Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 10 – The Dilemmas of the Victors

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the tenth chapter of his book, called “The Dilemmas of the Victors”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

The enforcement of the Versailles Treaty, established after World War I, faced significant challenges due to conflicting approaches. Initially, the concept of collective security was too broad and impractical for maintaining peace, leading to its replacement by an ineffective Franco-English cooperation. This shift was unable to counter major German challenges, and the alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union further weakened the Versailles system. This growing cooperation was a significant setback, one that the democratic nations struggled to understand and counter effectively.

In the aftermath of World War I, there was a strong belief in prioritizing law and ethics over national interests in international affairs. This shift, largely influenced by America and President Wilson’s ideals, marked a departure from traditional European diplomacy focused on alliances and balancing power. Wilson’s vision of collective security aimed at maintaining global stability, but this approach faced challenges, particularly due to America’s subsequent move towards isolationism.

The concept of collective security differs fundamentally from traditional alliances. While alliances are formed against specific threats with clear obligations among nations with shared interests, collective security is broader, designed to counter any threat to peace without specifying adversaries. It operates on the principle of peaceful dispute resolution and involves assembling force on a case-by-case basis, unlike alliances which respond to direct threats to member states. Collective security depends on the unanimous agreement of nations to act against aggression, irrespective of their individual national interests. This idealistic approach requires a uniform perception of threats and a willingness to enforce sanctions or use force purely based on the merits of each case.

However, the reality of implementing collective security is complex. It demands a consistent and shared understanding of threats and a collective willingness to confront aggression, which is often not the case. Historical examples, such as the League of Nations’ failure to effectively respond to aggression in Manchuria, Abyssinia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Finland, illustrate the limitations of collective security. The United Nations, too, struggled with similar challenges during the Cold War and beyond, often finding itself sidelined or ineffective in conflicts involving major powers due to political vetoes and the reluctance of smaller nations to engage in conflicts not directly affecting them.

The Gulf War of 1991 highlighted a deviation from the principle of collective security, with the United States taking a leading role without waiting for international consensus. This scenario underscored that collective security could sometimes be more of a justification for leadership by a dominant power rather than a genuine collective response.

Reflecting on the Versailles era, it becomes evident that the belief in disarmament and goodwill as solutions to international conflict was overly optimistic. The concept of collective security, though appealing, proved impractical, particularly given the exclusion of key powers like the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union from effective participation. This realization underscores the complexity of international relations and the challenges of maintaining peace through a general doctrine of collective security.

France, despite emerging as a nominal victor from World War I, faced severe challenges under the postwar order established by the Treaty of Versailles. French leaders were acutely aware that the treaty’s provisions were insufficient to keep Germany permanently weakened. History had shown that the outcomes of conflicts like the Crimean War and the Napoleonic Wars did not result in lasting military restrictions on the defeated. As Marshal Ferdinand Foch, France’s Commander-in-Chief, aptly summarized, the Treaty of Versailles was more of a temporary armistice than a lasting peace.

By 1924, British military leaders had reached a similar conclusion, predicting that Germany would eventually challenge the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and rearm itself. They foresaw a scenario where France would be vulnerable unless it formed a military alliance with a major power, ideally Great Britain. However, British political leaders, misinterpreting the situation, saw France as overly dominant and Germany as unfairly treated. This misjudgment led to a reluctance to form an alliance with France, undermining long-term stability in Europe.

France, for its part, was eager for a military alliance with Great Britain, especially after the United States Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty. British leaders, however, mistakenly perceived France as a potential threat to dominate Europe. The British Foreign Office and Admiralty harbored suspicions about French intentions, especially regarding the occupation of the Rhineland, which they viewed as a strategic threat to British naval planning.

This misunderstanding and lack of cooperation between France and Great Britain hindered the establishment of a stable balance of power in Europe. British diplomacy began to consider Germany as a counterbalance to France, ignoring the growing threat that Germany and the Soviet Union posed to European stability. The British view exaggerated France’s strength and underappreciated its growing inferiority relative to Germany. The fear of French hegemony was unfounded, and France’s belief in using the Treaty of Versailles to suppress Germany was a mix of delusion and despair.

