Week 2 update: thoughts on neutrality and international chess

My first week of research focused entirely on internalizing the history of the Spanish civil war. My reading has included two English-language history books, a Spanish-language book exploring how the guerra civil continues to shape Spanish identity and politics, and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In general, Spanish accounts emphasize domestic actors and ideas much more than an English emphasis on international intervention. Also, foreign accounts (including Orwell) are more likely to use a unique “Spanish-ness” as an explanatory factor.

However, one of my favorite insights came from an analysis of U.S. domestic politics in the 1930s. The United States had imposed a “moral embargo” of weapons sales to Spain when the conflict began, and Congress was debating a formalized legal embargo. For the two bands of the conflict, international neutrality codified in weapons embargoes had very different consequences. For Franco’s rebels, weapons continued flowing (illegally) in greater numbers from Germany and Italy, while crucial support from France was denied to the legally and popularly elected Republican government. One U.S. Senator argued that he would be willing to support an embargo to localize the conflict in Spain. However, he added, he “hope[d] it [was] not going to be done in the name of neutrality, for, strictly speaking, neutrality it [was] not,” (Senator Nye in Spain and the Great Powers 1936-1939 p. 156).

In its own way, international neutrality regarding the Spanish civil war played an equally important role as the battalions of Italian soldiers or Hitler’s luftwaffe. Neutrality in name is rarely neutrality in practice, especially in internationalized civil wars in unstable regions like 1930s Europe or the modern Levante. In the context of the Syrian civil war, even states that have abstained from military action or aid are implicated in various ways.

International neutrality in Spain was a mistake in the name of appeasement, given that Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia less than a year after the Spanish conflict ended. However, it was characteristic of overly cautious Western powers terrified of a conflict in their backyard. Obvious though it sounds, a crucial difference between the Spanish and Syrian conflicts is that Syria is in the Middle East. In contrast to a European war, Middle Eastern conflicts do not threaten the actual territory of great powers. As a result, “European states found in the Middle East a convenient arena to fight out their own rivalries with little risk,” (Dietrich Jung, The Levant in Turmoil p. 202). Great powers openly use the Middle East as a realpolitik chessboard, prolonging the Syrian conflict with none of the characteristic caution they showed in Spain.

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