There is no question that the world is in a dangerous place at the moment. It is at the mercy of threatening autocrats from Putin to Kim Jong Un, from Ali Khamenei to Xi Jinping.
Of course, the history of the planet has always involved such circumstances. The lure of constantly expanding territory and influence has been an enticement for despots - invariably men - since the beginning of time. And in Lord Acton's famous dictum, "All power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely."
However, the advent of the nuclear age makes this situation infinitely more perilous than in previous eras, when the only weapons available ranged from clubs and spears to machine guns and TNT explosives. Total annihilation of cities, nations, and possibly the planet is now a theoretical possibility, and in the hands of psychopaths could easily become a real one. As Charles Darwin so vividly explained in Origin of Species
If a fair balance be struck between the good and evil caused by each part, each will be found on the whole advantageous... After the lapse of time, under changing conditions of life, if any part comes to be injurious, it will be modified, or if it be not so, that being will become extinct, as myriads have become extinct.
How can the world respond to this apocalyptic situation? When dealing with tyrants wielding terrible power, what is the best policy? Negotiation or resistance? Appeasement or aggression? Capitulation or defiance?
The last great incidence of this dilemma was probably the Cuban missile crisis at the height of the Cold War. Then JFK took the gamble, stood his ground, and outfaced Khrushchev, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Prior to that however, the much longer, and possibly more momentous debate, happened in the years leading up to World War II when Winston Churchill, almost alone, castigated the appeasers, led by Neville Chamberlain, for their failure to confront Hitler over his blatant ambitions.
Churchill was of course finally vindicated in his opinions when Hitler invaded Poland, Chamberlain was forced to declare war, and Winston was returned to government after ten years 'in the wilderness'. He then used his dominating personality and his inspiring oratory to galvanise the British nation into rising to the challenge, and the rest is history.
I tried to capture the argument between the two men, and the extraordinary dynamism of Churchill, in my new novel, Dinner With Churchill, published in November this year. It features an occasion when the two arch political enemies (who privately had great respect for each other's talents) met with their wives for a private dinner at Admiralty House, six weeks after the war on Germany had begun. Chamberlain was still Prime Minister, and Churchill First Lord of The Admiralty, and this was the first time the four had ever met socially alone together. There is no record of what actually happened during that unique evening.
I imagined the climactic exchange of the dinner thus:
Chamberlain: We have to appreciate the nature of the beast, you said. That's true. Germany is a wounded beast. And the reasonable man does not corner such an animal until he explores all other means of calming it.
Churchill: Even as it devours your sheep, and threatens your own children?
Chamberlain: We have no proof of that! He has never declared his intention to invade us.
Churchill: You expect him to announce it?
Chamberlain: He has specifically stated that is not his ambition.
Churchill: And you in your innocence believe him?
Chamberlain: I in my wisdom know that to challenge Hitler in the way we are doing is to risk provoking the very reaction we fear! Hitler is a monster, I do not deny it. But the fiercer the monster, the more cautiously you have to deal with it. Is that not so?
Churchill: No. You may not deal with monsters. You must slay them.
Chamberlain: I cannot discuss with you. We are as different to each other as we are to Hitler.
Churchill: No. No we are not. There is a crucial distinction.
Chamberlain: Well, at this moment I cannot see it.
Churchill: No, you cannot. Because you will not open your eyes. Neither you, nor all your timid minions in the House, nor all the others who would try and talk their way out of the labyrinth. Everyone out there who would sell their birthrights for a quiet life – the pacifist intellectuals, the wishful thinkers, the dull masses who wait for leadership and who will perish for want of it - you all resolutely refuse to open your eyes and recognise the terrible truth that stares you in the face. Which is that the head of a great nation - like so many who have usurped such positions in the past - is nothing but a criminal, a tyrant, a psychopath, for whatever fathomless reasons the psychoanalysts might find. And as such he has no scruples, and only one ambition. To go on conquering, and murdering, and coercing until he is master of all within his vision. Which means first his own people. Then his neighbours. Then the world.
Such perverted mentalities do not understand themselves that there will never be limits to the craving that compels them. They cannot hesitate for a moment in their voracious path, for that would be to recognise the depravity of their own ambitions. And because they are so utterly without constraint or conscience in this quest, there is only one way to prevent them. That is for the sane world to become as ruthless as they are.
You cannot negotiate with such a creature because he will prevaricate and lie and deceive to use time to his own advantage. You cannot face him with your morality because despotism is his morality. You cannot sign treaties with him for he will tear them up without compunction. You cannot face him with reason, or logic, or pleas for compassion because he does not comprehend these concepts. You cannot oppose him with half measures, with unprepared armies, with bluff or with bluster because he is unequivocal in his preparations. And you cannot hesitate for a day in your determination to destroy him, because you can be certain he will not hesitate for a second.
We... no – you have already hesitated far too long, Prime Minister. You have stood by and vacillated whilst he has seized state after state, annihilated city after city, butchered dynasties and sects and whole populations, and the sole reason we are still here ourselves is because there are only so many directions he can spit his venom at once.
But the days are running out. If we do not rise from our lethargy, if we do not cast off this delusion that the world is at heart a reasonable place, then we will have the monster roaring at our gates and we will have nothing with which to combat him but our pious protestations of good manners!
The vital question facing humanity now is, do such sentiments still apply in the face of the nuclear threat?