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23 January 2013


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David Habakkuk

Richard Sale,

A fascinating post, which raises all kinds of questions relevant to contemporary strategic dilemmas.

To take up one element. At the time of when Napoleon’s attempt to restore his position was decisively defeated at Waterloo, Britain enjoyed not only the unquestioned maritime dominance it had obtained at Trafalgar, but a superiority in commercial power which meant that it could act as paymaster for the coalition against Napoleon.

After other countries began industrialising rapidly this preponderance of power quite patently could not be maintained. Very sensibly, we made no attempt to contest the rise of American – and Japanese – power in those countries' home waters. What was inevitably going to provoke an intense counter-reaction, however, was Tirpitz’s project of using a smaller fleet based just opposite Britain to hold our whole global position hostage. And this led to the critical decision that the traditional imperial contest with Russia was a lower priority, and the accommodation of Russian interests in the 1907 agreement.

Three years earlier, in Sir Halford Mackinder’s ‘Geographical Pivot of History’ paper, the principal antagonist is unambiguously Russia, and, if my memory serves me right, Germany is only really imagined as a threat in the context of the possibility of a German-Russian accord. Some years back, a French writer called Pascal Venier argued that Mackinder’s view was actually representative of mainstream British thinking at the time, an argument I found plausible.

(See http://www.pascalvenier.com/recherche/?p=291 )

Essentially, it was because Britain prioritised, and Germany failed to do so – getting involved in a war at the same time both with us and with Russia – that we came out on the winning side on both world wars.

Putting the same point another way, ‘appeasement’, as well as ‘deterrence’ and ‘compellence’, was an essential component of imperial strategy. Indeed, these different components are not antithetical: quite commonly, they are best practised in conjunction.

For instance, a rational strategy in relation to Iran’s nuclear programme would certainly involve elements of ‘appeasement’. Likewise, if you are totally unwilling to 'appease' Russian concerns over BMD, you increase the chances that, should you subsequently have good reason to confront China, that country has a reliable Russian ally in its rear. Perhaps American strategists have fully assessed this risk, and discounted it. I wonder.

The problems Britain got into with ‘appeasement’ in the Thirties simply do not have the general relevance they have been accorded in post-war strategic arguments, right up to the present. At issue were specific failures of interpretation, in relation both to Hitler and to Stalin.

And it is certainly arguable that Britain’s share of responsibility for the Second World War – and thus the Holocaust – lies quite as much in the failure to ‘appease’ Stalin, particularly after March 1939, as it does in the attempt to ‘appease’ Hitler prior to that date.

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