For the past five years, Western civilization has been observing and memorializing the Great War, what we now call the First World War. That war was so destructive, it single-handedly cost the West its mojo. Before the war, Western civilization was supremely confident, believing in the rightness and righteousness of its own ideals. After it, self-doubt and nihilism gripped the hearts of once-great nations.
Some of that antebellum self-confidence was founded on the sandy foundation of positivist idealism, and some of it on the misguided internationalism that tied European nations together in a strangling, inflexible web of secret alliances and global brinksmanship. But for all its faults—and the mostly pointless slaughter of millions of young men on the battlefields of Europe—the West was (and is) the best.
Friday, 25 January 2019 quietly marked another milestone in the rolling commemoration of the Great War: the opening, 100 years ago, of the Versailles Peace Conference, the gathering that planted the seeds for the Second World War. New Criterion published a short essay on the anniversary that discusses the maneuvering at the Conference with lively detail; it’s even more impressive when you realize the author, Daniel M. Bring, is still in college.
The League of Nations was the precursor to the United Nations, and the godfather of various supranational entities. In that context, it is rather inauspicious, and is the root of many evils. It was a stunningly ineffective organization, too, that failed to uphold its obligations to collective security.
The United States famously did not join the League, as the Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which included membership in the organization. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts led the charge against ratification, arguing that Article X of the League charter would compel the United States to join in foreign wars that may have little bearing on actual American interests.
Such a degree of foreign policy realism would be refreshing in today’s political climate; as it was, Lodge’s reservations were entirely consistent with American foreign policy dating back to George Washington and John Quincy Adams. The United States did not formally make peace with Germany until 1921, with the signing of the Treaty of Berlin.
Without American support—and in the wake of the global Great Depression—the League of Nations floundered and failed. To quote Bring:
“In discussions of (especially, recent) history, there is much said by historians about hindsight and counterfactual scenarios. What if the United States had lent its strength to the League’s success? What if the League had levied more effective sanctions and even executed military countermeasures? But in the end, these hypotheticals cannot change the past.
“All that matters is that which occurred. Within thirty years from the League’s creation, tens of millions, both soldiers and civilians, were dead in a second great war.”
The post Second World War global order has endured reasonably well, with its broad commitment to global security underpinned with American might. That order flourished, however, in the face of the long Cold War and the mostly-united fronts of a long ideological struggle with Soviet Communism. In the absence of such a major external threat—radical Islamism notwithstanding—the raison d’etre for open-ended, supranational regimes is largely gone, and such organizations are ineffective at best or tyrannical at worst.
The United Nations is a clown college for Third World dictators and their lackeys. The European Union is an undemocratic dystopia under German rule (didn’t we fight two world wars to prevent that outcome?). NATO (perhaps inadvertently) antagonizes Russia by extending into the Baltic region, and American lives are obligated to prop up those very regions should Russia interfere. Further, NATO is only truly effective with American backing and support—a major sticking point for President Trump, who wants member nations to meet their obligations to funding it (and they even balk at that minimal request).
Nineteenth-century isolationism no longer appears to be a viable option for the United States, but constant interventionism and multilateralism come with all the costs and none of the benefits of empire, and severely stretch America’s blood and treasure. An earnest reevaluation of the effectiveness of our international institutions is long overdue; kudos to President Trump for questioning the orthodoxy and probing new possibilities.
As part of that re-examination, let us look back to the idealistic, but unhappy, failure of the League—and the costs its failure entailed for humanity.