The Art of Appeasement

30 07 2009

Asia Times
30 July 2009

[My two-part commentary published in today’s Asia Times.]

In the early stages of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Adlai Stevenson, JFK’s notoriously dovish UN Ambassador, suggested that the US offer Moscow a non-confrontational trade to stave off a nuclear exchange: we withdraw our missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets withdraw their missile components from Cuba.  Upon hearing his advice, President Kennedy and every member of his secretive ExComm group (assembled to troubleshoot the crisis) scolded Stevenson for recklessly forgetting the obvious lessons of Munich, when Britain and France appeased Hitler prior to the Second World War.  Only a fool, they said, would reward the aggression of tyrants like Hitler and Khrushchev with diplomacy.  But then, lo and behold, under cover of absolute secrecy, President Kennedy went ahead and made nearly the exact same ‘appeasing’ trade that Stevenson recommended.[1]

It would seem, then, that if Kennedy handled the situation well—and there is a virtual consensus that he did—then appeasement is appropriate so long as no one knows about it.  Ironically, the only party with whom we ever felt a need to be secretive was the USSR, and they were the only ones privy to the deal.  The subterfuge, then, was apparently for the sole benefit of the American people, who would have likely seen this trade as a sign of capitulation and weakness, even if it came (as it eventually did) on the heels of a forceful blockade of Cuba.  Kennedy knew that Americans were just as likely as anyone to mistake the feeling of humiliation for the presence of weakness, and proceed to throw him under the bus.  But why?

With enemies ranging from empires to nation-states to terrorist organizations, the policy of appeasement has been scorned for the last 70 years to rouse the rabble out of its comfortable apathy and confront unadulterated evil. Unsurprisingly, however, our disdain in the West for any scent of appeasement has led to a widespread and knee-jerk tendency to identify and dismiss any policy of restraint or conservation, frequently at the expense of grounded foreign policy.  Not only, then, is appeasement wildly over-diagnosed, but even when accurately identified, the policy is quickly discarded as a tool of the weak.  And with the Obama Administration making numerous overtures of reengagement with Syria, Iran and other controversial parties, a close examination of both the legitimate and delusional perils of appeasement is long overdue.  Anti-appeasement rhetoric and survival instincts run amok have clouded our judgment, and it is time to right the ship.

Appeasement 1.0

In September 1938, after Adolf Hitler annexed and occupied part of Czechoslovakia for the ostensible purpose of taming ethnic conflict, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement that allowed Hitler to keep the territory, despite a previous French security guarantee protecting Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty.  In return for this concession, Hitler promised not to seize any more territory, but he soon invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and Poland, forcing Britain and France to declare war.

By the close of the war, the appeasement lesson had been drawn quickly and fiercely, leaving behind a legacy with a seemingly eternal shelf life.[2] Barely beneath the surface of every subsequent history textbook, the parable of Munich is loud and clear: the longer we wait to stand up to a bully, the more the bully will take by force—and the weaker we will be when war inevitably ensues.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to exploring the nuances of appeasement is that the approach of the British and French toward Nazi Germany in the 1930s is widely regarded as perhaps the most catastrophic example of appeasement on record.  As a result, it would have been impossible for us not to forge a nearly unbreakable association between raw appeasement and cataclysmic disaster.  Nor has anyone really resisted this impulse.

Before Munich, however, the policy of appeasement was almost institutional in its prevalence and application, both in Britain and elsewhere.[3] Yet while historians in recent decades have been reconsidering just how abnormal or scandalous British and French decisions were, the popular package of appeasement today is still painted thick with cavalier weakness, much in accordance with the policy’s notable detractors.

“It is precisely when the vital interests are bartered in return for minor concessions, or none at all, that appeasement has taken place,” says Frederick Hartmann.[4] Chamberlain’s mistake, then, was his assumption that Hitler would keep his promise not to demand more territory when nothing had been asked of Hitler to begin with.  “Appeasement is a corrupted policy of compromise, made erroneous by mistaking a policy of imperialism for a policy of the status quo,” according to Hans Morgenthau, the father of realpolitik.[5] Chamberlain and Daladier thought Hitler would settle for the status quo, when really it turned out that he would settle for nothing less than world domination.  In other words, Morgenthau argues, the appeaser’s error is the failure to see that “successive demands are but links of a chain at the end of which stands the overthrow of the status quo.”[6]

In the case of the Second World War, Britain and France hoped to avoid war by appeasing Germany on several occasions, but both eventually recognized that war was unavoidable, given the unlimited nature of Germany’s demands.  Britain and France, the thinking goes, should have known in Munich—if not earlier—that neither Hitler’s character nor his ambitions could be trusted, and that appeasement would only whet his appetite.  Accordingly, Hitler should have been confronted as soon as possible to prove Europe’s resolve, to mitigate the costs of war, and to ensure victory.

