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Full text of ” Henry Kissinger Diplomacy ”

See other formats

In this controversial and monumental book —
arguably his most important — Henry Kissinger
illuminates just what diplomacy is. Moving from a
sweeping overview of his own interpretation of
history to personal accounts of his negotiations
with world leaders, Kissinger describes the ways
in which the art of diplomacy and the balance of
power have created the world we live in, and
shows how Americans, protected by the size and
isolation of their country, as well as by their own
idealism and mistrust of the Old World, have
sought to conduct a unique kind of foreign policy
based on the way they wanted the world to be,
as opposed to the way it really is.
Spanning more than three centuries of history,
from Cardinal Richelieu, the father of the modem
state system, to the “New World Order,” in which
we live, Kissinger demonstrates how modem
diplomacy emerged from the trials and experi-
ences of the balance of power of warfare and
peacemaking, and why America, sometimes to its
peril, refused to learn its lessons.
His intimate portraits of world leaders, includ-
ing de Gaulle, Nixon, Chou En-lai, Mao Tse-tung,
Reagan, and Gorbachev, based on personal expe-
rience and knowledge, provide the reader with a
rare window on diplomacy at the summit, togeth-
er with a wealth of detailed and original observa-
tions on the secret negotiations, great events,
and the art of statesmanship that have shaped
our lives in the decades before, during and since
Henry Kissinger was himself at the center of
Analyzing the differences in the national styles
of diplomacy, Kissinger shows how various soci-
eties produce special ways of conducting foreign
policy, and how Americans, from the very begin-
ning, sought a distinctive foreign policy based on
idealism. He illustrates his points with his own
insights and with examples from his own experi-
ence, as well as with candid accounts of his
breakthrough diplomatic initiatives as Nixon’s for-
eign policy partner.
Informed by deep historical knowledge, wit, a
gift for irony, and a unique understanding of the
forces that bind and sunder nations, Kissinger’s
Diplomacy is must reading for anyone who cares
about America’s position in the world.
Henry Alfred Kissinger was sworn in on
September 22, 1973, as the fifty-sixth Secretary of
State, a position he held until January 20, 1977.
He also served as Assistant to the President for
National Security Affairs from January 20, 1969,
until November 3, 1975.
Among the awards Dr. Kissinger has received
have been the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973; the
Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation’s high-
est civilian award) in 1977; and the Medal of
Liberty in 1986.
Dr. Kissinger was bom in Furth, Germany, came
to the United States in 1938 and was naturalized a
United States citizen in 1943. He served in the
Army from 1943 to 1946. He graduated summa
cum laude from Harvard College in 1950. From
1954 until 1969 he was a member of the faculty of
Harvard University. He was Director of the
Harvard International Seminar from 1952 to 1969.
Dr. Kissinger is married to the former Nancy
Maginnes and is the father of two children by a
previous marriage.
Jacket design Bernadette Evangelist copyright© 1994
by Robert Anthony, Inc.
- Front jacket photo courtesy of Culver Pictures
Back jacket photo courtesy of Chinese Press Photo
Printed in the U.S A Copyright © 1994 Simon & Schuster
New York London Toronto Sydney Tokyo Singapore
13579 10 8642
P. CM.
jx1662.k57 1994
327.73— dc20 93*44001
ISBN 0-671 -6599 1"X
The title Diplomacy has been used before.
Both the author and the publisher pay tribute to the late
Sir Harold Nicolsons book (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939),
which was quite different in scope, intentions, and ideas.
A leatherbound signed first edition of this book
has been published by The Easton Press.
1 The New World Order 17
2 The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson 29
3 From Universality to Equilibrium: Richelieu, William of Orange,
and Pitt 56
4 The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia 78
5 Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck 103
6 Realpolitik Turns on Itself 137
7 A Political Doomsday Machine: European Diplomacy Before the
First World War 168
8 Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine 201
9 The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of
Versailles 218
10 The Dilemmas of the Victors 246
1 1 Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished 266
12 The End of Illusion: Hitler and the Destruction of
Versailles 288
13 Stalin’s Bazaar 332
14 The Nazi-Soviet Pact 350
15 America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt 369
16 Three Approaches to Peace: Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill in
World War II 394
17 The Beginning of the Cold War 423
18 The Success and the Pain of Containment 446
19 The Dilemma of Containment: The Korean War 473
20 Negotiating with the Communists: Adenauer, Churchill, and
Eisenhower 493
21 Leapfrogging Containment: The Suez Crisis 522
22 Hungary: Upheaval in the Empire 550
23 Khrushchev’s Ultimatum: The Berlin Crisis 1958-63 568
24 Concepts of Western Unity: Macmillan, de Gaulle, Eisenhower,
and Kennedy 594
25 Vietnam: Entry into the Morass; Truman and Eisenhower 620
26 Vietnam: On the Road to Despair; Kennedy and Johnson 643
27 Vietnam: The Extrication; Nixon 674
28 Foreign Policy as Geopolitics: Nixon’s Triangular
Diplomacy 703
29 Detente and Its Discontents 733
30 The End of the Cold War: Reagan and Gorbachev 762
31 The New World Order Reconsidered 804
notes 837
List of Illustrations
Page 6
Page 10
Page 17
Page 29
Page 56
Page 78
Page 103
Page 137
Page 168
Page 201
Page 218
Page 246
Page 266
Page 288
Page 332
Page 350
Page 369
Page 394
Woodrow Wilson addresses the Paris Peace Conference,
January 25, 1919.
Washington’s Farewell Address, manuscript detail.
Inset: George Washington. Engraving after portrait by Gilbert
The United Nations General Assembly.
Left: Theodore Roosevelt, August 1905- Right: Woodrow
Wilson, July 1919-
Left: William of Orange. Right: Cardinal Richelieu.
Congress of Vienna, 1815.
Left: Otto von Bismarck. Right: Napoleon III.
Benjamin Disraeli.
Emperor William II and Tsar Nicholas II.
Left to right: Paul von Hindenburg, former Emperor William
II, and Erich Ludendorff, 1917.
Left to right: David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emmanuele
Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson at
Versailles, 1919.
Left to right: Clemenceau, Wilson, Baron Sidney Sonnino, and
Lloyd George after signing the Treaty of Versailles, June 28,
Hans Luther, Aristide Briand, and Gustav Stresemann {right)
with German delegates at the League of Nations.
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, 1937.
Joseph Stalin and aides at first session of Supreme Soviet.
Deputies, from left: Nikolai Bulganin, Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin,
Kliment Voroshilov and Nikita Khrushchev, January 26, 1938.
Vyacheslav Molotov signs Russo-German Nonaggression Pact,
August 1939. In background are Joachim von Ribbentrop and
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during Atlantic
Charter meeting, August 1941.
Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta, February 1945.
List of Illustrations
Page 423
Page 446
Page 473
Page 493
Page 522
Page 550
Page 568
Page 594
Page 620
Page 643
Page 674
Page 703
Page 733
Page 762
Page 804
Left: Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam, 1945. Right:
Clement Attlee, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam, August 1945.
John Foster Dulles with dignitaries after signing the Austrian
State Treaty, May 1955.
Dulles at the Korean front, June 1950.
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Churchill in London, 1959-
Khrushchev and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Moscow, 1958.
Hungarian street fighters during Budapest uprising, October
John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, June 1961.
Left: Kennedy and Harold Macmillan in Bermuda, December
1961. Right: Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in Bonn.
French infantry at Dien Bien Phu, April 1954.
Lyndon B. Johnson, December 1965.
Henry Kissinger and Le Due Tho in Paris, January 1973.
Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon, June 1973-
Gerald Ford with Anatoly Dobrynin {left) and Leonid
Brezhnev {right) at Vladivostok, November 1974.
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in Geneva, November
Flags of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany,
China, Russia, Japan.
List of Maps
Page 320 French Expansion from 1648 to 1801
Page 321 German Expansion from 1919 to 1939
Page 322 William Ill’s Grand Alliance from 1701 to 1713
Page 323 Alliances in the 1950s
Page 324 Europe After the Congress of Vienna, 1815
Page 326 Europe on the Eve of the First World War, 1914
Page 328 The Cold War World from 1945 to 1989
Page 330 The Post-Cold War World
The New World Order
Almost as if according to some natural law, in every century there seems
to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and
moral impetus to shape the entire international system in accordance
with its own values. In the seventeenth century, France under Cardinal
Richelieu introduced the modern approach to international relations,
based on the nation-state and motivated by national interest as its ultimate
purpose. In the eighteenth century, Great Britain elaborated the concept
of the balance of power, which dominated European diplomacy for the
next 200 years. In the nineteenth century, Metternich’s Austria recon-
structed the Concert of Europe and Bismarck’s Germany dismantled it,
reshaping European diplomacy into a cold-blooded game of power poli-
In the twentieth century, no country has influenced international rela-
tions as decisively and at the same time as ambivalently as the United
States. No society has more firmly insisted on the inadmissibility of inter-
vention in the domestic affairs of other states, or more passionately as-
serted that its own values were universally applicable. No nation has been
more pragmatic in the day-to-day conduct of its diplomacy, or more
ideological in the pursuit of its historic moral convictions. No country
has been more reluctant to engage itself abroad even while undertaking
alliances and commitments of unprecedented reach and scope.
The singularities that America has ascribed to itself throughout its his-
tory have produced tw T o contradictory attitudes toward foreign policy.
The first is that America serves its values best by perfecting democracy at
home, thereby acting as a beacon for the rest of mankind; the second,
that America’s values impose on it an obligation to crusade for them
around the world. Torn between nostalgia for a pristine past and yearning
for a perfect future, American thought has oscillated between isolationism
and commitment, though, since the end of the Second World War, the
realities of interdependence have predominated.
Both schools of thought — of America as beacon and of America as
crusader — envision as normal a global international order based on de-
mocracy, free commerce, and international law. Since no such system has
ever existed, its evocation often appears to other societies as utopian, if
not naive. Still, foreign skepticism never dimmed the idealism of Wood-
row Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan, or indeed of all other
twentieth-century American presidents. If anything, it has spurred Amer-
ica’s faith that history can be overcome and that if the world truly wants
peace, it needs to apply America’s moral prescriptions.
Both schools of thought were products of the American experience.
Though other republics have existed, none had been consciously created
to vindicate the idea of liberty. No other country’s population had chosen
to head for a new continent and tame its wilderness in the name of
freedom and prosperity for all. Thus the two approaches, the isolationist
and the missionary, so contradictory on the surface, reflected a common
underlying faith: that the United States possessed the world’s best system
of government, and that the rest of mankind could attain peace and
prosperity by abandoning traditional diplomacy and adopting America’s
reverence for international law and democracy.
America’s journey through international politics has been a triumph of
faith over experience. Since the time America entered the arena of world
politics in 1917, it has been so preponderant in strength and so convinced
of the rightness of its ideals that this century’s major international
agreements have been embodiments of American values — from the
League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact to the United Nations
Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. The collapse of Soviet communism
The New World Order
marked the intellectual vindication of American ideals and, ironically,
brought America face to face with the kind of world it had been seeking
to escape throughout its history. In the emerging international order,
nationalism has gained a new lease on life. Nations have pursued self-
interest more frequently than high-minded principle, and have competed
more than they have cooperated. There is little evidence to suggest that
this age-old mode of behavior has changed, or that it is likely to change
in the decades ahead.
What is new about the emerging world order is that, for the first time,
the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it.
America cannot change the way it has perceived its role throughout its
history, nor should it want to. When America entered the international
arena, it was young and robust and had the power to make the world
conform to its vision of international relations. By the end of the Second
World War in 1945, the United States was so powerful (at one point about
35 percent of the world’s entire economic production was American)
that it seemed as if it was destined to shape the world according to its
John F. Kennedy declared confidently in 1961 that America was strong
enough to “pay any price, bear any burden” to ensure the success of
liberty. Three decades later, the United States is in less of a position to
insist on the immediate realization of all its desires. Other countries have
grown into Great Power status. The United States now faces the challenge
of reaching its goals in stages, each of which is an amalgam of American
values and geopolitical necessities. One of the new necessities is that a
world comprising several states of comparable strength must base its
order on some concept of equilibrium — an idea with which the United
States has never felt comfortable.
When American thinking on foreign polio' and European diplomatic
traditions encountered each other at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919,
the differences in historical experience became dramatically evident. The
European leaders sought to refurbish the existing system according to
familiar methods; the American peacemakers believed that the Great War
had resulted not from intractable geopolitical conflicts but from flawed
European practices. In his famous Fourteen Points, Woodrow Wilson told
the Europeans that, henceforth, the international system should be based
not on the balance of power but on ethnic self-determination, that their
security should depend not on military alliances but on collective secu-
rity, and that their diplomacy should no longer be conducted secretly by
experts but on the basis of “open agreements, openly arrived at.” Clearly,
Wilson had come not so much to discuss the terms for ending a war or
for restoring the existing international order, as he had to recast a whole
system of international relations as it had been practiced for nearly three
For as long as Americans have been reflecting on foreign policy, they
have ascribed Europe’s travails to the balance-of-power system. And since
the time Europe first had to concern itself with American foreign policy,
its leaders have looked askance at America’s self-appointed mission of
global reform. Each side has behaved as if the other had freely chosen its
mode of diplomatic behavior and could have, were it wiser or less belli-
cose, selected some other, more agreeable, method.
In fact, both the American and the European approaches to foreign
policy were the products of their own unique circumstances. Americans
inhabited a nearly empty continent shielded from predatory powers by
two vast oceans and with weak countries as neighbors. Since America
confronted no power in need of being balanced, it could hardly have
occupied itself with the challenges of equilibrium even if its leaders had
been seized by the bizarre notion of replicating European conditions
amidst a people who had turned their backs on Europe.
The anguishing dilemmas of security that tormented European nations
did not touch America for nearly 150 years. When they did, America twice
participated in the world wars which had been started by the nations of
Europe. In each instance, by the time America got involved, the balance
of power had already failed to operate, producing this paradox: that
the balance of power, which most Americans disdained, in fact assured
American security as long as it functioned as it was designed; and that it
was its breakdown that drew America into international politics.
The nations of Europe did not choose the balance of power as the
means for regulating their relations out of innate quarrelsomeness or an
Old World love of intrigue. If the emphasis on democracy and interna-
tional law was the product of America’s unique sense of security, Euro-
pean diplomacy had been forged in the school of hard knocks.
Europe was thrown into balance-of-power politics when its first choice,
the medieval dream of universal empire, collapsed and a host of states of
more or less equal strength arose from the ashes of that ancient aspira-
tion. When a group of states so constituted are obliged to deal with one
another, there are only two possible outcomes: either one state becomes
so strong that it dominates all the others and creates an empire, or no
state is ever quite powerful enough to achieve that goal. In the latter
case, the pretensions of the most aggressive member of the international
community are kept in check by a combination of the others; in other
words, by the operation of a balance of power.
The New World Order
The balance-of-power system did not purport to avoid crises or even
wars. When working properly, it was meant to limit both the ability of
states to dominate others and the scope of conflicts. Its goal was not peace
so much as stability and moderation. By definition, a balance-of-power
arrangement cannot satisfy every member of the international system
completely; it works best when it keeps dissatisfaction below the level at
which the aggrieved party will seek to overthrow the international order.
Theorists of the balance of power often leave the impression that it is
the natural form of international relations. In fact, balance-of-power sys-
tems have existed only rarely in human history. The Western Hemisphere
has never known one, nor has the territory of contemporary China since
the end of the period of the warring states, over 2,000 years ago. For the
greatest part of humanity and the longest periods of history, empire has
been the typical mode of government. Empires have no interest in op-
erating within an international system; they aspire to be the international
system. Empires have no need for a balance of power. That is how the
United States has conducted its foreign policy in the Americas, and China
through most of its history in Asia.
In the West, the only examples of functioning balance-of-power systems
were among the city-states of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, and
the European state system which arose out of the Peace of Westphalia in
1648. The distinguishing feature of these systems was to elevate a fact of
life — the existence of a number of states of substantially equal strength
— into a guiding principle of world order.
Intellectually, the concept of the balance of power reflected the convic-
tions of all the major political thinkers of the Enlightenment. In their
view, the universe, including the political sphere, operated according to
rational principles which balanced each other. Seemingly random acts by
reasonable men would, in their totality, tend toward the common good,
though the proof of this proposition was elusive in the century of almost
constant conflict that followed the Thirty Years’ War.
Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, maintained that an “invisible
hand” would distill general economic well-being out of selfish individual
economic actions. In The Federalist Papers, Madison argued that, in a
large enough republic, the various political “factions” selfishly pursuing
their own interests would, by a kind of automatic mechanism, forge a
proper domestic harmony. The concepts of the separation of powers and
of checks and balances, as conceived by Montesquieu and embodied in
the American Constitution, reflected an identical view. The purpose of the
separation of powers was to avoid despotism, not to achieve harmonious
government; each branch of the government, in the pursuit of its own
interests, would restrain excess and thereby serve the common good.
The same principles were applied to international affairs. By pursuing its
own selfish interests, each state was presumed to contribute to progress,
as if some unseen hand were guaranteeing that freedom of choice for
each state assured well-being for all.
For over a century, this expectation seemed to be fulfilled. After the
dislocations caused by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars,
the leaders of Europe restored the balance of power at the Congress of
Vienna in 1815 and softened the brutal reliance on power by seeking to
moderate international conduct through moral and legal bonds. Yet by
the end of the nineteenth century, the European balance-of-power system
returned to the principles of power politics and in a far more unforgiving
environment. Facing down the adversary became the standard method of
diplomacy, leading to one test of strength after another. Finally, in 1914,
a crisis arose from which no one shrank. Europe never fully recovered
world leadership after the catastrophe of the First World War. The United
States emerged as the dominant player but Woodrow Wilson soon made
it clear that his country refused to play by European rules.
At no time in its history has America participated in a balance-of-power
system. Before the two world wars, America benefited from the operation
of the balance of power without being involved in its maneuvers, and
while enjoying the luxury of castigating it at will. During the Cold War,
America was engaged in an ideological, political, and strategic struggle
with the Soviet Union in which a two-power world operated according to
principles quite different from those of a balance-of-power system. In a
two-power world, there can be no pretense that conflict leads to the
common good; any gain for one side is a loss for the other. Victory
without war was in fact what America achieved in the Cold War, a victory
which has now obliged it to confront the dilemma described by George
Bernard Shaw: “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s
desire. The other is to gain it.”
American leaders have taken their values so much for granted that they
rarely recognize how revolutionary and unsettling these values can ap-
pear to others. No other society has asserted that the principles of ethical
conduct apply to international conduct in the same way that they do to
the individual — a notion that is the exact opposite of Richelieu’s raison
d’etat. America has maintained that the prevention of war is as much a
legal as a diplomatic challenge, and that what it resists is not change as
such but the method of change, especially the use of force. A Bismarck
or a Disraeli would have ridiculed the proposition that foreign policy is
about method rather than substance, if indeed he had understood it. No
The New World Order
nation has ever imposed the moral demands on itself that America has.
And no country has so tormented itself over the gap between its moral
values, which are by definition absolute, and the imperfection inherent
in the concrete situations to which they must be applied.
During the Cold War, the unique American approach to foreign policy
was remarkably appropriate to the challenge at hand. There was a deep
ideological conflict, and only one country, the United States, possessed
the full panoply of means — political, economic, and military — to orga-
nize the defense of the noncommunist world. A nation in such a position
is able to insist on its views and can often avoid the problem facing the
statesmen of less favored societies: that their means oblige them to pur-
sue goals less ambitious than their hopes, and that their circumstances
require them to approach even those goals in stages.
In the Cold War world, the traditional concepts of power had substan-
tially broken down. Most of history has displayed a synthesis of military,
political, and economic strength, which in general has proved to be sym-
metrical. In the Cold War period, the various elements of power became
quite distinct. The former Soviet Union was a military superpower and at
the same time an economic dwarf. It was also possible for a country to
be an economic giant but to be militarily irrelevant, as was the case with
In the post-Cold War world, the various elements are likely to grow
more congruent and more symmetrical. The relative military power of
the United States will gradually decline. The absence of a clear-cut adver-
sary will produce domestic pressure to shift resources from defense to
other priorities — a process which has already started. When there is no
longer a single threat and each country perceives its perils from its own
national perspective, those societies which had nestled under American
protection will feel compelled to assume greater responsibility for their
own security. Thus, the operation of the new international system will
move toward equilibrium even in the military field, though it may take
some decades to reach that point. These tendencies will be even more
pronounced in economics, where American predominance is already
declining, and where it has become safer to challenge the United States.
The international system of the twenty-first century will be marked by
a seeming contradiction: on the one hand, fragmentation; on the other,
growing globalization. On the level of the relations among states, the new
order will be more like the European state system of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries than the rigid patterns of the Cold War. It will con-
tain at least six major powers — the United States, Europe, China, Japan,
Russia, and probably India — as well as a multiplicity of medium-sized
and smaller countries. At the same time, international relations have be-
come truly global for the first time. Communications are instantaneous;
the world economy operates on all continents simultaneously. A whole
set of issues has surfaced that can only be dealt with on a worldwide
basis, such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, the population ex-
plosion, and economic interdependence.
For America, reconciling differing values and very different historical
experiences among countries of comparable significance will be a novel
experience and a major departure from either the isolation of the last
century or the de facto hegemony of the Cold War, in ways which this
book seeks to illuminate. Equally, the other major players are facing
difficulties in adjusting to the emerging world order.
Europe, the only part of the modern world ever to operate a multistate
system, invented the concepts of the nation-state, sovereignty, and the
balance of power. These ideas dominated international affairs for the
better part of three centuries. But none of Europe’s erstwhile prac-
titioners of raison d’etat are now strong enough to act as principals in
the emerging international order. They are attempting to compensate for
this relative weakness by creating a unified Europe, an effort which ab-
sorbs much of their energies. But even if they were to succeed, no auto-
matic guidelines for the conduct of a unified Europe on the global stage
would be at hand, since such a political entity has never existed before.
Throughout its history, Russia has been a special case. It arrived late
on the European scene — well after France and Great Britain had been
consolidated — and none of the traditional principles of European diplo-
macy seemed to apply to it. Bordering on three different cultural spheres
— Europe, Asia, and the Muslim world — Russia contained populations of
each, and hence was never a national state in the European sense. Con-
stantly changing shape as its rulers annexed contiguous territories, Russia
was an empire out of scale in comparison with any of the European
countries. Moreover, with every new conquest, the character of the state
changed as it incorporated another brand-new, restive, non-Russian eth-
nic group. This was one of the reasons Russia felt obliged to maintain
huge armies whose size was unrelated to any plausible threat to its exter-
nal security.
Torn between obsessive insecurity and proselytizing zeal, between the
requirements of Europe and the temptations of Asia, the Russian Empire
always had a role in the European equilibrium but was never emotionally
a part of it. The requirements of conquest and of security became merged
in the minds of Russian leaders. Since the Congress of Vienna, the Russian
Empire has placed its military forces on foreign soil more often than any
The New World Order
other major power. Analysts frequently explain Russian expansionism as
stemming from a sense of insecurity. But Russian writers have far more
often justified Russia’s outward thrust as a messianic vocation. Russia on
the march rarely showed a sense of limits; thwarted, it tended to withdraw
into sullen resentment. For most of its history, Russia has been a cause
looking for opportunity.
Postcommunist Russia finds itself within borders which reflect no his-
torical precedent. Like Europe, it will have to devote much of its energy
to redefining its identity. Will it seek to return to its historical rhythm and
restore the lost empire? Will it shift its center of gravity eastward and
become a more active participant in Asian diplomacy? By what principles
and methods will it react to the upheavals around its borders, especially
in the volatile Middle East? Russia will always be essential to world order
and, in the inevitable turmoil associated with answering these questions,
a potential menace to it.
China too faces a world order that is new to it. For 2,000 years, the
Chinese Empire had united its world under a single imperial rule. To be
sure, that rule had faltered at times. Wars occurred in China no less
frequently than they did in Europe. But since they generally took place
among contenders for the imperial authority, they were more in the
nature of civil rather than international wars, and, sooner or later, invari-
ably led to the emergence of some new central power.
Before the nineteenth century, China never had a neighbor capable of
contesting its pre-eminence and never imagined that such a state could
arise. Conquerors from abroad overthrew Chinese dynasties, only to be
absorbed into Chinese culture to such an extent that they continued the
traditions of the Middle Kingdom. The notion of the sovereign equality
of states did not exist in China; outsiders were considered barbarians and
were relegated to a tributary relationship — that was how the first British
envoy to Beijing was received in the eighteenth century. China disdained
sending ambassadors abroad but was not above using distant barbarians
to overcome the ones nearby. Yet this was a strategy for emergencies, not
a day-to-day operational system like the European balance of power,
and it failed to produce the sort of permanent diplomatic establishment
characteristic of Europe. After China became a humiliated subject of Euro-
pean colonialism in the nineteenth century, it re-emerged only recently
— since the Second World War — into a multipolar world unprecedented
in its history.
Japan had also cut itself off from all contact with the outside world. For
500 years before it was forcibly opened by Commodore Matthew Perry in
1854, Japan did not even deign to balance the barbarians off against each
other or to invent tributary relationships, as the Chinese had. Closed off
from the outside world, Japan prided itself on its unique customs, grati-
fied its military tradition by civil war, and rested its internal structure on
the conviction that its unique culture was impervious to foreign influence,
superior to it, and, in the end, would defeat it rather than absorb it.
In the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was the dominant security
threat, Japan was able to identify its foreign policy with America, thou-
sands of miles away. The new world order, with its multiplicity of chal-
lenges, will almost certainly oblige a country with so proud a past to
re-examine its reliance on a single ally. Japan is bound to become more
sensitive to the Asian balance of power than is possible for America, in a
different hemisphere and facing in three directions — across the Atlantic,
across the Pacific, and toward South America. China, Korea, and Southeast
Asia will acquire quite a different significance for Japan than for the
United States, and will inaugurate a more autonomous and more self-
reliant Japanese foreign policy.
As for India, which is now emerging as the major power in South Asia,
its foreign policy is in many ways the last vestige of the heyday of Euro-
pean imperialism, leavened by the traditions of an ancient culture. Before
the arrival of the British, the subcontinent had not been ruled as a single
political unit for millennia. British colonization was accomplished with
small military forces because, at first, the local population saw these as
the replacement of one set of conquerors by another. But after it estab-
lished unified rule, the British Empire was undermined by the very values
of popular government and cultural nationalism it had imported into
India. Yet, as a nation-state, India is a newcomer. Absorbed by the struggle
to feed its vast population, India dabbled in the Nonaligned movement
during the Cold War. But it has yet to assume a role commensurate with
its size on the international political stage.
Thus, in effect, none of the most important countries which must build
a new world order have had any experience with the multistate system
that is emerging. Never before has a new world order had to be assem-
bled from so many different perceptions, or on so global a scale. Nor has
any previous order had to combine the attributes of the historic balance-
of-power systems with global democratic opinion and the exploding tech-
nology of the contemporary period.
In retrospect, all international systems appear to have an inevitable
symmetry. Once they are established, it is difficult to imagine how history
might have evolved had other choices been made, or indeed whether any
other choices had been possible. When an international order first comes
into being, many choices may be open to it. But each choice constricts
The New World Order
the universe of remaining options. Because complexity inhibits flexibility,
early choices are especially crucial. Whether an international order is
relatively stable, like the one that emerged from the Congress of Vienna,
or highly volatile, like those that emerged from the Peace of Westphalia
and the Treaty of Versailles, depends on the degree to which they recon-
cile what makes the constituent societies feel secure with what they con-
sider just.
The two international systems that were the most stable — that of the
Congress of Vienna and the one dominated by the United States after
the Second World War — had the advantage of uniform perceptions. The
statesmen at Vienna were aristocrats who saw intangibles in the same
way, and agreed on fundamentals; the American leaders who shaped the
postwar world emerged from an intellectual tradition of extraordinary
coherence and vitality.
The order that is now emerging will have to be built by statesmen who
represent vastly different cultures. They run huge bureaucracies of such
complexity that, often, the energy of these statesmen is more consumed
by serving the administrative machinery than by defining a purpose. They
rise to eminence by means of qualities that are not necessarily those
needed to govern, and are even less suited to building an international
order. And the only available model of a multistate system was one built
by Western societies, which many of the participants may reject.
Yet the rise and fall of previous world orders based on many states —
from the Peace of Westphalia to our time — is the only experience on
which one can draw in trying to understand the challenges facing contem-
porary statesmen. The study of history offers no manual of instructions
that can be applied automatically; history teaches by analogy, shedding
light on the likely consequences of comparable situations. But each gen-
eration must determine for itself which circumstances are in fact compa-
Intellectuals analyze the operations of international systems; statesmen
build them. And there is a vast difference between the perspective of an
analyst and that of a statesman. The analyst can choose which problem he
wishes to study, whereas the statesman’s problems are imposed on him.
The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclu-
sion; the overwhelming challenge to the statesman is the pressure of
time. The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can
write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his
mistakes are irretrievable. The analyst has available to him all the facts;
he will be judged on his intellectual power. The statesman must act on
assessments that cannot be proved at the time that he is making them; he
will be judged by history on the basis of how wisely he managed the
inevitable change and, above all, by how well he preserves the peace.
That is why examining how statesmen have dealt with the problem of
world order — what worked or failed and why — is not the end of under-
standing contemporary diplomacy, though it may be its beginning.
The Hinge:
Theodore Roosevelt or
Woodrow Wilson
Until early in this century, the isolationist tendency prevailed in Ameri-
can foreign policy. Then, two factors projected America into world affairs:
its rapidly expanding power, and the gradual collapse of the international
system centered on Europe. Two watershed presidencies marked this
progression: Theodore Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson’s. These men
held the reins of government when world affairs were drawing a reluctant
nation into their vortex. Both recognized that America had a crucial role
to play in world affairs though they justified its emergence from isolation
with opposite philosophies.
Roosevelt was a sophisticated analyst of the balance of power. He in-
sisted on an international role for America because its national interest
demanded it, and because a global balance of power was inconceivable
to him without American participation. For Wilson, the justification of
America’s international role was messianic: America had an obligation,
not to the balance of power, but to spread its principles throughout the
world. During the Wilson Administration, America emerged as a key
player in world affairs, proclaiming principles which, while reflecting
the truisms of American thought, nonetheless marked a revolutionary
departure for Old World diplomats. These principles held that peace
depends on the spread of democracy, that states should be judged by the
same ethical criteria as individuals, and that the national interest consists
of adhering to a universal system of law.
