At first slowly, but now with alarming speed, the world is waking up to the chilling prospect of global conflict. We have been here before. That “stairway which leads to a dark gulf”, in Churchill’s words in 1938, forms part of our national mythology. “It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends …” We know the denouement. Does this collective memory help us to understand what is happening today, or does it hinder us? In some ways the latter, if we assume that the choices facing Chamberlain, Halifax and the other appeasers were simple and clear. They were not.
I am not suggesting that their appeasement policies were right. Far from it. But being right in the 1930s meant accepting that you might trigger the worst catastrophe in global history. It meant getting inside the heads of potential enemies who had nothing in common with you. It meant reorienting the peace-time economy towards defence – Chamberlain doubled military spending. It meant having to face the fact that there were forces out to destroy you. Normal people shy away from such thoughts.
“We are all members of the human race,” said Neville Chamberlain. “There must be something in common between us, if only we can find it.” But there wasn’t, and he couldn’t.
Will Joe Biden be more decisive than Franklin Roosevelt, James Cleverly more astute than Lord Halifax, Emmanuel Macron more reliable than Édouard Daladier? Probably not: they share the human tendency to wishful thinking and an honourable desire for peace and prosperity. Yet we are faced with the spectre of an alliance of China, Russia and Iran to overthrow Western hegemony.
How must our politicians now respond to a suddenly dangerous world? It is natural to view Xi Jinping’s China with mounting alarm – “whether ‘threat’, or ‘partner’ or ‘adversary’,” in James Cleverly’s words – yet hope that maintaining relations will avert the worst. Is Xi’s decision to send the man who crushed Hong Kong’s democratic movement to attend the Coronation a deliberate provocation to test us, and if so, should we react?
There is no sure way to avert conflict if one side is set on it, as Hitler was. But there are ways of making catastrophe more likely. The most obvious is by allowing potential aggressors to count on an easy victory, whether by our military weakness or vacillating policy. Putin anticipated one, and presumably he still expects to outlast Western resolve. If Xi is allowed to think that he would get away with attacking Taiwan, the future is dark indeed.
It is inevitable, including for economic and domestic political reasons, that democracies keep trying to “appease” (in 1930s parlance) or “engage” (in ours). They have little choice. But engagement must rest on a hard-headed understanding of the thinking and capacities of our adversaries. In his recent Mansion House speech, The Foreign Secretary, spoke of China’s huge arms build-up: “prudence dictates that we must assume the worst. And yet of course we could be wrong.”
It is the duty of those now making existential decisions on our behalf not to be wrong, and they must strive to obtain reliable intelligence about China’s politics and its armed forces. They must also ensure that the Chinese are sufficiently informed about ours.
Getting this wrong was a fatal weakness in dealing with Hitler. On one hand, Britain and France greatly overestimated the military capacities of Germany and Italy. On the other, his racist and megalomaniac intentions were commonly dismissed as bluster. The Foreign Office even lost its sole copy of the unexpurgated version of Mein Kampf, while its permanent under-secretary dismissed a perceptive warning that “Hitler was Genghis Khan” as “awful rubbish”. Intelligence reports that contradicted official views were discounted. Hitler drew the conclusion that Western politicians were “little worms”.
Now, as then, the democratic states are engaged in ideological conflict, and people sometimes express surprise that there are people in the world who reject our liberal, post-Enlightenment values. There is nothing new about that. Britain has been involved in fundamental ideological conflicts since the Tudors, and has largely defended liberty and law since the days of Robespierre.
Xi, it seems, espouses state capitalism and nationalism – hardly an original mix. He proclaims that his goal is global hegemony. Nothing new there either. We should not be too dazzled by rhetoric, but we cannot ignore that rhetoric exerts its own power: a dictator cannot easily back down.
But our succession of historic adversaries have been motivated by greed as well as by ideology, and few have not put self-preservation first. Hitler was so dangerous because he did not care, and was eager to leave death and destruction in his wake. Our leaders need to find out what Xi and Putin really care about, and hope there is an answer.
Does the West have leaders capable of making hard decisions and persuading their electorates to support them? Such leaders were thin on the ground in the 1930s. Inevitably they still are. The democracies were forced into action against their collective will, and against the policies of their leaders, by Hitler’s repeated aggressions and by Japan’s sudden attack in 1941. We too have been forced into action by Putin.
Fortunately, we have a much more solid system of alliances than in 1939, and we are not hamstrung by a naive pacifist movement. The only prudent course is to make it clear that future aggression will be opposed, and to show that we are determined to build the capacity to do so, particularly at sea, where we may soon see Chinese submarines in the North Atlantic. We have left it dangerously late.