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“A quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing”

Neville Chamberlain
Neville Chamberlain

The title here is one of the most famous (infamous?) statements ever made in the history of world politics. It was said by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on September 27, 1938 in reference to the growing British anguish over German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s ambition to take Czechoslovakia. In retrospect, it characterized the foreign policies of all the Western democracies who were committed to “appeasement” foreign policies after the tragedy of World War I and the disastrous Versailles Treaty.

This included the United States, which refused even to join its own creation, the League of Nations, and which in the 1930s passed several “Neutrality” laws aimed against any commitments toward any future war. Even after both Germany and Britain went to war in September 1939, the U.S. still remained isolated.

On December 11, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor, both Hitler and Mussolini (Italy) declared war on a reluctant and unprepared America. Otherwise, the U.S., most certainly, would have fought Japan alone and without major incentive to join the wars in the remainder of the world.

Apparently, to most Americans, western Europe, including both France and England, was, to quote Chamberlain, too “faraway” to bother.

Taken in a larger context, Chamberlain’s phrase, despite its notoriety in history, is far more common and characteristic of world politics than otherwise known. The question that Chamberlain raised in his famous talk, unbeknown probably even to him, was this: are “distance” and “culture” criteria for policies and/or war? Chamberlain certainly thought so.

A brief review of history reveals something quite different.

The immediate background to World War I centered on the assassination of an otherwise obscure “Archduke” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a nineteen-year-old Serbian nationalist. Serbia was the home of the nationalist (Gavrilo Princip) and his terrorist cell, The Black Hand.

The Serbian government denied any association with the terror cell and agreed to most of the demands made by Austria for peace to prevail. Nevertheless, Austria declared war, backed by the Kaiser of Germany, opposed by the Czar of Russia, which brought in France, allied with Russia, then Great Britain, plus automatically the Commonwealth: from Canada to Australia, to Africa, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Malaya, parts of China, Singapore, Hong Kong plus Japan (allied to Britain), and eventually from across the ocean, the USA.

After several years of tragedy, attrition warfare, ten million dead, the ruin of a whole generation, the end of Europe as a global power, the beginnings of Communism, Fascism, World War II, the initial steps of the American “superpower” – the world war finally ended.

All started over the future of Serbia, with four million people and lost to history and Western memory by geopolitics and imperial conquests (part of both Roman and Ottoman empires) since time began.

How “faraway” can you get?

Prior to the beginning of World War II (1939), Chamberlain was, in retrospect, probably correct. It was certainly “logical” to appeal to the British public on location and culture. Yet the implications of his policies forced his government finally to reverse course and pursue exactly the opposite of his earlier nationalistic recommendation.

By occupying Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Hitler not only broke his earlier promise (Munich Conference, October 1938) but reversed the earlier policies of both Britain and France toward “appeasement.” As U.S. President Barack Obama would, many years later, “paint” a mythical “red line in the sand” against Syria (2012), Chamberlain (and France) did the same against Hitler in 1939. On 31 March, both countries, again unbeknown to each, began the “path” toward another world war by pledging “full support” against any future German invasion of Poland. At the same time, the British military announced that it could give Poland “no direct help by land, sea or air.”

This was a “paper” pledge given by two countries, neither of which had the ability nor the interest to affect the behavior of their chief antagonist. It was “deterrence” in name only.

On September 1, Germany invaded Poland. On September 3, Britain declared war, making an antagonist an “enemy.” The Soviet Union invaded Poland on the 17th, a date that marks the end of any Polish independence until the year the Cold War ended, 1991.

As in 1914, the “greatest” human destruction in history was “stumbled” into by countries that “gambled” the fate of the world, neither sure of the outcome nor capable of fulfilling promises made and hopes aroused. Hitler was, to be sure, the “aggressor,” but he was not alone.

All for the sake of one country deep within Eastern Europe and beyond either rescue or salvation. “Faraway … of whom we know nothing.”

Has modern America followed Chamberlain’s advice? How “faraway” is Korea? How much did we know of them? How about Vietnam? Afghanistan? Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran?

How about the whole world, or does “superpower” status negate the question?

Apparently so. We are allied with NATO, thirty countries that are “close” and share our values. But at the same time, we have given Ukraine $50 Billion in one year against the Russian invasion, with more pledged and the commitment apparently endless. Regarding this, some questions:

Is Ukraine “faraway”?

Do we “know” enough about Ukraine?

From “hindsight,” what should we do afterward, guarantee Mongolia?

Final Question, does history “repeat”?