The lesson of Munich for major powers Britain and France was that you do not buy peace with fellow major powers tomorrow by giving in to their demands today. But for smaller powers, the lesson was that faced with the prospect of war with a major power, your allies and guarantors will rather sell you out than risk a war.
On 24 April, US President Donald Trump admonished UN diplomats visiting the White House that North Korea was a growing threat to world peace that the United Nations must address and solve. The barely disguised implication is that otherwise Washington will use unilateral force yet again because ‘The status quo in North Korea is…unacceptable’. To a former UN official, this has interesting echoes of the infamous ultimatum that President George W. Bush presented in 2003: if the Security Council did not enforce Iraqi compliance on American terms, Washington reserved the right to launch a full-fledged military assault on its own.
Thus the choice for us was: Would the United Nations lift its performance and remain relevant to US foreign policy on Washington’s terms? Or, in doing so, would we risk being seen as bending to US will without demanding American compliance with global norms from arms control to environmental regimes and international criminal justice: a quintessentially unilateralist version of multilateralism?
Since the end of the Cold War that presaged Uncle Sam trampling other countries’ sovereignty and sensitivities with no regard for international law and global norms, the primary justification has been that legitimacy is different from and of a higher moral order than the technicalities of law. And the source of the legitimacy is a critical lesson of history: appeasement never pays. Thus part of the publicity spin in the months and weeks preceding Western military action against Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia (1999), Saddam Hussein in Iraq (2003), and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (2011) was drawing historical parallels with the discredited and dangerous policy of appeasement.
Milosevic, Hussein and Gaddafi in turn were painted as the contemporary Hitler (an evil dictator bent on aggression). The US president intent on overthrowing them in a serially continual policy of regime change was portrayed by speinmasters as the modern-day heroic Winston Churchill, crying warnings in the wilderness against a chorus of voices to the contrary. Opponents of the military option were belittled for standing shoulder to shoulder with the butcher of Belgrade, Baghdad or Benghazi. The international isolation of the American president thus was turned into a virtue, on the one hand, while on the other the international community was simultaneously collapsed into the North Atlantic community (and a few loyal lickspittles from other parts of the world).
The current manifestation of this deranged syndrome is Trump vis-à-vis the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Yet again, anyone who raises difficult questions about the legal, moral, and prudential justifications for the military option is an appeaser in bed with the bad, mad, and evil dictator Kim.
Historical metaphors are powerful tools of political mobilisation for all sides. In the debate over the war option, calls of ‘No more Vietnams’ collide with warnings of another ‘Munich’.
But the lessons of history are as open to political manipulation as any other tool of rallying the troops. The Munich and Hitler analogies have proven useful to the task of demonising Milosevic, Saddam and Gaddafi, especially as this was not a difficult task. How many times in the past three years has Russian president Vladimir Putin been compared by Western leaders and commentators, explicitly and implicitly, to Adolf Hitler?
How accurate is the analogy of appeasement?
The lesson of Munich in 1938 for the major powers (Britain and France) was that you do not buy peace with fellow major powers tomorrow by giving in to their demands today. This merely whets their appetite. They live by the sword, and shall perish only by the sword. Better therefore to confront them, including risking going to war if necessary, at a time and place of your choosing before they become fully armed.
But most countries of the world are not major powers, and the lesson for smaller powers was different. Faced with the prospect of war with a major power, your allies and guarantors will rather sell you out than risk a war. Have any of our leaders actually read the ANZUS Treaty and reflected on just what Washington is committed to do to defend us should we be threatened?
Thus the motor of appeasement was the wish to avoid war at any cost. The party threatening to go to war today is typically the United States. If only the Americans would learn to end wars as quickly as they are ready to start them. After a while, the joke about God creating wars in order to teach Americans geography begins to wear thin – especially with a president who is proof against any geographical and geopolitical lessons.
There were three pertinent attributes about Hitler’s Germany at the time of the Munich Pact in 1938: dictatorship, major power status, and territorial imperialism. Dictatorship in itself is irrelevant to appeasement: no one would contemplate giving in to bluster from a weak tin-pot dictator. Which country appeased the generals in Myanmar as opposed to those running Indonesia?
In 1938, Germany was Europe’s strongest power and bent on military aggression. The others were so terrified of war breaking out that they forced Czechoslovakia, the intended victim, to cede to German demands as the only way of avoiding war.
Today’s strongest power habitually threatens wars of aggression, under the label of preventive defence, against the enemy de jour. Public speculations on motives range from defeating and killing off evil, to preventing a threat from materialising, completing the unfinished agenda of 1991 (Iraq) or the 1950s (Korea), diverting attention from scandals and unpopularity at home, catering to the profit interests of the military-industrial complex that also have close connections with the administration, or an ideological belief in manifest global destiny.
Regardless, instead of uniting against the latest threat of military action by the most belligerent country by far of the last two decades, the world is asked to unite to force the intended target of attack to give in to US demands without a war. This in effect is what the United States is asking China to do on North Korea.
The result may be wholly admirable and justifiable. Maybe this time round we will get peace in our time on the Korean peninsula. But the analogy with Munich 1938 does not quite work, at least not quite the way that some would have us believe.
There is a simple way to grasp the point. Take out a map of the world. Free yourself of all preconceptions. Put red coloured pins for North Korean (or even Chinese and Russian) military forces outside North Korea (or China, Russia), and blue coloured pins for US military forces stationed outside the United States. Then think through the implications of this.
By the standards of great power behaviour throughout history, the United State has been truly exceptional since 1945 in being an essentially benign hegemon. Maybe it will continue to exercise its unique power dominance benignly. But if other countries take to heart the old national security adage about hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, we are in for some interesting times, especially over the next four years.
Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.