Much of this surely sounds like common sense. When confronted with such a threat, the most common response is to close ranks and project as strong an image as possible.  After all, weakness is not just bad for a nation’s ego.  “The lesson of Munich,” writes Steve Chan, “is that appeasement discredits the defenders’ willingness to fight, and encourages the aggressor to escalate his demands.”[7] But appeasement does so much more than that.

Given the tight fit between appeasement, the Second World War and the Holocaust, it is critical to note that any defense of appeasement need not defend all appeasement—no more than defending one war requires a defense of all wars.  To date, our very powerful psychological association between appeasement and Hitler’s behavior has prevented us from considering alternatives to our understandable gut feeling that appeasement will always lead to a Holocaust.  Such a fallacious assumption is based not on sound public policy, but rather on the sensation that “doing something”—or anything, for that matter—is always better than “doing nothing,” which leaves us feeling impotent.

Rhetorical Baggage

The most difficult hurdle inevitably facing any advocates of negotiated settlement is the thin line between compromise and appeasement, but their vague differences do not merely point to word games.  Technically speaking, Munich was a compromise; it assured Germany that it could keep its annexed territory, and it assured the British and French that they could avoid a war.  Hitler had to make a concession, as did the British and French.  Granted, it quickly became clear that Hitler’s promise not to claim any more territory was completely insincere, but it was still promised in a compromise.  Believing Hitler’s pledge may have been a disastrous mistake, as most people believe, but the way this mistake and others like it are framed actually points to an important distinction.

At the time, before Hitler had violated the agreement, Winston Churchill—then only an outspoken figure in the British opposition—denounced Munich as appeasement. “It is not Czechoslovakia alone which is menaced,” Churchill noted in September 1938, nine days before Munich, “but also the freedom and security of all nations.  The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion.”[8] Hitler was known for breaking promises, so in Churchill’s eyes, the futility and danger of appeasing Berlin with part of Czechoslovakia should have been patently obvious.

Yet if appeasement is simply what happens when we are fooled into trusting a liar, then Churchill (and anyone else) could only determine if Munich was appeasement after Hitler violated the agreement’s terms. Appeasement, in other words, is an entirely retrospective phenomenon, and if decried during a negotiation process, the label is simply a moral judgment and a prediction.  From a historical perspective, however, to be fairly labeled ‘appeasement,’ an agreement—implicit or explicit—has to backfire; one party has to violate the agreement’s terms and make a fool out of the other party. Otherwise, we would still view the agreement as a ‘compromise’ rather than ‘appeasement’.

Even still, because the doom of Munich has been seared into virtually every political decision-making process in the West, we have come to assume that foolish appeasement can be easily diagnosed and discredited before the allegedly unreliable party even violates the agreement.  Still, given Hitler’s propensity for breaking promises, we cannot imagine how anyone could fall for his tricks.  But this fallacious notion demonstrates that hindsight is not only 20/20, but blindingly so.  Put differently, why do we never hear about successful appeasement?  Is it because appeasement never works, or because we merely call it something else entirely?

Appeasement 2.0

In 1978, US President Jimmy Carter brokered a landmark peace treaty at Camp David between Egypt (led by President Anwar Sadat) and Israel (led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin).  In what was called a ‘Land for Peace’ treaty, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt—which had controlled the land before Israel captured it during the Six Day War of 1967—and in exchange, the Peninsula would be completely and verifiably demilitarized to give Israel the reassurance of a strategic buffer and retain its vital early-warning defense system.

