Today Russia and Iran are at the center of many conflicts, whether directly such as in Ukraine and Syria, or via a network of proxies and support systems as in Lebanon, Yemen, occupied Palestine, or a network of burgeoning client states in South America and Africa. Through drawing parallels between the lead-up to World War II and the current relationships with Russia and Iran, it becomes apparent how a policy of appeasement can have catastrophic consequences. The case of the rise of Nazi Germany serves as a cautionary tale for the present-day international community.
In a period of four short years from 1935 to 1939, a ravenous Nazi Germany gained significant political and military control of surrounding territory. The result of a belligerent foreign policy was a rapid pre-war expansion that sought to overturn restrictive military and territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. A beleaguered Europe, wary of war, largely overlooked the flagrant violations.
In retrospect, the world’s tolerance of territorial gains and defiant posturing of a hostile, fascist regime seem unbelievable, but the prevailing logic was that by allowing Hitler to expand German territory unchecked, the outbreak of another devastating war could be prevented. However, this policy of appeasement was a costly miscalculation, as Hitler’s ambitions proved to be much more insatiable than anticipated and appeasement only served to embolden his power and aggression.
The Munich Agreement of 1938 epitomizes the failure of the appeasement strategy. Signed on September 30, 1938, by Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy, it allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland, a region in western Czechoslovakia. “Our enemies,” Hitler observed before the agreement, “have leaders who are below the average. No personalities. No masters, no men of action.”
At this point, Germany had already been the beneficiary of several acts of appeasement including the allowance to absorb the Saarland in 1935, the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, and the integration of Austria in March 1938.
At Munich, Hitler proclaimed that this would be his last territorial claim, a claim he justified by historical and cultural affinity, perpetuation of disinformation, and agitation of regional Nazis. Yet, even after the Czechoslovakian concession, Hitler resumed expansionist invasions the following year, capturing the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, part of Lithuania, Poland and culminating in the war the rest of Europe had hoped to avoid.
Iran and Russia Beneficiaries of Lessons Unlearned
US President John F. Kennedy once said of appeasement and learning from the mistakes of the past, “There are some who,… for varying reasons, would appease Red China. They are blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war.” It is precisely this ongoing inability to benefit from history’s harsh lessons that have contributed to the current situation.
Throughout subsequent decades, the Global North has often evoked the specter of Munich and hostility towards appeasement as a rationale for countless foreign entanglements, especially when the forecast of victory was favorable against much weaker nations. However, when encounters with more formidable states occurred, powerful nations shelved platitudes of sovereignty and human rights to make way for material interests under the guise of restraint. Yet, as Munich’s mistakes taught, when de-escalation is not in the sincere interest of one or more parties, this leniency constitutes an ominous strategy that has led to disastrous results.
Among some century’s recipients who have capitalized heavily on the fruits of appeasement are Iran and Russia, both of which have been similarly emboldened by an international community impotent in implementing any deterrent to aggressive imperialist activity. The Iranian and Russian policies of domestic repressions and foreign interferences, both overt and covert, gradually increasing over the past two decades, demonstrate an accurate assessment of international fatigue. Just as post-WWI Europe had lost its stomach for war, much of the West has exhausted itself in lengthy and unproductive entanglements, most ostensibly in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Following years of strong public support of isolationist sentiments in many Western countries, international military presence has been drastically reduced in the strategic quarters near the potentially problematic spheres of Iran and Russia. This withdrawal allows Iran to have entire political control of Iraq through which it now has unhindered access to Syria, Lebanon, and occupied Palestine.
Likewise, limited presence in Central Asia meant that Russian encroachment need not limit itself to merely installing political puppets into its periphery, but it is now free to reabsorb former soviet satellites. Putin, much like Hitler, calculated that since there was not much material consequence to annexing Crimea, the same could be done with Ukraine.
Furthermore, Iran has extended and flexed its power in Houthi-controlled Yemen, which recently demonstrated its ability to disrupt Red Sea traffic, strengthened Hezbollah in the crumbled state of Lebanon, and funded and supplied Hamas in war-torn Gaza. Supplying arms and technology is not limited to its proxies; Iran is feeding Russia military hardware for its war in Ukraine, where Russia has made extensive use of Iranian drones. Likewise, Russian intervention has stretched as far west as Africa, often involving disruptive tactics, such as the deployment of mercenaries, disinformation, election interference, and support for coups.
Although the international response to these developments has predictably announced sanctions, the results are lukewarm, at best. Sanctions are certainly undesirable and inconvenient for the struggling populaces of Moscow and Tehran, but they have failed as an effective deterrent to the grandiose machinations of the state. Instead, the confluence of both spheres of influence has flourished into a thriving symbiotic alliance to the extent that other Middle Eastern governments, normally Western-leaning, are now seeking stronger relations with Moscow in the absence of international mediation.
Iran continues to support Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, a venture that brought it into an even closer alliance with Russia. Since September 2015, Russia’s greater military force has altered the situation on the ground in Syria, providing military aid, conducting internal security operations, and supporting attacks on resistance groups. Initially claiming that its purpose was to target “terrorist” groups, Russian troops and Russian-armed militias instead fought to extinguish moderate revolutionary groups already pitted against ISIS and Damascus.
Appeasement an Ailment of International Apathy and Inaction
The absence of any real international support for viable and capable manifestations of a self-determined government for the people of Syria leaves a dangerous void in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.
The result is that Russia and Iran have managed to keep Assad on life-support for another decade while other half-hearted and ultimately failed interventions were abandoned. At the same time, the Russian government has exploited the Syrian arena as an opportunity to test and sell Russian equipment (as other major arms exporters, such as the US and Israel, have done in the area). With inconsequential international protest, the Russo-Iranian forces and their Syrian allies have had an implicit allowance to ravage the civilian infrastructure of Syria with no commitment to rebuilding or restructuring the country.
In a futile effort to avoid direct confrontation and “maintain peace,” the international community has granted significant concessions to Russia and Iran. These concessions, in turn, have exacerbated regional instability and failed to address the underlying issues plaguing current conflicts. Instead, spiritless rhetoric ironically conceals an unraveling and prolonged proxy war further destabilizing the region.
Following the Assad regime’s chemical attacks in Ghouta that killed over a thousand civilians, then US Secretary of State John Kerry told the press, “This is really our Munich moment. This is our chance to join together and to pursue accountability over appeasement.” However, the international community chose instead to allow Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers another decade of impunity, for which the Syrians and the world have continued to pay the price.
Limp declarations, ineffective resolutions, and inept international bodies have inadvertently incubated a host of appeasement policies that have allowed aggressive nations to escape any real consequences. Much like its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations, the United Nations is unable to guarantee any security to member nations and more frighteningly, will similarly sit impotently by while another global catastrophe unfolds at its steps.
What the world desperately needs is a clear, moral authority to champion political solutions in the face of military aggression. Room must be made for nuanced and rational diplomacy that addresses the root causes of conflict whether it be how to secure human rights or the right to self-determination. International actors must not hesitate to take a firm stance against authoritarian regimes, to maintain peace, and to promote stability.