War Precedents: Appeasement or Keeping the Powder Dry?

War Precedents: Appeasement or Keeping the Powder Dry?

From 1887 to 1889, the newly formed nation of Italy and the Ethiopian “Empire” fought an undeclared war over a border disagreement between the African nation and its neighbor, Eritrea, which Italy was in the process of colonizing.  From 1895 to 1896, Italy and Ethiopia went to war again, when Italy claimed that the treaty ending the previous war made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate, which the Italians were, by rights, empowered to occupy and colonize.  The Ethiopians withstood the invasion, repelling and destroying the Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa, becoming the first African nation to defeat and repel an invading European force.

Nevertheless – and as most students of 20th-century history know – Italy went to war with Ethiopia a third time, in 1935, when the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini ordered troops to invade from two directions, from Italian Eritrea and Italian Somalia.  This time, the Italians conquered Adwa, revenging their ancestors’ earlier loss, on their way to capturing and occupying the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The Italian-Ethiopian wars raise several issues worth noting.  First, this was a longstanding territorial dispute, adjudicated through several conflicts across several decades.  Second, the Italians breezed to victory in the third war, largely because they held an overwhelming technological advantage over the Ethiopians.  In everything from weapons to transportation to communication, in a mere four decades, Italy went from having a slight advantage to possessing a robust and overpowering advantage.  Third, the “global community” at the time – the League of Nations – supported Ethiopia, eventually imposing sanctions on the invading Italians.  And finally, despite all of this, no nation intervened in the conflict to aid Ethiopia.  No one looked at the actual, literal Fascists invading a foreign nation and thought to himself: we better do something!  Simply by supplying weapons and or communications upgrades, the European powers could have changed the course of the war and changed the fate of the Ethiopians.  But they didn’t even do that.

And just why did no nation step forward to aid Ethiopia and, by extension, to thwart the land-hungry Fascist dictator?

Let us answer that question with some history and a counterfactual.

In October 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, Stanley Baldwin was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Albert Lebrun was President of France (having succeeded Paul Doumer, who had been assassinated only three years prior).  Both nations were, more or less, locked in a 20-year economic downturn.  World War I had crippled both economies (leading to a decline in economic output of roughly 25%), and the Great Depression had made recovery nearly impossible.  A mere two years earlier, the Oxford Union Society held its most famous debate, the so-called “King and Country Debate,” in which the proposition that “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country” was supported by an overwhelming 275-153 vote.  In short, the victors in the Great War were still suffering from the Pyrrhic quality of that victory, with political, social, and economic malaise permeating much of society.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the National Socialists, led by Adolf Hitler, had taken power two years earlier and had made no secret whatsoever of their intentions to resuscitate the German spirit through an assortment of highly dubious domestic and foreign policies.

Now, let us imagine that, even in light of these conditions, the Brits and the French decided to come to the aid of the Ethiopians.  Let us say that these governments put their people and nations on a war footing and cranked up industrial and weapons production, specifically to thwart Mussolini’s African adventurism.  Let us say that they tried their damnedest to convince their people that this war, far away from them and affecting them only marginally, was, nevertheless, critical to the survival of the Western world and its treasures of democracy and capitalism.  Let us say that did everything in their power – short of actually sending troops and declaring war on Italy – to aid Ethiopia.

What, do we suppose, would have been the results of these efforts?

Obviously, no one can say for sure, but the possibilities are endless: revolution, protest, riots, further assassinations…take your pick.  We suspect that the British and the French people would have been less than whole-hearted supporters of this effort.

But for the sake of argument, let us also say that the people complied with their government’s wishes, that they agreed to save Ethiopia from Italy.  They would, at the very least, have expended a great deal of resources and public spirit in the process, harnessing what was left of their economic strength and patriotism to defeat Mussolini – admittedly a great threat to global democratic stability.

And then, a mere three years later, when Mussolini’s ally, the aforementioned Adolf Hitler took the Sudetenland, what would the British and French have done?  How about six months after that, when they took all of Czechoslovakia, or six months later still, when they took Poland?  What would the governments and people of France and Great Britain have done then?  Having expended their weapons inventory, manufacturing capabilities, and public spirit defending North Africa against Mussolini, what would they have done in the face of Hitler’s much-closer-to-home onslaught?

Obviously, we can’t answer those questions.  More to the point – and thankfully – we don’t need to answer those questions.  Nevertheless, it’s worth pondering them, especially in light of the current political “controversy” involving many of the Republican candidates for president and centering, for the time being, on our friend-quaintance Vivek Ramaswamy.

Yesterday, Vivek told ABC News’s Martha Raddatz that he did not consider supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia a “top foreign policy priority for us.”  The experts of Twitter and other social media responded furiously, accusing Vivek of, among other things, “appeasement.”  This was a true and inarguable “Chamberlain” moment, they shrieked.

And while we don’t endorse Vivek’s thoughts in their entirety and don’t profess to know what to do about Ukraine and Russia, we would suggest that the charges leveled against Vivek are historically ignorant, at best.  This is not appeasement.  This is not a Chamberlain moment.  Not even close.  It is, rather, a Stanley Baldwin moment, an acknowledgment that full-throated, open-ended support for Ukraine is a difficult ask of the war-weary American people, especially when another, more potent global threat lurks just over the horizon.

As his critics failed to mention, Vivek continued, arguing that “The real threat to the U.S. isn’t Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s the China-Russia alliance.”  Yes, Vivek says, Russia is a threat, but that threat doesn’t manifest itself quite as potently in this far-off land to which Americans have little connection as it might in other arenas, especially in its alliance with a bigger and even more potent threat.

Obviously, in our Ramaswamy-inspired counterfactual analogy, Putin is Mussolini, Ukraine is Ethiopia, and Xi Jinping is Adolf Hitler.  And we’ll be honest with you, it’s not a terrible analogy.

The current conventional wisdom holds that even a whiff of appeasement of Putin in Ukraine will signal to Xi that Taiwan is his for the taking.

The counter to that is that any effort that dilutes or depletes American resources and public spirit will, by definition, encourage and enable Xi’s efforts to create Chinese regional hegemony through conquest and arm-twisting.

Both are logical and legitimate arguments based on precedent and practicality.  The difference between the two is that the powers that be consider one acceptable and inarguable, while they think the other is crazy, “isolationist,” and entirely outside the realm of acceptability.

Maybe by not stopping Mussolini in Ethiopia, Baldwin and Lebrun encouraged Hitler.  Maybe they were the real appeasers.  Or…maybe they saved the world by keeping their proverbial and literal powder dry in anticipation of Hitler.

These questions are worth thinking about and, more to the point, worth debating in public.

Good for Vivek for trying, and shame on the bipartisan ruling class for trying to shout him down.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
[email protected]

Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.