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How Do We Stop the Worst Analogy in Foreign Policy?

Back in 2008, Eric C and I used to use the phrase “Munich Moment” fondly. For us, a Munich moment was when Eric C managed to make out with two different girls on the same night.

Ah, Munich.

Unfortunately, our use of “Munich Moment” has been bastardized by our great country’s politicians. John Kerry, in a desperate bid to attempt every single rhetorical flourish possible in pursuit of a war with Syria, described America’s need to launch cruise missiles at Syria as America’s “Munich Moment”.

Obviously, comparing every single foreign policy crisis to Munich in 1938 doesn’t make sense. And don’t kid yourself: every single foreign policy crisis in my adult lifetime--stretching from Iraq to Egypt to Iran (here, here and here) to Ukraine (here and here) and to Syria--has had some political leader invoking this terrible analogy.

We aren’t the first writers to bemoan this overused phrase. Tom Schactman in Foreign Policy wrote an article asking to retire the phrase here. Elias Groll piled on here. Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the New Republic argued against it here. And others said it here, here and here.

In Syria’s case, the analogy--especially in hindsight--was particularly egregious. Unlike Hitler, Bashar al Assad hadn’t invaded a single one of his neighbors. Supporting the rebels would have probably (and ironically) strengthened ISIS. (As Fareed Zakaria pointed out--citing Marc Lynch--in civil wars, extremists tend to thrive, not moderates.) Since ISIS later expanded to Iraq, who they kind of invaded, in a way, fighting Bashar al Assad actually would have been like the U.S. siding with Germany in 1938.

So the question for today, and one we don’t have a great answer for, is how do we stop this analogy? Like HYDRA in a Captain America movie, every time we kill one head, two grow back. Here are some ideas:

1. Public shaming. It’s been tried.

2. One of those White House petitions saying President Obama should issue an executive order forbidding this analogy in his cabinet. That would be funny, but either unconstitutional or unproductive.

3. More data analysis on this term. I don’t need to repeat the arguments for why this comparison/analogy is beyond ludicrous. So instead we want to provide something new to the debate. What is the “Munich Moment’s” batting average? In other words, how often have critics who used this phrase been correct? (Probably once, with the original use of the term.)

4. Crush opponents with logic. Especially the growth of international institutions. The Munich conference existed in a world before the UN, NATO, the Arab League, the EU, the G-Anything and countless other international institutions. The world frankly uses diplomacy a lot more than it used to. What is particularly remarkable about all the accusations of “Munich Moments” is they don’t even occur during diplomatic meetings. These are countries with internal troubles, not great powers invading neighbors.

5. Call them real-life trolls? In the future, when anyone says, “Munich Moment” can we immediately say they just violated Godwin’s law, turn off their microphone (if they are on cable television), and move on?

6. Replace “Munich Moment” with “July Crisis” or “Gulf of Tonkin”. There are two other analogies out there. The first--”July Crisis”--is an analogy no one ever uses, but should. One hundred years ago last August, the leaders of Europe had a “July Crisis”, in which every diplomat utterly failed to prevent a senseless world war. The minor assassination of an archduke led to tens of millions of deaths. Instead of worrying about Munich Moments, we should be worried about a July Crisis. Gideon Rachman of FT made this argument pretty persuasively, when also pondering the centennial of World War I.

The second is more familiar in the U.S., but hasn’t been evoked since we invaded Iraq. In hindsight, the Johnson administration used faulty intelligence to escalate in Vietnam, and the quagmire cost 60,000 Americans their lives. Initial data points are often the worst excuses to go to war, not the best.

In short, we should worry about July Crises and Gulf of Tonkins, not fret about Munich moments.

four comments

VERY clever. And informative. I especially appreciate the links that back up the info; some of them no longer work but the concept is excellent.

July Crises. Much more, unfortunately, apt.

Well said.


Particularly spot on with the point about the employment of Munich analogies in instances when no formal diplomatic exchange (much less a face-to-face meeting) has taken place. As a historian, I dearly want people to “learn the lessons of history.” I really do. Of course when they latch on to a simplistic interpretation of a narrow historical moment, it almost invariably ends in tears. There are so many important points of context surrounding Munich that one must take into account to determine its utility as an analytic framework. But all them there big words and stuff just can’t compete with the “giving in to aggressors only encourages future aggression.” And so I gasp and cringe when I hear people hawking at the behest of a historic precedent set at a time when the world was just two decades gone from a bloodletting the likes of which mankind had never seen. Even more so when I hear it from the mouths of Americans who were largely spared the society-eviscerating body counts of both World Wars. It’s easy to be gun-ho when you aren’t faced with an economy that is crumbling and a lost generation of young men and the offspring they would have produced. Neville Chamberlain has been a superb whipping boy for generations of policymakers who have never had to walk into a conference room attended by the souls of hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers and full of the awareness that a confrontational posture at this moment could easily result in the need for several hundred thousand more graves.


“(…) a bloodletting the likes of which mankind had never seen”

As a historian, you should reconsider this statement in light of the Taiping rebellion.


not even once. Hitler told “Czechoslovakia” to return the Sudetenland and it’s almost entirely German population of 3,000,000 people to Germany, from whence they had been torn at Versailles, 1919. The Czechs did so and, a few months later, the Slovaks seceded and set up their own state. Just as they did in our own time when the Red Empire collapsed. No more “Czechoslovakia” in 1939, and gone for good now. History has proven Hitler right about the Versailles Diktat, about “Czechoslovakia”, about “Yugoslavia”, about the Red Empire, and the encirclement power warmongers – Mr. Churchill in particular – wrong. We must all hope that History does not prove Hitler right about other things as well