In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama reached out to the world’s rogue leaders, telling them, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
No doubt, this sentiment and the worldview that underlies it have endeared President Obama to some, including the Nobel Committee. But it has also exposed his administration to charges of “appeasement.”
That, of course, is a very strong term. What does it really mean? And does it really apply here?
Unfortunately, appeasement has become a loaded and misused concept, going back to historians’ efforts to understand British policy toward Germany in the 1930s. Today, the “appeaser” claim is often just lazy shorthand for policies judged to be insufficiently resolute. This is not only unfair, but it has contributed to the very dilution of the term. So, it’s important to clarify what appeasement is and is not.
Appeasement is not just any “weak” approach to any type of international actor. It is also not the pursuit of so-called “reciprocal influence strategies” between actors that share “mutual interest and mutual respect.” Both types of approaches to foreign relations certainly exist and happen all the time. But both are distortions of what appeasement really is. The former emanates from the tired hawkish refrain already mentioned. The latter coincides with the rise of neoliberal political science and ideology. The neoliberals twisted themselves into tautological knots to divine a rational reason for Neville Chamberlain’s stubborn accommodation of German aggression.
But the “Munich” analogy has become appeasement’s exemplar precisely because it was neither a randomly irresolute response to the German threat, nor an attempt to use reciprocity to influence a like-minded fellow player. What it actually was is very instructive.
In reality, appeasement is a unique form of international relations that displays three necessary ingredients:
The first is a rogue actor that seeks to upset a given status quo. This actor does not accept as legitimate existing power structures or prevailing norms, as these are the very root causes of the actor’s dissatisfaction. The second is a central status quoactor that views the rogue actor’s grievances as legitimate and its aims as rationally limited. Finally, the status quo actor believes that the rogue actor’s “limited” aims must be disposed of through accommodation or concession, rather than through direct confrontation.
Needless to say, foreign policy is an incredibly complex phenomenon not easily reduced to simplistic characterizations. Nevertheless, rarely since the 1930s have these core traits of appeasement more fully come to life than in the Obama administration, or more specifically in its handling of Iran. Consider:
We have the perfect rogue actor in Iran, which is clearly an anti-status quo state, not least in terms of its obvious taunting of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. We have a classic foil in the Obama administration, which has repeatedly suggested that Iran’s grievances have been partly caused by the West’s own actions and which has stated time and time again that Iran’s desire for “peaceful” nuclear technology is “legitimate.” Finally, the conciliatory farce that culminated in direct negotiations last month in Switzerland was only the most recent manifestation of the administration’s belief that Iran can be “incentivized” out of its nuclear-weapons ambitions.
The unmistakable reality that will eventually confront President Obama is that Iran’s successive demands are simply links in a chain at the end of which is the very overthrow of the status quo. The Iranian regime has indicated repeatedly that its nuclear aims are not limited; and this means by definition that its aims are not legitimate. It seems that only the Obama administration has not become aware of these truths already.
Moreover, the Iran example shows that while the appeasement of rogue states is counterproductive in principle, it has the added windfall of sometimes being utterly immoral in practice. All at once, appeasement rewards recalcitrant actors for their bad behavior while guaranteeing the abject sell-out of oppressed groups within the rogue state. We saw this play out in sharp relief with the Obama administration’s wholesale abandonment of the Iranian pro-democracy movement.
To be fair, Obama is not the first modern president to engage in bona fide appeasement. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush used essentially an all “carrot” and no “stick” approach to dealing with North Korea, causing an unending cycle of successively more dangerous crises in the process. Incredibly, Obama appears to be doubling down on this approach.
President Obama’s inaugural flourish has turned out to be the exact opposite of his actual strategy for dealing with the world’s tyrants. Rather than first establishing that rogue actors have unclenched their fists, the Obama administration first extends its hand in the hope that the bothersome players will somehow see the light and fall into line. Unfortunately, these overtures are being made to precisely the sorts of actors that are perfectly built to be emboldened by them. As a result, we know in advance what the tragic outcome will be.
It may have been Obama’s talk of “hope” that won over the Nobel Committee. But hope cannot be the strategic underpinning of U.S. foreign policy, any more than it should have been the linchpin of Neville Chamberlain’s approach to dealing with Hitler or of successive U.S. administrations in handling Pyongyang. Today, as then, the stakes are far too high.