The Ghost of Munich         

The stigma around “appeasement” is leading U.S. foreign policy down a dangerous path.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un
U.S. President Donald Trump said in early September that South Korea’s “talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work.”

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images and AFP Photo/KCNA via KNS.

The specter of appeasement haunts the Korean Peninsula. This is nothing new: Hawkish pundits have been warning for decades that negotiating with the Kim regime would be akin to selling out to the Stalinist regime. South Korea’s “talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work,” U.S. President Donald Trump emphasized in early September. More recently, the president dismissed negotiations with “Little Rocket Man” as a waste of time and reiterated  his position that “only one thing will work” 

This persistent labeling of moderate policy positions that emphasize dialogue and compromise—in short diplomacy—over confrontation as appeasement is both counterproductive and dangerous. Especially in the case of North Korea it can accelerate the path to war by narrowing how policymakers think about the ongoing crisis.

Appeasement has become a dirty word in American foreign policy debates in large part because of its association with the 1938 Munich conference and the outbreak of World War II. When politicians or commentators decry appeasement today, they’re implicitly invoking the spirit of 1938.

It was at Munich that Britain and France agreed to Hitler’s demands to annex portions of Czechoslovakia—the pinnacle of what W.H. Auden called the “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s. It was because of the Munich Agreement (“Peace for Our Time”) and the failure to stand up to Nazi Germany’s aggression that the meaning of the term appeasement was forever transferred from a pacific settlement of disputes to a cowardly kowtowing to aggressive authoritarian regimes at the expense of another country. Scholars have called Munich and appeasement among “the dirtiest words in American politics, synonymous with naïveté and weakness.” (Some modern historians have been kinder to the architects of Munich, but this has done little to eliminate the stigma.)

Munich and appeasement have been used interchangeably ever since the end of the Second World War. For better or worse, it has been the most influential historical analogy deployed by U.S. policymakers and politicians in the second half of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century. Whenever there has been an international crisis—Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, North Korea—the ghosts of the Munich settlement have been invoked to paint a picture of impending doom and destruction should decisive and preventive military action not be taken.

The problem with using the Munich analogy is not chiefly that policymakers and politicians do not know the detailed historical circumstances that led to the agreement, although it would help to provide a more nuanced view of British and French policies in the 1930s. For example, the majority of British and French politicians thought the Versailles Treaty unjust, which contributed to their wavering in the face of Hitler’s territorial annexations of German-speaking lands. The Third Reich was also not always seen as an aggressive power in the 1930s: It agreed to an Anglo-German naval limitations treaty and offered a friendship treaty with Poland. Rather, the problem with Munich is that it is not a particularly useful analogy when it comes to North Korea.

From a policymaker’s perspective, focusing on the dangers of appeasement narrows the policy options for dealing with Pyongyang. As Yuen Foong Khong notes in his book Analogies at War, where he attempts to answer the question how the selection of a particular analogy influences the selection of policy options: Different analogies lead to different policy preferences. Thus, due to the influence of the Munich analogy, a politician may assume that he is locked in an existential struggle with an irrational and aggressive dictatorship in which talking rather than acting will make the aggressor only more aggressive—a perfectly rational conclusion if one sees Kim Jong-un as someone harboring similar intentions to a Hitler.

Consequently, it matters very much whether a policymaker thinks about a foreign-policy problem through the lenses of Munich and appeasement or other historical examples when framing a policy discussion. According to Khong, “policy makers treat analogy-consistent information with kid gloves while information inconsistent with their preferred analogy is either ignored or mauled.” The old adage that if you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail is true for historical analogies as well: If every dialogue with a dictator can lead to a Munich concession, then preventive military action is the better option.

However, what if other historical analogies are chosen?

One of the most interesting instances of selecting policy preferences that were partially the result of different historical analogies occurred during the Cuban missile crisis. President Kennedy, unlike many of his civilian and military advisers, rejected the Munich analogy, and was instead influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, about the mistakes that led to the outbreak of the First World War. Tuchman argues that a number of egregious economic, political, and military misconceptions and miscalculations led to “the great seminal catastrophe of this century,” as George F. Kennan, called the war back in 1979. In conversations with his advisers, Kennedy also brought up the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 during deliberations, stating that he did not want to attack Cuba since it could be perceived as a “Pearl Harbor in reverse.”

In the end, rather than destroying Soviet missiles with airstrikes and invading Cuba as some of his advisers suggested, Kennedy chose a less drastic option and decided to impose a naval blockade on the island. Had he embraced the Munich analogy, as espoused by more hawkish administration officials, a full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union might have taken place. The success of Kennedy is no accident. “[P]residents who challenged the tyranny of ‘Munich’ produced some of the most important breakthroughs in American diplomacy; those who didn’t begat some of the nation’s most enduring tragedies,” two scholars wrote in World Affairs in 2010.

Nevertheless, it seems certain that whether it’s used for advocacy, analysis, or justification, U.S. policymakers and politicians will continue to resort to the Munich analogy. Similar to Godwin’s law that stipulates the longer an online discussion goes on the probability of a comparison involving Hitler increases, the dangers of appeasement will inevitably continue to be raised when discussing policy options to deal with an authoritarian leader. This was certainly the case with the now endangered 2015 nuclear deal with Iran as well.

In the case of North Korea, highlighting the dangers of appeasement rather than, for example, the dangers of a First World War scenario, in which a diplomatic and military crisis escalate to full-scale warfare, may instill among policymakers and politicians a preference for military options with disastrous consequences. The Pentagon has done much more extensive classified assessments of the terrible costs of such a war. This is presumably the reason why U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently said that “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions.” However, whether this statement is in line with the president’s thinking remains to be seen. The ghosts of appeasement are not likely to dissipate anytime soon.