Textbook examples of the failure of appeasement—a policy that accommodates another’s demands to avoid conflict—abound. Perhaps the most common example is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime in September 1938, when he agreed to Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, then part of Czechoslovakia. What did Britain get in return? A “promise” that Hitler would leave the remaining part of Czechoslovakia alone. Through this agreement, the prime minister exclaimed, the world achieved “peace for our time.”
The rest of the story that follows this infamous day is one of horror, with ever-reaching consequences still reverberating throughout the world. Nazi Germany kept expanding its reach by bombing Spain and invading Poland, the Netherlands, Holland, Belgium, and France. And so began World War II, a conflict that witnessed upwards of 50 million deaths, Europe destroyed, and former great powers and rising powers chopped and divvied up.
How did Chamberlain get Hitler so wrong?
Historians, security scholars, and political scientists, among others, give myriad answers in trying to explain the factors involved in the mistake, ranging from Chamberlain’s psychobiography to the domestic situation in Britain. The Great Depression was ravaging Europe and the United States, and the inability to coordinate at this time was severely curtailed. Remember World War I? Chamberlain sure did, and he wanted to avoid another war that was so catastrophic and devastating.
“I must say there are no winners in a war, but all losers,” remarked Chamberlain in a July 1938 speech. The prime minister wasn’t a coward; his psychology was carved out and colored by what transpired nearly two decades prior, when 420,000 British died in the Battle of the Somme alone. In total, there were over 15 million casualties in WWI; this period was a devastating time for all parties involved.
“Appeasement doesn’t work; in fact, it sets a dangerous precedent that signals to the aggressive state that it has the freedom to do as it pleases because the risk tolerance of fellow leaders is low.”
Chamberlain’s understanding of how bad the world could get should not be overlooked.
The failures of appeasement, however, are numerous. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, explains: “Such posture[s] only feed the ambitions of the rival power and, in the process, cause other countries either to align with it or to develop additional capacities of their own so that they would be in a better position to look after their own security.” Appeasement doesn’t work; in fact, it sets a dangerous precedent that signals to the aggressive state that it has the freedom to do as it pleases because the risk tolerance of fellow leaders is low.
This liberal international order, backed by the United States, has been predicated on nation-states agreeing to the integrity of territorial sovereignty post-WWII. Attempting to pacify true believers, in whatever they happen to believe, is a fool’s errand that increases the likelihood of disrupting the order of the time. Fast forward to today from WWII and two states present challenges to the order: China and Russia. The Trump administration is likely to appease Russia and challenge China. This is diametrically the opposite of what the United States should do.
Before arguing against appeasement, let’s look at an important study in the history of appeasement.
Appeasement has worked, argues Professor Stephen R. Rock, in his exemplary study of the use of the strategy first published in 2000. His case studies, in hindsight, such as the U.S. appeasement of Iraq in 1989–1990 and with North Korea from 1988–1994 are examples that exhibit the failure of appeasement. At the time of publication, just months before 9/11 his examples were more robust.
Regarding Iraq, Rock mentions that President George H. W. Bush approved $4.8 million in advanced technology exports to Iraq 15 days before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The United States could not convince Hussein to act less belligerent. Also, Hussein didn’t stop work on a nuclear weapons program until after the First Gulf War, not before. Appeasement and cooperation didn’t work with Iraq under Hussein.
Rock’s North Korea example as a success is weak with the tool of hindsight. Since the publication of this work North Korea keeps skirting international agreements: detonating nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016. In 2013 it withdrew from the Armistice Agreement signed in 1953 with South Korea. Regarding Iraq and North Korea, appeasement did not work. The reason for mentioning these examples is to drive the point home: There are no examples of successful appeasement strategies in this study.We could be living in another era of appeasement with results that increase disarray.
Domestic politics has taken precedence over international issues for myriad reasons. With the rise of economic inequality; stagnating wages for the developed world’s middle classes; and the rise of identity politics, governments must focus on this threat. The rise of populism demands that leaders focus on domestic issues such as health care costs, unemployment, and declining trust in the pillar institutions of democracy.
In fact, in the West, citizens from almost every country seem to find that living in a democracy is less important than at any time before, according to an analysis by The New York Times of the latest World Values Survey. This is harrowing and our leaders are to blame. They have forgotten that democracies are fragile and that trust in institutions has to be maintained. Disarray, anarchy, and chaos must be kept at bay, otherwise the normalizing process begins. The United States has responsibilities here. Appeasement can be an easy answer since the aforementioned domestic concerns must now be addressed. The consequences could be dire, however.
The two great powers right now challenging the stability of the current world order are China and Russia, albeit in two different ways.
China is building up islands in the South China Sea, which is against international law, according to a declarative ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). That action, however, is not as threatening to world order as the actions emanating from Moscow. Territorial claims are overlaid by multiple countries, such as China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and is still participating directly and indirectly through funding insurgent groups in Eastern Ukraine in a low-scale conflict today that is not receiving much mainstream media coverage anymore. Moreover, Russia, through top-down orders from President Putin, according to the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC), hacked the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. While outgoing president Barack Obama has initiated new sanctions, President Donald Trump has all but announced that he doesn’t seem to care about Russia’s tampering in the U.S. electoral system.
“The Trump administration is likely to appease Russia and challenge China. This is diametrically the opposite of what the United States should do.”
In a press conference on January 11, then-President-elect Trump shrugged, and when asked about Russia’s meddling, said, brazenly: “We had—we had much hacking going on. The Democratic National Committee was totally open to be hacked. They did a very poor job. They could’ve had hacking defense,” Trump continued.
