Washington, Tehran, Pyongyang, and…Munich? —Trump’s Dangerous Iteration of the Warped Legacy of ‘Appeasement’ in U.S. Foreign Policy

It will be 80 years next year since the Munich Agreement was signed by the leaders of France, Great Britain, Italy, and Germany. When the agreement’s stipulation of allowing Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland proved to be ineffective in achieving its intended purpose of acquiescing to one of Hitler’s demands in the short-term in the name of curtailing Nazi expansionism and preventing war, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was accused by the world of appeasement. In 2017, the term appeasement is still being leveraged in foreign policy debates in the United States. From arguments on the right against the Obama administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, to Republican Senators critiquing the Obama administration’s food aid to North Korea, to President Trump criticizing South Korea’s attempt to organize military talks with Pyongyang, invoking appeasement has become a widely popular strategy for critiquing any kind of engagement with historically unfriendly regimes.


However ubiquitous, the accusation of appeasement carries serious weight. To make sense of these modern allegations of appeasement, it is necessary to unpack what the term actually meant in the context of Munich and how its distorted legacy came to shape U.S. foreign policy toward belligerent regimes. Situating current uses of appeasement in this historical context will demonstrate that President Trump’s conception of appeasement—particularly in the Iranian and North Korean contexts—constitutes a dangerous iteration of the infamous lessons of Munich.


What did appeasement mean in 1938?


It is important to recognize that the terms of the Munich Agreement were a consequence of the specific goals and circumstances of Great Britain in 1938. Chamberlain knew that Great Britain was facing the possibility of single-handedly fighting a war with an increasingly expansionist Nazi regime in its own backyard. Chamberlain was also unconvinced that in the event of such a war, though Great Britain’s allies were rhetorically committed to preserving peace, he would receive enough military assistance to successfully resist Nazi expansion. As Thomas E. Ricks writes in Foreign Policy, “Appeasement is a position of negotiating with a strong state from a position of weakness.” While Great Britain was certainly not weak in the sense of lacking military or economic resources, its proximity to an aggressive Germany and uncertainty about the level of military commitment it would have from its allies put the country in a uniquely vulnerable geostrategic position in 1938.


Furthermore, Chamberlain’s bottom-line was avoiding the outbreak of war; he famously claimed that the Munich Agreement meant that there would be “peace for our time.” He weighed the risks of allowing German occupation of the Sudetenland against the daunting possibility of total war and determined that acquiescence was more likely to lead to peace. In this context, appeasement meant sacrificing some principles in the name of preserving a more fundamental objective; it was abandoning a short-term interest for a long-term goal. Ultimately, appeasement at Munich was embedded in these unique circumstances of 1938 and the validity of the Munich Pact was assessed based on a specific set of geostrategic and structural considerations.


The Legacy of Munich in U.S. Foreign Policy


While appeasement in the Munich context ultimately meant that a vulnerable Britain decided to make concessions to Hitler in the name of preserving its goal of peace, when war broke out a few years later, the consequences of the Munich Agreement took on a new meaning. The Allies learned that Chamberlain miscalculated the extent of Hitler’s territorial ambitions. As Germany continued to invade countries across the European continent, they realized that the assumption that Hitler would be satisfied with controlling the Sudetenland was wrong. The Allies consequently feared that acquiescing to Hitler’s territorial concessions is what led to war, and regretted not responding to German expansion with a strong show of force. Winston Churchill, for example, retroactively critiqued Chamberlain’s policy by likening it to “one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” As Lipson and Levy write in International Security, as the war progressed, appeasement “…came to symbolize naïveté, failed diplomacy, and the politics of cowardice.” The lessons of Munich, then, were twofold: never negotiate with a belligerent regime, and always respond to aggression with a stronger show of force.


These lessons are at the core of how the United States treated totalitarian regimes in the decades following World War II. In 1950, NSC-68, the document that shaped American Cold War foreign policy, painted the Soviet Union as regime with a “hostile design” and concluded that Stalin must be met by a show of overwhelming force by the West. Underscoring this assessment is the assumption that a hostile and aggressive regime will only respond to hostile and aggressive opposition tactics. And as Douglas McCollam writes in Foreign Policy, this assumption and the fear of “another Munich” has influenced U.S. foreign policy toward unfriendly regimes in nearly every presidential administration since the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War. From Eisenhower’s decision to get involved with the French fight against Communism in Indochina, to Johnson sending troops to Vietnam (and then consistently escalating the scope of U.S. operations there), to George H.W. Bush’s war in the Gulf, the fear of repeating the mistakes of 1938 made it bad policy to negotiate with totalitarian regimes and perpetuated U.S. involvement in a series of deadly protracted conflicts across the globe.


