Students of human nature need look no further than Shakespeare to find warnings of the perils of judging that the motives of others are benign. In Julius Caesar Octavius rightly points out that "And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, Millions of mischiefs", while Hamlet tells us that one may "smile, and smile, and be a villain". The villains themselves admit as such when Iago says “I am not what I am”, and Richard III confesses that “And thus I clothe my naked villainy”.
The tendency to think well, rather than ill, of people is not doubt laudable, but all too often it is merely naive, and can lead to disaster. For individuals a trust in smooth talking snake oil salesmen on the Internet has led to thousands of decent people being tricked into losing often substantial funds, but it is when the problem is inflated to relations between nations that the real danger threatens.
In the 1930s quite sensible figures, including Leo Amery, a man of Jewish descent, were sufficiently naive to be taken in by Adolf Hitler at first, and of course the appeasers, such as Neville Chamberlain, believed that it was possible to reach an accommodation with Nazi Germany. That they could have believed this when the facts that the Nazis were dressing up as pantomime villains, crushing democracy, and persecuting the Jewish people is amazing. Had they taken Mein Kampf seriously they would surely have never trusted Germany for a moment. We were indeed fortunate that, by the skin of our teeth, we were eventually on the winning side, thanks to the Channel, the size of the Royal Navy, the bravery of the RAF, and insane decisions to attack the USSR and America, taken by a man who was a psychopathic megalomaniac.
Of course this ability to ignore what is staring you in the face was not, and is not, restricted to politicians. In the inter war years many apparently sane individuals were vociferous in their support for the League of Nations, but equally convinced that expenditure on our Armed Forces should be cut. One wonders how they could believe that mere moral exhortations could hold back the dictators. The signers of the Peace Pledge Union were, like most pacifists, unable to accept that sometimes one must use force, or at least threaten it, to survive. This sort of gullibility was on display in the years following the war when many marched for CND, in the belief that the way to deal with a totalitarian power, armed with nuclear weapons, was to throw ours away. Perhaps they thought that being well meaning was sufficient, but we all know with what the road to hell is paved.
Unfortunately this refusal to recognize that there is evil in the world persists, for, in the days following the fall of the Soviet Union, many bankers, financiers and investors eagerly took money from tainted sources in Russia, and in so doing spread corruption, and malign influences throughout the Western world. The recent excellent book Putin's People, makes clear that current day Russia is not that of the Tsar and nobles of Imperial times, nor the Soviet era of Stalin and the Politburo, but that of the political equivalent of Michael Corleone and his capos, as Putin and his KGB cronies reign supreme. Many in the West took money from pure greed, but others claimed that it would ensure that Russia would become a respectable part of the world financial system. Well we have seen how misguided was that belief.
Now we have been repeating the same mistake with China. The latter has managed to combine the economic strength of capitalism with the continuation of the power structure of Communism, and we have allowed them to inveigle their way into our infrastructure, without warning infect the whole world with a virus, and begin to undermine democracy everywhere. They have treated the agreement over Hong Kong with contempt, menaced Taiwan, and made invalid claims on the whole Asian area, attempting to browbeat India, even trying to cow Australia. We have foolishly permitted the lure of cheap products to allow much of our industry to gravitate to China. Again the arguments are trotted out that if we engage with them they will gradually become more like us. This is either a conscious lie, or such a misreading of the nature of their regime that it amounts to an insane delusion.
It is time that Western democracies woke up to the fact that we are living in the light from the campfire, but just beyond its circle the monsters are getting closer. Under the Kim family North Korea is the nearest to the world of 1984 that we have yet seen, its people being powerless to overthrow the dictator. Theocratic Iran and the Islamist fanatics will never give up their desire to destroy Israel, and her allies, for, while we are told that their population is becoming younger, and more desirous to live as a Western style nation, still the Ayatollahs rule. The secret policemen who have taken over Russia have imperial ambitions, while a totalitarian China is growing in power and influence every day.
This is not to advocate active belligerence directed against our enemies, but we should recognize them as such, ensure that we possess Armed Forces capable of deterring them, cease to allow them unrestricted entry into our economies, and recognize the fact that, contrary to the beliefs of many well meaning ignoramuses, not everyone is like us. We in the Western world have had our dark periods, and are by no means perfect, but compared to so many of the regimes afflicting mankind, in the phrase popularised by Disraeli, we are on the side of the angels.