To hardened veterans of a European diplomacy based on the balance
of power, Wilson’s views about the ultimately moral foundations of for-
eign policy appeared strange, even hypocritical. Yet Wilsonianism has
survived while history has bypassed the reservations of his contemporar-
ies. Wilson was the originator of the vision of a universal world organiza-
tion, the League of Nations, which would keep the peace through
collective security rather than alliances. Though Wilson could not con-
vince his own country of its merit, the idea lived on. It is above all to
the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has
marched since his watershed presidency, and continues to march to this
America’s singular approach to international affairs did not develop all
at once, or as the consequence of a solitary inspiration. In the early
years of the Republic, American foreign policy was in fact a sophisticated
reflection of the American national interest, which was, simply, to fortify
the new nation’s independence. Since no European country was capable
of posing an actual threat so long as it had to contend with rivals, the
Founding Fathers showed themselves quite ready to manipulate the de-
spised balance of power when it suited their needs; indeed, they could
be extraordinarily skillful at maneuvering between France and Great Brit-
ain not only to preserve America’s independence but to enlarge its fron-
tiers. Because they really wanted neither side to win a decisive victory in
the wars of the French Revolution, they declared neutrality. Jefferson
defined the Napoleonic Wars as a contest between the tyrant on the land
(France) and the tyrant of the ocean (England) 1 — in other words, the
parties in the European struggle were morally equivalent. Practicing an
early form of nonalignment, the new nation discovered the benefit of
neutrality as a bargaining tool, just as many an emerging nation has since.
At the same time, the United States did not carry its rejection of Old
The Hinge.- Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
World ways to the point of forgoing territorial expansion. On the con-
trary, from the very beginning, the United States pursued expansion in the
Americas with extraordinary singleness of purpose. After 1794, a series of
treaties settled the borders with Canada and Florida in Americas favor,
opened the Mississippi River to American trade, and began to establish
an American commercial interest in the British West Indies. This culmi-
nated in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which brought to the young
country a huge, undefined territory west of the Mississippi River from
France along with claims to Spanish territory in Florida and Texas — the
foundation from which to develop into a great power.
The French Emperor who made the sale, Napoleon Bonaparte, ad-
vanced an Old World explanation for such a one-sided transaction: “This
accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and
I have just given England a maritime rival that sooner or later will lay low
her pride.” 2 American statesmen did not care what justification France
used to sell her possessions. To them, condemnation of Old World power
politics did not appear inconsistent with American territorial expansion
across North America. For they considered America’s westward thrust as
America’s internal affair rather than as a matter of foreign policy.
In this spirit, James Madison condemned war as the germ of all evils —
as the precursor of taxes and armies and all other “instruments for bring-
ing the many under the domination of the few.” 3 His successor, James
Monroe, saw no contradiction in defending westward expansion on the
ground that it was necessary to turn America into a great power:
It must be obvious to all, that the further the expansion is carried,
provided it be not beyond the just limit, the greater will be the freedom
of action to both [state and federal] Governments, and the more perfect
their security; and, in all other respects, the better the effect will be to
the whole American people. Extent of territory, whether it be great or
small, gives to a nation many of its characteristics. It marks the extent
of its resources, of its population, of its physical force. It marks, in short,
the difference between a great and a small power . 4
Still, while occasionally using the methods of European power politics,
the leaders of the new nation remained committed to the principles
that had made their country exceptional. The European powers fought
innumerable wars to prevent potentially dominant powers from arising.
In America, the combination of strength and distance inspired a confi-
dence that any challenge could be overcome after it had presented itself.
European nations, with much narrower margins of survival, formed coali-
dons against the possibility of change; America was sufficiently remote to
gear its policy to resisting the actuality of change.
This was the geopolitical basis of George Washington’s warning against
“entangling” alliances for any cause whatsoever. It would be unwise, he
to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of
her [European] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of
her friendships or enmities. Our detached and distant situation invites
and enables us to pursue a different course . 5
The new nation did not treat Washington’s advice as a practical, geopoliti-
cal judgment but as a moral maxim. As the repository of the principle of
liberty, America found it natural to interpret the security conferred on it
by great oceans as a sign of divine providence, and to attribute its actions
to superior moral insight instead of to a margin of security not shared by
any other nation.
A staple of the early Republic’s foreign policy was the conviction that
Europe’s constant wars were the result of its cynical methods of statecraft.
Whereas the European leaders based their international system on the
conviction that harmony could be distilled from a competition of selfish
interests, their American colleagues envisioned a world in which states
would act as cooperative partners, not as distrustful rivals. American lead-
ers rejected the European idea that the morality of states should be
judged by different criteria than the morality of individuals. According to
Jefferson, there existed
but one system of ethics for men and for nations — to be grateful, to be
faithful to all engagements under all circumstances, to be open and
generous, promoting in the long run even the interests of both . 6
The righteousness of America’s tone — at times so grating to foreigners —
reflected the reality that America had in fact rebelled not simply against
the legal ties that had bound it to the old country but against Europe’s
system and values. America ascribed the frequency of European wars to
the prevalence of governmental institutions which denied the values of
freedom and human dignity. “As war is the system of government on the
old construction,” wrote Thomas Paine, “the animosity which nations
reciprocally entertain, is nothing more than what the policy of their gov-
ernments excites, to keep up the spirit of the system — Man is not the
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of govern-
ment .” 7
The idea that peace depends above all on promoting democratic insti-
tutions has remained a staple of American thought to the present day.
Conventional American wisdom has consistently maintained that democ-
racies do not make war against each other. Alexander Hamilton, for one,
challenged the premise that republics were essentially more peaceful
than other forms of government:
Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them,
Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often
engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monar-
chies of the same times In the government of Britain the representa-
tives of the people compose one branch of the national legislature.
Commerce has been for ages the predominant pursuit of that country.
Few nations, nevertheless, have been more frequently engaged in
war. . . , 8
Hamilton, however, represented a tiny minority. The overwhelming
majority of America’s leaders were as convinced then as they are now that
America has a special responsibility to spread its values as its contribution
to world peace. Then, as now, disagreements had to do with method.
Should America actively promote the spread of free institutions as a prin-
cipal objective of its foreign policy? Or should it rely on the impact of its
The dominant view in the early days of the Republic was that the
nascent American nation could best serve the cause of democracy by
practicing its virtues at home. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, a “just
and solid republican government” in America would be “a standing mon-
ument and example” for all the peoples of the world . 9 A year later,
Jefferson returned to the theme that America was, in effect, “acting for all
. . . that circumstances denied to others, but indulged to us, have im-
posed on us the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and
self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual
members . 10
The emphasis American leaders placed on the moral foundations of
America’s conduct and on its significance as a symbol of freedom led to
a rejection of the truisms of European diplomacy: that the balance of
power distilled an ultimate harmony out of the competition of selfish
interests; and that security considerations overrode the principles of civil
law; in other words, that the ends of the state justified the means.
These unprecedented ideas were being put forward by a country which
was prospering throughout the nineteenth century, its institutions in
good working order and its values vindicated. America was aware of no
conflict between high-minded principle and the necessities of survival. In
time, the invocation of morality as the means for solving international
disputes produced a unique kind of ambivalence and a very American
type of anguish. If Americans were obliged to invest their foreign policy
with the same degree of rectitude as they did their personal lives, how
was security to be analyzed; indeed, in the extreme, did this mean that
survival was subordinate to morality? Or did America’s devotion to free
institutions confer an automatic aura of morality on even the most seem-
ingly self-serving acts? And if this was true, how did it differ from the
European concept of raison d’etat, which asserted that a state’s actions
can only be judged by their success?
Professors Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson brilliantly analyzed
this ambivalence in American thought:
The great dilemma of Jefferson’s statecraft lay in his apparent renuncia-
tion of the means on which states had always ultimately relied to ensure
their security and to satisfy their ambitions, and his simultaneous un-
willingness to renounce the ambitions that normally led to the use of
these means. He wished, in other words, that America could have it
both ways — that it could enjoy the fruits of power without falling victim
to the normal consequences of its exercise. 11
To this day, the push and pull of these two approaches has been one of
the major themes of American foreign policy. By 1820, the United States
found a compromise between the two approaches which enabled it to
have it both ways until after the Second World War. It continued to
castigate what went on across the oceans as the reprehensible result of
balance-of-power politics while treating its own expansion across North
America as “manifest destiny.”
Until the turn of the twentieth century, American foreign policy was
basically quite simple: to fulfill the country’s manifest destiny, and to
remain free of entanglements overseas. America favored democratic gov-
ernments wherever possible, but abjured action to vindicate its prefer-
ences. John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, summed up this
attitude in 1821:
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall
be unfurled, there will her [Americas] heart, her benedictions and her
prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is
the champion and vindicator only of her own. 12
The reverse side of this policy of American self-restraint was the decision
to exclude European power politics from the Western Hemisphere, if
necessary by using some of the methods of European diplomacy. The
Monroe Doctrine, which proclaimed this policy, arose from the attempt
of the Holy Alliance — composed of Prussia, Russia, and Austria — to sup-
press the revolution in Spain in the 1820s. Opposed to intervention in
domestic affairs in principle, Great Britain was equally unwilling to coun-
tenance the Holy Alliance in the Western Hemisphere.
British Foreign Secretary George Canning proposed joint action to the
United States in order to keep Spains colonies in the Americas out of the
grasp of the Holy Alliance. He wanted to make sure that, regardless of
what happened in Spain, no European power controlled Latin America.
Deprived of its colonies, Spain would not be much of a prize, Canning
reasoned, and this would either discourage intervention or make it irrele-
John Quincy Adams understood the British theory, but did not trust
British motives. It was too soon after the 1812 British occupation of
Washington for America to side with the erstwhile mother country. Ac-
cordingly, Adams urged President Monroe to exclude European colonial-
ism from the Americas as a unilateral American decision.
The Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed in 1823, made a moat of the ocean
which separated the United States from Europe. Up to that time, the
cardinal rule of American foreign policy had been that the United States
would not become entangled in European struggles for power. The Mon-
roe Doctrine went the next step by declaring that Europe must not be-
come entangled in American affairs. And Monroe’s idea of what
constituted American affairs — the whole Western Hemisphere — was ex-
pansive indeed.
The Monroe Doctrine, moreover, did not limit itself to declarations of
principle. Daringly, it warned the European powers that the new nation
would go to war to uphold the inviolability of the Western Hemisphere.
It declared that the United States would regard any extension of European
power “to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and
safety.” 13
Finally, in language less eloquent but more explicit than that of his
Secretary of State two years earlier, President Monroe abjured any inter-
vention in European controversies: “In the wars of the European powers
in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does
it comport with our policy so to do .” 14
America was at one and the same time turning its back on Europe, and
freeing its hands to expand in the Western Hemisphere. Under the um-
brella of the Monroe Doctrine, America could pursue policies which were
not all that different from the dreams of any European king — expanding
its commerce and influence, annexing territory — in short, turning itself
into a Great Power without being required to practice power politics.
America’s desire for expansion and its belief that it was a more pure and
principled country than any in Europe never clashed. Since it did not
regard its expansion as foreign policy, the United States could use its
power to prevail — over the Indians, over Mexico, in Texas — and to do so
in good conscience. In a nutshell, the foreign policy of the United States
was not to have a foreign policy.
Like Napoleon with respect to the Louisiana Purchase, Canning had a
right to boast that he had brought the New World into being to redress
the balance of the Old, for Great Britain indicated that it would back the
Monroe Doctrine with the Royal Navy. America, however, would redress
the European balance of power only to the extent of keeping the Holy
Alliance out of the Western Hemisphere. For the rest, the European pow-
ers would have to maintain their equilibrium without American participa-
For the rest of the century, the principal theme of American foreign
policy was to expand the application of the Monroe Doctrine. In 1823,
the Monroe Doctrine had warned the European powers to keep out of the
Western Hemisphere. By the time of the Monroe Doctrine s centennial, its
meaning had been gradually expanded to justify American hegemony in
the Western Hemisphere. In 1845, President Polk explained the incorpo-
ration of Texas into the United States as necessary to prevent an indepen-
dent state from becoming “an ally or dependency of some foreign nation
more powerful than herself’ and hence a threat to American security. 15
In other words, the Monroe Doctrine justified American intervention not
only against an existing threat but against any possibility of an oven
challenge — much as the European balance of power did.
The Civil War briefly interrupted America’s preoccupation with territo-
rial expansion. Washington’s primary foreign-policy concern now was to
prevent the Confederacy from being recognized by European nations lest
a multistate system emerge on the soil of Nonh America and with it the
balance-of-power politics of European diplomacy. But by 1868, President
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
Andrew Johnson was back at the old stand of justifying expansion by the
Monroe Doctrine, this time in the purchase of Alaska:
Foreign possession or control of those communities has hitherto hin-
dered the growth and impaired the influence of the United States.
Chronic revolution and anarchy there would be equally injurious. 16
Something more fundamental than expansion across the American conti-
nent was taking place, though it went practically unnoticed by the so-
called Great Powers — a new member was joining their club as the United
States became the worlds most powerful nation. By 1885, the United
States had surpassed Great Britain, then considered the world’s major
industrial power, in manufacturing output. By the turn of the century, it
was consuming more energy than Germany, France, Austria-Hungary,
Russia, Japan, and Italy combined. 17 Between the Civil War and the turn
of the century, American coal production rose by 800 percent, steel rails
by 523 percent, railway track mileage by 567 percent, and wheat produc-
tion by 256 percent. Immigration contributed to the doubling of the
American population. And the process of growth was likely to accelerate.
No nation has ever experienced such an increase in its power without
seeking to translate it into global influence. America’s leaders were
tempted. President Andrewjohnson’s Secretary of State, Seward, dreamed
of an empire including Canada and much of Mexico and extending deep
into the Pacific. The Grant Administration wanted to annex the Dominican
Republic and toyed with the acquisition of Cuba. These were the kinds of
initiatives which contemporary European leaders, Disraeli or Bismarck,
would have understood and approved of.
But the American Senate remained focused on domestic priorities and
thwarted all expansionist projects. It kept the army small (25,000 men)
and the navy weak. Until 1890, the American army ranked fourteenth in
the world, after Bulgaria’s, and the American navy was smaller than Italy’s
even though America’s industrial strength was thirteen times that of Italy.
America did not participate in international conferences and was treated
as a second-rank power. In 1880, when Turkey reduced its diplomatic
establishment, it eliminated its embassies in Sweden, Belgium, the Neth-
erlands, and the United States. At the same time, a German diplomat in
Madrid offered to take a cut in salary rather than be posted to Washing-
ton. 18
But once a country has reached the level of power of post-Civil War
America, it will not forever resist the temptation of translating it into a
position of importance in the international arena. In the late 1880s,
America began to build up its navy, which, as late as 1880, was smaller
than Chile’s, Brazil’s, or Argentina’s. By 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benja-
min Tracy was lobbying for a battleship navy and the contemporary naval
historian Alfred Thayer Mahan developed a rationale for it. 19
Though in fact the British Royal Navy protected America from depreda-
tions by European powers, American leaders did not perceive Great Brit-
ain as their country’s protector. Throughout the nineteenth century, Great
Britain was considered the greatest challenge to American interests, and
the Royal Navy the most serious strategic threat. No wonder that, when
America began to flex its muscles, it sought to expel Great Britain’s influ-
ence from the Western Hemisphere, invoking the Monroe Doctrine
which Great Britain had been so instrumental in encouraging.
The United States was none too delicate about the challenge. In 1895,
Secretary of State Richard Olney invoked the Monroe Doctrine to warn
Great Britain with a pointed reference to the inequalities of power.
“To-day,” he wrote, “the United States is practically sovereign on this
continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its
interposition.” America’s “infinite resources combined with its isolated
position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as
against any or all other powers.” 20 America’s renunciation of power poli-
tics clearly did not apply to the Western Hemisphere. By 1902, Great
Britain had abandoned its claim to a major role in Central America.
Supreme in the Western Hemisphere, the United States began to enter
the wider arena of international affairs. America had grown into a world
power almost despite itself. Expanding across the continent, it had estab-
lished its pre-eminence all around its shores while insisting that it had no
wish to conduct the foreign policy of a Great Power. At the end of the
process, America found itself commanding the son of power which made
it a major international factor, no matter what its preferences. America’s
leaders might continue to insist that its basic foreign policy was to serve
as a “beacon” for the rest of mankind, but there could be no denying that
some of them were also becoming aware that America’s power entitled it
to be heard on the issues of the day, and that it did not need to wait
until all of mankind had become democratic to make itself a part of the
international system.
No one articulated this reasoning more trenchantly than Theodore
Roosevelt. He was the first president to insist that it was America’s duty to
make its influence felt globally, and to relate America to the world in
terms of a concept of national interest. Like his predecessors, Roosevelt
was convinced of America’s beneficent role in the world. But unlike them,
Roosevelt held that America had real foreign policy interests that went far
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
beyond its interest in remaining unentangled. Roosevelt started from the
premise that the United States was a power like any other, not a singular
incarnation of virtue. If its interests collided with those of other countries,
America had the obligation to draw on its strength to prevail.
As a first step, Roosevelt gave the Monroe Doctrine its most interven-
tionist interpretation by identifying it with imperialist doctrines of the
period. In what he called a “Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, he pro-
claimed on December 6, 1904, a general right of intervention by “some
civilized nation” which, in the Western Hemisphere, the United States
alone had a right to exercise: . . in the Western Hemisphere the adher-
ence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United
States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrong-doing or im-
potence, to the exercise of an international police power.” 21
Roosevelt’s practice preceded his preaching. In 1902, America had
forced Haiti to clear up its debts with European banks. In 1903, it fanned
unrest in Panama into a full-scale insurrection. With American help, the
local population wrested independence from Colombia, but not before
Washington had established the Canal Zone under United States sover-
eignty on both sides of what was to become the Panama Canal. In 1905,
the United States established a financial protectorate over the Dominican
Republic. And in 1906, American troops occupied Cuba.
For Roosevelt, muscular diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere was
pan of America’s new global role. The two oceans were no longer wide
enough to insulate America from the rest of the world. The United States
had to become an actor on the international stage. Roosevelt said as much
in a 1902 message to the Congress: “More and more, the increasing
interdependence and complexity of international political and economic
relations render it incumbent on all civilized and orderly powers to insist
on the proper policing of the world.” 22
Roosevelt commands a unique historical position in America’s ap-
proach to international relations. No other president defined America’s
world role so completely in terms of national interest, or identified the
national interest so comprehensively with the balance of power. Roose-
velt shared the view of his countrymen, that America was the best hope
for the world. But unlike most of them, he did not believe that it could
preserve the peace or fulfill its destiny simply by practicing civic virtues.
In his perception of the nature of world order, he was much closer to
Palmerston or Disraeli than to Thomas Jefferson.
A great president must be an educator, bridging the gap between his
people’s future and its experience. Roosevelt taught an especially stern
doctrine for a people brought up in the belief that peace is the normal
condition among nations, that there is no difference between personal
and public morality, and that America was safely insulated from the up-
heavals affecting the rest of the world. For Roosevelt rebutted each of
these propositions. To him, international life meant struggle, and Dar-
win’s theory of the survival of the fittest was a better guide to history than
personal morality. In Roosevelt’s view, the meek inherited the earth only
if they were strong. To Roosevelt, America was not a cause but a great
power — potentially the greatest. He hoped to be the president destined
to usher his nation onto the world scene so that it might shape the
twentieth century in the way Great Britain had dominated the nineteenth
— as a country of vast strengths which had enlisted itself, with moderation
and wisdom, to work on behalf of stability, peace, and progress.
Roosevelt was impatient with many of the pieties which dominated
American thinking on foreign policy. He disavowed the efficacy of inter-
national law. What a nation could not protect by its own power could not
be safeguarded by the international community. He rejected disarma-
ment, which was just then emerging as an international topic:
As yet there is no likelihood of establishing any kind of international
power . . . which can effectively check wrong-doing, and in these cir-
cumstances it would be both foolish and an evil thing for a great and
free nation to deprive itself of the power to protect its own rights and
even in exceptional cases to stand up for the rights of others. Nothing
would more promote iniquity . . . than for the free and enlightened
peoples , . . deliberately to render themselves powerless while leaving
every despotism and barbarism armed . 23
Roosevelt was even more scathing when it came to talk about world
I regard the Wilson-Bryan attitude of trusting to fantastic peace treaties,
to impossible promises, to all kinds of scraps of paper without any
backing in efficient force, as abhorrent. It is infinitely better for a nation
and for the world to have the Frederick the Great and Bismarck tradi-
tion as regards foreign policy than to have the Bryan or Bryan-Wilson
attitude as a permanent national attitude A milk-and-water righ-
teousness unbacked by force is to the full as wicked as and even more
mischievous than force divorced from righteousness . 24
In a world regulated by power, Roosevelt believed that the natural order
of things was reflected in the concept of “spheres of influence,” which
assigned preponderant influence over large regions to specific powers,
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
for example, to the United States in the Western Hemisphere or to Great
Britain on the Indian subcontinent. In 1908, Roosevelt acquiesced to the
Japanese occupation of Korea because, to his way of thinking, Japanese-
Korean relations had to be determined by the relative power of each
country, not by the provisions of a treaty or by international law:
Korea is absolutely Japan’s. To be sure, by treaty it was solemnly cove-
nanted that Korea should remain independent. But Korea was itself
helpless to enforce the treaty, and it was out of the question to suppose
that any other nation . . . would attempt to do for the Koreans what they
were utterly unable to do for themselves . 25
With Roosevelt holding such European-style views, it was not surprising
that he approached the global balance of power with a sophistication
matched by no other American president and approached only by Richard
Nixon. Roosevelt at first saw no need to engage America in the specifics
of the European balance of power because he considered it more or less
self-regulating. But he left little doubt that, if such a judgment were to
prove wrong, he would urge America to engage itself to re-establish the
equilibrium. Roosevelt gradually came to see Germany as a threat to the
European balance and began to identify America’s national interest with
those of Great Britain and France.
This was demonstrated in 1906, during the Algeciras Conference, the
purpose of which was to settle the future of Morocco. Germany, which
insisted on an “open door” to forestall French domination, urged the
inclusion of an American representative, because it believed America to
have significant trading interests there. In the event, the American consul
in Morocco attended, but the role he played disappointed the Germans.
Roosevelt subordinated America’s commercial interests — which in any
event were not large — to his geopolitical view. These were expressed by
Henry Cabot Lodge in a letter to Roosevelt at the height of the Moroccan
crisis. “France,” he said, “ought to be with us and England — in our zone
and our combination. It is the sound arrangement economically and
politically.” 26
Whereas in Europe, Roosevelt considered Germany the principal
threat, in Asia he was concerned with Russian aspirations and thus favored
Japan, Russia’s principal rival. “There is no nation in the world which,
more than Russia, holds in its hands the fate of the coming years,” Roose-
velt declared. 27 In 1904, Japan, protected by an alliance with Great Britain,
attacked Russia. Though Roosevelt proclaimed American neutrality, he
leaned toward Japan. A Russian victory, he argued, would be “a blow to
civilization.” 28 And when Japan destroyed the Russian fleet, he rejoiced:
“I was thoroughly pleased with the Japanese victory, for Japan is playing
our game.” 29
He wanted Russia to be weakened rather than altogether eliminated
from the balance of power — for, according to the maxims of balance-of-
power diplomacy, an excessive weakening of Russia would have merely
substituted a Japanese for the Russian threat. Roosevelt perceived that the
outcome which served America best would be one in which Russia
“should be left face to face with Japan so that each may have a moderative
action on the other.” 30
On the basis of geopolitical realism rather than high-minded altruism,
Roosevelt invited the two belligerents to send representatives to his
Oyster Bay home to work out a peace treaty that limited the Japanese
victory and preserved equilibrium in the Far East. As a result, Roosevelt
became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for
producing a settlement based on maxims like balance of power and
spheres of influence which, after his successor, Wilson, would appear
quite un-American.
In 1914, Roosevelt initially took a relatively clinical view of Germany’s
invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg, though it was in flagrant violation
of treaties which had established the neutrality of these two countries:
I am not taking sides one way or the other as concerns the violation or
disregard of these treaties. When giants are engaged in a death wrestle,
as they reel to and fro they are certain to trample on whoever gets in the
way of either of the huge, straining combatants, unless it is dangerous to
do so. 51
A few months after the outbreak of war in Europe, Roosevelt reversed
his initial judgment about the violation of Belgian neutrality, though,
characteristically, it was not the illegality of the German invasion that
concerned him but the threat it posed to the balance of power: . . do
you not believe that if Germany won in this war, smashed the English
Fleet and destroyed the British Empire, within a year or two she would
insist upon taking the dominant position in South and Central
America . . . ?” 32
He urged massive rearmament so that America might throw its weight
behind the Triple Entente. He regarded a German victory as both possible
and dangerous for the United States. A victory for the Central Powers
would have forfeited the protection of the British Royal Navy, permitting
German imperialism to assert itself in the Western Hemisphere.
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
That Roosevelt should have considered British naval control of the
Atlantic safer than German hegemony was due to such intangible non-
power factors as cultural affinity and historical experience. Indeed, there
were strong cultural ties between England and America for which there
was no counterpart in U.S.-German relations. Moreover, the United States
was used to Great Britain ruling the seas and was comfortable with the
idea, and no longer suspected Great Britain of expansionist designs in
the Americas. Germany, however, was regarded with apprehension. On
October 3, 1914, Roosevelt wrote to the British ambassador to Washing-
ton (conveniently forgetting his earlier judgment about the inevitability
of Germany’s disregard of Belgian neutrality) that:
If I had been President, I should have acted [against Germany] on the
thirtieth or thirty-first of July. 33
In a letter to Rudyard Kipling a month later, Roosevelt admitted to the
difficulty of bringing American power to bear on the European war on
the basis of his convictions. The American people were unwilling to
follow a course of action cast so strictly in terms of power politics:
If I should advocate all that I myself believe, I would do no good among
our people, because they would not follow me. Our people are short-
sighted, and they do not understand international matters. Your people
have been short-sighted, but they are not as short-sighted as ours in
these matters Thanks to the width of the ocean, our people believe
that they have nothing to fear from the present contest, and that they
have no responsibility concerning it. 34
Had American thinking on foreign policy culminated in Theodore Roose-
velt, it would have been described as an evolution adapting traditional
principles of European statecraft to the American condition. Roosevelt
would have been seen as the president who was in office when the United
States, having established a dominant position in the Americas, began to
make its weight felt as a world power. But American foreign-policy think-
ing did not end with Roosevelt, nor could it have done so. A leader who
confines his role to his people’s experience dooms himself to stagnation;
a leader who outstrips his people’s experience runs the risk of not being
understood. Neither its experience nor its values prepared America for
the role assigned to it by Roosevelt.
In one of history’s ironies, America did in the end fulfill the leading
role Roosevelt had envisioned for it, and within Roosevelt’s lifetime, but
it did so on behalf of principles Roosevelt derided, and under the guid-
ance of a president whom Roosevelt despised. Woodrow Wilson was the
embodiment of the tradition of American exceptionalism, and originated
what would become the dominant intellectual school of American foreign
policy — a school whose precepts Roosevelt considered at best irrelevant
and at worst inimical to America’s long-range interests.
In terms of all established principles of statecraft, Roosevelt had by
far the better of the argument between these two of Americas greatest
presidents. Nevertheless, it was Wilson who prevailed: a century later,
Roosevelt is remembered for his achievements, but it was Wilson who
shaped American thought. Roosevelt understood how international poli-
tics worked among the nations then conducting world affairs — no Ameri-
can president has had a more acute insight into the operation of
international systems. Yet Wilson grasped the mainsprings of American
motivation, perhaps the principal one being that America simply did not
see itself as a nation like any other. It lacked both the theoretical and the
practical basis for the European-style diplomacy of constant adjustment
of the nuances of power from a posture of moral neutrality for the sole
purpose of preserving an ever-shifting balance. Whatever the realities and
the lessons of power, the American people’s abiding conviction has been
that its exceptional character resides in the practice and propagation of
Americans could be moved to great deeds only through a vision that
coincided with their perception of their country as exceptional. However
intellectually attuned to the way the diplomacy of the Great Powers actu-
ally operated, Roosevelt’s approach failed to persuade his countrymen
that they needed to enter the First World War. Wilson, on the other
hand, tapped his people’s emotions with arguments that were as morally
elevated as they were largely incomprehensible to foreign leaders.
Wilson’s was an astonishing achievement. Rejecting power politics, he
knew how to move the American people. An academic who arrived in
politics relatively late, he was elected due to a split in the Republican Party
between Taft and Roosevelt. Wilson grasped that America’s instinctive
isolationism could be overcome only by an appeal to its belief in the
exceptional nature of its ideals. Step by step, he took an isolationist coun-
try into war, after he had first demonstrated his Administration’s devotion
to peace by a passionate advocacy of neutrality. And he did so while
abjuring any selfish national interests, and by affirming that America
sought no other benefit than vindication of its principles.
In Wilson’s first State of the Union Address, on December 2, 1913, he
laid down the outline of what later came to be known as Wilsonianism.
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
Universal law and not equilibrium, national trustworthiness and not na-
tional self-assertion were, in Wilsons view, the foundations of interna-
tional order. Recommending the ratification of several treaties of
arbitration, Wilson argued that binding arbitration, not force, should be-
come the method for resolving international disputes:
There is only one possible standard by which to determine controver-
sies between the United States and other nations, and that is com-
pounded of these two elements: Our own honor and our obligations
to the peace of the world. A test so compounded ought easily to be
made to govern both the establishment of new treaty obligations and
the interpretation of those already assumed . 35
Nothing annoyed Roosevelt as much as high-sounding principles backed
by neither the power nor the will to implement them. He wrote to a
friend: “If I must choose between a policy of blood and iron and one of
milk and water . . . why I am for the policy of blood and iron. It is better
not only for the nation but in the long run for the world.” 36
By the same token, Roosevelt’s proposal to respond to the war in
Europe by increasing defense spending made no sense to Wilson. In his
second State of the Union address on December 8, 1914, and after the
European war had been raging for four months, Wilson rejected an in-
crease in America’s armaments, because this would signal that “we had
lost our self-possession” as the result of a war “whose causes cannot
touch us, whose very existence affords us opportunities for friendship
and disinterested service ” 37
America’s influence, in Wilson’s view, depended on its unselfishness; it
had to preserve itself so that, in the end, it could step forward as a
credible arbiter between the warring parties. Roosevelt had asserted that
the war in Europe, and especially a German victory, would ultimately
threaten American security. Wilson maintained that America was essen-
tially disinterested, hence should emerge as mediator. Because of Amer-
ica’s faith in values higher than the balance of power, the war in Europe
now afforded it an extraordinary opportunity to proselytize for a new and
better approach to international affairs.
