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Opinion
Hal Brands

Putin Isn’t the Only Autocrat Rewriting History

Leaders in China, Hungary, Turkey and elsewhere are using sketchy old claims to justify new aggression.

Creative rewriting.

Creative rewriting.

Photographer: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

History is a powerful weapon: Just ask Vladimir Putin, who is using it as part of his escalating campaign to undermine an independent Ukraine. And Putin isn’t the only leader who is invoking — and abusing — the past as a means of asserting global influence. Geopolitical authority often begins with historical revisionism, a pattern that is playing out across an unsettled international landscape today.

The past shapes our understanding of what is and, more importantly, what should be. So the links between a country’s history and its foreign policy — or, rather, its preferred understanding of that history — have always been profound. All leaders seek to justify their statecraft through some narrative about the past. All empires use historical mythmaking to legitimize their expansion.