Repeating the Mistakes of 1936, Europe Risks Marginalizing Itself on the World Stage

August 25, 2014
July 13, 2016

In October of 1935, the Kingdom of Italy invaded modern-day Ethiopia, then called Abyssinia, in a bid to find an enemy weak enough for Benito Mussolini to handle. In the event the Italians coped, but just barely, having to resort to the illegal use of poison gas in order to break local resistance. Yet it was less the Italian actions, and more the reactions of the Western Powers and the League of Nations which were significant, and as odd as it may seem, it is arguable that they are making the same mistakes in regards to the Ukraine and Israel as they did eighty years ago.

Today the Italian invasion of Ethiopia is mostly remembered for what it represented; another step along the path of Western appeasement of the fascist dictators that led inevitably to Munich and the Second World War. The response of the Western Powers and the League of Nations to the Italian actions is seen as evidenced of the cowardice of the former and of the uselessness of the latter. The League, with the support of Britain and France, condemned the Italian actions and imposed sanctions, but failed to extend their scope to oil, which might have made a continued Italian campaign impossible. Worse, the British and French governments are seen as having duplicitously plotted behind the backs of the League and their own populations to cut a deal with Mussolini, one that when revealed provoked a degree of public outrage which forced the resignation of British Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, and French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval.

In the context of later events, when Mussolini's partnership with Hitler came to seem inevitable, and the links between Fascism and Nazism self-evident, this narrative made sense, and with Mussolini dead, there has been little to be gained in publicly challenging this paradigm. Mussolini's remaining followers in Italy, much like Neo-Fascists throughout Europe, have chosen their opponents' caricature of their idols rather than any sort of historical context as their objects of emulation. A few ex-appraisers in Britain briefly tried to revisit the argument, but serious re-examination tended to be restricted to the Right and professional Historians.

This is unfortunate as the  actual sequence of events was far more complicated. Unlike the American political elite, which still dwells in a turn of the millennium mindset of American "hyperpower," the universality of Western liberal institutions, and their inevitability of their triumph, British and French statesmen in the 1930s were well aware of their limitations. Regardless of the territorial gains of the 1919 settlement both powers had emerged much weaker from the conflict than they had entered it. France suffered not just from the enormous economic and human costs of victory, both of which were far greater than those suffered by Germany, but also from political infighting. Britain's losses had been less, yet still extensive, but a greater moral cost, manifested in revulsion against the treaties and balance of power politics which were seen as having provoked the 1914 conflict, hampered the actions of successive British governments. It was only in Britain where liberal opinion could declare themselves in support of "Collective Security" against aggression in response to Japan's invasion of Manchuria while at the same time calling for further disarmament.

Behind these individual weaknesses lay a greater one. After 1871, France had been too weak to stand against a united Germany even in partnership with Britain, and therefore its alliance with Russia had been vital to the maintenance of any sort of independent action or a wider balance of power. With Soviet Russia in isolation that was no longer possible. This was then the situation that faced Paris and London when Hitler came to power in 1933. France and London were not duped by Hitler; they merely either the domestic political or military strength to act.

As a consequence, when Hitler ran into trouble, it was not with the Western powers but with Italy. In 1934, Austrian Nazis seized that country's Chancellery, murdering then-Chancellor Dolfuss and announcing a merger with Germany. German troops, or what forces Hitler had ready to act, were in place along the border, ready for a signal from the plotters. In the end, however, it was not Hitler but Mussolini who moved. Mobilizing 200,000 troops at Brenner Pass, Mussolini announced his support for Austrian independence, and his willingness, if necessary, to intervene militarily to prevent its destruction. Hitler, unready for a confrontation, backed down, and Austria remained independent for another four years.

Britain and France had their ally, one who, like the Czar, was not bound by the need to consult with a feisty parliament or domestic public opinion, and therefore could act when they could not. At Stresa in 1935, Britain, France, and Italy formed an alliance to contain Hitler. Neither Western power had illusions about Mussolini's character, but they also grasped his necessity, and the need to work with him to contain their common enemy in Berlin.