At the time, Egypt was Israel’s most powerful and dangerous enemy—one that had (in the eyes of Israel and its Western supporters) mounted 4 strategic assaults on the Jewish nation in the previous 30 years.  To put it mildly, then, the Israelis did not trust the Egyptians.  Cairo had broken numerous previous agreements with Israel, including several acts of war. Between the two most recent wars, Cairo had warned Jerusalem that Egypt was preparing for war to regain the Sinai, but Israel only began listening to these warnings in the wake of the 1973 war, which naturally gave Israel reason to believe that the Egyptian military could still inflict enough pain to warrant plenty of attention, even if Cairo no longer posed a threat to Israel’s existence itself.[9]

Although many of the details (and obviously the outcome) of this treaty are quite different from those of Munich, the principal arguments remain just as potent.  Both Berlin and Cairo were allowed to hold on to territory to which each claimed a strong national connection.  The fact that Berlin succeeded (while Cairo failed) to secure that land by force is nearly irrelevant because the messages coming from Cairo and Berlin were the same: if you concede this territory, we will stop fighting you.  Israeli, British and French leaders all traded land for the promise of peace.  We merely insist that Camp David was smart (and not appeasement) because Egypt has held up its end of the bargain, while Hitler did not—despite comparable evidence at the time that made each likely to violate their respective agreements.[10]

In fact, while there is a near consensus in theory that it is unwise to reward aggressors by negotiating with (or appeasing) them, every White House and virtually every contemporary foreign policy analyst hails the Camp David Accords as a monumental success.  Even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said that he was wrong to have questioned and undermined Begin’s efforts at the time and wrong to vote against the ratification of the Accords in the Israeli parliament.  Olmert even went so far as to say that Begin was “smarter than I was” for having made such a wise decision.[11]

Nevertheless, the Israel-Egypt treaty that followed the Camp David Accords had the same public policy implications and sent the same messages to tyrants that Munich did: first, if you are aggressive enough, rest assured that powerful countries like Israel will be forced to listen and make concessions (though probably not surrender); second, if you are able to get those concessions through a compromise, then that compromise will likely give you a tactical advantage, enabling you to easily take the modest reward for your aggression (as Egypt did), or go double-or-nothing for the jugular, as Hitler did.  Aggression, according to Camp David’s lessons, will give you options, credibility and power.

Some could argue that Egypt’s power paled in comparison to Germany’s, so appeasing Egypt was not as risky as appeasing Hitler; but thousands of dead Israelis and their families certainly felt otherwise in 1978.  And besides, it would be a fantasy to think that Jerusalem ever negotiates with powerless parties; Israelis only negotiate when they have to, and frequently not even then.

Nor did the US push this peace summit because Israel would be just as safe without the buffer territory.  Israel’s strategic interest in keeping the Sinai was just as “vital”[12] as Chamberlain’s interest in stopping the spread of fascism, and far more vital than his interest in the actual Czech territory ceded at Munich.  Likewise, trading such a vital interest for what was essentially a mere promise of peace had no bearing on Cairo’s decision to stick to the deal.  For whatever reasons, Cairo did not exploit the concession and go for Israel’s jugular.  Therefore, while many accused the Israeli government in the late 1970s of trading vital interests in exchange for “minor concessions, or none at all,” that paradigm has proven to be completely unfounded.  In fact, Israelis have now recognized and come to value Egypt’s promise in 1978 and its legacy of peace—albeit a cold one.[13] And in retrospect, few would call Egypt’s promise of peace a “minor concession”—one that led to Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League and widespread celebrations in the Arab World when Sadat was assassinated in 1981—though Sadat’s promise was little more than what Hitler offered.

Remarkably, then, even by the loose standards of the most vehement anti-appeasers, Camp David should have backfired, just as Munich backfired.  Every simplistic red flag that we have been taught to look for as a result of Munich should have prevented Camp David from ever taking place.  But we somehow ignored those red flags.  We let it slip through, and ironically, the Camp David Accords is likely the only blessing the Middle East has seen in the last half century.

Strangely, despite discrepancies like this one—where the behavior of leaders should be consistent but is not—we still seem to insist that it is easy to identify and reflexively dismiss the policy of appeasement; the Holocaust’s legacy is simply too powerful to deny.  Yet these inconsistencies hardly mean that appeasement is always wise or always foolish; they simply show the fallacious assumptions we make about what it takes to prevent or end wars.  Simply put, there are no rules to this game.  After all, if people we deem equally trustworthy or untrustworthy at the time of negotiations frequently surprise us by pursuing entirely different agendas, then isn’t there something wrong with our barometer?  And if only history can prove our judgments right or wrong (and those judgments frequently turn out to be very wrong indeed), then why the moral self-righteousness?

