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America’s Chamberlain? Obama and the Challenge of American Power

Neville Chamberlain showing the Anglo-German Declaration to a crowd at Heston Aerodrome on 30 September 1938

If we are honest about our efforts to prevent serious conflict, our track record is weak, to say the least. We fail to prepare for strategic discontinuities. We embrace deals that rest on sand. We often only seriously begin to address threats to our country’s population and material wealth when we no longer have the capacity to do so.

A case in point is the story of Neville Chamberlain, who in 1937 became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Chamberlain was born into a family that had fielded several leading political personalities. But he had little or no experience in dealing with foreign policy. And there he was at the end of the 1930s, facing an international crisis that would eventually plunge his country – and many, many others – into a war that has as yet known no equal.

Chamberlain has gone down in history as the politician of appeasement. He met with Hitler in Munich in 1938, returning to the UK amidst much talk about their agreement to honour “peace in our time.” Hitler would later refer to the accord reached in Munich as a “scrap of paper.” Within a year, Hitler’s armies had marched into Sudetenland, a mainly German-speaking chunk of Czechoslovakia. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two and half weeks later, the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, the two powers acting on a non-aggression pact signed in March 1939. France and the United Kingdom, who had committed themselves to defending Poland’s borders in that same year, declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. They were, however, not ready for conflict. Sharing a border with Germany, France was particularly vulnerable: it failed to repel the German advance onto its territory in 1940 and remained occupied for most of the war.

Barack Obama is not Neville Chamberlain. They are of different political pedigrees and of different geopolitical times. But like Neville Chamberlain, Obama risks now going down in history as an appeaser to an aggressor’s rise. Washington’s hesitation about whether Russia’s quasi-clandestine (and increasingly open) military involvement in southern and eastern Ukraine has amounted to an incursion – the official Washington version – or an invasion, which it certainly was, says it all.

Neville Chamberlain had to deal with a public opinion that was in many quarters vehemently against military engagement of any kind. Many of the young men and women on the campuses of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1930s, who would later be parachuted behind German lines in the 1940s, were anti-war protestors. Chamberlain’s own party bent over backwards in a misguided effort to protect the British economy against the disruption that it assumed conflict in Europe would engender.

Obama faces a similar challenge. After two, painful and largely unnecessary wars, American public opinion is weary of foreign adventures. Appealing to this sentiment has been essential to his two successful presidential bids.

Then too, when Neville Chamberlain took power, he lacked significant allies. They were either overcome by their internal contradictions (say, the unstable and later occupied France) or were doing everything to stay on the sidelines (such as the rich and strategically aloof Sweden). And America, until after Pearl Harbour in 1941, was not prepared to play ball.

Fast forward to 2014: what is America to think about a European Union (EU) that is thick in crisis, about an EU member state Hungary whose democratically-elected leader praises the virtues of illiberal democracy, about a France that is on track to elect in 2017 a right-wing government entranced with Putin? This is not an EU that summons confidence.

Then there is the issue of defence spending. America’s NATO allies spend 1.9 percent of GDP on defence, Germany 1.3 percent, Canada around 1 percent, while the US comes in at 4.4 percent. Juxtapose these numbers with the following data. Since 2008, the Russian defence budget has increased by 30 percent and is slated to grow further in the period up to 2020. China is also on an upward trend: its defence budget for 2014 is up by over 12 percent.

While in 2011 the US defense budget was more than three-and-a-half times the size of Chinese and Russian military spending combined, this US multiple is slated to shrink to less than twice of that of the combined Chinese and Russian budgets by the end of the decade. (The Economist suspects that the overall volume of Chinese defence spending may be some 40 percent higher than the official figures suggest. As a case in point, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its real numbers were discovered to be roughly 30 percent more than its official ones.) Even if the current Russian and Chinese numbers are puny in comparison with those of the United States, they still tower above other countries in their respective regions. This can be decisive.

Of course, the strategic course of the world does not just depend on the mass of money spent on defence. Often, defence budgets are stupidly expended: Canada with its fixation on promoting its national defence industry rather than seeking out the best offers on the international market is a case in point.

Until relatively recently, America has had a tradition of engaging last in major conflicts. In the Great War, the United States became a belligerent in 1917. In the Second World War, America only joined battle in 1941. Its causalities in both conflicts were, at least in comparative terms, considerably fewer than those of any of the other major combatants. But it in all the major conflicts the US has been involved in since, including Vietnam, America has headed the fatality list. Against this background, the crucial question is whether Washington will again be prepared for serious strategic engagement when its historical Allies are not ready to take their place on the front line.

Hopefully, that time will come. But, if it does, it will not come soon nor easily. Obama’s challenge is to ease its way. By virtue of the US Constitution, the President enjoys a certain liberty of action in the area of foreign policy. With the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress after the recent mid-term elections and Obama’s own party licking its wounds, he also has a free way forward politically. It will be easier now to provide “lethal” support to Kiev, i.e., not just blankets, food-packs, and the like. It will be easier to respond to the demands of Eastern European NATO members for a permanent Allied presence on their territory. It will be easier to reverse the now scheduled multi-year fall in US defence spending.

In 1939, Neville Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill, a leader who has gone down in history for his bull-doggedness against superior odds. Obama will be succeeded in 2016 by a President who, I expect, will have a more clearly combative agenda.

What Obama brings to bear in the strategic arena during the last two years of his incredibly challenging presidency will be decisive, for his legacy at home and abroad – not to mention the future course of the world. Obama can be a Chamberlain or he can set the stage for the more muscled American polices that will have to come. Jimmy Carter, a similarly dovish president, faced a similar choice near the end of his term as well. And he is now remembered for starting some of the more muscular policies expanded upon by his Republican successor Ronald Reagan. Obama might want to take note.

P.S. There is also a theory to the effect that Chamberlain was in fact a hero because he kept the fascist beast at relative bay while British war-readiness gathered steam. I am still looking for the evidence.

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