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Not Everything Is World War II

The panicked language of appeasement rarely adds anything of value to debates over foreign policy.

“Appeasement,” “Munich,” and the years of 1938-9 retain immense rhetorical power when invoked by political and media actors in the English-speaking world. In the media landscape, foreign policy pundits often insinuate that to negotiate with rivals is to risk repeating the mistakes of Neville Chamberlain, the pre-World War II British Prime Minister who is said to have “given away” a part of Czechoslovakia in exchange for “peace in our time.” Subsequent events cast the phrase into infamy.

Putting aside the fact that Chamberlain’s diplomacy had a fair amount of contemporaneous public support and served the sound strategic purpose of buying time for British rearmament to achieve a stronger position against Germany, the characterization of the British prime minister as a hapless dupe playing into Hitler’s hands in the naïve hope of avoiding inevitable conflict has lived on in the popular imagination ever since.

The specter of “appeasement” has most recently been invoked by those critical of the Biden administration for being insufficiently confrontational in response to Russian actions in Ukraine. Senators Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst have led the charge in weaponizing the phrase, a continuation of a long bipartisan tradition. Influenced by the (now largely debunked) “Russiagate” scandal, Democratic politicians and affiliated journalists once hurled the same accusation at the Trump administration for its alleged failure to be sufficiently hawkish in Syria or Ukraine. A CNN contributor even referred to the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki as a “surrender summit.”

Such commentary is baked into the foreign policy consensus in Washington and goes beyond the establishment’s hatred of Trump. In 2012, President Obama had to deflect criticism from electoral challenger Mitt Romney for allegedly having failed to take the Russian threat seriously enough. Obama also faced one of the most bizarre rounds of criticism for his willingness to negotiate with Iran, and was called “an appeaser like Neville Chamberlain” by a conservative commentator who then could not explain who Chamberlain even was or why the example was historically pertinent to Obama’s convening nuclear talks with Tehran.

Together, these bellicose accusations point to a greater culture of using and abusing Second World War analogies for every contemporary geopolitical problem. Be it comparing new rivals to the Axis Powers, invoking the threat of global total war, or casting all rivalries as existential and ideological zero-sum contests, the Second World War looms large in the imagination of the foreign policy commentariat in the North Atlantic. In a sense, this should not surprise. A majority of the world’s population lives in countries that benefited from Allied victory. The rapid expansion and subsequent brutality enacted by Germany, Japan, and Italy on much of the world was that of militant revisionist powers—countries seeking to upset the post-WWI order established by the Treaty of Versailles, the Washington Naval Treaty, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

Perhaps more pertinently, most adults alive today grew up with elders who directly experienced and suffered during the war era and who, if willing to speak about it at all, had harrowing accounts of what those times were like. The fear that such a time of global strife could return is ever-present, as is the pride of personally knowing people who survived the crisis. I sympathize with this perspective, as someone partially descended from Japanese immigrants whose relatives fought on both sides of the Pacific Theater. My grandmother, then still a child, survived “Operation Meetinghouse,” the concentrated firebombing of Tokyo.

Largely regarded as the deadliest air raid in history, Operation Meetinghouse was estimated to have caused 100,000 deaths and rendered over a million people homeless. Its effectiveness can be attributed to the bombers’ low-level altitude, which increased accuracy, as well as the use of incendiary munitions to wreak maximum damage on the then-largely wooden city. Only in the later years of her life would my grandmother open up about the specific details of the night she lost half of her immediate relatives in a matter of hours; how she and some of her siblings, hating the smell of the densely packed crowds that filled air-raid shelters, had decided to go above ground rather than stay underground during the raid; how this impulsive decision had spared their lives when the civilian shelter was directly hit in the bombardment, killing everyone inside.

But her tragic odyssey had only just begun. She then had to navigate a post-apocalyptic Tokyo with her siblings—one of whom was sickly—in tow. People ran towards the river for relief from the ever-present flames, only to find the water filled with charred-black and withered bodies; napalm-based accelerants could not be doused with water alone, causing many who threw themselves into the water to nevertheless perish in flames. In the midst of this chaos, famine and disease soon descended upon the city, taking a further toll on the survivors. The post-raid casualties included additional relatives. The nightmare would last until the American occupation of Japan brought an end not just to the war and the militarist government that had caused it, but the supply shortages that reverberated as aftershocks in its wake.

