Thursday, June 24, 2010


Paul Kennedy defends appeasement, I think very well.

The word is forever associated with Chamberlain and Munich, but I think that is a mistake. As Kennedy explains, the British had done very well over the course of the nineteenth century by making deal after deal and only fighting when they had to. They appeased the US, the Japanese, the French, even the Venezuelans, and only grew more powerful.

Britain's situation of 1940 -- at war with Germany, Italy and Japan, without American or Soviet help -- was pretty much the worst-case scenario. Every player in British politics and diplomacy, including Churchill, thought it should be possible to avoid this situation. Most wanted to buy off or appease somebody to avoid fighting all their enemies at once, or to make every possible concession so that if Britain was attacked, the US would be more likely to intervene. It is easy to criticize British and French actions in retrospect, since the hell they were trying to avoid did come to pass, and when it came they were in a weaker position than they might have been. But who but a lunatic would not have tried to avoid World War II, possibly the greatest disaster in human history?

People need to get over the Hitler thing. Most enemies are not the Nazis, and most of the time diplomacy is better than war.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to Kennedy's interesting essay. Of course, as I'm sure you're aware, Kennedy's message isn't quite "People need to get over the Hitler thing." His basic message is, sometimes appeasement is the smart thing to do, and sometimes it isn't, and, when you're in the actual thick of events, it's very hard to know the difference. Specifically, he allows that we simply don't know, for example, how the Chinese will act as their power is on the rise. I have to admit I don't quite see the sort of would-be barbarism in China--or in any of the other current major powers--that one can now see was so powerful in Germany's Second and Third Reichs. But we can't really know.

That said, obviously compromise can be a good idea, and US governments are able to do it remarkably often, despite the stigma associated with the "a-word." A clear case in point is the recent US retreat from our too-close engagement with Georgia. This was not a commitment the US needed.

Partly, all this is a matter of finesse. Nothing would be stupider than for a US President or Secretary of State to announce, "We're not going to risk our relationship with China for the sake of Tibet, so such it up and deal." But the Chinese know our position.

Of course, if the US economy gets worse and Americans start voting even more for the "I'm ignorant and like it" wing of American politics, all bets are off.

John said...

I focused on something that has always interested me: first, the belief that Chamberlain was obviously acting foolishly and weakly in 1938, and, second, that this mistake is a lesson that ought to guide US foreign policy.

Another thing I find strange is the notion that just acting in a hostile way will ever accomplish anything. Suppose we did want to "oppose" China's rising power? What could we do about it? Nothing, I submit. So we might as well make friends and hope for the best.