by N.A.M. Rodger, Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford
Reviewed by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
The British naval historian N.A.M. Rodger, in the Hattendorf Prize Lecture last October at the Naval War College, emphasized both the importance of studying history and the perils of misusing the past to analyze current international relations.
Historians who use the past to predict the future, he said, are foolish. "History," he explained, "never repeats itself exactly; historical parallels are never really parallel, and the 'lessons of history' are at best general warnings, not specific instructions." The best historians, according to Rodger, warn against "bad history" and "false analogy." Appeasement is not always wrong. The attacks of September 11, 2001, are not necessarily instructive for dealing with future threats. There are not necessarily more Pearl Harbors lurking around the corner.
Rodger, nevertheless, suggests that there are similarities between the current international scene and nineteenth century world history. The nineteenth century was the first age of globalization reflected in "the free movement of capital and technology and the removal of barriers to trade." Britain's position in that world was similar to the position of the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Britain's preeminence was challenged by a unified Germany, just as America's preeminence is being challenged by a rising China. Germany's challenge in the nineteenth century led to the First World War.
While Rodgers does not predict that China's challenge will lead to another major war, he is less than sanguine about the prospects for war. He recommends that the United States use its navy as an instrument of deterrence and diplomacy.