Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Woodrow Wilson’s Diplomacy, the First World War and the Quest for Post-War Peace

Woodrow Wilson’s Diplomacy, the First World War and the Quest for Post-War Peace

Woodrow Wilson and American Flag Postcard
Photo from Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives

This article is based on Granieri’s address to our History Institute for Teachers on America’s Entry into WWI, hosted and cosponsored by the First Division Museum at Cantigny on April 9-10, 2016.

As we have already heard at this conference, there are plenty of points of criticism of the way that Woodrow Wilson and his fellow peacemakers handled the conclusion and aftermath of the First World War.  Critics of Wilson, and there are many, tend to emphasize the irrational idealism of his efforts to remake the international system. And they may indeed be right that Wilson placed too much faith in the power of free trade and democracy, as identified in his Fourteen Points. He also certainly played fast and loose with terms such as “national self-determination,” which fed both high expectations and almost inevitable disillusion. He never meant that it would be applied to all peoples everywhere—ask the Italians, the Germans, the Irish, and the Hungarians, or the Arabs for that matter. And he definitely failed at the crucial moment, in that he was neither able to win his partners at Paris over to the pure elements of his vision nor to convince colleagues and voters back home that the compromises resulting from his negotiations with Britain and France at Paris were worthwhile.

Perhaps worst of all, Wilson clung to the notion that the League of Nations would solve all outstanding problems once it was up and running, which meant he considered any further changes to the Treaty of Versailles to be unnecessary before ratification. That combination of stubbornness and forced optimism would prove dangerous, as his unwillingness to admit the imperfections of the Treaty contributed to its failure in the Senate.

Wilson’s sudden, literal collapse in September 1919, and the slow-motion figurative collapse of the League of Nations in the two decades to follow, each offer eloquent testimony to the faultiness, even the impossibility, of Wilson’s vision for world affairs in the postwar world.

But just because Wilson’s prescriptions were faulty, or badly applied, does not mean that his diagnosis was incorrect.

For the old diplomacy, whatever you want to call it—balance of power is not quite accurate—had indeed failed in the years between 1914 and 1919. Not because the war broke out—that’s perfectly natural, and normal within such a system. No, the problem was not that the system had allowed the war to start, but rather that it proved utterly incapable of limiting the scope of the war once it began, let alone ending it. If we begin with that observation, we can then continue with some broader ruminations on the deficiencies of wartime diplomacy, and the search for an enduring postwar settlement.

A Century of Peace?

As we have already heard this weekend, the First World War began with a confused combination of excitement and worry. Many welcomed it initially, either out of genuine enthusiasm of the moment or from the belief that there was no alternative to war at that moment. Before long, however, the terrible calculus of destruction showed that the war would be something new in the annals of human depravity. So it is easy to argue that the war was itself the catastrophic proof of the failure of the system.

But it is not merely the fact of war that made the catastrophe.

One popular commonplace in general narratives of the Great War is the notion that 1914 marked the end of a century of peace, the first general war in Europe since the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Scholars and political analysts enjoy contrasting the allegedly shrewd statesmen of the Congress of Vienna with the failed idealists of Paris 1919. This assertion makes for a good conversation starter, but is true only if one engages in some significant verbal tergiversations. It is certainly true that there was no general war that involved all of the powers of Europe between the end of the Congress of Vienna in summer 1815 and August 1914. But that is not the same as saying that this was an era of peace. There were plenty of wars in those ninety-nine years—limited in geographic scope, some of them even vaguely ridiculous when assessing the relationship between their causes and effects, but real enough to the soldiers who gave their last full measure of devotion at Solferino or Sebastopol, Sadowa or Sedan.

What marked the years between Vienna and Sarajevo was not peace, but rather the continuous, more or less stable management of conflict. That was the hallmark of an international system in which force and diplomacy existed in a tight relationship with each other. As expressed by Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means, the great powers had worked to maintain the relationship between war and politics, even as those powers themselves experience significant internal and systemic changes over the century. Whether the actors were old school aristocrats such as Metternich and Castlereagh, practitioners of nationalist Realpolitik such as Bismarck or Cavour, or even unprincipled schemers such as Napoleon III, diplomacy did not banish force—rather, diplomacy and force tempered and restrained each other, placing limits and encouraging resolution of conflicts. The goal of the international system was not permanent peace, but the ability to contain and correct outbreaks of violence. In that sense, the system had been successful.

I’m not trying to romanticize the pre-1914 world, but I am saying that the difference between the July Crisis and the crises that led to limited wars in Crimea, Italy, Denmark, Austria, France, South Africa, Korea, Siberia, and the Balkans (not to mention the near-wars in places such as Fashoda, Morocco, and Bosnia, and the many colonial wars fought from the Cape to Cairo—did I mention that this was far from a century of peace?) is how even when disputes between great powers spilled over into violent conflict, the conflicts were kept within geographic and strategic bounds, and the settlements that resulted were the product of diplomatic compromise between belligerents.

