Losing America

Having written a very thick and extremely detailed book about the diplomatic efforts in the mid- and late-1920s to refise and improve the peace settlement ending the First World War (The Unfinished Peace After World War I, 2006), Patrick O. Cohrs returns with an even thicker and still more detailed account of the peace settlement itself: the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the Treaty of Versailles. This is an often-told story, reiterated during the recent centenary of the end of the Great War. Cohrs knows intimately every major account and has investigated extensively the primary sources from Britain, France, Germany and the United States. The goal of this impressive erudition is not just to get all the details right, but also to reconceptualize the entire process of peacemaking.

Cohrs wants to terminate the seemingly endless debate, ongoing since the peace treaty itself, about whether the Versailles settlement was too harsh or too lenient. He sees the peacemaking process within three broader contexts, located in temporally ever larger concentric circles. The smallest of these circles, as the book’s title states, involves understanding peacemaking as an attempt to create a “new Atlantic order”, a transatlantic security and economic architecture linking the United States with western and central Europe. Following recent scholarly trends, Cohrs sees the efforts of the 1920s as a dry run for the more successful transatlantic creations in the years after 1945. Surrounding this circle is the broader notion of a “long twentieth century”, running from 1860 to 2020, posed in opposition to Eric Hobsbawm’s idea of ​​a “short twentieth century”, 1914-91. The widest circle is a consideration of European and transatlantic international relations from the Congress of Vienna in 1814 until the present, emphasizing the idea of ​​a “concert of Europe” – a system of co-operation among sovereign states, no longer delineated by wartime alliances , but under the supervision of a power or powers that act as benevolent hegemons. This combination of detailed empirical research and large-scale reconceptualization creates a complex structure with lots of parts, impressive to observe in action, but not always fitting together precisely.

The author focuses on well-known themes: the creation of a League of Nations, Franco-German security arrangements, new borders in east-central Europe – especially those of Poland and Czechoslovakia – and the interrelated problem of war debts and reparations. He plays down the significance for the peacemakers of the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism. Not regarding them as a serious danger, statesmen and diplomats informed them instrumentally, aring that if their preferred policies not enacted, the result would be further communist revolutions. More recent studies have emphasized the global aspects of the peace conference – the restructuring of European empires, the growth of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements, territorial rearrangements in the Middle East and East Asia. Cohrs deals briefly with these, but argues that they were subordinate to European and transatlantic concerns.

Diplomatic historians have become interested in non-state actors: NGOs, businesses, cultural interconnections, civil society more generally. As with globalizing issues, Cohrs does take these into account, but minimizes their importance. One of his more interesting arguments is that the German government’s efforts to mobilize civil society in the UK and the US against the imposition of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was not only unsuccessful but positively counterproductive, making French, American and British representatives even more determined to impose the treaty. The reparations/war-debts issue was also closely connected to non-governmental actors, and the author, while certainly considering this, perhaps does not give it the weight it deserves. In the end it was not security questions that generald the postwar settlement, but reparations and war debts, and the transatlantic economic relations in which they were embedded.

Cohrs understands peacemaking as precarious and difficult. Even common aspirations became sources of dispute. The League of Nations, to take the signature issue of the proposed peace, was understood very differently by different protagonists. For the French it was a continuation of the wartime alliance, committing the UK and the US to hold down a defeat Germany. British diplomats and statesmen understood it, by contrast, as liberating Great Britain from continental European commitments, enabling it to focus on reinforcing the Empire. The Americans viewed the League as instituting a global hegemony of the United States by encouraging the adoption of American political and economic norms, while allowing the US to maintain its role as dominant power in the western hemisphere and not requiring significant American military or economic commitments in the postwar world. (In this respect Cohrs sees fewer differences between the Democratic president Woodrow Wilson and his Republican opponents in Congress than most authors.) The Germans perceived the League as a way to avoid the consequences of their military defeat. While clashing on disputed points in Paris, the peacemakers faced domestic opposition to their policies, centered on proponents of balance-of-power doctrines rather than a transatlantic concert, and on unilateralist rather than multilateralist approaches to international relations.

It was this weak position of the representatives of the victorious powers, Cohrs argues, that led to their refusal to negotiate with the defeated Germans over the terms of the peace treaty and the imposition of a settlement. The French, British Americans and Americans feared that such negotiations would have eliminated the painful compromises they worked out on their disputed positions and encourage domestic opponents to reject the peace treaty altogether. As it was, the US Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles; It was only reluctantly approved in France and Britain, and unanimously opposed in Germany, although the proponents of accepting it under duress won out over intransigents who wanted to reject it come what may.

As an account of the Treaty of Versailles, this argument is convincing and sets the stage for Cohrs’s previous book, demonstrating the necessity of revising an unsatisfactory initial peace settlement. However, it does to general the author’s efforts to place the treaty in a broader sweep of modern European history. Central to Cohrs’s arguments is a distinction between proponents of a forward-looking transatlantic concert of nations and adherents of an outdated balance-of-power approach to international relations. At times this distinction seems similar to the one he rejected between proponents of a lenient and a harsh peace settlement. It is difficult to understand such a distinction as part of a long twentieth century extending from 1860 to 2020. Pre-1914 European international relations were determined by the Pentarchy, the five great powers – Britain, France, Russia, Prussia/Germany, Austria/ Austria-Hungary – that had dominated the European continent since the 1750s. These relations were based on the balance between hostile alliances among these powers, and there was nothing transatlantic about them. In this respect the First World War seems like a decisive break in the practice of international relations and its peace settlement involved struggling with fundamentally new conditions – the end of the Pentarchy and the rise of the US as a transatlantic power. If Cohrs is correct in asserting that the Paris peacemakers saw the Bolshevik regime in Russia as a relatively minor problem, this would rule his concept of a long twentieth century at another point by strongly differentiating the outcomes of two world wars. The post-1945 transatlantic mutual security system was created as communist regimes came to dominate most of Eurasia, a very different state of affairs from the 1920s.

Cohrs suggests that the proponents of a post-1918 transatlantic mutual security system were reviving the idea of ​​a concert of Europe, developed at the previous great peace congress of Vienna in 1814 – a point he belabours in the course of a 160-page review of European international relations in the nineteenth century. In addition to adding to the extent of an already very long book, this evaluation of the Congress of Vienna, following in the footsteps of the recently recognized reporter Paul Schroeder, exaggerates the success and durability of the Vienna settlement, glosses over its reactionary and anti- Democratic character, and overvalues ​​its transatlantic implications. More generally, the idea of ​​a concert of powers works so long as all are playing the same symphony. When one starts making its own music, as the US did in Iraq in 2003 or Russia is doing in Ukraine (both at the end of Cohrs’s long twentieth century), to say nothing of Germany after 1933, the concert breaks down into a cacophony. In this respect the peacemakers in Paris in 1919 were facing a problem that was still more complex and difficult than the ones Patrick O. Cohrs explores so successfully and in such detail in this book.

Jonathan Sperber is the Curators’ Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Missouri

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