What is it about democracies that at critical moments they delude themselves into thinking that they can contain their totalitarian enemies through a policy of niceness? In the 1930s, the British and French leaderships believed that appeasement -

What is it about democracies that at critical moments they delude themselves into thinking that they can contain their totalitarian enemies through a policy of niceness?

In the 1930s, the British and French leaderships believed that appeasement - accepting Adolf Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia - would satiate the German dictator's aggressiveness.

In the 1970s, three American presidents thought that détente with Leonid Brezhnev would make it possible to build a U.S.-Soviet "structure of peace"

In the 1990s, four Israeli prime ministers engaged in a "peace process" that offered Yasser Arafat substantial rewards on the expectation that the Palestinians would then accept Israel's existence.

Each of these forays in diplomacy harmed the democratic states' interests. 1930s appeasement stimulated German demands, increased tensions, and partially caused World War II. Détente in the 1970s helped build Soviet military power and encouraged Kremlin adventurism, culminating in its invasion of Afghanistan. The 1990s peace process persuaded Palestinians that Israel was weak, leading to an outbreak of suicide bombings and other violence underway for two years now.

But, ignoring this disastrous record, yet another democratic state (U.S.-backed South Korea) is deep in the throes of making nice to another totalitarian enemy (communist North Korea), as Nicholas Eberstadt persuasively shows in "Our Other Korea Problem" in the fall issue of The National Interest.

Since the Korean War of 1950-53, the North-South confrontation along the 38th parallel has been perhaps the most consistently venomous and tense of any on the globe, with the North permanently menacing an invasion of the South.

With the possible exception of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, no regime on earth matches the North Korean for repression of its own people and aggression against neighbors. The North's monomania for building up its military forces means that these are (in the words of one U.S. general) getting "bigger, better, closer and deadlier."

For decades, the central fact of public life in South Korea had been the threat from the North - how to deter it, prepare for it, remain vigilant against it and defeat it.

At the same time, the balance of power generally shifted in the South's favor. As the North's economy has gone from disastrous to catastrophic, the South has become an industrialized and rich country. As the North's leadership has gone from megalomaniac to deranged, the South's has become increasingly democratic and responsible.

This has led to a confidence in the South and the election in December 1997 of a former dissident, Kim Dae-jung, as the South's eighth president. He instituted a "sunshine policy" to reduce tensions with the North by encouraging political, business, cultural and family links with it. He declared the North "our compatriot" and promised that "there will no longer be war."

The "Sunshine Policy" makes the outside world swoon, of course; Kim received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 in recognition of his work for "peace and reconciliation." It has also deeply influenced perceptions in South Korea. Opinion research shows a surge in hope and trust toward the North that is accompanied by a burgeoning hostility to the United States and the 37,000 American troops stationed in South Korea as a tripwire to protect it from the North.

This is where, as Eberstadt rightly notes, South Korean policy "has inadvertently set in play powerful forces" that could not only jeopardize South Korea's military alliance with the United States but could "trigger a major diminishment of American influence in the Pacific." East Asian stability and economic growth could lastingly be harmed were this to happen.

South Korea's policy of wishful thinking, in short, potentially endangers not only its own welfare but that of its entire region.

Which returns us to the question: Why do democracies lull themselves into thinking they can tame an enemy with smiles and generosity? Key factors would seem to be:

  • An inability to imagine evil: citizens of successful states mirror-image and assume that the other side could not be that different from their own.
  • Fatigue: having to be vigilant, seemingly without end, inspires wishful thinking.
  • Self-recrimination: a tendency to blame oneself for a foe's persistent enmity.

Knowing how badly prior cases of appeasement turned out, we can only tremble while watching the South Koreans march down the same path of folly.