4 September 2006, 1931 EDT

Classes started last week so I’m running a bit behind the news (and way behind in blogging in reaction to any of it) but Rumsfeld’s recent (and oft-repeated) henny-penny arguments (thanks, Bill!) equating violent Islamist groups with Nazi Germany and invoking the world’s most hackneyed foreign policy analogy — Munich, Munich, Munich — to advise staying the course are really starting to get to me. So in the interests of trying to restore a little sanity, I want to take a few minutes to unpack ‘Munich’ and the course of action to which the commonplace stands opposed (“appeasement”) in order to categorically demonstrate how absurd both the equation and the advice is.

I’m sure that this has been done elsewhere, but I can’t find it at the moment. I know that it’s been done for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation of Iraq. The New York Times has noticed that “appeasement” is “back in vogue . . . as an attack phrase,” but hasn’t done much more than that with the concept. But the fact that when I Google “munich analogy war terror” the tenth hit is another of Bill’s posts here at the Duck leads me to believe that there’s still some space in the blogosphere for a systematic analysis of the concept and the advice — and the analogy.

To be very basic here, “appeasement” can be distinguished from other bargaining tactics (because that’s what it is: a tactic, a move in a bargaining game) in two respects. First of all, operating just at the formal level for the moment, for A to appease B it is necessary that

1) B have threatened to carry out some action X unless B gets some satisfaction;

2) X be undesirable to A; and

3) A be willing to grant a concession rather than suffer the costs of having B do X.

So “appeasement” is like regular concession (also a bargaining tactic — to concede is not necessarily to lose, but simply to give ground on some point at issue) except that A isn’t giving B something in return for B’s doing something, but in return for B’s not doing something.

Right away we can see how “appeasement” would not really be applicable to the War on Terrorism/Extremism or whatever they’re calling it this month. In order for appeasement to work, B has to want something, and to want something that A is capable of providing. B’s threat to hurt A by doing X is only a bargaining tactic if there is something that A could do that would satisfy B enough that B would lay off, and I’m not sure that this is the case with violent Islamist groups for whom the struggle against America is more of a constitutive part of their identity (and mobilization strategy) and less of a dispensable activity that they would be perfectly fine without. Even if individual suicide bombers and al-Qaeda fighters are instrumentally rational and thus capable of being deterred (a highly contentious proposition in any event), it does not follow that a group constitutively committed to the eradication of America and its global military/economic/cultural influence can be “appeased.” What would such “appeasement” even consist of? What could the United States offer that would “appease” such organizations?

Note that I am not saying that the US should be trying to “appease” al-Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups. I am merely pointing out the absurdity of the very notion of doing so in the first place.

Matters become if anything even more strained when we look at the cultural aspects of “appeasement” as a course of action. And this is where ‘Munich’ starts to figure into the picture. After all, the events that actually transpired at the Munich Conference in 1938 are (in my view) basically incomprehensible without reference to a very specific set of practices of European international society — a set of practices in terms of which something like “appeasement” was possible in the first place.* To be schematic, there are three such practices that make something like “appeasement” possible:

1) mutual recognition between A and B;

2) agreement about B’s request for a concession being based on some kind of acceptable claim; and

3) consensus about the concession that B receives from A being adequate to forestall B’s doing X.

In European international society during the 18th and 19th centuries, all three of these practices were well-established and widely used, at least among the Great Powers — which were the only states that regularly engaged in appeasement, particularly since the concession granted to one great power by another usually involved a client state, a colony, or the ever-popular “let’s partition Poland again!” option. To “appease” meant that you were giving a fellow member of the Great Power club something in order to prevent them from doing something else (usually involving military action) that they were perfectly capable of doing anyway; it simultaneously reaffirmed the unity of the club, the status of the states which were members of it, and resulted in one state modifying its behavior. “Appeasement” only makes sense in such an environment. And in the specific case in question, many observers agreed that Hitler had something of a legitimate claim to the Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia because of the way that the post-WWI state boundary lines were drawn in Eastern Europe; the structure of the situation was “we agree that I should have this, so let’s find out a way that I can have it without having to mobilize troops.” Absent that agreement, “appeasement” in the culturally specific sense would not have been possible.

What happened at Munich was not that “appeasement” failed because one always has to stand up to fascists. What happened at Munich was that Hitler manipulated the existing rules of the game, pretending to be a part of a European international society that he and his cronies had already decided to withdraw from. Chamberlain (and a lot of other observers) might be justly accused of not paying enough attention to Hitler’s efforts to shift German identity away from the 18th-19th century conception of what it meant to be a “civilized” state, but that’s another matter entirely than the supposed “lesson” of ‘Munich’ about never backing down and always standing up on all points in dispute.

Fast-forward to almost the present day. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 might be seen as a failed attempt to invoke the “appeasement” script — failed because B is supposed to threaten X, not actually carry out X, in order to extract a concession from A. Once Iraq actually invaded Kuwait, there was no possibility of “appeasing” him even had anyone wanted to do so; backing down and letting Iraq annex Kuwait would have been something rather different, not in the least because it would have involved some kind of suspension of the notion that “sovereign states don’t invade one another (except in special circumstances).” That newer notion was in part a replacement for the older notion of Great Powers running things by mutual consensus; “appeasement” was part of that older world, and could only have happened in 1990 if someone had figured out some sort of rationale for applying the older rules rather than the newer ones. But Iraq invaded Kuwait, making the point moot.

Fast-forward again, briefly. I think it should be abundantly clear now why the idea of “appeasing” violent Islamist groups is non-sensical: there’s no mutual recognition, no agreement about acceptable claims, and no consensus on the kind of concession(s) that might make for reasonable compensation. One can’t “appease” violent Islamist groups. One can eradicate them, or fight them, or defend against them, or undermine them, or a whole host of other things, but it is not logically possible to “appease” them. If we’re going to have a public debate about the issue, can we at least use terms and concepts that make sense? Or is that too much to ask?

*I am skipping over a rather complex methodological debate here: a debate about the extent to which it is plausible or desirable to extract formal elements from a culturally embodied setting for the purposes of generalization. Being a Weberian, I’m not especially optimistic about such procedures; I think that formal abstractions are just analytical tools for making sense out of other, equally specific, situations — they never get anywhere near the kind of “covering-laws” prized by my more (neo)positivistically inclined colleagues elsewhere in the profession. For me, “appeasement” is a specific combination of a set of factors, not a general concept that can be easily transposed to other domains. To be overly formal about it:

“appeasement” = a specific kind of concession + a specific set of cultural practices

and absent one of these two we don’t have “appeasement,” although we might have something that bears a family resemblance to it. But it’s the idiosyncratic variations among instances that interest me as a scholar. I never claimed to be a pundit.

Filed as: