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Appeasement is a foreign policy strategy of making concessions to an adversary in order to avoid direct military conflict. As a foreign policy strategy it is rarely advocated today, largely as a result of the failure of British diplomacy vis-à-vis Nazi Germany in the later 1930s. It remains a central concept beyond this historical moment, however, in that it is often invoked in foreign policy debates in the United States and elsewhere as a term of opprobrium to describe concessions to adversaries. Appeasement is not necessarily a policy resulting from fear and weakness, however; it has the potential to be effective if political leaders can understand the distribution of power in the international system.
The Idea of Appeasement
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1993), the term appease means, “to bring peace” and was first used in English around the thirteenth century. Appeasement, thus, means “pacification” or “satisfaction.” Because it implies the satisfaction of the demands rather than the requests of an aggrieved party, appeasement has had an underlying negative connotation even when used to describe interpersonal relations. But its strongly negative connotations did not solidify in the English-speaking world until after World War II (1939–1945). Various dictionaries and encyclopedias of the social and political sciences demonstrate this negative valence quite clearly. One author, for example, describes the policy as the “surrender of a vital interest for a minor quid pro quo, or for no reciprocal concession at all” (Plano and Olten 1982, p. 229).
Despite this generally negative valence, however, some have described the policy in more positive ways: for example, as a form of conflict resolution (Walker 2005). Indeed, satisfying the demands of an opponent in order to avoid war need not be a negative policy, especially if the opponent is viewed as having been unfairly treated in the past. Conflict resolution often requires the granting of concessions, something that, while very few would call it appeasement, is not that far from the policies that were identified as such in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
British Interwar Diplomacy
Appeasement as a foreign policy strategy is most closely associated with British policies in the interwar years (1919–1939). Martin Gilbert in his The Roots of Appeasement (1966) gives the clearest analysis of British appeasement policies. He argues that they should be seen as resulting from a combination of guilt over the harshness of the Versailles treaty, liberal policies favoring economic interdependence, and an abhorrence of war. The end of the “Great War” led to the Paris Peace Conference, during which the allied powers sought to both impose a settlement on Germany and create new institutions that would, it was hoped, eliminate war in the future. Although a desire for revenge animated many at the conference, others sought to counter those impulses. During the conference David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, authored the famous Fontainebleau Memorandum, which sought to limit the harshness of the reparations scheme, a proposal that Gilbert sees as being in the spirit of appeasement.
Appeasement during the interwar period revolved around two issues: reparations and rearmament. After the Versailles settlement, British policymakers soon recognized the precarious position in which Germany had been placed by the imposition of harsh reparations. John Maynard Keynes’s influential book The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) supplied the foreign policy community with strong economic reasons for decreasing reparations. In 1924 the Dawes Plan—the result of an American-led commission, but largely inspired by British attempts to improve the German economic situation— resulted in a reduction of German war reparations. The Young Plan of 1929 further reduced the burden of reparations, which were eventually abolished at the Lausanne Conference in 1932 (Carr 1947).
While the decrease in German reparations payments was generally perceived as positive, concessions on security agreements were more controversial. The Versailles settlement included the provision that the Rhineland was to be occupied for fifteen years by Allied forces and permanently demilitarized. Stringent limits were also placed on German armed forces. These limits were violated soon after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Quickly dismantling any semblance of constitutional government in Germany, Hitler began the process of rearming the German nation. On March 7, 1936, Germany remilitarized the Rhineland, a move some British leaders considered acceptable, as in their view it rectified the unjust division of Europe created by Versailles (Rock 1977, p. 38). Others in the British political system, however— most prominently, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden—were beginning to see the folly of appeasing the Nazis.
At this point, the policy of appeasement began to appear as one of weakness rather than strength. In March 1938, the Germans annexed Austria, an action that resulted in the British undertaking a high-level policy review of relations with Germany. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to halt an aggressive dictator, however, British leaders proposed to further appease Hitler in order to avoid another shock to the fragile European system. When German troops began massing near the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a large percentage of German speakers, the British sought to convince Prague of the wisdom of appeasement. Failing to convince the Czechs to accept German demands, the British sought to negotiate directly with Germany. After two separate trips to Germany to convince Hitler to moderate his demands, in late September 1938 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich, where an agreement was signed (without a Czechoslovakian signature) giving the Germans the Sudetenland. Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, leading the British to finally stand up to Hitler by guaranteeing the borders of Poland. When Hitler attacked in September 1939, war erupted and appeasement lay in ruins.
