Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 11 – Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished

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 eleventh chapter of his book, called “Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished”.

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.

Historically, European diplomacy operated under a balance-of-power principle to prevent any single country from becoming too dominant. This principle suggested that Great Britain and France should have formed an alliance against Germany to curb its aggressive tendencies. However, such a coalition never materialized. Great Britain shifted its foreign policy focus away from maintaining balance and towards collective security, while France alternated between enforcing the Treaty of Versailles to slow Germany’s resurgence and attempting reconciliation. This period saw Gustav Stresemann of Germany emerge as a significant diplomatic figure, despite his country’s defeat in World War I.

In an attempt to enforce the Treaty of Versailles, France, led by Raymond Poincaré, occupied Germany’s Ruhr region in 1923 without allied consultation, aiming to extract reparations through direct control. This move was largely a reaction to failed disarmament talks, a lack of British security guarantees, and a closer German-Soviet relationship. The occupation backfired as Germany responded with passive resistance, leading to a financial crisis for both Germany and France, showcasing France’s inability to act unilaterally and resulting in its international isolation.

The British response to France’s actions in the Ruhr was complex, influenced by their own public’s aversion to military engagement and a lack of clear commitment to French security. This indecision highlighted the fractured nature of the Allied powers and Germany’s opportunity to seek reconciliation with Britain. The Ruhr occupation ended in failure for France, not only failing to secure reparations but also exacerbating tensions within Germany and between the Allies, demonstrating the limitations of unilateral actions in the new postwar landscape.

The aftermath of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for a shift in German policy under Gustav Stresemann, who advocated for a strategy of “fulfillment” to comply with the treaty’s terms to regain economic strength and international standing. This approach marked a departure from previous German tactics of resistance and aimed at exploiting the Allies’ reluctance to fully enforce the harsher aspects of the treaty. Stresemann’s policies reflected a pragmatic recognition of Germany’s situation and sought to restore its position through cooperation and diplomatic engagement.

Stresemann’s efforts represented a broader realignment in German foreign policy, moving away from confrontational stances towards a more cooperative approach with the Allies, particularly Great Britain and France. This shift was rooted in a realistic assessment of Germany’s vulnerabilities and the potential benefits of adherence to the Versailles Treaty’s terms. Stresemann’s legacy highlighted the possibility of moderating the treaty’s impact through diplomacy, setting a precedent for future German strategies in the interwar period.

Great Britain’s support for Germany’s recovery and the Western aid to post-Cold War Russia were based on similar intentions: to promote stability and recovery, but without fully considering the long-term consequences of these nations regaining their strength. The idea was to help these countries recover economically, which in turn would potentially lead to them exerting more influence on their surroundings, a development with complex geopolitical implications. Stresemann’s policy of fulfillment for Germany, aimed at complying with the Treaty of Versailles to regain economic and military strength, mirrored the situation with Russia in the sense that aiding recovery could inadvertently empower the recipient to challenge the existing balance of power.

Stresemann’s strategy initially focused on resolving the reparations issue, leveraging international forums to negotiate more favorable terms for Germany. The acceptance of the Dawes Plan, which reduced Germany’s reparations and facilitated loans, primarily from the United States, essentially had America funding Germany’s reparations to rebuild its economy. This move, while aimed at stabilizing Germany, ironically contributed to its resurgence as a potential threat to European equilibrium, particularly concerning France, which had sought reparations to keep Germany weakened.

The Locarno Treaties of the mid-1920s symbolized a pivotal moment in European diplomacy, with Germany formally recognizing its western borders with France and Belgium while refusing to recognize its eastern borders, particularly with Poland. The treaties were celebrated as a step towards peace but effectively left unresolved tensions, particularly regarding Germany’s eastern ambitions. Stresemann’s diplomacy had effectively positioned Germany in a more favorable light, extracting concessions from the Allies without fully committing to the Versailles settlement’s terms, especially in the East.

Locarno’s complex arrangements reflected a Europe struggling to navigate the post-Versailles landscape, with traditional alliances, new security guarantees, and collective security principles overlapping and often conflicting. This intricate diplomatic web illustrated the Allies’ difficulty in formulating a coherent strategy towards Germany, balancing the need for reconciliation with the necessity of containing potential German aggression. Italy’s involvement in guaranteeing Rhine frontiers, despite having no historical stake in the region, and Great Britain’s attempt to remain impartial between its former ally and former enemy, underscored the shifting dynamics of European power politics.

Ultimately, the period following the Locarno Treaties saw the gradual erosion of the Versailles order, with France feeling increasingly insecure and Germany, under Stresemann’s guidance, regaining its status as a central power in Europe. The Allies’ inability to present a unified front or effectively address the challenges posed by a resurgent Germany laid the groundwork for future conflicts. Stresemann’s policies not only sought to free Germany from the most burdensome aspects of the Versailles Treaty but also to reassert Germany’s position in Europe, exploiting the divisions and uncertainties among the former Allies.

The optimism surrounding the “spirit of Locarno” was seen as a potential remedy for the structural issues of the new world order established post-World War I. This new diplomatic atmosphere was driven not by the masses but by the personal relationships among the foreign ministers of key European countries, marking a departure from traditional, impersonal diplomacy. This period saw a shift towards a more personal style of international relations, where agreements could be influenced by individual relationships and public perceptions, contrasting sharply with the approach of 19th-century diplomats who strictly separated personal relations from national interests.

The personal dynamics between leaders like Austen Chamberlain, Aristide Briand, and Gustav Stresemann played a significant role in shaping policies. Chamberlain, despite his significant influence and diplomatic efforts, notably in the Locarno Pact, never achieved the prime ministerial office. His Francophile tendencies were seen as a driving factor behind Germany’s willingness to engage in the Locarno process. Similarly, Briand’s conciliatory approach towards Germany, driven by both personal conviction and pragmatic understanding of France’s declining relative power, represented a significant shift towards seeking peace through reconciliation rather than enforcement of punitive measures.

The Thoiry Agreement between Briand and Stresemann exemplified the high point of this personal diplomacy, proposing significant concessions from both sides to solidify peace and economic recovery. However, the agreement faced opposition within both countries and eventually fell through, underscoring the limitations of personal diplomacy in overcoming nationalistic sentiments and structural geopolitical tensions.

The post-Locarno period was characterized by a gradual retreat from the principles of the Versailles settlement, influenced heavily by Anglo-Saxon pressure on France to conciliate with Germany. This era saw significant American investment in Germany, contributing to its industrial modernization and secret rearmament, highlighting the inadequacy of the Versailles disarmament provisions and the League of Nations’ inability to enforce them. Germany’s strategy aimed at achieving political and eventually military parity, challenging French security and leading to the construction of the Maginot Line as a defensive measure, signaling a deepening sense of insecurity and a shift towards a defensive posture in French military strategy.

This period underscored the complexities of interwar diplomacy, where personal relationships, national interests, and emerging geopolitical realities intertwined. The efforts at conciliation, though well-intentioned, ultimately could not reconcile the fundamental disparities in national power and ambitions, setting the stage for future conflicts. The reliance on personal diplomacy and the spirit of cooperation fostered by the Locarno agreements, while momentarily uplifting, could not overcome the structural and strategic challenges facing Europe, leading to an increasingly precarious international order.

In the latter half of the 1920s, European diplomacy saw attempts to solidify peace through public gestures rather than substantial policy changes. Aristide Briand’s proposal for a peace treaty with the United States, which resulted in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, exemplified this trend. The pact, which aimed to renounce war as a means of national policy, was quickly embraced by nations worldwide, including those that would later challenge global peace. However, the inclusion of clauses allowing for self-defense and other exceptions essentially negated the pact’s effectiveness, revealing it as more of a symbolic gesture than a practical tool for ensuring peace.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact inadvertently put pressure on France to disarm, perceived as unnecessary with the outlawing of war. This development, along with the early end of the Rhineland occupation and Great Britain’s suggestions that Germany’s borders could be adjusted, indicated a shift towards accommodating Germany. Gustav Stresemann used these diplomatic maneuvers to Germany’s advantage, securing exemptions and treaties that allowed Germany to avoid collective security measures against it and to rearm secretly, challenging the Versailles Treaty’s disarmament clauses.

Despite these maneuvers, Stresemann’s domestic position weakened, facing opposition from both the right and left. The Young Plan, which proposed further reductions in reparations and a timetable for their conclusion, was met with nationalist backlash, indicating growing tensions within Germany. Stresemann’s death in 1929 left a void in German leadership and raised questions about the direction of German foreign policy, which had been marked by his skillful diplomacy.

Stresemann’s strategies and objectives, revealed in his papers, showed him as a pragmatist focused on restoring Germany’s pre-World War I status, challenging the perception of him as a proponent of European unity. His approach suggested a possible peaceful path to revising the Versailles Treaty and enhancing Germany’s power, contrasting with the aggressive tactics of his nationalist critics and the Nazis. Stresemann’s legacy, therefore, highlights the complexities of interwar diplomacy and the delicate balance between national interests and the pursuit of peace in a rapidly changing Europe.

By the time of Gustav Stresemann’s death, Europe was in a precarious state of peace. The reparations conflict was nearing resolution, and Germany’s borders with Western nations had been settled, yet Germany remained dissatisfied with its Eastern borders and the disarmament terms of the Versailles Treaty. European diplomacy had shifted towards disarmament as a hopeful path to peace, with the idea of German parity gaining traction, particularly in Britain. Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald emphasized disarmament, halting military construction projects in an effort to prevent future conflicts. However, this approach failed to address the underlying security concerns between Germany and France, leaving France in a vulnerable position.

French Prime Minister Edouard Herriot’s resignation to Germany’s potential for rearmament highlighted the growing resignation within France, reflecting a lack of proactive measures to secure its interests. Meanwhile, Britain’s efforts to mediate resulted in proposals that offered Germany a form of parity without conscription, a solution that failed to reassure France of its security. The diplomatic dance around disarmament and equality rights for Germany at international conferences further illustrated the disconnect between the pursuit of formal equality and the practical implications for European stability.

Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 exposed the limitations of collective security and the League of Nations’ inability to enforce its principles. The international response, characterized by inaction and the formation of a fact-finding mission, underscored the reluctance of nations to confront aggressors or sacrifice economic interests for collective security. Japan’s subsequent withdrawal from the League following mild rebuke highlighted the fragility of international cooperation and foreshadowed the unraveling of the League as an effective institution.

The disarmament discussions in Europe, largely unaffected by the crisis in Asia, continued as if in a vacuum, disconnected from the realities of rising tensions and the challenges to peace posed by aggressive nationalism. The advent of Hitler’s regime in Germany in 1933 marked the end of the Versailles system and the beginning of a more volatile era in international relations, demonstrating the inadequacy of the period’s diplomatic efforts to secure a lasting peace. This transition underscored the complexity of reconciling national ambitions with collective security measures and the limitations of diplomacy in the face of determined revisionism and militarism.

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




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