Hooray for appeasement

There are as few terms as pejoratively loaded in the language of international politics as that of appeasement, used as a poisonous byword for being weak-willed, for capitulating to an enemy, and invariably associated with Neville Chamberlain, Hitler and the 1938 Munich Crisis in 1938. Amidst the susceptability to a chest-thumping, polarized approach to diplomacy, the insult of appeasement is one of the most severe, a loaded label for any sort of concession with enemies branded as beyond the pale – Saddam Hussein, Iran, the Taliban, North Korea and so forth. Talk to the enemy? You’re nothing but a cheese-eating surrender monkey.

But an essay by Paul Kennedy in The American Interest takes us back to the history books to try and recover what appeasement means as diplomatic strategy – how choices of retrenchment, withdrawal, accepting others’ demands become meaningful choices, given the context in which great powers can find themselves.

“Over the centuries, though, some governments have appeased other states out of a sense of vulnerability, or for the purposes of prudence. Thus, many eighteenth-century wars ended inconclusively—often with the surrender of a province or the handing back of captured territories—because statesmen mutually agreed that compromise was a lesser evil than further bloodshed and losses. Once the archconqueror Napoleon was totally defeated by all the other nations in 1813–15, this more moderate temperament returned to Europe. Limited wars, cutting deals, buying off a rival to avoid a conflict were commonplace acts. Even as the great powers entered the twentieth century, one of the most exceptional acts of appeasement, and repeated conciliation, was occurring—yet it is something that very few American pundits on appeasement today seem to know anything about. It was Great Britain’s decision to make a series of significant territorial and political concessions to the rising American Republic.”

But this isn’t more than history lesson (see Kennedy’s 1983 Strategy and Diplomacy study though, for more of that). Appeasement, in short, describes an entirely sensible preserving of strength to fight another day and how to manage one’s place in the world when one is no longer the unequivocal top dog. This is not cutting and running all the time – there will be times to draw lines in the sand. But doing so depends on an assessment of the intentions of the adversary at hand, as peaceable or menacing. “Certainty about such matters only comes, I suspect, with hindsight and there we are all wise, because we know what happened”, Kennedy writes. Uncertainty is endemic – but unexceptional to the conduct of international politics. Perfect information is rarely present, and dilemmas and judgement calls always so.

So for the United States, what choices does it face in a world where it no longer holds all the cards (even if still many of them)?

“This privileged nation—one is tempted to say, overprivileged nation—possesses around 4.6 percent of the world’s population, produces about a fifth of world product, and is, amazingly, willing to spend over 40 percent of all the globe’s defense expenditures. At some time in the future, sooner or later, there is going to be what economists call a “convergence,” that is, we are going to have to trim our sails and no longer try to bestride the world like a colossus. As we do so, we shall make a concession here, a concession there, though hopefully it will be disguised in the form of policies such as “power sharing” and “mutual compromise,” and the dreadful “A” word will not appear.”

An unyielding bravado only sows the seeds of future difficulty; pride cometh before the fall. Rather than falling victim to the lazy criticism of making a U-turn, it takes smarts and courage to recognize that letting go and withdrawal may be the better bet for the long-run.

To reprise a familiar theme in this blog – cutting back is not just a function of power, important as it is; redefining purpose sits equally alongside. To cut and run and to compromise should be nothing to be embarassed by, when accompanied by a clear sense of the long-run game and landscape at hand. What place, what role in the world, follows retrenchment? The continuing relevance of the lessons of appeasement should prompt close thought of this question. A last excerpt:

“Great empires, or hegemons, or number-one powers (whichever term one prefers) rarely if ever crash in some swift, spectacular way. Rather, they slide slowly downhill, trying to avoid collisions, dodging rising obstacles, making an offering here and there, ever searching for a flatter, calmer landscape. And they often lasted so long—for how many centuries, one has to ask, were the Ottomans and Manchus in “decline”?—because they offered concessions to others, which is a polite way of saying that they appeased. It is not a crime, or a moral failing, to recognize where and when it may be best to withdraw from a battlefield and to reduce a commitment. Most great statesmen have done that.”

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2 thoughts on “Hooray for appeasement

  1. Jimbo says:

    Here’s a (the?) problem. Acts of appeasement are often acts against principles of justice. For, typically, acts of appeasement are aimed at respecting (?) power. But at least very often, right and might come apart. Surely, the aim of a government should be to do what is right (under your preferred interpretation of that term). It seems plausible that insofar as a government appeases some power bloc in such a way as leads to unjust outcomes, then that government is performing wrong actions, and ought to be morally sanctioned. Which leads one to the following conclusion: acts of appeasement are, at least very often, simply wrong.

    Whaddya think?

  2. Nick Chan says:

    The aim of a government is, yes, to do what is right for its citizens. But appeasement is simply a means to this end, one choice among many, and so if our ultimate concern is that a government can deliver prosperity and security for its people, it seems unproblematic that making concessions to others can be a part of this.

    We have no way of knowing, when making policy choices, whether the outcome will be a just or unjust one; perhaps assesments of justice can only be made in retrospect.

    When Chamberlain came back from Munich after having ceded the Czech Sudetenland to Hitler, ‘peace in our time’ and all that, the ‘end’ was averting war, providing more time for British rearmament. Carving up another country to which protection had been offered certainly seems unjust and an abrogation of responsibility. But if being better prepared, a year or so later, to deal with the Nazi challenge was the goal, then Chamberlain’s judgement seems open to a bit more debate than the orthodox narrative of World War II might otherwise have.

    How much weight do you accord to intentions in making assessments of justice?

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