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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.