The turbulent aftermath of World War I informs our troubled times and reminds us of the potency of nationalism, the attraction of authoritarianism, the risks of economic fragmentation, the temptations of American isolationism, and the fragility of multilateralism.
By Dr. Stewart M. Patrick / 11.08.2018
James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance
Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
Council on Foreign Relations
On Sunday French President Emmanuel Macron will host President Donald J. Trump and eighty other leaders in Paris to commemorate the centennial of Armistice Day. They will gather at the Arc de Triomphe at the moment the guns fell silent on the Western front—at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It will be an occasion for both mourning and reflection. Statesmen and women will honor the millions slaughtered in the “war to end all wars,” from the muddy trenches of the Somme to the bloody beaches of Gallipoli. They will also hear history reverberate, from 1918 to our own troubled times.
World War I has never enjoyed the hallowed reputation of World War II. It lacked a clear good-versus-evil narrative. It ended in stalemate and recrimination. Rather than enduring peace, it birthed political and economic instability. By contrast, “the good war” brought the unconditional surrender of fascism, launched an era of freedom and prosperity, and birthed a slew of global institutions.
And yet it is 1918 and its turbulent aftermath—rather than 1945—that informs our current woes. The last combatant of the Great War was interred years ago, but the legacy of the conflict endures. It reminds us of the potency of nationalism, the attraction of authoritarianism, the risks of economic fragmentation, the temptations of American isolationism, and the fragility of multilateralism.
- The triumph of nationalism. It was during World War I that the doctrine of national self-determination—that each distinct people should have its own state—came of age. President Woodrow Wilson was its prophet, convinced that it would advance democracy and peace. The war vindicated the principle, or so it seemed, in the dissolution of four multiethnic empires (Habsburg, Ottoman, German, and Russian). But Robert Lansing, Wilson’s secretary of state, proved more prescient than the president. The phrase was “loaded with dynamite,” he lamented, since different peoples frequently comingled and claimed identical territories. The Paris Peace Conference produced a disaster—“a peace to end all peace,” in historian David Fromkin’s words. And Wilson’s gift keeps on giving. From the Balkans to Kurdistan, Ukraine to Syria, the nationality principle remains an impediment to political pluralism and regional stability.
- The age of the autocrat. Like our own era, the post–World War I years were ones of political upheaval, during which populist passions propelled authoritarians to power. All of us know the story of fascism in Germany and Italy, but the strongman phenomenon extended across Europe, as polarized electorates rejected liberal, centrist parties and veered toward the radical left or authoritarian right. The result, as one history of the period is titled, was a “Europe of the Dictators.” Similar dynamics are at play today. Freedom House’s most recent annual report documents twelve consecutive years of democratic backsliding. From Turkey to Poland, Hungary to Brazil, and the Philippines to the United States itself, the democratic recession is real.
- The temptations of protectionism. Popular skepticism of the global economy reinforced the interwar appeal of authoritarianism. Both fascists and communists exploited distrust of moneyed interests and capitalism. They drew support from the dispossessed and the downwardly mobile, two categories that grew as the world spiraled into the Great Depression. The world’s major economies exacerbated the global slump by adopting beggar-thy-neighbor monetary and protectionist and discriminatory trade policies that fragmented the world economy into self-contained blocs. We remain a long way from the 1930s today. Nevertheless, President Trump’s frontal assault on the World Trade Organization (WTO), his specious national security justification for steel and aluminum tariffs, and his all-out trade war with China send ominous signals.
- The allure of isolationism. This points to a fourth historical parallel: the abdication of U.S. global leadership. During World War I, Wilson had proposed a novel postwar structure of peace, the Covenant of the League of Nations. This system of collective security would require the United States to abandon the admonitions of Washington and Jefferson to avoid “permanent” and “entangling” alliances, by participating in a standing multilateral mechanism to prevent and punish aggressive war. In the end, the U.S. Senate rejected the Covenant, clinging to isolationism even as a second, more destructive world war approached. Here again, Trump’s actions have a back-to-the-future quality. He has even resurrected “America First,” the slogan of interwar isolationists, while impugning “globalists” for (allegedly) subordinating U.S. sovereignty to international commitments.
A soldier’s helmet hangs on a wooden cross on Armistice Day in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland on November 11, 2006.
The resulting vacuum exacerbates the crisis of contemporary multilateralism. Well before Trump arrived on the scene, the global institutions inherited from the 1940s (like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank) were struggling to adapt to new dilemmas and rising powers. But America’s abdication of global leadership sharpens the dilemma. The question is whether other countries can pick up the slack.
That is certainly Macron’s ambition. As part of next week’s festivities, he is sponsoring a Paris Peace Forum, which he bills an “opportunity to reflect on world governance… and recognize our collective responsibility.” (Full disclosure, I sit on Forum’s steering committee).
Whether France can inject new life into multilateralism remains to be seen. Macron’s domestic political position is weak, and France’s traditional European partners are reeling. The United Kingdom is mired in Brexit, Germany is led by a lame duck Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Italy’s governing populists are at loggerheads with the European Union.
But Macron’s biggest problem lies across the Atlantic, in a United States that is suddenly AWOL. The interwar years taught a clear lesson: When America retreats, the world’s predators flourish. Had it joined the League, the United States might have helped stop fascist aggression in its tracks. Without it, that body never stood a chance. That is a sobering thought, as Trump dismantles the world that America made.
Originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations under the terms a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.