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Neville Chamberlain Lives On in Obama’s Foreign Policy

By: José Azel - Apr 28, 2015, 8:00 am

EspañolBritish Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain died in 1940, but his failed foreign policy of appeasing the enemies of democratic governance has been resurrected. The current incarnation of the appeasement approach to foreign policy — which I am labeling neo-appeasement — is best articulated by professor Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University in his book, How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace.

The exploration of unconventional ideas is a hallmark of academic work, and professor Kupchan’s scholarship may offer theoretical insights into the study of international relations. But international relations are not in the domain of the physical sciences where benign laboratory experimentation can take place without negatively impacting the lives of millions of individuals.

Social science experimentation, of the kind offered by Kupchan, is best kept in the Ivory Tower — preferably under lock and key — where we can argue its merits to the point of nausea without imperiling lives.

Unfortunately, Kupchan’s hypotheses have moved with him to the US National Security Council where he serves as senior director for European affairs and his neo-appeasement appears to be in full display in the formulation of US foreign policy. He asserts as much in the first chapter of his book noting that: “The Obama administration clearly believes that enemies can become friends.”

So what is the professor’s and the administration’s road map for turning enemies into friends?

The neo-appeasement prescription entails a sequential four-phased process. It must begin, according to Kupchan, by making concessions to our enemies in an act of “unilateral accommodation.” These concessions must be “unusual and costly” to signal benign intent. I imagine this is what Prime Minister Chamberlain had in mind when he conceded the German speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in the Munich Agreement of 1938.

The second phase entails the practice of “reciprocal restraint” where the adversary nations walk away from rivalry, peace breaks out, and geopolitical competition gives way to cooperation. This must have been Hitler’s mindset when Germany occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia six months after the Munich Agreement, and followed with the invasion of Poland in 1939 unleashing World War II.

“Social integration” and “the generation of new narratives and identities” are the third and fourth phases of Kupchan’s sequence towards stable peace. He and President Obama believe that deepened transactions between adversaries somehow lead them to change their identities and the “distinctions between self and other erode, giving way to communal identities and a shared sense of solidarity.”

I cannot tell if this assertion is naive or just plain silly, but let’s hold on to it for a paragraph or two as we explore another troubling thesis of the professor’s work where he argues that democracy is not necessary for stable peace. In his view, the United States should assess whether countries are enemies or friends based on their diplomacy (that is, on what they say) and not on the nature of their domestic institutions — what they do.

I suppose this explains the administration’s diplomatic choices in marginalizing friendly democratic allies like Israel and appeasing hostile repressive regimes like Russia, Iran, and Cuba.

Democracies do not usually go to war with each other, and recognizing that democracies will have enemies is not synonymous with being bellicose. Polity matters and we should not seek, as neo-appeasement prescribes, a communal identity and a shared sense of solidarity, with the likes of supreme leaders Ali Khamenei, Kim Jung-un, Vladimir Putin, or Raul Castro.

Neo-appeasement seems to be the intellectual foundation of the administration’s foreign policy. Under its banner, we accommodated Putin’s occupation of Georgian territory, just as Chamberlain accommodated Hitler. We gave up our missile defense plans in Eastern Europe; we may have delayed, but ultimately accepted, Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, and the president is using his executive power to unconditionally normalize relations with the Cuban regime. Mind you, this is a regime that in 1962 urged the Soviet Union to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the United States with missiles from Cuba.

When challenged on his foreign policy, the president is cavalier in dismissing historical experience by repeatedly noting that “he is not interested in having battles that started before he was born,” intimating that world peace hinges on a calculus of before and after Obama’s birth.

In resurrecting Chamberlains’ approach of appeasing the mortal enemies of democratic governance, the president would do well to humbly ponder Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s admonishment that: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.