Roosevelt ridiculed such ideas and accused Wilson of pandering to
isolationist sentiments to help his re-election in 1916. In fact, the thrust
of Wilson’s policy was quite the opposite of isolationism. What Wilson
was proclaiming was not America’s withdrawal from the world but the
universal applicability of its values and, in time, America’s commitment
to spreading them. Wilson restated what had become the conventional
American wisdom since Jefferson, but put it in the service of a crusading
• America’s special mission transcends day-to-day diplomacy and obliges
it to serve as a beacon of liberty for the rest of mankind.
• The foreign policies of democracies are morally superior because the
people are inherently peace-loving.
• Foreign policy should reflect the same moral standards as personal
• The state has no right to claim a separate morality for itself.
Wilson endowed these assertions of American moral exceptionalism
with a universal dimension:
Dread of the power of any other nation we are incapable of. We are not
jealous of rivalry in the fields of commerce or of any other peaceful
achievement. We mean to live our own lives as we will; but we mean
also to let live. We are, indeed, a true friend to all the nations of the
world, because we threaten none, covet the possessions of none, desire
the overthrow of none . 38
No other nation has ever rested its claim to international leadership on
its altruism. All other nations have sought to be judged by the compatibil-
ity of their national interests with those of other societies. Yet, from
Woodrow Wilson through George Bush, American presidents have in-
voked their country’s unselfishness as the crucial attribute of its leader-
ship role. Neither Wilson nor his later disciples, through the present,
have been willing to face the fact that, to foreign leaders imbued with less
elevated maxims, America’s claim to altruism evokes a certain aura of
unpredictability; whereas the national interest can be calculated, altruism
depends on the definition of its practitioner.
To Wilson, however, the altruistic nature of American society was proof
of divine favor:
It was as if in the Providence of God a continent had been kept unused
and waiting for a peaceful people who loved liberty and the rights of
men more than they loved anything else, to come and set up an un-
selfish commonwealth . 39
The claim that American goals represented providential dispensation im-
plied a global role for America that would prove far more sweeping than
The Hinge. Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
any Roosevelt had ever imagined. For he had wanted no more than to
improve the balance of power and to invest America’s role in it with
the importance commensurate with its growing strength. In Roosevelt’s
conception, America would have been one nation among many — more
powerful than most and part of an elite group of great powers — but still
subject to the historic ground rules of equilibrium.
Wilson moved America onto a plane entirely remote from such consid-
erations. Disdaining the balance of power, he insisted that America’s role
was “not to prove . . . our selfishness, but our greatness.” 40 If that was
true, America had no right to hoard its values for itself. As early as 1915,
Wilson put forward the unprecedented doctrine that the security of
America was inseparable from the security of all the rest of mankind.
This implied that it was henceforth America’s duty to oppose aggression
. . . because we demand unmolested development and the undisturbed
government of our own lives upon our own principles of right and
liberty, we resent, from whatever quarter it may come, the aggression
we ourselves will not practice. We insist upon security in prosecuting
our self-chosen lines of national development. We do more than that.
We demand it also for others. We do not confine our enthusiasm for
individual liberty and free national development to the incidents and
movements of affairs which affect only ourselves. We feel it wherever
there is a people that tries to walk in these difficult paths of indepen-
dence and right. 41
Envisioning America as a beneficent global policeman, this foreshadowed
the containment policy, which would be developed after the Second
World War.
Even at his most exuberant, Roosevelt would never have dreamt of so
sweeping a sentiment portending global interventionism. But, then, he
was the warrior-statesman; Wilson was the prophet-priest. Statesmen,
even warriors, focus on the world in which they live; to prophets, the
“real” world is the one they want to bring into being.
Wilson transformed what had started out as a reaffirmation of American
neutrality into a set of propositions laying the foundations for a global
crusade. In Wilson’s view, there was no essential difference between
freedom for America and freedom for the world. Proving that the time
spent in faculty meetings, where hairsplitting exegesis reigns supreme,
had not been wasted, he developed an extraordinary interpretation of
what George Washington had really meant when he warned against for-
eign entanglements. Wilson redefined “foreign” in a way that would
surely have astonished the first president. What Washington meant, ac-
cording to Wilson, was that America must avoid becoming entangled in
the purposes of others. But, Wilson argued, nothing that concerns human-
ity “can be foreign or indifferent to us .” 42 Hence America had an unlim-
ited charter to involve itself abroad.
What extraordinary conceit to derive a charter for global intervention
from a Founding Father’s injunction against foreign entanglements, and
to elaborate a philosophy of neutrality that made involvement in war
inevitable! As Wilson edged his country ever closer to the world war by
articulating his visions of a better world, he evoked a vitality and an
idealism that seemed to justify Americas hibernation for a century just so
it could now enter the international arena with a dynamism and an inno-
cence unknown to its more seasoned partners. European diplomacy had
been hardened, and humbled, in the crucible of history; its statesmen
saw events through the prism of many dreams proved fragile, of high
hopes dashed and ideals lost to the fragility of human foresight. America
knew no such limitations, boldly proclaiming, if not the end of history,
then surely its irrelevance, as it moved to transform values heretofore
considered unique to America into universal principles applicable to all.
Wilson was thus able to overcome, at least for a time, the tension in
American thinking between America the secure and America the unsul-
lied. America could only approach entry into World War I as an engage-
ment on behalf of peoples everywhere, not just itself, and in the role of
the crusader for universal liberties.
Germany’s announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare and its
sinking of the Lusitania became the proximate cause of America’s decla-
ration of war. But Wilson did not justify America’s entry into the war on
the grounds of specific grievances. National interests were irrelevant;
Belgium’s violation and the balance of power had nothing to do with it.
Rather, the war had a moral foundation, whose primary objective was a
new and more just international order. “It is a fearful thing,” Wilson
reflected in the speech asking for a declaration of war,
to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and
disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.
But right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things
which we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for
the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own
governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal
dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace
and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free . 43
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
In a war on behalf of such principles, there could be no compromise.
Total victory was the only valid goal. Roosevelt would almost certainly
have expressed America’s war aims in political and strategic terms;
Wilson, flaunting American disinterest, defined America’s war aims in
entirely moral categories. In Wilson’s view, the war was not the conse-
quence of clashing national interests pursued without restraint, but of
Germany’s unprovoked assault on the international order. More specifi-
cally, the true culprit was not the German nation, but the German Em-
peror himself. In urging a declaration of war, Wilson argued:
We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling
towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon
their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was
not with their previous knowledge or approval. It was a war determined
upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old, unhappy days
when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were
provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties . 44
Though William II had long been regarded as a loose cannon on the
European stage, no European statesman had ever advocated deposing
him; nobody had viewed the overthrow of the Emperor or of his dynasty
as the key to peace in Europe. But once the issue of Germany’s domestic
structure had been advanced, the war could no longer end in the sort of
compromise balancing conflicting interests that Roosevelt had achieved
between Japan and Russia ten years earlier. On January 22, 1917, before
America had entered the war, Wilson proclaimed its goal to be “peace
without victory.” 45 What Wilson proposed, however, when America did
enter the war was a peace achievable only by total victory.
Wilson’s pronouncements soon became conventional wisdom. Even as
experienced a figure as Herbert Hoover began to describe the German
ruling class as inherently wicked, preying “upon the life blood of other
peoples.” 46 The mood of the times was aptly expressed by Jacob Schur-
man, President of Cornell University, who saw the war as a struggle
between the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the “Kingdom of Hun-land, which
is force and frightfulness.” 47
Yet the overthrow of a single dynasty could not possibly bring about
all that Wilson’s rhetoric implied. In urging a declaration of war, Wilson
extended his moral reach to the entire world; not only Germany but all
other nations had to be made safe for democracy; for peace would re-
quire “a partnership of democratic nations.” 48 In another speech, Wilson
went even further by saying that America’s power would atrophy unless
the United States spread freedom around the globe:
We set this Nation up to make men free, and we did not confine our
conception and purpose to America, and now we will make men free.
If we did not do that, all the fame of America would be gone, and all
her power would be dissipated. 49
The closest Wilson ever came to stating his war aims in detail was in the
Fourteen Points, which will be dealt with in chapter 9. Wilson’s historic
achievement lies in his recognition that Americans cannot sustain major
international engagements that are not justified by their moral faith. His
downfall was in treating the tragedies of history as aberrations, or as due
to the shortsightedness and the evil of individual leaders, and in his
rejection of any objective basis for peace other than the force of public
opinion and the worldwide spread of democratic institutions. In the pro-
cess, he would ask the nations of Europe to undertake something for
which they were neither philosophically nor historically prepared, and
right after a war which had drained them of substance.
For 300 years, the European nations had based their world order on a
balancing of national interests, and their foreign policies on a quest for
security, treating every additional benefit as a bonus. Wilson asked the
nations of Europe to base their foreign policy on moral convictions,
leaving security to result incidentally, if at all. But Europe had no concep-
tual apparatus for such a disinterested policy, and it still remained to be
seen whether America, having just emerged from a century of isolation,
could sustain the permanent involvement in international affairs that Wil-
son’s theories implied.
Wilson’s appearance on the scene was a watershed for America, one of
those rare examples of a leader who fundamentally alters the course of
his country’s history. Had Roosevelt or his ideas prevailed in 1912, the
question of war aims would have been based on an inquiry into the
nature of American national interest. Roosevelt would have rested Amer-
ica’s entry into the war on the proposition — which he in fact advanced —
that, unless America joined the Triple Entente, the Central Powers would
win the war and, sooner or later, pose a threat to American security.
The American national interest, so defined, would, over time, have led
America to adopt a global policy comparable to Great Britain’s toward
Continental Europe. For three centuries, British leaders had operated
from the assumption that, if Europe’s resources were marshaled by a
single dominant power, that country would then have the resources to
challenge Great Britain’s command of the seas, and thus threaten its
independence. Geopolitically, the United States, also an island off the
shores of Eurasia, should, by the same reasoning, have felt obliged to
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
resist the domination of Europe or Asia by any one power and, even
more, the control of both continents by the same power. In these terms,
it should have been the extent of Germany’s geopolitical reach and not
its moral transgressions that provided the principal casus belli
However, such an Old World approach ran counter to the wellspring
of American emotions being tapped by Wilson — as it does to this day.
Not even Roosevelt could have managed the power politics he advocated,
though he died convinced that he could have. At any rate, Roosevelt was
no longer the president, and Wilson had made it clear, even before
America entered the war, that he would resist any attempt to base the
postwar order on established principles of international politics.
Wilson saw the causes of the war not only in the wickedness of the
German leadership but in the European balance-of-power system as well.
On January 22, 1917, he attacked the international order which had pre-
ceded the war as a system of “organized rivalries”:
The question upon which the whole future peace and policy of the
world depends is this: Is the present war a struggle for a just and secure
peace, or only for a new balance of power? . . . There must be, not a
balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries,
but an organized common peace. 50
What Wilson meant by “community of power” was an entirely new con-
cept that later became known as “collective security” (though William
Gladstone in Great Britain had put forward a stillborn variation of it in
the course of 1880). 51 Convinced that all the nations of the world had an
equal interest in peace and would therefore unite to punish those who
disturbed it, Wilson proposed to defend the international order by the
moral consensus of the peace-loving:
. . . this age is an age . . . which rejects the standards of national selfish-
ness that once governed the counsels of nations and demands that they
shall give way to a new order of things in which the only questions will
be: “Is it right?” “Is it just?” “Is it in the interest of mankind?” 52
To institutionalize this consensus, Wilson put forward the League of Na-
tions, a quintessential^ American institution. Under the auspices of this
world organization, power would yield to morality and the force
of arms to the dictates of public opinion. Wilson kept emphasizing that,
had the public been adequately informed, the war would never have
occurred — ignoring the passionate demonstrations of joy and relief
which had greeted the onset of war in all capitals, including those of
democratic Great Britain and France. If the new theory was to work, in
Wilson’s view, at least two changes in international governance had to
take place: first, the spread of democratic governments throughout the
world, and, next, the elaboration of a ‘new and more wholesome diplo-
macy” based on “the same high code of honor that we demand of individ-
uals.” 53
In 1918, Wilson stated as a requirement of peace the hitherto unheard-
of and breathtakingly ambitious goal of “the destruction of every arbitrary
power anywhere that can separately, secretly and of its single choice
disturb the peace of the world; or, if it cannot be presently destroyed, at
the least its reduction to virtual impotence.” 54 A League of Nations so
composed and animated by such attitudes would resolve crises without
war, Wilson told the Peace Conference on February 14, 1919:
. . . throughout this instrument [the League Covenant] we are depending
primarily and chiefly upon one great force, and that is the moral force
of the public opinion of the world — the cleansing and clarifying and
compelling influences of publicity ... so that those things that are de-
stroyed by the light may be properly destroyed by the overwhelming
light of the universal expression of the condemnation of the world. 55
The preservation of peace would no longer spring from the traditional
calculus of power but from worldwide consensus backed up by a policing
mechanism. A universal grouping of largely democratic nations would act
as the “trustee of peace,” and replace the old balance-of-power and alli-
ance systems.
Such exalted sentiments had never before been put forward by any
nation, let alone been implemented. Nevertheless, in the hands of Ameri-
can idealism they were turned into the common currency of national
thinking on foreign policy. Every American president since Wilson has
advanced variations of Wilson’s theme. Domestic debates have more often
dealt with the failure to fulfill Wilson’s ideals (soon so commonplace that
they were no longer even identified with him) than with whether they
were in fact lending adequate guidance in meeting the occasionally brutal
challenges of a turbulent world. For three generations, critics have sav-
aged Wilson’s analysis and conclusions; and yet, in all this time, Wilson’s
principles have remained the bedrock of American foreign-policy think-
And yet Wilson’s intermingling of power and principle also set the
stage for decades of ambivalence as the American conscience tried to
reconcile its principles with its necessities. The basic premise of collective
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
security was that all nations would view every threat to security in the
same way and be prepared to run the same risks in resisting it. Not only
had nothing like it ever actually occurred, nothing like it was destined to
occur in the entire history of both the League of Nations and the United
Nations. Only when a threat is truly overwhelming and genuinely affects
all, or most, societies is such a consensus possible — as it was during the
two world wars and, on a regional basis, in the Cold War. But in the vast
majority of cases — and in nearly all of the difficult ones — the nations of
the world tend to disagree either about the nature of the threat or about
the type of sacrifice they are prepared to make to meet it. This was the
case from Italy’s aggressions against Abyssinia in 1935 to the Bosnian
crisis in 1992. And when it has been a matter of achieving positive objec-
tives or remedying perceived injustices, global consensus has proved
even more difficult to achieve. Ironically, in the post-Cold War world,
which has no overwhelming ideological or military threat and which pays
more lip service to democracy than has any previous era, these difficulties
have only increased.
Wilsonianism also accentuated another latent split in American thought
on international affairs. Did America have any security interests it needed
to defend regardless of the methods by which they were challenged? Or
should America resist only changes which could fairly be described as
illegal? Was it the fact or the method of international transformation
that concerned America? Did America reject the principles of geopolitics
altogether? Or did they need to be reinterpreted through the filter of
American values? And if these should clash, which would prevail?
The implication of Wilsonianism has been that America resisted, above
all, the method of change, and that it had no strategic interests worth
defending if they were threatened by apparently legal methods. As late as
the Gulf War, President Bush insisted that he was not so much defending
vital oil supplies as resisting the principle of aggression. And during the
Cold War, some of the domestic American debate concerned the question
whether America, with all its failings, had a moral right to organize resis-
tance to the Moscow threat.
Theodore Roosevelt would have had no doubt as to the answer to these
questions. To assume that nations would perceive threats identically or
be prepared to react to them uniformly represented a denial of every-
thing he had ever stood for. Nor could he envision any world organiza-
tion to which victim and aggressor could comfortably belong at the same
time. In November 1918, he wrote in a letter:
I am for such a League provided we don’t expect too much from it
I am not willing to play the part which even Aesop held up to derision
when he wrote of how the wolves and the sheep agreed to disarm, and
how the sheep as a guarantee of good faith sent away the watchdogs,
and were then forthwith eaten by the wolves. 56
The following month, he wrote this to Senator Knox of Pennsylvania:
The League of Nations may do a little good, but the more pompous it is
and the more it pretends to do, the less it will really accomplish. The
talk about it has a grimly humorous suggestion of the talk about the
Holy Alliance a hundred years ago, which had as its main purpose the
perpetual maintenance of peace. The Czar Alexander by the way, was
the President Wilson of this particular movement a century ago. 57
In Roosevelt’s estimation, only mystics, dreamers, and intellectuals held
the view that peace was man’s natural condition and that it could be
maintained by disinterested consensus. To him, peace was inherently
fragile and could be preserved only by eternal vigilance, by the arms of
the strong, and by alliances among the like-minded.
But Roosevelt lived either a century too late or a century too early. His
approach to international affairs died with him in 1919; no significant
school of American thought on foreign policy has invoked him since. On
the other hand, it is surely the measure of Wilson’s intellectual triumph
that even Richard Nixon, whose foreign policy in fact embodied many of
Roosevelt’s precepts, considered himself above all a disciple of Wilson’s
internationalism, and hung a portrait of the wartime president in the
Cabinet Room.
The League of Nations failed to take hold in America because the
country was not yet ready for so global a role. Nevertheless, Wilson’s
intellectual victory proved more seminal than any political triumph could
have been. For, whenever America has faced the task of constructing a
new world order, it has returned in one way or another to Woodrow
Wilson’s precepts. At the end of World War II, it helped build the United
Nations on the same principles as those of the League, hoping to found
peace on a concord of the victors. When this hope died, America waged
the Cold War not as a conflict between two superpowers but as a moral
struggle for democracy. When communism collapsed, the Wilsonian idea
that the road to peace lay in collective security, coupled with the world-
wide spread of democratic institutions, was adopted by administrations
of both major American political parties.
In Wilsonianism was incarnate the central drama of America on the
world stage: America’s ideology has, in a sense, been revolutionary while,
The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson
domestically, Americans have considered themselves satisfied with the
status quo. Tending to turn foreign-policy issues into a struggle between
good and evil, Americans have generally felt ill at ease with compromise,
as they have with partial or inconclusive outcomes. The fact that America
has shied away from seeking vast geopolitical transformations has often
associated it with defense of the territorial, and sometimes the political,
status quo. Trusting in the rule of law, it has found it difficult to reconcile
its faith in peaceful change with the historical fact that almost all signifi-
cant changes in history have involved violence and upheaval.
America found that it would have to implement its ideals in a world
less blessed than its own and in concert with states possessed of narrower
margins of survival, more limited objectives, and far less self-confidence.
And yet America has persevered. The postwar world became largely
America’s creation, so that, in the end, it did come to play the role Wilson
had envisioned for it — as a beacon to follow, and a hope to attain.
From Universality
to Equilibrium:
Richelieu, William of Orange,
and Pitt
What historians describe today as the European balance-of-power sys-
tem emerged in the seventeenth century from the final collapse of the
medieval aspiration to universality — a concept of world order that repre-
sented a blending of the traditions of the Roman Empire and the Catholic
Church. The w 7 orld was conceived as mirroring the Heavens. Just as one
God ruled in Heaven, so one emperor would rule over the secular world,
and one pope over the Universal Church.
In this spirit, the feudal states of Germany and Northern Italy were
grouped under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor. Into the seven-
teenth century, this empire had the potential to dominate Europe. France,
whose frontier was far west of the Rhine River, and Great Britain were
peripheral states with respect to it. Had the Holy Roman Emperor ever
succeeded in establishing central control over all the territories techni-
From Universality to Equilibrium
cally under his jurisdiction, the relations of the Western European states
to it might have been similar to those of China’s neighbors to the Middle
Kingdom, with France comparable to Vietnam or Korea, and Great Britain
to Japan.
For most of the medieval period, however, the Holy Roman Emperor
never achieved that degree of central control. One reason was the lack of
adequate transportation and communication systems, making it difficult
to tie together such extensive territories. But the most important reason
was that the Holy Roman Empire had separated control of the church
from control of the government. Unlike a pharaoh or a caesar, the Holy
Roman Emperor was not deemed to possess divine attributes. Every-
where outside Western Europe, even in the regions governed by the
Eastern Church, religion and government were unified in the sense that
key appointments to each were subject to the central government; reli-
gious authorities had neither the means nor the authority to assert the
autonomous position demanded by Western Christianity as a matter of
In Western Europe, the potential and, from time to time, actual conflict
between pope and emperor established the conditions for eventual con-
stitutionalism and the separation of powers which are the basis of modern
democracy. It enabled the various feudal rulers to enhance their auton-
omy by exacting a price from both contending factions. This, in turn, led
to a fractionated Europe — a patchwork of duchies, counties, cities, and
bishoprics. Though in theory all the feudal lords owed fealty to the em-
peror, in practice they did what they pleased. Various dynasties claimed
the imperial crown, and central authority almost disappeared. The emper-
ors maintained the old vision of universal rule without any possibility of
realizing it. At the fringes of Europe, France, Great Britain, and Spain did
not accept the authority of the Holy Roman Empire, though they re-
mained part of the Universal Church.
Not until the Habsburg dynasty had laid near-permanent claim to the
imperial crown in the fifteenth century and, through prudent marriages,
acquired the Spanish crown and its vast resources, did it become possible
for the Holy Roman Emperor to aspire to translate his universal claims
into a political system. In the first half of the sixteenth century, Emperor
Charles V revived the imperial authority to a point which raised the
prospect of a Central European empire, composed of what is today Ger-
many, Austria, Northern Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, East-
ern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands — a grouping so potentially
dominant as to prevent the emergence of anything resembling the Euro-
pean balance of power.
At that very moment, the weakening of the Papacy under the impact of
the Reformation thwarted the prospect of a hegemonic European empire.
When strong, the Papacy had been a thorn in the side of the Holy Roman
Emperor and a formidable rival. When on the decline in the sixteenth
century, the Papacy proved equally a bane to the idea of empire. Emper-
ors wanted to see themselves, and wanted others to see them, as the
agents of God. But in the sixteenth century, the emperor came to be
perceived in Protestant lands less as an agent of God than as a Viennese
warlord tied to a decadent pope. The Reformation gave rebellious princes
a new freedom of action, in both the religious and the political realms.
Their break with Rome was a break with religious universality; their
struggle with the Habsburg emperor demonstrated that the princes no
longer saw fealty to the empire as a religious duty.
With the concept of unity collapsing, the emerging states of Europe
needed some principle to justify their heresy and to regulate their rela-
tions. They found it in the concepts of raison d’etat and the balance of
power. Each depended on the other. Raison d’etat asserted that the well-
being of the state justified whatever means were employed to further
it; the national interest supplanted the medieval notion of a universal mo-
rality. The balance of power replaced the nostalgia for universal mon-
archy with the consolation that each state, in pursuing its own selfish
interests, would somehow contribute to the safety and progress of all the
The earliest and most comprehensive formulation of this new approach
came from France, which was also one of the first nation-states in Europe.
France was the country that stood to lose the most by the reinvigoration
of the Holy Roman Empire, because it might well — to use modern termi-
nology — have been “Finlandized” by it. As religious restraints weakened,
France began to exploit the rivalries that the Reformation had generated
among its neighbors. French rulers recognized that the progressive weak-
ening of the Holy Roman Empire (and even more its disintegration)
would enhance France’s security and, with good fortune, enable it to
expand eastward.
The principal agent for this French policy was an improbable figure, a
prince of the Church, Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu, First
Minister of France from 1624 to 1642. Upon learning of Cardinal Riche-
lieu’s death, Pope Urban VIII is alleged to have said, “If there is a God,
the Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If not . . . well, he
had a successful life.” 1 This ambivalent epitaph would no doubt have
pleased the statesman, who achieved vast successes by ignoring, and
indeed transcending, the essential pieties of his age.
Few statesmen can claim a greater impact on history. Richelieu was the
father of the modern state system. He promulgated the concept of raison
From Universality to Equilibrium
d'etat and practiced it relentlessly for the benefit of his own country.
Under his auspices, raison d’etat replaced the medieval concept of uni-
versal moral values as the operating principle of French policy. Initially,
he sought to prevent Habsburg domination of Europe, but ultimately left
a legacy that for the next two centuries tempted his successors to establish
French primacy in Europe. Out of the failure of these ambitions, a balance
of power emerged, first as a fact of life, then as a system for organizing
international relations.
Richelieu came into office in 1624, when the Habsburg Holy Roman
Emperor Ferdinand II was attempting to revive Catholic universality,
stamp out Protestantism, and establish imperial control over the princes
of Central Europe. This process, the Counter-Reformation, led to what
was later called the Thirty Years’ War, which erupted in Central Europe
in 1618 and turned into one of the most brutal and destructive wars in
the history of mankind.
By 1618, the German-speaking territory of Central Europe, most of
which was part of the Holy Roman Empire, was divided into two armed
camps — the Protestants and the Catholics. The fuse that set off the war
was lit that same year in Prague, and before long all of Germany was
drawn into the conflict. As Germany was progressively bled white, its
principalities became easy prey for outside invaders. Soon Danish and
Swedish armies were cutting their way through Central Europe, and even-
tually the French army joined the fray. By the time the war ended in 1648,
Central Europe had been devastated and Germany had lost almost a third
of its population. In the crucible of this tragic conflict, Cardinal Richelieu
grafted the principle of raison d’etat onto French foreign policy, a princi-
ple that the other European states adopted in the century that followed.
As a prince of the Church, Richelieu ought to have welcomed Ferdi-
nand’s drive to restore Catholic orthodoxy. But Richelieu put the French
national interest above any religious goals. His vocation as cardinal did
not keep Richelieu from seeing the Habsburg attempt to re-establish the
Catholic religion as a geopolitical threat to France’s security. To him, it
was not a religious act but a political maneuver by Austria to achieve
dominance in Central Europe and thereby to reduce France to second-
class status.
Richelieu’s fear was not without foundation. A glance at the map of
Europe shows that France was surrounded by Habsburg lands on all
sides: Spain to the south; the Northern Italian city-states, dominated
mostly by Spain, in the southeast; Franche-Comtd (today the region
around Lyon and Savoy), also under Spanish control, in the east, and the
Spanish Netherlands in the north. The few frontiers not under the rule of
the Spanish Habsburgs were subject to the Austrian branch of the family.
The Duchy of Lorraine owed fealty to the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor,
as did strategically important areas along the Rhine in what is present-day
Alsace. If Northern Germany were also to fall under Habsburg rule,
France would become perilously weak in relation to the Holy Roman
Richelieu derived little comfort from the fact that Spain and Austria
shared France’s Catholic faith. Quite to the contrary, a victory for the
Counter-Reformation was exactly what Richelieu was determined to pre-
vent. In pursuit of what would today be called a national security interest
and was then labeled — for the first time — raison d’etat, Richelieu was
prepared to side with the Protestant princes and exploit the schism within
the Universal Church.
Had the Habsburg emperors played according to the same rules or
understood the emerging world of raison d’etat, they would have seen
how well placed they were to achieve what Richelieu feared most — the
pre-eminence of Austria and the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire
as the dominant power on the Continent. Through the centuries, how-
ever, the enemies of the Habsburgs benefited from the dynasty’s rigidity
in adjusting to tactical necessities or understanding future trends. The
Habsburg rulers were men of principle. They never compromised their
convictions except in defeat. At the start of this political odyssey, there-
fore, they were quite defenseless against the ruthless Cardinal’s machina-
Emperor Ferdinand II, Richelieu’s foil, had almost certainly never
heard of raison d’etat. Even if he had, he would have rejected it as
blasphemy, for he saw his secular mission as carrying out the will of God,
and always stressed the “holy” in his title as Holy Roman Emperor. Never
would he have conceded that divine ends could be achieved by less than
moral means. Never would he have thought of concluding treaties with
the Protestant Swedes or the Muslim Turks, measures which the Cardinal
pursued as a matter of course. Ferdinand’s adviser, the Jesuit Lamormaini,
thus summarized the Emperor’s outlook:
The false and corrupt policies, which are widespread in these times,
he, in his wisdom, condemned from the start. He held that those who
followed such policies could not be dealt with, since they practice
falsehood and misuse God and religion. It would be a great folly for
one to try to strengthen a kingdom, which God alone has granted, with
means that God hates. 2
A ruler committed to such absolute values found it impossible to compro-
mise, let alone to manipulate, his bargaining position. In 1596, while still
From Universality to Equilibrium
an archduke, Ferdinand declared, “I would rather die than grant any
concessions to the sectarians when it comes to religion.” 3 To the detri-
ment of his empire, he certainly lived up to his words. Since he was less
concerned with the Empire’s welfare than with obeisance to the will of
God, he considered himself duty-bound to crush Protestantism even
though some accommodation with it clearly would have been in his best
interests. In modern terms, he was a fanatic. The words of one of the
imperial advisers, Caspar Scioppius, highlight the Emperor’s beliefs:
“Woe to the king who ignores the voice of God beseeching him to kill
the heretics. You should not wage war for yourself, but for God” {Helium
non tuwn, sed Dei esse statuas ). 4 For Ferdinand, the state existed in
order to serve religion, not vice versa: “In matters of state, which are
so important for our holy confession, one cannot always take into account
human considerations; rather, he must hope ... in God . . . and trust only
in Him.” 5
Richelieu treated Ferdinand’s faith as a strategic challenge. Though
privately religious, he viewed his duties as minister in entirely secular
terms. Salvation might be his personal objective, but to Richelieu, the
statesman, it was irrelevant. “Man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter,”
he once said. “The state has no immortality, its salvation is now or
never.” 6 In other words, states do not receive credit in any world for
doing what is right; they are only rewarded for being strong enough to
do what is necessary.
Richelieu would never have permitted himself to miss the opportunity
which presented itself to Ferdinand in 1629, the eleventh year of the
war. The Protestant princes were ready to accept Habsburg political pre-
eminence provided they remained free to pursue the religion of their
choice and to retain the Church lands they had seized during the Refor-
mation. But Ferdinand would not subordinate his religious vocation to
his political needs. Rejecting what would have been a vast triumph and
the guarantee of his Empire, determined to stamp out the Protestant
heresy, he issued the Edict of Restitution, which demanded that Protestant
sovereigns restore all the lands they had seized from the Church since
1555. It was a triumph of zeal over expediency, a classic case in which
faith overrode calculatioas of political self-interest. And it guaranteed a
battle to the finish.
Handed this opening, Richelieu was determined to prolong the war
until Central Europe had been bled white. He put aside religious scruples
with respect to domestic policy as well. In the Grace of Alais of 1629, he
granted to French Protestants freedom of worship, the very same freedom
the Emperor was fighting to deny the German princes. Having protected
his country against the domestic upheavals rending Central Europe, Ri-
chelieu set out to exploit Ferdinand’s religious fervor in the service of
French national ends.