The problem for the old diplomacy is that once the war got started, it was hard to pursue anything approaching a sensible negotiating strategy to end it, despite the fact that there was probably more in common between states than ever before. The old dictum from Clausewitz was turned on its head—politics became merely an extension of the war.

Instead, ultimatums, based on mobilization schedules and military considerations, usually meant war, and the representative nature of governments encouraged extravagant demands and propaganda rather than the “rationality” of old-fashioned cabinet warfare.

There is a profound irony here. Total war, as it emerged during the First World War, was in part the product of having to mobilize the resources of increasingly complex industrial societies to feed the (literal and figurative) war machine. That mobilization developed a terrible momentum all its own. Even if the belligerent states were not democracies in any modern sense, they had to appeal to the broad mass of the people to get them to make the sacrifices necessary to keep such a conflict going. Once the people were included in the discussion, because the states need the people to fight and work and generally behave themselves, governments ran into the problem of managing public opinion once the war had begun. It may not be easy to get the people to embrace war, but once mobilized, how do you de-escalate?

This would become a great challenge for 20th Century international system.

 A Century of Peace? Conscious Uncoupling: Clausewitz, Modernity, and the Coming of War

Even considering the many dynastic rivalries, nationalist discontents, domestic political challenges, and military-technological advances that (in retrospect, at least) made Europe appear a powder keg before Sarajevo, it took a special combination of circumstances to lead to war in 1914. Even though previous crises had led to negotiations, this time, no one appeared prepared to negotiate. Or, rather, they all appeared to count on someone else to show the restraint they were themselves not prepared to display.

Despite differences between Austrians and Hungarians, Vienna decided they had nothing to gain from negotiation, and welcomed a chance to humble Serbia with an ultimatum the Serbs would be unable to accept. They hoped, however, to keep the war limited. The Germans, willing to risk a war, gave Austria a “blank check,” but did not think a wider conflict was inevitable. German support made Austria unwilling to negotiate even when the Serbs offered a weak response to ultimatum. This in turn pulled in the Russians, still smarting from their failure to support Serbia over Bosnia in 1909, and who did not want to see their Pan-Slavic credentials further undermined. France welcomed the chance for the reckoning they had sought for a generation. Only Britain appears to have seriously wrestled with the possibility of negotiations to defuse the crisis, though that did not last very long once German troops crossed the Belgian frontier.

There is the rub. Whatever possibilities existed for negotiations were undermined by the tyranny of military planning. AJP Taylor famously called this “War by Timetable,” with special reference to Germany’s near-mythical Schlieffen Plan. Even if recent scholars have cast doubt on whether such a well-formulated Schlieffen Plan existed, enormous resources had been devoted on all sides to war planning and the intricacies of mobilization. Once the crisis set the clock running, the tempting objectivity of timetables placed enormous pressure on decision makers to allow events to take their course, limiting their options.

Military planning promised rational objectivity, removing the subjectivity of individual decision makers. In that sense, the war was both a defeat for humanity and a triumph for rational modernity. Although scholars such as Arno Mayer have long noted the Persistence of the Old Regime in the continued power of aristocratic elites in 20th Century Europe, the outbreak of the war proved how weak that old order actually was. The old order had been based on a vague consensus that decisions rested with the people at the top. Yet the location of “the top” had begun to move. Ultimate decisions of war and peace lay not with the monarchs, but with their military professionals. The last gasp of that old world can be found in the rather pathetic series of exchanges between “Willy and Nicky”—Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. As their nations geared up for war, the two cousins proclaimed their desire for peace and chided each other for not having better control over their generals and diplomats, even as both complained that no one on their side listened to them. Cabinet wars could be ended by agreements between monarchs; modern total war could ignore the will of monarchs altogether. Such is the ambivalence of progress.

Once the war got underway, what little diplomatic or political imagination either side possessed was devoted to the search for allies. The rush to gain allies only widened the war, and no one outside of the conflict could get the belligerents to stop. The Germans successfully courted the Ottomans and Bulgarians, while Britain and France used territorial inducements to win over the Italians with the Treaty of London in 1915. The promises were kept secret, however. Their exposure later on would embarrass the Allied cause by revealing the cynical territorial horse-trading behind their emphasis on self-determination.

Wilson and the United States played a complicated role in this political dance. The Americans emphasized neutral rights at sea, though the British blockade kept Americans from trading with the Central Powers, thus gradually encouraging an American tilt toward the Allies. German U-Boats provoked a major crisis in May 1915 by sinking the Lusitania, but Wilson’s personal reluctance to go to war, combined with American domestic political realities (as described by both Neiberg and Mastriano in this issue) kept the United States out of the war for two more years.

