Scholars, Recalling the Mistakes of Versailles, Argue for the Necessity of Investing in Institutions

Featured panelists, Professors Margaret MacMillan, Erez Manela, and John Ikenberry. Charles Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs and Government at SFS, moderated the discussion. February 8, 2017.

By: Patrick McNamara, Reporter

Photo by: School of Foreign Service, Georgetown

Professor Margaret MacMillan, the keynote speaker at the Walsh School of Foreign Service’s inaugural Lloyd George Lecture, warned her audience of the dangers of the international community losing its will to uphold the global order. Her lecture, titled “The Meaning of 1919 as We Approach 2019,” revisited the events of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and highlighted the lessons for the maintenance of the international order still relevant today. It is the first in a series of lectures marking the centennial anniversary of the Walsh School of Foreign Service that shall address topics on international affairs in the context of the school and its founding.

Professor MacMillan stressed the need to avoid viewing the Conference with the benefit of hindsight when analyzing the decisions made by the three victorious leaders, President Woodrow Wilson, and Prime Ministers David Lloyd-George and Georges Clemenceau. She noted that while the agreed peace that emerged from the Conference was in many ways unsuccessful, it was neither as harsh as often perceived nor a vindictive peace. The Treaty’s demands for reparations and territorial concessions from Germany were both understandable given the economic damage endured by Belgium and France in particular, and more lenient than those made by Germany on Russia in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. However, while the Conference was meant to be a “moment of hope,” it instead created the conditions in which another world war was possible. The order it established decayed due to a lack of will from the victors, especially America and Britain, to enforce the agreed terms, as well as the belief from Germany that Versailles was an unfair “stab in the back” by politicians. The keynote concluded with a warning on the pressures currently facing the liberal international order as she invoked the dangers that can arise if international agreements and institutions are not maintained, as occurred in the lead-up to the Second World War.

Professor MacMillan was joined after her lecture by a panel of scholars who discussed both the peace process and its implications for today. Professor John Ikenberry, who has written extensively on the American liberal order as being unique and requiring renewed investment from US leaders, argued that the Conference represented a “pivot moment” in history. For him, the victorious leaders were attempting to create an order which accounted for the increased economic and security interdependence between states following World War I, as well as the ongoing transition of the international system from one based around empire to one of nation states.

The panel also considered why the international community has in various moments lacked the will to invest in institutions. The United States Senate famously failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and did not join the League of Nations, the creation of which had been Wilson’s priority in Paris. By contrast, decades later in 1945, the Senate ratified the United Nations Charter by with an affirmative vote of 89-2, and the Roosevelt administration spearheaded the creation of the American-led liberal institutional order. Professor Ikenberry argued that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, lawmakers and voters appreciated the domestic benefits that they would accrue through the creation of institutions and economic plans such as the Bretton Woods system or the Marshall Plan. By contrast, today we have lost that link to the potential domestic benefits of cooperation, as institutions have come to be viewed as being accompanied with a domestic political cost, and of being designed to favor of elites.

Discussing the possible need for and lack of institutional reform, Professor MacMillan emphasized how the imminent threats of 1919, from wars in Eastern Europe to the spectre of Communism spreading westwards, had compelled the leaders in Paris to action. By comparison, today’s problems are less urgent. Issues such as climate change and global pandemics, for Professor MacMillan, though potentially devastating, are less visible and more “creeping,” disincentivizing immediate action. Professor Ikenberry for his part highlighted the fact that the periods following wars lend themselves to order-building as they are periods of transition in which the old order has broken down and there are a set of winners with both the motivation and ability to design a new order. Though not desired, he noted that great power wars have the ability to reveal underlying power structures in the international system and create a new equilibrium point from which to create institutions.

The panelists affirmed the key role of ideas in shaping international politics and the ability of norms to be institutionalized over time. Professor Ikenberry argued that Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which sought an international order based on principles such as free trade and called for the creation of a league of nations as a forum in which to arbitrate disputes, had a universal quality that was accepted worldwide. This was echoed in Professor MacMillan’s comments that ideas quickly lose their nationality. As Harvard Professor of History Erez Manela noted, while Wilson’s ideas came from the European and American traditions of liberty and individual rights, they were soon taken on by thinkers in China, India, and beyond.

When asked how the US should respond to the potential risks posed by China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, a development strategy created by the Chinese government to promote its economic ties in Eurasia, the panel was more divided. Professors MacMillan and Ikenberry expressed a desire for a coherent US response, with the former highlighting European concerns about the Chinese purchase of German companies in key industries such as technology and infrastructure. She drew comparison between current Chinese investments and the British East India Company, who though initially disavowing any interests in taking over political control in India, over time found itself inevitably drawn into domestic politics and began projecting its power. Manela was more sanguine, seeing the Chinese investments as more akin to those made by Americans in Europe in the early 19th century, and argued that though there may be risks, if China can aid economic development, the initiative may be something to be encouraged.

Finally, during their concluding responses, Professor MacMillan expressed a belief that the most dangerous geopolitical situations are those in which there is an intense dispute in a confined area with simultaneous external great power interference. The role of prestige and a desire to show credibility can draw great powers into conflict, and Professor MacMillan expressed a concern that the situation of Korea is one where many external powers, from China and Russia to the US and Japan, have sizable and contrasting interests. She closed by saying that it is situations such as these in which the importance of diplomacy becomes clear.




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