The Habsburg Emperor’s inability to understand his national interests
— indeed, his refusal to accept the validity of any such concept — gave
France’s First Minister the opportunity to support and to subsidize the
Protestant German princes against the Holy Roman Emperor. The role of
defender of the liberties of the Protestant princes against the centralizing
goals of the Holy Roman Emperor was an unlikely one for a French
prelate and his Catholic French King, Louis XIII. That a prince of the
Church was subsidizing the Protestant King of Sweden, Gustavus
Adolphus, to make war against the Holy Roman Emperor had revolution-
ary implications as profound as the upheavals of the French Revolution
150 years later.
In an age still dominated by religious zeal and ideological fanaticism, a
dispassionate foreign policy free of moral imperatives stood out like a
snow-covered Alp in the desert. Richelieu’s objective was to end what he
considered the encirclement of France, to exhaust the Habsburgs, and to
prevent the emergence of a major power on the borders of France —
especially the German border. His only criterion in making alliances was
that they served France’s interests, and this he did at first with the Protes-
tant states and, later, even with the Muslim Ottoman Empire. In order to
exhaust the belligerents and to prolong the war, Richelieu subsidized the
enemies of his enemies, bribed, fomented insurrections, and mobilized
an extraordinary array of dynastic and legal arguments. He succeeded so
well that the war that had begun in 1618 dragged on decade after decade
until, finally, history found no more appropriate name for it than its
duration — the Thirty Years’ War.
France stood on the sidelines while Germany was devastated, until
1635, when sheer exhaustion seemed once again to portend an end to
the hostilities and a compromise peace. Richelieu, however, had no inter-
est in compromise until the French King had become as powerful as
the Habsburg Emperor, and preferably stronger. In pursuit of this goal,
Richelieu convinced his sovereign, in the seventeenth year of the war, of
the necessity of entering the fray on the side of the Protestant princes —
and with no better justification than the opportunity to exploit France’s
growing power:
If it is a sign of singular prudence to have held down the forces op-
posed to your state for a period of ten years with the forces of your
allies, by putting your hand in your pocket and not on your sword, then
to engage in open warfare when your allies can no longer exist without
From Universality to Equilibrium
you is a sign of courage and great wisdom; which shows that, in hus-
banding the peace of your kingdom, you have behaved like those econ-
omists who, having taken great care to amass money, also know how to
spend it 7
The success of a policy of raison d'etat depends above all on the ability
to assess power relationships. Universal values are defined by their per-
ception and are not in need of constant reinterpretation; indeed they are
inconsistent with it. But determining the limits of power requires a blend
of experience and insight, and constant adjustment to circumstance. In
theory, of course, the balance of power should be quite calculable; in
practice, it has proved extremely difficult to work out realistically. Even
more complicated is harmonizing one’s calculations with those of other
states, which is the precondition for the operation of a balance of power.
Consensus on the nature of the equilibrium is usually established by
periodic conflict.
Richelieu had no doubt about his ability to master the challenge, con-
vinced as he was that it was possible to relate means to ends with nearly
mathematical precision. “Logic,” he wrote in his Political Testament , “re-
quires that the thing that is to be supported and the force that is to
support it should stand in geometrical proportion to each other .” 8 Fate
had made him a prince of the Church; conviction put him in the intellec-
tual company of rationalists like Descartes and Spinoza, who thought that
human action could be scientifically charted; opportunity had enabled
him to transform the international order to the vast advantage of his
country. For once, a statesmans estimate of himself was accurate. Riche-
lieu had a penetrating perception of his goals, but he — and his ideas —
would not have prevailed had he not been able to gear his tactics to his
So novel and so cold-blooded a doctrine could not possibly pass with-
out challenge. However dominant the doctrine of balance of power was
to become in later years, it was deeply offensive to the universalist tradi-
tion founded on the primacy of moral law. One of the most telling cri-
tiques came from the renowned scholar Jansenius, who attacked a policy
cut loose from all moral moorings:
Do they believe that a secular, perishable state should outweigh reli-
gion and the Church? . . . Should not the Most Christian King believe
that in the guidance and administration of his realm there is nothing
that obliges him to extend and protect that of Jesus Christ, his Lord? . . .
Would he dare say to God: Let your power and glory and the religion
which teaches men to adore You be lost and destroyed, provided my
state is protected and free of risks ? 9
That, of course, was precisely what Richelieu was saying to his contempo-
raries and, for all we know, to his God. It was the measure of the revolu-
tion he had brought about that what his critics thought w 7 as a reductio ad
absurdum (an argument so immoral and dangerous that it refutes itself)
was, in fact, a highly accurate summary 7 of Richelieu’s thought. As the
King’s First Minister, he subsumed both religion and morality to raison
d'etat, his guiding light.
Demonstrating how well they had absorbed the cynical methods of the
master himself, Richelieu’s defenders turned the argument of their critics
against them. A policy of national self-interest, they argued, represented
the highest moral law; it was Richelieu’s critics who were in violation of
ethical principle, not he.
It fell to Daniel de Priezac, a scholar close to the royal administration,
to make the formal rebuttal, almost certainly with Richelieu’s ow 7 n impri-
matur. In classically Machiavellian fashion, Priezac challenged the prem-
ise that Richelieu was committing mortal sin by pursuing policies w 7 hich
seemed to favor the spread of heresy. Rather, he argued, it was Richelieu’s
critics whose souls were at risk. Since France was the most pure and
devoted of the European Catholic powers, Richelieu, in serving the inter-
ests of France, was serving as well the interests of the Catholic religion.
Priezac did not explain how he had reached the conclusion that France
had been endowed with such a unique religious vocation. However, it
followed from his premise that strengthening the French state was in the
interest of the w 7 ell-being of the Catholic Church; hence Richelieu’s policy
was highly moral. Indeed, the Habsburg encirclement posed so great a
threat to France’s security that it had to be broken, exonerating the French
King in whatever methods he chose to pursue that ultimately moral goal.
He seeks peace by means of war, and if in waging it something happens
contrary to his desires, it is not a crime of will but of necessity whose
laws are most harsh and commands most cruel A war is just when
the intention that causes it to be undertaken is just The will is there-
fore the principal element that must be considered, not the means. . . .
[He] who intends to kill the guilty 7 sometimes faultlessly sheds the blood
of the innocent . 10
Not to put too fine a point on it, the end justified the means.
Another of Richelieu’s critics, Mathieu de Morgues, accused the Car-
From Universality to Equilibrium
dinal of manipulating religion “as your preceptor Machiavelli showed the
ancient Romans doing, shaping it . . . explaining it and applying it as far as
it aids the advancement of your designs.” 11
De Morgues’s criticism was as telling as that of Jansenius, and as ineffec-
tive. Richelieu was indeed the manipulator described, and did use reli-
gion precisely in the manner being alleged. He would no doubt have
replied that he had merely analyzed the world as it was, much as Machia-
velli had. Like Machiavelli, he might well have preferred a world of more
refined moral sensibilities, but he was convinced that history would judge
his statesmanship by how well he had used the conditions and the factors
he was given to work with. Indeed, if, in evaluating a statesman, reaching
the goals he sets for himself is a test, Richelieu must be remembered as
one of the seminal figures of modern history. For he left behind him a
world radically different from the one he had found, and set in motion
the policy France would follow for the next three centuries.
In this manner, France became the dominant country in Europe and
vastly expanded its territory. In the century following the Peace of West-
phalia of 1648, ending the Thirty Years’ War, the doctrine of raison d’etat
grew into the guiding principle of European diplomacy. Neither the re-
spect in which statesmen of later centuries would hold Richelieu nor the
oblivion which was the fate of his opponent, Ferdinand II, would have
surprised the Cardinal, who was utterly without illusions, even about
himself. “In matters of state,” wrote Richelieu in his Political Testament,
“he who has the power often has the right, and he who is weak can only
with difficulty keep from being wrong in the opinion of the majority of
the world” — a maxim rarely contradicted in the intervening centuries. 12
Richelieu’s impact on the history of Central Europe was the reverse of
the achievements he garnered on France’s behalf. He feared a unified
Central Europe and prevented it from coming about. In all likelihood, he
delayed German unification by some two centuries. The initial phase of
the Thirty Years’ War can be viewed as a Habsburg attempt to act as the
dynastic unifiers of Germany — much as England had become a nation-
state under the tutelage of a Norman dynasty and, a few centuries later,
the French had followed suit under the Capets. Richelieu thwarted the
Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire was divided among more than
300 sovereigns, each free to conduct an independent foreign policy. Ger-
many failed to become a nation-state; absorbed in petty dynastic quarrels,
it turned inward. As a result, Germany developed no national political
culture and calcified into a provincialism from which it did not emerge
until late in the nineteenth century when Bismarck unified it. Germany
was turned into the battleground of most European wars, many of which
were initiated by France, and missed the early wave of European overseas
colonization. When Germany did finally unify, it had so little experience
with defining its national interest that it produced many of this century’s
worst tragedies.
But the gods often punish man by fulfilling his wishes too completely.
The Cardinal’s analysis that success of the Counter-Reformation would
reduce France to an appendage of an increasingly centralized Holy
Roman Empire was almost certainly correct, especially if one assumed, as
he must have done, that the age of the nation-state had arrived. But
whereas the nemesis of Wilsonian idealism is the gap between its profes-
sions and reality, the nemesis of raison d'etat is overextension — except
in the hands of a master, and it probably is even then.
For Richelieu’s concept of raison d'etat had no built-in limitations.
How far would one go before the interests of the state were deemed
satisfied? How many wars were needed to achieve security? Wilsonian
idealism, proclaiming a selfless policy, is possessed of the constant danger
of neglecting the interests of state; Richelieu’s raison d’etat threatens self-
destructive tours de force. That is what happened to France after Louis
XIV assumed the throne. Richelieu had bequeathed to the French kings a
preponderantly strong state with a weak and divided Germany and a
decadent Spain on its borders. But Louis XIV gained no peace of mind
from security; he saw in it an opportunity for conquest. In his overzealous
pursuit of raison d’etat, Louis XIV alarmed the rest of Europe and brought
together an anti-French coalition which, in the end, thwarted his design.
Nevertheless, for 200 years after Richelieu, France was the most influ-
ential country in Europe, and has remained a major factor in international
politics to this day. Few statesmen of any country can claim an equal
achievement. Still, Richelieu’s greatest successes occurred when he was
the only statesman to jettison the moral and religious restraints of the
medieval period. Inevitably, Richelieu’s successors inherited the task of
managing a system in which most states were operating from his prem-
ises. Thereby, France lost the advantage of having adversaries constrained
by moral considerations, as Ferdinand had been in the time of Richelieu.
Once all states played by the same rules, gains became much more diffi-
cult to achieve. For all the glory raison d’etat brought France, it amounted
to a treadmill, a never-ending effort to push France’s boundaries outward,
to become the arbiter of the conflicts among the German states and
thereby to dominate Central Europe until France was drained by the
effort and progressively lost the ability to shape Europe according to its
Raison d’etat provided a rationale for the behavior of individual states,
From Universality to Equilibrium
but it supplied no answer to the challenge of world order. Raison d'etat
can lead to a quest for primacy or to establishment of equilibrium. But,
rarely does equilibrium emerge from the conscious design. Usually it
results from the process of thwarting a particular country’s attempt to
dominate, as the European balance of power emerged from the effort to
contain France.
In the world inaugurated by Richelieu, states were no longer restrained
by the pretense of a moral code. If the good of the state was the highest
value, the duty of the ruler was the aggrandizement and promotion of his
glory. The stronger would seek to dominate, and the weaker would resist
by forming coalitions to augment their individual strengths. If the coali-
tion was powerful enough to check the aggressor, a balance of power
emerged; if not, some country would achieve hegemony. The outcome
was not foreordained and was therefore tested by frequent wars. At its
beginning, the outcome could as easily have been empire — French or
German — as equilibrium. This is why it took over a hundred years to
establish a European order based explicitly on the balance of power. At
first, the balance of power was an almost incidental fact of life, not a goal
of international politics.
Curiously enough, this is not how it was perceived by the philosophers
of the period. Products of the Enlightenment, they mirrored the eigh-
teenth-century faith that out of a clash of competing interests harmony
and fairness would emerge. The concept of the balance of power was
simply an extension of conventional wisdom. Its primary goal was to
prevent domination by one state and to preserve the international order;
it was not designed to prevent conflicts, but to limit them. To the hard-
headed statesmen of the eighteenth century, the elimination of conflict
(or of ambition or of greed) was utopian; the solution was to harness or
counterpoise the inherent flaws of human nature to produce the best
possible long-term outcome.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment viewed the international sys-
tem as part of a universe operating like a great clockwork which, never
standing still, inexorably advanced toward a better world. In 1751, Vol-
taire described a “Christian Europe” as “a sort of great republic divided
into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed . . . but all in har-
mony with each other ... all possessing the same principles of public and
political law, unknown in other parts of the world.” These states were
“above all . . . at one in the wise policy of maintaining among themselves
as far as possible an equal balance of power.” 13
Montesquieu took up the same theme. For him, the balance of power
distilled unity out of diversity:
The state of things in Europe is that all the states depend on each other.
. . . Europe is a single state composed of several provinces. 14
As these lines were being written, the eighteenth century had already
endured two wars over the Spanish succession, a war over the Polish
succession, and a series of wars over the Austrian succession.
In the same spirit, the philosopher of history Emmerich de Vattel could
write in 1758, the second year of the Seven Years’ War, that:
The continual negotiations that take place, make modern Europe a
sort of republic, whose members — each independent, but all bound
together by a common interest — unite for the maintenance of order
and the preservation of liberty. This is what has given rise to the well-
known principle of the balance of power, by which is meant an arrange-
ment of affairs so that no state shall be in a position to have absolute
mastery and dominate over the others. 15
The philosophers were confusing the result with the intent. Throughout
the eighteenth century, the princes of Europe fought innumerable wars
without there being a shred of evidence that the conscious goal was to
implement any general notion of international order. At the precise mo-
ment when international relations came to be based on power, so many
new factors emerged that calculations became increasingly unmanage-
The various dynasties henceforth concentrated on enhancing their se-
curity by territorial expansion. In the process, the relative power posi-
tions of several of them altered drastically. Spain and Sweden were
sinking into second-rank status. Poland began its slide toward extinction.
Russia (which had been entirely absent from the Peace of Westphalia)
and Prussia (which played an insignificant role) were emerging as major
powers. The balance of power is difficult enough to analyze when its
components are relatively fixed. The task of assessing it and reconciling
the assessments of the various powers becomes hopelessly intricate when
the relative mights of the powers are in constant flux.
The vacuum created in Central Europe by the Thirty Years’ War
tempted the surrounding countries to encroach upon it. France kept
pressing from the west. Russia was on the march in the east. Prussia
expanded in the center of the Continent. None of the key Continental
countries felt any special obligation to the balance of power so lauded by
the philosophers. Russia thought of itself as too distant. Prussia, as the
smallest of the Great Powers, was still too weak to affect the general
From Universality to Equilibrium
equilibrium. Every king consoled himself with the thought that strength-
ening his own rule was the greatest possible contribution to the general
peace, and left it to the ubiquitous invisible hand to justify his exertions
without limiting his ambitions.
The nature of raison d’etat as an essentially risk-benefit calculation was
shown by the way Frederick the Great justified his seizure of Silesia from
Austria, despite Prussia’s heretofore amicable relations with that state and
despite its being bound by treaty to respect Austria’s territorial integrity:
The superiority of our troops, the promptitude with which we can set
them in motion, in a word, the clear advantage we have over our
neighbors, gives us in this unexpected emergency an infinite superior-
ity over all other powers of Europe. . . . England and France are foes. If
France should meddle in the affairs of the empire, England could not
allow it, so I can always make a good alliance with one or the other.
England could not be jealous of my getting Silesia, which would do her
no harm, and she needs allies. Holland will not care, all the more since
the loans of the Amsterdam business world secured on Silesia will be
guaranteed. If we cannot arrange with England and Holland, we can
certainly make a deal with France, who cannot frustrate our designs
and will welcome the abasement of the imperial house. Russia alone
might give us trouble. If the empress lives ... we can bribe the leading
counsellors. If she dies, the Russians will be so occupied that they will
have no time for foreign affairs — 16
Frederick the Great treated international affairs as if it were a game of
chess. He wanted to seize Silesia in order to expand the power of Prussia.
The only obstacle he would recognize to his designs was resistance from
superior powers, not moral scruples. His was a risk/reward analysis: if he
conquered Silesia, would other states retaliate or seek compensation?
Frederick resolved the calculation in his favor. His conquest of Silesia
made Prussia a bona fide Great Power, but it also set off a series of wars
as other countries tried to adjust to this new player. The first was the War
of the Austrian Succession, from 1740 to 1748. In it, Prussia was joined by
France, Spain, Bavaria, and Saxony — which in 1743 switched sides —
while Great Britain supported Austria. In the second war — the Seven
Years’ War, from 1756 to 1763 — the roles were reversed. Austria was now
joined by Russia, France, Saxony, and Sweden, while Great Britain and
Hanover supported Prussia. The change of sides was the result of pure
calculations of immediate benefit and specific compensations, not of any
overriding principle of international order.
Yet a sort of equilibrium gradually emerged out of this seeming anar-
chy and rapine in which each state sought single-mindedly to augment its
own power. It was due not to self-restraint but to the fact that no state,
not even France, was strong enough to impose its will on all the others
and thus form an empire. When any state threatened to become domi-
nant, its neighbors formed a coalition — not in pursuit of a theory of
international relations but out of pure self-interest to block the ambitions
of the most powerful.
These constant wars did not lead to the devastations of the religious
wars for two reasons. Paradoxically, the absolute rulers of the eighteenth
century were in a less strong position to mobilize resources for war than
was the case when religion or ideology or popular government could stir
the emotions. They were restrained by tradition and perhaps by their
own insecurity from imposing income taxes and many other modern
exactions, limiting the amount of national wealth potentially devoted to
war, and weapons technology was rudimentary.
Above all, the equilibrium on the Continent was reinforced and in fact
managed by the appearance of a state whose foreign policy was explicitly
dedicated to maintaining the balance. England’s policy was based on
throwing its weight as the occasion required to the weaker and more
threatened side to redress the equilibrium. The original engineer of this
policy was King William III of England, a stern and worldly Dutchman by
birth. In his native Holland he had suffered from the ambitions of the
French Sun King and, when he became King of England, set about forging
coalitions to thwart Louis XIV at every turn. England was the one Euro-
pean country whose raison d'etat did not require it to expand in Europe.
Perceiving its national interest to be in the preservation of the European
balance, it was the one country which sought no more for itself on the
Continent than preventing the domination of Europe by a single power.
In pursuit of that objective, it made itself available to any combination of
nations opposing such an enterprise.
A balance of power gradually emerged by means of shifting coalitions
under British leadership against French attempts to dominate Europe.
This dynamic lay at the core of almost every war fought in the eighteenth
century and every British-led coalition against French hegemony fought
in the name of the selfsame European liberties which Richelieu had first
invoked in Germany against the Habsburgs. The balance of power held
because the nations resisting French domination were too strong to be
overcome, and because a century and a half of expansionism progres-
sively drained France of its wealth.
Great Britain’s role as the balancer reflected a geopolitical fact of life.
The survival of a relatively small island off the coast of Europe would
have been jeopardized had all the resources of the Continent been mobi-
From Universality to Equilibrium
lized under a single ruler. For, in such a case, England (as it was before
its union with Scotland in 1707) possessed much smaller resources and
population and would have sooner or later been at the mercy of a Conti-
nental empire.
England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 forced it into an immediate
confrontation with Louis XIV of France. The Glorious Revolution had
deposed the Catholic King, James II. Searching for a Protestant replace-
ment on the Continent, England chose William of Orange, ruler (Stadt-
halter) of the Netherlands, who had a tenuous claim to the British throne
through his marriage to Mary, the sister of the deposed King. With
William, England imported an ongoing war with Louis XIV over what
later became Belgium, a land full of important fortresses and harbors
within perilously easy reach of the British coast (though this concern de-
veloped only over time). William knew that if Louis XIV succeeded in
occupying these fortresses, the Netherlands would lose their indepen-
dence, the prospects for French domination in Europe would multiply,
and England would be directly threatened. William’s resolve to send En-
glish troops to fight for present-day Belgium against France was a precur-
sor of the British decision to fight for Belgium in 1914 when the Germans
invaded it.
Henceforth, William would spearhead the fight against Louis XIV. Short,
hunchbacked, and asthmatic, William did not at first glance appear to be
the man destined to humble the Sun King. But the Prince of Orange
possessed an iron will combined with extraordinary mental agility. He
convinced himself — almost certainly correctly — that if Louis XIV, already
the most powerful monarch in Europe, were permitted to conquer the
Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium), England would be at risk. A
coalition capable of reining in the French King had to be forged, not as a
matter of the abstract theory of balance of power but for the sake of the
independence of both the Netherlands and of England. William recog-
nized that Louis XIV’s designs on Spain and its possessions, if realized,
would turn France into a superpower that no combination of states would
be able to challenge. To forestall that danger, he sought out partners and
soon found them. Sweden, Spain, Savoy, the Austrian Emperor, Saxony,
the Dutch Republic, and England formed the Grand Alliance — the great-
est coalition of forces aligned against a single power that modern Europe
had ever seen. For about a quarter of a century (1688-1713), Louis waged
almost constant wars against this coalition. In the end, however, France’s
pursuit of raison d'etat was reined in by the self-interest of Europe’s
other states. France would remain the strongest state in Europe, but it
would not become dominant. It was a textbook case of the functioning of
the balance of power.
William’s hostility to Louis XIV was neither personal nor based on any
anti-French sentiment; it reflected his cold assessment of the Sun King’s
power and boundless ambition. William once confided to an aide that,
had he lived in the 1550s, when the Habsburgs were threatening to
become dominant, he would have been “as much a Frenchman as he was
now a Spaniard” 17 — a precursor of Winston Churchill’s reply in the 1930s
to the charge that he was anti-German: “If the circumstances were re-
versed, we could equally be pro-German and anti-French.” 18
William was perfectly willing to negotiate with Louis XIV when he felt
the balance of power could best be served by doing so. For William, the
simple calculation was that England would try to maintain a rough bal-
ance between the Habsburgs and the Bourbons, so that whoever was
weaker would maintain, with British help, the equilibrium of Europe.
Ever since Richelieu, the weaker side had been Austria, and therefore
Great Britain aligned itself with the Habsburgs against French expan-
The idea of acting as the balancer did not commend itself to the British
public when it first made its appearance. In the late seventeenth century,
British public opinion was isolationist, much like that of America two
centuries later. The prevailing argument had it that there would be time
enough to resist a threat, when and if the threat presented itself. There
was no need to fight conjectural dangers based on what some country
might do later on.
William played the equivalent of Theodore Roosevelt’s later role in
America, warning his essentially isolationist people that their safety de-
pended on participation in a balance of power overseas. And his coun-
trymen accepted his views far more quickly than Americans embraced
Roosevelt’s. Some twenty years after William’s death, The Craftsman, a
newspaper typically representative of the opposition, noted that the bal-
ance of power was one of “the original, everlasting principles of British
politics,” and that peace on the Continent was “so essential a circum-
stance to the prosperity of a trading island, that ... it ought to be the
constant endeavor of a British ministry to preserve it themselves, and to
restore it, when broken or disturbed by others.” 19
Agreeing on the importance of the balance of power did not, however,
still British disputes about the best strategy to implement the policy.
There were two schools of thought, representing the two major political
parties in Parliament, and substantially paralleling a similar disagreement
in the United States after the two world wars. The Whigs argued that
Great Britain should engage itself only when the balance was actually
threatened, and then only long enough to remove the threat. By contrast,
From Universality to Equilibrium
the Tories believed that Great Britain’s main duty was to shape and not
simply to protect the balance of power. The Whigs were of the view that
there would be plenty of time to resist an assault on the Low Countries
after it had actually occurred; the Tories reasoned that a policy of wait-
and-see might allow an aggressor to weaken the balance irreparably.
Therefore, if Great Britain wished to avoid fighting in Dover, it had to
resist aggression along the Rhine or wherever else in Europe the balance
of power seemed to be threatened. The Whigs considered alliances as
temporary expedients, to be terminated once victory had rendered the
common purpose moot, whereas the Tories urged British participation
in permanent cooperative arrangements to enable Great Britain to help
shape events and to preserve the peace.
Lord Carteret, Tory Foreign Secretary from 1742 to 1744, made an
eloquent case for a permanent engagement in Europe. He denounced
the Whigs’ inclination “to disregard all the troubles and commotions of
the continent, not to leave our own island in search of enemies, but to
attend our commerce and our pleasures, and, instead of courting danger
in foreign countries, to sleep in security, till we are awakened by an alarm
upon our coasts.” But Great Britain, he said, needed to face the reality of
its permanent interest in bolstering the Habsburgs as a counterweight to
France, “for if the French monarch once saw himself freed from a rival
on that continent, he would sit secure in possession of his conquests, he
might then reduce his garrisons, abandon his fortresses, and discharge
his troops; but that treasure which now fills the plains with soldiers,
would soon be employed in designs more dangerous to our country —
We must consequently, my lords, . . . support the House of Austria which
is the only power that can be placed in the balance against the princes of
the family of Bourbon.” 20
The difference between the foreign-policy strategies of the Whigs and
the Tories was practical, not philosophical; tactical, not strategic; and it
reflected each party’s assessment of Great Britain’s vulnerability. The
Whigs’ policy of wait-and-see reflected the conviction that Great Britain’s
margin of safety was wide indeed. The Tories found Great Britain’s posi-
tion more precarious. Almost precisely the same distinction would sepa-
rate American isolationists and American globalists in the twentieth
century. Neither Great Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
nor America in the twentieth found it easy to persuade the citizenry that
its safety required permanent commitment rather than isolation.
Periodically, in both countries, a leader would emerge who put before
his people the need for permanent engagement. Wilson produced the
League of Nations; Carteret flirted with permanent engagements on the
Continent; Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary from 1812 to 1821, advocated a
system of European congresses; and Gladstone, Prime Minister in the late
nineteenth century, proposed the first version of collective security. In
the end, their appeals failed, because, until after the end of the Second
World War, neither the English nor the American people could be con-
vinced that they faced a mortal challenge until it was clearly upon them.
In this manner, Great Britain became the balancer of the European
equilibrium, first almost by default, later by conscious strategy. Without
Great Britain’s tenacious commitment to that role, France would almost
surely have achieved hegemony over Europe in the eighteenth or nine-
teenth century, and Germany would have done the same in the modern
period. In that sense, Churchill could rightly claim two centuries later
that Great Britain had “preserved the liberties of Europe.” 21
Early in the nineteenth century, Great Britain turned its ad hoc defense
of the balance of power into a conscious design. Until then, it had gone
about its policy pragmatically, consistent with the genius of the British
people, resisting any country threatening the equilibrium — which, in the
eighteenth century, was invariably France. Wars ended with compromise,
usually marginally enhancing the position of France but depriving it of
the hegemony which was its real goal.
Inevitably, France provided the occasion for the first detailed statement
of what Great Britain understood by the balance of power. Having sought
pre-eminence for a century and a half in the name of raison d’etat, France
after the Revolution had returned to earlier concepts of universality. No
longer did France invoke raison d'etat for its expansionism, even less the
glory of its fallen kings. After the Revolution, France made war on the rest
of Europe to preserve its revolution and to spread republican ideals
throughout Europe. Once again, a preponderant France was threatening
to dominate Europe. Conscript armies and ideological fervor propelled
French armies across Europe on behalf of universal principles of liberty,
equality, and fraternity. Under Napoleon, they came within a hairsbreadth
of establishing a European commonwealth centered on France. By 1807,
French armies had set up satellite kingdoms along the Rhine in Italy and
Spain, reduced Prussia to a second-rank power, and gravely weakened
Austria. Only Russia stood between Napoleon and France’s domination of
Yet Russia already inspired the ambivalent reaction — part hope and
part fear — that was to be its lot until the present day. At the beginning of
the eighteenth century, the Russian frontier had been on the Dnieper; a
century later, it reached the Vistula, 500 miles farther west. At the begin-
ning of the eighteenth century, Russia had been fighting for its existence
From Universality to Equilibrium
against Sweden at Poltava, deep in present-day Ukraine. By the middle of
the century, it was participating in the Seven Years’ War, and its troops
were at the outskirts of Berlin. By the end of the century, it would be the
principal agent in the partition of Poland.
Russia’s raw physical power was made all the more ominous by the
merciless autocracy of its domestic institutions. Its absolutism was not
mitigated by custom or by an assertive and independent aristocracy, as
was the case with the monarchs ruling by divine right in Western Europe.
In Russia, everything depended on the whim of the tsar. It was entirely
possible for Russian foreign policy to veer from liberalism to conserva-
tism depending on the mood of the incumbent tsar — as indeed it did
under the reigning Tsar Alexander I. At home, however, no liberal experi-
ment was ever attempted.
In 1804, the mercurial Alexander I, Tsar of all the Russias, approached
British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Napoleon’s most implaca-
ble enemy, with a proposition. Heavily influenced by the philosophers of
the Enlightenment, Alexander I imagined himself as the moral conscience
of Europe and was in the last phase of his temporary infatuation with
liberal institutions. In that frame of mind, he proposed to Pitt a vague
scheme for universal peace, calling for all nations to reform their constitu-
tions with a view to ending feudalism and adopting constitutional rule.
The reformed states would thereupon abjure force and submit their dis-
putes with one another to arbitration. The Russian autocrat thus became
the unlikely precursor of the Wilsonian idea that liberal institutions were
the prerequisite to peace, though he never went so far as to seek to
translate these principles into practice among his own people. And within
a few years, he would move to the opposite conservative extreme of the
political spectrum.
Pitt now found himself in much the same position vis-a-vis Alexander
as Churchill would find himself vis-a-vis Stalin nearly 150 years later. He
desperately needed Russian support against Napoleon, for it was impossi-
ble to imagine how Napoleon could be defeated in any other way. On
the other hand, Pitt had no more interest than Churchill would later have
in replacing one dominant country with another, or in endorsing Russia
as the arbiter of Europe. Above all, British domestic inhibitions did not
allow any prime minister to commit his country to basing peace on the
political and social reform of Europe. No British war had ever been
fought for such a cause, because the British people did not feel threat-
ened by social and political upheavals on the Continent, only by changes
in the balance of power.
Pitt’s reply to Alexander I captured all of these elements. Ignoring the
Russian’s call for the political reform of Europe, he outlined the equilib-
rium that would need to be constructed if peace was to be preserved. A
general European settlement was now being envisaged for the first time
since the Peace of Westphalia a century and a half before. And, for the
first time ever, a settlement would be explicitly based on the principles
of the balance of power.
