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When does avoiding escalation become appeasement?

Jim DoughertyMay 11, 2024 Updated May 17, 2024 (0)

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Appeasement failed to stop World War II

In his excellent book, Appeasement, Tim Bouverie recounts the fear of aerial bombardment Britons experienced even prior to the outbreak of World War II, with Winston Churchill in 1934 warning of 30,000 or 40,000 people 'killed or maimed' in the first 10 days of intensive bombing. While to Americans the fear of such an attack seems remote, Harold Macmillan's later comparison puts it in modern perspective: "we thought of air warfare [in the 1930s] ... rather as people think of nuclear warfare today." (p. 40). 

Ninety years later, the nuclear analogy helps us better understand the visceral and real fear that was the emotional core of appeasement - and also that today we are in danger, this time by the fear of nuclear 'consequences' threatened by Putin, of once again trying to appease a dictator, a strategy that, then as now, is more likely to fail and lead to war than bring peace. 

At each stage in the run up to World War II, the democracies desire for peace led them to allow the dictators to both advance and draw the conclusion, rightly, that they would not be resisted in their ambitions. Mussolini in Ethiopia, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, Austria, Sudetenland and finally the rest of Czechoslovakia - at each new step which ultimately led to war there was an opportunity for the democracies to resist, but they failed to do so. 

Weak, half-hearted and unreliable support for Ukraine is a new kind of modern appeasement

Today's democratic leaders, ever conscious of the failure of appeasement, have belatedly come to support Ukraine, having failed utterly to respond in any meaningful way to Putin's takeover of Crimea in 2014 - like their forebears in the 1930s, ignoring the warning signs of fascist aggression until it was too late to avoid war. 

Having half-learned the lessons of the failure of appeasement, they, especially the U.S., now engage in halfway resistance to tyranny, dribbling out support for Ukraine at the bare minimum needed to prevent total failure, while doing nothing that would risk actually helping Ukraine win. 

Putin's not-so-subtle nuclear threats are alarming, and, as during the Cold War, should induce caution on the democracies part. But the answer to fear is not cringing, conciliation and cowardice, but courage, commitment and clarity. Putin must be made to understand that he will never conquer Ukraine - and the Western democracies must back that up with the military support needed to enforce that message unambiguously. 

Appeasement will fail today just as it did in World War II

Lack of clarity, and insufficient support, is the modern equivalent of appeasement - trying in this case to not make the dictator too angry - but it is doomed to failure now as it was in the 1930s because it does not understand the nature of the dictator and his ambitions. Not only will it not work, it is more likely to actually cause a wider, possibly nuclear conflict, because it encourages and rewards aggression and signals that it will only be half-heartedly resisted. 

In the 1940s, despite the terrible cost, the world survived total war, and so the decisions that led to delaying the confrontation with fascism are justified by some, for example by saying the West was not ready to confront Hitler in 1938 or earlier, or, more plausibly, that public opinion was mostly isolationist or even pacifist and would not support anything other than peace at almost any price. 

To maintain peace, we must do the hard work of resisting dictators now, before it is too late

Today is different. The terrible weapons at the disposal of both democracies and dictators mean we cannot indulge our emotional preference for peace at the expense of doing the actual hard work to maintain it. That means making the maximum effort now to deter, contain and stop dictators like Putin before their aggression spirals the world into a conflict we have no way of knowing if civilization, indeed our planet, can survive.

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