Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Constantly fighting World War II

By the 1930s the US had, on paper, returned to an isolationist foreign policy. Worried about dragging the Depression-hit nation into another bloody European war, Roosevelt passed a number of Neutrality Acts, designed 'to preserve its neutrality in wars between foreign states and desiring also to avoid involvement therein'. The simple story told of this period was that the US was neutral and minding its own business when it was dragged unwillingly into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and subsequent declaration of war by Germany.

In reality the US had been diplomatically engaged with East Asia for years. When Japan's army was bogged down fighting in China in 1941, the US passed an oil embargo on the country, forcing resource-poor Japan to look elsewhere to keep its war machine going. Japan decided to remove remove American power from the Pacific with a single decisive attack on Pearl Harbour, leaving them free to seize oil from their South East Asian neighbours. Nonetheless, the history most of us hear is simpler than that, depicting pre-war USA as a peaceful, independent giant.

The shock of World War II pushed the US towards a much more forceful and global approach to foreign policy. Terrified that a successful communist revolution in one country could spark revolutions in neighbours, toppling friendly nations like a line of dominoes, the US intervened aggressively in countries like Korea and Vietnam.

Since the end of the Cold War the lesson of World War II still influences foreign policy debates: again and again I see Americans reject non-interventionism on the grounds that Pearl Harbour proved it unwise.

Likewise British hawks point to Neville Chamberlain's failed attempts to win peace through diplomacy with Adolf Hitler as justification for a more assertive British foreign policy. This latter case is sometimes used in debates about Iran, as Chamberlain is accused of weakness in failing to check German militarism with actual military force. If, they say, Chamberlain had acted early in the 1930s to prevent the Nazis from developing its army, there would never have been the dreadful World War. Likewise, they argue, we can prevent a belligerent theocratic Iran from developing nuclear weapons if we act right now to prevent future atrocity.

The massive cultural impact of World War II, so great that it is still sometimes simply called 'the war', still influences how people perceive military threats. A good example is the word 'appeasement', used to describe Chamberlain's attempts to negotiate with Hitler to avoid war. Since then the word has come to mean something extremely negative, a sign of cowardice and surrender. This was the theme of a brilliant article by Paul Kennedy in The National Interest, who argued that sensible governments have long appeased foreign rivals:

For example, in 1895 London decided on a diplomatic solution (read: concessions) regarding the disputed Venezuela–British Guiana border they had spent more than five decades arguing over because of the belligerent language coming out of Washington on the side of Caracas. In 1901, the cabinet overruled Admiralty opinion and agreed that Britain would give up its 50 percent share of a future isthmian (i.e., Panama) canal, to which it was perfectly entitled under the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty signed with the United States in 1850 to guarantee the waterway remained neutral. In 1903, London outraged Canadian opinion by siding with the U.S. delegates over the contentious Alaska–British Columbia border. Yet another retreat. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who so eagerly reckoned to benefit from an Anglo-American war that distracted his European rival, was bewildered that the British kept giving way—kept appeasing—when it was obvious to most naval observers that the far larger Royal Navy could have spanked the nascent U.S. fleet.
By ceding territory and power to the rising United States, Britain was able to build a mighty alliance with them on their entry to World War I. Instead of wasting money, lives and goodwill by fighting against the US, Britain backed down and led to a nearly century-long cooperation with that country.

With hindsight we can see how the events of 1930s Europe and Asia led to the terrible catastrophe of World War II, but at the time nobody knew how far Germany and Japan were willing to take aggressive measures. Even Hitler was astonished by British determination to fight, he had hoped for a Germanic Anglo-Saxon alliance with Britain in his drive to defeat eastern communism. (Interestingly, Germany and Japan learned the opposite lessons to the US. Intead of assertive expansionism and interference in the affairs of their neighbours, they learned to become peaceful and demilitarised.)

Likewise today nobody can know the consequences of Iranian nuclear armament, nor of a military strike to prevent it. Terror of another Hitler in Saddam Hussein led the US to start an unnecessary and harmful war in Iraq, though: seeing new Hitlers everywhere is as dangerous as missing his threat was in the first place.

Kennedy adds that at the time, there was no clear-cut division between 'cringing appeasers and stalwart anti-appeasers' in Britain and France:

A politician wishing to stand firmer against Germany was all too often inclined to want to keep on good terms with Italy. British navalists and imperialists who sought a sturdy defense of their Far Eastern possessions were hoping that Hitler would stay still or, perhaps better yet, turn eastward against the equally detestable Soviet Union.
Convinced by Pearl Harbour that non-interventionism is unworkable, modern hawks push for war and aggressive intervention in every situation. Convinced by Chamberlain's errors that appeasement is impractical, hawks demand an aggressive solution to every foreign policy problem. By constantly reliving a simplified telling of World War II and failing to learn the lessons of other conflicts, hawks leave themselves unready to deal with modern conflicts, especially those non-state conflicts involving decentralised organisations and mass-populations who can be persuaded to join either side of the struggle. Everyone knows the story of Pearl Harbour, few know about Britain's successful concessions to the rising power of America. Chamberlain's appeasement is known and despised, but Tony Blair's successful negotiations with the IRA are underrated.

In reality, withdrawal and quiet concession is often necessary. Appeasement is sometimes sensible. And not all mustachioed dictators require horrified and hasty intervention.

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