In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously waved a sheet of paper at his wildly cheering public upon his return from Munich, where he’d negotiated a settlement with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler to guarantee “peace for our time.” Eleven months later, Hitler unleashed the most destructive war man has ever known.
For the past 70 years, “Munich” has been used in the West as a warning to any leader who compromises in international relations. But what if we’re drawing the wrong lessons from this experience? Might the United States be failing to use the strategies that could most effectively ensure American interests?
The answer is, regrettably, an unqualified yes.
By the time Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact in 1938, the German army under Hitler had already rebuilt the forces that had been neutralized by the Treaty of Versailles. It had a powerful air force, a potent navy, and an armored force that was strong as much for how it was employed as for the quality of its tanks. Great Britain, by contrast, had only just begun rearmament and could not have competed with the Luftwaffe or Wehrmacht.
In fact, the British chiefs of staff had produced a study earlier that year warning that if Britain went to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia, the U.K. would lose. Britain’s then-minister of defense, Thomas Inskip, suggested that delaying war with Germany “would give the Royal Air Force time to acquire airplanes that could counter the Luftwaffe.”
Had Chamberlain declared war on Hitler when the latter took Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Luftwaffe might have overpowered the British air force, won the Battle of Britain, and knocked England out of the war in 1940 (as was done to France). Without the contributions eventually provided by the Royal Air Force and British army, the outcome of the Second World War might have been very different.
Consider the implications of those truths: had Chamberlain “stood firm” and gone to war with Hitler to defend Czechoslovakia in 1938, as many of today’s pundits argue he should have, it is possible that the Czechs would have fallen to Germany anyway—and the UK along with them. The British prime minister’s diplomacy had at least a chance of avoiding war—a conflict that eventually took 60 million lives—and it did buy the time necessary to ensure the survival, and eventual victory, of his country. Those who today ridicule Chamberlain’s diplomacy would be well advised to remember this important fact.
In part resulting from a near-rejection of the art of give-and-take diplomacy, war in the United States is today a permanent condition. Because of the 2001 terror attacks, many Americans reflexively believe the influential pundits and opinion-makers who perpetually claim that military actions abroad are required in order to keep the country safe. If we fail to do so, these experts routinely warn, we invite “another 9/11.”
American interests abroad have been harmed by this perpetual state of war, and our security continues to decay. Before military overreach costs the United States more than it can afford to lose, immediate changes—based an accurate understanding of the events leading up to World War II and an unemotional assessment of contemporary global circumstances—are necessary.
These five adjustments in America’s foreign-policy thought would be a good start:
First, Washington must relearn the art of the negotiated settlement. The U.S. will have to give in on some issues during such negotiations, but it will win on others in return, and the resulting stability will be more valuable than the losses we suffer in a perpetual state of war. For example, in the infamous “October Missile Crisis,” President Kennedy profoundly lowered the nuclear threat from the USSR by giving in to the Soviet leader’s requirement for the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Second, Washington’s foreign-policy elite must recognize, however belatedly, that the instrument of war is not the sole (and should rarely be the primary) tool of effective statecraft. Our reliance on the military to solve the very complex problems facing the U.S. today has succeeded, in virtually every instance, only in making bad situations worse, sometimes profoundly so. For example, in February 2003 Iraq was ruled by a totalitarian regime that was militarily anemic, was home to no terrorists, and posed no threat to any American interests. Since the regime’s overthrow in March 2003, the country has been global ground zero for the creation and expansion of numerous and powerful terror groups.
Third, we must cleanse ourselves of the destructive belief that global relations must be a zero-sum game. There is great room for win-win solutions, and such outcomes should be sought whenever reasonable. For example, President Eisenhower negotiated an end to the Korean War with Beijing in 1953.
Fourth, we must accept that not everyone in the world sees things through the same lens Washington does. In fact, Washington might find it is able to induce greater international cooperation, negotiate better trade deals, and better enhance global stability if we don’t demand submission as a precondition to any successful outcome. For example, in 1905 President Roosevelt negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, helping each to gain some of what they wanted and forcing U.S. preferences on neither.
Fifth, sometimes it is to our advantage to “lose” tactical points in order to win strategically. For example, Nixon’s going to China in 1972 reversed the demonization of Beijing and gave the Chinese international recognition, and as a result both the Chinese and American economies benefited.
Demonstrating a willingness to compromise with even an adversary, and to knowingly give in on some tactical points, does not signal weakness. It is entirely possible, and often necessary, to communicate that the United States is a friendly nation that seeks win-win solutions wherever possible and has an ability to give in when necessary to obtain a positive outcome. Compromise with an international partner doesn’t have to mean “Munich.” Done well, it can mean “marvelous.”
Of course, our willingness to give on some points is predicated on the understanding that our negotiating partner must be willing to give on some matters, too. Additionally, if our core interests are threatened in matters of war and peace, our opponent must expect a powerful, unambiguous, and decisive response. Wisdom will compromise on tactical points to gain a strategic victory—but she will do so with a quiver full of potent, modern, and ready weapons at her side.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities.