Dreaming Their Sweet Dreams: a Peace to End Peace

The setting for Margaret MacMillan’s lecture “Making peace is harder than waging war” could not have been better. Held in the Ottawa war museum’s lower floor, the LeBreton Gallery, one is enclosed in, surrounded by WW II bulky Canadian tanks and scary heavy artillery. Looking up, one cannot miss a Canadian jet ready to explode into space. Upstairs, the haunting “Victory 1918: the last hundred days” in the last days of its exhibit.

Margaret MacMillan is a tall, regal women who has, rightly so, established herself as one of the world’s leading historians of the first world war and the peace talks in Paris, 1919. Her award-winning book, Paris 1919: six months that shook the world (2001) sweeps us into the multiple worlds of the Paris peace conference. A world teeming with plots and parties, proposals and counterproposals about, as it turned out, how the British and French empires ought to divvy up the smashed-up world map of 1914 and  subvert Woodrow Wilson’s  endless plotting to create a league of nations. MacMillan’s lecture theme—the conditions of peace were not present for peace to occur—startles us out of any dreams of war-no-more coming soon to a nearby theatre.

In fact, Kant’s famous short text, “Perpetual peace: a philosophical sketch,” penned in 1795, offered humankind a profound statement of what conditions had to be present for perpetual peace to come. Gripped by a sense of war’s horrors, Kant thought that if we could not create a league of nations that constrained war, we would “destroy each other and thus find perpetual peace in the vast grave that swallows both the atrocities and their perpetrators.” WW I was a vast grave that swallowed up 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians. What would Kant have thought 125 years down the road? Does his ghost hover over all discussions of a world of unity and peace beyond nation-state self-interest and contestation—whispering encouragement in the collective ear?

The scholarship on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 is like a vine-entangled tropical rain forest. It is not easy to cut through and see some light. I am not a master of this literature, but have been sampling enough to offer reflections on the absent conditions of peace in the bloody aftermath of WW I. Perhaps the most formidable obstacle facing the big four—Orlando of Italy, Clemenceau of France, Lloyd George of Britain and Wilson of the United States—was that they were trapped in an imperialist mentality that could not imagine a “league of nations” comprised of equal nations. They all believed in the superiority of European culture and their right to control various parts of the globe.

A map of Africa in 1919 indicates, shockingly, that every single country (with exception of Ethiopia) was possessed by the British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgian and Italian states. The leaders were racists to the core. Lloyd George and Clemenceau, as David Andelman in A shattered peace: Versailles 1919 and the price we pay today (2014) states: Lloyd George and Clemenceau “managed to retain their grip on their colonial empires and their global hegemony for at least another generation. Their clever manipulations skewed the world back to the 19thcentury realpolitik with which they were most comfortable and away from the concepts of self-determination and democracy that Wilson espoused” (p. 322). MacMillan comments: “The rights of conquest and victory were woven deeply into European history, and previous wars—the Napoleonic, for example—had ended with the victors helping themselves to what they wanted, whether land or art treasures” (p. 21).

And the French hatred of Germany was fueled by revenge and nastiness. The Treaty of Versailles imposed harsh reparations on Germany and they were excluded from membership in the League of Nations. Russia didn’t get in to the circle of the pure, either. MacMillan’s and Andelman’s narratives are chock full of the US and European allies fear that “Bolshevism” would get its hooks into European countries and fire the working classes of the world to overthrow capitalism. But it certainly seems to me that MacMillan is right to locate many modern troubles to the decisions made at the Paris Peace Conference.

The exclusion of a tired, exhausted, starving, war-weary, internally divided and humiliated Russia from the company of acceptable nations in 1920 (the Soviet Union did join in 1934 and was ousted in 1939 for engaging in war with Finland) is at the root of the contemporary demonization of the Russian Federation. Wilson himself sent troops to assist the White Russians to defeat Lenin and the Bolsheviks. If the Soviet Union had been properly welcomed and assisted in creating an orderly world, world history would have been very different. It is also true that one can see the seeds of the modern Israeli state in British contempt for Arabs and religious embracing of Zionism by British politicians such as Arthur Balfour.

In 1922, Churchill spoke to the British House of Commons, praising Pinhas Rutenberg’s plans for  hydro-electric schemes in the Auja and Jordan river valleys. “I am told that the Arabs would have done it for themselves. Who is going to believe that? Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine. They would have been quite content to dwell—a handful of philosophic people—in the wasted sun-scorched plains, letting the waters of the Jordan continue to flow unbridled and unharnessed into the Dead Sea” (David Fromkin, A peace to end all peace: creating the modern Middle East 1914-1922, 1989, p. 523). There would be no self-determination for Palestinians. They simply couldn’t manage it. Palestine was, in Golda Meir’s infamous words, a “land without people for a people without land.”. One hundred years later, the Palestinians are still not permitted by world superpowers to be an autonomous nation.

