Australian Financial Review

Since World War II, appeasement has been considered a dirty term. But it could be due a 21st century rethink, writes

We are awash in history. This week marked the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, and Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of president ­Richard Nixon's resignation over the Watergate scandal.

Next month, we commemorate 15 years since the Australian-led liberation of East Timor and, in November, we will record the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

Bliss for any history buff.

But history always teaches us lessons; and no lesson of history pollutes analysis of international relations more than the crude comparisons of any aggressive dictator to Hitler. Call it Munich, which casts a long shadow over Ukraine today.

In September 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler in the Bavarian city and conceded the German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Germany. Promoted as "peace for our time", the Munich agreement was the prelude to more Nazi expansionism and World War II. Ever since, Munich has meant more than a place: it is shorthand for appeasement and a political curse word.

Anthony Eden declared "no more Munichs" when he justified a tough response to Nasser in Suez in 1956.

So, too, did Lyndon Johnson and the neo-conservatives in the 1960s and 2000s when they prosecuted the Vietnam and Iraq wars, respectively.

Even hawks are not immune to the charge. When John F Kennedy refused to take military action against Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, the US Air Force general Curtis LeMay complained his decision was "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich". When Richard Nixon went to China to meet Mao Zedong a decade later, the anti-communist Republican was denounced as an appeaser. "It is like God and the devil having a high-level meeting," complained one conservative critic.

The Ukraine crisis has brought more cries of Munich. The accusers range from Prince Charles and French socialists to John McCain and Hillary Clinton, to the editorials and opinion pages of more than a few newspapers. These critics see Vladimir Putin as a latter-day Hitler, and invoke the term appeasement to liken anyone who opposes the isolation of Russia to a modern-day Chamberlain.

The Bear, we are told, is on the prowl. Yesterday, Crimea; today, eastern Ukraine; tomorrow, Kiev; the day after, who knows? To accommodate Putin, the argument goes, is akin to repeating the mistakes of Munich.

But the invocation of Munich, Chamberlain and appeasement is foolish. True, just as Hitler used the supposed oppression of the Sudetenland Germans as an excuse to break up Czechoslovakia, Putin has used the presence of an ethnic group, Russians, as justification to meddle in Ukraine.

But whereas the totalitarian Hitler set out to dominate the world, the autocrat Putin's foreign policy is reactive and defensive. As this is decidedly a minority view among Australians, let me explain.

With the Cold War coming to an end in the early 1990s, presidents George HW Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev reached an implicit deal: in exchange for a reunified Germany's inclusion into the Atlantic Alliance, NATO would not enlarge membership to eastern European and Baltic states. Some political and academic figures have since cast doubt about the nature of this agreement.

What can't be denied is that Moscow made it clear, as soon as Washington and Brussels started talking NATO expansion in the mid-1990s, that any proposals for the West to move East was unacceptable and bound to cause trouble. Russian leaders specifically insisted it would not accept the incorporation of Ukraine, a strategically vital neighbour, into the Western orbit. Yet NATO expanded, first into eastern Europe in 1999, then the Baltics in 2004, and even proposed membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008. The coup earlier this year that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, the democratically elected, pro-Russia Ukrainian president, further upset Russian sensibilities. In response, Putin took Crimea, the traditional home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which he feared would become a NATO base. And he has sought to destabilise Ukraine until its new anti-Russian government jettisoned plans to join the West.

Let's be clear: Putin's conduct has been illegal and widely condemned, even though a broad cross-section of Crimeans have wanted to rejoin Russia.

But his behaviour is hardly surprising. When great powers believe that their vital strategic interests are at stake, they will play hardball to protect them.

A sphere of influence is a key characteristic of any great power. It was a US secretary of state, Richard Olney, who in 1895 declared, with respect to the Monroe Doctrine: "Today, the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subject to which it confines its interposition."

If Moscow really were bent on emulating the Nazis, where was the evidence of its relentless expansion before the February 22 coup? It was this event, which sparked Putin's military incursion in the Crimean peninsula — just as it was Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's invasion of the breakaway province of South Ossetia that prompted Russia to meddle in its near-abroad in 2008.

Furthermore, as John Mearsheimer, the distinguished professor of international relations at the University of Chicago, points out in a forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs, Russia does not have the capability to quickly and easily conquer and annex eastern Ukraine, much less the entire country. To do so would alienate even many ethnic Russians who oppose secession and want to remain part of Ukraine.

Add to this Russia's mediocre army and its sluggish economy, and Moscow would not be well placed to push for a costly occupation. As professor Mearsheimer points out: "A top-notch strategist like Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine."

Given how Western leaders think about what caused the Ukrainian standoff, it is no wonder they have tried to solve the crisis by adopting tough measures against Putin. Imposing more sanctions, increasing support for Kiev and potentially banning Putin from the G20 in Brisbane in November, however, may make a bad situation worse.

Washington and Brussels should instead accommodate Putin whose ambitions appear specific and limited: he wants a neutral Ukraine that is part of neither NATO nor the EU and he wants Kiev to guarantee the minority rights of ethnic Russians.

Accommodation would upset liberal hawks and neo-conservatives, but it is nonetheless sound strategy.

For one thing, there is little popular support for an assertive and activist foreign policy in the US. A majority of Americans, according to a Pew poll in late 2013, think the "US should mind its own business internationally". And only 30 per cent of ­Americans, according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, would back military force in Ukraine if Putin invaded the rest of the country.

Without strong domestic support, an interventionist foreign policy is difficult to sustain, as President Obama found out a year ago when his calls for air strikes on Syria fell on deaf ears in Congress and the broader public.

(Ironically, it was Putin who helped pull Obama out of a political bind by reaching a deal to end Syria's chemical weapons.)

Another reason why the US should show self-restraint is because Ukraine matters far more to Russia than it does to the Western alliance. It is a wide stretch of flat land that hegemons have crossed to attack Russia. Neither the Americans nor western Europeans are willing to use military force to defend Ukraine for good reason: it is not seen as vital to the West.

It makes no sense to condemn Russian exercises of power in what Moscow has long deemed as its near abroad, without assessing Russian motives. But it does make sense to determine whether the Russians are intervening in a first step towards overturning the international state system a la Hitler or as a way to protect a buffer zone. Putin's Russia is in the latter camp.

In dealing with an insatiable imperialistic power that poses a genuine threat to America and Europe, compromise would indeed represent futile appeasement. But in dealing with a traditional great power with modest regional ambitions, compromise and accommodation may make sense.

As ­Winston Churchill once put it: "Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to circumstances."

The lesson here is that we should bury worn out historical analogies and abandon the lessons of Munich. "No leader on the world stage today could ever create a political system as brutal and as expansionist as those that were fashioned by Hitler, Stalin and their henchmen," writes Alan Wolfe in his 2011 book Political Evil. "Appeasement cannot happen again because there is nothing like totalitarianism left to appease."

Someone should tell the leaders in Washington and Brussels.

This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review