Book Review

Book cover image
Appeasement in International Politics

Stephen R. Rock
University Press of Kentucky, 2000, 237 pages



No matter how thoroughly discredited an idea may be, one can be certain that periodically someone in academia will propose it. There is something in the academic temperament that enjoys the challenge of finding a discarded idea, like an old newspaper lying in the bushes, battered and shredded by the rain, and tries to piece it back together, smooth out the wrinkles, and put it back on the rack, hoping someone will buy it. Yet even the most lithocephalic pontificating ivy league poofter must think twice about advocating a strategy that directly led to the destruction of European pre-eminence, the deaths of fifty million in World War II, and the suffering and death of tens of millions more during the fifty years of Cold War that resulted in its aftermath.

Far from being a subject of harmless academic discourse, appeasement has become a timely topic in recent months because of the dismal results of the failed policy of appeasement of North Korea from ex-president Bill Clinton and the itinerant diplomat and former president Jimmy Carter.

In this book, Steven Rock of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. tries to resurrect the idea of appeasement as a useful strategy. He is determined to make it work, regardless of the mountains of evidence against him. If appeasement failed, Rock says, it was because the strategy was not implemented properly. "Cases of successful appeasement can be found," says Rock. "But even if they could not, this would not in itself prove the futility of the strategy."

Of course, "appeasement" is not a value-neutral term. "Appeasement" by definition is surrender to an unreasonable demand. To appease is to give something unreasonably demanded by an opponent in the hope that the opponent will not carry out some threat. Obviously, if a foreign power made a reasonable demand, granting it would not be appeasement. Hence, a sensible person would not advocate appeasement as a strategy any more than they would advocate "surrender", "stupidity", or "selling out one's allies" as a strategy.

Thus, one could read this book, not to seriously consider appeasement as a possible strategy, but to understand why academics propose such seemingly irrational ideas. Despite the overwhelming evidence from both history and everyday life that appeasement is counterproductive and dangerous, the idea of feeding one's friends to the crocodiles to buy a few more moments of safety exerts an irresistible pull even today on politicians for whom creating the appearance of being an angel of peace and a paragon of moral rectitude, and maintaining their standing in opinion pools and with special interest groups, is a quick and easy substitute for finding the courage and leadership skills necessary to actually solve problems.

Moreover, if one could understand what drives academics to promote ideas such as this, it would go a long way toward explaining why there indeed seems to be so little common sense among some of my colleagues in academia these days. Is it just an epidemic of wishful thinking, a ivory tower belief that dictators basically want to be loved like everyone else? Or is it because, never having had power, ivy-league academics are hopelessly naive about its dynamics? Or is it the result of a Chomsky-like hatred of their own country, that leads them to advocate policies of weakness and surrender to further their goal of tearing down Western civilization? Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. The motives of Chomsky and other America-haters are clear. But what motivates a run-of-the mill college professor from Vassar to pick up a slimy football like appeasement and run with it toward the opponent's goal line?

The author uses the following strategy:

  1. Redefine appeasement to eliminate its negative connotations, and add positive ones, so that what the author calls "appeasement" is what everyone else would call "negotiation and mutual accommodation", "constructive engagement", or "strategic withdrawal" as the case may be.
  2. Present various cases where negotiation produced a positive result, or might have produced one, if it had worked. These examples include the Nixon-Kissinger detente with the USSR, the British policy of reconciliation with America in the late 19th century, the American attempts to engage Iraq and China in the late 20th century, and the concessions made to the Soviet Union at Yalta after World War II, when Poland's boundaries were shifted westward by several hundred miles and domination of eastern Europe was ceded to the USSR.
  3. Finally, after concluding that appeasement, suitably redefined and dressed in its new respectable connotations, is an effective strategy, or would be effective, at least occasionally, if only it were executed properly (which is to say, when it would work), extend the conclusion by implication to include appeasement as the term is used by everyone else, and conclude that appeasement is, in fact, a pretty good strategy.
  4. Dismiss counterexamples, most notably the example of Munich, as "exceptions" in which the strategy was not practiced correctly.
These linguistic flip-flops and logical Klein bottles show that the author himself most likely does not seriously believe that appeasement, as commonly understood, really is a good strategy. Of course, even the author doesn't try to claim that appeasement is a panacea. But equally telling in this book is the almost complete absence of `ideology' and `principle' as governing factors in foreign policy. The author cannot have been unaware of the primary role of ideology in the Cold War, yet the words ``ideology'' and ``principle'' almost seem to be absent from the author's interpretation of history.

Throughout the book, the author also displays an ingenuous, almost naive faith in human nature and the redeemability of tyrants. Tyrants are `insecure' and can be `socialized' by acceding to their demands. They need to `save face'. The author cites the 1990s Clinton/Carter policy of appeasement of North Korea as a prime example of "successful" appeasement. This idea seems to have been instrumental in forming the author's favorable opinion of appeasement in general. Writing before the collapse of the Agreed Framework in 2002, he calls the appeasement policy "one of the more apparent foreign policy triumphs of the Clinton administration." No doubt at this very moment the author is moving his index cards on North Korea from the "triumphs" pile to the ``not practiced correctly'' pile.

The author contrasts appeasement with `coercion' and `deterrence'. Surely, this is far too narrow and unidimensional conceptual baseline to form an adequate viewpoint for understanding international politics. Indeed, many nations have leaders or advisors who possess a far more sophisticated and cunning multi-dimensional understanding of the psychology of their allies and adversaries, the benefits and risks of their actions, and a deep commitment to their respective ideologies. An appreciation and understanding of left-brain chessmaster skills like those practiced by the British throughout the `grand game' of the 19th century is also missing from the book.

Just as ideas have real consequences, words have real meanings, even words like `appeasement' with its long-standing and well-deserved pejorative connotations. Although the historical essays in the book are interesting, well-written, impartial (except for a marked pro-Clinton bias), and mostly free of polemic, they utterly fail to prove the author's case because none of the positive examples he gives truthfully falls into the category of appeasement. Even if they did, the examples presented by the author demonstrate that appeasement, or whatever it is, simply does not work. The failure of the so-called "appeasement" of Iraq by America prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait could not be more obvious. The only convincing examples of pure appeasement that are discussed are those of Chamberlain and Clinton/Carter/North Korea. Both of these, too, have been dismal failures. No amount of wishful thinking can turn these or other examples of supposed ``appeasement'' such as the Soviet Union's capitulation in the Cuban missile crisis or postwar Allied policy toward the Soviet Union into examples in which betraying one's responsibilities and surrendering one's principles was a useful tool of state policy.

December 27, 2002 Back