The right must stop treating ‘appeasement’ as the root of all evil

US Politics: A misreading of history has led to a botched US policy on Iran and has bolstered Brexit

The eyes have become livelier, and that thin voice much more resonant. Nor does the upward revision of Neville Chamberlain in Munich: The Edge of War, a new Netflix film starring Jeremy Irons, stop there.

The former British premier is brought in from the reputational cold in which he has languished as a gutless suer-for-peace and seller-out of Czechs: a naïf and a cynic all at once. “Appeasement”, as Munich allows, bought the Allies almost a year, during which Britain rearmed. No less a personage than the Fuhrer came to regret the postponement of hostilities.

Pray that the film, and the Robert Harris novel it adapts, finds a conservative audience. A quirk of the Anglo-American right is its obsession with one historical event as the key to all others. Munich has come to stand for the folly of compromise and the wisdom of toughness, almost always and everywhere.

Having helped to silence critics of the Iraq war, the slur of "appeaser" should have been tainted beyond all use. Instead, it was deployed against the Iran nuclear accord that Barack Obama signed as late as 2015. It then drove the US withdrawal from the deal three years later. Donald Trump never made a more globally consequential error.

Iran can now amass enough highly enriched uranium to make a weapon in a matter of weeks. (Firing it at a foreign target is another matter.) When the deal was implemented, this "breakout" time was thought to be a year. Iran is also closer than it was to China, which gave the Islamic Republic economic succour as Trump's sanctions bit. "We're trying to correct for what was the Obama administration's appeasement of Iran," said then secretary of state Mike Pompeo in 2020, who never defined what success would look like.

Even if we use the yardstick of Iran's domestic rather than geopolitical evolution, the results are dire. The country has harder-line presidential leadership than it did at the time of the pact. Its conditions for any resumption of the deal span the fantastical (the end of all US and EU sanctions, including those unrelated to nuclear issues) and the constitutionally impossible (assurances that no future White House will renege).

Appeasement myth

Those demands are the main reason that President Joe Biden has dallied in signing back up to the nuclear pact. But it doesn't help that even mainstream Republicans would accuse him of moral capitulation. What the appeasement myth lacks in accuracy, it more than redresses in popular cut-through. In a sense, Biden is a prisoner of history, even if it is sloppy history.

Perhaps he is more constrained than many would be in his place. After his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the Taliban now run, he doesn't have the licence for another concession to a central Asian power. But the cry of appeasement will keep bouncing presidents into bad decisions until we learn not to grade their every foreign doing on a spectrum of Chamberlain to Churchill.

It would help to admit that, to a large extent, appeasement did work. It did not just create the time for arms manufacturers to crank into life, it meant that Britain went to war on the clear-cut prospectus of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The Sudeten issue in 1938 had commanded nothing like the same unanimity of moral outrage. It cannot be assumed that Britain would have been as united had it gone to war then. One family with addresses in Balmoral and London SW1 certainly seemed torn.

None of this is said out of academic pedantry, but rather in the hope (no doubt idle) of practical change. A misreading of one historic event has distorted so much subsequent statecraft. It has encouraged the idea that, in foreign relations, a sort of blanket pugnacity gets results in the end. When it fails, the problem is held to be insufficient will: that Iraq wasn’t invaded earlier and with more troops, that America only gave it the 20 years in Afghanistan, that Iran hasn’t been made to taste the reality of US power yet.

At least American conservatives reserve the notion of appeasement to relations with autocratic enemies. The British right applies it to dealings with the EU. Last week, the UK's trade minister Penny Mordaunt gave a speech of virtuoso silliness but also malevolence in Atlanta. She petitioned US support for Brexit as a blow for "democracy and capitalism", as though the EU had neither. The wartime undertones were of a piece with a UK negotiating strategy that treats Brussels as a foe to whom no quarter can be conscionably given.

The results have been predictable and predicted: fettered access to the European market, an exasperated Washington, eventual capitulation on fishing licences and judicial arrangements in Northern Ireland, and another resignation by a frustrated Brexit secretary. The strength-at-all-costs school of foreign policy is not just ugly, it is counter-productive. As Iran's resourcefulness under sanction has shown, other countries have egos too.