Yet if they understood their limitations, and the compromises therefore required, their populations did not. Their populations not only expected their governments to be bound by moral standards, but to require their allies to follow them as well. This came to a head in the conflict over Ethiopia. Mussolini wanted payment for his services, and he wanted it in Africa. In fairness, compared with the magnitude of his service in 1934, and willingness to repeat the performance, he did not ask for much. Both Britain and France had agreed to recognize an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia in the 1890s, only for the un-consulted Ethiopians to abort the agreement at the battle of Adowa in 1896. Legally however, they were bound by treaty not to interfere in relations between Rome and Addis Adaba.

Morally as well, there was little reason to make a stand. Before he was made the icon of lunatic Rastafarians, Emperor Haile Selessie was an absolute monarch who had likely usurped and murdered his cousin, and presided over one of the few remaining nations where slavery was legal. Italian rule might not be desirable, but it was more apt to be an improvement than German rule in Eastern Europe.

Mussolini therefore felt he was on reasonable ground when he launched his campaign, and seems to have been as shocked by the public outcry as Paris and London were. Rather than forcing a confrontation, he backtracked, accepting a settlement in the Hoare-Laval pact that would have preserved Ethiopia's independence, and even its territorial size, with lands in British Somaliland being exchanged with Italy. Far from appeasement, it was advocated at the time by Winston Churchill among others. It was exactly the sort of deal that Metternich or Bismarck would have leapt at, or which would have earned its authors the title of peacemaker in an earlier time. In 1935, it was the legitimization of blatant international highway robbery, and the public in the West wanted action.

Trapped between the demands of their public for actions against Italy, and their own knowledge that the survival of their policy in Europe depended on avoiding a break with Mussolini, they attempted to walk a middle line and ended up losing everything. Under public pressure, Stanley Baldwin in London repudiated the compromise and forced the resignation of his Foreign Secretary, and imposed sanctions on Italy. Yet these failed to deter Mussolini, because to back down in the face of sanctions rather than as a product of a deal would have discredited him. Rather than saving half of Abyssinia, the "principled" stand saved none of it, while also killing the Stresa front. With it evident that Britain and France would not be able to sell any sort of policy to their populations, Musolini realized that an alliance with them would be one where Italy would pay all the expenses and receive none of the benefits. His new found isolation left him little choice but to make a deal with Hitler, while his defection in turn gave Britain and France no choice but to attempt to do likewise, allowing the German leader to run a bidding war for his support.

It may not be immediately clear how the events of the 1930s are relevant to today. After all, Putin is, despite the claims of his more extreme foes, no Hitler, and Israel is a democracy rather than an a dictatorship. But on a wider level European leaders have allowed themselves to fall into the same pattern of allowing their populations to dictate international policy based on sentiment and abstract moral standards, rather than attempting the more difficult task of explaining that prioritization is in some way necessary. This was evident in the case of the Ukraine, where European leaders and the United States realized that Putin's cooperation in matters outside of Eastern Europe made an open break with him too hazardous, and as such sought to reach a settlement that allowed the Russian leader to save face. Putin too seemed to be determined to avoid a confrontation there and then, and as a consequence the February Agreement gave the West much of what it substantively desired in exchange for allowing Putin the face-saving expedient of avoiding Yanukovych's ouster by force. Yet rather than either defending this agreement publicly, or attempting to enforce it, the West abandoned it at the first sign of opposition in Kiev, preferring to embrace the morally pure stand of backing the revolutionaries rhetorically even when serious sanctions were impracticable. The events of the last few months may not have gone as well as Vladimir Putin may have liked, but had he not already been soured on cooperation with Europe(he seems to have rejected cooperation with an Obama-led America for personal reasons much earlier), they demonstrated that such a relationship was impossible.

Whether such a demonstration serves a wider purpose is an open question, one that neither the European or American public's seem to have considered. It does seem to have been of concern to both the European and American political leaderships; both Merkel and Cameron seem to have placed economic ties with Russia above a principled stand in favor of Ukraine's self-determination from Russia, but neither tried to sell this to their populations or proteges on the ground in February when it might have mattered. Having allowed public sentiment to drive them into a confrontation through intransigence, the major consequent of their insight has been to ensure that once Russia was alienated that Putin learned the extent to which the EU's bite has trailed behind its bark.

As for the United States, it has vastly more reasons not to have started a confrontation with Russia this spring, or at any point. The obsession of the Obama Administration in Foreign has been its so-called Pacific Pivot, which sees its future rival in Beijing, and America's interests, economic and strategic, in Asia. Russia, whatever its role in Europe, is a potential ally in Asia, one with a long history of boundary disputes with China, a rivalry with Beijing for influence in Central Asia, and a longstanding alliance with India. From the start therefore the Obama Administration sought to settle areas of conflict with Russia such as the Iranian Nuclear program and Kosovo, whose status America left in limbo, in order to focus on its Pacific Pivot.

Few policies have gone so badly off-course as Barack Obama's Reset with Russia, and ultimately its failure owes much to the internal contradictions within the Administration. The Pacific Pivot itself is a realist policy par excellence, a recognition that America must make common cause with governments that share its strategic priorities even if they have different value systems internally. Yet while Obama paid lip service to the Realist exiles unhappy with the neoconservatism of the second Bush Administration, the President's own personal sympathies have lain with international idealists such as Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who time has revealed were far closer to the center of power than the realists ever were. Both, by championing universal concepts of human rights, democracy, and international law, and attempting to apply them in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, all but undermined any potential rapprochement with Russia, while the Reset, flawed from conception in that it involved propping up domestic rivals to Putin, was abandoned all but completely when the Administration decided to make LGBT issues in Russia a veto point for relations with Moscow.

Obama does not deserve the sole blame for the fiasco that the Western response to Russia's domestic policies over the last 18 months have become. European leaders have behaved just as recklessly in pandering to domestic constituencies. Nonetheless, even before the Ukraine exploded, the fight over Russia's LGBT bill seemed to have the same impact on Putin that Western support for Abyssinia did on Mussolini. It convinced him that as Western leaders were driven by public sentiment that was more concerned with the morality of Russian policies than wider strategic concerns, any alliance with the West would be impossible without conceding policies domestically that would be deeply unpopular, and even then the alliance would be a non-functional, astrategic body that would lurch from injustice to injustice with the attention span of the modern Twitter user.

Putin therefore, like Mussolini before him, recognized that his only option was to make his peace with his more dangerous, but nevertheless more "rational", rival. The great winner from the Ukraine crisis has ironically been the power that has had the least role in it, namely China. Russia has signed a series of border agreements with China, freeing the latter to concentrate on its Eastern coastline, while also conceding a de facto Chinese co-dominion in Central Asia. China has been happy to make those concessions, as the Ukraine conflict has made any sort of American-Russian partnership impossible, and therefore left Washington and Moscow eager to bid for Chinese friendship.

It would be bad enough if this realignment were limited to Asia but it is not. Israel too, seems to be using the Gazan War, and the outbreak of antisemitism in Europe to keep its options open internationally, or at least as a cover domestically for doing so. Jerusalem's rapprochement with Russia, China, and India, following on its de facto strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia and Egypt increasingly renders European opinion irrelevant except to a minority that is Europhile culturally, and the purpose of the Gazan war is as much to convince this minority that Europe's moralistic outlook makes it an impossible longterm ally for Israel as it is to defeat Hamas.

Whatever their motivations then, the Western powers are repeating past mistakes. Regardless of the individual conflicts whose outcomes matter only regionally, the wider world balance of power is shifting rapidly against Europe, while at the same time giving the United States reason to see Europe as a liability regarding its strategic interests rather than an asset. The latter may not be consummated until the next Administration, but the nations isolating themselves currently are not Russia, China or Israel, but rather the states of Western Europe.


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