President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki. In a subsequent joint news conference, Trump appeared to endorse Russia’s position that it did not interfere in the U.S. presidential election. Trump also blamed the United States for the worsening relationship.
This prompted swift outrage, even from some Republicans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the remarks “disgraceful” and said that “no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” And Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said he was “disgusted.”
Former CIA director John Brennan wrote: “It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
Another accusation leveled at Trump carries particular historical weight: that Trump is appeasing Russia. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) worried more about “unknown appeasement in private.” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) went further, tweeting, “It was nothing more than the @potus agreeing hand-in-glove with the Russian autocrat.”
Appeasement is not a new charge in the history of U.S.-Soviet/Russian summits. What Trump is doing is not appeasement, however. If anything, it could be even more problematic — both for U.S. foreign policy goals and the teetering liberal order that has governed international politics since the end of World War II.
Appeasement has been a common charge
Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders met with their Soviet rivals. At almost every meeting, the president was accused of appeasement.
Dwight Eisenhower explicitly rejected the strategy of appeasement. He told the public in 1959, “The course of appeasement is not only dishonorable, it is the most dangerous one we could pursue.”
But when Eisenhower invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to visit the United States in 1959, people called it appeasement. Conservative author William Buckley Jr. gave a speech in which he said: “That he should achieve orthodox diplomatic recognition not four years after shocking history itself by the brutalities of Budapest; months after shooting down an unarmed American plane; only weeks since he last shrieked his intention of demolishing the West; only days since publishing in an American magazine his undiluted resolve to enslave the citizens of free Berlin. … Will he not return to Moscow convinced that he heard — with his own ear — the death rattle of the West.”
When Richard Nixon went to a summit in Moscow in 1972, he, too, was accused of appeasement. U.S. Rep. John Ashbrook wrote that “the total history of man indicates we can place very little reliance on treaties or written documents. This is especially true when the agreements are with nations or powers which have aggressive plans. Hitler had plans. Chamberlain’s Munich served only to deaden the free world to reality. The communists have plans. SALT will merely cause us to lower our guard, possibly fatally.”
Democrats were not immune to making or facing similar accusations. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democratic senator from Washington state, criticized Jimmy Carter’s 1979 summit with the Soviets, saying: “To enter a treaty which favors the Soviets as this one does on the ground that we will be in a worse position without it, is appeasement in its purest form. … It is all ominously reminiscent of Great Britain in the 1930s. … The failure to face reality today, like the failure to do so then — that is the mark of appeasement.”
Even Ronald Reagan was called an appeaser. When he held a summit in 1987 with Mikhail Gorbachev, Howard Phillips, the head of the Conservative Caucus, announced an “anti-appeasement” group designed to attack Reagan, calling him a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda” and “a weak man.”
The appeasement charge is usually hollow
The analogy to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 appeasement of Adolf Hitler is premised on the notion that if you make concessions to an aggressor, the aggressor becomes more aggressive.
Indeed, taken to its extreme, criticism of appeasement might prevent any concession in a negotiation with an enemy because any concession might then make the enemy become more aggressive. But there is ample historical evidence that the negotiations during the Cold War helped manage crises between adversaries while preventing a global war.
Trump’s strategy may be much worse
In the end, stretching the analogy to cover Trump’s meeting with Putin may confuse the term “appeasement” with other, more salient accusations.
If the summit was only a political show, it is different than appeasement because it does not involve making substantive concessions on territory or arms. Earlier criticisms — especially of presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, described how their dealmaking led the United States to adopt an inferior strategic position. At Helsinki, there appears to be no deal. If the summit was only political theater, it not a traditional appeasement strategy.
In fact, the criticisms leveled at Trump imply that he is engaging in a far more dangerous strategy than appeasement. No other president blamed the United States for the sour state of a relationship, as Trump did when he tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
Moreover, no other president was accused of engaging in appeasement for personal profit, such as when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said his performance “proves that the Russians have something on the President, personally, financially or politically.”
To understand the outcry requires changing historical analogies. Trump’s critics are not just accusing him of making bad policy. They are arguing that he is closer to a Manchurian candidate, controlled by Russia. These charges are different but may be even more serious than appeasement. After all, no one believed Hitler had scandalous videos of Neville Chamberlain.
Eric Grynaviski is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. His most recent book is “America’s Middlemen: Power at the Edge of Empire.” It explores how unusual figures, such as traders, missionaries and slaves, have contributed to the shaping of American history by making deals with militias, tribes and rebels.