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Where is Boris Johnson's 'Churchill Factor'?

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March 31, 2022


England knows much about war in Europe. For over a thousand years, it has been entrenched in conflicts on the continent — from the First Crusade to the Hundred Years War, Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars, and all the conflicts of the 20th century — as both victim and aggressor. The last 77 years of ‘peace’ in Europe are an exception to the violent trend of our enlightened nation. After surviving such a bloody history — and remaining a European power, at that — one would think we knew how to handle aggressors. To this end, as Lord Nelson said, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” of which Winston Churchill is held up as the paragon.

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Against this history, Britain’s response to the war in Ukraine has been a disappointment. In responding to the crisis, Boris Johnson has adopted the same strategy of appeasement that failed to prevent the Second World War in 1939. He closely follows the steps of his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, in dealing with Nazi Germany as he grapples with Russia’s aggression. For Johnson, a biographer of Churchill — in his words, “the resounding human rebuttal” of appeasement — who has channeled his imprimatur throughout his political career, the irony is prolific. To borrow from Boris’s book, he is missing his Churchill Factor.

In American lore, the contrast between Churchill and Chamberlain might mirror that between Abraham Lincoln and James Buchanan. The former are celebrated for their moral strength and wartime victories, while the latter are footnotes of failure who caused those very crises. In Chamberlain’s case, this was the Munich Pact — his agreement with Nazi Germany in 1938. As Nazi forces invaded Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain struck a deal to cede Sudetenland (a German-speaking region) against Czechoslovak wishes. Hitler then promised to lay no further claims in Europe. A year later, though, that promise was broken as Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. When they pushed along the same course into Poland, war began.

Replace the proper nouns in the preceding paragraph — ‘Ukraine’ for Czechoslovakia, ‘Nazi Germany’ for Russia — and you will find a picture of the present, with Britain as the only constant. Like the Nazi Germany, Russia has begun a “special military operation” in Ukraine to “protect” Russian-speaking regions of the country. Like Hitler, Vladimir Putin has professed “no desire” for expansion into the rest of Europe, while demanding that Ukraine remain a neutral non-NATO country. Yet, like Chamberlain, Boris Johnson has sought to appease Putin rather than confront him. In a New York Times op-ed, he flagrantly dismissed Ukraine’s “prospects of NATO membership” and said that Britain was “ready to respond to Russia’s stated security concerns through negotiation.” The ambiguous message to Russia couches its cowardice: ‘If you end the war, you’ll get you want.’ Similarly, he has refused a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine, which protect fleeing civilians from bombardment. Even in this inferno, Johnson is trying to deal with the devil while Ukraine goes through hell.

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In doing so, Johnson clings to the ignorant idea that concessions will end hostilities. He has not learned the lesson of Munich: that appeasement never works. Aggressor states view any concession as a sign of weakness on the other side, which fears the consequences of their own response. Such asymmetric fear only emboldens the aggressor to push further, for revanchism has no true limits. Britain and NATO’s naked fear of war, and concession of Ukraine’s neutrality, will validate Russia’s decision achieve its objectives through force. It will only embolden Putin to seek the same neutrality in other states of the former Soviet bloc — i.e., Moldova, Finland, the Baltics and, perhaps even Poland. It’s a rather simple lesson that everyone learns about bullies in their youth: “give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” Concession leads to capitulation. It is no different in geopolitics. Ignorant of this truth, Chamberlain made the mistake of appeasement 84 years ago. Johnson does so once again.

Then, as now, many of Chamberlain’s conservatives opposed appeasement, none more so than Churchill. “Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting… This is only the beginning of the reckoning,” he said in the House of Commons, attacking on his own government. A veteran of the Great War, Churchill knew that only defiant strength would stop an aggressor. Boris Johnson, his biographer, apparently does not. Presently, Churchill’s role is reprised by Tobias Ellwood MP, a veteran himself, who has castigated Johnson and led the call for a no-fly zone, a measure to protect civilians and force Russia to cease and desist.

The typical response, in which Johnson joins, is that a no-fly zone (which NATO aircraft would have to enforce) runs the risk of direct hostilities with Russia, which could lead to a nuclear exchange. For all the gravity of this apocalyptic objection, it defies the logic of nuclear deterrence. Equal possession of nuclear weapons is precisely what prevents the other side from launching theirs; the fear of mutual destruction keeps the peace. Unlike North Korea, Russia is not a “rogue state.” It is a mature state with a 70-year history of deterrence, and is unwilling to risk total destruction over Ukraine. Indeed, when Russia put its nuclear forces on “high alert” last month in response to Western sanctions, Johnson’s government brushed it off as a “distraction.” Any Russian bluster about nuclear war over a no-fly zone is no different.

Moreover, as experience has shown, Russia is prone to halting when checked by NATO force. In 2015, NATO state Turkey shot down a Russian jet that deliberately violated its airspace during operations in Syria, killing the pilot. It faced neither nuclear attacks nor any violations of its airspace by Russia thereafter. Against this precedent, to suggest that a no-fly zone over Ukraine would escalate into full war, much less a nuclear war, is absurd. It lends credence to the idea that Britain is afraid, which only boosts Russia’s audacity to continue. Whereas Churchill’s attitude was to “never give in… never yield to force, never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy,” Johnson has yielded at the first threat. Now, no relief aid or military hardware can regain Britain’s credibility. It has been sold out to fear.

History is remarkable for the dramatic contrasts of its moments. The Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, Kennedy is killed at the height of his presidency, a new decade begins with a worldwide pandemic, a new millennium begins with terror on 9/11. Such oscillations on the world stage mirror the men who are its players. From Buchanan to Lincoln and Chamberlain to Churchill the character of our leaders often swings successively between the terrible and the terrific. In this last dyad, the judgment of Boris Johnson hangs in the balance. This war in Europe is his defining moment. Will he rise to the occasion and save Europe from a new Iron Curtain? Or will he embrace appeasement, and postpone the confrontation of Russia to a future disadvantage. Both are pathways paved by history. For Johnson, the juncture is decisive. He must make it his “finest hour,” swiftly, or “in the name of God, go.”

Image: Donald Sheridan

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