LONDON – In modern European diplomacy there is no dirtier word than “appeasement.” It means giving in to brutal dictators, surrendering weakly to bullying force.
Above all it is associated with the 1938 Munich agreement when the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, seemed to feebly give in to the outrageous demands of Adolf Hitler and allow the violent annexation of Sudeten Czechoslovakia to proceed without protest.
Those who supported his policy were denounced as weak Municheers, even as Nazi sympathizers, and Chamberlain’s reputation was destroyed, seemingly forever.
The picture is well-painted in the brilliant novel by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Shigeru, “Remains of the Day,” where the muddle-headed Lord Darlington works away at appeasing Nazi Germany in the belief that this will lead to lasting peace.
Those who took this view were subsequently ostracized completely. Individuals and whole families tainted by any sort of pro-appeasement found that no one would speak to them, and the stain has remained even to this day. In Britain’s national story, 1938 has long been regarded unquestionably as a moment of deep national shame and feebleness, and 1940 as the year of defiance in which Britain, standing alone, found the strength at last to hold out against the unbelievable Hitlerian evil.
But the best-selling novelist Robert Harris in his new book, entitled “Munich,” presents quite a different story. Weaving together fact and fiction, Harris portrays Chamberlain not as the feeble fall guy but as the strong man of his time. He comes over as the dominant figure among his Cabinet colleagues who outwitted and frustrated Hitler, and nearly saved the world from the full horrors of the World War II, or at least postponed it by two crucial years.
Far from looking like an old fool duped by Hitler, Chamberlain emerges as the hero and brave upholder of peace at all costs — the truly courageous appeaser. With the dreadful slaughter of World War I still fresh in people’s minds, he felt that appeasement simply had to be tried. If it failed, Harris has him observing, this would prove to the whole world that Adolf Hitler was pure evil. The United States and Russia would join in the fight against him (as eventually they did, although in Russia’s case only after trying to make a deeply disreputable pact with Hitler).
Of course, what sells media stories is always belligerence, the call to be tough, to attack, never to be soft or feeble — in fact never to appease.
So making a different case requires precisely the sort of courage and complete disregard for personal reputation that Chamberlain showed.
The dictators of today’s world come in different shapes and sizes, but the two most dangerous are clearly Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. Even to think about ever truly appeasing these two characters,talking to them one to one as Chamberlain did, and turning a blind eye to their obviously appalling behavior and flouting of international law — even to think of this course makes one swallow hard.
Moreover, even if the true Munich lesson is that appeasement should nearly always be tried, it’s lesson is also that if it fails as it did in 1939, the means of deploying effective and credible force should always be there in the background.
In the end, the Munich conclusion may perhaps not be that different from the famous maxim of Teddy Roosevelt — that one should always speak softly but carry a big stick. The worrying thing today is that Donald Trump, who will soon visit Japan and South Korea, seems to be doing the opposite — speaking loudly and carrying a “stick” that may sound big, but in this age of asymmetric warfare may not be all that big at all.
This is because the threat of mutual incineration on the Korean Peninsula is no threat at all, while the lesson has been learned that conventional military incursions into somebody’s homeland invariably end nowadays in disaster. The only realistic backstop against Pyongyang is a mixture of cyberpressure and trade sanctions, and for even that to work Trump requires the full cooperation of Beijing, Moscow and perhaps Teheran — hardly his most obvious allies at the moment.
So the only immediate and practical way forward has to be through discourse and dialogue — but better not call it “appeasement.”
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.