Without a doubt, some of our enemies have unlimited demands that we simply cannot and should not indulge, but sometimes—contrary to what they publicly say to us and even to their own communities—our enemies will actually settle for concessions that we could tolerate losing.  In the meantime, however, the fact that we have little predictive power to discern the pathological bullies like Adolf Hitler from the hideously opportunistic and practical ones like Kim Jong-Il, Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has left our foreign policy a tattered patchwork of improvised disaster.

Reputational Wars

Beyond appeasement’s rhetorical and emotional barriers, however, just how dangerous is the policy itself in practice, and when?  After a modest inquiry, most of the oft-cited liabilities of appeasement lack the kind of argumentative support that should always accompany such a widespread and knee-jerk assumption that dominates our policy discussions.

For instance, integral to any argument against appeasement is the assumption that appeasing—before or during a conflict—wreaks havoc on the appeaser’s reputation and (therefore) vital security interests.  Hand-in-hand with any discussion of appeasement is how we want others to see us—usually as a force to be reckoned with—because that perception is said to affect our enemies’ behavior.  In particular, if we demonstrate our strength with a consistent refusal to appease our enemies, then those same enemies will be less likely to misbehave or try to call our bluff.  Unfortunately, by focusing almost exclusively on how others view us, we have lost our grounded sense of reality and mistaken the phantom of weakness for the real thing.

In the years since Munich, our political discourse has relied on war as a tool to bolster our reputation, and remarkably, this justification seems to be resonating more as the years go by.  Such rhetoric, for instance, has played an instrumental role in the public justification and private rationalization of every US war and most of its conflicts.[14] Even before the end of the Second World War, President Roosevelt was already saying that America’s readiness to fight would show (and is showing) aggressive nations that their hostile policies would not be indulged.[15]

Ever since, image maintenance has been at the center of our foreign policy discussions, and perhaps even more so since the end of the Cold War.  During the Gulf War, President Bush (41) was intent on making up for Vietnam’s legacy of American weakness, while President Clinton had his own foreign policy demons to exorcise in Kosovo, after years of being excoriated for avoiding tragic wars in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.  “If you don’t stand up to brutality and the killing of innocent civilians,” Clinton warned, “you invite them to do more,[16] but “action and resolve can stop armies and save lives.” After the NATO bombing campaign successfully expelled Serbian forces from Kosovo, Clinton noted that

I believe what we did was a good and decent thing, and I believe that it will give courage to people throughout the world, and I think it will give pause to people who might do what Mr. Milosevic has done throughout the world.[17]

President Bush (43) drove the point home even further in the traumatic wake of the 9/11 attacks, when he argued that it was his predecessor’s transient appeasement that had enabled al-Qaeda to escalate its methods and successes.  In a September 2006 speech, for instance, President Bush framed America’s resolve in the context of al-Qaeda’s understanding of American weakness:

Bin Laden and his allies are absolutely convinced they can succeed in forcing America to retreat [from Iraq and Afghanistan] and causing our economic collapse. They believe our nation is weak and decadent, and lacking in patience and resolve. And they’re wrong.  Osama bin Laden has written that the “defeat of… American forces in Beirut” in 1983 is proof America does not have the stomach to stay in the fight. He’s declared that “in Somalia… the United States [pulled] out, trailing disappointment, defeat, and failure behind it.” And last year, the terrorist Zawahiri declared that Americans “know better than others that there is no hope in victory. The Vietnam specter is closing every outlet.”[18]

According to this logic, then, the only way to undermine al-Qaeda’s hope for success was to prove that it would be impossible to compel any kind of American withdrawal—militarily, politically, economically, or ideologically.  Even disregarding the fact that it was al-Qaeda’s express intention to draw the US into a war, President Bush was so eager to avoid the appearance of weakness that he disregarded the implications of what it might mean to actually be weak.  And it is this distinction that has haunted appeasement’s detractors for the last 60 years.

To be sure, weakness is certainly a strategic liability, but it should come as no surprise when public officials err on the side of overkill.  Whether our leaders cite the threat of appeasement to garner support or because they actually believe what they say, game theory research has come to illustrate that anti-appeasement rhetoric frequently leads us to dismiss available and effective policy options.[19] Once we recognize and unpack the complexities of our understandable aversion to appeasement, only then can we harness and control that aversion—rather than be controlled by it.  To that end, when we are trying to determine how our behavior will deter or encourage certain behaviors among our current and future enemies, there are a number of key factors to consider and several misconceptions to abandon.