Mighty Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris in December 1918 like a ball of fire lighting up the darkened sky. MacMillan says that he “ignited great hopes throughout the world with his stirring Fourteen Points—especially the groundbreaking concept of self-determination” (p. viii). But the naïve and idealistic and stubborn Wilson didn’t know what was going to hit him. Indeed, Wilson faced a post-WW I world that was manic and crazed. The Europeans could not hold their heads high and speak solemnly about their “civilizing mission.” How could they dare?

The post-WW I map did not look much like that of 1914. The old Romanov empire lost some of its territory. Austria-Hungary “vanished, leaving a great hole at the center of Europe. The Ottoman Empire, with its vast holdings in the Middle East and its bit of Europe, was almost done. Imperial Germany was now a republic. Old nations—Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia—came out of history to live again, and new nations—Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia—struggled to be born” (p. xxvi).

With such a massive break-up, reminding one of the calving of great ice sheets from Arctic glaciers—was the time ripe for an international order to be “recreated on a new and different basis….After such a great catastrophe, the expectations were enormous” (ibid.). But the leaders (and their multitude of advisors) had an inadequate mind-set to accept all of humankind as equals at the table of the community of nations. MacMillan states that places like “Thailand, China and Japan had been remote, mysterious lands. Now their diplomats appeared in Paris in pinstriped trousers and frock coats” (p. xxix).

They wanted a place at the table and not just crumbs scattered about the floor. But the leaders of the Paris Peace Conference could not imagine reaching Kant’s “federation of nations.” And Kant’s “Third definitive article for a perpetual peace”—“The law of world citizenship shall be limited to conditions of hospitality”—could not be achieved as so much hostility and anguish and suspicion swirled about the conference rooms and spirit of the delegates.

The European leaders could hardly sort out the meaning and intentions of angry people shouting: “China belongs to the Chinese.” “Kurdistan must be free.” “Poland must live again” (p. xxvii). Everybody complained and could not figure out if America should be the world’s policeman or not. “Africans feared that the world had forgotten them. Asians saw that the future was theirs; it was only the present that was the problem” (ibid.). Regarding Arab independence, MacMillan comments that “the lineaments of the peace settlement in the Middle East were exposed: Britain seizing its chance; the need to throw something to the French; a homeland for Jews; oil; and the calm assumption that the peacemakers could dispose of the former Ottoman territories to suit themselves. For the Arab Middle East, the settlements were the old-nineteenth imperialism again” (p. 381).

Think of it: the leaders had to figure out if the general strikes—from Paris to Glasgow to San Francisco to Winnipeg were a raging underground fire. Not only did they have to redraw the map of Europe, they had to consider Asia, Africa and the Middle East. They had to fashion treaties with particular countries such as Bulgaria and the Ottoman empire. MacMillan and others have noted that Wilson may have held rather fuzzy ideas about what self-determination meant. It certainly didn’t help one choose between competing nationalisms. When faced with delegates calling for an Irish nation, he brushed them aside.  “The expectations of the Paris Peace Conference were enormous; the risk of disappointment correspondingly great” (p. xxix).

We all know that the League of Nations perished for good in the Japanese invasions of Manchuria in 1931 and the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935. We know that Wilson ended up a broken man as his own country did not enter the League. We know the Mussolini, Hitler and Japanese militarists sneered at the League. But Lord Robert Cecil identified the phoenix rising from the ashes of WW I: “For the first time an organisation was constructed, in essence universal, not to protect the national interests of this or that country … but to abolish war.”

MacMillan states: “Cecil was right. The League did represent something very important: both a recognition of the changes that had already taken place in international relations and a bet placed on the future” (p. 84). Indeed, the luminous idea that a League of nations would have a general assembly for all members, a secretariat and an executive council where the Big Five would have a bare majority. There would be no League army and no compulsory disarmament. But the League did pledge themselves to respect on another’s sovereignty. Imperfect, but a few baby steps were taken.

Still, the 1919 peacemakers made many mistakes. They treated the non-European world off-handedly, stirring up “fierce resentments for which the West is still paying today.” While they were attentive to the drafting of European borders, they handed out African territory to “suit the imperialist powers” (ibid.). They simply tossed together peoples in the Middle East, like Iraq, who “still have not managed to cohere into a civil society” (p. 493). Trapped in the old imperialist mind-set and unable to contain the fanatical fires of religion and zealous nationalism, they could not lay the groundwork for a peaceful movement to a federation of nation states and, beyond this, a cosmopolitan rule of law for all persons.

Old Marx said that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” At the recent Munich Conference on Security, the gathered stared at the image of a fragmented puzzle. It is multilateralism that has shattered. Great power rivalry is back, this time as farce.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.