A Time to Appease

A Time to Appease

Mini Teaser: Appeaser! The worst insult to emerge from our political lexicon. As America grapples with exhausting overseas commitments, bringing our might to bear will require a new sort of History lesson.

by Author(s): Paul Kennedy


THE IMPLICATIONS—not conclusions—of all the above for current American world policies should by now be becoming clear.

America must come to grips with its place in the world as the twenty-first century unfolds and the strategic landscape alters. This great hegemon, like all who have preceded it in that role, cannot escape the constraints of history and geography. Its culture, ideology and domestic politics mean that it can never become Alexandrian, Roman or Napoleonic. Yet its sheer size—the very footprint that the United States places upon our planet—also means that it cannot occupy the small niche that, say, the Norways and New Zealands of the world enjoy: noninterventionist, nonimperial, prosperous and self-satisfied, carrying limited liabilities. Some years ago, Princeton political scientist Aaron Friedberg wrote a rather wonderful book entitled The Weary Titan (Princeton University Press, 1989). It was about how a worried Great Britain began to come to terms with the changing world order around 1900, including its concessions to America, but it really was a subtle plea for Washington to make a cold-blooded assessment of how many overseas commitments it could sustain over the long haul. Friedberg’s choice of title was extraordinarily clever; it referred to an appeal made by that dynamic Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain to the Dominions in 1902. His speech urged them to share some of the military burdens of the home country, which had now become like a “Weary Titan stagger[ing] under the too vast orb of its fate.”

Friedberg was clearly too early in his musings. This is not a country which is comfortable with being compared to earlier great powers and empires; the curse of American exceptionalism—“this time it is different”—is too strong here. Statesmen who suggest caution or retrenchment like, say, George Kennan, get ignored; they are deeply respected for their erudition (so it is said), but ignored nevertheless. Even when staunchly conservative figures argue for a hard-nosed appraisal and prioritization of this country’s overseas obligations, they are duly thanked but little else happens. In 1988, Friedberg’s Harvard doktorvater Samuel Huntington tried his hand at describing America’s global strategic situation, in very Eyre Crowe language (harking back to that great turn-of-the-twentieth-century German expert in the British Foreign Office), via a blue-ribbon commission which sent a report to the Reagan White House entitled “Discriminate Deterrence.” This report said many robust and reassuring things, though it did warn of defense weaknesses that needed to be addressed, but its chief remark—one of staggering importance—seemed to fall upon deaf ears. And it was this. For the whole of the nineteenth century, the young Republic had been shielded from the world’s great-power troubles by the Royal Navy’s monopoly of the Atlantic routes. And for the first half of the twentieth century, America had enjoyed the privilege of being always the last to enter the great wars; always two to three years late, with the massive economic and military benefits that such tardiness brought. Since 1945, however, the country’s strategic disposition had been completely reversed. Its own troops were now, like Kipling’s subalterns and corporals, out on the borders, this time in the DMZ, in Berlin, in the Fulda Gap, in Okinawa and along ever more frontiers of insecurity as the Cold War unfolded. This is not a condition which George Washington could have recognized. Even Teddy Roosevelt might have been amazed. But that is where we are.

This is not a situation that can or will last forever. This privileged nation—one is tempted to say, overprivileged nation—possesses around 4.6 percent of the world’s population, produces about a fifth of world product, and is, amazingly, willing to spend over 40 percent of all the globe’s defense expenditures. At some time in the future, sooner or later, there is going to be what economists call a “convergence,” that is, we are going to have to trim our sails and no longer try to bestride the world like a colossus. As we do so, we shall make a concession here, a concession there, though hopefully it will be disguised in the form of policies such as “power sharing” and “mutual compromise,” and the dreadful “A” word will not appear.


AMID THE thicket of other serious international challenges (possible collapse of much of Mexico, constant Russian nibblings to restore its imperial sway, the Iranian nuclear issue, the lunatic regime in North Korea), how to handle the rise of China as a strategic presence, first of all in East Asia and the western Pacific, then, later, across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, stands above all.

China is expanding onto the world stage as its relative share of global material strength steadily increases. It is following the path of many earlier fast-growing nations, and not unmindful of their histories. Political scientists of the realist school like to divide countries within the international system into either “revisionist” states or “status quo” powers. Viewed through this lens, the PRC is clearly revisionist and the United States clearly in favor of seeing the Asian status quo maintained—not unlike, obviously, that British position toward the Western Hemisphere one hundred years ago. Hegemons always prefer History to freeze, right there, and forever. History, unfortunately, has a habit of wandering off all on its own.

