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History and the Hyperpower

Courtesy Reuters

EMPIRE'S NEW CLOTHES

Most historians cringe at talk of the "lessons of history." Trained as specialists and wary of sweeping comparisons, they flinch from attempts to make past events speak directly to current policy. They remind us of what makes circumstances unique, highlighting differences where others see similarities.

Politicians and policymakers, on the other hand, have few compunctions about drawing on historical analogies to frame and explain policy choices. Scholars may wince at their shallow thinking and imprecision, but such practitioners always have the last word. And even if we try to understand our world purely in its own terms, implicit, historically grounded beliefs -- in trends and turning points, analogies and metaphors, parallels and lessons -- inevitably shape our views. Better, then, to ask explicitly how history should inform our understanding of the present.

The historical analogy making the rounds of late is the notion that the United States

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