With the end of the Cold War, however, this one at least somewhat-plausible stand-in for Nazi Germany disappeared from the scene. Since then, not a single foreign adversary has come close to posing the sort of mortal threat to the West that Nazi Germany did during World War II.
China, while possessing massive armed forces and a considerable nuclear arsenal, remains primarily a regional power in its ambitions, and despite its massive population and explosive economic growth, has a defense budget less than one quarter the size of America’s. Some of China’s actions in Asia have arguably called for firm responses. But there is little reason to think that the country has any interest in seriously damaging the United States, its largest trading partner and debtor, or that any single agreement with China could have the sort of devastating, cascading consequences attributed to Munich.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin would seem like a better candidate for the “new Hitler.” Enough people think so that Googling the names “Putin” and “Hitler” together returns over thirteen million hits, including a plethora of articles making the direct comparison. Putin is a repressive autocrat with a cult of personality (although nothing compared to Stalin and Hitler), and is driven by dreams of revanche for the humiliation incurred by the USSR at the end of the Cold War. He has acted aggressively against Ukraine, sending units of the Russian army in disguise to help seize Crimea, and then openly supporting secessionist movements elsewhere in the country. To some, the historical parallels have seemed painfully obvious. “Putin,” wrote the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, during the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, “is demanding for Crimea more or less what Hitler wanted for the Sudetenland.” Lest anyone miss the point, Cohen hammered it home: “Vladimir Putin has turned us all into Neville Chamberlain. The umbrella, please.”
Yet here, too, the analogy breaks down quickly. Those decrying Putin’s revanchism often seem to forget that he only moved against Ukraine after an uprising that toppled a pro-Russian regime in this large former Soviet republic, opening up the possibility of entry into the European Union, and possibly even NATO. American conservatives claimed that in the crisis, President Obama’s Chamberlainesque weakness emboldened Putin. In a typical expression of contempt, conservative political commentator Marc Theissen wrote, “you could hear laughter emanating from the Kremlin.” Yet more serious observers have recognized that Russia had actually been losing ground around the world, and that Putin, far from cackling diabolically at American weakness, saw a powerful and aggressive America conspiring against him. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan recently put it, “The portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a grand chess master, shrewdly rebuilding the Russian empire through strength and wiles, is laughable.”
Ironically, the group that almost certainly set a record for most frequent Hitler analogies during the Crimean crisis was not American neoconservatives, but the Russian media, which incessantly attacked the new regime in Kiev as “fascist,” and discerned in the overthrow of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych a quasi-Hitlerian Western plot to subjugate Russia. While Putin has shown an aggressive interest in bringing ethnic Russians under Russian rule and reestablishing Russia as a regional power, he seems far removed from any Hitlerian program of unlimited conquest. And despite Obama’s supposed spinelessness, there has been little sign of the moves against the Baltic states, which so many of the president’s critics insisted—in line with the Munich analogy—were imminent if he didn’t toughen up.
THEN THERE is Iran. Conservative politicians and commentators were pretty much unanimous in labelling the recent nuclear agreement a new Munich, and comparing Obama, yet again, to Neville Chamberlain. (Presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham all did so explicitly.) Dick and Liz Cheney called the agreement “tragically reminiscent” of Munich, and predicted it would lead to the first use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki. But Iran is a regional power that spends at most one-twentieth of what the United States does each year on its military. Far from expanding aggressively, it has seen its regional position deteriorate in recent years, thanks to the turmoil engulfing its ally Syria and the rise of the fiercely anti-Iranian Islamic State. Benjamin Netanyahu claims that the new agreement makes Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons imminent, but he has been making such predictions since the early 1990s. And even if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, it is hard to believe they would actually use it. Any strike against Israeli or American targets traceable to the regime in Tehran would almost certainly result in a devastating nuclear response, and the Iranians give little indication that they wish to commit collective suicide. In January, the UN nuclear watchdog confirmed Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, while the Iranian regime sought to lower tensions with the United States through its freeing of American prisoners, and its quick release of an American naval vessel that had inadvertently entered its territorial waters.
Finally, there are terrorist organizations, up to and including the Islamic State. Immediately after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino at the end of 2015, the Republican candidates for president tripped over each other to paint the struggle against ISIS and other terror groups in the most apocalyptic terms possible. Chris Christie called it “the next world war,” while Jeb Bush insisted that “we need . . . to destroy ISIS before it destroys us.” Ted Cruz, not to be outdone, declared that “the front line with ISIS . . . is in Kennedy Airport and the Rio Grande. . . . ISIS and Iran have declared war on America.”
Of course, there is always the threat—remote for now, but disturbingly plausible—that a terrorist group could get a nuclear weapon and detonate it on American soil. Such an action might not amount to destroying the United States, but it would certainly justify apocalyptic rhetoric. But, at least for the moment, there are no indications that ISIS or any other terrorist organization has come close to being able to realize this ultimate nightmare scenario. These groups threaten terrorism, mostly low-tech and low-level, that could take tens or hundreds of lives at a time. Such attacks are dreadful, and the United States is justified in taking extraordinary measures to prevent them. But, to state the obvious, they have nothing in common with the massive military threat once posed to the West by the Axis powers. Even the 9/11 attacks, dreadful as they were, could not compare with what Hitler wrought. The 9/11 attacks took 2,977 lives. During World War II, the Soviet Union lost that number every four hours, for a period of nearly four years.
Regarding the Islamic State, it is hard not to agree with President Obama’s words in his 2016 State of the Union address:
“As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages—they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”
And as the president also remarked: “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. Period. It’s not even close. . . . No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin.” Needless to say, Obama’s words convinced no one on the opposite side of the aisle. Ted Cruz immediately poured scorn on “a president who will not even acknowledge the evil that we’re facing, much less do anything serious to stop it. . . . President Obama and Hillary Clinton, they put their heads in the sand like ostriches, rather than acknowledging the threat of jihadists who want to murder us.” Like all the other Republican candidates for president, Cruz repeatedly stated that ISIS “has declared war on us,” and demanded that the United States do everything to win this war, including if necessary finding out whether “sand can glow in the dark.” And the comparisons to World War II flow on, uninterrupted. As the Fox News analyst Ralph Peters wrote in November:
“The generals who won World War II would start by leveling Raqqa, the ISIS caliphate’s capital. Civilians would die, but those remaining in Raqqa have embraced ISIS, as Germans did Hitler. The jihadis must be crushed. Start with their ‘Berlin.’ Kill ten thousand, save a million.”
IT IS easy to sputter against the incessant invocations of World War II in our politics, and to decry the Munich obsession of neoconservatives. Many authors have done so. But it is important to realize that this erroneous and tendentious language is actually just part of a larger conceptual misunderstanding. The words media and politicians use most to describe foreign affairs are outdated and inadequate to explain the strange and confusing world we are now living in, starting with the words “war” and “peace” themselves.