Victim-blaming and shrugging this off sends a signal to Russia: You can hack us and we’ll try and stop you, but it’s not that big of a deal because…China?
This is on top of what Trump said regarding Russian hacking when he encouraged Russia to hack some more. Trump is appeasing Russia and Putin knows this; in fact, this is precisely why Putin actively supported the billionaire TV-star over Secretary Hillary Clinton who was in no mood to appease Trump and all but promised a harsher and more hawkish United States with the former State Department secretary and senator at the helm.
Some politicians and scholars consider the tepid response to Russia as simply détente or rapprochement. A member of the Bundestag in Germany, Mützenich, writing in Foreign Affairs, contended that “the West should be satisfied if the situation in Eastern Ukraine becomes a frozen conflict.” This is not so. Appeasement establishes dangerous precedents. There is always the risk of over-predicting based on history, and analogy, of course. Appeasement sometimes doesn’t lead to great conflict, such as when the United States surpassed Britain in the late 19th century. Britain was appeasing America when it agreed to allow the United States to build the Panama Canal, abandoning a treaty from the 1850s. The United States and Britain subsequently formed a “special relationship” that to this day still “endures,” as President Obama stated in the summer of 2016.
However, the situation regarding Russia is quite different. Russia is not in the same situation as the early United States was.
Russia is a revanchist power with huge popular support at home coupled with obvious fragility and failing factors such as a weak political opposition; majoritarian-laws; a petro-economy in an alternative-energy future; and an oligarchic economy where “111 people control 19% of all household wealth.” Moreover, Russia has fewer and fewer allies which, for them, create all the more reason to assert as much power as possible. Russia might have its eyes—and MRAPS—geared up for a battle for the Baltic states, and with a President Trump who fawns over Putin on Twitter, the apropos time for Putin to do it is early and while Trump is in charge. Without a strong signal to Moscow that his actions of the last few years are unacceptable, it is likely Putin will attempt more of the same.
The situation regarding China is more similar to the aforementioned British-U.S. case, however. China is a rising superpower and many predict an upcoming Thucydides trap—the notion that great power conflict with a rising power contending with a weakening power leads to inevitable conflict such as the case made by preeminent scholar Graham Allison.
Should the United States appease China? No, but it should contain and accommodate its unquestionable rise. Accommodation is not the same as appeasement, mind you. As Lyle J. Goldstein argues, the most practical and realist strategy regarding China in 21st century is “mutual accommodation or concessions in equal measure from both sides,” the professor writes in Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry. As mentioned before, The Trump administration is likely to appease Russia and challenge China. This is diametrically the opposite of what the United States should do.
Why should the United States enact measures that signal to Russia there will be a price to pay regarding its wrongdoings and not China’s? It’s simple: China has more leverage due to the United States and Chinese economies being interdependent. Demand for Chinese exports in the United States is high coupled with the demand for U.S. debt in China. This mutual benefit is close to what international relations scholars consider an “ideal type” known as complex interdependence.
China isn’t a pariah state; its rise becomes more peaceful when joining more and more international institutions that give it a stake and a symbolic victory all the same. Russia’s actions can be seen as more insecure and paranoid and with the potential of creating more instability with its moves than China—since the state can be considered petro-oligarchic with no signs of changing anytime soon.
Again, the United States should accommodate, rather than appease, China. By accommodating I mean the United States should support and eventually join the Asian International Investment Bank, for example. The Trump administration should not engage in a trade war with China which the incoming Trump administration has signaled they might, in fact, do by appointing Peter Navarro, a China critic, as the chief of Trump’s newly created office on trade and industrial policy.
Appeasement gives up conflicting desires to avoid conflict. Accommodation forges a path for the rival power but on your own terms with mutual benefits.
When it comes to the obvious appeasement of Russia by the new Trump administration, the U.S. Congress, USIC, and the Departments of Defense and State, must convince Trump that Russia has to be sure its behavior is unacceptable.
There is no one way to deal with any given country; like constructivist scholars understand, culture and shared norms matter and specific countries must be considered with specificity.
Russia and China will continue to take different geopolitical paths in the upcoming years and the United States needs nuanced and subjective strategy when dealing with either of them. China will rise; the United States must cooperate with this fact and go on the offense by “exploiting” its strengths through developing products and services that are unparalleled. Russia, however, might be regaining regional stature it will not compete for global power for the reasons mentioned above and, as Fyodor Lukyanov puts it, Russia “is in the throes of an identity crisis.”
How Russia decline is managed matters tremendously. By retreating the United States simply puts off the inevitable implosion which will not be bloodless. In Trump, the United States needs a leader, but it appears he might be an appeaser when it comes to the Kremlin. A United States that leads would issue strong sanctions, condemnatory symbolic acts, as well; finally, the United States must reiterate its support for NATO countries, not condemn the longest lasting security organization in the world as “obsolete,” as Trump so thoughtlessly has.
Image: The Ratification of the Treaty of Munster (Gerard Ter Borch, 1648, Wikimedia Commons)
Patrick Foran is a PhD student at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL), and the host of Foran Policy: Book Reviews & Miscellany podcast. Foran has interned and worked for, concurrently, a state representative’s U.S. congressional campaign, and earned his B.A. in political science from UMSL. His area of concentration is U.S. foreign policy, climate security, conflict resolution, and international political economy (IPE).