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Khong, Analogies at War (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 601/10

Analogies at War Precis

In Analogies at War, Oxford University political scientist Yuen Foong Khong explores both the how and why policay makers use historical analogies in their foreign policy decision-making and the implications of their doing so. Khong asserts that the unifying theme of previous works on the relationship between the lessons of history and policy has been that statesmen frequently turn to historical analogies for guidance when confronted with novel foreign policy problems, that they usually pick inappropriate analogies, and as a result, make bad policy decisions. Khong specifies what it is that historical analogies do and demonstrates how, if at all, such tasks influence decision outcomes. Khong proposes an Analogical Explanation (AE) framework, which suggests that analogies are cognitive devices that “help” policy makers diagnose tasks central to decision-making. The six tasks are (1) help define the nature of the situation confronting the policymaker, (2) help assess the stakes, and (3) provide prescriptions. The analogies help decision-makers evaluate alternative options by (4) predicting their chances of success, (5) evaluating their moral rightness, and (6) warning about dangers associated with the options.” The lessons of Korea had an especially powerful influence on Vietnam decision-making because they not only predisposed the policymakers toward intervention but also predisposed them toward selecting a specific option among the several pro-intervention options. The Korean analogy shaped the form and the fact of the US intervention. Khong asserts that decision-makers typically invoke inappropriate analogues that not only fail to illuminate the new situations but also mislead by emphasizing superficial and irrelevant parallels. Therefore, Khong believes that there is something about the psychology of analogical reasoning that makes it difficult, though not impossible, to use historical analogies properly in foreign affairs. Khong finds that people tend to access analogies on the basis of surface similarities, and once the analogy or schema is accessed, it (1) allows the perceiver to go beyond the information given, (2) processes information “top-down”, and (3) can lead to the phenomenon of perseverance.

The AE Framework

· “Analogies can be viewed as intellectual devices often called upon by policy-makers to perform a set of [six] diagnostic tasks relevant to political decision-making.” (20 – 21)

o Define the nature of the problem or situation confronting the policy maker by comparing the new situation to previous situations with which the policy maker is more familiar.

o Give the policymaker a sense of the political stakes involved

o Imply or suggest possible solutions to the problem so define

o Help evaluate the implied solution or other alternatives by “predicting” their likelihood of success

o “Assessing” their moral rightness

o “Warning” of dangers associated with them

· “A schema is a generic concept stored in memory…a person’s subjective “theory” about how the social or political world works…The difference between a schema and an analogy is that an analogy is specific and concrete, while a schema is abstract and generic.”

· “Schemas persist in the face of contradictory evidence. What is true of schemas should also be true of historical analogies: pointing out to policymakers the nonparallels between their favorite analogue and the actual situation is unlikely to erode their faith in their analogy.” (39)

American’s Vietnam Options

· One of the book’s major empirical findings it that “policymakers’ analogies are almost always challenged by colleagues in internal deliberations and that such challenges tend to have little impact on the proposer of the analogies.” (51)

· Khong’s method: (1) ID most important analogies, (2) specify what the analogies teach, (3) document the analogy’s role in the process. (58)


· “The historical analogy that played the most influential role in the decision-making of the 1960s was that of Korea.” (97)

· Bundy drew three lessons from Korea: (1) aggression needed to be met earl and head-on, (2) a defensive line did not adequately define US vital interests, and (3) a power vacuum was an invitation to aggression. (100)

· “A fundamental lesson of Korea was, therefore, that international communism was at work.” (101)

· “IF the Korean analogy defined the problem in Vietnam as one of external aggression, its implicit solution was of course the use of military force to check communist expansionism.” (112)

· “Psychologically…the decision-makers overcompensated for the ghost of MacArthur.” (147)

Dien Bien Phu

· “Dien Bien Phu suggests that the problem is one of the Vietnamese fighting colonial domination…It follows that the moral position of such a Western nation is untenable…The implicit policy prescription is that one might want to be doubly cautious…the Vietcong’s adversaries would be likely to experience serious internal dissent…predicts that the Vietcong’s adversary would be unlikely to win.” (149)

· “If the main lesson of Dien Bien Phu was the prediction of failure, the other lessons all seemed to reinforce that prediction.”

· “Uncertainty, more often than not, pervades foreign policy decision-making; it is also a major reason decision-makers look to the past for policy guidance.” (165)

Munich and the 1930s

· “Memories of the 1930s – and of Munich in particular – foreclosed the nonintervention options suggested by George Ball and the Dien Bien Phu analogy.” (174)

· “Aggression unchecked is aggression unleashed. Aggression unleashed is particularly dangerous because it leans eventually to general war just as the unchecked fascist aggressions of the 1930s led directly to WWII.” (175)

· “The Munich analogy was the intellectual basis of the domino theory.” (184)

· “If the lessons of Munich appear overly broad and categorical, and ultimately shallow, it is because such was the level of discourse held by its proponents, none of whom probed into the reasons Chamberlain and Daladier felt unprepared to fight Hitler in September 1938.” (187)


· “Because policymakers often encounter new foreign policy challenges and because structurally uncertainty usually infuses the environment in which responses to such challenges must be forged, policymakers routinely turn to the past for guidance.” (252)

· “When historical analogies have the strength, and when they command the acceptance that Gelb and Betts write about, they are also at their most dangerous. Analogies that are immune to critical questions, such as Korea and Munich in the 1960s, are unlikely to serve as a basis for genuinely productive analyses. Analogies that invite too many questions, such as the Vietnam analogy in the 1970s and 1980s, may be divisive, but at least they encourage their users to seek their answers elsewhere.” (263)


Analogies at War Yuen Foong Khong (1992)

Khong assumes that people and policy makers use historical analogies to make decisions.

1 – Specifies what analogies do in that process

2 – Provides an explanation why policymakers often use analogies badly

Outlines that analogies are used as frameworks to understand new information and situation.

Corrolates analogies to schemas in the psychological literature.

Tend to have top-down analysis and persist in the face of contradictory evidence

Shows how three historical analogies were used or not used in the 1965 decisions about Vietnam

1) Munich – don’t appease your opponent, get involved earlier

2) Diem Bien Phu – don’t get involved in Vietnam, French lost and so will US

3) Korea – Important to oppose spread of communism but do it in a gradual way to win.

Vicarious – learning from someone else

Visceral – learning from your own experience

Recent – closer in history tend to be used

Success – successful outcome tends to be used

History is a dangerous lover (our hindsight is always distorted by knowledge of what happened)

Is it similar enough to use? Is it different in essential ways or non-essential ways?

6 part structure: Analogies used to:

1- Help define the nature of the situation confronting policymakers

2- Help assess the stakes

3- Provide prescriptions

Then to evaluate alternative options by

4- Predicting their chances of success

5- Evaluating their moral rightness

6- Warning about dangers with the options

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