Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 9 – The New Face of Diplomacy

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 ninth chapter of his book, called “The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles”.

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.

On November 11, 1918, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George optimistically declared the end of all wars with the signing of an armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers. However, Europe was not far from another devastating war. The First World War, initially expected to be brief, turned into a lengthy and catastrophic conflict. The nations involved, driven by pre-war disputes like Balkan influence, Alsace-Lorraine possession, and naval competition, entered the war with expectations of a swift victory. As the war progressed with massive casualties, these political issues faded, and the focus shifted to seeing the enemy as inherently evil, ruling out any possibility of compromise.

In the early stages, a compromise might have been possible in 1915 when both sides faced stalemates. However, the scale of the sacrifices and the leaders’ escalating demands made compromise difficult. This approach not only worsened the situation but also dismantled the century-old world order.

By the winter of 1914-15, the connection between military strategy and foreign policy was lost. None of the warring nations dared to seek a compromise peace. For example, France insisted on regaining Alsace-Lorraine, while Germany refused to surrender its conquered territories. The war became an obsession, with leaders prioritizing victory despite the immense loss of life and the destruction it caused. The involvement of new allies like Italy, Romania, and Bulgaria further complicated the situation, as each demanded a share of the spoils, reducing diplomatic flexibility.

The peace terms evolved into a fight for total victory, reflecting a shift from traditional aristocratic diplomacy to a new era influenced by mass mobilization. The Allies, especially after America joined, framed the war in moral terms, advocating for the disarmament of Germany and the spread of democracy, which implied a complete defeat of the Central Powers.

Great Britain, once a proponent of maintaining a balance of power in Europe, shifted its stance. Sensing a threat from a rising Germany, it sought permanent measures to weaken Germany, such as reducing its naval fleet.

Germany’s terms were more specific and geopolitical, demanding territorial gains in both the West and East. In the West, they sought control over northern France and Belgium, and in the East, they promised Polish independence, a move that failed to garner significant Polish support and ultimately led to the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia. Germany’s aspirations for European domination were clear in its definition of Weltpolitik.

As World War I unfolded, both sides experienced victories and defeats. Germany overpowered Russia and weakened France and England, but ultimately, the Western Allies, significantly aided by America, emerged victorious. The war’s aftermath differed greatly from the peaceful century following the Napoleonic Wars. Instead of equilibrium and shared values, the world saw social upheaval, ideological conflict, and the seeds of another world war.

The initial enthusiasm for the war faded as the people of Europe realized their governments’ ability to wage war did not match their ability to secure victory or peace. The war led to the collapse of the Eastern Courts and empires. The Austro-Hungarian Empire vanished, Russia fell to the Bolsheviks, Germany suffered through defeat, revolution, and dictatorship, and France and Great Britain, despite their victory, emerged geopolitically weakened.

Amidst this turmoil, America entered the international stage with confidence and idealism. American involvement in the war made total victory possible, but their goals differed significantly from the European order. America rejected the balance of power and Realpolitik, favoring democracy, collective security, and self-determination. These American principles conflicted with European diplomacy, which was based on the propensity for war and alliances formed for specific objectives.

President Wilson’s doctrines of self-determination and collective security challenged European diplomacy. Europe had traditionally adjusted borders for balance of power, often disregarding the preferences of the populations affected. Wilson, however, rejected this approach, believing that self-determination and collective security, not the balance of power, would prevent wars.

The concept of a League of Nations, which would enforce disarmament and pacific dispute resolution, first emerged in London. British Foreign Secretary Grey, seeking American involvement in the war, proposed this idea to Wilson, who was already inclined towards such international cooperation. This proposal was an early sign of the special relationship between America and Great Britain, where British ideas subtly influenced American decision-making.

The League of Nations, despite its British origins, was fundamentally an American concept, envisioned by Wilson as a universal association maintaining international security and preventing wars. However, Wilson initially hesitated to commit America to this organization. In January 1917, he proposed American membership, likening it to an international version of the Monroe Doctrine.

Wilson’s idealism was pragmatic; he was prepared to use financial leverage to promote his views in Europe. While European allies hesitated to fully embrace Wilson’s ideas due to their divergence from traditional European diplomacy, they also couldn’t afford to alienate America. This dynamic set the stage for America’s increasing influence in international affairs.

In late 1917, President Wilson sent Colonel House to Europe to encourage the formulation of war aims aligning with his vision of a peace without annexations or indemnities, underpinned by a world authority. Wilson was cautious initially, wary of offending France and Italy due to their territorial ambitions. However, on January 8, 1918, he presented America’s war aims to Congress in the form of the Fourteen Points, which were divided into two parts. The first eight points, deemed obligatory, included open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, disarmament, trade barrier removal, impartial colonial claim settlements, Belgium’s restoration, Russian territory evacuation, and the establishment of a League of Nations. The remaining six points, considered less mandatory, included the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France and autonomy for minorities in the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, among others. This raised questions about the negotiability of some terms, such as Poland’s sea access and Italy’s frontier adjustments.