Pitt saw the principal cause for instability in the weakness of Central
Europe, which had repeatedly tempted French incursion and attempts at
predominance. (He was too polite and too eager for Russian help to point
out that a Central Europe strong enough to withstand French pressures
would be equally in a position to thwart Russian expansionist tempta-
tions.) A European settlement needed to begin by depriving France of all
her postrevolutionary conquests and, in the process, restore the indepen-
dence of the Low Countries, thereby neatly making the chief British con-
cern a principle of settlement. 22
Reducing French preponderance would be of no use, however, if the
300-odd smaller German states continued to tempt French pressure and
intervention. To thwart such ambitions, Pitt thought it necessary to create
“great masses” in the center of Europe by consolidating the German
principalities into larger groupings. Some of the states which had joined
France or collapsed ignominiously would be annexed by Prussia or Aus-
tria. Others would be formed into larger units.
Pitt avoided any reference to a European government. Instead, he pro-
posed that Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia guarantee the new
territorial arrangement in Europe by means of a permanent alliance di-
rected against French aggression — just as Franklin D. Roosevelt later tried
to base the post-World War II international order on an alliance against
Germany and Japan. Neither Great Britain in the Napoleonic period nor
America in World War II could imagine that the biggest threat to peace in
the future might prove to be the current ally rather than the yet-to-be-
defeated enemy. It was a measure of the fear of Napoleon that a British
prime minister should have been willing to agree to what heretofore had
been so adamantly rejected by his country— a permanent engagement on
the Continent — and that Great Britain should impair its tactical flexibility
by basing its policy on the assumption of a permanent enemy.
The emergence of the European balance of power in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries parallels certain aspects of the post-Cold War
world. Then, as now, a collapsing world order spawned a multitude of
states pursuing their national interests, unrestrained by any overriding
principles. Then, as now, the states making up the international order
were groping for some definition of their international role. Then the
From Universality to Equilibrium
various states decided to rely entirely on asserting their national interest,
putting their trust in the so-called unseen hand. The issue is whether the
post-Cold War world can find some principle to restrain the assertion of
power and self-interest. Of course, in the end a balance of power always
comes about de facto when several states interact. The question is
whether the maintenance of the international system can turn into a
conscious design, or whether it will grow out of a series of tests of
By the time the Napoleonic Wars were ending, Europe was ready to
design — for the only time in its history — an international order based on
the principles of the balance of power. It had been learned in the crucible
of the wars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the
balance of power could not be left to the residue of the collision of the
European states. Pitt’s plan had outlined a territorial settlement to rectify
the weaknesses of the eighteenth -century world order. But Pitt’s Conti-
nental allies had learned an additional lesson.
Power is too difficult to assess, and the willingness to vindicate it too
various, to permit treating it as a reliable guide to international order.
Equilibrium works best if it is buttressed by an agreement on common
values. The balance of power inhibits the capacity to overthrow the inter-
national order; agreement on shared values inhibits the desire to over-
throw the international order. Power without legitimacy tempts tests of
strength; legitimacy without power tempts empty posturing.
Combining both elements was the challenge and the success of the
Congress of Vienna, which established a century of international order
uninterrupted by a general war.
The Concert of Europe:
Great Britain,
Austria, and Russia
WhUe Napoleon was enduring his first exile, at Elba, the victors of the
Napoleonic Wars assembled at Vienna in September 1814 to plan the
postwar world. The Congress of Vienna continued to meet all during
Napoleons escape from Elba and his final defeat at Waterloo. In the
meantime, the need to rebuild the international order had become even
more urgent.
Prince von Metternich served as Austria’s negotiator, though, with the
Congress meeting in Vienna, the Austrian Emperor was never far from
the scene. The King of Prussia sent Prince von Hardenberg, and the newly
restored Louis XVIII of France relied on Talleyrand, who thereby
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
maintained his record of having served every French ruler since before
the revolution. Tsar Alexander I, refusing to yield the Russian pride of
place to anyone, came to speak for himself. The English Foreign Secre-
tary, Lord Castlereagh, negotiated on Great Britain’s behalf.
These five men achieved what they had set out to do. After the Congress
of Vienna, Europe experienced the longest period of peace it had ever
known. No war at all took place among the Great Powers for forty years,
and after the Crimean War of 1854, no general war for another sixty. The
Vienna settlement corresponded to the Pitt Plan so literally that, when
Castlereagh submitted it to Parliament, he attached a draft of the original
British design to show how closely it had been followed.
Paradoxically, this international order, which was created more explic-
itly in the name of the balance of power than any other before or since,
relied the least on power to maintain itself. This unique state of affairs
occurred partly because the equilibrium was designed so well that it
could only be overthrown by an effort of a magnitude too difficult to
mount. But the most important reason was that the Continental countries
were knit together by a sense of shared values. There was not only a
physical equilibrium, but a moral one. Power and justice were in substan-
tial harmony. The balance of power reduces the opportunities for using
force; a shared sense of justice reduces the desire to use force. An interna-
tional order which is not considered just will be challenged sooner or
later. But how a people perceives the fairness of a particular world order
is determined as much by its domestic institutions as by judgments on
tactical foreign-policy issues. For that reason, compatibility between do-
mestic institutions is a reinforcement for peace. Ironic as it may seem,
Metternich presaged Wilson, in the sense that he believed that a shared
concept of justice was a prerequisite for international order, however
diametrically opposed his idea of justice was to what Wilson sought to
institutionalize in the twentieth century.
Creating the general balance of power proved relatively simple. The
statesmen followed the Pitt Plan like an architect’s drawing. Since the idea
of national self-determination had not yet been invented, they were not
in the least concerned with carving states of ethnic homogeneity out of
the territory reconquered from Napoleon. Austria was strengthened in
Italy, and Prussia in Germany. The Dutch Republic acquired the Austrian
Netherlands (mostly present-day Belgium). France had to give up all
conquests and return to the “ancient frontiers” it had possessed before
the Revolution. Russia received the heartland of Poland. (In conformity
with its policy of not making acquisitions on the Continent, Great Britain
confined its territorial gains to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern
tip of Africa.)
In Great Britain’s concept of world order, the test of the balance of
power was how well the various nations could perform the roles assigned
to them in the overall design — much as the United States came to regard
its alliances in the period after the Second World War. In implementing
this approach, Great Britain faced with respect to the Continental coun-
tries the same difference in perspective that the United States encoun-
tered during the Cold War. For nations simply do not define their
purpose as cogs in a security system. Security makes their existence possi-
ble; it is never their sole or even principal purpose.
Austria and Prussia no more thought of themselves as “great masses”
than France would later see the purpose of NATO in terms of a division
of labor. The overall balance of power meant little to Austria and Prussia
if it did not at the same time do justice to their own special and complex
relationship, or take account of their countries’ historic roles.
After the Habsburgs’ failure to achieve hegemony in Central Europe in
the Thirty Years’ War, Austria had abandoned its attempt to dominate all
of Germany. In 1806, the vestigial Holy Roman Empire was abolished. But
Austria still saw itself as first among equals and was determined to keep
every other German state, especially Prussia, from assuming Austria’s
historic leadership role.
And Austria had every reason to be watchful. Ever since Frederick the
Great had seized Silesia, Austria’s claim to leadership in Germany had
been challenged by Prussia. A ruthless diplomacy, devotion to the military
arts, and a highly developed sense of discipline propelled Prussia in the
course of a century from a secondary principality on the barren North
German plain to a kingdom which, though still the smallest of the Great
Powers, was militarily among the most formidable. Its oddly shaped fron-
tiers stretched across Northern Germany from the partly Polish east to
the somewhat Latinized Rhineland (which was separated from Prussia’s
original territory by the Kingdom of Hanover), providing the Prussian
state with an overwhelming sense of national mission — if for no higher
purpose than to defend its fragmented territories.
Both the relationship between these two largest German states and
their relationship to the other German states were central to European
stability. Indeed, at least since the Thirty Years’ War, Germany’s internal
arrangements had presented Europe with the same dilemma: whenever
Germany was weak and divided, it tempted its neighbors, especially
France, into expansionism. At the same time, the prospect of German
unity terrified surrounding states, and has continued to do so even in our
own time. Richelieu’s fear that a united Germany might dominate Europe
and overwhelm France had been anticipated by a British observer who
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
wrote in 1609: “ as for Germany, which if it were entirely subject to
one Monarchy, would be terrible to all the rest.” 1 Historically, Germany
has been either too weak or too strong for the peace of Europe.
The architects at the Congress of Vienna recognized that, if Central
Europe were to have peace and stability, they would have to undo Riche-
lieu’s work of the 1600s. Richelieu had fostered a weak, fragmented Cen-
tral Europe, providing France with a standing temptation to encroach and
to turn it into a virtual playground for the French army. Thus, the states-
men at Vienna set about consolidating, but not unifying, Germany. Austria
and Prussia were the leading German states, after which came a number
of medium-sized states — Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and Saxony among them
— which had been enlarged and strengthened. The 300-odd pre-Napole-
onic states were combined into some thirty and bound together in a new
entity called the German Confederation. Providing for common defense
against outside aggression, the German Confederation proved to be an
ingenious creation. It was too strong to be attacked by France, but too
weak and decentralized to threaten its neighbors. The Confederation
balanced Prussia’s superior military strength against Austria’s superior
prestige and legitimacy. The purpose of the Confederation was to forestall
German unity on a national basis, to preserve the thrones of the various
German princes and monarchs, and to forestall French aggression. It
succeeded on all these counts.
In dealing with the defeated enemy, the victors designing a peace
settlement must navigate the transition from the intransigence vital to
victory to the conciliation needed to achieve a lasting peace. A punitive
peace mortgages the international order because it saddles the victors,
drained by their wartime exertions, with the task of holding down a
country determined to undermine the settlement. Any country with a
grievance is assured of finding nearly automatic support from the disaf-
fected defeated party. This would be the bane of the Treaty of Versailles.
The victors at the Congress of Vienna, like the victors in the Second
World War, avoided making this mistake. It was no easy matter to be
generous toward France, which had been trying to dominate Europe for
a century and a half and whose armies had camped among its neighbors
for a quarter of a century. Nevertheless, the statesmen at Vienna con-
cluded that Europe would be safer if France were relatively satisfied
rather than resentful and disaffected. France was deprived of its con-
quests, but granted its “ancient” — that is, prerevolutionary — frontiers,
even though this represented a considerably larger territory than the one
Richelieu had ruled. Castlereagh, the Foreign Minister of Napoleon’s most
implacable foe, made the case that:
The continued excesses of France may, no doubt, yet drive Europe . . .
to a measure of dismemberment . . . [but] let the Allies then take this
further chance of securing that repose which all the Powers of Europe
so much require, with the assurance that if disappointed . . . they will
again take up arms, not only with commanding positions in their hands,
but with that moral force which can alone keep such a confederacy
together — 2
By 1818, France was admitted to the Congress system at periodic Euro-
pean congresses, which for half a century came close to constituting the
government of Europe.
Convinced that the various nations understood their self-interest suffi-
ciently to defend it if challenged, Great Britain would probably have been
content to leave matters there. The British believed no formal guarantee
was either required or could add much to commonsense analysis. The
countries of Central Europe, however, victims of wars for a century and a
half, insisted on tangible assurances.
Austria in particular faced dangers that were inconceivable to Great
Britain. A vestige of feudal times, Austria was a polyglot empire, grouping
together the multiple nationalities of the Danube basin around its historic
positions in Germany and Northern Italy. Aware of the increasingly disso-
nant currents of liberalism and nationalism which threatened its exis-
tence, Austria sought to spin a web of moral restraint to forestall tests of
strength. Metternich’s consummate skill was in inducing the key countries
to submit their disagreements to a sense of shared values. Talleyrand
expressed the importance of having some principle of restraint this way:
If . . . the minimum of resisting power . . . were equal to the maximum
of aggressive power . . . there would be a real equilibrium. But . . . the
actual situation admits solely of an equilibrium which is artificial and
precarious and which can only last so long as certain large States are
animated by a spirit of moderation and justice. 3
After the Congress of Vienna, the relationship between the balance of
power and a shared sense of legitimacy was expressed in two documents:
the Quadruple Alliance, consisting of Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and
Russia; and the Holy Alliance, which was limited to the three so-called
Eastern Courts — Prussia, Austria, and Russia. In the early nineteenth cen-
tury, France was regarded with the same fear as Germany has been in the
twentieth century — as a chronically aggressive, inherently destabilizing
power. Therefore, the statesmen at Vienna forged the Quadruple Alliance,
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
designed to nip any aggressive French tendencies in the bud with over-
whelming force. Had the victors convening at Versailles made a similar
alliance in 1918, the world might never have suffered a Second World
The Holy Alliance was altogether different; Europe had not seen such
a document since Ferdinand II had left the throne of the Holy Roman
Empire nearly two centuries earlier. It was proposed by the Russian Tsar,
who could not bring himself to abandon his self-appointed mission to
revamp the international system and reform its participants. In 1804,
Pitt had deflated his proposed crusade for liberal institutions; by 1815,
Alexander was imbued with too strong a sense of victory to be thus
denied — regardless that his current crusade was the exact opposite of
what he had advocated eleven years earlier. Now Alexander was in thrall
to religion and to conservative values and proposed nothing less than a
complete reform of the international system based on the proposition
that “the course formerly adopted by the Powers in their mutual relations
had to be fundamentally changed and that it was urgent to replace it
with an order of things based on the exalted truths of the eternal religion
of our Saviour.” 4
The Austrian Emperor joked that he was at a loss as to whether to
discuss these ideas in the Council of Ministers or in the confessional. But
he also knew that he could neither join the Tsar’s crusade nor, in re-
buffing it, give Alexander a pretext to go it alone, leaving Austria to face
the liberal and national currents of the period without allies. This is why
Metternich transformed the Tsar’s draft into what came to be known as
the Holy Alliance, which interpreted the religious imperative as an obliga-
tion by the signatories to preserve the domestic status quo in Europe. For
the first time in modern history, the European Powers had given them-
selves a common mission.
No British statesman could possibly have joined any enterprise estab-
lishing a general right — indeed, an obligation — to intervene in the do-
mestic affairs of other states. Castlereagh called the Holy Alliance a “piece
of sublime mysticism and nonsense.” 5 Metternich, however, saw in it an
opportunity to commit the Tsar to sustain legitimate rule, and above all
to keep him from experimenting with his missionary impulses unilater-
ally and without restraint. The Holy Alliance brought the conservative
monarchs together in combatting revolution, but it also obliged them to
act only in concert, in effect giving Austria a theoretical veto over the
adventures of its smothering Russian ally. The so-called Concert of Eu-
rope implied that nations which were competitive on one level would
settle matters affecting overall stability by consensus.
The Holy Alliance was the most original aspect of the Vienna settle-
ment. Its exalted name has diverted attention from its operational signifi-
cance, which was to introduce an element of moral restraint into the
relationship of the Great Powers. The vested interest which they devel-
oped in the survival of their domestic institutions caused the Continental
countries to avoid conflicts which they would have pursued as a matter
of course in the previous century.
It would be too simple to argue, however, that compatible domestic
institutions guarantee a peaceful balance of power by themselves. In the
eighteenth century, all the rulers of the Continental countries governed
by divine right — their domestic institutions were eminently compatible.
Yet these same rulers governed with a feeling of permanence and con-
ducted endless wars with each other precisely because they considered
their domestic institutions unassailable.
Woodrow Wilson was not the first to believe that the nature of domestic
institutions determined a state’s behavior internationally. Metternich be-
lieved that too but on the basis of an entirely different set of premises.
Whereas Wilson believed the democracies to be peace-loving and reason-
able by their very nature, Metternich considered them dangerous and
unpredictable. Having witnessed the suffering that a republican France
had inflicted on Europe, Metternich identified peace with legitimate rule.
He expected the crowned heads of ancient dynasties, if not to preserve
the peace, then at least to preserve the basic structure of international
relations. In this manner, legitimacy became the cement by which the
international order was held together.
The difference between the Wilsonian and the Metternich approaches
to domestic justice and international order is fundamental to understand-
ing the contrasting views of America and Europe. Wilson crusaded for
principles which he perceived as revolutionary and new. Metternich
sought to institutionalize values he considered ancient. Wilson, presiding
over a country consciously created to set man free, was persuaded that
democratic values could be legislated and then embodied in entirely
new worldwide institutions. Metternich, representing an ancient country
whose institutions had developed gradually, almost imperceptibly, did
not believe that rights could be created by legislation. “Rights,” according
to Metternich, simply existed in the nature of things. Whether they were
affirmed by laws or by constitutions was an essentially technical question
which had nothing to do with bringing about freedom. Metternich consid-
ered guaranteeing rights to be a paradox: “Things which ought to be
taken for granted lose their force when they emerge in the form of
arbitrary pronouncements Objects mistakenly made subject to legisla-
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
tion result only in the limitation, if not the complete annulment, of that
which is attempted to be safeguarded .” 6
Some of Metternich’s maxims were self-serving rationalizations of the
practices of the Austrian Empire, which was incapable of adjusting to
the emerging new world. But Metternich also reflected the rationalist
conviction that laws and rights existed in nature and not by fiat. His
formative experience had been the French Revolution, which started with
the proclamation of the Rights of Man and ended with the Reign of Terror.
Wilson emerged from a far more benign national experience and, fifteen
years before the rise of modern totalitarianism, could not conceive of
aberrations in the popular will.
In the post-Vienna period, Metternich played the decisive role in man-
aging the international system and in interpreting the requirements of
the Holy Alliance. Metternich was forced to assume this role because
Austria was in the direct path of every storm, and its domestic institutions
were less and less compatible with the national and liberal trends of the
century. Prussia loomed over Austria’s position in Germany, and Russia
over its Slavic populations in the Balkans. And there was always France,
eager to reclaim Richelieu’s legacy in Central Europe. Metternich knew
that, if these dangers were permitted to turn into tests of strength, Austria
would exhaust itself, whatever the outcome of any particular conflict. His
policy, therefore, was to avoid crises by building a moral consensus and
to deflect those which could not be avoided by discreedy backing which-
ever nation was willing to bear the brunt of the confrontation — Great
Britain vis-a-vis France in the Low Countries, Great Britain and France vis-
a-vis Russia in the Balkans, the smaller states vis-a-vis Prussia in Germany.
Metternich’s extraordinary diplomatic skill permitted him to translate
familiar diplomatic verities into operational foreign policy principles. He
managed to convince Austria’s two closest allies, each of which repre-
sented a geopolitical threat to the Austrian Empire, that the ideological
danger posed by revolution outweighed their strategic opportunities. Had
Prussia sought to exploit German nationalism, it could have challenged
Austrian pre-eminence in Germany a generation before Bismarck. Had
Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I only considered solely Russia’s geopoliti-
cal opportunities, they would have exploited the disintegration of the
Ottoman Empire far more decisively to Austria’s peril — as their succes-
sors would do later in the century. Both refrained from pushing their
advantage because it ran counter to the dominant principle of main-
taining the status quo. Austria, seemingly on its deathbed after Napoleon’s
onslaught, was given a new lease on life by the Metternich system, which
enabled it to survive for another hundred years.
The man who saved this anachronistic empire and guided its policy for
nearly fifty years did not even visit Austria until he was thirteen years old
or live there until he was seventeen. 7 Prince Klemens von Metternich’s
father had been governor general of the Rhineland, then a Habsburg
possession. A cosmopolitan figure, Metternich was always more comfort-
able speaking French than German. “For a long time now,” he wrote to
Wellington in 1824, “Europe has had for me the quality of a fatherland
[ patrie ].” 8 Contemporary opponents sneered at his righteous maxims and
polished epigrams. But Voltaire and Kant would have understood his
views. A rationalist product of the Enlightenment, he found himself pro-
pelled into a revolutionary struggle which was foreign to his tempera-
ment, and into becoming the leading minister of a state under siege
whose structure he could not modify.
Sobriety of spirit and moderation of objective were the Metternich
style: “Little given to abstract ideas, we accept things as they are and we
attempt to the maximum of our ability to protect ourselves against delu-
sions about realities.” 9 And, “with phrases which on close examination
dissolve into thin air, such as the defense of civilization, nothing tangible
can be defined,” 10
With such attitudes, Metternich strove to avoid being swept away by the
emotion of the moment. As soon as Napoleon was defeated in Russia, and
before Russian troops had even reached Central Europe, Metternich had
identified Russia as a potential long-term threat. At a time when Austria’s
neighbors were concentrating on liberation from French rule, he made
Austria’s participation in the anti-Napoleon coalition dependent on the
elaboration of war aims compatible with the survival of his rickety em-
pire. Metternich’s attitude was the exact opposite of the position taken by
the democracies during the Second World War, when they found them-
selves in comparable circumstances vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Like Cas-
tlereagh and Pitt, Metternich believed that a strong Central Europe was
the prerequisite to European stability. Determined to avoid tests of
strength if at all possible, Metternich was as concerned with establishing
a moderating style as he was with accumulating raw power:
The attitude of the [European] powers differs as their geographical
situation. France and Russia have but a single frontier and this hardly
vulnerable. The Rhine with its triple line of fortresses assures the re-
pose of . . . France; a frightful climate . . . makes the Niemen a no less
safe frontier for Russia. Austria and Prussia find themselves exposed on
all sides to attack by their neighbouring powers. Continuously menaced
by the preponderance of these two powers, Austria and Prussia can find
tranquillity only in a wise and measured policy, in relations of goodwill
among each other and with their neighbours 11
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
Though Austria needed Russia as a hedge against France, it was wary of
its impetuous ally, and especially of the Tsar’s crusading bent. Talleyrand
said of Tsar Alexander I that he was not for nothing the son of the mad
Tsar Paul. Metternich described Alexander as a “strange combination of
masculine virtues and feminine weaknesses. Too weak for true ambition,
but too strong for pure vanity .” 12
For Metternich, the problem posed by Russia was not so much how to
contain its aggressiveness — an endeavor which would have exhausted
Austria — as how to temper its ambitions. “Alexander desires the peace of
the world,” reported an Austrian diplomat, “but not for the sake of peace
and its blessings; rather for his own sake; not unconditionally, but with
mental reservations: he must remain the arbiter of this peace; from him
must emanate the repose and happiness of the world and all of Europe
must recognize that this repose is his work, that it is dependent on his
goodwill and that it can be disturbed by his whim. . . ,” 13
Castlereagh and Metternich parted company over how to contain a
mercurial and meddlesome Russia. As the Foreign Minister of an island
power far from the scene of confrontation, Castlereagh was prepared to
resist only overt attacks, and even then the attacks had to threaten the
equilibrium. Metternich’s country', on the other hand, lay in the center of
the Continent and could not take such chances. Precisely because Metter-
nich distrusted Alexander, he insisted on staying close to him and concen-
trated on keeping threats from his direction from ever arising. “If one
cannon is fired,” he wrote, “Alexander will escape us at the head of his
retinue and then there will be no limit any longer to what he will consider
his divinely ordained laws .” 14
To dilute Alexander’s zealousness, Metternich pursued a two-pronged
strategy. Under his leadership, Austria was in the vanguard of the fight
against nationalism, though he was adamant about not permitting Austria
to be too exposed or to engage in unilateral acts. He was even less
inclined to encourage others to act on their own, partly because he feared
Russia’s missionary' zeal could turn into expansionism. For Metternich,
moderation was a philosophical virtue and a practical necessity. In his
instructions to an Austrian ambassador, he once wrote: “It is more im-
portant to eliminate the claims of others than to press our own. . . . We
will obtain much in proportion as we ask little .” 15 Whenever possible, he
tried to temper the Tsar’s crusading schemes by involving him in time-
consuming consultations and by limiting him to what the European con-
sensus would tolerate.
The second prong of Metternich’s strategy was conservative unity.
Whenever action became unavoidable, Metternich would resort to a jug-
gling act which he once described as follows: “Austria considers every-
thing with reference to the substance. Russia wants above all the form-,
Britain wants the substance without the form It will be our task to
combine the impossibilities of Britain with the modes of Russia .” 16 Metter-
nich’s dexterity enabled Austria to control the pace of events for a genera-
tion by turning Russia, a country he feared, into a partner on the basis of
the unity of conservative interests, and Great Britain, which he trusted,
into a last resort for resisting challenges to the balance of power. The
inevitable outcome, however, would merely be delayed. Even so, to have
preserved an ancient state on the basis of values inconsistent with the
dominant trends all around it for a full century is not a mean achievement.
Metternich’s dilemma was that, the closer he moved toward the Tsar,
the more he risked his British connection; and the more he risked that,
the closer he had to move toward the Tsar to avoid isolation. For Metter-
nich, the ideal combination would have been British support to preserve
the territorial balance, and Russian support to quell domestic upheaval —
the Quadruple Alliance for geopolitical security, and the Holy Alliance for
domestic stability.
But as time passed and the memory of Napoleon faded, that combina-
tion became increasingly difficult to sustain. The more the alliances ap-
proached a system of collective security and European government, the
more Great Britain felt compelled to dissociate itself from it. And the
more Great Britain dissociated itself, the more dependent Austria became
on Russia, hence the more rigidly it defended conservative values. This
was a vicious circle that could not be broken.
However sympathetic Castlereagh might have been to Austria’s prob-
lems, he was unable to induce Great Britain to address potential, as
opposed to actual, dangers. “When the Territorial Balance of Europe is
disturbed,” avowed Castlereagh, “She [Britain] can interfere with effect,
but She is the last Government in Europe which can be expected, or can
venture to commit Herself on any question of an abstract character. . . .
We shall be found in our Place when actual danger menaces the System
of Europe; but this Country cannot, and will not, act upon abstract and
speculative Principles of Precaution .” 17 Yet the crux of Metternich’s prob-
lem was that necessity obliged him to treat as practical what Great Britain
considered abstract and speculative. Domestic upheaval happened to be
the danger Austria found the least manageable.
To soften the disagreement in principle, Castlereagh proposed peri-
odic meetings, or congresses, of the foreign ministers to review the Euro-
pean state of affairs. What became known as the Congress system sought
to forge a consensus on the issues confronting Europe and to pave the
way for dealing with them on a multilateral basis. Great Britain, however,
was not comfortable with a system of European government, because it
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
came too close to the unified Europe that the British had consistently
opposed. Traditional British policy apart, no British government had ever
undertaken a permanent commitment to review events as they arose
without confronting a specific threat. Participating in a European govern-
ment was no more attractive to British public opinion than the League of
Nations would be to Americans a hundred years later, and for much the
same reasons.
The British Cabinet made its reserve quite evident as early as the first
such conference, the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818. Castlereagh
was dispatched with these extraordinarily grudging instructions: “We ap-
prove [a general declaration] on this occasion, and with difficulty too, by
assuring [the secondary powers] that . . . periodic meetings . . . are to be
confined to one . . . subject, or even ... to one power, France, and no
engagement to interfere in any manner in which the Law of Nations
does not justify interference Our true policy has always been not to
interfere except in great emergencies and then with commanding
force.” 18 Great Britain wanted France kept in check but, beyond that, the
twin fears of “continental entanglements” and a unified Europe prevailed
in London.
There was only one occasion when Great Britain found Congress diplo-
macy compatible with its objectives. During the Greek Revolution of 1821,
England interpreted the Tsar’s desire to protea the Christian population
of the collapsing Ottoman Empire as the first stage of Russia’s attempt to
conquer Egypt. With British strategic interests at stake, Castlereagh did
not hesitate to appeal to the Tsar in the name of the very allied unity he
had heretofore sought to restrict to containing France. Characteristically,
he elaborated a distinaion between theoretical and praaical issues: “The
question of Turkey is of a totally different character and one which in
England we regard not as a theoretical but a praaical consideration. . . ,” 19
But Castlereagh’s appeal to the Alliance served above all to demonstrate
its inherent brittleness. An alliance in which one partner treats his own
strategic interests as the sole practical issue confers no additional security
on its members. For it provides no obligation beyond what considera-
tions of national interest would have impelled in any event. Metternich
undoubtedly drew comfort from Castlereagh’s obvious personal sympa-
thy for his objeaives, and even for the Congress system itself. Castlereagh,
it was said by one of Austria’s diplomats, was “like a great lover of music
who is at Church; he wishes to applaud but he dare not.” 20 But if even
the most European-minded of British statesmen dared not applaud what
he believed in, Great Britain’s role in the Concert of Europe was destined
to be transitory and ineffective.
Somewhat like Wilson and his League of Nations a century later, Cas-
tlereagh’s efforts to persuade Great Britain to participate in a system
of European congresses went far beyond what English representative
institutions could tolerate on either philosophical or strategic grounds.
Castlereagh was convinced, as Wilson would be, that the danger of new
aggression could best be avoided if his country joined some permanent
European forum that dealt with threats before they developed into crises.
He understood Europe better than most of his British contemporaries
and knew that the newly created balance would require careful tending.
He thought that he had devised a solution Great Britain could support,
because it did not go beyond a series of discussion meetings of the
foreign ministers of the four victors and had no obligatory features.
But even discussion meetings smacked too much of European govern-
ment for the British Cabinet. Indeed, the Congress system never even
cleared its initial hurdle. When Castlereagh attended the first conference
at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, France was admitted to the Congress system
and Great Britain made its exit from it. The Cabinet refused to let Castle-
reagh attend any further European congresses, which subsequently took
place at Troppau in 1820, at Laibach in 1821, and at Verona in 1822. Great
Britain remained aloof from the Congress system, which its own Foreign
Secretary had devised, just as, a century later, the United States would
distance itself from the League of Nations, which its president had pro-
posed. In each .case, the attempt by the leader of the most powerful
country to create a general system of collective security failed because of
domestic inhibitions and historic traditions.
Both Wilson and Castlereagh believed that the international order es-
tablished after a catastrophic war could only be protected by the active
participation of all of the key members of the international community
and especially of their own countries. To Castlereagh and Wilson, security
was collective; if any nation was victimized, in the end all would become
victims. With security thus perceived as seamless, all states had a common
interest in resisting aggression, and an even greater interest in preventing
it. In Castlereagh ’s view, Great Britain, whatever its views on specific
issues, had a genuine interest in the preservation of general peace and in
the maintenance of the balance of power. Like Wilson, Castlereagh
thought that the best way to defend that interest was to have a hand
in shaping the decisions affecting international order and in organizing
resistance to violations of the peace.
The weakness of collective security is that interests are rarely uniform,
and that security is rarely seamless. Members of a general system of
collective security are therefore more likely to agree on inaction than on
joint action; they either will be held together by glittering generalities, or
The Concert of Europe. Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
may witness the defection of the most powerful member, who feels the
most secure and therefore least needs the system. Neither Wilson nor
Castlereagh was able to bring his country into a system of collective
security because their respective societies did not feel threatened by
foreseeable dangers and thought that they could deal with them alone or,
if need be, find allies at the last moment. To them, participating in the
League of Nations or the European Congress system compounded risks
without enhancing security.
