Sunday, June 27, 2010


Appeasement. Doesn't sound any better in French, does it? (Probably because it's so, well, French.) Nevertheless, Yale University historian Paul Kennedy of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers fame has written a provocative piece about the subject, the chief purpose of which is to rehabilitate not only the word but, get this, the practice as well.

Apparently the most immediate reason for this effort is our pressing need to extricate ourselves from what in Kennedy's judgment is the lost cause that is the war in Afghanistan. We have a problem, however. We all, but most especially a liberal Democrat Administration, are constrained from doing so for fear of being slandered with the "n" word of all foreign policy making, "appeasement!"

While our looming failure in Afghanistan is Kennedy's most immediate reason to disengage, he is convinced there are other, more compelling reasons at work as well. He begins by acknowledging the inescapable significance of America in world affairs.
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.
But for Kennedy, America "coming to grips with its place in the world", means that the U.S. must deny something essential to its self-understanding. He writes: "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." According to Kennedy, this increasingly dangerous delusion simply must be faced up to. We are a power in relative decline, whether we acknowledge it or not.
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.
I guess he's still smarting from the fact that the imminent decline he predicted in the mid-1980s hasn't happened...yet.

No matter, to make his case for the rehabilitation of appeasement, by whatever name, Kennedy marshals a bunch of history to demonstrate that it was in fact practised quite routinely and honorably for centuries, most especially by Great Britain in its relationship with the United States. Here I think he engages in a bit of sleight of hand as he equates cutting deals and cutting losses in foreign affairs with appeasement.

He is, however, honest enough to ask the very difficult question.
So, what do you do: Appease, or not appease? Appease here, but not there? Declare some parts of the globe no longer of vital interest? And, yes, there comes a time when you have to stand and fight; to draw a line in the sand; to say that you will not step backward.
"Appease, or not appease?" should, I hope, never be a question a great nation asks. But when to cut deals or losses is one that is virtually always open. As I thought about this highly practical and prudential question, a very famous essay by the late, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick came to mind.

In 1979, Ambassador Kirkpatrick penned "Dictatorships and Double Standards" for Commentary magazine largely as a reaction to and critique of the foreign policy of the Carter Administration. Among other things in the piece, she argued that there is a meaningful distinction to made between an authoritarian and a totalitarian regime. Both are ruthless, to be sure, but while the former demands mostly tribute, the latter insists on, well, everything, i.e., not only your property, but your mind and your soul as well.

So, should we make deals or, if you like, should we appease a ruthless regime? I suppose if the costs of confronting the regime directly were prohibitive, and there existed a serious expectation that the terms of the deal would actually satisfy the regime's appetite, then...maybe. If the regime is chiefly authoritarian in nature, that is, defined by more limited appetites, it might even work. But if the regime is totalitarian, then the satisfaction of its appetites is excluded by definition. In the twentieth century, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were totalitarian regimes described by just such limitless appetites.

How would you describe the core nature of 21st-century jihadist Islam? Authoritarian or totalitarian? Can it be appeased? An academic debate aside, a whole lot rides on your answer.

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