Leading French politicians made some remarkably defeatist pronouncements last month.
Rejecting any U.S. military action against Iraq, President Jacques Chirac said that “War is always the admission of defeat, and is always the worst of solutions. And hence everything must be done to avoid it.” Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin put it more emphatically: “Nothing justifies envisaging military action.” To all this, the German chancellor beamed with approval.
In response, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed France and Germany as “old Europe.” The Post blasted them as the “Axis of Weasel.” Cartoonist Tony Auth dubbed them the “Axis of Annoyance.”
An even better name would be “Axis of Appeasement.” “Appeasement” may sound like an insult, but it is a serious policy with a long history – and an enduring appeal highly relevant to today’s circumstances.
Yale historian Paul Kennedy defines appeasement as a way of settling quarrels “by admitting and satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise, thereby avoiding the resort to an armed conflict which would be expensive, bloody and possibly very dangerous.”
The British Empire relied heavily on appeasement from the 1860s on, with good results – avoiding costly colonial conflicts while preserving the international status quo. To a lesser extent, other European governments also adopted the policy.
Then came 1914, when in a fit of delirium nearly all Europe abandoned appeasement and rushed into World War I with what Yale historian Peter Gay calls “a fervor bordering on a religious experience.” A century had passed since the continent had experienced the miseries of war, and their memory had vanished. Worse, thinkers such as the German Friedrich Nietzsche developed theories glorifying war.
Four years (1914-18) of hell, especially in the trenches of northern France, then prompted immense guilt about the jubilation of 1914. A new consensus emerged: Never again would Europeans rush into war.
Appeasement looked better than ever. And so, as Adolf Hitler threatened in the 1930s, British and French leaders tried to buy him off. Of course, what worked in colonial wars had utterly disastrous results when dealing with an enemy like the Nazis.
This led to the policy of buying off totalitarian opponents being discredited. Throughout the Cold War, it appeared the Europeans had learned a lesson they would never forget. But forget they did, soon after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
In a brilliant Weekly Standard essay, Yale’s David Gelernter recently explained how this happened. The power of appeasement was temporarily hidden by World War II and the Cold War, but with the passage of time, “The effects of the Second World War are vanishing while the effects of the First endure.”
Why? Because, writes Gelernter, the First World War is far more comprehensible than the Second, which is “too big for the mind to grasp.” Politically and spiritually, it feels increasingly as though World War II never took place.
In fact, Gelernter argues, “It’s the 1920s all over again,” with that era’s visceral loathing of war and readiness to appease totalitarian dictators (think of North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Zimbabwe and others).
He finds today’s Europe “amazingly” similar to that of the 1920s in other ways too: “its love of self-determination and loathing of imperialism and war, its liberal Germany, shrunken Russia and map of Europe crammed with small states, with America’s indifference to Europe and Europe’s disdain for America, with Europe’s casual, endemic anti-Semitism, her politically, financially and masochistically rewarding fascination with Muslim states who despise her and her undertone of self-hatred and guilt.”
Gelernter proposes that 1920s-style self-hatred is now “a dominant force in Europe.” And appeasement fits this mood perfectly, having grown over the decades into a worldview “that teaches the blood-guilt of Western man, the moral bankruptcy of the West and the outrageousness of Western civilization’s attempting to impose its values on anyone else.”
Which brings us back to the unwillingness of “old Europe” to confront Saddam Hussein. World War II’s lesson (strike before an aggressive tyrant builds his power) has lost out to the ’20s attitude (“nothing justifies envisaging military action”).
This self-hating weakness will lead again to disaster, no less than it did leading up to World War II. The United States finds itself having to lead the democracies away from the lure of appeasement. Iraq is a good place to start.
Originally published in the New York Post.