Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Wages of Appeasement: An Interview with the Author

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who famously returned from a Berlin conference with Hitler and announced appeasement in our time, may be history’s poster boy for political impotence and naïveté. But in the new book, The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America, Bruce S. Thornton notes that the temptation to placate an enemy seeking one’s destruction is “as old as conflict itself.”

The book assesses three notable examples of societies’ futile, disastrous responses to the aggression of determined enemies: the Greek city-states threatened by the shrewd Philip II of Macedon, England confronted by Hitler, and now the West’s clash of civilizations with “a renascent Islamic jihad and its most powerful state sponsor, Iran.” Its message couldn’t be more timely and vital.

Front Page contributor Bruce Thornton is a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno. A National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, he’s the author of Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide, Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization, six other books, and numerous essays on Western culture.

Mark Tapson: Dr. Thornton, what was the inspiration for a book about appeasement? What prompted you to see timeless similarities in the different historical settings of ancient Greece, pre-WWII Europe, and America under Obama?

Bruce Thornton: The idea arose out of many conversations I've had with [fellow historian] Victor Hanson about the value of historical comparisons for illuminating our own times. I think we've been particularly struck by President Obama's foreign policy philosophy, which in some cases eerily mimics the naive idealism not just of Jimmy Carter but of someone like Neville Chamberlain.

These three instances are interesting to compare because they are all constitutional governments faced with autocratic and illiberal aggressors. Thus appeasement is not just a consequence of this or that particular leader's weakness, but also reflects the weaknesses of democratic governments, particularly in foreign policy.

MT: How does democracy itself put us at a disadvantage against such “illiberal aggressors”?

BT: The glories of representative government are the replacement of force with discussion and persuasion, and the holding of politicians accountable to citizens through audit, elections, laws, and the rest. However, the reliance on discussion and verbal process makes it easy to substitute words for action when action is needed. And when leaders are held to citizen scrutiny and have to face election or audit, they find it more expedient to kick problems down the road rather than call on the citizens to make unpleasant sacrifices.

Foreign policy particularly requires long-term strategies pursued consistently, but with a two-year election cycle (one year in Athens for most offices), and politicians held to intense scrutiny by mass media, instant polling, the blogosphere, and 24/7 news and opinion programs, it becomes more difficult to develop a consistent strategy and stick to it over time. Illiberal regimes, of course, don't have many of those problems.

MT: You write that the causes of appeasement "arise from the limitations of human nature and from the failure of political ideals," and that this is a tragic view of life that's out of step with our times. Can you elaborate on that?

BT: We moderns believe that human nature can progress for the better, that material improvements in human life will remove the suffering and want that in the past drove people to irrational and destructive behavior. The ancients, particularly Thucydides in his masterpiece The History of the Peloponnesian War, in contrast believed that the irrational drove human behavior more often than not – things like fear, ambition, honor, power, revenge, religious fervor, or greed for wealth or territory.

War then is not an anomaly arising from poverty, etc., but a reflection of human nature. That's a tragic view, because if human nature doesn't change that much, then war and violence will always be part of our lives. That's a hard truth for many of us, who like to believe that we can progress to an ideal world of peace, plenty, and prosperity, where disputes can be resolved peacefully with rational negotiation and bargaining.

MT: You identify the most important factor in the failure of societies to withstand an aggressor as "the decay of civic virtues." "To be free," you write about the Athenians, "citizens had to have characters worthy of freedom." What kind of character is worthy of freedom?

BT: Citizens who are responsible for managing and defending their government have to believe in that government and think that it is better than any other. They have to love it and want to serve it, because its goodness and success are theirs as well, an extension of their identities. This means they must have certain virtues: courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty, duty, to name a few. Most important, they have to be willing to suffer, kill, and die on its behalf.

However, when the state is seen as something alien to the people, as a dispenser of entitlements or an umpire of competing private interests, then the people lose that affection and willingness to sacrifice for the state, which is to say for themselves, since in a free state the citizens are the state, and the state belongs to them and their children and future generations. It is an inheritance they want to protect and hand down. When that affection, or patriotism, is lost, then people do not want to pay the price for defending their freedom, and find appeasing an enemy, or deferring hard choices to the next generation, an acceptable option.

MT: What are some of the factors in our time that have led to such a disdain for patriotism and have paved the way for us to adopt a posture of appeasement toward the jihadists?

BT: The most important is the shift in citizens' attitudes toward the state, which as I said, loses the unifying power that comes when citizens view the state as their possession, as an expression of what they are and what they believe, and as an object of love and affection they are willing to kill and die for.

In addition, some very bad ideas of modernity have become widespread, most importantly the false, and ultimately Marxist-inspired, narrative of our crimes and sins against humanity such as racism, colonialism, imperialism, and exploitative capitalism for which we deserve to be punished.

Finally, fantasies about the “global community” and an international “harmony of interests” have made disdain for one's own country and culture the mark of sophisticated cosmopolitanism. All these attitudes erode the patriotism from which come the morale and endurance that have always been the keys to victory, and make it easier to adopt appeasing policies that merely postpone the ultimate reckoning.

MT: Could you talk a bit about one of the recurring themes among the three historical examples you write about in the book: a crippling failure of imagination “to see beyond the pretexts and professed aims of the adversary and recognize his true goals, no matter how bizarre or alien to our own way of thinking”?

BT: We in the West assume our ideals and goods are universal. They are, but only potentially: there are many alternatives to our way of living and governing ourselves, most obviously Islam and its totalizing social-political-economic order, sharia law. Suffering from this myopia, we fail to see those alternatives or take them seriously, usually dismissing them as compensations for material or political goods such as prosperity or democracy.

Worse yet, our enemies are aware of this weakness, and are adept at telling us what we want to hear, and using our own ideals as masks for their own agendas. Just look at the misinterpretations of the protestors in Egypt and the Muslim Brothers, not just from liberals but from many conservatives, who have been duped by the use of vague terms like “freedom” or “democracy.”

An important factor in this bad habit is our own inability to take religion seriously. Since religion is mainly a private affair, a lifestyle choice and source of private therapeutic solace, we can't imagine that there are people so passionate about spiritual aims that they will murder and die in the pursuit of those aims.

MT: Are you optimistic that as a country and culture we can rouse ourselves from having become, in George P. Schultz’s phrase, the indecisive “Hamlet of Nations,” and can reverse our slide toward a fatal appeasement?

BT: No, I'm not optimistic. Democracies are notorious for waiting until the last minute before they rouse themselves. But the American democracy that responded, say, to Pearl Harbor by declaring war on the world's two mightiest military machines is very different from the democracy we have today. Remember, Pearl Harbor was a military strike against a military target, and it came after deteriorating relations between Japan and the U.S. 9/11 was an attack on civilians on the part of peoples whom, from our perspective, we had not harmed.

Yet within six months, all that righteous anger and determination were starting to dissipate, and we were back to our old bad habits, donning the hair-shirt of foreign policy crimes, wondering what we had done to provoke the attack, undermining and criticizing the Bush administration's attempts to make sure such an attack never happened again.

So if 3000 dead, two skyscrapers knocked down, and a trillion-dollar hit to our economy weren't enough, what will be? And even then, will we unsheathe the “terrible swift sword,” or will we use appeasement to buy a few more years of quiet and leisure, pretending not to notice as more and more of our freedom disappears? I suppose we all will have to wait and see.
(This originally appeared at Front Page Mag here, 3/17/2011)