The Stakes Game

Brand management is at the heart of public diplomacy, especially for a superpower.  And as in the business world, it is important to discern the differences in the brand’s interpretation.  When President Reagan withdrew American forces from Lebanon in the wake of a 1983 car bombing that killed 241 American Marines, bin Laden claims he saw that withdrawal as a weakness, and President Bush (43)—at least in retrospect—saw it as appeasement.

Yet even if one believes that the 1983 withdrawal from Lebanon was appeasement, our reflexive disdain for appeasement prevents us from asking the much-needed follow-up question: “Was the appeasement worthwhile?  That is, did withdrawing do more for our reputation and national interests than staying would have?”  And the answer is yes.  For perspective, consider why it took so long for the US to pull out of Vietnam, while only a few substantive attacks by Hezbollah compelled a US withdrawal from Lebanon?

Simply put, victory over communism in Vietnam was considered to be a strategic necessity.  For years we thought we had to win, no matter the costs.  Adding more pressure, we knew the Soviets were scrutinizing American resolve for weak points, learning how we coped with losing a war that we regarded as a strategic necessity.  Granted, after we finally withdrew from Vietnam, it seemed that the vaunted ‘domino theory’ of contagious communism had been discredited, but our civilian and military leadership believed otherwise at the time.

In contrast to Vietnam, however, Lebanon’s civil war was dangerous, but in the grand scheme of things, the Lebanon effort was regarded by the US as little more than a humanitarian mission gone awry in a woefully chaotic region.  The same dynamic could be said for Somalia.  Again, from a strategic perspective, the US mission in Somalia was not nearly important enough to continue beyond the loss of 19 soldiers, especially after such a public and gruesome spectacle like the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident televised on CNN.

In other words, only if we abandon high-stakes missions does it cause significant damage to our reputation.[20] Merely because we feel humiliated—as we did in the wake of our withdrawals from Lebanon and Somalia—does not mean others will doubt our resolve when the stakes are high.  After all, sizing up your enemy when that enemy is fighting a mere nuisance does not provide even moderately reliable intelligence as to how that enemy might behave if confronted by a strategic threat.  Vietnam gave the Soviets a reason to doubt our resolve; Lebanon did not. By leaving Lebanon and Somalia, the message we sent was not that we had no resolve; the message we sent was merely that we had no resolve on relatively unimportant missions.[21]

Admittedly, learning that we had no resolve on these two unimportant missions was apparently sufficient to convince bin Laden that we were weak enough for his purposes, and this should certainly be taken into consideration when determining foreign policy, even the humanitarian kind.  Yet solely because bin Laden used these withdrawals to convince others that the US was weak was not enough to actually make us weak.  As countless investigators, analysts and journalists have revealed, bin Laden knew he could not truly weaken the US unless he lured America into a larger war that rallied the support of millions of Muslims who were traditionally indifferent to his war cries.  If Lebanon and Somalia were so instructive, then bin Laden would have devoted all his resources towards duplicating those relatively small-scale incidents, forcing our piecemeal military withdrawal from Muslim lands.   But he didn’t.  He went big.

The mere fact that he cites those two withdrawals should point to the limited threat he knew he could pose—short of a wider war that he needed us to start.  Both then and now, Al-Qaeda’s leaders are not counting on our hasty retreats; they are counting on our over-reaction.  Bin Laden needed to make us feel so humiliated and vulnerable that we would forget our powerful place in the world, rashly take his bait, and continue warring with the Muslim world until our military and economy broke from the strain.  In terms of policy-formulation, however, this distinction has been entirely ignored in Washington.

The Humiliation of Appeasement

Though counter-intuitive, even the painful withdrawals from important missions have a certain degree of ambiguity as to the lessons learned by our enemies.  When we withdrew from Vietnam, the costs of the conflict had simply become too high to justify staying.  In the end, however, the same judgment and cost/benefit rationalization that compelled us to withdraw was also employed by the Soviets, thus mitigating our reputational fallout.  Similarly, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1980s—after nearly a decade of disastrous occupation and insurgency—we questioned their resolve to a certain degree, but we also knew from our Vietnam experience that occasionally even vital missions become too costly to continue.  And it hardly meant the Soviets were weak.

