Sunday, July 30, 2006

Defining Appeasement

As I discussed on my previous post, many neoconservatives and other super hawks these days are forever warning against appeasement, which they define so broadly as to include almost any diplomacy, negotiations or compromise. The only alternative to appeasement is war which, if followed seriously, would require us to go to war over almost any development we dislike.

Such arguments are taken well beyond absurdity. Reluctance to start a war with Iran is appeasement. Before that, reluctance to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein was appeasement. I recall in 1990, as the Soviet Union has let go of all Eastern Europe but had not yet collapsed, William Saffire warned that allowing its retreat to stop at the old Soviet borders and not insisting that it give up Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania would be appeasement. And the phenomenon is not new. At the end of World War II, when the Japanese resisted calls for unconditional surrender and asked to be allowed to keep their emporer, some people feared that that would be appeasement.

Super hawks don't seem to recognize that this is exactly the sort of behavior we warn must not be appeased when other countries do it. It is all too easy to imagine such people as advisors to Hitler in 1938. After all, they would say, Sudetenland is historically and ethnically German, it was wrongfully given to Czechoslovakia, which is holding the Sudetenland against the wishes of its German inhabitants. Surely to accept anything less than all of Sudetenland would be craven appeasement.

So, then, if not all negotiations and compromises are appeasement, how do we tell when they are? My initial thought was that appeasement involves inappropriate concessions, but the objection here is obvious. Anyone can regard any sort of concessions as inappropriate. A more exact definition is needed. Slightly better is, if both sides are making concessions, what is happening is diplomacy. If the concessions are on one side, that is appeasement. But that, too, is overly subjective. In most compromises, both sides walk away feeling that they have given more than they got, and hardliners invariably believe that diplomats have given away the whole store. So a better definition would be, if each concession simply leads to calls for more concessions, and if further concessions are granted, that is appeasement. In other words, appeasement is not a single act, but an ongoing process. If is not always immediately apparent whether a negotiated compromise is appropriate or appeasement.

The super hawk argument is, in effect, that we should never negotiate and never make any kind of compromise because it might turn out to be appeasement. There is never any real harm in going to war, because each war postponed now will simply return as a larger war later, and ultimately as World War II. But so crudely mechanistic view is nothing short of absurd. Most aggressors are not Hitler. Most conflicts are not World War II waiting to happen. And, for the world's sole super power, if a compromise turns out to be the beginning of appeasement, the mistake is usually easier to correct than launching a war that turns out to be a mistake.


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