There was one huge difference between the two Anglo-Saxon states-
men, however. Castlereagh was out of tune not only with his contempo-
raries but with the entire thrust of modern British foreign policy. He left
no legacy; no British statesman has used Castlereagh as a model. Wilson
not only responded to the wellsprings of American motivation, but took
it to a new and higher level. All his successors have been Wilsonian to
some degree, and subsequent American foreign policy has been shaped
by his maxims.
Lord Stewart, the British “observer” permitted to attend the various
European congresses, who was Castlereagh’s half-brother, spent most of
his energy defining the limits of Great Britain’s involvement rather than
contributing to a European consensus. At Troppau, he submitted a memo-
randum which affirmed the right to self-defense but insisted that Great
Britain would “not charge itself as a member of the Alliance with the
moral responsibility of administering a general European Police.” 21 At
the Congress of Laibach, Lord Stewart was obliged to reiterate that Great
Britain would never engage itself against “speculative” dangers. Castle-
reagh himself had set forth the British position in a state paper of May 5,
1820. The Quadruple Alliance, he affirmed, was an alliance for the “libera-
tion of a great proportion of the Continent of Europe from the military
dominion of France It never was, however, intended as an Union for
the Government of the World or for the Superintendence of the Internal
Affairs of other States.” 22
In the end, Castlereagh found himself trapped between his convictions
and his domestic necessities. From this untenable situation, he could see
no exit. “Sir,” Castlereagh said at his last interview with the King, “it is
necessary to say goodbye to Europe; you and I alone know it and have
saved it; no one after me understands the affairs of the Continent.” 23 Four
days later, he committed suicide.
As Austria grew more and more dependent on Russia, Metternich’s
most perplexing question became how long his appeals to the Tsar’s
conservative principles could restrain Russia from exploiting its opportu-
nities in the Balkans and at the periphery of Europe. The answer turned
out to be nearly three decades, during which time Metternich dealt with
revolutions in Naples, Spain, and Greece while effectively maintaining a
European consensus and avoiding Russian intervention in the Balkans.
But the Eastern Question would not go away. In essence, it was the
result of independence struggles in the Balkans as the various nationali-
ties tried to break loose of Turkish rule. The quandary this posed for the
Metternich system was that it clashed with that system’s commitment to
maintaining the status quo, and that the independence movements which
today were aimed at Turkey would tomorrow attack Austria. Moreover,
the Tsar, who was the most committed to legitimacy, was also the most
eager to intervene, but nobody — certainly not in London or Vienna —
believed that the Tsar would preserve the status quo after his armies had
been launched.
For a time, a mutual interest in cushioning the shock of the collapsing
Ottoman Empire sustained a warm relationship with Great Britain and
Austria. However little the English cared about particular Balkan issues, a
Russian advance toward the Straits was perceived as a threat to British
interests in the Mediterranean, and encountered tenacious resistance.
Metternich never participated directly in these British efforts to oppose
Russian expansionism, much as he welcomed them. His careful and,
above all, anonymous diplomacy — affirming Europe’s unity, flattering the
Russians, and cajoling the British — enabled Austria to preserve its Russian
option while other states bore the brunt of thwarting Russian expan-
Metternich’s removal from the scene in 1848 marked the beginning of
the end of the high-wire act by which Austria had used the unity of
conservative interests to maintain the Vienna settlement. To be sure, legit-
imacy could not have compensated indefinitely for the steady decline in
Austria’s geopolitical position or for the growing incompatibility between
its domestic institutions and dominant national tendencies. But nuance is
the essence of statesmanship. Metternich had finessed the Eastern Ques-
tion but his successors, unable to adapt Austria’s domestic institutions to
the times, tried to compensate by bringing Austrian diplomacy into line
with the emerging trend of power politics, unrestrained by a concept of
legitimacy. It was to be the undoing of the international order.
So it happened that the Concert of Europe was ultimately shattered on
the anvil of the Eastern Question. In 1854, the Great Powers were at war
for the first time since the days of Napoleon. Ironically, this war, the
Crimean War, long condemned by historians as a senseless and utterly
avoidable affair, was precipitated not by Russia, Great Britain, or Austria
— countries with vast interests in the Eastern Question — but by France.
The Concert of Europe Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
In 1852, the French Emperor Napoleon III, having just come to power
by a coup, persuaded the Turkish Sultan to grant him the sobriquet of
Protector of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire, a role the Russian Tsar
traditionally reserved for himself. Nicholas I was enraged that Napoleon,
whom he considered an illegitimate upstart, should presume to step into
Russia’s shoes as protector of Balkan Slavs, and demanded equal status
with France. When the Sultan rebuffed the Russian emissary', Russia broke
off diplomatic relations. Lord Palmerston, who shaped British foreign
policy during the mid-nineteenth century, was morbidly suspicious of
Russia and urged the dispatch of the Royal Navy to Besika Bay, just outside
the Dardanelles. The Tsar still continued in the spirit of the Metternich
system: “The four of you,” he said, referring to the other Great Powers,
“could dictate to me, but this will never happen. I can count on Berlin
and Vienna.” 24 To show his lack of concern, Nicholas ordered the occupa-
tion of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (present-day Roma-
Austria, which had the most to lose from a war, proposed the obvious
solution — that France and Russia act as joint protectors of the Ottoman
Christians. Palmerston was eager for neither outcome. To strengthen
Great Britain’s bargaining position, he sent the Royal Navy to the entrance
of the Black Sea. This encouraged Turkey to declare war on Russia. Great
Britain and France backed Turkey.
The real causes of the war were deeper, however. Religious claims
were in fact pretexts for political and strategic designs. Nicholas was
pursuing the ancient Russian dream of gaining Constantinople and the
Straits. Napoleon III saw an opportunity to end France’s isolation and to
break up the Holy Alliance by weakening Russia. Palmerston sought some
pretext to end Russia’s drive toward the Straits once and for all. With the
outbreak of war, British warships entered the Black Sea and began to
destroy the Russian Black Sea fleet. An Anglo-French force landed in the
Crimea to seize the Russian naval base of Sevastopol.
These events spelled nothing but complexity for Austria’s leaders. They
attached importance to the traditional friendship with Russia while fear-
ing that Russia’s advance in the Balkans might increase the restlessness of
Austria’s Slavic populations. But they feared that siding with their old
friend Russia in the Crimea would give France a pretext for attacking
Austria’s Italian territories.
At first, Austria declared neutrality, which was the sensible course. But
the new Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Buol, found inactivity too nerve-
racking and the French threat to Austria’s possessions in Italy too unset-
tling. As the British and French armies were besieging Sevastopol, Austria
presented an ultimatum to the Tsar, demanding that Russia retreat from
Moldavia and Wallachia. That was the decisive factor in ending the Cri-
mean War — at least that is what Russian leaders would think ever after.
Austria had jettisoned Nicholas I and a steadfast friendship with Russia
dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. Frivolity compounded by panic
caused Metternich’s successors to throw away the legacy of conservative
unity that had been accumulated so carefully and at times painfully for
over a generation. For once Austria cut itself loose from the shackles of
shared values, it also freed Russia to conduct its own policy strictly on the
basis of geopolitical merit. Pursuing such a course, Russia was bound to
clash with Austria over the future of the Balkans and, in time, to seek to
undermine the Austrian Empire.
The reason the Vienna settlement had worked for fifty years was that
the three Eastern powers — Prussia, Russia, and Austria — had seen their
unity as the essential barrier to revolutionary chaos and to French domi-
nation of Europe. But in the Crimean War, Austria (“the chamber of peers
of Europe,” as Talleyrand had called it) maneuvered itself into an uneasy
alliance with Napoleon III, who was eager to undermine Austria in Italy,
and Great Britain, which was unwilling to engage in European causes.
Austria thereby liberated Russia and Prussia, its acquisitive erstwhile part-
ners in the Holy Alliance, to pursue their own undiluted national inter-
ests. Prussia exacted its price by forcing Austria to withdraw from
Germany, while Russia’s growing hostility in the Balkans turned into one
of the triggers of the First World War and led to Austria’s ultimate collapse.
When faced with the realities of power politics, Austria had failed to
realize that its salvation had been the European commitment to legiti-
macy. The concept of the unity of conservative interests had transcended
national borders and thus tended to mitigate the confrontations of power
politics. Nationalism had the opposite effect, exalting the national interest,
heightening rivalries, and raising the risks for everyone. Austria had
thrown itself into a contest which, given all its vulnerabilities, it could not
possibly win.
Within five years of the end of the Crimean War, the Italian nationalist
leader Camillo Cavour began the process of expelling Austria from Italy
by provoking a war with Austria, backed by a French alliance and Russian
acquiescence, both of which would previously have seemed inconceiv-
able. Within another five years, Bismarck would defeat Austria in a war
for predominance in Germany. Once again, Russia stood aloof and France
did the same, albeit reluctantly. In Metternich’s day, the Concert of Eu-
rope would have consulted and controlled these upheavals. Henceforth
diplomacy would rely more on naked power than on shared values. Peace
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
was maintained for another fifty years. But with each decade, tensions
multiplied and arms races intensified.
Great Britain fared quite differently in an international system driven
by power politics. For one thing, it had never relied on the Congress
system for its security; for Great Britain, the new pattern of international
relations was more like business as usual. In the course of the nineteenth
century, Great Britain became the dominant country in Europe. To be
sure, it was strong enough to stand alone and had the advantages of
geographic isolation and imperviousness to domestic upheavals on the
Continent. But it also had the benefit of steady leaders pursuing an unsen-
timental commitment to the national interest.
Castlereagh’s successors did not understand the Continent nearly as
well as he had. But they had a surer grasp of what constituted the essential
British national interest, and they pursued it with extraordinary skill and
persistence. George Canning, Castlereagh’s immediate successor, lost no
time in eliminating the last few ties through which Castlereagh had main-
tained his influence, however remote, on the European Congress system.
In 1821, the year before he succeeded Castlereagh, Canning had called
for a policy of “neutrality in word and deed.” 25 “Let us not,” he said, “in
the foolish spirit of romance, suppose that we alone could regenerate
Europe.” 26 Then, after becoming Foreign Secretary, he left no doubt that
his guiding principle was the national interest, which, in his view, was
incompatible with permanent engagement in Europe:
. . . intimately connected as we are with the system of Europe, it does
not follow that we are therefore called upon to mix ourselves on every
occasion, with a restless and meddling activity, in the concerns of the
nations which surround us. 27
In other words, Great Britain would reserve the right to steer its own
course according to the merits of each case and guided only by its
national interest, a policy which made allies either auxiliaries or irrel-
Palmerston explained the British definition of national interest as fol-
lows in 1856: “When people ask me . . . for what is called a policy, the
only answer is that we mean to do what may seem to be best, upon each
occasion as it arises, making the Interests of Our Country one’s guiding
principle.” 28 Half a century later, the official description of British foreign
policy had not gained much in the way of precision, as reflected in
this explanation by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey: “British Foreign
Ministers have been guided by what seemed to them to be the immediate
interest of this country, without making elaborate calculations for the
future.” 29
In most other countries, statements such as these would have been
ridiculed as tautological — we do what is best because we consider it best.
In Great Britain, they were considered illuminating; very rarely was there
a call to define that much-used phrase “national interest”: “We have no
eternal allies and no permanent enemies,” said Palmerston. Great Britain
required no formal strategy because its leaders understood the British
interest so well and so viscerally that they could act spontaneously on
each situation as it arose, confident that their public would follow. In the
words of Palmerston: “Our interests are eternal, and those interests it is
our duty to follow.” 30
British leaders were more likely to be clear about what they were not
prepared to defend than to identify a casus belli in advance. They were
even more reluctant to spell out positive aims, perhaps because they
liked the status quo well enough. Convinced that they would recognize
the British national interest when they saw it, British leaders felt no need
to elaborate it in advance. They preferred to await actual cases — a posi-
tion impossible for the Continental countries to adopt, because they were
those actual cases.
The British view of security was not unlike the view of American isola-
tionists, in that Great Britain felt impervious to all but cataclysmic upheav-
als. But America and Great Britain differed when it came to the
relationship between peace and domestic structure. British leaders did
not in any sense consider the spread of representative institutions as a
key to peace in the way their American counterparts generally did, nor
did they feel concerned about institutions different from their own.
Thus, in 1841, Palmerston spelled out for the British ambassador in
St. Petersburg what Great Britain would resist by force of arms, and why
it would not resist purely domestic changes:
One of the general principles which Her Majesty’s Government wish to
observe as a guide for their conduct in dealing with the relations be-
tween England and other States, is, that changes which foreign Nations
may chuse to make in their internal Constitution and form of Govern-
ment, are to be looked upon as matters with which England has no
business to interfere by force of arms
But an attempt of one Nation to seize and to appropriate to itself
territory which belongs to another Nation, is a different matter; because
such an attempt leads to a derangement of the existing Balance of
Power, and by altering the relative strength of States, may tend to create
danger to other Powers; and such attempts therefore, the British Gov-
ernment holds itself at full liberty to resist. . . , 31
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
Without exception, British ministers were concerned above all with pre-
serving their country’s freedom of action. In 1841, Palmerston reiterated
Great Britain’s abhorrence of abstract cases:
... it is not usual for England to enter into engagements with reference
to cases which have not actually arisen, or which are not immediately
in prospect 32
Nearly thirty years later, Gladstone brought up the same principle in a
letter to Queen Victoria:
England should keep entire in her own hands the means of estimating
her own obligations upon the various states of facts as they arise; she
should not foreclose and narrow her own liberty of choice by declara-
tions made to other Powers, in their real or supposed interests, of
which they would claim to be at least joint interpreters 33
Insisting on freedom of action, British statesmen as a rule rejected all
variations on the theme of collective security. What later came to be called
“splendid isolation” reflected England’s conviction that it stood to lose
more than it could gain from alliances. So aloof an approach could be
entertained only by a country that was sufficiently strong to stand alone,
that foresaw no dangers for which it might need the assistance of allies,
and that felt certain that any extremity threatening it would threaten its
potential allies even more. Great Britain’s role as the nation that main-
tained the European equilibrium gave it all the options its leaders either
wanted or needed. This policy was sustainable because it strove for no
territorial gains in Europe; England could pick and choose the European
quarrels in which to intervene because its only European interest was
equilibrium (however voracious the British appetite for colonial acquisi-
tions overseas).
Nonetheless, Great Britain’s “splendid isolation” did not keep it from
entering into temporary arrangements with other countries to deal with
special circumstances. As a sea power without a large standing army,
Great Britain occasionally had to cooperate with a continental ally, which
it always preferred to choose as the need arose. On such occasions British
leaders could show themselves remarkably impervious to past animosi-
ties. In the course of Belgium’s secession from Holland in 1830, Palmer-
ston first threatened France with war if it sought to dominate the new
state, then, a few years later, offered to ally with it to guarantee Belgium’s
independence: “England alone cannot carry her points on the Continent;
she must have allies as instruments to work with.” 34
Of course, Great Britain’s various ad hoc allies had objectives of their
own, which usually involved an extension of influence or territory in
Europe. When they went beyond what England considered appropriate,
England switched sides or organized new coalitions against erstwhile
allies in defense of the equilibrium. Its unsentimental persistence and
self-centered determination earned Great Britain the epithet “Perfidious
Albion.” This type of diplomacy may not have reflected a particularly
elevated attitude, but it preserved the peace of Europe, especially after
the Metternich system began fraying at the edges.
The nineteenth century marked the apogee of British influence. Great
Britain was self-confident and had every right to be. It was the leading
industrial nation and the Royal Navy commanded the seas. In an age of
domestic upheavals, British internal politics were remarkably serene.
When it came to the big issues of the nineteenth century — intervention
or nonintervention, defense of the status quo or cooperating with change
— British leaders refused to be bound by dogma. In the war for Greek
independence in the 1820s, Great Britain sympathized with Greece’s in-
dependence from Ottoman rule as long as doing so did not threaten its
strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean by increasing Russian
influence. But by 1840, Great Britain would intervene to contain Russia,
thereby supporting the status quo in the Ottoman Empire. In the Hungar-
ian Revolution of 1848, Great Britain, formally noninterventionist, in fact
welcomed Russia’s restoration of the status quo. When Italy revolted
against Habsburg rule in the 1850s, Great Britain was sympathetic but
non interventionist. To defend the balance of power, Great Britain was
neither categorically interventionist nor noninterventionist, neither a bul-
wark of the Viennese order nor a revisionist power. Its style was relent-
lessly pragmatic, and the British people took pride in their ability to
muddle through.
Yet any pragmatic policy — indeed, especially a pragmatic policy — must
be based on some fixed principle in order to prevent tactical skill from
dissipating into a random thrashing about. And the fixed principle of
British foreign policy, whether acknowledged or not, was its role as pro-
tector of the balance of power, which in general meant supporting the
weaker against the stronger. By Palmerston’s time, the balance of power
had grown into such an immutable principle of British policy that it
needed no theoretical defense; whatever policy was being pursued at any
given moment became inevitably described in terms of protecting the
balance of power. Extraordinary flexibility was conjoined to a number of
fixed and practical objectives. For instance, the determination to keep the
Low Countries out of the hands of a major power did not change between
The Concert of Europe: Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
the time of William III and the outbreak of World War I. In 1870, Disraeli
reaffirmed that principle:
It had always been held by the Government of this country that it was
for the interest of England that the countries on the European Coast
extending from Dunkirk and Ostend to the islands of the North Sea
should be possessed by free and flourishing communities, practicing
the arts of peace, enjoying the rights of liberty and following those
pursuits of commerce which tend to the civilization of man, and should
not be in the possession of a great military Power. . . 35
It was a measure of how isolated German leaders had become that they
were genuinely surprised when, in 1914, Great Britain reacted to the
German invasion of Belgium with a declaration of war.
Well into the nineteenth century, the preservation of Austria was con-
sidered an important British objective. In the eighteenth century, Marl-
borough, Carteret, and Pitt had fought several wars to prevent France
from weakening Austria. Though Austria had less to fear from French
aggression in the nineteenth century, the British still viewed Austria as a
useful counterweight to Russian expansion toward the Straits. When the
Revolution of 1848 threatened to cause the disintegration of Austria, Palm-
erston said:
Austria stands in the centre of Europe, a barrier against encroachment
on the one side, and against invasion on the other. The political inde-
pendence and liberties of Europe are bound up, in my opinion, with
the maintenance and integrity of Austria as a great European Power;
and therefore anything which tends by direct, or even remote, contin-
gency, to weaken and to cripple Austria, but still more to reduce her
from the position of a first-rate Power to that of a secondary State, must
be a great calamity to Europe, and one which every Englishman ought
to deprecate, and to try to prevent. 36
After the Revolution of 1848, Austria became progressively weaker and its
policy increasingly erratic, diminishing its usefulness as a key element in
British policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The focus of England’s policy was to prevent Russia from occupying
the Dardanelles. Austro-Russian rivalries largely involved Russian designs
on Austria’s Slavic provinces, which did not seriously concern Great Brit-
ain, while control of the Dardanelles was not a vital Austrian interest.
Great Britain therefore came to judge Austria an unsuitable counter-
weight to Russia. This was why Great Britain stood by when Austria was
defeated by Piedmont in Italy and by Prussia in the contest over primacy
in Germany — an indifference which would not have been conceivable a
generation before. After the turn of the century, fear of Germany would
dominate British policy, and Austria, Germany’s ally, for the first time
emerged as an opponent in British calculations.
In the nineteenth century, no one would have thought it possible that
one day Great Britain would be allied with Russia. In Palmerston’s view,
Russia was “pursuing a system of universal aggression on all sides, partly
from the personal character of the Emperor [Nicholas], partly from the
permanent system of the government.” 37 Twenty-five years later, this view
was echoed by Lord Clarendon, who argued that the Crimean War was “a
battle of civilization against barbarism.” 38 Great Britain spent the better
part of the century attempting to check Russian expansion into Persia and
on the approaches to Constantinople and India. It would take decades of
German bellicosity and insensitivity to shift the major British security
concern to Germany, which did not finally occur until after the turn of
the century.
British governments changed more frequently than those of the so-
called Eastern Powers; none of Britain’s major political figures — Palmer-
ston, Gladstone, and Disraeli — enjoyed uninterrupted tenures, as did
Metternich, Nicholas I, and Bismarck. Still, Great Britain maintained an
extraordinary consistency of purpose. Once embarked on a particular
course, it would pursue it with unrelenting tenacity and dogged reliabil-
ity, which enabled Great Britain to exert a decisive influence on behalf of
tranquillity in Europe.
One cause of Great Britain’s single-mindedness in times of crisis was
the representative nature of its political institutions. Since 1700, public
opinion had played an important role in British foreign policy. No other
country in eighteenth-century Europe had an “opposition” point of view
with respect to foreign policy; in Great Britain, it was inherent in the
system. In the eighteenth century, the Tories as a rule represented the
King’s foreign policy, which leaned toward intervention in Continental
disputes; the Whigs, like Sir Robert Walpole, preferred to retain a mea-
sure of aloofness from quarrels on the Continent and sought greater
emphasis on overseas expansion. By the nineteenth century, their roles
had been reversed. The Whigs, like Palmerston, represented an activist
policy, while the Tories, like Derby or Salisbury, were wary of foreign
entanglements. Radicals such as Richard Cobden were allied with the
Conservatives in advocating a noninterventionist British posture.
Because British foreign policy grew out of open debates, the British
people displayed extraordinary unity in times of war. On the other hand,
so openly partisan a foreign policy made it possible — though highly un-
The Concert of Europe. Great Britain, Austria, and Russia
usual — for foreign policy to be reversed when a prime minister was
replaced. For instance, Great Britain’s support for Turkey in the 1870s
ended abruptly when Gladstone, who regarded the Turks as morally
reprehensible, defeated Disraeli in the election of 1880.
At all times, Great Britain treated its representative institutions as
unique unto itself. Its policies on the Continent were always justified in
terms of the British national interest and not ideology. Whenever Great
Britain expressed sympathy for a revolution, as it did in Italy in 1848, it
did so on eminently practical grounds. Thus, Palmerston approvingly
quoted Canning’s own pragmatic adage: “That those who have checked
improvement because it is innovation, will one day or other be com-
pelled to accept innovation when it has ceased to be improvement.” 39
But this was advice based on experience, not a call for the dissemination
of British values or institutions. Throughout the nineteenth century, Great
Britain judged other countries by their foreign policies and, but for a brief
Gladstonian interlude, remained indifferent to their domestic structures.
Though Great Britain and America shared a certain aloofness from day-
to-day involvement in international affairs, Great Britain justified its own
version of isolationism on dramatically different grounds. America pro-
claimed its democratic institutions as an example for the rest of the world;
Great Britain treated its parliamentary institutions as devoid of relevance
to other societies. America came to believe that the spread of democracy
would ensure peace; indeed, that a reliable peace could be achieved in
no other way. Great Britain might prefer a particular domestic structure
but would run no risks on its behalf.
In 1848, Palmerston subordinated Great Britain’s historic misgivings
about the overthrow of the French monarchy and the emergence of a
new Bonaparte by invoking this practical rule of British statecraft: “The
invariable principle on which England acts is to acknowledge as the organ
of every nation that organ which each nation may deliberately choose to
have.” 40
Palmerston was the principal architect of Great Britain’s foreign policy
for nearly thirty years. In 1841, Metternich analyzed his pragmatic style
with cynical admiration:
. . . what does Lord Palmerston then want? He wants to make France feel
the power of England, by proving to her that the Egyptian affair will
only finish as he may wish, and without France having any right to take
a hand. He wants to prove to the two German powers that he does not
need them, that Russia’s help suffices for England. He wants to keep
Russia in check and drag her in his train by her permanent anxiety of
seeing England draw near to France again. 41
It was not an inaccurate description of what Great Britain understood by
the balance of power. In the end, it enabled Great Britain to traverse the
century with only one relatively short war with another major power —
the Crimean War. Although it was far from anyone’s intent when the war
started, it was, however, precisely the Crimean War which led to the
collapse of the Metternich order, forged so painstakingly at the Congress
of Vienna. The disintegration of unity among the three Eastern monarchs
removed the moral element of moderation from European diplomacy.
Fifteen years of turmoil followed before a new and much more precari-
ous stability emerged.
Two Revolutionaries:
Napoleon III and Bismarck
The collapse of the Metternich system in the wake of the Crimean War
produced nearly two decades of conflict: the war of Piedmont and France
against Austria of 1859, the war over Schleswig-Holstein of 1864, the
Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Out of
this turmoil, a new balance of power emerged in Europe. France, which
had participated in three of the wars and encouraged the others, lost its
position of predominance to Germany. Even more importantly, the moral
restraints of the Metternich system disappeared. This upheaval became
symbolized by the use of a new term for unrestrained balance-of-power
policy: the German word Realpolitik replaced the French term raison
d'etat without, however, changing its meaning.
The new European order was the handiwork of two rather unlikely
collaborators who eventually became arch-adversaries — Emperor Napo-
leon III and Otto von Bismarck. These two men ignored Metternich’s old
pieties: that in the interest of stability the legitimate crowned heads of the
states of Europe had to be preserved, that national and liberal movements
had to be suppressed, and that, above all, relations among states had to
be determined by consensus among like-minded rulers. They based their
policy on Realpolitik — the notion that relations among states are deter-
mined by raw power and that the mighty will prevail.
The nephew of the great Bonaparte who had ravaged Europe, Napo-
leon III had been in his youth a member of Italian secret societies fighting
against Austrian dominance in Italy. Elected President in 1848 , Napoleon,
as a result of a coup, had himself declared Emperor in 1852 . Otto von
Bismarck was the scion of an eminent Prussian family and a passionate
opponent of the liberal Revolution of 1848 in Prussia. Bismarck became
Ministerprasident (Prime Minister) in 1862 only because the reluctant
King saw no other recourse to overcome a deadlock with a fractious
Parliament over military appropriations.
Between them, Napoleon III and Bismarck managed to overturn the
Vienna settlement, most significantly the sense of self-restraint which em-
anated from a shared belief in conservative values. No two more disparate
personalities than Bismarck and Napoleon III could be imagined. The
Iron Chancellor and the Sphinx of the Tuileries were united in their
aversion to the Vienna system. Both felt that the order established by
Metternich at Vienna in 1815 was an albatross. Napoleon III hated the
Vienna system because it had been expressly designed to contain France.
Though Napoleon III did not have the megalomanic ambitions of his
uncle, this enigmatic leader felt that France was entitled to an occasional
territorial gain and did not want a united Europe standing in his way. He
furthermore thought that nationalism and liberalism were values that the
world identified with France, and that the Vienna system, by repressing
them, put a rein on his ambitions. Bismarck resented Metternich’s handi-
work because it locked Prussia into being Austria’s junior partner in the
German Confederation, and he was convinced that the Confederation
preserved so many tiny German sovereigns that it shackled Prussia. If
Prussia were going to realize its destiny and unify Germany, the Vienna
system had to be destroyed.
While sharing a mutual disdain for the established order, the two revo-
lutionaries ended up at diametrically opposite poles in terms of their
achievements. Napoleon brought about the reverse of what he set out to
accomplish. Fancying himself the destroyer of the Vienna settlement and
the inspiration of European nationalism, he threw European diplomacy
into a state of turmoil from which France gained nothing in the long run
and other nations benefited. Napoleon made possible the unification of
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
Italy and unintentionally abetted the unification of Germany, two events
which weakened France geopolitically and destroyed the historical basis
for the dominant French influence in Central Europe. Thwarting either
event would have been beyond France’s capabilities, yet Napoleon’s er-
ratic policy did much to accelerate the process while simultaneously
dissipating France’s capacity to shape the new international order ac-
cording to its long-term interests. Napoleon tried to wreck the Vienna
system because he thought it isolated France — which to some extent was
true — yet by the time his rule had ended in 1870, France was more
isolated than it had been during the Metternich period.
Bismarck’s legacy was quite the opposite. Few statesmen have so al-
tered the course of history. Before Bismarck took office, German unity
was expected to occur through the kind of parliamentary, constitutional
government which had been the thrust of the Revolution of 1848. Five
years later, Bismarck was well on his way to solving the problem of
German unification, which had confounded three generations of Ger-
mans, but he did so on the basis of the pre-eminence of Prussian power,
not through a process of democratic constitutionalism. Bismarck’s solu-
tion had never been advocated by any significant constituency. Too
democratic for conservatives, too authoritarian for liberals, too power-
oriented for legitimists, the new Germany was tailored to a genius who
proposed to direct the forces he had unleashed, both foreign and domes-
tic, by manipulating their antagonisms — a task he mastered but which
proved beyond the capacity of his successors.
During his lifetime, Napoleon III was called the “Sphinx of the Tuileries”
because he was believed to be hatching vast and brilliant designs, the
nature of which no one could discern until they gradually unfolded. He
was deemed to be enigmatically clever for having ended France’s diplo-
matic isolation under the Vienna system and for having triggered the
disintegration of the Holy Alliance by means of the Crimean War. Only
one European leader, Otto von Bismarck, saw through him from the
beginning. In the 1850s, his sardonic description of Napoleon had been-.
“His intelligence is overrated at the expense of his sentimentality.”
Like his uncle, Napoleon III was obsessed by his lack of legitimate
credentials. Though he considered himself a revolutionary, he yearned
to be accepted by the legitimate kings of Europe. Of course, had the Holy
Alliance still had its original convictions, it would have tried to overthrow
the republican institutions which had replaced French royal rule in 1848.
The bloody excesses of the French Revolution were still within living
memory but so, too, was the fact that foreign intervention in France had
unleashed French revolutionary armies on the nations of Europe in 1792.
At the same time, an identical fear of foreign intervention had made
republican France loath to export her revolution. Out of this stalemate of
inhibitions, the conservative powers reluctantly brought themselves to
recognize republican France, which was ruled first by the poet and states-
man Alphonse de Lamartine, then by Napoleon as elected President, and,
finally, by Napoleon “III” as Emperor, in 1852, after his coup the previous
December to overturn the constitutional prohibition against his re-elec-
No sooner had Napoleon III proclaimed the Second Empire than the
question of recognition arose again. This time it concerned whether to
recognize Napoleon as Emperor, since the Vienna settlement had spe-
cifically proscribed the Bonaparte family from the French throne. Austria
was the first to accept what could not be changed. The Austrian Ambassa-
dor to Paris, Baron Hubner, reported a characteristically cynical comment
from his chief, Prince Schwarzenberg, dated December 31, 1851, that
underlined the end of the Metternich era: “ ‘The days of principles are
gone.’ ” J
Napoleon’s next big worry was whether the other monarchs would
address him with the appellation “brother,” which they used toward each
other, or some lesser form of address. In the end, the Austrian and
Prussian monarchs yielded to Napoleon’s preference, though Tsar Nicho-
las I remained adamant, refusing to go beyond the address of “friend.”
