Recently, the unthinkable happened. I was having a delicious dinner with friends and colleagues after a long conference in Western Africa on the crisis in the Sahel. It was a beautiful night close to the beaches of Cotonou, Benin and a post-conference ease disorder had set in. But such dinners are also a place were one trades the wisdom previously gathered. I was involved in a little exchange on the insularity of political science, when another colleague chimed in to ask this (I paraphrase, though not that much): “The French revolution doesn't tell you anything about the Arab Spring. What is it you want to learn from the French revolution for today, anyway? Or from history?”
My colleague, I hasten to say, is not an expert of revolutionary change. But in these few sentences she made the case for the insularity of political science in quite a remarkable fashion. I had to admit that this attitude was both monumentally ignorant (and I am afraid that still falls in the category of sugar-coding it). The extent of the ignorance on display was unique, the sentiment behind it, however, was not.
This is partly due to the way political scientists approach their subject. As a subject political science relies heavily upon data sets, even though political scientists are usually very well aware that compiling data for data sets is more than just a bit tricky. Its part of a constant effort to consolidate the empirical base from which science tries to gain conclusions. This is by and large a laudable effort and particularly in conflict and war studies, it might help dampen the surge in ideologically driven research paradigms. Abu Muqawama had a lovely entry a little while ago, where he dissects General Mattis' take on history, who poignantly argued that there is nothing new under the sun.
In it, Abu M tried to explain why he believes in data sets and not sloppy historical analogies. Which is why I want to make some general remarks on the value of history off the cuff. Whether its all been here before or not, is a mute question. History does not repeat itself, but it has patterns and those have been here before, as Richard Holbrooke used to say its like jazz, an improvisation of a constant theme [I owe this nugget to Vali Nasr's book]. And historical sciences have tried to come to terms with those patterns. Take, for example, the concept of Sattelzeit, a concept developed by German historian Reinhart Koselleck, whose work has greatly influenced yours truly and who is certainly among the ten most important German historians of the twentieth century. Or take the Annales school of French historians who tried to conceptualise history over what they called a longue durée [and just in case you haven't read Fernand Braudel, now is the time to do so], with which the interdependence of geography, political systems and finally culture was highlighted.
The bottom line is this. Historical analogies can be a tempting trap and their bad reputation stems from a sloppy use, among historians but first and foremost among journalists. Like the myriad of journalists who argued that Afghanistan is sort of like Vietnam. This sort of analogy is sure to land you in the graveyard of stupidity and since that's a rather crowded place, it ought to be avoided. In seeking historical explanations an analogy is a starting point, not in itself already an analysis. The analogy can be useful, however, if it is used to a specific end. Some similarities should be warranted before going any further with an analogy. For good measure, there are some of these between the current struggle in Afghanistan and the long and bloody war in Vietnam, the most noted being that both are somehow forms of irregular or asymmetric warfare and that the enemy cannot be defeated on the battlefield alone [In fact, David Petraeus drew some important lessons from Vietnam that he incorporated in his Iraq strategy years later, pdf]. But, an analogy is useless if it stops right there. The more interesting questions regard the differences and looking for those is what most journalists do not do. Neither is Afghanistan divided (unless you really really want to renegotiate the Durand Line), nor is the enemy as unified as the Vietcong. And though much of the tactics finally employed by the allies, such as counterinsurgency, have been tested in Vietnam, the war is less deadly, I mean far less deadly. And that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the differences. The whole point is not to make an analogy, but making an informed comparison. In order to learn from history, the differences between the cases put into an analogy are far more important than superficial similarities.
Take the case of the Arab Spring and the French revolution. Too many scientists and pundits regard revolution simply as the product of social upheavel, asking when people are so disenchanted or angry with their government that they choose to attack it. Many early analyses of the Arab Spring went something like this: Social problems + unemployment = angry people, i.e. revolution. That's certainly the most simplistic approach one can possibly take towards such a complex situation as a revolution and, though it should be needless to say so, people are angry at their governments all the time. So there must be a little more to it.
Speaking of the French Revolution, the similarities to the Arab Spring are so obvious, it takes some effort to miss it. Both had a massive impact not only on the country in which they first unfolded, but on their respective regions. Had political scientists heeded the lessons of history, a respected political scientist such as Stephen Walt would never have thought of arguing that the revolution would be confined to Tunisia in early 2011. Unfortunately, he did not look at history before making his argument. In fact, the Arab Spring is a reminder that there are historical concepts that should be reviewed in light of the Arab Spring. Theda Skocpol's analysis of revolutions – centred on the organisation of the means of coercion by the state – is a valuable first step, after all the Egyptian and Tunisian armies were central to the success of the revolutionary movements in 2011. Since its still morning, this is what I'll be doing today.