China, the Philippines, and the Makings of a 'Munich' Moment

The right way to use the most misunderstood analogy in U.S. foreign policy

From left to right, Italy's Benito Mussolini, Germany's Adolf Hitler, translator Paul-Otto Schmidt, and Britain's Neville Chamberlain at the Munich Conference, in 1938. (Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)

This week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III did something I’ve rarely heard before: He compared a contemporary international situation to “Munich” without sounding absurd.

For more than half a century, “Munich” has been the most abused analogy in American foreign policy. The actual Munich agreement, signed in late September 1938 by Germany, Britain, France, and Italy, gave the largely German-speaking Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia to Germany despite Czech warnings that it would leave the country defenseless and whet Hitler’s appetite for further conquest, which it did.

Since then, “Munich” has become code for a diplomatic concession that emboldens future aggression. And in American foreign policy debates, it’s become a constant refrain. In 1951, when Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur rather than wage war with China to reunite Korea under Western control, Joseph McCarthy labeled it a “super-Munich.” In 1965, when Lyndon Johnson announced that America would send 125,000 combat troops to Vietnam, he warned that “surrender in Vietnam [would not] bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.” In 1991, in urging support for the rebellions against Saddam Hussein that followed the Gulf War, Al Gore urged George H.W. Bush not to “repeat the mistake that was made at Munich.” Last September, John Kerry called America’s response to Syrian chemical weapons use “our Munich moment.” And two months later, when the Obama administration signed an interim nuclear deal with Iran, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens dubbed it, “worse than Munich.”

This is awful history. The actual Munich agreement featured Germany, the most powerful country in Europe. When American politicians and pundits invoke Munich, by contrast, they’re usually referring to adversaries that are far too weak to dominate their region, let alone the world. Even if the United States had handed South Vietnam over to Hanoi without a fight, for instance, or utterly capitulated to Iran’s desire for a nuclear bomb, those concessions still wouldn’t be comparable to Munich, because neither North Vietnam nor Iran enjoys remotely the relative power that Nazi Germany enjoyed in 1938. In fact, there’s only one rising power in today’s world with the economic and military might to intimidate its neighbors into territorial concessions and then use those concessions to dominate a strategically important region of the world, and that’s China.

Which is what makes Aquino’s analogy interesting. The Philippine leader fears that if the world grants China’s vast claims in the South China Sea, it will embolden Beijing to take even more belligerent action toward its neighbors. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?” he told The New York Times. “Well, the world has to say it—remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”

Aquino’s analogy is far from perfect. Although it’s often forgotten, Germany framed its claim to the Sudetenland in the language of self-determination (a claim that enjoyed superficial plausibility given that many German-speakers in the region did indeed want to join Germany). The disputes in the South China Sea, by contrast, are over sparsely populated islands, and China bases its demands on historical claims, not ethnic affinity. More importantly, it’s impossible to know how, or even if, capitulation to China’s demands would embolden it to act more aggressively. By late 1938, Hitler, to the dismay of some of his generals, was eager for war. Beijing’s leaders, while clearly nationalistic, have not shown themselves to be nearly as reckless.

Still, compared to the way American politicians and pundits usually invoke Munich, Aquino’s reasoning has some merit. The South China Sea, like the Sudetenland, is strategically valuable. The latter boasted heavy industry that proved vital to Germany’s war effort; the former contains large deposits of oil and natural gas. The Philippines enjoys a defense treaty with the United States, as Czechoslovakia did with France. Yet there’s good reason to believe that the war-weary Washington of 2014—like the war-weary Paris of 1938—would rather see Manila capitulate than risk world war. Above all, China today—like Germany in the 1930s—is a country converting its tremendous economic vitality into military might. It’s a country with a strong sense of historical grievance that wants to assert what it considers its natural role as the dominant power in its region. And it’s a country whose leaders are increasingly confident that the distant, status-quo powers that once held it in check can no longer do so.

At a time when the Middle East still dominates American foreign-policy discussion, the United States badly needs a serious public debate about our interests in the Pacific, and what we’ll risk to protect them. Aquino’s analogy may be flawed, but unlike most Munich references, it at least recognizes the magnitude of the stakes.