‘Munich’ is a lost opportunity to rewrite the wrong lessons of appeasement
There are few criticisms that practitioners of diplomacy fear more than being accused of appeasement. Indeed, the term has become a byword for weakness and geopolitical naivete.
“Appeasement” is a favorite critique among card-carrying members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, used to deride any policy that they view unfavorably. It is a pejorative used so frequently and so widely that its original meaning has been stretched to the point of absurdity. Appeasement has, for instance, been used to castigate former President Obama’s pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran, former President Trump’s deal with the Taliban (a charge leveled by his first national security advisor no less), and is now being used to tarnish those who oppose using NATO to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.
Even Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger — hardly two wallflowers when it came to the use of American military power — were accused of appeasement when pursuing détente with the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. Still, the diverse deployment of the term has not diminished its bite. It is, unfortunately, a still powerful rhetorical weapon.
Enter from stage right the new film Munich: The Edge of War, currently playing in theaters and released on Netflix on Friday. The film, based on the fictional 2017 Robert Harris novel Munich, is a refreshing counterweight to the popular conception of the Munich crisis and its central figure: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Helmed by a powerful performance from Jeremy Irons as Chamberlain, as well as George MacKay playing a fictional British diplomat tasked with relaying vital information connected to a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the film rightly adds nuance to the conversation surrounding appeasement.
Above all, it dismisses the errant notion that Chamberlain was ever ‘duped’ into naively believing Hitler was anything but a power-hungry annexationist — a narrative born from the 1940 polemical Guilty Men and quickly adopted by Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill, in order to boost himself politically. As Chamberlain remarks in a pivotal scene in the film, his goal is to “avert war in the immediate term so that I can build a lasting peace.”
However, even Munich: The Edge of War — as good as it is — feels like a missed opportunity. Indeed, the film rightly recasts Chamberlain’s performance in a more favorable light. Chamberlain had no illusions about the expansionist tendencies of Hitler. This is why the prime minister undertook a defensive rearmament program simultaneous to his diplomacy with Hitler. Chamberlain believed appeasement was the best possible means to protect British interests while avoiding the devastation of another Europe-wide war, which had killed 40 million barely two decades before.
Yet, in centering the film’s focus on Chamberlain himself, therein lies its primary drawback; it focuses almost entirely, as do most traditional accounts of appeasement, on the psychological drama at play. It boils down to the question of whether Chamberlain correctly interpreted Hitler’s intentions or whether he was deceived by the Nazi leader. The film neglects to highlight the centrality to Chamberlain’s calculations of the highly circumscribed strategic environment Britain faced in the late 1930s. The film fails, therefore, to make the broader, more pointed strategic critique: that there are few options for states to deter an adversary when undergoing such calamitous imperial overstretch as Pax Britannica did in the 1930s.
Chamberlain was faced with little choice other than to pursue appeasement; his hands were tightly bound by the decisions of his predecessors. Indeed, Chamberlain was left to play an inherently weak hand. The British Empire, though it had nominally emerged victorious from the First World War, was stretched perilously thin, able to do little more than cling to its vast territorial possessions. It simply did not have the wherewithal to defend all of its interests at once. If the British moved decisively against Germany, it was feared Japan would take advantage and seize Singapore — the “Gibraltar of the East,” as Winston Churchill described it. (Beginning in 1931, Japan had already aggressively captured territory in Manchuria, for instance.)
Similarly, during the 1935 Abyssinian crisis, Italy threatened war against England if it opposed its military efforts in the East African country. And, of course, it is difficult to forget how much most of Western Europe feared the Soviet Union and Bolshevism, which for much of the 1930s was seen as the ascendant and primary threat — not fascism, as we remember with hindsight. (Indeed, for much of the 1930s, it was feared that sparking an arms race with Germany would lead to its economic collapse, enabling radical left wing groups to seize control in Germany and spread Bolshevism throughout Central Europe).
Critically, the hand of Britain and most of Western Europe was significantly weakened by the Great Depression. For much of the interwar period, the Treasury Office was the dominant foreign policy body in Britain; as a result, inflationary fears were paramount in driving defense policy. Officials in Whitehall were convinced that any effort to increase the military budget would trigger existential inflation, at which point Britain would be unable to defend any of its interests, let alone those in Europe. Therefore, Chamberlain’s two predecessors — Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin — declined to spend on rearmament after a drawdown following the conclusion of the First World War. Chamberlain did begin a rearmament program once in office, but it could only accomplish so much in such a short time frame.
Chamberlain had no choice but to attempt to delay war; for if Britain did intervene militarily on the continent, a victorious outcome was in great doubt (RAF bomber command warned of 150,000 civilian deaths in Great Britain in only the first week of hostilities with Germany). Only in passing does the film hint at these strategic constraints. Indeed, it is not until the film is finished that Chamberlain remarks that, “I can only play the game with the cards I’ve been dealt.”
Acknowledgement of the constraints that states — especially great powers — face is a lesson U.S. grand strategy appears to have failed to learn. There are many in Washington who continue to strategize as if the last two decades of geopolitical developments have not occurred. The unipolar era is over; the U.S. cannot dictate outcomes to states as it sees fit or guarantee the defense of every single one of its interests the world over. The U.S. — while not in absolute decline — has declined in relative terms to China.
The United States, as difficult as it is for most of the foreign policy elite to accept, must tolerate, as all states do, the tradeoffs inherent to diplomacy. If, for instance, the U.S. seeks to more readily compete with China, it cannot at the same time maintain forces in Iraq and Syria, contain Iran, use NATO to intervene in Ukraine, all the while supporting a corrupt Afghan government indefinitely because it refuses to take responsibility for its own defense. The U.S. may have an exceptional domestic political system, but that does not mean it is not bound by the same laws of statecraft that other great powers must contemplate as a matter of course.
By failing to accept tradeoffs — determining what is in the vital interest of the United States and what is of peripheral importance — the U.S. risks losing all of its interests, much as Britain did after the Second World War. Britain shed tangential possessions only when it was too late; by the end of the Second World War, the country was in irreversible decline and effectively reduced to junior partner status vis-a-vis a dominant United States.
It has attempted to regain its prior status ever since, with little success. The country is a bit player even if most British elites refuse to acknowledge as much. For those in Washington who counsel that the U.S. must increase its forces in the Indo-Pacific, continue to support corrupt regimes, and use military force to defend Eastern European countries of little tangible interest to the United States — are you willing to go the way of Great Britain? Perhaps taking time to watch Munich: The Edge of War and appreciate its warnings before it is too late.