Obama’s Shifting Approach


The Obama administration’s foreign policy constituted a significant departure from this tradition. From the first day of his tenure he signaled a willingness to compromise with historically unfriendly regimes, as demonstrated by the oft-quoted statement in his inaugural address that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Since then, he has repeatedly engaged in negotiations with the United States’ alleged worst enemies everywhere from Pyongyang to Tehran to Havana. In 2012, Obama negotiated a deal with Pyongyang to send food aid to North Korea in exchange for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to its facilities. White House Asia adviser Victor Cha claimed that despite criticism that Pyongyang may not be trusted to properly utilize the aid, the deal is worthwhile because “it means getting a handle on what has been a runaway nuclear program that’s continued unabated for more than three years.” Perhaps most notably, President Obama worked with Tehran to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. The JCPOA outlines a framework to curtail Iran’s nuclear capabilities for non-peaceful purposes and increases IAEA access to inspect facilities in exchange for lifting international sanctions.


These policies suggest that the Obama administration understood negotiations with these regimes to be a useful tool for promoting U.S. interests. In the face of nuclear threats from regimes who have been historically unfriendly toward the United States, he did not follow the tradition of threatening the use of force or entering the country into a protracted conflict. Instead, President Obama made the assessment that negotiations presented a better opportunity to achieve his national security goals. In other words, he defied the long-standing notion in U.S. foreign policy that engagement with an aggressor is inherently dangerous.


The Danger of Regression Under Trump


In his first year of office, President Trump has repeatedly suggested that he does not plan to continue Obama’s strategy of negotiating with Pyongyang and Tehran. In September of this year, Trump accused Seoul of appeasing the North. Glenn Thrush and Mark Landler write in The New York Times: “In invoking South Korean “appeasement,” he criticized Seoul’s proposal to hold military talks with the North, saying of Pyongyang, “they only understand one thing” — meaning the “threat of military force.” Similarly, a number of Trump’s supporters on the right, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, have argued that the President’s promise to eventually dismantle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signals the end of a U.S. policy of “appeasement” toward Iran. Rubio even directly invokes 1938, writing in a tweet that “As currently structured, the deal is 21st century equivalent of the Munich Agreement.”


There are a few logical issues with equating negotiating with Pyongyang and Tehran to appeasement in the Munich context. First, again, the Munich Agreement was a consequence of the geostrategic vulnerability of Great Britain in 1938 and Chamberlain’s uncertainty about levels of international support in the event of a full-scale war. The United States in 2017 is not in this position. There is absolutely no threat of Pyongyang and Tehran pursuing territorial expansion in the United States’ backyard. While there are concerns about Iran funding terrorist organizations like Hezbollah that threaten the stability of areas of geostrategic importance to the United States in the Middle East, it is simply not the same kind of direct and immediate threat to national security that Great Britain faced from Nazi Germany. Additionally, when the United States negotiates with Iran and North Korea, it is doing so from a position of strength. The military capacity, economic strength, and international political influennce of the United States vis-a-vis both of these countries is astronomical, and cannot be compared to the position of Great Britain in relation to Hitler’s Germany in 1938.


Ultimately, these modern allegations of appeasement signal that the United States is reverting back to the pre-Obama conceptions of appeasement. Underlying Trump and Rubio’s comments are both of the assumptions that have defined U.S. interpretations of the lessons of Munich since World War II—that any engagement is dangerous and that hostile regimes will only respond to strong force. This regression is extremely dangerous. By equating any kind of engagement with appeasement, Trump is abandoning the Obama-era strategy of engaging in negotiations with historically unfriendly regimes as a tool for achieving U.S. interests. Finally, by adapting this conception of appeasement, President Trump is framing the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs as problems that can only be solved through the use of escalating threats and eventually force. As Senator Bob Corker warned in October, these kinds of threats—coupled with a President with a propensity for recklessness—could put the United States “on the path to World War III.”