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Does history repeat itself?

William Inboden | Present challenges look very familiar

Joe Biden walks off stage after speaking at the National Defense University in 2010. Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

Does history repeat itself?
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Consider the world situation:

A communist superpower on the Pacific Rim challenges the United States across the globe.

China’s economic and military power continues to expand under its most powerful leader since Mao.

Taiwan proves especially vexing, as America increases our security commitment to the island to deter Beijing’s potential invasion, while trying to avoid a catastrophic war.

The brutal Kim dictatorship in North Korea continues to threaten South Korea, Japan, and the United States, while tormenting its own people.

Russia has enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade, invading states in its near abroad, expanding its influence in the Middle East and Latin America, and even using information warfare to influence U.S. elections.

The Kremlin is developing a new generation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems while American leaders, including Joe Biden, seek to preserve a fragile arms control regime with Moscow.

The United States and Europe face tensions over a pipeline carrying oil and gas from Russia to Germany, while Washington pressures NATO allies to increase defense spending.

In war-torn Afghanistan, neighboring states maneuver for influence, and the United States faces hard choices and questions about its involvement in the conflict, while many Afghan refugees seek to flee their country.

Pakistan plays a double-game, cooperating with the United States in some ways, while pursuing a militant Islamist agenda, supporting terrorist groups, and hiding its nuclear program.

Iran’s revolutionary regime proclaims its hostility to America while engaging in destabilizing activities across the Middle East. The White House tries a combination of inducements, negotiations, and pressures to change Iran’s behavior.

Israel is building a new strategic partnership with former Arab adversaries, while trying to ensure that its mortal enemy does not develop a nuclear bomb.

Closer to home, a left-wing government in Mexico tries to balance its complicated relations with the United States and the troubles of its central American neighbors to its south.

In Nicaragua, the Ortega regime becomes increasingly authoritarian, while Daniel Ortega deepens his ties with the Kremlin. Popular discontent in Havana puts pressure on the communist dictatorship ruling Cuba.

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau tries to balance frictions over trade, energy, and the environment with his most important ally, the United States.

Protectionist sentiments in America pressure Washington to curtail free trade and sanction trade violators, both friend and foe.

Growing inflation burdens central bankers and threatens the American and global economies.

The Pentagon faces budget strains as it tries to modernize its weapons platforms to counter our communist peer competitor, while addressing acute readiness and manpower needs. Critics point out that the Air Force’s most widely used strategic bomber, the B-52, first entered service in 1952.

The American people, demoralized by America’s recent failures in our nation’s longest war, have little appetite for deploying combat troops in any new military interventions.

(Not all is so grim. The United States still leads the world in technology and innovation, thanks to companies such as Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, and edges in areas such as information technology and semiconductor design. But that advantage appears to be slipping, especially with growing competition from Asia.)

On the political scene, the Democratic Party, despite controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, is beset with internal divisions between its progressive and moderate wings.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party remains divided by the controversies of the last elected GOP president who left political chaos in his wake, as the party’s establishment and insurgent wings vie for control.

But perhaps change is afoot. In elections earlier this month, the American people voted in … Ronald Reagan as our next president.

You read that right—every single word above describes the world in November 1980, when Reagan was elected. Yet every word also describes the world of November 2021.

Yes, some particulars vary: in 1980 the Pacific Rim communist superpower was the USSR, today it is China. The Chinese leader then was Deng Xiaoping; today Xi Jinping. Israel’s enemy then was Iraq, now Iran. Joe Biden as a young senator and now as an older president pushed arms control with Moscow. America’s longest war then was Vietnam, now Afghanistan. The Canadian Prime Minister then was Pierre, now his son Justin. The GOP ex-president then was Nixon, now Trump. And so on.

Why do these parallels matter?

First, the persistence of many of these challenges should remind us that, in our fallen world, policy successes are elusive. National security policymaking often entails merely managing problems to keep them from getting worse. This contrasts with our usual binary of either trying to solve policy problems, or ignoring them altogether. Christians will not enjoy a perfect world this side of glory.

Second, with inspired leadership, some problems can be solved. President Reagan envisioned and then achieved the defeat of Soviet communism and the peaceful end of the Cold War. Christians should not despair that just because our world today looks grim, especially the challenge of China, a good outcome is not possible. Whether a visionary new president will emerge in the coming years remains to be seen. History, authored by the divine hand, should both chasten, and sustain, our hopes.

William Inboden

William Inboden is executive director and William Powers, Jr. Chair at the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and editor-in-chief of the Texas National Security Review. Previously he served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House. Inboden also worked at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special advisor in the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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Thank you for this good perspective. We definitely need more of it In these times. It’s interesting to see the parallels of history and be reminded that while the world is bleak, evil can still be defeated.


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On the bright side we no longer have mean Tweets from the Oval Office and that bothersome cheap gasoline is GONE!!


I am amazed at the similarities. This world is a mess. The USA has lost its way but God is still Lord of all.


I tell folks all the time the supreme folly resultant from placing your hopes or trust in the "princes of this world"


In a talk to our employees (in 2003), financial expert Ron Blue expressed concerns some of his clients had about the downturn in the economy from the tech bust of 2000. They felt that it must have been better before... so he walked through each economic crisis of each decade before... high inflation, recessions, World Wars, Great Depression, etc. His point: The economy is cyclical. Our attitudes (a) should be focused Above and (b) should be long-term centric.


So agree. Our focus usually tends to be short term. For Christians we must remain focused on the eternal perspective.


Best OPINION todate.