In a complex and dynamic world, accurately understanding and accounting for the strategic context is the difference between policy success and failure. All relevant stakeholders , and their perceptions of root causes and effects, must be accounted for. Current and relevant policies, strategies, and values must be reckoned with. For example, expectations of state behavior in the international system is much different in the 21st century than in the early 20th. The very experiences of the 2oth century drove changes that will transform 21st century strategic context.
Sometimes policy analysts draw from historical situations that have factors in common with the current contingency. But while the lessons of history can be informative, the current circumstances will be determinate to outcomes. By definition, a current challenge will have different individual leaders participating, different cultural and temporal attitudes in play. Accurately understanding the strategic context demands that policy makers understand the differences as well as the similarities with historical precedents.
Sometimes policy makers draw seductive analogies to historical events only to find that few analogies track sufficiently to predict outcomes. How many times have we heard, “It is another Vietnam!” First, before the first Gulf War, and again before NATO took actions to stop atrocities by Serbia in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo. At the time there were striking (and frightening) similarities between those prospective conflicts and the quagmire of Vietnam; however, by virtue of experiencing Vietnam, planners were able to modify tactics and strategy accordingly to avoid a seemingly endless and unwinnable conflict. Your competitors read the newspaper: the very fact similar situations have occurred means they will also modify their responses.
Historical examples are useful inasmuch as they illustrate longstanding systemic principles instead of particular outcomes. Historical precedents can highlight factors against which care must be taken or alternative policies to be pursued. For example, unchecked genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s in and of itself reminds us that intra-societal ethnic cleavages can be exploited with horrific results; at the same time unwelcome outcomes of Operation Iraqi Freedom showed that societies have entrenched cultural habits that are difficult if not impossible to transform by outsiders. These fresh reminders most likely drove different policy responses to Syria’s use of chemical weapons than had the latter occurred first.