What’s the best historical analogy to understand the turmoil and shifting alliances in the Middle East right now?
Writing in the New Republic, Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans sees “uncomfortable parallels” between Europe before World War I and the Middle East today:
Currently it is the conflicts in the Middle East we have to worry about, with a vicious civil war in Syria between rival Islamic factions standing proxy for the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while an additional element of danger is provided by Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, and again Iran, with its persistent attempts to build one. China and Russia are lining up behind one side while Nato and the US line up behind the other.
Before 1914 the critical trouble spot was the Balkans, where nationalist passions were overlaid with religious conflicts between Christian states, such as Greece and Bulgaria, and the Islamic Ottoman empire. The Habsburg monarchy, run by a Roman Catholic elite, was being challenged by Orthodox Serbia. … The Balkan states, much like nations of the Middle East today, to a degree stood proxy for larger powers, notably tsarist Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary.
F. Gregory Gause of the Brookings Institution, meanwhile, sees what’s happening now as a “new cold war”:
The best framework for understanding the regional politics of the Middle East is as a cold war in which Iran and Saudi Arabia play the leading roles. These two main actors are not confronting each other militarily; rather, their contest for influence plays out in the domestic political systems of the region’s weak states. It is a struggle over the direction of the Middle East’s domestic politics more than it is a purely military contest. The military and political strength of the parties to civil conflicts, and the contributions that outsiders can make to that strength, is more important than the military balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran.
Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, meanwhile, reach back much further, to the Thirty Years' War, which engulfed Central Europe in the 17th century. Here’s Brzezkinski, in an interview with Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf:
I see some parallels between what's happening in the Middle East and what happened in Europe during the Thirty Years' War several centuries ago, namely the rising of religious identification as the principal motive for political action, and with terribly destructive consequences.
All these analogies have their benefits and drawbacks, though as with invocations of 1939, it’s probably wise to be cautious about using them as a blueprint for action.
It may also be that situations in which strong states meddle in the affairs of weaker ones, and violence within those weak states breaks out along ethnic and religious lines are actually not that historically unusual, which is not to say that the latest example of this pattern isn't extremely alarming.