Ultimately, the relevant difference here is between words and actions.  If the bulk of US forces soon withdraw from Afghanistan with anything remotely resembling defeat, hostile observers in Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Cuba and China will undoubtedly rub it in our faces.  (We certainly rubbed it in the Soviets’ faces when they withdrew from Afghanistan.)  Our enemies and geopolitical competitors will insist that our withdrawal from Afghanistan proves that we have become a pathetic, sniveling mess.

But they will not attack us as a result.  In fact, they are most likely to employ aggressive tactics at a time (like now) when our military is too preoccupied to retaliate effectively, if at all.  So like any country or nation with self-confidence and an investment in the status quo, we see any verbal insistence that we are weak as a sign that we are, in fact, weak—even if no one acts on those claims.  To be sure, our most basic tool for gauging our weaknesses should be the prevalence of force used against us—not the extent of our enemies’ teasing.  But we are human, and a sense of humiliation seldom inspires productive or even rational behavior.

Consider, for instance, that after the Israeli Air Force bombed a Syrian nuclear facility in the fall of 2007, it seemed that every analyst of Middle East affairs said that Israel had re-asserted its dominance, warned Syria and Iran, and regained the respect it lost after the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.  Yet if Israel were so vulnerable and weak, then Hezbollah would have launched another war as soon as its arsenal was restocked several months after that war ended.  But it didn’t, and it hasn’t.

In fact, if Israel were actually more vulnerable after the Second Lebanon War, it was only more vulnerable to teasing and gloating.  As is frequently the case when any top dog gets a bloody nose, Israel felt the need to retaliate to reassure itself, not the rest of the world, of its staying power. And to that end, Israel succeeded.  But humiliation is a feeling, not a state of military readiness, and accordingly, countering a sense of humiliation is a bizarre method for ensuring adequate defenses, though boosts in morale are always helpful.

Ultimately, if we cannot distinguish between taunts and threats, then we cannot distinguish between humiliation and genuine vulnerability.  More than anything else, the obstacle of humiliation is emotional in nature, and our insistence that appeasement, by definition, is necessarily weakening is frequently the product of a bruised or threatened ego, nothing more.  There are times, in fact, when “appeasement from strength,” as Churchill (of all people) once noted, can be “magnanimous and noble, and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.”[22]

Looming Threats and Limited Resources

In the early stages of the Vietnam War, Robert Kennedy insisted that no one would believe we could take on communism in Berlin if we did not do so in Vietnam.[23] Yet not only were the stakes drastically different in Berlin and Vietnam—as discussed above—but going to war to preserve or bolster our image was risky given our limited resources.[24] That is, while proving to the world that we had the stomach to fight proxy wars with the Soviets, we also spent valuable resources that were needed to convince the Soviets that we could and would actually take Berlin, if and when the time came to do so.  As in any war, proving that we have the stomach to do something is irrelevant if—in the process—we spend all of the resources and capital vital to actually doing that something.  Fortunately, the Soviets never pushed us so far that we felt compelled to try to take Berlin.  In our new wars, however, we might not be so lucky.

Appeasement 3.0

For the last six years, the US has been so consumed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that any and every threat we issue to our current and potential enemies has been a laughingstock.  When the Iraq War started, Russia was preoccupied with domestic matters, North Korea was only dabbling with nuclear technology and Iran was trying to accommodate the US effort in Iraq as best it could.  But as it became clear that the US would be allocating far more time, soldiers, money and attention to Iraq than Washington had anticipated, Russia, North Korea and Iran have all turned to increasingly aggressive tactics in countless public and private arenas.

After all, what reality are the Iranians, North Koreans and Russians more likely to base their policies on?  That the Americans are unpredictable cowboys who must be feared?  Or that these same unpredictable cowboys have spent their gunpowder, starved their horses, and earned the democratic wrath of the Cherokee, Navajo, and Apache nations?

In this way, avoiding appeasement or going to war to preserve/bolster our reputation is just as likely to backfire as appeasement is, if not more so.  The war in Afghanistan was a direct challenge to the people who attacked us on 9/11 and thus was not predominantly focused on frightening our other adversaries.  First we had to take out our immediate enemies, and then focus on deterring our potential ones. But after Afghanistan, we lacked the resources to simultaneously attack and invade Iraq, Iran, North Korea and (perhaps) Libya and Syria, so Washington hoped to use a successful image-maintenance invasion of only Iraq to scare the other regimes into terminating their WMD programs and cooperate fully to root out the terrorists whose activities they had traditionally overlooked.

