The good news is that, eventually, when the humiliation becomes too much to bear, a Reaganesque or Churchillian leader raises America up off its knees. When George W. Bush attacked Iraq, Kristol declared that the “era of American weakness and doubt in response to terrorism is over,” while Max Boot announced “The End of Appeasement.” This week, in The Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said he hoped that for Americans, Putin’s actions in Crimea would mean “the end of illusions.”
It’s a phrase that could easily have been uttered by Putin himself. In his view, it’s Russia that has been perennially bullied by tougher and nastier countries—in particular, America and its NATO allies. “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact,” he explained in a speech announcing Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. “They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner.” But now, finally, the era of appeasement is over. “Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from,” Putin said. “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”
For American hawks, appeasement is not merely bad foreign policy. It represents a crisis of values—an aversion to those martial, manly virtues that make nations strong and give life meaning. In his 1977 essay, “The Culture of Appeasement,” Podhoretz argued that “one of the interesting similarities” between Jimmy Carter’s America and Neville Chamberlain’s Britain “was the prominence of homosexuals in the literary worlds” of both eras. Under their influence, Podhoretz suggested, “words such as soldier and fighter, which had previously carried a positive charge, now became so distasteful.” In the 1990s, David Brooks, then at The Weekly Standard, similarly warned that “we have become a nation obsessed with risk avoidance and safety. We allow soft sentimentalism to replace demanding moral principles.” In response, Brooks, Kagan, Kristol, and McCain championed what they called “national greatness conservatism.” Invoking Theodore Roosevelt’s famous 1899 speech, “The Strenuous Life,” Brooks called for making American foreign policy “a more demanding and a more heroic enterprise.”
Today, hawks still link appeasement and effeminacy. Last month, for instance, after comparing the “bare-chested Putin” to “Barack Obama, in his increasingly metrosexual golf get-ups,” National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson suggested that Putin’s aggression might finally rouse Americans to peer “into ourselves—we the hollow men, the stuffed men of dry voices and whispers” and get tough.
For Putin, too, overcoming appeasement requires overcoming the soft, unmanly culture that made Russia unwilling to fight. The fall of the Soviet Union, he argued last year, “was a devastating blow to our nation’s cultural and spiritual codes” that led to “primitive borrowing and attempts to civilize Russia from abroad.” That borrowing was not only economic but “cultural, religious and even sexual.” And now, to reject foreign domination, Russia must also reject Western “policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”