Then and Now: Appeasement Is Folly
Winston Churchill left us a marker: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” From our 21st century vantage point, we gaze back over the most violent century in human history, the 20th century, and desperately seek the guidance of history.
Historian Paul Johnson saw the devastation of the 20th century as a result of “the rise of moral relativism, the decline of personal responsibility, and the repudiation of Judeo-Christian values.” The gaping void left by the “retreat of the old order” was an open invitation for the emergence of Nazism and Communism and their despotic regimes. More recently, historian Niall Ferguson has identified the forces of ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline as the moving forces behind this tragic century.
However one understands the causes, there are certain lessons to be learned. One such lesson is the folly of appeasement. The long preamble to World War II is the story of misplaced confidence by men of good will in their ability to reason with aggressive dictators. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described his cabinet’s response to Hitler’s aggression as follows: “The cabinet was unanimous in the view we should not utter a threat to Herr Hitler.” Fellow cabinet minister Lord Lothian proclaimed to the public that Hitler had personally assured him that “what Germany wants is equality, not war; that she is prepared absolutely to renounce war.”
Niall Ferguson has characterized the British appeasement policy as follows: the appeasers believed that “the correct policy for Britain to adopt was to turn Germany into a ‘good European’ by treating her as one of the European community.” Fortunately, Britain ultimately chose – almost too late — Churchill and heroism.
After the unprecedented sacrifice of millions of civilians and combatants, the threats from Nazism and Soviet communism have receded, only to be replaced by threats from Chinese communism and Islamic terrorism. The story of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement echoes the arguments of the 1930s. President Barack Obama signed this agreement with the hope of appeasing Iran. As The Weekly Standard wrote recently, “President Barack Obama came into office believing—and he held to the belief tenaciously, despite all evidence—that the regime in Tehran needed only to be trusted…. If the regime were allowed to thrive economically, the president and his allies believed, it would cease to be a malign force.” His rationale sounds eerily familiar in the light of history. All Obama needed was a mustache and an umbrella to herald in Chamberlain’s “Peace in our Time.”
In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran agreement, characterizing it as “fatally flawed” and re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran. His realistic assessment of this “horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made” was that “it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.” The outcry from our European allies was immediate and sustained. The ink was hardly dry on the original agreement before the Europeans were signing lucrative trade deals with the Iranians. Loathe to forego these economic opportunities, the European allies not only opted to remain in the agreement but announced plans to shield European companies from U.S. imposed sanctions. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, countered, "We, the Commission and the European Union, have the duty to do what we can to protect our European businesses.” So much for concerns of Islamic terrorism and the hope for long-term peace.
Concurrently, examples of increased Chinese aggression are numerous. In trade, the Chinese have long imposed unfair trade practices on western trading partners. The theft of intellectual property from American companies has been rife. Peter Navarro, President Trump’s trade advisor, writing in the Wall Street Journal, recently highlighted China’s investment in strategic technologies, which may ultimately pose the gravest threat. “Through years of unfair trade practices and industrial espionage — building on its already massive trade surplus — China has accumulated trillions of American dollars. Now the Chinese government is embarking on a high-tech shopping spree in the U.S.” Most recently, the press has reported Chinese naval aggression in the South China Sea, claiming historically international waters as Chinese territory. These actions brought an ominous warning from Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
As the West encounters renewed threats of aggression from China, Iran, and Islamic terrorism, what will we learn from history? If we cannot understand the past, how can we hope to navigate the future?
Will we follow Chamberlain or Churchill?