One of the key reasons for Great Britain’s refusal to align with France was a belief that the Versailles Treaty, especially its treatment of Eastern Europe, was unjust. British leaders were reluctant to commit to an alliance that might entangle them in conflicts over Eastern Europe, a region they viewed as unstable and contentious. Thus, discussions about a potential French alliance were often used by British leaders to placate French concerns over Germany, rather than as a genuine effort to enhance international security.

In this climate, France continued its futile efforts to keep Germany weak, while Great Britain sought to address French concerns without making a definitive military commitment. This impasse reflected the inability of Great Britain to provide France with the one assurance that might have fostered a more stable and conciliatory French foreign policy towards Germany: a full military alliance.

In 1922, French Prime Minister Briand, recognizing the British Parliament’s reluctance for a formal military commitment, proposed a diplomatic cooperation with Great Britain similar to the Entente Cordiale of 1904. However, the political climate had shifted significantly since then. In the early 20th century, Britain had seen Germany as a threat, but by the 1920s, it perceived France, misguidedly, as the greater threat due to its actions, which were driven more by fear than arrogance. Although Britain agreed to Briand’s proposal, their real intention was to use this alliance with France to strengthen relations with Germany, a move that ultimately led to Briand’s resignation when the plan was rejected by French President Alexandre Millerand.

France then tried to secure its safety through the League of Nations by defining aggression clearly, hoping to transform the League into a sort of global alliance. This plan, however, backfired. It proposed that any League member should assist a victim of aggression, but only if that victim had been disarming as per a League-approved schedule. This approach, paradoxically, incentivized aggression against weaker, disarming nations and did not gain international support, especially from the United States, the Soviet Union, and Germany.

France’s continued efforts for security led to the Geneva Protocol of 1924, which required League arbitration for international conflicts and assistance for victims of aggression under certain conditions. However, this too failed as it was seen as overly burdensome by Great Britain and insufficient by France. The United States explicitly refused to honor the Geneva Protocol, and British leaders, fearing overextension of their forces, withdrew their support.

During this period, the disarmament clauses of the Treaty of Versailles created a widening rift between France and Great Britain. Ironically, these clauses facilitated Germany’s path to military parity, especially given Eastern Europe’s weakness. The Allies’ failure to set up a verification mechanism for disarmament under the Treaty further exacerbated this issue. German leaders used the promise of general disarmament, of which their disarmament was supposed to be the first stage, as a strategic stance, gaining British support and justifying non-compliance with other treaty provisions. The pressure for either German rearmament or French disarmament essentially reversed the outcomes of World War I, leaving Germany in a geopolitically advantageous position by the time Hitler rose to power.

Reparations were another contentious issue between France and Great Britain. While historically the defeated paid reparations without moral justification, the Versailles Treaty introduced a moral dimension with the War Guilt Clause. However, the total amount of reparations was not specified, leading to disputes and revisions over time. In 1921, an exorbitantly high reparations figure was set, which Germany claimed was impossible to pay. Germany’s subsequent actions, like inflating its currency to make the first reparations payment, further complicated the situation. This approach to reparations, like disarmament, became a tool for German revisionists, undermining the Treaty’s effectiveness and the Allied powers’ ability to enforce its terms.

In 1922, the Versailles international order, with France as its main European supporter, faced significant challenges due to the absence of mechanisms to enforce reparations and verify disarmament. The discord between France and Great Britain, combined with Germany’s dissatisfaction and the non-participation of the United States and the Soviet Union, led to a state of international turmoil rather than stability. As a response, British Prime Minister Lloyd George called for an international conference in Genoa to discuss reparations, war debts, and Europe’s economic recovery. This conference, for the first time since the war, included Germany and the Soviet Union, the two marginalized nations in European diplomacy. However, rather than improving international order, this conference provided an opportunity for Germany and the Soviet Union to align, contrary to Lloyd George’s intentions.

