The danger of unchecked power and other lessons from Versailles

We may be returning to the primitive multilateralism of 1919, when three men in a room made decisions for the whole world

Simon Kuper

A century ago, three men gathered in this house to remake the world, yet you’d never know it.
The grey-stoned Parisian mansion on the Place des Etats-Unis now belongs to a luxury crystal company. The staff I spoke to had no idea that US president Woodrow Wilson borrowed the house in spring 1919. There is no plaque. Yet the salon is where Wilson and the British and French prime ministers David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau sprawled in armchairs or crawled on the carpet over a giant map of Europe as they drafted the Treaty of Versailles. The young British diplomat Harold Nicolson, who tried to advise them one afternoon, complained: “It is appalling that these ignorant and irresponsible men should be cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake.”

The negotiations in Paris (only the signing was in Versailles) were a case study in primitive multilateralism. From January to June 1919, these three men redrew the world’s maps mostly by themselves. They largely ignored their own advisers, and almost entirely ignored the rest of the world. Primitive multilateralism diminished after 1945, but it’s making a comeback today.

The victorious nations of the first world war were unprepared for peace, writes Margaret MacMillan in her authoritative history Peacemakers. But the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires had dissolved, and Germany had been defeated, so suddenly there were borders to redraw. This was done with little input from the people concerned. Germany and newly Bolshevik Russia weren’t represented in Paris. China was barely heard, and the world’s colonies even less so: a young kitchen assistant at the Paris Ritz, Ho Chi Minh, never got a reply to his petition for Vietnamese independence. The Italians and Japanese were initially at the negotiating table but struggled to follow conversations in English and were soon sidelined. The Italians walked out over their obsessive demands for tiny Fiume (now Croatian Rijeka).

Public opinion back home influenced the Big Three only over Germany: citizens and press demanded that “the Hun” be punished. But voters scarcely cared about lesser-known nations.

The three leaders lacked focus, time and knowledge. Clemenceau was 77, diabetic and had been damaged by an assassin’s bullet in February, despite tut-tutting afterwards: “We have just won the most terrible war in history, yet here is a Frenchman who misses his target six times out of seven at point-blank range.” Wilson was in a hurry, uneasy about spending nearly six months in Paris, a record foreign stint for a US president. Lloyd George struggled with geography: he hadn’t known that New Zealand was east of Australia.

Sometimes the three of them fought, especially over the Middle East: “You are the very baddest boy,” Clemenceau told Lloyd George. Eventually France got Syria, and Britain an Iraq concocted out of hostile ethnic groups, even though this contradicted Wilson’s principle of “self-determination”. The trio initially forgot Kurdistan altogether.

Sometimes delegations of lesser countries were allowed into the mansion to present their cases. This rarely went well. John Maynard Keynes, representing the British treasury, witnessed Belgium’s presentation: Clemenceau slept, Wilson glanced at his newspaper and Lloyd George, entranced by one Belgian delegate’s falsetto, amused himself comparing it “to a number of other voices, human and animal, that he remembered”.

Slapdash as the Paris peace conference was, it shouldn’t be blamed for causing the second world war, argues MacMillan. The conventional story is that a cruel treaty outraged the Germans and prompted Hitler’s revenge. True, the French started off demanding £44bn in reparations from Germany, but they later climbed down. MacMillan estimates that by 1932 Germany had paid £1.1bn (£72bn in today’s money).

The bigger problem with the peace was its optics. The initial plan to negotiate with Germany was forgotten, as the Big Three spent months negotiating with each other. Finally, the Germans were simply told to sign the treaty, which included a dubious, provocative clause asserting German war guilt. Versailles was indeed a diktat to Germany, says historian Eckart Conze.

If only the peacemakers hadn’t been in such a rush. They didn’t even reread the treaty before giving it to Germany. Almost instantly, Lloyd George and many other Britons and Americans regretted their harshness. “Much too stiff,” agonised Nicolson. But they failed to soften the document, partly because there were no permanent multilateral institutions where such things could be hashed out endlessly in full boring detail. The League of Nations — Wilson’s brainchild — was created in 1920 but never achieved much. Only after 1945 did strong multilateral bodies arise.

Today they are losing influence. The world’s three most powerful men all have remarkable independence of action. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping each wield more personal power than any other Russian or Chinese leader in decades. Donald Trump, a bad listener, sounds like Keynes’s description of Wilson: “He allowed himself to be closeted, unsupported, unadvised, and alone, with men much sharper than himself, in situations of supreme difficulty.” Unchecked ageing leaders in a room together is a primitive system that we’ve tried before.

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