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Searching for Cycles in the Past

Seeking historical patterns is a time-honored practice. Notable figures have examined the past as a means to divine the outcome of present-day events. Cycles or reoccurring patterns in the past seemed to offer a way of prognosticating what lay beyond the horizon. Among the first Western references to the notion of cycles came from a Greek historian, Polybius (circa 200 to circa 118 B.C.), who asserted that governments cycle through different forms starting with primitive monarchy, includes kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, as well as oligarchy, and concludes with ochlocracy (or mob rule).14 The comings and endings of governmental types were taken up by other thinkers. The Italian philosopher and Enlightenment thinker Giambattista Vico wrote about recurring cycles in what he saw as the three epochs in history: the divine, heroic, and human in his influential book, The New Science, published in 1744.15 The notion of cycles in the rise and decline of civilizations was touched upon by the eminent British historian Herbert Butterfield in his treatment of the Classical Greek and Roman historians.16

The idea took root that history could be studied so as to foresee what lies ahead. In the Middle Ages, as Paul Johnson wrote, wise men counseled: “History is the school of princes.”17 A counselor to men of power, Machiavelli, the Florentine Renaissance political thinker held that a prince must look to the past for guidance:

Whoever considers present and ancient things, easily knows that in all cities and in all peoples there are the same desires and the same humors, and there always have been. So it is an easy thing for whoever examines past things diligently to foresee future things in every republic and to take remedies for them that were used by the ancients, or, if they do not find any that were used, to think up new ones through the similarity of accidents.18

Perhaps the most incomparable expression of this repetitive proposition flowed from the pen of the Spanish philosopher George Santayana. He admonished humanity to learn and apply the lessons of history in his oft- quoted aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”19

Others have dismissed the whole notion of deriving eternal truths or even insights from studying times long past. The renowned British historian A.J.P. Taylor, insisted: “The only lesson of history is that there is no lesson of history.”20 More succinctly, Henry Ford, the American automotive titan, thought history was “bunk.”21

The utmost that can be derived from the study of history is that exact prediction is unwarranted but it may be possible to develop a foresight so as to pinpoint factors that are starting to influence the direction of events. Lewis Namier, another eminent British historian, held that the “enduring achievement of historical study is a historical sense, an intuitive understanding—of how things do not work.”22 Intuitively perceiving how things might work out—or won’t work out—quite possibly is as near as professional scholars, statesmen, or political figures should venture about forecasting coming events. Forebodings and premonitions about writings on the wall can at least temper the enthusiasm for a possible catastrophe; if not totally alter the course of a misadventure.

This author shares the skepticism about historians or politicians having crystal balls or clairvoyant powers. The complexities of major events, with a multitude of variables, make for vagaries, not replications. Even taking up analogies can result in misleading conclusions, because the analogies mostly rest on superficial understanding of events and debatable premises. In brief, this author makes no claims to the prediction of specific events. Yet, a circumspect review of the ebb and flow of tides encompassing American foreign policy offers a way to understand the past and to anticipate probable behavior ahead. Seeing cycles in US foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall is the case this book sets out to make.

Cycles do abound in human activity. Fatigue follows exertion. Economic busts trail financial booms. Retreats come after crusades. Ying and yang alternate. The precise characteristics of each of these cycles can be distinct but their yawing phenomenon is expected, just as ebbing precedes flowing tides. Moods, or public sentiments, have fluctuated as America’s past indicates. The changes, in part, account for bouts of America’s engaged internationalism oscillating with periods of disengaged insularity toward the outside world. Internationalist lurches reflect a willingness to employ direct military power or diplomatic pressure against other states. Insular swings, on the other hand, exhibit strong domestic concerns and dissociation from overseas problems.

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