All the while, the war continued grinding onward, even as the geopolitical point of the slaughter became harder to see through the fog of poison gas and the smoke of incessant artillery barrages. The finest scientific and managerial minds continued to perfect the technology of death, while political solutions receded into the mist. In the fog of modern total war, Clausewitz’s dictum was harder to follow than ever.

 The Last Gasp of Diplomacy, and the Revolutionary Alternative

By 1916 at the latest the war had lost any connection to coherent and sensible political platforms. It made sense that someone should have tried to end it. The belligerents, however, showed little initiative. Even worse, when the last efforts in this direction came from the Vatican, Washington, and Vienna, the belligerents devoted their efforts to undermining them.

Pope Benedict XV, in an effort to live up to his job description, called for a peace conference in 1916, and offered a more detailed peace plan in August 1917. For his troubles, he was denounced by both French and German Catholics, and retreated back into the silence of the Vatican.

Woodrow Wilson also speculated with the possibility of mediation, but had no luck. Unofficial efforts by his adviser Col. Edward House had proven both unavailing and politically embarrassing. When later in 1916 the Germans proposed peace talks, the Allies indicated that they would view American efforts to work with the Germans as hostile acts. Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing, whose pro-Allied sympathies were obvious, engaged in what Arthur Link calls “one of the most egregious acts of treachery in American history” by undermining Wilson with a newspaper article on 21 December 1916 suggesting that Washington was “drawing nearer the verge of war.” Lansing’s efforts led to Allied rejection of Wilson’s offer, the stalling of peace talks, and the German decisions at Pless in early 1917 to embrace unrestricted submarine warfare—all steps that virtually guaranteed American entrance into the war by the spring.

The last gasp of diplomacy came from the new Habsburg Emperor, Charles, who ascended to the throne in 1916. Feeling their control over events slipping away in 1917, and almost as afraid of a German victory as a German loss, Charles and his Foreign Minister Count Ottokar Czernin hoped to save the Empire by making peace. Charles turned to his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, a Belgian officer, to make a secret deal by approaching the French. Ultimately, Sixtus and Charles both found that what Vienna could offer the allies in return for peace was less valuable than the propaganda benefit of exposing the Habsburg desire for peace. When French officials exposed Vienna’s demarche, the only result was to poison relations with Berlin. Once again, diplomacy was subordinated to the continuation of the war.

The utter failure of the existing order to end the war exacerbated the crisis of legitimacy in those states that lost. Mutinies in the French army in early 1917 were but a foretaste of the more serious revolutions to come. The Russian Revolution opened the door to brand new impulses. Bolshevik foreign policy, based on the assumption that world revolution is coming, led to a rejection of all previous actions. Commissar of Foreign Affairs Leon Trotsky sponsored the publication of all secret treaties and the rejection of all previous agreements. Ironically, rejection of the old order meant a return to at least the appearance of diplomacy. Confident that anything they gave away would come back to them soon enough in the wake of world revolution, the Bolsheviks had no problem with negotiating an immediate end to the war, leading to the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in March 1918, which gave the Germans control over much of western Russia. The Allies responded by attempting to argue that the Bolsheviks were nothing but German agents, a charge they attempted to buttress with the forged Sisson Documents and which also served as justification for the haphazard allied interventions in Russia later in 1918.

All of which brings us back to Woodrow Wilson. The Fourteen Points can best be understood as a liberal democratic alternative to both Lenin and Wilhelm II. Wilson sought to reject the old regime while balancing against both the Bolsheviks and their nationalist-conservative opponents in the Allied camp. Thus Wilson emphasized the idea of making a clean break with the past, which made him a hero to the European public.

Unfortunately for him he found that his fellow allies in the Big Four had interests that did not always coincide with his ideals. They had territorial interests, and also wanted to check the spread of revolutionary ideology, and all this meant that the peace treaties contained elements that at best modified the high-sounding language of the Fourteen Points. In the end, the treaty was a compromise between high hopes and reality, one that left many disillusioned, from Keynes (who called the peace Carthaginian, which was not quite accurate) to Wilson himself. When he returned home, however, he tried to say that this was the best there could be, hoping for the League of Nations to fix everything. He ratcheted up the rhetoric of new beginnings even as he neglected the practical details of parliamentary compromise. He failed, and his health collapsed. The postwar world would turn away from such ideals, and the League would never live up to its promise.

Lessons and Legacies

As I said at the beginning, it’s not hard to see where Wilson failed. In his effort to produce a new approach to international affairs to compete with the Bolsheviks, he hoped that collective security within the League of Nations would be the place to start, built around a world of largely democratic, free-trading nation-states.