As intended, Libya caved, but the others only mildly cooperated until they saw impending disaster in Iraq.  They waited to see how serious and reckless we were—which is what we wanted them to do—but more importantly, they waited to see how competent and powerful we were. Being serious and “unpredictable”—as urged by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—is frequently helpful when confronting an enemy, but that approach loses its value if all of your unpredictable options are equally weak.[25]

And this is the danger of fighting wars in an effort to avoid appeasement. When the primary (if private) justification for going to war is sending a message, then you have to win and win big; no war at all is better than even an ambiguous victory.  Yet today, not only is our military overwhelmed, but there is no way to hide this reality from our enemies, as we are operating at full capacity.

After 9/11, we had enough power, clout and flexibility for a limited war that aided American interests more than it undermined them.  Had the US not intervened in Iraq, our success in the war in Afghanistan might have demonstrated US resolve without using the bulk of America’s armed forces—thus maintaining America’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with, willing and ready for deployment. But for whatever reasons, the invasion, occupation and overthrow of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was not enough—in Washington’s eyes—to solicit a sufficient degree of security- and WMD- cooperation from Pyongyang, Riyadh, Tehran, Damascus, Tripoli and certainly Baghdad.

Six years later, we now we have the worst of both worlds: our military is preoccupied in zero-sum nation-building when it should be preparing for increasingly credible threats in Moscow and Tehran, and exponentially more terrorists than before 9/11.  Meanwhile, America’s domestic tolerance for misadventure abroad is plummeting, and there is little we can do about any of these developments.  A war to bolster our reputation has been instrumental in overthrowing it, and in the process, we have revealed our immature grasp of what it means to be strong.

With simplistic ‘anything-but-appeasement’ policies, we forget that strength is more than simply appearing strong, and far more than simply feeling strong.  Strength is anticipation and longevity.  And while weakness and humiliation sometimes overlap—as weakness is often humiliating—usually they do not, especially not for a superpower.  It does not take much to humiliate us, but it takes an awful lot to weaken us.

Unfortunately, even though President Obama seems more likely to discard his predecessor’s myopic concept of strength and anti-appeasement insecurities, the problems Obama has inherited deny him the freedom Bush possessed to set America’s agenda.  So re-thinking appeasement might only be possible when we face a new set of challenges abroad that allow us to spend more time acting and less time reacting.

Either way, however, this means we must resist the temptation to grant our primordial instincts exclusive domain over the formulation of our foreign policies. Hitler’s legacy is overwhelming, much as it should be.  But whether we like it or not, and regardless of what we call it, the idea of appeasement is little more than a compromise that we come to regret.  And because we consistently fail to accurately predict who will stick to our deals and who will not, the corrosive compromises only become distinguishable from the successful ones after the negotiation is over.  By focusing so heavily on how strong we appear to others, it is easy to forget how strong we actually are, and how easily we crack the ice beneath our feet by recoiling from appeasement.

It is time, then, to develop a more accurate method for gauging the likelihood that an enemy will abide by the tenets of any given agreement, or if war must be declared or continued.  This new gauge would likely pivot on the axis of geostrategic interests, rather than on how ‘evil’ a leader or government may be.  The first step, no doubt, is to recognize that appeasement is no more crippling to our national security than war is, and appeasement should be regarded in the same light—no better, no worse.  Just another tool in the toolbox.  We have restricted our own policy options for far too long, and only now has the cost truly become unbearable.

[1] The deal also included a US promise never to invade Cuba.

[2] Every US President since Munich has cited various enemies, who, presidents insist, should never be appeased—including North Korea, Vietnam, the USSR, Libya, Iraq, Serbia, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Iran.  For a detailed analysis of Munich’s impact on US foreign policy during the last 60 years, see Joseph Siracusa’s chapter, “The Munich Analogy,” in the Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy (Simon and Shuster, 2002).