Given the Tsar’s views of revolutionaries, he no doubt felt he had already
rewarded Napoleon beyond his due. Hubner recorded the injured feel-
ings in the Tuileries:
One has the feeling of being snubbed by the old continental courts.
This is the worm that eats at the heart of Emperor Napoleon. 2
Whether these snubs were real or imagined, they revealed the gulf be-
tween Napoleon and the other European monarchs, which was one of
the psychological roots of Napoleon’s reckless and relentless assault on
European diplomacy.
The irony of Napoleon’s life was that he was much better suited for
domestic policy, which basically bored him, than he was for foreign
adventures, for which he lacked both the daring and the insight. When-
ever he took a breather from his self-appointed revolutionary mission,
Napoleon made major contributions to France’s development. He
brought the Industrial Revolution to France. His encouragement of large
credit institutions played a crucial role in France’s economic develop-
ment. And he rebuilt Paris into its grandiose modern appearance. In the
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
early nineteenth century, Paris was still a medieval city with narrow,
winding streets. Napoleon provided his close adviser, Baron Haussmann,
with the authority and the budget to create the modern city of broad
boulevards, great public buildings, and sweeping vistas. That one purpose
of the broad avenues was to provide a clear field of fire to discourage
revolutions does not detract from the magnificence and the permanence
of the achievement.
But foreign policy was Napoleon’s passion, and there he found himself
torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he realized he would
never be able to fulfill his quest for legitimacy, because a monarch’s
legitimacy is a birthright that cannot be conferred. On the other hand, he
did not really want to go down in history as a legitimist. He had been
an Italian Carbonari (independence fighter), and considered himself a
defender of national self-determination. At the same time, he was averse
to running great risks. Napoleon’s ultimate goal was to abrogate the terri-
torial clauses of the Vienna settlement and to alter the state system on
which it had been based. But he never understood that achieving his goal
would also result in a unified Germany, which would forever end French
aspirations to dominate Central Europe.
The erratic nature of his policy was therefore a reflection of his per-
sonal ambivalence. Distrustful of his “brother” monarchs, Napoleon was
driven to dependence on public opinion, and his policy fluctuated with
his assessment of what was needed to sustain his popularity. In 1857, the
ubiquitous Baron Hubner wrote to the Austrian Emperor:
In his [Napoleon’s] eyes foreign policy is only an instrument he uses to
secure his rule in France, to legitimize his throne, to found his dynasty.
. . . [H]e would not shrink from any means, from any combination which
suited itself to making him popular at home . 3
In the process, Napoleon made himself the prisoner of crises he had
himself engineered, because he lacked the inner compass to keep him
on course. Time and again, he would encourage a crisis — now in Italy,
now in Poland, later in Germany — only to recoil before its ultimate con-
sequences. He possessed his uncle’s ambition but not his nerve, genius,
or, for that matter, raw power. He supported Italian nationalism as long
as it was confined to Northern Italy, and advocated Polish independence
as long as it involved no risk of war. As for Germany, he simply did not
know on which side to place his bet. Having expected a protracted strug-
gle between Austria and Prussia, Napoleon made himself ridiculous by
asking Prussia, the victor, to compensate him after the event for his own
inability to discern the winner.
What most suited Napoleon’s style was a European Congress to redraw
the map of Europe, for there he might shine at minimum risk. Nor did
Napoleon have any clear idea of just how he wanted the borders altered.
In any event, no other Great Power was willing to arrange such a forum
to accommodate his domestic needs. No nation agrees to redraw its
borders — especially to its own disadvantage — unless there is an over-
whelming necessity to do so. As it turned out, the only Congress at which
Napoleon presided — the Congress of Paris, which ended the Crimean
War — did not redraw the map of Europe; it merely ratified what had
been achieved in the war. Russia was forbidden to maintain a navy in the
Black Sea and was thus deprived of a defensive capability against another
British assault. Russia was also forced to return Bessarabia and the terri-
tory of Kars, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, to Turkey. Additionally,
the Tsar was compelled to renounce his claim to be the Protector of the
Ottoman Christians, which had been the immediate cause of the war. The
Congress of Paris symbolized the splintering of the Holy Alliance, but no
participant was prepared to undertake the revision of the map of Europe.
Napoleon never succeeded in assembling another congress to redraw
the map of Europe, for one basic reason, which the British ambassador,
Lord Clarendon, pointed out to him: a country that seeks great changes
and lacks the willingness to run great risks dooms itself to futility.
I see that the idea of a European Congress is germinating in the Em-
peror’s mind, and with it the arrondissement of the French frontier,
the abolition of obsolete Treaties, and other remaniements as may be
necessary. I improvised a longish catalogue of dangers and difficulties
that such a Congress would entail, unless its decisions were unanimous,
which was not probable, or one or two of the strongest Powers were to
go to war for what they wanted . 4
Palmerston once summed up Napoleon’s statesmanship by saying:
. . ideas proliferated in his head like rabbits in a hutch .” 5 The trouble
was that these ideas did not relate to any overriding concept. In the
disarray of the collapsing Metternich system, France had two strategic
options. It could pursue the policy of Richelieu and strive to keep Central
Europe divided. This option would have required Napoleon to subordi-
nate his revolutionary convictions, at least within Germany, in favor of
the existing legitimate rulers, who were eager to maintain the fragmenta-
tion of Central Europe. Or Napoleon could have put himself at the head
of a republican crusade, as his uncle had done, in the expectation that
France would thereby gain the gratitude of the nationalists and perhaps
even the political leadership of Europe.
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
Unfortunately for France, Napoleon pursued both strategies simultane-
ously. An advocate of national self-determination, he seemed oblivious to
the geopolitical risk this position posed for France in Central Europe. He
supported the Polish Revolution but recoiled when confronted by its
consequences. He opposed the Vienna settlement as an affront to France
without understanding until it was too late that the Vienna world order
was the best available security guarantee for France as well.
For the German Confederation was designed to act as a unit only
against an overwhelming external danger. Its component states were ex-
plicitly forbidden to join together for offensive purposes, and would
never have been able to agree on an offensive strategy — as was shown by
the fact that the subject had never even been broached in the half-century
of the Confederation’s existence. France’s Rhine frontier, inviolable so
long as the Vienna settlement was intact, would not prove to be secure
for a century after the collapse of the Confederation, which Napoleon’s
policy made possible.
Napoleon never grasped this key element of French security. As late as
the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 — the conflict which
ended the Confederation — he wrote to the Austrian Emperor:
I must confess that it was not without a certain satisfaction that I wit-
nessed the dissolution of the German Confederation organized mainly
against France. 6
The Habsburg responded far more perceptively: “. . . the German Confed-
eration, organized with purely defensive motives, had never, during the
half-century of its existence, given its neighbors cause for alarm.” 7 The
alternative to the German Confederation was not Richelieu’s fragmented
Central Europe but a unified Germany with a population exceeding that
of France and an industrial capacity soon to overshadow it. By attacking
the Vienna settlement, Napoleon was transforming a defensive obstacle
into a potential offensive threat to French security.
A statesman’s test is whether he can discern from the swirl of tactical
decisions the true long-term interests of his country and devise an appro-
priate strategy for achieving them. Napoleon could have basked in the
acclaim given to his clever tactics during the Crimean War (which were
helped along by Austrian shortsightedness), and in the increased diplo-
matic options now opening before him. France’s interest would have
been to stay close to Austria and Great Britain, the two countries most
likely to sustain the territorial settlement of Central Europe.
The Emperor’s policy, however, was largely idiosyncratic and driven
by his mercurial nature. As a Bonaparte, he never felt comfortable cooper-
ating with Austria, whatever raison d’etat might dictate. In 1858, Napoleon
told a Piedmontese diplomat: “Austria is a cabinet for whom I have always
felt, and still feel, the most lively repugnance.” 8 His penchant for revolu-
tionary projects caused him to go to war with Austria over Italy in 1859-
Napoleon alienated Great Britain by annexing Savoy and Nice in the
aftermath of the war as well as by his repeated proposals for a European
Congress to redraw the frontiers of Europe. To complete his isolation,
Napoleon sacrificed his option of allying France with Russia by supporting
the Polish Revolution in 1863. Having brought European diplomacy to a
state of flux under the banner of national self-determination, Napoleon
now suddenly found himself alone when, out of the turmoil he had done
so much to cause, a German nation materialized to spell the end of
French primacy in Europe.
The Emperor made his first post-Crimea move in Italy in 1859, three
years after the Congress of Paris. Nobody had expected Napoleon to
return to the vocation of his youth in seeking to liberate Northern Italy
from Austrian rule. France would have had little to gain from such an
adventure. If it succeeded, it would create a state in a much stronger
position to block the traditional French invasion route; if it failed, the
humiliation would be compounded by the vagueness of the objective.
And whether it succeeded or failed, French armies in Italy would disquiet
For all these reasons, the British Ambassador, Lord Henry Cowley, was
convinced that a French war in Italy was beyond all probability. “It is not
in his interests to fight a war,” Hiibner reported Cowley as saying. “The
alliance with England, although shaken for a moment, and still quite
dormant, remains the basis of Napoleon Ill’s policy.” 9 Some three de-
cades later, Hiibner was to offer these reflections:
We could scarcely comprehend that this man, having reached the pin-
nacle of honor, unless he was mad, or afflicted with the madness of
gamblers, seriously could consider, having no understandable motive,
joining in another adventure . 10
Yet Napoleon surprised all the diplomats with the exception of his ulti-
mate nemesis, Bismarck, who had predicted a French war against Austria
and indeed hoped for it as a means of weakening Austria’s position in
In July 1858, Napoleon concluded a secret understanding with Camillo
Benso di Cavour, the Prime Minister of Piedmont (Sardinia), the strongest
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
Italian state, to cooperate in a war against Austria. It was a purely Machia-
vellian move in which Cavour would unify Northern Italy and Napoleon
would receive as his reward Nice and Savoy from Piedmont. By May 1859,
a suitable pretext had been found. Austria, always short of steady nerves,
permitted itself to be provoked by Piedmontese harassment into declar-
ing war. Napoleon let it be known that this amounted to a declaration of
war against France, and launched his armies into Italy.
Oddly enough, in Napoleon’s time, when Frenchmen talked of the
consolidation of nation-states as the wave of the future, they thought
primarily of Italy and not of the much stronger Germany. The French had
a sympathy and cultural affinity for Italy that was lacking vis-a-vis their
ominous Eastern neighbor. In addition, the mighty economic boom
which was to take Germany to the forefront of the European Powers was
only just beginning; hence it was not yet obvious that Italy would be any
less powerful than Germany. Prussia’s cautiousness during the Crimean
War strengthened Napoleon’s view that Prussia was the weakest of the
Great Powers and incapable of strong action without Russian support.
Thus, in Napoleon’s mind, an Italian war weakening Austria would reduce
the power of France’s most dangerous German opponent and enhance
France’s significance in Italy — an egregious misjudgment on both
Napoleon kept open two contradictory options. In the better case,
Napoleon could play European statesman: Northern Italy would throw off
the Austrian yoke, and the European Powers would gather at a congress
under Napoleon’s sponsorship and agree to the large-scale territorial
revisions he had failed to achieve at the Congress of Paris. In the worse
case, the war would reach a stalemate and Napoleon would play the
Machiavellian manipulator of raison d’etat, gaining some advantage from
Austria at Piedmont’s expense in return for ending the war.
Napoleon pursued the two objectives simultaneously. French armies
were victorious at Magenta and Solferino but unleashed such a tide of
anti-French sentiment in Germany that, for a time, it appeared as if the
smaller German states, fearing a new Napoleonic onslaught, would force
Prussia to intervene on Austria’s side. Jolted by this first sign of German
nationalism and shaken by his visit to the battlefield at Solferino, Napo-
leon concluded an armistice with Austria at Villafranca on July 11, 1859,
without informing his Piedmontese allies.
Not only had Napoleon failed to achieve either of his objectives, he had
seriously weakened his country’s position in the international arena.
Henceforth, the Italian nationalists would carry the principles he had
espoused to lengths he had never envisioned. Napoleon’s goal of estab-
lishing a medium-sized satellite in an Italy divided into perhaps five states
annoyed Piedmont, which was not about to abandon its national vocation.
Austria remained as adamant about holding on to Venetia as Napoleon
was about returning it to Italy, creating yet another insoluble dispute
involving no conceivable French interest. Great Britain interpreted the
annexation of Savoy and Nice as the beginning of another period of
Napoleonic conquests and refused all French initiatives for Napoleon’s
favorite obsession of holding a European congress. And all the while,
German nationalists saw in Europe’s turmoil a window of opportunity to
advance their own hopes for national unity.
Napoleon’s conduct during the Polish revolt of 1863 advanced his jour-
ney into isolation. Reviving the Bonaparte tradition of friendship with
Poland, Napoleon first tried to convince Russia to make some concessions
to its rebellious subjects. But the Tsar would not even discuss such a
proposal. Next, Napoleon tried to organize a joint effort with Great Brit-
ain, but Palmerston was too wary of the mercurial French Emperor. Fi-
nally, Napoleon turned to Austria with the proposition that it give up its
own Polish provinces to a not-yet-created Polish state and Venetia to Italy,
while seeking compensation in Silesia and the Balkans. The idea held no
obvious appeal for Austria, which was being asked to risk war with Prussia
and Russia for the privilege of seeing a French satellite emerge on its
Frivolity is a costly indulgence for a statesman, and its price must
eventually be paid. Actions geared to the mood of the moment and unre-
lated to any overall strategy cannot be sustained indefinitely. Under Napo-
leon, France lost influence over the internal arrangements of Germany,
which had been the mainstay of French policy since Richelieu. Whereas
Richelieu had understood that a weak Central Europe was the key to
French security, Napoleon’s policy, driven by his quest for publicity, con-
centrated on the periphery of Europe, the only place where gains could
be made at minimum risk. With the center of gravity of European policy
moving toward Germany, France found itself alone.
An ominous event occurred in 1864. For the first time since the Con-
gress of Vienna, Austria and Prussia jointly disrupted the tranquillity of
Central Europe, starting a war on behalf of a German cause against a non-
German power. The issue at hand was the future of the Elbe duchies of
Schleswig and Holstein, which were dynastically linked to the Danish
crown but were also members of the German Confederation. The death
of the Danish ruler had produced such a complex tangle of political,
dynastic, and national issues that Palmerston was prompted to quip that
only three people had ever understood it: of these, one was dead, the
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
second was in a lunatic asylum, and he himself was the third but he had
forgotten it.
The substance of the dispute was far less important than the coalition
of two key German states waging war on tiny Denmark in order to force
it to relinquish two ancient German territories linked with the Danish
crown. It proved that Germany was capable of offensive action after all
and that, should Confederation machinery turn out to be too cumber-
some, the two German superpowers might simply ignore it.
According to the traditions of the Vienna system, at this point the Great
Powers should have assembled in Congress to restore an approximation
of the status quo ante. Yet Europe was now in disarray largely due to the
actions of the French Emperor. Russia was not prepared to antagonize
the two countries which had stood aside while it quelled the Polish revolt.
Great Britain was uneasy about the attack on Denmark but would need a
Continental ally to intervene, and France, its only feasible partner, in-
spired little confidence.
History, ideology, and raison d'etat should have warned Napoleon that
events would soon develop a momentum of their own. Yet he wavered
between upholding the principles of traditional French foreign policy,
which was designed to keep Germany divided, and supporting the princi-
ple of nationality, which had been the inspiration of his youth. French
Foreign Minister Drouyn de Lhuys wrote to La Tour d’Auvergne, the
French Ambassador to London:
Placed between the rights of a country for which we have long sympa-
thized, and the aspirations of the German population, which we equally
have to take into account, we have to act with a greater degree of
circumspection than does England . 11
The responsibility of statesmen, however, is to resolve complexity rather
than to contemplate it. For leaders unable to choose among their alterna-
tives, circumspection becomes an alibi for inaction. Napoleon had be-
come convinced of the wisdom of inaction, enabling Prussia and Austria
to settle the future of the Elbe duchies. They detached Schleswig-Holstein
from Denmark and occupied them jointly while the rest of Europe stood
by — a solution which would have been unthinkable under the Metternich
system. France’s nightmare of German unity was approaching, something
Napoleon had been dodging for a decade.
Bismarck was not about to share the leadership of Germany. He turned
the joint war for Schleswig-Holstein into another of Austria’s seemingly
endless series of blunders, which for a decade marked the progressive
erosion of its position as a Great Power. The reason these errors occurred
was always the same — Austria’s appeasing a self-proclaimed opponent by
offering to cooperate with it. The strategy of appeasement worked no
better with Prussia than it had a decade earlier, during the Crimean War,
vis-a-vis France. Far from buying Austria’s release from Prussian pres-
sures, the joint victory over Denmark provided a new and highly disad-
vantageous forum for harassment. Austria was now left to administer the
Elbe duchies with a Prussian ally whose Prime Minister, Bismarck, was
determined to use the opportunity to bring about a long-desired show-
down in a territory hundreds of miles from Austrian soil and adjoining
Prussia’s principal possessions.
As the tension mounted, Napoleon’s ambivalence came into sharper
focus. He dreaded German unification but was sympathetic to German
nationalism and dithered about solving that insoluble dilemma. He con-
sidered Prussia the most genuinely national German state, writing in I860
Prussia personifies the German nationality, religious reform, commer-
cial progress, liberal constitutionalism. It is the largest of the truly
German monarchies; it has more freedom of conscience, more enlight-
enment, grants more political rights, than most other German states . 12
Bismarck would have subscribed to every word. However, for Bismarck,
Napoleon’s affirmation of Prussia’s unique position was the key to Prus-
sia’s eventual triumph. In the end, Napoleon’s avowed admiration for
Prussia amounted to one more alibi for doing nothing. Rationalizing
indecision as so much clever maneuvering, Napoleon in fact encouraged
an Austro-Prussian war, partly because he was convinced that Prussia
would lose. He told Alexandre Walewski, his erstwhile Foreign Minister,
in December 1865: “Believe me dear friend, war between Austria and
Prussia constitutes one of those unhoped-for eventualities which can
bring us more than one advantage.” 13 Curiously, in the course of Napo-
leon’s encouragement of the drift toward war, he never seemed to have
asked himself why Bismarck was so determined on war if Prussia was so
likely to be defeated.
Four months before the Austro-Prussian War started, Napoleon went
beyond the tacit to the explicit. In effect urging war, he told the Prussian
Ambassador to Paris, Count von der Goltz, in February 1866:
I ask you to tell the King [of Prussia] that he can always count on my
amity. In case of a conflict between Prussia and Austria, I will maintain
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
the most absolute neutrality. I desire the reunion of the Duchies
[Schleswig-Holstein] with Prussia Should the struggle take on di-
mensions that one can’t yet foresee, I am convinced that I could always
reach an understanding with Prussia, whose interests in a great number
of questions are identical with those of France, while I see no turf on
which I could agree with Austria . 14
What did Napoleon really want? Was he convinced of the likelihood of a
stalemate that would enhance his bargaining position? He was clearly
hoping for some Prussian concessions in exchange for his neutrality.
Bismarck understood this game. If Napoleon remained neutral, he of-
fered to take a benevolent attitude to French seizure of Belgium, which
would have had the additional benefit of embroiling France with Great
Britain. Napoleon probably did not take this offer too seriously since he
expected Prussia to lose; his moves were designed more to keep Prussia
on its course to war than to bargain for benefits. Some years later, Count
Armand, the French Foreign Minister’s top assistant, admitted:
The only worry that we had at the Foreign Office was that Prussia
would be crushed and humiliated to too great an extent, and we were
determined to prevent this through timely intervention. The Emperor
wanted to let Prussia be defeated, then to intervene and to construct
Germany according to his fantasies . 15
What Napoleon had in mind was an updating of Richelieu’s machinations.
Prussia was expected to offer France compensation in the West for extri-
cation from its defeat, Venetia would be given to Italy, and a new German
arrangement would result in the creation of a North German Confedera-
tion under Prussian auspices and a South German grouping supported
by France and Austria. The only thing wrong with this scheme was that,
whereas the Cardinal knew how to judge the relation of forces and
was willing to fight for his judgments, Napoleon was prepared to do
Napoleon procrastinated, hoping for a turn of events that would pre-
sent him with his deepest desires at no risk. The device he used was his
standard ploy of calling for a European congress to avert the threat of
war. The reaction by now was equally standard. The other powers, fearful
of Napoleon’s designs, refused to attend. Wherever he turned, his di-
lemma awaited him: he could defend the status quo by abandoning his
support of the nationality principle; or he could encourage revisionism
and nationalism and in the process jeopardize the national interests of
France as they had been historically conceived. Napoleon sought refuge
in hinting to Prussia about “compensations” without specifying what they
were, which convinced Bismarck that French neutrality was a question of
price, not principle. Goltz wrote to Bismarck:
The only difficulty that the Emperor finds in a common stand of Prussia,
France and Italy in a congress is the lack of a compensation to be
offered to France. One knows what we want; one knows what Italy
wants; but the Emperor can’t say what France wants, and we can’t offer
him any suggestion in this regard. 16
Great Britain made its attendance at the Congress dependent on a prior
French agreement to the status quo . Instead of seizing upon this conse-
cration of the German arrangements which owed so much to French
leadership and to which France owed its security, Napoleon backed off,
insisting that, “to maintain the peace, it is necessary to take into account
the national passions and requirements.” 17 In short, Napoleon was willing
to risk an Austro-Prussian war and a unified Germany in order to gain
vague spoils in Italy, which affected no real French national interests, and
for gains in Western Europe, which he was reluctant to specify. But in
Bismarck he was up against a master who insisted on the power of reali-
ties, and who exploited for his own ends the cosmetic maneuvers at
which Napoleon excelled.
There were French leaders who understood the risks Napoleon was
running, and who realized that the so-called compensation he was aiming
for involved no basic French interest. In a brilliant speech on May 3, 1866,
Adolphe Thiers, a staunch republican opponent of Napoleon and later
President of France, predicted correctly that Prussia was likely to emerge
as the dominant force in Germany:
One will see a return of the Empire of Charles V, which formerly
resided in Vienna, and now will reside in Berlin which will be close to
our border, and will apply pressure to it — You have a right to resist
this policy in the name of the interest of France, for France is too
important for such a revolution not to menace her gravely. And when
she had struggled for two centuries ... to destroy this colossus, is she
prepared to watch as it re-establishes itself before her eyes?! 18
Thiers argued that, in place of Napoleon’s vague musings, France should
adopt a clear policy of opposition to Prussia and invoke as a pretext the
defense of the independence of the German states — the old Richelieu
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
formula. France, he claimed, had the right to resist German unification
“first in the name of the independence of the German states . . . second,
in the name of her own independence, and, finally in the name of the
European balance, which is the interest of all, the interest of universal
society Today one tries to heap ridicule on the term ‘European bal-
ance’ . . . but, what is the European balance? It is the independence of
Europe.” 19
It was nearly too late to head off the war between Prussia and Austria
that would irrevocably alter the European balance. Analytically, Thiers
was correct but the premises for such a policy ought to have been estab-
lished a decade earlier. Even now, Bismarck might have been brought up
short if France had issued a strong warning that it would not permit
Austria to be defeated or traditional principalities like the Kingdom of
Hanover to be destroyed. But Napoleon rejected such a course because
he expected Austria to win, and because he seemed to prize undoing the
Vienna settlement and fulfilling the Bonaparte tradition above any analysis
of historic French national interests. He replied to Thiers three days later:
“I detest those treaties of 1815 which nowadays people want to make the
sole basis of our policy.” 20
Little more than a month after Thiers’s speech, Prussia and Austria were
at war. Against all Napoleon’s expectations, Prussia won decisively and
quickly. By the rules of Richelieu’s diplomacy, Napoleon should have
assisted the loser and prevented a clear-cut Prussian victory. But, though
he moved an army corps of “observation” to the Rhine, he dithered.
Bismarck threw Napoleon the sop of letting him mediate the peace,
though this empty gesture could not obscure France’s growing irrele-
vance to German arrangements. At the Treaty of Prague of August 1866,
Austria was forced to withdraw from Germany. Two states, Hanover and
Hesse-Cassel, which had sided with Austria during the war, were annexed
by Prussia along with Schleswig-Holstein and the free city of Frankfurt.
By deposing their rulers, Bismarck made it clear that Prussia, once a
linchpin of the Holy Alliance, had abandoned legitimacy as the guiding
principle of the international order.
The North German states which retained their independence were
incorporated into Bismarck’s new creation, the North German Confedera-
tion, subject to Prussian leadership in everything from trade legislation to
foreign policy. The South German states of Bavaria, Baden, and Wurttem-
berg were allowed to retain their independence at the price of treaties
with Prussia that brought their armies under Prussian military leadership
in the event of a war with an outside power. The unification of Germany
was now just one crisis away.
Napoleon had maneuvered his country into a dead end from which
extrication proved impossible. Too late, he tried for an alliance with
Austria, which he had expelled from Italy by military action and from
Germany by neutrality. But Austria had lost interest in recovering either
position, preferring to concentrate first on rebuilding its empire as a dual
monarchy based in Vienna and Budapest, and then on its possessions in
the Balkans. Great Britain was put off by France’s designs on Luxembourg
and Belgium; and Russia never forgave Napoleon his conduct over Po-
France was now obliged to tend to the collapse of its historic European
pre-eminence all by itself. The more hopeless its position, the more
Napoleon sought to recoup it by some brilliant move, like a gambler who
doubles his bet after each loss. Bismarck had encouraged Napoleon’s
neutrality in the Austro-Prussian War by dangling before him the prospect
of territorial acquisitions — first in Belgium, then in Luxembourg. These
prospects vanished whenever Napoleon tried to snatch them because
Napoleon wanted his “compensation” handed to him, and because Bis-
marck saw no reason to run risks when he had already harvested the
fruits of Napoleon’s indecisiveness.
Humiliated by these demonstrations of impotence, and above all by
the increasingly obvious tilt of the European balance against France, Na-
poleon sought to compensate for his miscalculation that Austria would
win the Austro-Prussian War by making an issue of the succession to the
Spanish throne, which had become vacant. He demanded an assurance
from the Prussian King that no Hohenzollern prince (the Prussian dy-
nasty) would seek the throne. It was another empty gesture capable of
producing at best a prestige success without any relevance to the power
relationships in Central Europe.
Nobody ever outmaneuvered Bismarck in a fluid diplomacy. In one of
his craftier moves, Bismarck used Napoleon s posturing to lure him into
declaring war on Prussia in 1870. The French demand that the Prussian
King renounce any member of his family ever seeking the Spanish crown
was indeed provocative. But the stately old King William, rather than
losing his temper, patiently and correctly refused the French ambassador
sent to secure the pledge. The King sent his account of the affair to
Bismarck, who edited his telegram — taking out any language conveying
the patience and propriety with which the King had in fact treated the
French ambassador. 21 Bismarck, well ahead of his time, then resorted to
a technique which subsequent statesmen developed into an art form: he
leaked the so-called Ems Dispatch to the press. The edited version of the
King’s telegram looked like a royal snub of France. Outraged, the French
public demanded war, which Napoleon gave them.
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
Prussia won quickly and decisively with the assistance of all the other
German states. The road now lay clear for completing the unification of
Germany, proclaimed rather tactlessly by the Prussian leadership on Janu-
ary 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles.
Napoleon had wrought the revolution which he had sought, though its
consequences were quite the opposite of what he had intended. The
map of Europe had indeed been redrawn, but the new arrangement had
irreparably weakened France’s influence without bringing Napoleon the
renown he craved.
Napoleon had encouraged revolution without understanding its likely
outcome. Unable to assess the relationship of forces and to enlist it in
fulfilling his long-term goals. Napoleon failed this test. His foreign policy
collapsed not because he lacked ideas but because he was unable to
establish any order among his multitude of aspirations or any relationship
between them and the reality emerging all around him. Questing for
publicity, Napoleon never had a single line of policy to guide him. In-
stead, he was driven by a web of objectives, some of them quite contradic-
tory. When he confronted the crucial crisis of his career, the various
impulses canceled each other out.
Napoleon saw the Metternich system as humiliating to France and as a
constraint upon its ambitions. He was successful in disrupting the Holy
Alliance by driving a wedge between Austria and Russia during the Cri-
mean War. But he did not know what to do with his triumph. From 1853
to 1871 relative chaos prevailed as the European order was reorganized.
When this period ended, Germany emerged as the strongest power on
the Continent. Legitimacy — the principle of the unity of conservative rul-
ers that had mitigated the harshness of the balance-of-power system dur-
ing the Metternich years — turned into an empty slogan. Napoleon himself
had contributed to all these developments. Overestimating France’s
strength, he had encouraged every upheaval, convinced that he could
turn it to France’s benefit.
In the end, international politics came to be based on raw power. And
in such a world, there was an inherent gap between France’s image of
itself as the dominant nation of Europe and its capacity to live up to it —
a gap that has blighted French policy to this day. During Napoleon’s reign,
this was evidenced by the Emperor’s inability to implement his endless
proposals for holding a European congress to revise the map of Europe.
Napoleon called for a congress after the Crimean War in 1856, before the
Italian War in 1859, during the Polish revolt in 1863, during the Danish
War in 1864, and before the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 — always seeking
to gain at the conference table the revision of frontiers which he never
precisely defined and for which he was not prepared to run the risk of
war. Napoleon’s problem was that he was not strong enough to insist,
and that his schemes were too radical to command consensus.
France’s penchant for associating with countries ready to accept its
leadership has been a constant factor in French foreign policy since the
Crimean War. Unable to dominate an alliance with Great Britain, Ger-
many, Russia, or the United States, and considering junior status incom-
patible with its notions of national grandeur and its messianic role in the
world, France has sought leadership in pacts with lesser powers — with
Sardinia, Romania, and the middle German states in the nineteenth cen-
tury, with Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania in the interwar pe-
The same attitude could be found in post-de Gaulle French foreign
policy. A century after the Franco-Prussian War, the problem of a more
powerful Germany remained France’s nightmare. France made the coura-
geous choice of seeking friendship with its feared and admired neighbor.
Nevertheless, geopolitical logic would have suggested that France seek
close ties with the United States — if only to increase its options. French
pride, however, prevented this from happening, leading France to search,
sometimes quixotically, for a grouping — occasionally almost any group-
ing — to balance the United States with a European consortium, even at
the price of eventual German pre-eminence. In the modern period,
France acted at times as a kind of parliamentary opposition to American
leadership, trying to build the European Community into an alternative
world leader and cultivating ties with nations it could dominate, or
thought it could dominate.
