by Bruce S. Thornton
We moderns have managed to combine an incredible mastery of technical knowledge and information with an astonishing ignorance of the traditional wisdom once possessed by an illiterate village elder, and evident for all to see on every page of history. Spend more than you earn and you’ll go broke. Give someone something for nothing, and he’ll soon expect something for nothing on a regular basis. Fail to hold people accountable for their bad behavior, and they’ll continue to act badly. Give people an excuse to fail, and they’re more likely to fail. Let aggression go unpunished, and you’ll get more aggression.
This last truth is critical for conducting foreign affairs in such a way that we advance our interests and protect our security. There always has been and always will be aggressors who will use force to achieve their aims at the expense of the interests and aims of others. With some few exceptions, these aggressors are stopped only by greater force or a credible threat of force serious enough to raise the stakes of their aggression to the point where they stop. However, when their aggression is met with appeasement, concessions, or even indifference, their success reinforces their behavior and leads to more aggression.
This wisdom is so obvious as to be banal. Moreover, we have the witness of history to illustrate its truth. World War II was the most destructive war in history, one characterized by innovations in human cruelty on a scale unimagined by the most savage peoples. This orgy of mayhem was not preordained, but resulted from nearly two decades of appeasement, each unpunished act of aggression encouraging the next and convincing the aggressor that there were no limits to what could be achieved through violence.
The fuse of World War II was lit only a few years after the end of World War I. In 1923, Benito Mussolini, attempting the takeover of the Greek island of Corfu as part of advancing Italian designs on Albania, attacked Corfu’s harbor, killing 15 people. Not only was Italy not punished for this gross violation of international law and the canons of the League of Nations, but Greece was forced to pay reparations for the murders of Italian ambassadors, the pretext Mussolini had ginned up as an excuse for his aggression.
The pattern of the next two decades was set: invent a pretext for the use of force to achieve some aim, obtain concessions or rewards for aggression, and then repeat until you get what you want. Worse yet, unpunished attacks by one aggressor encouraged another to think that his too would meet with the same success.
Next came the brutal Japanese assault on Manchuria in 1931. The League of Nations, which numbered Japan among its permanent members of the League Council, blustered, talked, passed non-binding resolutions, sent commissions of inquiry, and in the end did nothing. Aggression was again rewarded, and the first stage of the Nipponese rampage throughout the western Pacific had begun.
Encouraged by these examples of aggression rewarded and weakness exposed, Hitler understandably calculated that he could continue to use or to threaten force in order to further his ambition to destroy the Versailles Treaty and create his racial German empire. In 1935, England and France, drunk on the wine of disarmament as the road to peace and security, came up with a new disarmament plan that would give Germany equality in armaments in exchange for an agreement to accept conventions limiting air war and some kinds of weapons, despite the fact that a few years earlier Germany had contemptuously walked out of the World Disarmament Conference.
In response to this new concession, Hitler announced that Germany now had an air force, considered the military prohibitions of the Versailles Treaty null and void, and revealed his plans to expand Germany’s army to half a million men. Worse yet, Germany was further rewarded with the Anglo-German naval treaty, which among other boons gave Germany the right to a fleet up to 35% of the British navy, despite the greater defense and deterrent responsibilities necessitated by England’s global empire.
Having witnessed this appeasement, “Mussolini,” Churchill wrote, “like Hitler, regarded Britannia as a frightened, flabby old woman, who at the worst would only bluster, and was anyhow incapable of making war.” Thus began Mussolini’s Ethiopian adventure in October 1935.
Once again the League of Nations issued empty condemnations, and imposed sanctions — but not on oil, the resource critical for Italy’s overseas war. A few months later in 1936, once more heartened by his feckless adversaries, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, sending 22,000 unseasoned troops and 14,000 policemen into Germany’s traditional staging ground for invading France. Facing him were 76 French and 21 Belgian divisions. Hitler later confessed, “If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.”
The French did nothing, nor did the British. Nor did they do anything about Italy and Germany’s open support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, even when Italian submarines sank British ships and German bombers destroyed Guernica. So Germany’s aggression accelerated: Austria was gobbled up, and then in September 1938 came the shameless abandonment of Czechoslovakia wrought by Neville Chamberlain with the collusion of the French. Six months later the Nazi tanks rolled into Prague, and six months after that came the invasion of Poland and the gruesome sequel of 50 million dead. As Churchill said after the war in his famous “Sinews of Peace” speech, “There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe.”
The moral of this dismal history should be clear: aggression is fed by appeasement until it grows into a monster whose destruction costs more than it would have to stop the first act of aggression. This truth is mere common sense, but somehow the lesson hasn’t been learned by our political leaders, and we today are living with the consequences.
Throughout the 90’s, al Qaeda’s aggression against us was left unpunished, and multiple opportunities to kill bin Laden or destroy his camps in Afghanistan were lost. Bin Laden noticed, and like Hitler weighing up the British, concluded that we are a civilization with “foundations of straw” that could be brought down with a series of “well-placed blows.” For 30 years, Iran has stained its hands with American blood and nurtured terrorists, but has never paid a price for this aggression. Why then are we surprised the mullahs believe they can obtain nuclear arms in the teeth of our displeasure?
And just last week we witnessed the same pattern at work on the Korean peninsula — the North shells the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people, hard after showing off to an American scientist a new facility for enriching uranium. And why not? For 30 years, every North Korean act of aggression has been met with appeasement, bluster, bribes disguised as aid, and agreements that the North has subverted or contemptuously abandoned. Given this history, why wouldn’t Kim Jong Il believe that he can act with impunity and be rewarded with more aid? Why wouldn’t he threaten us with war if we conduct military exercises in international waters, since we have acted like a “frightened, flabby old woman, who at the worst would only bluster, and was anyhow incapable of making war”?
But we too know our steps in this pas de deux of aggression and appeasement. We rattle aircraft-carrier sabers, indulge in diplomatic finger-wagging, and spend time cajoling China to act against its own national and geo-strategical interests, which are served by the Kim dynasty ruling over an intact North. The rich South Koreans, their gleaming capital Seoul within range of the North’s artillery and missiles, are virtual pacifists, are content to complain and then rely on another “Sunshine” policy of engagement.
Meanwhile, like Mussolini watching the Japanese, and Hitler watching Mussolini, Iran watches North Korea’s unpunished aggression and calculates its chances — which right now look pretty good. And however high the cost seems today to stop Iran, it will be as nothing compared to what we may be forced to pay once Iran gets the bomb.
©2010 Bruce S. Thornton