[3] See Paul Kennedy, “The tradition of appeasement in British foreign policy 1865-1939.”  British Journal of International Studies, 2(1976), p.195-215.   See also, Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987), 16, 39, cited in Jeffrey Record, “Retiring Hitler and ‘Appeasement’ from the National Security Debate”, Parameters, Summer 2008, pp.91-101. See also Arnold Offner, “Appeasement Revisited: The United States, Great Britain, and Germany, 1933-1940.”  The Journal of American History, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Sep., 1977), p.373-393.  See also Paul W. Schroeder, “Munich and the British Tradition.”  The Historical Journal, Vol. 19, No.1 (1976), p.223-243.  See also Donald Lammers, Explaining Munich, (Hoover Institution, 1966).

[4] Frederick Hartman, The Relations of Nations, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p.96.

[5] Hans Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 4th ed. (New York:

Knopf, 1967), p.61.

[6] Morgenthau, p.247; see also, Ralph Dimuccio, “The Study of Appeasement in International Relations: Polemics, Paradigms, and Problems,” Journal of Peace Research, 35(2): 245-259.

[7] Steve Chan, International Relations in Perspective: The Pursuit of Security, Welfare and Justice (New York: Macmillan, 1984), p. 88-89.  See also, J.L. Richardson, “New Perspectives on Appeasement: Some Implications for International Relations,” World Politics, 40(3): 289-316.

[8] Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Vol.1: The Gathering Storm, (Mariner Books, 1986), p.273.

[9] See John G. Stoessinger, Why Nations Go to War (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s), p.163-73

[10] See Lammers, Explaining Munich, 1966.

[11] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Is Israel Finished?” Atlantic Monthly, May 2008.

[12] See Hartman, The Relations of Nations, 1967, p.96.

[13] One 2001 poll put the portion of Israelis who support Israel’s treaty with Egypt at well above 85%.  See Jerusalem Post, 7 June 2001.

[14] Social psychology research has suggested that US presidents frequently employ anti-appeasement rhetoric to sell wars to doubtful constituencies, but equally often—the research suggests—presidents and their administrations privately believe very strongly in the necessity of confronting the enemies of their time.  See Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Cornell UP, 1991).

[15] In a fireside chat on December 24, 1943, President Roosevelt said that so long as our allies remained united “there will be no possibility of an aggressor nation arising to start another world war.” Cited in Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, p.446.

[16] See CNN, “Clinton: Serbs Must be Stopped Now,” 23 March 1999.

[17] NewsHour Interview with Jim Lehrer, PBS, 11 June 1999.

[18] Presidential Speech, 5 September 2006.

[19] As a literature review and original contributor, the best analysis of this game theory research and its implications is Daniel Treisman, “Rational Appeasement,” International Organization, 58(2): 345-73.

[20] Because nearly every military mission is framed as ‘high-stakes’ to rally support for the cause, the best indicator for what actually is ‘high-stakes’ is the level of our investment in the mission—militarily, politically, and economically.  Under this lens, Somalia and Lebanon pale in comparison to Vietnam.

[21] See Treisman, “Rational Appeasement,” p.360.

[22] Speech in 1950, cited in Daniel Moran, “Appeasement,” Strategic Insight, 1 April 2003; Center for Contemporary Conflict, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

[23] See Treisman, “Rational Appeasement,” p.361.

[24] With an enemy as vast as the Soviet Union, it would be virtually impossible to argue that our political, financial, and military resources were, in fact, unlimited.

[25] Washington Post, 1 May 2008.



4 responses

31 07 2009

The history of Chamberlain’s appeasement efforts as presented in above article is inaccurate. It is a rehash of british false propaganda.

Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler was part of a grand strategy of letting Germany expands eastwards to allow Hitler to destroy the Soviet Union.

See below link for more details:

Suppression of real agenda of British appeasement policy of Hitler in western history

3 08 2009

I think David H. Young hit a jackpot here. The art of east is we always study our enemy for years before we make a move onto them.. Only kid responds to another kid arm rising with a punch. Man watch and laugh…

10 08 2009
Will D

Right on. What else is assessed based on the most catastrophic implementation? People still eat Wendy’s chili even though that old woman found a finger in it once. What’s needed is more case-by-case assessments of the requirements of a situation, not the knee-jerk reaction you describe above. Sure, appeasement may not work against an actor moving out of greed, but one moving out of insecurity?

28 10 2011
George Wright

The position of the English Conservative government was complicated by the fact that some of its supporters, including Montague Norman, the powerful longtime governor of the Bank of England, were pro-nazi: Norman organised a massive loan of over 4 billion for Hitler as soon as he was elected. With this in mind, Chamberlain begins to appear as a hostage of nazism from the beginning.

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