains very limited.

Apart from the world wars, it usually consists of comparisons with Hitler, Stalin or Mao, or references to the Holocaust and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US.

The uses and abuses of comparisons with Hitler are now so frequent that they have led to the invention of the so-called Goodwin's Law.

This states that, as an argument between two people grows longer and more heated online, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will bring up the name of the Nazi leader.

And they do this not because the comparison is meaningful, but because opponents run out of good, logical arguments to throw at each other.

Worse still, a heavily restricted number of historical analogies is liable to be misunderstood. In comparing the current state of China- Japan relations to the epic confrontations between Britain and Germany on the eve of World War I, the Japanese Premier did not mean to imply that war in Asia is inevitable. But that's how China chose to interpret Mr Abe's remarks.

And, in comparing the world's alleged passivity to China's South China Sea naval incursions to the situation in Europe on the eve of World War II, Mr Aquino did not intend to suggest that today's China is similar to Nazi Germany. But that's how Beijing took the jibe.

In short, although media outlets love resorting to historical analogies, and journalists think they understand what such comparisons mean, the governments at the receiving end of such historic comparisons invariably interpret these in the worst possible light.

But, most importantly, the use of historical analogies can act as a boomerang, damaging those who resort to them.

A classic example of this came in 1956, when Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal which ran through his country's territory, but was owned at the time by Britain and France.

The then British Prime Minister Antony Eden - who served as London's top diplomat during World War II - persuaded himself that Nasser was a new Hitler, a ruler Britain had to defeat if global peace was to be maintained.

Mr Eden, therefore, organised a military operation together with France and Israel to seize back control of the Suez Canal and depose Nasser. It was a total failure which achieved neither objective but put an end to Mr Eden's political career. Had he resisted the temptation of historic comparisons, neither the war nor Britain's subsequent humiliation would have happened.

The temptation to resort to historic comparisons is now too politically entrenched to be totally abandoned. But the more such analogies are made by exploiting the same tired old concepts, the less meaningful they become, and the less useful they are as pointers to handling crises.

Just ask the Ukrainians. They are unlikely to fare any better or get foreign military assistance to recover territories they recently lost to Russian forces - just because Russian President Vladimir Putin is described by others as another Hitler.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

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