Wilson’s speech marked a radical shift in international relations, proposing a world based on principles and law rather than power and interest. He offered a conciliatory approach to Germany, inviting it to join a peaceful international order. This represented a significant departure from historical power dynamics, focusing on moral attitudes rather than geopolitical objectives.

Wilson’s ideas about balance of power were revolutionary. He criticized the traditional European balance of power as unstable and conflict-prone, advocating instead for a new order based on democratic principles and collective security. However, European leaders were skeptical of Wilson’s idealism. They were accustomed to a diplomatic framework based on power equilibrium and doubted the feasibility of a world order founded on moral judgments.

Despite their reservations, European democracies, desperate for American support, initially hesitated to openly challenge Wilson’s proposals. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Germany and Russia highlighted the dire consequences of a potential German victory, further silencing the Allies’ doubts about Wilson’s approach.

After the war, the Allies, drained by their sacrifices and still reliant on America, were hesitant to openly challenge Wilson’s vision during the peace negotiations. This was particularly true for France, which emerged from the war weakened and apprehensive about its security against Germany. French leaders were reluctant to oppose the American stance, despite their fears that Wilson’s principles might not adequately safeguard against future German aggression.

France’s vulnerability was exacerbated by its demographic and economic decline relative to Germany. The French population and industrial output lagged significantly behind Germany’s, a trend that had been ongoing since the 19th century. This demographic and economic disparity underscored France’s inability to single-handedly maintain a balance of power with Germany.

The post-war scenario differed markedly from the post-Vienna period. After Napoleon’s defeat, the victorious powers remained united, forming the Quadruple Alliance to prevent any revisionist threats. However, after Versailles, the victorious allies did not maintain such unity. America and the Soviet Union withdrew from European affairs, and Britain was ambivalent towards France. This disunity among the victors left France particularly vulnerable, facing the stark realization that its defeat in 1871 by Germany was not an anomaly, but a reflection of its diminished power and influence in Europe. France considered strategies to weaken Germany, like promoting separatism in the Rhineland and occupying the Saar coal mines, but these were only partial measures in the face of the broader strategic challenge.

Two major obstacles hindered the partitioning of Germany. First, the strong sense of unity in Germany, fostered by Bismarck, persisted through various trials, including defeats in two world wars and foreign occupations. Attempts to disrupt this unity, such as French President Mitterrand’s brief consideration of blocking German unification in 1989, proved futile. Second, the principle of self-determination, championed by Wilson, made it politically unfeasible for France or its allies to pursue such a partition. Despite Wilson’s commitment to equitable treatment as outlined in his Fourteen Points, he eventually conceded to some punitive measures in the peace treaty.

The Peace Conference in Paris, led by Wilson, faced the challenge of reconciling American idealism with the harsh realities of European politics, particularly France’s security concerns. Wilson compromised on his Fourteen Points in exchange for establishing the League of Nations, hoping it would address any remaining grievances. However, the outcomes disappointed all parties: Germany felt betrayed, France remained insecure, and the U.S. eventually withdrew from the settlement.

Wilson’s prolonged involvement in the Paris negotiations led to him being drawn into details typically handled by foreign offices. This focus on minutiae detracted from the broader goal of establishing a new international order and led to a peace treaty that did not fully align with Wilson’s moral vision.

The representatives of the major powers at the conference had their own agendas. David Lloyd George of Great Britain, initially promising to make Germany pay for the war, shifted his stance amidst the complex dynamics of the conference. Georges Clemenceau of France, seeking to reverse Germany’s ascendancy, found his ambitious goals unattainable. Vittorio Orlando of Italy prioritized territorial gains over the principle of self-determination, contributing to the erosion of Wilson’s idealistic framework.

The exclusion of defeated powers like Germany and Lenin’s Russia from the negotiations further complicated matters. The Germans, clinging to Wilson’s Fourteen Points, were shocked by the harsh terms of the treaty. Lenin condemned the peace process as a capitalist scheme. The absence of these key players and the lack of a clear agenda led to a fragmented and ineffective conference, with numerous committees addressing a myriad of issues without a cohesive strategy for the future role of Germany.

France, haunted by past invasions, sought tangible security measures against Germany. However, proposals such as making the Rhineland a buffer zone conflicted with American and British views, leaving France without the guarantees it sought. The concept of collective security, as envisioned by Wilson, failed to address France’s immediate security needs.

Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations as a flexible international tribunal provided some hope for future adjustments to the peace terms. He believed that the League could arbitrate disputes and amend boundaries, offering a more dynamic approach to international relations. This contrasted with the traditional balance of power, which Wilson and his advisers saw as a source of aggression and war. Despite these aspirations, the League’s ability to effectuate such changes remained uncertain, and the peace treaty’s shortcomings were evident.

Wilson envisioned the League of Nations as an entity responsible for both enforcing peace and rectifying its potential injustices. However, he faced a dilemma: historically, European borders were changed through national interests rather than appeals to justice or legal processes, yet the American public was not ready for a military commitment to enforce the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson’s concept of the League verged on a world government, which the American people were even less inclined to support than a global military force.

