When it comes to the question of how far foreign intervention into the affairs of other nations should go, conventional beliefs typically follow from supposed events in history where leaders adopted an “isolationist” stance…and how such experiences show that a more aggressive policy is necessary. However, such beliefs gloss over the issues concerning the events they cite, which makes the conclusion arrived at in this case just as flimsy as those who blame lassiez-faire economic policy for why the Great Depression became as extensive and awful as it did.
The event typically cited as an example of the folly of non-interventionism is the Munich Pact of 1938. In it, Allied nations agreed to hand over parts of then known Czechoslovakia…referred to as the Sudetenland…to Nazi Germany. This was done due to the supposed claim by Adolf Hitler that many German-speaking people lived in those regions, and therefore Nazi Germany had claim to such lands. The Allied powers agreed to the terms with the aim that Nazi Germany would cease any further expansive policy in Europe. Perhaps the most infamous moment from this event concerns British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who came home with the letter of the agreement and proclaimed that it had achieved “peace in our time”. Of course as we all know almost 80 years later…that didn’t turn out to be the case. Hitler went on to take over the rest of Czechoslovakia…and then expanded through much of Europe, setting off World War II. Is such an event an indictment against non-interventionism? Hardly. What Munich is instead is an example of bad policy in general.
One of the first callings for a successful agreement is that the terms signed to will be followed. There has to be good will among the parties involved that the circumstances contained within agreements like the Munich Pact will be carried out. Nazi Germany could hardly have been considered a trustworthy partner, having been a totalitarian state for years preceding the agreement (Reichstag burning, Night of the Long Knives, etc.). Hitler had also shown himself to be ill-concerned with respecting international obligations, having torn up the Versailles Treaty some years earlier (a terrible treaty to be sure), marched into the de-militarized Rhineland against the Locarno Accords, and had annexed Austria seemingly overnight. This isn’t someone that can be trusted to uphold their end of a bargain. What should also be a requirement is having the parties involved in a dispute be at the proceedings of such an agreement. However, while the Allied parties and Nazi Germany were in attendance, the victim at the proceedings, Czechoslovakia, was not. Nazi Germany had demanded that such a thing be the case, which the Allied parties agreed to. This can only be seen as a violation of the Czechs’ sovereignty. Not only were they not allowed to be involved in the proceedings of what ultimately involved their territory, but doing so perhaps also robbed the Allies of realizing what the agreement was giving to Nazi Germany…fortified lands which were crucial to the defense of Czechoslovakia. The claim of German-speaking people being in the Sudetenland being proof of claim for Nazi Germany was also spurious, as such a fact does not prove any wish of nationality. Taken together, there is no reason why the Munich Pact should have been agreed to on the merits of the case.
Some have attempted to defend Munich by claiming that it was the best that could have been hoped for in a difficult situation (politics, military, etc.). Such reasoning is also used to defend other spurious deals such as the one agreed to with Iran recently. Such a belief though predisposes that such a deal was all that could have been done. There is no indication that such a thing is the case. A bad deal might seem easy to agree with, but in the end it could be worse than having no deal at all. There was no obligation that the Allied parties had to agree to the Munich terms, any more so than that Western powers had to acquiesce to the Iranian government the way they did for the recent deal. In fact, despite the claim by some that Britain, France, etc. had no military capability to challenge Nazi Germany in 1938, there is no indication that Hitler would have militarized further had Munich failed. Indeed, part of the reason why he aimed for an agreement was to remove the Sudetenland defenses which would have cost his still emerging military forces hazardous losses. The circumstances could have turned out very differently had Allied leaders been more prudent in how an agreement should be. But that didn’t require excessive military force…just effective diplomatic policy.