NEW YORK – Seventy years ago this month in Munich, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, signed a document that allowed Germany to grab a large chunk of Czechoslovakia. The so-called “Munich Agreement” would come to be seen as an abject betrayal of what Chamberlain termed “a far away country of which we know little.” But that was not what many people thought at the time.
Chamberlain’s belief that Britain was not yet ready for war with Nazi Germany, and that diplomacy and compromise were safer options, was in fact shared by many Europeans, who knew from personal experience the horrible consequences of war. Nonetheless, Chamberlain has gone down in history as a coward, and his “appeasement” of Nazi Germany is often blamed for Hitler’s subsequent campaign to conquer the rest of Europe.
Chamberlain was probably wrong. Britain and France could have stopped Germany. “Munich, 1938,” was one of the rare occasions in the history of democracies when careful diplomacy was a mistake. What was needed was a bloody-minded romantic hero, willing to gamble the fate of his nation by fighting on, “whatever the cost may be,” in the words of Winston Churchill.
George Santayana famously warned that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” History, however, teaches many lessons, some of them contradictory, and is never repeated in quite the same way. Sometimes too much attention paid to the past can lead us badly astray. So, what, exactly, has the world learned from Munich, 1938?
If anything, West Europeans after World War II drew conclusions that were closer to Chamberlain’s thinking in 1938 than Churchill’s. After two catastrophic wars, Europeans decided to build institutions that would make military conflict redundant. Henceforth, diplomacy, compromise, and shared sovereignty would be the norm, and romantic nationalism, based on military prowess, would be a thing of the past.
Out of the ashes of war a new kind of Europe arose, as did a new kind of Japan, which even had a pacifist constitution (written by idealistic Americans, but gratefully accepted by most Japanese). Nationalism (except in football stadiums) gave way to smug self-satisfaction at having found more civilized, diplomatic, and pacific solutions to human conflicts.
To be sure, the peace was kept. But only because it was guaranteed by the United States, which still stuck to pre-World War II notions of national and international security.
In the US, Munich has had a very different resonance. There, it fed the Churchillian illusions of many a “war president” who dreamed of going down in history as freedom’s heroic defender. Munich has been invoked over and over – to fight Communism, to topple Saddam Hussein, to stop Iran, and to wage a “war on terror.”
These different perspectives have caused peculiar tensions between the US and its democratic allies. Europeans and Japanese depend on American military power for their security, but often don’t like the way the US uses it. Too much dependence has also had an infantilizing effect. Like permanent adolescents, Europeans and Japanese crave the security of the great American father, and deeply resent him at the same time.
There is little doubt that the US, like all great powers, has embarked on foolish wars and acted like a bully, especially toward nations in its own hemisphere. But, even without invoking the ghosts of Munich, there are occasions when military force is the only way to deal with a tyrant. Europeans were unwilling to stand up to Serbian mass murderers. The Americans (after initial reluctance) had to do the dirty work. When the US decided to push Saddam Hussein’s killers out of Kuwait, German protesters screamed that they would never “shed blood for oil.”
On the other hand, European diplomacy has had some remarkable successes. The prospect of joining the European Union helped consolidate democracy in central and eastern Europe, and in Turkey, too. Some of these democracies have joined NATO, and others desperately want to. NATO, however, unlike the EU, is a military organization. Therein lies Chamberlain’s old problem: are Europeans prepared to fight wars on behalf of their fellow members?
During the Cold War, this was not a serious dilemma. Europeans relied on NATO and the US to defend them in case of Soviet aggression. Now Georgia and the Ukraine would like to expect that Europeans and Americans would shed blood to defend them against Russia.
The choice is stark: if Europeans are prepared to fight for Georgia or Ukraine, these countries should be invited to join NATO. If not, not. But, instead of choosing, major European countries, such as Germany, have dithered, first dangling NATO membership as a juicy carrot, and then withdrawing the offer, leaving the Americans to indulge in heroic rhetoric without the necessary follow-through.
All this is making the Western alliance look incoherent, and, despite its vast wealth and American military power, strangely impotent. It is time for European democracies to make up their minds. They can remain dependent on US protection and stop complaining, or they can develop the capacity to defend Europe, however they wish to define it, by themselves.
The first option may not be feasible for very much longer in the twilight days of Pax America. The second will be expensive and risky. Given the many divisions inside the Union, Europeans will probably muddle on, until a serious crisis forces them to act, by which point it could well be too late.