Appeasement Since World War II
In the postwar period, appeasement quickly became a term used to identify a failed or misguided policy. British and American policymakers, embroiled in the cold war, refused to “appease” the Soviet Union when faced with its aggressive policies. In 1956 Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who had resigned from the British government in the 1930s over appeasement policies, intervened in Egypt with the French and Israelis because he believed that concessions to Nasser would be a new form of appeasement. American president Lyndon Johnson’s unwillingness to back out of the Vietnam War resulted, in part, from his refusal to appease Ho Chi Minh. In the United States’ long war with Iraq, both Democratic and Republican leaders (for example, the Democratic secretary of state Madeline Albright and the Republican vice president Richard Cheney) claimed that to give into Saddam Hussein would be Chamberlain-esque appeasement all over again.
This reflexive view of appeasement as weakness, however, misunderstands its potential. Paul Kennedy points out that appeasement arose from a British tradition of ethical foreign policy reaching back to nineteenth century, when William Gladstone sought to create a foreign policy grounded in peace and economic prosperity. Great powers can indulge in policies of appeasement in order to manage the international system, as Kennedy argues the British did in their relations with the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century when they allowed an emerging power to take control of the Western Hemisphere (Kennedy 1976).
If an adversary seeks a change in the international system that does not weaken but might actually improve the position of the stronger power, a policy of appeasement might well be a wise move. It is only when it is undertaken in response to the demands of a powerful state bent on aggrandizement that appeasement can be deemed a policy failure. This suggests that appeasement can only succeed if leaders can correctly appraise the distribution of power in the international system. When an adversary who is weak makes demands that will not necessarily increase its strength too much, appeasing those demands might decrease conflict in the future. At the same time, by constantly conceding to demands from different powers, a great power might eventually undermine its ability to deter others in the system.
The realist policy of maintaining a balance of power might include appeasement at key moments, in order to ensure stability. E. H. Carr, one of the leading realists of the twentieth century, suggested in his classic Twenty Years Crisis (1940) that British appeasement was a realist policy, in that it combined the interests of Britain with an honest appraisal of power—although in later editions, Carr excised those passages in which he justified appeasement (Hall 2006).
The normative foundations of appeasement that underlay British policies toward Germany in the interwar years correspond with the goals of modern liberal internationalism: defusing conflict, rectifying unjust settlements, and avoiding war. British policymakers’ inability to appreciate the emerging power of Germany prevented them from seeing how their good intentions could lead to war. The disastrous consequences of their policy choices continue to influence how appeasement is understood today. Although it is difficult to change the word’s connotations, appeasement, from a position of strength, should also be seen as a means to avoid conflict.
- Carr, E. H. 1940. The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. London: Macmillan.
- Carr, E. H. 1947. International Relations between the Two World Wars, 1919–1939. Houndsmill, U.K.: Macmillan.
- Gilbert, Martin. 1966. The Roots of Appeasement. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Hall, Ian. 2006. “Power Politics and Appeasement: Political Realism in British International Thought, c. 1935–1955.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 8 (2): 174–192.
- Kennedy, Paul. 1976. “The Tradition of Appeasement in British Foreign Policy, 1865–1939.” British Journal of International Studies 2 (3): 195–215.
- Keynes, John Maynard. 1919. The Economic Consequences of the Peace. London: Macmillan.
- Plano, Jack C., and Roy Olton. 1982. The International Relations Dictionary. 3rd ed. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.
- Rock, William R. 1977. British Appeasement in the 1930s. London: Edward Arnold.
- Walker, Stephen. 2005. “Appeasement.” In Encyclopaedia of International Relations and Global Politics, Martin Griffiths: 22-24 London: Routledge.
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