Neville Chamberlain shakes hands with Adolf Hitler after signing an agreement on September 30, 1938, which provided "cessation to Germany of the Sudeten German territory" of the Czechoslovak Republic. Previously, in March, Hitler had annexed Austria. Hitler had argued that he was expanding Germany to include all German-speaking people in a "Greater Germany." He promised that his taking of the Sudentenland would be his last territorial claim in Europe. Many people across Europe and North America praised this Munich agreement as the only way to prevent a major war in Europe.
Even after the war in Europe began in September of 1939, after Hitler had invaded Poland, many Americans supported the "America First Committee" in arguing that the U.S. should stay out of the war because Hitler was no threat to American interests. The "American First Committee" disbanded on December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and one day before the German declaration of war against the U.S.
Today, the American proponents of an "America First" foreign policy say that the U.S. and the European powers should reach an agreement with Vladimir Putin to allow the cessation to Russia of Ukraine, with Putin promising that this will be his last territorial claim in Europe. Donald Trump has suggested something like this. At a G7 summit in 2018, Trump told the leaders at the meeting that Putin had persuaded him that since all Ukrainians speak Russian, Ukraine is part of Russia. He also told them that they should lift the sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Ukrainian territory in Crimea. Now Trump says that Putin has shown himself to be a "genius" in invading Ukraine.
Surprisingly, many American conservatives are endorsing this position. One prominent example of this is the Claremont Institute. On March 3rd, the Claremont Institute posted on its website an essay by Angelo Codevilla, which is an excerpt from his forthcoming book America's Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams. Codevilla finished this shortly before his death last year. The book originated in response to a request in 2019 from Trump's Department of Defense that he lay out what a truly "America First" foreign policy ought to be. He wrote the memo as presenting what John Quincy Adams might have recommended. The editors at the Claremont Institute praise Codevilla for his "characteristic incisiveness and perspicacity on the most serious matters of foreign relations."
Codevilla condemns American political leaders because "they pushed NATO to Russia's borders in the Baltic states and interfered massively in Ukraine." Then, "when, in 2014, Putin took Crimea, Obama imposed economic sanctions, meddled even more in Ukraine, and agreed to station token NATO and American troops in Poland and the Baltic states."
Codevilla insists that Russia is no threat to the U.S. because "we have no clashing interests with it." According to Codevilla, John Quincy Adams
"would be confident that Russia realizes it cannot control Ukraine except for its Russian part, or the Baltics, never mind the states of Eastern Europe. He would reassure Russia that the United States will not interfere with Russia joining the mainstream of European affairs and will not use normal relations with Ukraine or any of Russia's neighbors to inconvenience Russia. . . . He would trust in Russia's actual acceptance of its inability ever again to control this Ukraine. This would be Adams Ukraine policy."
According to Codevilla, Adams would also have removed all sanctions punishing Russia for taking Crimea and the Donbass.
"In sum," Codevilla concludes, "nothing would be geopolitically clearer to Adams than that natural policy for both America and Russia is not to go looking for opportunities to get in each other's way."
Remarkably, Codevilla and the Claremont Institute are taking the side of the socialist left! The International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America has issued a statement condemning any sanctions against Russia for threatening Ukraine. They blame the U.S. and NATO for the crisis in Ukraine: "NATO is a mechanism for US-led Western imperialist domination, fueling expansionism, militarization, and devastating interventions."
The Claremont Institute was originally founded by students of Harry Jaffa, who were devoted to advancing Jaffa's conservative political philosophy. But I cannot believe that Jaffa would have said that it is not in America's interest to fight against the "evil empire" of Russia in defense of freedom. Consider this passage from Jaffa's "Decline and Fall of the American Idea" (The Rediscovery of America, edited by Erler and Masugi, p. 209):
"The moral rationality of the distinction between freedom and despotism articulated with transcendent lucidity in the Declaration of Independence was the ground of the righteous cause not only in the Revolution and the Civil War, but in all the great wars (hot and cold) of the twentieth century. When Ronald Reagan pronounced the Soviet Union an 'evil empire," he needed not many counselors to say so. . . . The Declaration of Independence stands squarely against tyranny, whether of the one, the few, or the many. Every single human being is entitled by the moral law, whether of reason or of revelation, to be considered an end in himself, to be governed, under the laws of God and of nature, by his own consent. Any exception to this can only be a harbinger of reappearing tyranny."
I cannot believe that Jaffa would have said that it is no longer in America's interest to fight for the freedom affirmed in the Declaration of Independence against the despotism of Putin's Russian Empire.
Codevilla invokes the Monroe Doctrine in arguing that as long as Russia does not interfere in the Western Hemisphere--he calls it "our backyard"--Americans ought to reciprocate by not interfering in Russia's backyard, which includes Ukraine. But doesn't this deny the Declaration of Independence in its affirmation of the right of every people to declare their independence from despotic imperial rulers? And didn't the American revolutionaries ask the French to intervene on the American side against the British? Don't the Ukrainians have the same natural right to seek the protection of NATO and the U.S. against conquest by Russia?
If the Claremont Institute is now rejecting the principles of the Declaration of Independence, then they are rejecting the fundamental principles of the American Founding, which were Jaffa's principles.
If I am wrong in my interpretation of the Claremont Institute or of Jaffa, please correct me.