For the first time in over a century, Europe faced a novel diplomatic entity in the form of the Soviet Union, a country committed to overthrowing the traditional state system. The Bolsheviks, unlike the French revolutionaries who sought to change the state’s character, aimed to eliminate the state itself, envisioning a future without the need for diplomacy or foreign policy as states would cease to exist.

Initially, the Bolsheviks, including their first Foreign Minister Leon Trotsky, were focused on promoting global revolution rather than managing state-to-state relations. They believed that the communist victory in Russia would soon trigger worldwide revolutions, rendering traditional diplomacy irrelevant. Trotsky’s role was seen as transient, mainly to expose capitalist nations’ secret treaties and to foster global revolution. The early Soviet leaders did not anticipate a prolonged coexistence with capitalist countries, assuming that states would soon dissolve.

Given this mindset, the exclusion of the Soviet Union from the Versailles peace talks was logical. The Allies had little reason to engage with a country that had not only made a separate peace with Germany but was also actively trying to overthrow their governments. Similarly, the Bolsheviks had no interest in participating in a world order they intended to dismantle.

However, the Bolsheviks soon faced the harsh realities of international politics. At the Brest-Litovsk peace talks with Germany, Trotsky’s attempts to use the threat of global revolution as a bargaining chip failed against the pragmatic German negotiator Max Hoffmann. Hoffmann demanded harsh terms, including territorial annexations and a substantial indemnity. This led to the first significant debate within the communist leadership about foreign policy, with Lenin advocating for appeasement to avoid a worse defeat and Trotsky proposing a “no war, no peace” policy.

Ultimately, facing the possibility of a more devastating defeat, Lenin and his colleagues accepted Hoffmann’s terms and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This marked the Soviet Union’s first major engagement in traditional state diplomacy and a recognition of the need to coexist with imperial Germany.

The concept of peaceful coexistence became a recurring theme in Soviet foreign policy over the next sixty years. Democratic nations often misinterpreted this as a sign of the Soviet Union’s shift towards a permanent policy of peace. However, for the Soviet Union, peaceful coexistence was a strategy employed when the balance of power was not favorable for confrontation, implying that this stance could change as power dynamics shifted. Lenin viewed coexistence with capitalist countries as a tactical necessity, driven by the existing realities of international relations.

In 1920, Soviet foreign policy evolved to acknowledge the need for more conventional diplomacy with the West. Foreign Minister Georgi Chicherin’s statement about finding a modus vivendi with the capitalist system marked a significant shift towards acknowledging national interest as a key Soviet goal, aligning with the pragmatic approaches of capitalist states. This pragmatic approach was evident when the Soviet Union faced military aggression from Poland in 1920. Although Poland initially made gains, it eventually faced defeat and a peace settlement was reached along pre-war military lines.

During this period, the Soviet Union sought to balance its revolutionary ideology with practical diplomacy. It aimed to exploit divisions among capitalist nations, particularly targeting Germany, which held a significant place in Soviet strategy. Lenin emphasized leveraging the enmity between capitalist powers for Soviet advantage. Similarly, German military strategists like General Hans von Seeckt saw opportunities in the weakening of Poland, viewing it as a destabilizing factor in the Versailles system.

The Rapallo Agreement in 1922 between Germany and the Soviet Union exemplified this shift towards pragmatic diplomacy. The agreement, which established full diplomatic relations and renounced claims against each other, was a direct result of both countries’ ostracism by the Western Allies and their desire to undermine the Versailles Treaty. This agreement led to secret negotiations for military and economic cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union.

Rapallo symbolized a common interest between Soviet and German leaders that persisted throughout the interwar period. The agreement was partly due to Soviet persistence and partly due to the disunity and complacency of Western democracies. The Western powers, having drafted the Treaty of Versailles, were left with limited options. They were unprepared to make significant compromises with either Germany or the Soviet Union to uphold the Versailles settlement. As a result, Germany and the Soviet Union found common ground in their mutual desire to challenge the status quo in Eastern Europe.

This situation set the stage for Hitler and Stalin to eventually disregard the constraints of the interwar period and pursue their ambitions, leading to the upheaval of the established order in Europe.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.




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