Wilson was not wrong to see that the old order had failed. The very fact that the war spun out of the control of those who had started it, and ended up destroying the order that it was supposed to protect, was enough to show that.

But Wilson’s prescriptions—much like those of the Bolsheviks—were based on a misunderstanding of what had been the strengths and weaknesses of the old order. Domestic changes had undermined the old regimes, but had also undermined the habits that had contributed to the system’s stability. The old order had been based on a mixture of threats of force and habits of diplomacy. The war had divided the two, and had invited the public into the political debate. Rather than contributing to peace, appeals to the public had added to the ferocity of the war and the difficulty of negotiation, contributing to the destruction of a generation.

Wilson didn’t want to heal that breach, but to make it permanent, in the mistaken notion that emphasizing public appeals and separating diplomacy and force would allow the one to strengthen and the other to wither away. But Wilson was wrong to assume that one could jump to a new order without appreciating the elements of stability that existed in the old. His experience at Paris provided excellent evidence, if he had had eyes to see. For all his talk about a peace without victors, the allies use Paris to advance goals they had been unable to achieve on the battlefield. The problem is not that the Treaty of Versailles was uniquely evil—clauses on war guilt and reparations were not new at all, and there is plenty of evidence that what the Allies actually extracted from Germany was less than what the Germans had squeezed from a smaller French economy after 1871. The problem was that there was no effort made to include the Germans in the negotiations, no real effort to weigh material interests on both sides to reach a stable peace.

The reason for the decoupling of force and diplomacy is perhaps ironic, as it is relayed to the rise of public opinion in war making. Modern industrial states have to work hard to mobilize their publics to do the work necessary to fight. As George Kennan famously observed in his 1950 classic Walgreen Lectures, later published as American Diplomacy:

A democracy is peace loving. It does not like to go to war. It is slow to rise to provocation. When it has once been provoked to the point where it must grasp the sword, it does not easily forgive its adversary for having produced this situation. The fact of the provocation then becomes itself the issue. Democracy fights in anger — it fights for the very reason that it was forced to go to war. It fights to punish the power that was rash enough and hostile enough to provoke it — to teach that power a lesson it will not forget, to prevent the thing from happening again. Such a war must be carried to the bitter end.

This is true enough, and, if nations could afford to operate in the moral climate of individual ethics, it would be understandable and acceptable. But I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath — in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could have prevented some of these situations from arising instead of proceeding from an undiscriminating indifference to a holy wrath equally undiscriminating.

Kennan was never a friend of democracy, or of the influence of public opinion on diplomacy, so his assertions must be viewed in that light. But his warnings about the challenges of diplomacy in the modern world are worth consideration. The effort to mobilize the public sometimes works against the interests of states to manage crises. If one rouses the public, one needs also to be ready and willing to help educate it, and to work hard to encourage moderation rather than hide behind those public sentiments when they threaten to get out of control. Over the course of the First World War and the postwar era, the states of Europe and also the United States were open enough to the will of the people to be belligerent—but not confident enough in their democratic politics to make and maintain peace. They worked hard to awaken the Kraken, but were much less brave when it came to the challenge of re-chaining it.

We all know that Ferdinand Foch said of Versailles, “This is not a peace; It is a truce for twenty years.” Historians love pregnant predictions, whether they turn out to be true or not. (Sometimes it’s not clear which is better from a storytelling perspective.) A pall of inevitable tragedy hangs over the conclusion of the First World War because we know that the unresolved issues in its settlement helped lead to an even more terrible war later. This is not to say that Versailles caused WWII; it most assuredly did not. But the failure of the Paris peacemakers to match the record of Vienna stands out because the system that they created proved to be so tragically weak.

At the same time, however, we do well to make sure that we have a clear understanding of that failure and its implications.

The tragedy of interwar diplomacy can be traced back to the decoupling of force and diplomacy wrought by the war and ineffectively restored in Paris. The inability of the League of Nations to enforce Wilson’s vision of collective security is a familiar story, but the blame goes beyond habitual partisan complaints about wooly-headed internationalists. The problem was that the powers that should have been responsible for maintaining the peace order were unwilling to match force with diplomacy. They created a system that they were not prepared to defend. Part of that was because they failed to communicate to their populations the need for stronger defenses; the political risk was simply more than they were willing to take. That unwillingness fed and was fed by a growing sense that the postwar settlement was less than completely legitimate. Collective security without clear commitments from participant states was an illusion that failed to replace the stability of the old order.

With no one holding the line, anyone willing to act decisively against the postwar settlement found himself pushing on an open door.

That, however, is a story for another time—maybe for another History Institute.