Mark Twain famously wrote that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” He made a compelling point. Consider the alarming parallels between the prelude to World War II and today’s international security environment.
In 1928, 15 states signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact in Paris. This multilateral agreement attempted to eliminate war as an instrument of foreign policy. Its signatories included the US, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Japan was the first state to violate the agreement by invading the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931. Within months, Tokyo consolidated its control over the resource-rich area and declared the autonomous state of Manchukuo.
Paris and London, Europe’s leading powers, did nothing in response. Washington stated that it wouldn’t recognize any accords signed between Japan and China that violated preexisting agreements with American companies.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was inspired by Japan’s success and emboldened by the weakness of the Allies. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia to expand its empire in East Africa. The League of Nations agreed to sanction Rome.
Yet London and Paris were soft on Mussolini. Instead of imposing devastating consequences on Rome, the United Kingdom and France recognized the annexation of Ethiopia in the name of “not alienating Italy.”
The Allies abandoned the principles of the rules-based international order (sovereignty and self-determination) that should’ve emerged in the aftermath of World War I.
Never two without three, German dictator Adolf Hitler was also emboldened by the lackluster response to Mussolini’s annexation of Ethiopia.
In 1936, three years after rising to power and withdrawing from the League of Nations, Germany remilitarized the Rhineland in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact.
Britain and France were both caught off guard by Hitler’s gamble. They failed to impose any consequences on Germany. Despite some concern in the American press, the US, then dominated by isolationists in Congress, did nothing either.
When Japan invaded China again in 1937, France and England were only concerned with their respective colonial possessions in Asia. Washington flirted with the idea of imposing sanctions on Tokyo but decided against it.
Congress was obsessed with putting “America first.” Even Japan sinking the U.S.S. Panay and killing 3 Americans during the evacuation of Nanjing didn’t stop the US from appeasing Tokyo.
Reducing tensions by appeasing dictatorships at any cost became the order of the day. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain basically handed Austria over to Hitler in 1938. While the French government was helpless, Congress remained isolationist throughout the Anschluss.
Emboldened once more, Hitler then annexed the Sudetenland in 1938 and the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Washington was not a party to the Munich Agreement, but appeased Hitler all the same by enacting the fourth and final Neutrality Act because of its “America first” obsession.
Only when Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland in 1939 did London and Paris stop avoiding reality. They finally recognized what type of dictators they were dealing with, honored their respective pacts with Warsaw, and declared war against Germany.
Europe was falling apart. Washington stuck to its “America first” obsession. Germany defeated France. London, left to fend for itself, begged for help. Unfortunately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s hands were tied by US law, an isolationist Congress, and American public opinion.
An agreement where London provided basing arrangements to Washington in exchange for destroyers was nonetheless reached. Eventually, when the United Kingdom could no longer afford to pay for military supplies, that deal was replaced with the Lend-Lease Act of 1941.
Yet Washington wasn’t fully committed to the Allies until Japan launched a preemptive strike against US soldiers at Pearl Harbor before invading the Philippines and Indonesia, killing 2, 403 Americans. Only then did America finally understand what type of regimes it was dealing with.
After a decade of appeasement, more than a dozen countries occupied by the Axis of Evil, and millions of people slaughtered in the name of expansionist aggression, America finally realized that the world’s problems were always its problems.
The Allies could’ve imposed devastating consequences on Italy, Germany, and Japan at the outset of their aggression. The costs would’ve been marginal compared to the bill they would pay by 1945.
Washington, London, and Paris appeased the Axis of Evil instead. Swathes of Europe and Asia were devastated. Parts of North Africa and the Middle East were too. More than 50 million people were killed.
The appeasement of Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany taught the West that the cost of defeating evil increases every time we appease it. Nevertheless, the Free World is still repeating the mistakes of the 1930s.
Aggressors are appeased instead of confronted. Leaders conceal the Alliance’s power beneath a veneer of weakness. Isolationists repeat the same “[insert country] first” slogans. Populists portray the West’s prosperity as poverty. The list goes on and on.
These lies are nothing more than cheap excuses to abandon the West’s values, interests, and partners. They also embolden dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin to set the world ablaze until the risk of being engulfed by the fire and the cost of extinguishing it reach existential proportions.
The best time for the West to have prevented further Russian aggression was in 2014, when Russia invaded Donbas and annexed Ukrainian Crimea. The next best time is today, by committing to Ukraine’s victory instead of just enabling its survival.
The West’s adversaries are clear. They have said exactly what they intend to do – to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, the US, and the rules-based international order that underwrites western security and prosperity. It’s time to take them seriously.
The Western world neglects reality to its own detriment. By forgetting that the cost of defeating evil increases every time we kick the can further down the road, it seems that the West has learned nothing from the 1930s.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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