Here again, rather niftily, the relevance of the British appeasement debate of the 1930s (and thus the whole moral and political issue of when and where and how appeasement should be carried out—if it should be at all) becomes clear. How, actually, will the United States handle a rising China? Will the Chinese leadership, which has been reasonable and discreet so far (unless one stands on those bunions like Tibet and Taiwan), become more assertive as its economic heft increases and its armed forces modernize? What is one to make of its push toward Africa and the Persian Gulf, with its accompanying “string of pearls” naval and air bases? Crudely put, is this a Bismarckian China, which will expand so far, then rest content within its newly reshaped boundaries? Or a Wilhelmine China, which is bent, cautiously at first, then ever more assertively, upon its own version of Weltpolitik? And who can tell? Do the Chinese leaders even know? When Sir Eyre Crowe was asked to assess where Kaiser Wilhelm’s hyperactive Second Reich was headed, he concluded that either it was expanding in an unplanned, clumsy way, like a schoolboy growing out of his britches, or there was a purposeful plan to end British naval and imperial predominance. Either way, Crowe argued, it would be wise to remain diplomatically polite toward Germany, but to keep one’s powder dry and increase the fleet. Right now, the best U.S. “China policy” might be diplomatic engagement while simultaneously laying down another dozen supersmart attack submarines. No need to make a fuss about the latter. Beijing will get the message. It has enough spies and analysts in this country, after all.

We will remain extraordinarily influential, and with an unrivaled capacity to push hard military force outward—of that there is no doubt. As to a rising China becoming the new global hegemon, I have the most serious doubts; its internal weaknesses are immense, and, externally, it is likely to trip over its shoelaces, just as did Wilhelmine Germany. Simply because America has to adjust to a changing world order does not mean that it is coming close to collapse, or cannot leverage its many strengths, given smart policies at the White House (a big “given”). Recently, my distinguished Harvard colleague Niall Ferguson argued that, when America’s collapse comes, it will be fast, and decisive. I could not disagree more. Great empires, or hegemons, or number-one powers (whichever term one prefers) rarely if ever crash in some swift, spectacular way. Rather, they slide slowly downhill, trying to avoid collisions, dodging rising obstacles, making an offering here and there, ever searching for a flatter, calmer landscape. And they often lasted so long—for how many centuries, one has to ask, were the Ottomans and Manchus in “decline”?—because they offered concessions to others, which is a polite way of saying that they appeased. It is not a crime, or a moral failing, to recognize where and when it may be best to withdraw from a battlefield and to reduce a commitment. Most great statesmen have done that.

And one suspects that though there is no sign—yet—that Washington is thinking of leaving Afghanistan, it would be surprising to me if someone in the NSC or State Department hadn’t been secretly charged with devising some get-us-out-slowly-but-steadily stratagems. That’s what foreign offices are for after all—to get their governments off the hook. Only, please, make sure it can’t be labeled “Appeasement.”


THE AFGHANISTAN-Pakistan entanglement is an issue so vexed and complicated that it would have tested the wisdom of the greatest leaders and strategists of the past. It is not totally fanciful to imagine Augustus, William Pitt the Elder, Bismarck or George Marshall pondering over a map which detailed the lands that stretch from the Bekaa Valley to the Khyber Pass. None of them would have liked what they saw. Probably all of them would have concluded that they were facing that grimmest of dilemmas: “heads, you lose; tails, you don’t win.” The distances, the awful topography, the willingness of the other side to accept appalling casualty rates, make a limited war—a finely calibrated war—something of a nonsense. “Can we win in Afghanistan?” I am often asked. And I reply, “Oh, sure. Just take the modern equivalent of those two million GIs who landed in Normandy, and station them in every Afghan village.” But we won’t do that. I don’t think I am alone in harboring this sense of unease, nor do I think it is a particularly left-wing feeling. When I listen, privately, to my former Yale students who have come back from fighting along the front lines, I discover that they think we can’t win—at least not “win” in the sense that knee-jerk congressmen and rabid Murdoch newspapers understand that word, a victory grotesquely skewed by their habit of invoking American football language: smash, overrun, crush, annihilate. This is a fantasy world. As one of my U.S. Marine former students ruefully commented, the most popular saying among the Afghan tribesmen is: “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” Not for nothing has Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War (especially its chapters on the Sicilian expedition) become a book for U.S. officers to read again and again.

Image: Pullquote: Nothing so alarms a president or prime minister in the Western world than to be accused of pursuing policies of appeasement. Better to be accused of stealing from a nunnery, or beating one’s family.Essay Types: Essay