Sunday 11 June 2023

Chatham House needs to avoid the 1930s trap (The Sunday Guardian)

 Chatham House, otherwise known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), was set up in 1923 by a philanthropic couple in London. Originally intended as a brains trust for the promotion of the British Empire, the RIIA these days is concerned mostly with devising ways of increasing the influence of the UK in various parts of the world. Much of its work is admirable. This columnist visited Chatham House only once, and that was a decade ago. Memories linger of a stately structure and of the scholars within it, who were attentive and courteous even while hearing a point of view that differed substantially from those held by them. Neither side was converted to the other’s viewpoint after the exchange, but the afternoon passed pleasantly, and the conversation was often “frank” but always within the boundaries of friendly dissent. Having a view different from that of the prevalent view in Chatham House was not seen by its members as a capital offence or even a misdemeanour, it simply reflected different shades of the tapestry that constitutes genuine enquiry. Since then, the world outside Chatham House has become somewhat less respectful of points of view other than what those who are listening consider to be correct. Hopefully such a change has yet to penetrate through the walls of the RIIS, and that those having contrarian views are still welcomed inside for a chat over a bit of tea.

It has been ninety-three years since Adolf Hitler was handed over control of the German government. Chatham House has often been the subject of unflattering comments about the way in which the institute believed the Nazi Party to be amenable to reason once sufficient goodwill was shown to them in the form of concessions. It was not Hitler’s Germany that was regarded as the principal threat, but Stalin’s Soviet Union. Hitler had an appetite for aggression that only grew with each concession made to him, but this was not clear to many. For many policymakers, his inflexibly aggressive policies were not clear even after Hitler humiliated and made helots of the Czechs while cruelly rounding on the Jews. Hitler’s takeover of Austria was passed off as just the homecoming into the Reich of an essentially Germanic people, indeed that to which Hitler himself belonged. Earlier still, the re-occupation by force of the Rhineland was regarded as simply a political gesture that would not have much impact on the future, especially given the Nazi leadership’s claim that peace filled their minds and hearts. Considering what France and Britain had undergone during World War I, it was understandable that there was a desire in both countries to walk the extra ten miles, if that was needed to prevent another catastrophic war in Europe that could soon spill over elsewhere. Such a mood was pervasive within Chatham House. The few on the outside who understood the barbaric, insatiable nature of the Nazis were considered warmongers belonging to an inconsequential fringe. Those tasked with the preservation of British power and prestige celebrated rather than condemned the 1938 Munich conference. Now at last, at the expense of that tiresome fellow Benes and his tiny country, Hitler would be satiated and begin to behave in the manner someone who was regarded as admiring the English would. Of course, it did not happen quite that way. Instead of banishing the prospect of war, appeasement of the dictator and his “circle of evil” brought war unavoidably closer. A defence of the Rhineland from German occupation or a refusal to cede ground to Hitler at Munich could have averted war by destroying the cultivated myth of the inevitability of German successes under Hitler. Resolve to resist backed by force is sometimes the only way of preventing a catastrophic conflict.

Chatham House has many experts specialising on China, as well as two India experts. It is unclear whether the two have been effective in dispelling the notion of their colleagues that, for instance, the CAA is a law intended to expel Muslim citizens from India. Actually, despite its clumsy nomenclature, when it actually promises is to provide refuge to persecuted minorities in three countries in South Asia. Or to gently remind those who believe Kashmir should go to Pakistan “as it is a Muslim majority state” that there are almost as many Muslims in India as in Pakistan, a country where religious minorities are close to extinction. Oddly, the Pakistan experts in Chatham House double up as experts on Afghanistan. The Taliban and other Afghans have a view different from those who see Afghanistan as simply a satellite of Pakistan.

A lot of attention is being given within Chatham House in the devising of ways of persuading the CCP to follow international rules. Experience shows that the PRC does so only when it suits its immediate interests, but never otherwise. India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan are among the states that have had their sovereignty threatened or violated by the PRC. The roster of victims of aggression by China is growing. India is an essential link in the chain of alliances that are needed to keep the Indo-Pacific open to all. Yet not just Chatham House but the Conservative Party government itself appears to be allergic to the term “Indo-Pacific”, preferring to continue with the dated term “Asia Pacific”, even while the Indo-Pacific has become central to global security. The world is today confronting a predatory power that seeks to demolish by force or subterfuge the status quo in the Indo-Pacific as a step towards establishing its control over its waters and more. The South China Sea has already been practically gobbled up by the PRC, with the East China Sea next in its sights. There is, just as there was in the 1930s, considerable evidence that if appeasement of a predatory power ought not to pay in Europe (which is the rationale behind NATO’s present belligerence towards Russia), the same principle should be applied to Asia. It is not. Which is why Chatham House needs to get its bearings right in the 2020s in a manner that eluded it throughout the 1930s.

Chatham House needs to avoid the 1930s trap

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