Posted by: cousindampier | 9 October 2009

British Appeasment

Things I’ve learned from Paul Kennedy’s Strategy and Diplomacy, 1870-1945: Part I

Appeasement is, in current news cycles, a dirty term. This was not the case until 1938-39, when dealings between Germany and Britain broke down. For nearly 75 years, British foreign policy used the tool of appeasement and negotiation to establish and maintain Pax Britannica, and only after the first World War did this tool show sings of wear. After 1930, it was growing far out-of-date as compared with Britain’s position in the world.

Until Munich, appeasement was a positive term, implying man’s reasonableness and justness of actions. Britain could afford to think in this context due to the position of strength by which it dealt with the rest of the world. Peace was the national interest due to morality (justifying actions which may lead to conflict), economics (initially, the realization that open markets would benefit Britain enormously even as others grew rich, then as Britain was surpassed in production, the ‘invisibles’ which were associated with trade), strategy (incredible overextension), and finally domestic situation (social reforms). With the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865, Gladstone made the tool of appeasement as one of the most functional in the British inventory. From 1865 to 1914, this policy continued. Working from a position of strength, of which war would be the most disruptive to those strengths, the government had the middle ground of avoiding a radical policy of displacing British power.

The breakdown of this policy appeared post 1918 for the primary reason that Britain was working with a policy based on strength from a position of weakness. War was morally abhorrent, so the use of force as a deterrent was absurd – the Right, which had balanced the Left in ideological terms (causing Foreign Secretary Gray to comment that if he was being abused by both sides, he must be doing something right) was absent until late 1930’s, so appeasement swung hard to the left. Combined with the lack of economy to back up British strength, strategic overextension and calls for home rule, and domestic issues demanding more of a smaller budget, appeasement ceased to be an effective international tool. Britain was far too weak to appease because there was no counter – for appeasement to work, Britain had to be able to define and follow through with her international aims. Without that ability or will, appeasement became the term it is perceived to be today – a weakness.

Appeasement, as Kennedy defines it, is “the policy of settling international (or, for that matter, domestic) quarrels by admitting and satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise, thereby avoiding the resort to an armed conflict which would be expensive, bloody, and possibly very dangerous.”

From the top, the keeping the status quo is the optimal solution; also, Britain had the good fortune to have continuity in the key strategic goals for the nation over a broad period of time. This policy was “based upon the calculation that Britain would gain the predominant share of an unlimited and ever-increasing world wealth through the free interchange of goods.” Britain was held hostage to the markets, and when railroads radically altered the strategic situation on land – providing cheap transport of goods and armies – the situation which allowed Britain to stay on top was radically altered – the seas were no longer the only efficient way to move goods, meaning the naval advantage was dulled.

Morality is easy when dealing from a position of strength. When such issues as national survival are not involved, states can take into account human rights and moral issues into account. Britain certainly did so with appeasement – finding the middle ground, especially after 1918, was a great idea in a world destroyed by arms races, imperialism, and the like. Economics, global conditions, and domestic issues are easier to account for in the broad trend of British strategy, which for 75 years used appeasement to its fullest positive extent.


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