Leaders often turn to history when they are unsure of how to proceed. As President Obama and his closest advisers consult on how best to respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, one historical episode is likely to stand head and shoulders above all the rest: Munich. No other bygone foreign-policy failure is more etched into the minds of western elites than the fateful attempt to appease Nazi Germany in September, 1938. Whether or not White House officials themselves see any prescriptive merit in the lessons of Munich, the administration undoubtedly will be keen to avoid criticism that the president is an appeaser—an allegation levelled with gusto by Obama’s detractors following his actions over Syria and his modus vivendi with Iran last year. Yet a thorough consideration of what transpired at Munich offers a more subtle lesson for those who seek to preserve peace and stability than just a dictum against appeasement.
The parallels with 1938 are eerie to some. Russia today is a resurgent great power led by an autocratic strongman with a penchant for fanning chauvinist sentiment at home. A large part of Vladimir Putin’s domestic appeal is the perception that he rescued Russia after a decade in the doldrums. The 1990s were a period of humiliation for Russians, when their state and economy collapsed around them. Living standards plummeted and corruption was rife. On the world stage, the former superpower was forced to endure the indignity of the U.S. and its allies meddling in its traditional spheres of influences. Under Putin, this trend of national ignominy has been reversed—a process still underway, to be sure, but an achievement for which Putin has earned the admiration of many of his compatriots.
Putin also is popular among those in Russia’s “Near Abroad” who have resisted westernization—in Belarus, eastern Ukraine, the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and (at times) the Central Asian republics, for example. Especially among embattled elites (such as Viktor Yanukovych and his henchmen) and Russia’s “beached diaspora” (that is, those Russian communities which found themselves living in independent, often virulently anti-Russian countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union), Putin’s Russia is seen as a protector. In this sense, Putin has fashioned for Russia a role not too dissimilar from Tsarist Russia’s self-styled mantle of defender of European Slavs and Orthodox Christians during the nineteenth century.
Eastern Ukraine and particularly Crimea are examples of regions where Putin and Russia find favor. The public displays of support that have been witnessed over recent years are genuine, indicative of real affection for and affinity to Russia and its confident international leadership. Well over half of Crimea’s population is ethnic Russian, while only a quarter is ethnic Ukrainian and less than an eighth is Tatar. There are many Russian nationals in the region. While Russia’s intervention in Crimea might violate international law and anger Western opinion, it is popular among this segment of the local population.
All of this is uncannily familiar to the Sudeten Crisis, when Adolf Hitler positioned himself as the champion not only of Germans within Germany itself, but also of ethnic German nationalists abroad—particularly in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Having risen to power on the back of promising to restore German greatness and undo the humiliations imposed by Versailles, Hitler now claimed that the Sudeten Germans needed the protection of the Reich. German troops were massed on the Czech border and, after much saber-rattling, the crisis ended with the infamous Munich Agreement by which the Great Powers of the day—Britain, France, Germany and Italy—agreed to the cession of Sudetenland to Germany.
Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier hoped that appeasing Germany would satisfy Hitler’s hunger for expansion. In any case, Chamberlain at least was broadly sympathetic to the notion that ethnic Germans should be brought under the rule of the German state, where practicable. The result, however, was an emboldened German Reich and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939; the subsequent seizure of Memel (now Klaipėda) from Lithuania that same month; and demands for Danzig and the Polish Corridor that ultimately resulted in the outbreak of World War II.
The primary lesson of Munich, then, would seem clear: to accede to bellicose states’ demands is to endorse and embolden those who should properly be contained, reformed or removed from power. In the words of Winston Churchill, the proverbial godfather of this view, “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Given the context of Churchill’s premiership, it is easy to see why this witticism is today viewed as a genuine—indeed, timeless—insight; a veritable axiom of statecraft. The Allies’ fateful attempts at appeasing Nazi Germany in the 1930s still reverberate, and understandably so.
But the real tragedy of Munich is not that Britain and France failed to declare war on Hitler. That mistake, while certainly tragic given what we now know, was committed much earlier than September 1938. Chamberlain’s biographer, Keith Feiling, notes that Chamberlain recognized Germany as the “enemy to watch” as early as 1934. Nor was Munich the last opportunity for opposing Hitler. A whole year elapsed between Munich and the invasion of Poland. British public opinion turned against appeasement as early as Kristallnacht in November 1938, when the abject brutality of the Nazi regime was broadcast for the whole world to see, creating real political opportunities for Chamberlain to galvanize opposition to the Nazi regime.
Instead, the unique blunder of the Munich Agreement was to miss the opportunity to paint Hitler as a pariah, as an illiberal and warlike leader bent on upending the international status quo and therefore a threat to European and world stability. Instead of cloaking Hitler’s machinations in Wilsonian language of self-determination and nation-statehood, Chamberlain and Daladier should have characterized the Sudeten Crisis as a manufactured and base exercise in Machtpolitik. Rather than allow Hitler space to coopt the language of international norms, the legitimacy of the Czech border should have been defended with vigor and the rights of Sudeten Germans put in proper context—that is, a responsibility of Prague, not Berlin. In short, whereas Chamberlain in particular saw the Munich Agreement as an opportunity to cement Germany into a new European order, he and Daladier would have been much better off defending the extant one in word and in deed.
Rising or resurgent states like Germany in the 1930s and Russia today generally seek to increase their influence—military capacity, territorial size, economic rights, prestige—as their power swells. Depending on the extent of their demands, the whole character of the international status quo can be brought into question by this natural propensity for revisionism. Sometimes, acceding to changes in the status quo is a sensible option—as part of a broad diplomatic package aimed at ushering rising states into the prevailing global order, for example. But agreeing to the piecemeal de-legitimization of international order is a slippery slope indeed, for it severely devalues the political capital upon which the leaders of established states will have to rely when mustering domestic and international support against the future demands of rising revisionists.
With proper leadership and careful messaging, Chamberlain and his allies could have used Munich as a bully pulpit with which to harden foreign and domestic opinion against Hitler’s Germany. International politics cannot be allowed to descend into pure power politics, a concept that ordinary citizens readily understood in 1938 and, in fact, still adhere to today. At least in the United States, research shows that the general public has a very high regard for international law. This natural support for global rules is something that Obama and his team can convert into a political basis for opposing Russian actions in Ukraine. Like George H.W. Bush denouncing Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, President Obama must let it be known: “This will not stand.”