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Commentary

Russia in Crimea—Not ‘Munich 1938’ Yet Again


     
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Western hysteria surrounding Russia’s seizing of Crimea is rooted in a larger problem with U.S. foreign policy—“the Munich 1938 syndrome.” Ever since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain allowed Adolf Hitler to take over German-speaking portions of Czechoslovakia at a Munich meeting in 1938, appeasement has gone out of favor as a traditional, respectable tool in foreign policy. Since that time, what had been an acceptable way of sometimes conciliating or buying off an opponent has taken on a universally cowardly connotation. (As U.S. General David Petraeus skillfully and quietly demonstrated in extricating the United States from Iraq by buying off most enemy Sunni guerrillas and getting them to fight against al Qaeda, the policy is still used occasionally, but we just don’t call it the a-word.)

However, a good case can be made that the now-vilified Chamberlain saved Britain’s bacon during World War II and that, despite his pledge to the contrary, Winston Churchill was the one who sold the British Empire down the river, even forfeiting Britain’s standing as a world power. In fact, Chamberlain had little choice but to accommodate Hitler’s Germany at Munich; the British were behind the Germans in their military build up and needed time to catch up. Furthermore, Chamberlain ordered the Royal Air Force—which like many other military organizations, then and since, was enamored with the macho “cult of the offensive”—to transfer resources from offensive strategic bombing into fighter air defense. In 1940, augmented air defenses helped save Britain by defeating the attacking German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

In contrast, Churchill, now the hero of World War II for being prime minister at the time of that titanic battle and during most of the war, benefitted greatly from Chamberlain’s buying of time through earlier appeasement and his using that time to augment the British military, especially its air defenses. Moreover, the always-belligerent Churchill helped pave the way for the rise of Hitler in the first place (as did America’s Woodrow Wilson) by beating the drums to enter World War I, which tipped the balance in a largely European continental conflict to the allies and led to Hitler’s rise out of allied post-war humiliation of the Germans. “Winning” the massive conflicts of World Wars I and II financially ruined Britain, causing it to ultimately lose its empire and even its status as a world power.

After Munich in 1938, instead of learning that appeasement or conciliation is sometimes the best policy, or even a necessary one, great powers took away a mistaken lesson—that any perceived threat, no matter how small, had to be met immediately with forceful action in order to deter an opponent from further snow-balling aggression. The United States was especially prone to this false lesson during World War II and thereafter. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, taking the wrong message from Munich 1938, refused to meet with the Japanese prime minister to conciliate U.S.-Japanese differences over Japan’s empire building in East Asia and retaliatory American attempts to strangle the Japanese military and economy with an oil embargo (the United States was then the world’s largest producer of oil). FDR’s refusal led to the desperate Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. involvement in World War II. During the Cold War, springing directly out of the “Munich 1938 syndrome” were fears that communism would spread like falling dominoes in country after country, if it wasn’t stopped in backwater countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, Grenada, etc.

And now, after Russia has invaded and annexed Crimea, calls have arisen in the West to impose harsh economic penalties on Russia, deploy U.S. military equipment in NATO countries near Russia, give Ukraine substantial financial aid, and spend more on NATO defenses—all to deter Russia from further aggression. Make no mistake about it, Vladimir Putin and Russia were wrong in using force to annex a Crimea that probably wanted to be a part of the Russian Federation anyway and could very well do the same with the equally Russophilic eastern Ukraine.

Congratulating Russia for violating the sovereignty of a nation-state isn’t a good idea, but overreacting isn’t either. Some demonstration of displeasure on the part of Western governments to deter further potential Russian actions probably isn’t a bad idea. However, Ukraine owes a lot of money to Russia, and huge amounts of Western financial aid given to Ukraine will merely be sent to Russia to pay it off, thus helping Russia. Spending more money on NATO defenses wouldn’t be a bad idea if it were the nearby European countries that were going to do it; but they will not. For decades, wealthy European countries have relied on the United States to provide their security, and the U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) has found it profitable to do so. The MICC is now hyping the allegedly renewed Russian threat to attempt to reverse declining defense spending in the United States.

In the worst case, Russia could also try to incorporate the Russian-speaking peoples of eastern Ukraine into Russia, as it did with Crimea. While not a good development, Russia’s military is probably incapable of going any farther to conquer and occupy the vast stretches of the remainder of Ukraine. Despite glowing accounts of a much-improved Russian military in Crimea in The New York Times, the improvement lies mainly with elite Russian Special Forces units. Militarily, today’s Russia is certainly no Soviet Union. And despite likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s assertion that Putin is another Hitler, he is not. He is not trying to take over Europe and is merely trying to salvage what he can of Ukraine after a democratically elected pro-Russian government was overthrown by pro-Western street mobs.

Whenever U.S. politicians want to hype a threat, they compare the minor villain of the day to Hitler—Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, choose your ruler of North Korea from the family Kim, and now Putin in Russia—and solemnly imply that the new bad buy must be stopped or we’ll have Munich 1938 all over again. Hardly.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

New from Ivan Eland!
NO WAR FOR OIL: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East

The grab for oil resources has been a major factor behind many conflicts and military deployments because of its perception as a strategic commodity. This book debunks the notion that oil is strategic and argues that war for oil is not necessary to secure the flow of petroleum. Learn More »»






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