This is just one particularly tragic example of many that illustrate the trans-generational impact of the Second World War, and it helps to explain the evocative power of the time period. But it also explains how distorting and misleading this invocation can be: The Second World War was not the only devastating conflict to occur in modern history, nor is it necessarily the one most germane to the present moment. As Westerners, we may feel connected to it more than most, but the world we inhabit today is not that of the late 1930s and early 1940s. By elevating the Second World War to a privileged place in the hierarchies of our historical analogies, we also ignore—in our indignant, sanctimonious moralism as victors—much of the conflict’s original complexity and moral ambiguity.

We brush aside the inconvenient context of colonialism, imperialism, and national humiliation and we ignore the prevailing geopolitical considerations of the period. Finland and Thailand, for instance, had legitimate reasons to become co-belligerents with the Axis due to preexisting territorial disputes with the Soviet Union and the British Empire, respectively. And Iran, a country effectively torn at the seams by both Moscow and London, suffered invasion and occupation despite its ostensible neutrality in the war. These countries and others could make a case complicating claims of the universal moral righteousness of the war. Many in India make the argument that Churchill was India’s Hitler given that the Bengal Famine was largely the result of British imperial policy, which killed millions. This was just one of many such events in almost two centuries of British misrule in South Asia, a context that makes the Hitler-admiring Japanese collaborator Subhas Chandra Bose look far more morally complicated than can first be assumed. Similar reasons explain the fact that popular opinion in America was against direct U.S. involvement in the war before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Historical analogies are always imperfect, of course. But the all-or-nothing approach of seeing everything through the lens of a single simplified and totalizing conflict is unhelpful. While it may explain certain aspects of the world since 1945, like the existence of the United Nations, its Security Council, and the decolonization of old European empires, it fails to shed light on our present moment. In fact, its routine usage by hawks suggests it is intended to sabotage nuanced discussion about complex geopolitical crises and foment more conflict.

Focusing on World War II has the effect of obscuring the fact that the formation of a “postwar era” order is not unique to our time. The Thirty Years’ War of the mid-17th Century would be the most proportionally devastating conflict Central Europe had faced to that time and led to the rise of the Westphalian state system, which, for a time, reduced the number of conflicts in Europe and sidelined sectarianism. The French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars involved mass mobilization, the scouring of entire countries, and a global dimension. It would culminate in a “Concert of Europe,” which also served to temporarily reduce tensions between the previously warring great powers (even while exporting conflict abroad to European colonies). History is replete with cycles of geopolitical instability giving way to new orders, which then decay over time, leading to instability and an imperfect repeat of the process. Scholars from Sima Qian in ancient China to Ibn Khaldun in North Africa of the late Middle Ages have noticed similar cyclical patterns. These observations call into question the validity of an obsessive focus on a single specific era at the expense of all others.

With the fading of the “American Moment,” we are witnessing a rise in multi-polarity with more and more states able to wield power independently on the world stage. Perhaps, then, a sounder historical analogy and a better model to make sense of the dangers we face would be the First World War, not the Second. In the run-up to the Great War, it was Britain that was losing its previously unchallenged hegemonic position. As the balance of power changed, states seeking realignment created hair-trigger alliance systems—where a single peripheral conflict, like the “July Crisis” between Serbia and Austria-Hungary—could drag the entire planet into a world war.

As we see in the case of Ukraine—with much of the mainstream media joining the blob to falsely declare Kiev a “U.S. ally”—the temptation for major powers to make foolhardy proclamations in disputes peripheral to their core interests is everlasting. The reason foreign policy elites and North Atlantic societies in general fixate on the Second World War and its associated narratives of courage and resistance is that such arguments, made with a dose of moralism, serves the compulsion to war felt by many English-speaking elites.

If it is the goal of Western policymakers to avoid a catastrophic conflict with revisionist powers (in an era of nuclear weapons, to boot) and protect what remains of the post-1945 order, they would be wise to avoid over-expanding alliance networks that lock more countries into stark binaries in foreign policy. This is especially true when those countries, like Ukraine, are distant from the core interests of the United States (the key actor in NATO) and tangential to a stable balance of power among great powers.

It is not “appeasement” to recognize the facts on the ground and recalibrate to focus on dialogue during such disagreements. Rather, it is a simple acknowledgement that when multiple countries have competing interests, the issue is best resolved with each nation making a sober calculation of its respective national-security priorities. Diplomacy must come first. By allowing an obsession with the shadows of 1938-9 to blind us to our present reality, we risk the far-more-likely scenario of stumbling into something reminiscent of another July Crisis.

Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. Dr. Mott is an international relations scholar and author of The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia. Follow him @ChrisDMott.