Saturday, April 22, 2006

Splitting the Alliance

This week is full of food for thought and comment. Scott McClellan, who loyally refused to be moved off of talking points in the face of the most undeniable facts, has stepped down from the White House. For the record, I cannot believe that his successor, whoever he may be, will take a different approach, although he may have trouble matching McClellan for passive aggression. In Iraq Prime Minister Al-Jaafari (I apologize for the different spellings of his name I've used, but I'm not sure there's an accepted one) has finally stepped down, but the member of his own party who has replaced him, Jawad al-Maliki, is, as far as I can see, no more likely to bring our fantasy of a united, secular Iraq into being. Andrew Card's departure obviously means something, but I'm hard pressed to see what.

My original purpose here, however, was to use historical insights to put the present into perspective, and that is what I'm going to try to do this morning. In preparation for a new course next year, I've been reading up on the US and the First World War, and an interesting little book by a historian named Edward Parsons called Wilsonian Diplomacy has set me thinking.

In my lifetime two views of Woodrow Wilson have predominated, and both, I see now, were very specific products of the times in which they arose. In the 1940s and 50s he was a failed hero. Selfish Republican isolationists had rejected the Versailles Treaty, kept the United States out of the League of Nations, and caused the Second World War. Some also argued that the British and French had insisted upon excessively harsh terms for Germany, with disastrous results. Wilson, in essence, had the reputation of a defeated Franklin Roosevelt, whose achievements would have been equally great had the American people appreciated him.

A new view emerged in the late 1960s, as leftist revolution became fashionable once again. Wilson, many argued (led by the Princeton historian Arno Mayer), had tried to steer a third way between the European right and the Bolsheviks, based upon the rights of smaller nations and economic justice. That, too, had been thwarted by the Versailles peace, both in Europe and at home, where Wilson's party had been decisively repudiated in the 1920 elections. This view turned the 1917-21 period into a kind of prequel to the Cold War, which revisionists blamed on the failure of the western powers to respect the interests of the Soviets. Other less favorable views of Wilson focused upon the imperialism of his own policies, in Latin America and elsewhere, and his emphasis on US economic interests.

I am inclined, to think, having read this book, that both views were quite ahistorical and took little note of Wilson's greatest failing--his lack of any sense of true common interest among the western democracies. In this respect he was a product of his time, and a good representative of his party. American exceptionalism was much stronger in the wake of the civil war than it is now, especially because the United States saw itself as immune from the vice of militarism, and remained ambivalent about its entry into the imperialist scramble in 1898. Wilson initially responded to the war by refusing to militarize the United States, by calling for peace, and by asserting a different moral stance. Moreover, he became very concerned, as Parsons shows, about the prospect of either an Allied (Franco-British-Russian-Italian) OR a German victory. The Allies at the Paris economic conference in 1916 laid out a plan to keep the defeated Central Powers poor and to keep American products away from them; the Germans, meanwhile, wanted to create their own economic sphere in Central Europe. Wilson wanted to defeat both plans, and he feared the economic power of Britain's surface navy--which he wanted the United States to match--as much as he feared German submarines. He took a stronger diplomatic stand, however, against the submarine menace because it killed several hundred Americans, and in 1917 that forced him to declare war on Germany.

Even after that, Wilson commented from time to time that he feared a complete allied victory. More importantly, he insisted upon a separate status for the United States, calling them an "associated" rather than an "allied" power, and jealously holding back American naval and, for a while, land power from the struggle in Europe. From time to time he actually seems to have hoped that the war would last until 1919, when the United States would have the largest army and, therefore, the loudest voice at the Peace Conference. During the first half of 1918, when a German offensive on the western front threatened to defeat the allies, he still allowed General Pershing to hold some of his few American divisions out of the battle. He also kept American merchant ships on trade routes to Asia and South America rather than risking them to help get men and supplies across the Atlantic. The idea of an Anglo-American alliance ruling the world, which became a major theme of the Second World War, was the platform of Theodore Roosevelt, who confidently expected to succeed Wilson in 1921.

Wilson's selfishness was not unusual. The western allies spent as much time worrying about each other as they did about the Central Powers. Britain, France and Italy had competing aims in the Middle East, of all places, where they had decided to put an end to the Ottoman Empire. In the end the British did the best (grabbing Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan), while the French came in second and the Italians last. The British were just as determined to remain the leading naval power as Wilson was to stop them. The allies reached no agreements on many aspects of a potential peace before the end of the war, and the Central Powers' rapid collapse in late 1918 surprised them all. When Bulgaria crumbled in September 1918 Wilson though his moment had come, and tried to seize control of armistice negotiations with all the Central Powers. The Allies, however, understood exactly what he was up to, and kept those negotiations firmly in the hands of their own military leaders. They also understood perfectly well that their power would decline relative to the US if the war went on for another year, and concluded the Armistice with Germany before actually entering that country.

All this, it seems to me, strikes a powerful chord because the alliance among the western nations has been disintegrating since George W. Bush took office. In both cases, a European and world order has begun to crumble 50 or 60 years after it was created. After the American and European crisis of the 1860s and 1870s, Bismarck re-created the Concert of Europe, and his first generation of successors held it together until around 1910. The outbreak of the First World War destroyed it, and it was not recreated for more than 30 years. FDR and Churchill, Truman and Attlee, and host of French and Italian leaders recognized a unity of interest across the Atlantic after the Second World War, and institutionalized it in NATO, the OECD, the Common Market and the European Union and various economic institutions. The United States, however--the prime mover in that process--has now become unilateralist on the one hand, and obsessed with the Middle East on the other. And there is increasing talk about a coming struggle for energy among not only Western Europe and the United States, but also China, India and Japan. That too has a disturbingly familiar ring. As I showed in my first book, the Second World War was in large part an attempt to create self-sufficient empires, one foreshadowed by the trade policies of the major powers in the 1920s and 1930s. Then raw materials and markets were at stake; now the issue is oil, as it was in the Far East in 1941.

It is not too late, it seems to me, for the major industrialized nations--including the Chinese--to design a common energy strategy that could benefit everyone. They need not wait for a world war, as they did in the 1930s. But they cannot do so without the United States, which in the first decade of the new century has been relying entirely upon its military power. That has reduced, not increased, oil production in Iraq, and sent oil prices skyrocketing. An attack on Iran, a possibility which I take very seriously, would make the situation much, much worse.

I discovered the 80-year cycle of William Strauss and Neil Howe in the mid-1990s. It occurred to me then that the Balkans had been plunged into war during that decade, just as they had in the 1910s. The good news was that this time, Europe saw no need to begin a world war as a result. Now, as in the 1920s, the turmoil is in the Middle East and in world economic and currency markets. The United States may actually have become, as Germany and Japan were in the 1920s, the nation most vulnerable to international economic shifts, because of our huge current account deficit and the enormous foreign holdings of dollars. It has been using its military power to try to compensate for that vulnerability. History does not hold out a great deal of hope for that strategy.

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