To circumvent these issues, Wilson proposed relying on world public opinion and economic pressure as deterrents against aggression. However, European nations, especially France, which had suffered heavily in the war, were skeptical about the effectiveness of these mechanisms. France viewed the League primarily as a means to secure military assistance against Germany, doubting the premise of collective security that all nations would uniformly assess and respond to threats.

Wilson’s reluctance to commit the U.S. to more than a declaration of principles heightened France’s insecurities. The U.S. had previously used force to back the Monroe Doctrine, but was hesitant when it came to European matters, raising questions about America’s commitment to European security. French efforts to establish an automatic enforcement mechanism in the League were met with resistance, as Wilson and his advisers feared the Senate would never ratify such commitments.

The essence of collective security, as promoted by Wilson, was based on mutual trust among nations, a concept that did not reassure France, given its precarious position. The final outcome was Article 10 of the League Charter, which vaguely stated that the League would advise on how to preserve territorial integrity, effectively leaving decisions to future consensus, much like traditional alliances.

Faced with America’s refusal to include concrete security provisions in the Covenant, France resumed its push for dismembering Germany. The U.S. and Britain, however, proposed a treaty guaranteeing the new settlement, agreeing to go to war if Germany violated it. This guarantee was similar to post-Napoleonic arrangements but lacked the conviction behind it. The guarantee was seen as a tactic to deter France from its demands for dismemberment.

French leaders, eager for formal guarantees, overlooked the fact that these commitments were more tactical than genuine. Wilson’s advisers were against the guarantee, seeing it as a contradiction to the principles of the new diplomacy and the League’s purpose. The guarantee was short-lived; the United States Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles nullified it, and Britain quickly withdrew its commitment. France’s abandonment of its claims for German dismemberment became permanent, but the guarantees offered to it were temporary and ineffective.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, symbolized a turning point in history, but not without its own contradictions and controversies. Chosen perhaps to symbolize victory, the location also echoed past humiliations, like Bismarck’s proclamation of a unified Germany in the same hall. The treaty, striving to be punitive yet not overly harsh, left the democratic victors in a perpetual state of alert against a resentful Germany.

The Treaty imposed significant territorial, economic, and military restrictions on Germany. It ceded substantial land, including economically vital regions, and lost its colonies, leading to a debate about their future governance. Wilson’s insistence on self-determination led to the creation of the Mandate Principle, assigning these colonies to victors under the guise of preparing them for independence – a process that was vague and largely ineffective.

Germany’s military was drastically downsized, and its capacity for offensive warfare was severely limited. However, the Allied Military Control Commission established to oversee this disarmament lacked clarity and effectiveness. Economically, Germany was burdened with significant reparations, including payments for war pensions and compensation, which were unprecedented and became a source of ongoing controversy. Furthermore, Germany’s loss of its merchant fleet, foreign assets, and restrictions on its economic autonomy added to its grievances.

The Treaty’s attempt to balance American idealism with European concerns resulted in a compromise that satisfied neither. It created a fragile peace that relied heavily on enforcement by Britain and France, who were not fully aligned. The principle of self-determination, central to the Treaty, proved problematic in practice, especially in the newly formed states from the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s dissolution. These states ended up with significant minority populations, leading to internal conflicts and instability.

Lloyd George, recognizing the potential for future conflicts due to the presence of German populations in these new states, foresaw the issues that might arise. However, no viable alternative was presented, and the Treaty went ahead without addressing these fundamental issues. German leaders later claimed they were misled by Wilson’s Fourteen Points, arguing that the Treaty’s punitive nature was a betrayal. However, Germany had only embraced these principles when defeat seemed imminent.

The Treaty’s failure was rooted in its structure. Unlike the peace achieved after the Congress of Vienna, which was underpinned by a balance of power, conciliation, and shared values, the Versailles Treaty lacked these elements. It was too harsh to be conciliatory but not harsh enough to prevent Germany’s resurgence. France’s strategic options – forming an anti-German coalition, partitioning Germany, or conciliating Germany – were all fraught with difficulties and ultimately unsuccessful.

The Treaty inadvertently strengthened Germany’s geopolitical position. With no strong neighbor to the east and weakened neighbors elsewhere, Germany faced no significant counterbalance. Furthermore, the Treaty fostered a psychological resistance, both in Germany and among the victors, against its terms. The inclusion of the War Guilt clause, which ascribed sole responsibility for the war to Germany, was particularly contentious and undermined the moral legitimacy of the Treaty.

In essence, the Treaty of Versailles, while intending to curb German power, ended up creating conditions that enhanced Germany’s potential for dominance in Europe. It imposed physical constraints but failed to address the underlying geopolitical dynamics and psychological aspects, leading to a situation where, once Germany overcame its initial limitations, it could emerge even stronger. Harold Nicolson’s reflection on the Treaty aptly captured its failure: a new order that merely complicated the old.

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




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *