Optimism again allows invasion in Europe

Thirty years have passed since the end of the Cold War. Over that period, we have witnessed various changes, of which the most extraordinary is the ongoing war in Ukraine. It will certainly herald the end to the post-Cold War era and the arrival of a new era for the world.

What will the new era be like? It will be defined by how the war in Ukraine ends and what outcomes potentially ensuing diplomatic talks will yield. That said, what must be done right now, first and foremost, is to stop the horrifying bloodbath in Ukraine that is taking place in front of the global public.

Why did the war break out? Various explanations can be put forward. Whatever they may be, a major issue, in my view, is that during the post-Cold War era, we have kept relying too much on the trust and bona fides of other countries — without adequately fathoming the meaning of military force — and regarded international cooperation and interdependence as things that are unquestionably sustainable.

I am saying so because, even though Russian President Vladimir Putin already had his country sufficiently prepared in advance for warfare, we took it for granted that he would never make such an absurd decision to go to war or that no war would break out or that war could be averted anyway.

When thinking over why the Ukraine war has erupted, what Europe experienced in the 1930s provides many hints. This is because people in that era, too, remained optimistic that Germany or Italy or Japan surely would not choose to resort to war.

At the time, national interests were so narrowly defined that government leaders generally did not adequately comprehend what was happening in the international community — they lacked ambition to assume due international responsibility. Adolf Hitler took advantage of such a deficiency. The British public of those days for its part believed that peace would be ensured so long as Britain kept itself aloof and refrained from intervening in what Germany intended to do.

How the British populace felt at the time was reflected well in the words of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, when he addressed his nation on BBC Radio on Sept. 27, 1938.

The British leader was speaking against the background that Germany was plotting to occupy the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, bringing Europe to the brink of war.

Chamberlain categorized the German move as just “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Netflix’s newly released, much-talked-about movie “Munich: The Edge of War” begins with this line.

Citing Czech people’s persecution of German-speaking people living in the Sudetenland as an “excuse” and the protection of ethnic Germans there as a “pretext,” Hitler declared his intention to invade Czechoslovakia. His logic was similar to what Putin used to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

When German troops amassed on Czechoslovakia’s border, raising concerns of likely cross-border military action, Chamberlain chose to negotiate with Hitler so as to avert war-inflicted tragedy by all means.

At the time, British people’s mental trauma stemming from their tragic World War I experiences had not yet healed. With a feeling of war-weariness widespread in Britain, many of them shared Chamberlain’s passion for thwarting war.

Two years earlier in March 1936, when Germany decided to order its troops into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone in the west of the country, in violation of an international treaty, the British public became increasingly inclined to inevitably accept Germany’s remilitarization of the zone.

Arthur Greenwood, a Labour member of the British House of Commons, told Parliament: “Herr Hitler made a statement, sinning with one hand and holding out the olive branch with the other, which ought to be taken at its face value.” He thus accepted Hitler’s propaganda without questioning it.

At the end of the day, Britain prioritized its quest to avert war despite knowing that Germany’s moves to remilitarize the Rhineland and annex the Sudetenland would infringe on international pacts. Furthermore, though Hitler’s desires were self-serving, there were voices in Britain that Germany had a valid point in its arguments. At the time, British people’s reason might have been distorted as they were too afraid of war.

Defend basis of world order

In the international political sphere, the statements, decisions and conduct of governments and leaders are construed as definite “messages” to often be interpreted by recipients in ways different from what they originally mean. Chamberlain’s decision seems to have been viewed by Hitler as symbolizing Britain’s weakness and proving its state of mind of loathing war. The German leader is thought to have then assumed that Britain would never intervene even in his troops’ forthcoming military action. Indeed, Hitler’s optimism induced by Chamberlain’s stance consequently led to Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 that set off the calamitous World War II. Britain had so strong a wish for peace that it ironically allowed war to break out.

Even today, it is still possible for “messages,” as defined above, to trigger tragedies. As the world witnessed the fall of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul to the Taliban and the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from it on Aug. 15, 2021, Putin was thought to have probably considered those developments as a “message” that indicated that the United States would never intervene in the issue of Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden justified the U.S. decision to stop intervening in Afghanistan’s affairs, saying, “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.” It is true that Biden followed through on the pullout agreement his predecessor Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Nonetheless, to Putin, the decline in U.S. influence in the world and the strong U.S. feelings rejecting the use of military force seemingly symbolized the weakness of the United States.

A conviction on the part of Russia and China that the United States would refrain from military engagement may amount to a cue for Moscow and Beijing to resort to military coercion or military operations to alter the status quo more aggressively.

Prior to World War II, Chamberlain regarded Hitler as a negotiating partner of reason to a certain extent and therefore thought mutual understanding and cooperation could be possible. In contrast, Winston Churchill, who would later succeed Chamberlain as British prime minister, discerned in the context of ideological rivalry that it was ill-advised to trust Hitler, that Anglo-German cooperation would end up being a fictious thing and that the German leader had made up his mind to go to war.

Biden has two faces — one looks like the “face of Chamberlain,” refraining from military intervention and even daring to appease enemies, and the other appears like the “face of Churchill,” seeking to form a coalition of democracies and ensuring “peace through strength.” Indeed, the two “faces” Biden shows epitomize the dual nature of his administration’s foreign policy. When the United States withdrew its troops from Kabul, he looked much more as if he was demonstrating the face of Chamberlain. Now, the face of Churchill must come to the surface.

Responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be the touchstone of the United States and the international community. If Russia finally prevails, the world may have to brace for a relapse to the era of great power politics and power struggles as seen in the 19th century. If Russia’s ambitious attempt fails, on the other hand, ensuring the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, the liberal world order will be maintained — at least for now.

If the international community cannot prevent Ukraine from being dissolved as a sovereign nation, it will mean the collapse of the foundation of the postwar world order. The international community now must show the face of Churchill that represents “negotiation from strength.”

■ Hosoya is a professor of international politics at Keio University and the author of numerous books on British, European and Japanese politics and foreign affairs.