Never deal with dictators in person

Dictators scent weakness—so it’s wise not to risk meeting them

February 09, 2022
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Photo: Russian Look Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

The pictures of Putin “negotiating” with Macron in the Kremlin, at opposite ends of the longest table you have ever seen in your life, reinforces my general view that it is best for democratic leaders not to deal directly with dictators. They are characters of steel, mainly interested in scenting weakness and overawing with power and mind games.

We all hope that the French president’s efforts to avoid a Russian invasion of Ukraine are availing, but I fear he didn’t get to a better place than would have been achieved by backroom diplomacy and the strongest possible assertion of western solidarity. He would, I suggest, have done better to have gone with Olaf Scholz to Washington in a show of western unity, which instead frayed when Chancellor Scholz, in the Oval Office, refused explicitly to say that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be cancelled in the event of Putin aggression.

To avoid a calamitous miscalculation, Putin has got to be certain of dire economic consequences—Iranian style—if he invades Ukraine (again). The west can’t hope to physically repel an invasion of non-Nato Ukraine. But we can inflict immeasurable harm on the ailing Russian economy, which is smaller than Britain’s; we can probably sustain a Ukrainian guerrilla resistance; and we can and must make crystal clear, by deploying significant further forces in the Baltic states in particular, that Nato’s Article 5 guarantee of the security of all 30 of its members is unshakeable.

As for Putin’s arguments about the western threat to Russian security, assuaged by some western commentators who should know better, these should be rejected with contempt. As former foreign secretary William Hague puts it, Putin “feels threatened, not by western forces, but by the emergence of free peoples and independent countries on Russia’s borders... He is the cause of his own insecurity. The respect he really wants is that we disown our own values and friends, and that is something we cannot provide.”

Furthermore, the idea that the west is at fault in offering security guarantees to the new central and eastern European democracies liberated from the Soviet Union in 1989 is an appeasement mentality straight out of the 1930s. Today’s European civilisation rests on democracy and freedom—or it isn’t a civilisation worth the name. If we aren’t immediately prepared to protect democratic Europe from invasion by fascist dictators, we will pay a far higher price thereafter. As the poet said, “If once you have paid him the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane.”

As for the 1930s, a dangerous rehabilitation of Chamberlain is taking place—which to my surprise my friend, the brilliant historical novelist Robert Harris, is encouraging. His book Munich, and now the film adaptation, give a favourable view of Chamberlain’s personal shuttle diplomacy, on the hackneyed view that the Munich Agreement bought us crucial time to prepare for the inevitable war, without which Hitler might have defeated us.

History is an art, not a science, and I can’t say with certainty that this historical counterfactual is false. But it is my very strong view that it is so, and recent scholarship has reinforced that in three key respects. First, Chamberlain did not see himself as buying time at Munich; he believed he had cleverly outwitted Hitler in his face-to-face meetings and avoided war entirely, as his recently published and extraordinarily arrogant weekly letters to his sisters in Birmingham make clear. Moreover, his appeasement didn’t stop at Munich: it extended to allowing Hitler to invade the whole of Czechoslovakia—in defiance of Munich—only months later, the ease of which strongly encouraged him and his generals to proceed to Poland.

Secondly, there are serious doubts as to whether Hitler’s power over the German high command would even have enabled him to launch a general European war in 1938-1939, as opposed to 1939-1940, when he had successfully taken Czechoslovakia without a fight. In 1938 his grip on the German elite was less tight, and his reputation for success far less assured than a year later, after Chamberlain had gifted him a reputation for comprehensively worsting the “weak” democracies. It is plausible that Hitler would have been ousted, assassinated or forestalled had he lunged desperately in 1938.  

Thirdly, the appeasement mindset, once instilled in the British political and social elite, was very hard to eradicate, as attested by the Chips Channon diaries recently published in a brilliant edition edited by Simon Heffer. Channon and most of his fellow Tory MPs in 1938-1939 not only followed but admired and even—in Channon’s case—worshipped the hard-as-nails Chamberlain, while detesting maverick Churchill who had been wrong about almost everything in his earlier political career. Only by a very fine margin did Churchill become prime minister in May 1940, as France was being invaded. The premiership almost went to Viscount Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign secretary, and would have done so had that languid pessimistic aristocrat wanted it. Halifax, as prime minister, would probably have completed Chamberlain’s work and signed an armistice with Hitler after the fall of France and the eradication of much of Britain’s army at Dunkirk.

Unlike Chamberlain, Churchill never met Hitler. Thank God. He did meet Mussolini and later Stalin, and fell for both of them, with seriously negative consequences. You can read the story of how Labour’s great postwar foreign secretary Ernie Bevin picked up the pieces of Churchill and Truman’s appeasement of Stalin in 1945 in my biography of Ernie, just out in paperback. It all supports my general rule: never deal with dictators in person if you can avoid it.