Since the end of Napoleon Ill’s reign, France has lacked the power to
impose the universalist aspirations it inherited from the French Revolu-
tion, or the arena to find an adequate outlet for its missionary zeal. For
over a century, France has been finding it difficult to accept the fact that
the objective conditions for the pre-eminence Richelieu had brought it
disappeared once national consolidation had been achieved in Europe.
Much of the prickly style of its diplomacy has been due to attempts by its
leaders to perpetuate its role as the center of European policy in an
environment increasingly uncongenial to such aspirations. It is ironic that
the country that invented raison d'etat should have had to occupy itself,
for the better part of a century, with trying to bring its aspirations in line
with its capabilities.
The destruction of the Vienna system, which Napoleon had begun, was
completed by Bismarck. Bismarck achieved political prominence as the
archconservative opponent of the liberal Revolution of 1848. He was also
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
the first leader to introduce universal male suffrage to Europe, along with
the most comprehensive system of social welfare the world would see
for sixty years. In 1848, Bismarck strenuously fought the elected Parlia-
ment’s offer of the German imperial crown to the Prussian King. But a
little more than two decades later, he himself would hand that imperial
crown to a Prussian king at the end of the process of unifying the German
nation on the basis of opposition to liberal principles, and of Prussia’s
capacity to impose its will by force. This astonishing achievement caused
the international order to revert to the unrestrained contests of the eigh-
teenth century, now made all the more dangerous by industrial technol-
ogy and the capacity to mobilize vast national resources. No longer was
there talk of the unity of crowned heads or of harmony among the ancient
states of Europe. Under Bismarck’s Realpolitik, foreign policy became a
contest of strength.
Bismarck’s accomplishments were as unexpected as his personality.
The man of “blood and iron” wrote prose of extraordinary simplicity and
beauty, loved poetry, and copied pages of Byron in his diary. The states-
man who extolled Realpolitik possessed an extraordinary sense of pro-
portion which turned power into an instrument of self-restraint.
What is a revolutionary? If the answer to that question were without
ambiguity, few revolutionaries would ever succeed. For revolutionaries
almost always start from a position of inferior strength. They prevail
because the established order is unable to grasp its own vulnerability.
This is especially true when the revolutionary challenge emerges not with
a march on the Bastille but in conservative garb. Few institutions have
defenses against those who evoke the expectation that they will preserve
So it was with Otto von Bismarck. His life began during the flowering
of the Metternich system, in a world consisting of three major elements:
the European balance of power; an internal German equilibrium between
Austria and Prussia; and a system of alliances based on the unity of conser-
vative values. For a generation after the Vienna settlement, international
tensions remained low because all the major states perceived a stake in
their mutual survival, and because the so-called Eastern Courts of Prussia,
Austria, and Russia were committed to each other’s values.
Bismarck challenged each of these premises. 22 He was convinced that
Prussia had become the strongest German state and did not need the
Holy Alliance as a link to Russia. In his view, shared national interests
would supply an adequate bond, and Prussian Realpolitik could substitute
for conservative unity. Bismarck considered Austria an obstacle to Prus-
sia’s German mission, not a partner in it. Contrary to the views of nearly
all his contemporaries, except perhaps the Piedmontese Prime Minister
Cavour, Bismarck treated Napoleon’s restless diplomacy as a strategic
opportunity rather than as a threat.
When Bismarck delivered a speech in 1850 attacking the conventional
wisdom that German unity required the establishment of parliamentary
institutions, his conservative supporters at first did not realize that what
they were hearing was above all a challenge to the conservative premises
of the Metternich system.
Prussia’s honor does not consist in our playing all over Germany the
Don Quixote for vexed parliamentary celebrities, who consider their
local constitution threatened. I seek Prussia’s honor in keeping Prussia
apart from any disgraceful connection with democracy and never ad-
mitting that anything occur in Germany without Prussia’s permis-
sion 23
On the surface, Bismarck’s attack on liberalism was an application of the
Metternich philosophy. Yet it contained a decisive difference in emphasis.
The Metternich system had been based on the premise that Prussia and
Austria shared a commitment to conservative institutions and needed
each other to defeat liberal democratic trends. Bismarck was implying
that Prussia could impose its preferences unilaterally; that Prussia could
be conservative at home without tying itself to Austria or any other conser-
vative state in foreign policy; and that it needed no alliances to cope with
domestic upheaval. In Bismarck, the Habsburgs faced the same challenge
with which Richelieu had presented them — a policy divorced from any
value system except the glory of the state. And, just as with Richelieu, they
did not know how to deal with it or even how to comprehend its nature.
But how was Prussia to sustain Realpolitik all alone in the center of the
Continent? Since 1815, Prussia’s answer had been adherence to the Holy
Alliance at almost any price; Bismarck’s answer was the exact opposite —
to forge alliances and relationships in all directions, so that Prussia would
always be closer to each of the contending parties than they were to one
another. In this manner, a position of seeming isolation would enable
Prussia to manipulate the commitments of the other powers and to sell
its support to the highest bidder.
In Bismarck’s view, Prussia would be in a strong position to implement
such a policy, because it had few foreign-policy interests other than en-
hancing its own position within Germany. Every other power had more
complicated involvements: Great Britain had not only its empire but the
overall balance of power to worry about; Russia was simultaneously press-
ing into Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Ottoman Empire; France had a
newfound empire, ambitions in Italy, and an adventure in Mexico on its
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
hands; and Austria was preoccupied with Italy and the Balkans, and with
its leadership role in the German Confederation. Because Prussia’s policy
was so focused on Germany, it really had no major disagreements with
any other power except Austria, and at that point the disagreement with
Austria was primarily in Bismarck’s own mind. Nonalignment, to use a
modern term, was the functional equivalent of Bismarck’s policy of selling
Prussia’s cooperation in what he perceived to be a seller’s market:
The present situation forces us not to commit ourselves in advance of
the other powers. We are not able to shape the relations of the Great
Powers to each other as we wish, but we can maintain freedom of
action to utilize to our advantage those relationships which do come
about. . . . Our relations to Austria, Britain and Russia do not furnish an
obstacle to a rapprochement with any of these powers. Only our rela-
tions with France require careful attention so that we keep open the
option of going with France as easily as with the other powers 24
This hint of rapprochement with Bonaparte France implied a readiness
to throw ideology to the wind — in order to free Prussia to ally itself with
any country (whatever its domestic institutions) that could advance its
interests. Bismarck’s policy marked a return to the principles of Richelieu,
who, though a Cardinal of the Church, had opposed the Catholic Holy
Roman Emperor when it was required by the interests of France. Simi-
larly, Bismarck, though conservative by personal conviction, parted com-
pany with his conservative mentors whenever it seemed that their
legitimist principles would constrain Prussia’s freedom of action.
This implicit disagreement came to a head when, in 1856, Bismarck,
then Prussian ambassador to the German Confederation, amplified his
view that Prussia be more forthcoming toward Napoleon III, who, in the
eyes of Prussia’s conservatives, was a usurper of the legitimate king’s
Putting Napoleon forward as a potential Prussian interlocutor went
beyond what Bismarck’s conservative constituency, which had launched
and fostered his diplomatic career, could tolerate. It greeted Bismarck’s
emerging philosophy with the same outraged disbelief among his erst-
while supporters that Richelieu had encountered two centuries earlier
when he had advanced the then revolutionary thesis that raison d'etat
should have precedence over religion, and the same which would in our
time greet Richard Nixon’s policy of detente with the Soviet Union. To
conservatives, Napoleon III spelled the threat of a new round of French
expansionism and, even more importantly, symbolized a reaffirmation of
the hated principles of the French Revolution.
Bismarck did not dispute the conservative analysis of Napoleon any
more than Nixon challenged the conservative interpretation of commu-
nist motives. Bismarck saw in the restless French ruler, as Nixon did in
the decrepit Soviet leadership (see chapter 28), both an opportunity and
a danger. He considered Prussia less vulnerable than Austria to either
French expansionism or revolution. Nor did Bismarck accept the prevail-
ing opinion of Napoleons cunning, noting sarcastically that the ability to
admire others was not his most highly developed trait. The more Austria
feared Napoleon, the more it would have to make concessions to Prussia,
and the greater would become Prussia’s diplomatic flexibility.
The reasons for Bismarck’s break with the Prussian conservatives were
much the same as those for Richelieu’s debate with his clerical critics, the
chief difference being that the Prussian conservatives insisted on univer-
sal political principles, rather than universal religious principles. Bis-
marck asserted that power supplied its own legitimacy; the conservatives
argued that legitimacy represented a value beyond calculations of power.
Bismarck believed that a correct evaluation of power implied a doctrine
of self-limitation; the conservatives insisted that only moral principles
could ultimately limit the claims of power.
The conflict evoked a poignant exchange of letters in the late 1850s
between Bismarck and his old mentor, Leopold von Gerlach, the Prussian
King s military adjutant, to whom Bismarck owed everything — his first
diplomatic appointment, his access to the court, his entire career.
The exchange of letters between the two men began when Bismarck
sent Gerlach a recommendation that Prussia develop a diplomatic option
toward France along with a covering letter in which he placed utility
above ideology:
I cannot escape the mathematical logic of the fact that present-day
Austria cannot be our friend. As long as Austria does not agree to a
delimitation of spheres of influence in Germany, we must anticipate a
contest with it, by means of diplomacy and lies in peace time, with the
utilization of every opportunity to give a coup de graced
Gerlach, however, could not bring himself to accept the proposition that
strategic advantage could justify abandoning principle, especially when it
involved a Bonaparte. He urged the Metternich remedy — that Prussia
bring Austria and Russia closer together and restore the Holy Alliance to
enforce the isolation of France. 26
What Gerlach found even more incomprehensible was another Bis-
marck proposal to the effect that Napoleon be invited to the maneuvers
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
of a Prussian army corps because “this proof of good relations with
France . . . would increase our influence in all diplomatic relations .” 27
The suggestion that a Bonaparte participate in Prussian maneuvers pro-
voked a veritable outburst from Gerlach: “How can a man of your intelli-
gence sacrifice his principles to such an individual as Napoleon. Napoleon
is our natural enemy .” 28 Had Gerlach seen Bismarck’s cynical marginalia
— “What of it?” — he might have saved himself the next letter, in which
he reiterated his antirevolutionary principles of a lifetime, the same that
had led him to support the Holy Alliance and to sponsor Bismarck’s early
My political principle is and remains the war against revolution. You
will not convince Bonaparte that he is not on the revolutionary side.
And he will not stand on any other side because he clearly derives
advantage from this. ... So if my principle of opposing revolution is
right ... it also has to be adhered to in practice . 29
Yet Bismarck disagreed with Gerlach not because he did not understand
him, as Gerlach supposed, but because he understood him only too well.
Realpolitik for Bismarck depended on flexibility and on the ability to
exploit every available option without the constraint of ideology. Just as
Richelieu’s defenders had done, Bismarck transferred the debate to the
one principle he and Gerlach did share, and one that would leave Gerlach
at a distinct disadvantage — the overriding importance of Prussian patrio-
tism. Gerlach’s insistence on the unity of conservative interests was, ac-
cording to Bismarck, incompatible with loyalty to their country:
France interests me only insofar as it affects the situation of my country
and we can make policy only with the France which exists As a
romantic I can shed a tear for the fate of Henry V (the Bourbon pre-
tender); as a diplomat I would be his servant if I were French, but as
things stand, France, irrespective of the accident who leads it, is for me
an unavoidable pawn on the chessboard of diplomacy, where I have no
other duty than to serve my king and my country [Bismarck’s emphasis],
I cannot reconcile personal sympathies and antipathies toward foreign
powers with my sense of duty in foreign affairs; indeed I see in them
the embryo of disloyalty toward the Sovereign and the country I serve . 30
How was a traditional Prussian to respond to the proposition that Prussian
patriotism transcended the principle of legitimacy and that, if circum-
stances should require it, a generation’s faith in the unity of conservative
values could verge on disloyalty? Bismarck implacably cut off every intel-
lectual escape route, rejecting in advance Gerlach’s argument that legiti-
macy was Prussia’s national interest and that therefore Napoleon was
Prussia’s permanent enemy:
... I could deny this — but even if you were right I would not consider
it politically wise to let other states know of our fears in peace time.
Until the break you predict occurs I would think it useful to encourage
the belief . . . that the tension with France is not an organic fault of our
nature — 31
In other words, Realpolitik demanded tactical flexibility, and the Prussian
national interest required keeping open the option of making a deal with
France. The bargaining position of a country 7 depends on the options it is
perceived to have. Closing them off eases the adversary’s calculations,
and constricts those of the practitioners of Realpolitik.
The break between Gerlach and Bismarck became irrevocable in 1860
over the issue of Prussia’s attitude toward France’s war with Austria over
Italy. To Gerlach, the war had eliminated all doubt that Napoleon’s true
purpose was to set the stage for aggression in the style of the first Bona-
parte. Gerlach therefore urged Prussia to support Austria. Bismarck saw
instead the opportunity — that if Austria were forced to retreat from Italy,
it could serve as the precursor of its eventual expulsion from Germany
as well. To Bismarck, the convictions of the generation of Metternich had
turned into a dangerous set of inhibitions:
I stand or fall with my own Sovereign, even if in my opinion he ruins
himself stupidly, but for me France will remain France, whether it is
governed by Napoleon or by St. Louis and Austria is for me a foreign
country I know that you will reply that fact and right cannot be
separated, that a properly conceived Prussian policy requires chastity
in foreign affairs even from the point of view of utility. I am prepared
to discuss the point of utility with you; but if you pose antinomies
between right and revolution; Christianity and infidelity; God and the
devil; I can argue no longer and can merely say, “I am not of your
opinion and you judge in me what is not yours to judge.” 32
This bitter declaration of faith was the functional equivalent of Richelieu’s
assertion that, since the soul is immortal, man must submit to the judg-
ment of God but that states, being mortal, can only be judged by what
works. Like Richelieu, Bismarck did not reject Gerlach’s moral views as
personal articles of faith — he probably shared most of them; but he de-
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
nied their relevance to the duties of statesmanship by way of elaborating
the distinction between personal belief and Realpolitik:
I did not seek the service of the King The God who unexpectedly
placed me into it will probably rather show me the way out than let my
soul perish. I would overestimate the value of this life strangely . . .
should I not be convinced that after thirty years it will be irrelevant to
me what political successes I or my country have achieved in Europe. I
can even think out the idea that some day “unbelieving Jesuits” will
rule over the Mark Brandenburg [core of Prussia] together with a Bona-
partist absolutism. ... I am a child of different times than you, but as
honest a one of mine as you of yours . 33
This eerie premonition of Prussia’s fate a century later never received an
answer from the man to whom Bismarck owed his career.
Bismarck was indeed the child of a different era from that of his erst-
while mentor. Bismarck belonged to the age of Realpolitik; Gerlach had
been shaped by the period of Metternich. The Metternich system had
reflected the eighteenth-century 7 conception of the universe as a great
clockwork of intricately meshing parts in which disruption of one part
meant upsetting the interaction of the others. Bismarck represented the
new age in both science and politics. He perceived the universe not as a
mechanical balance, but in its modern version — as consisting of particles
in flux whose impact on each other creates what is perceived as reality.
Its kindred biological philosophy was Darwin’s theory of evolution based
on the survival of the fittest.
Driven by such convictions, Bismarck proclaimed the relativity of all
belief, including even the belief in the permanence of his own country.
In the world of Realpolitik , it was the statesman’s duty to evaluate ideas
as forces in relation to all the other forces relevant to making a decision;
and the various elements needed to be judged by how well they could
serve the national interest, not by preconceived ideologies.
Still, however hard-boiled Bismarck’s philosophy might have appeared,
it was built on an article of faith as unprovable as Gerlach’s premises —
namely, that a careful analysis of a given set of circumstances would
necessarily lead all statesmen to the same conclusions. Just as Gerlach
found it inconceivable that the principle of legitimacy could inspire more
than one interpretation, it was beyond Bismarck’s comprehension that
statesmen might differ in the way they assessed the national interest.
Because of his magnificent grasp of the nuances of power and its ramifi-
cations, Bismarck was able in his lifetime to replace the philosophical
constraints of the Metternich system with a policy of self-restraint. Be-
cause these nuances were not as self-evident to Bismarck’s successors
and imitators, the literal application of Realpolitik led to their excessive
dependence on military power, and from there to an armament race and
two world wars.
Success is often so elusive that statesmen pursuing it rarely bother to
consider that it. may impose its own penalties. Thus, at the beginning of
his career, Bismarck was chiefly preoccupied with applying Realpolitik to
destroying the world he found, which was still very 7 much dominated by
Metternich’s principles. This required weaning Prussia from the idea that
Austrian leadership in Germany was vital to Prussia’s security and to the
preservation of conservative values. However true this might have been
at the time of the Congress of Vienna, in the middle of the nineteenth
century Prussia no longer needed the Austrian alliance to preserve do-
mestic stability or European tranquillity. Indeed, according to Bismarck,
the illusion of the need for an Austrian alliance served above all to inhibit
Prussia from pursuing its ultimate goal of unifying Germany.
As Bismarck saw it, Prussian history was resplendent with evidence that
supported his claim of its primacy within Germany and of its ability to
stand alone. For Prussia was not just another German state. Whatever its
conservative domestic policies, they could not dim the national luster it
had garnered through its tremendous sacrifices in the wars of liberation
from Napoleon. It was as if Prussia’s very outlines — a series of oddly
shaped enclaves stretching across the North German plain from the Vis-
tula to west of the Rhine — had destined it to lead the quest for German
unity, even in the eyes of the liberals.
But Bismarck went further. He challenged the conventional wisdom
which identified nationalism with liberalism, or at least with the pro-
position that German unity could only be realized through liberal institu-
Prussia has become great not through liberalism and free-thinking but
through a succession of powerful, decisive and wise regents who care-
fully husbanded the military and financial resources of the state and
kept them together in their own hands in order to throw them with
ruthless courage into the scale of European politics as soon as a favor-
able opportunity presented itself. . . . M
Bismarck relied not on conservative principles but on the unique charac-
ter of Prussian institutions; he rested Prussia’s claim to leadership in
Germany on its strength rather than on universal values. In Bismarck’s
view, Prussian institutions were so impervious to outside influence that
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
Prussia could exploit the democratic currents of the period as instru-
ments of foreign policy by threatening to encourage greater freedom of
expression at home — never mind that no Prussian king had practiced
such a policy for four decades, if ever:
The sense of security that the King remains master in his country even
if the whole army is abroad is not shared with Prussia by any other
continental state and above all by no other German power. It provides
the opportunity to accept a development of public affairs much more
in conformity with present requirements The royal authority in
Prussia is so firmly based that the government can without risk encour-
age a much more lively parliamentary activity and thereby exert pres-
sure on conditions in Germany. 35
Bismarck rejected the Metternich view that a shared sense of their domes-
tic vulnerability required the close association of the three Eastern Courts.
Quite the opposite was the case. Since Prussia was not threatened by
domestic upheaval, its very cohesiveness could serve as a weapon to
undermine the Vienna settlement by threatening the other powers, espe-
cially Austria, with policies fomenting domestic upheavals. For Bismarck,
the strength of Prussia’s governmental, military, and financial institutions
opened the road to Prussian primacy in Germany.
When he was appointed ambassador to the Assembly of the Confedera-
tion in 1852 and ambassador to St. Petersburg in 1858, Bismarck ascended
to positions which enabled him to advocate his policies. His reports,
brilliantly written and remarkably consistent, urged a foreign policy based
on neither sentiment nor legitimacy but on the correct assessment
of power. In this manner, Bismarck returned to the tradition of such
eighteenth-century 7 rulers as Louis XIV and Frederick the Great. Enhanc-
ing the influence of the state became the principal, if not the only, objec-
tive, restrained solely by the forces massed against it:
... A sentimental policy knows no reciprocity. It is an exclusively Prus-
sian peculiarity. 36
. . . For heaven’s sake no sentimental alliances in which the conscious-
ness of having performed a good deed furnishes the sole reward for
our sacrifice. 37
. . . Policy is the art of the possible, the science of the relative. 38
Not even the King has the right to subordinate the interests of the state
to his personal sympathies or antipathies. 39
In Bismarck’s estimation, foreign policy had a nearly scientific basis, mak-
ing it possible to analyze the national interest in terms of objective crite-
ria. In such a calculation, Austria emerged as a foreign, not a fraternal,
country, and above all as an obstacle to Prussia’s rightful place in Ger-
many: “Our policy has no other parade ground than Germany and this is
precisely the one which Austria believes it badly requires for itself . . . We
deprive each other of the air we need to breathe. . . . This is a fact which
cannot be ignored however unwelcome it may be.” 40
The first Prussian king whom Bismarck served as ambassador, Freder-
ick William IV, was torn between Gerlachs legitimist conservatism and
the opportunities inherent in Bismarck’s Realpolitik . Bismarck insisted
that his King’s personal regard for the traditionally pre-eminent German
state must not inhibit Prussian policy. Since Austria would never accept
Prussian hegemony in Germany, Bismarck’s strategy was to weaken Aus-
tria at every turn. In 1854, during the Crimean War, Bismarck urged that
Prussia exploit Austria’s break with Russia and attack what was still Prus-
sia’s partner in the Holy Alliance without any better justification than the
auspiciousness of the occasion:
Could we succeed in getting Vienna to the point where it does not
consider an attack by Prussia on Austria as something outside of all
possibility we would soon hear more sensible things from there 41
In 1859, during Austria’s war with France and Piedmont, Bismarck re-
turned to the same theme:
The present situation once more presents us with the great prize if we
let the war between Austria and France become well established and
then move south with our army taking the border posts in our field
packs not to impale them again until we reach Lake Constance or at
least the regions where the Protestant confession ceases to predomi-
nate. 42
Metternich would have considered this heresy, but Frederick the Great
would have applauded a disciple’s clever adaptation of his own rationale
for conquering Silesia.
Bismarck subjected the European balance of power to the same cold-
blooded, relativistic analysis as he did the internal German situation. At
the height of the Crimean War, Bismarck outlined the principal options
for Prussia:
We have three threats available: (1) An alliance with Russia; and it is
nonsense always to swear at once that we will never go with Russia.
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
Even if it were true, we should retain the option to use it as a threat.
( 2 ) A policy in which we throw ourselves into Austria’s arms and com-
pensate ourselves at the expense of perfidious [German] confederates.
(3) A change of cabinets to the left whereby we would soon become so
“Western” as to outmaneuver Austria completely. 43
In the same dispatch were listed as equally valid Prussian options: an
alliance with Russia against France (presumably on the basis of a commu-
nity of conservative interests); an arrangement with Austria against the
secondary 7 German states (and presumably against Russia); and a shift
toward liberalism domestically directed against Austria and Russia (pre-
sumably in combination with France). Like Richelieu, Bismarck felt unfet-
tered in his choice of partners, being prepared to ally himself with Russia,
Austria, or France; the choice would depend entirely on which could best
serve the Prussian national interest. Though a bitter opponent of Austria,
Bismarck was prepared to explore an arrangement with Vienna in return
for appropriate compensation in Germany. And although he was an arch-
conservative in domestic affairs, Bismarck saw no obstacle to shifting
Prussia’s domestic policy to the left as long as it served a foreign policy
purpose. For domestic policy, too, was a tool of Realpolitik.
Attempts to tilt the balance of power had, of course, occurred even in
the heyday of the Metternich system. But then every effort would have
been made to legitimize the change by means of European consensus.
The Metternich system sought adjustments through European congresses
rather than through a foreign policy of threat and counterthreat. Bismarck
would have been the last person to reject the efficacy of moral consensus.
But to him, it was only one element of power among many. The stability
of the international order depended precisely on this nuance. Pressuring
for change without so much as paying lip service to existing treaty rela-
tionships, shared values, or the Concert of Europe marked a diplomatic
revolution. In time, turning power into the only criterion induced all
nations to conduct armament races and foreign policies of confrontation.
Bismarck’s views remained academic as long as the key element of the
Vienna settlement — the unity of the conservative courts of Prussia, Aus-
tria, and Russia — was still intact, and as long as Prussia by itself did not
dare to rupture that unity. The Holy Alliance disintegrated unexpectedly
and quite rapidly after the Crimean War, when Austria abandoned the
deft anonymity by which Metternich had deflected crises from his rickety
empire and, after many vacillations, sided with Russia’s enemies. Bis-
marck understood at once that the Crimean War had wrought a diplo-
matic revolution. “The day of reckoning,” he said, “is sure to come even
if a few years pass.” 44
Indeed, perhaps the most important document relating to the Crimean
War was a dispatch from Bismarck analyzing the situation upon the con-
clusion of the war in 1856. Characteristically, the dispatch assumed per-
fect flexibility of diplomatic method and a total absence of scruple in the
pursuit of opportunity. German historiography has aptly named Bis-
marck’s dispatch the “Prachtbericht, ” or the “Master Dispatch.” For assem-
bled therein was the essence of Realpolitik, though it was still too daring
for its addressee, the Prussian Prime Minister, Otto von Manteuffel, whose
numerous marginal comments indicate that he was far from persuaded
by it.
Bismarck opened with an exposition of Napoleon’s extraordinarily fa-
vorable position at the end of the Crimean War. Henceforth, he noted, all
the states of Europe would be seeking France’s friendship, none with a
greater prospect of success than Russia:
An alliance between France and Russia is too natural that it should not
come to pass Up to now the firmness of the Holy Alliance . . . has
kept the two states apart; but with the Tsar Nicholas dead and the Holy
Alliance dissolved by Austria, nothing remains to arrest the natural
rapprochement of two states with nary a conflicting interest. 45
Bismarck predicted that Austria had maneuvered itself into a trap from
which it would not be able to escape by racing the Tsar to Paris. For in
order to retain the support of his army, Napoleon would require some
issue which could furnish him at a moment’s notice with “a not too
arbitrary and unjust pretext for intervention. Italy is ideally suited for this
role. The ambitions of Sardinia, the memories of Bonaparte and Murat,
furnish sufficient excuses and the hatred of Austria will smooth its way.” 46
This was, of course, exactly what happened three years later.
How should Prussia position itself in light of the inevitability of tacit
Franco-Russian cooperation and the likelihood of a Franco-Austrian con-
flict? According to the Metternich system, Prussia should have tightened
its alliance with conservative Austria, strengthened the German Confeder-
ation, established close relations with Great Britain, and sought to wean
Russia away from Napoleon.
Bismarck demolished each of these options in turn. Great Britain’s land
forces were too negligible to be of use against a Franco-Russian alliance.
Austria and Prussia would end up having to bear the brunt of the fighting.
Nor could the German Confederation add any real strength:
Aided by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the German Confederation would
probably hold together, because it would believe in victory even with-
out its support; but in the case of a two-front war toward East and West,
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
those princes who are not under the control of our bayonets would
attempt to save themselves through declarations of neutrality, if they
did not appear in the field against us 47
Although Austria had been Prussia’s principal ally for over a generation,
it now presented a rather incongruous partner in Bismarck’s eyes. It had
become the main obstacle to Prussia’s growth: “Germany is too small for
the two of us . . . , as long as we plough the same furrow, Austria is the
only state against which we can make a permanent gain and to which we
can suffer a permanent loss.” 48
Whatever aspect of international relations he considered, Bismarck re-
solved it by the argument that Prussia needed to break its confederate
bond to Austria and reverse the policies of the Metternich period in order
to weaken its erstwhile ally at every opportunity: “When Austria hitches a
horse in front, we hitch one behind.” 49
The bane of stable international systems is their nearly total inability
to envision mortal challenge. The blind spot of revolutionaries is their
conviction that they can combine all the benefits of their goals with the
best of what they are overthrowing. But the forces unleashed by revolu-
tion have their own momentum, and the direction in which they are
moving cannot necessarily be deduced from the proclamations of their
So it was with Bismarck. Within five years of coming to power in 1862,
he eliminated the Austrian obstacle to German unity by implementing his
own advice of the previous decade. Through the three wars described
earlier in this chapter, he expelled Austria from Germany and destroyed
lingering Richelieuan illusions in France.
The new united Germany did not embody the ideals of the two genera-
tions of Germans who had aspired to build a constitutional, democratic
state. In fact, it reflected no previous significant strain of German thinking,
having come into being as a diplomatic compact among German sover-
eigns rather than as an expression of popular will. Its legitimacy derived
from Prussia’s power, not from the principle of national self-determina-
tion. Though Bismarck achieved what he had set out to do, the very
magnitude of his triumph mortgaged the future of Germany and, indeed,
of the European world order. To be sure, he was as moderate in conclud-
ing his wars as he had been ruthless in preparing them. As soon as
Germany had achieved the borders he considered vital to its security,
Bismarck conducted a prudent and stabilizing foreign policy. For two
decades, he maneuvered Europe’s commitments and interests in masterly
fashion on the basis of Realpolitik and to the benefit of the peace of
But, once called forth, the spirits of power refused to be banished by
juggling acts, however spectacular or restrained these were. Germany
had been unified as the result of a diplomacy presupposing infinite adapt-
ability; yet the very success of that policy removed all flexibility from the
international system. There were now fewer participants. And when the
number of players declines, the capacity to make adjustments diminishes.
The new international system contained both fewer and weightier com-
ponents, making it difficult to negotiate a generally acceptable balance or
to sustain it without constant tests of strength.
These structural problems were magnified by the scope of Prussia’s
victory in the Franco-Prussian War and by the nature of the peace that
concluded it. The German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine produced irrec-
oncilable French antagonism, which eliminated any German diplomatic
option toward France.
In the 1850s, Bismarck had considered the French option so essential
that he had sacrificed his friendship with Gerlach to promote it. After the
annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, French enmity grew into the “organic fault
of our nature” against which Bismarck had warned so insistently. And it
precluded the policy of his “Master Dispatch” of remaining aloof until
other powers were already committed, then selling Prussia’s support to
whoever offered it the most.
The German Confederation had succeeded in acting as a unit only in
the face of threats so overwhelming that they had obliterated the rivalries
among the various states; and joint offensive action was structurally im-
possible. The tenuousness of these arrangements was indeed one of the
reasons Bismarck had insisted that German unification be organized
under Prussian leadership. But he also paid a price for the new arrange-
ment. Once Germany was transformed from a potential victim of aggres-
sion to a threat to the European equilibrium, the remote contingency of
the other states of Europe uniting against Germany became a real possi-
bility. And that nightmare in turn drove a German policy that was soon to
split Europe into two hostile camps.
The European statesman who grasped the impact of German unifica-
tion most quickly was Benjamin Disraeli, who was about to become Brit-
ish Prime Minister. In 1871, he said the following about the Franco-
Prussian War:
The war represents the German revolution, a greater political event
than the French Revolution of the last century There is not a dip-
lomatic tradition which has not been swept away. You have a new
world The balance of power has been entirely destroyed. 150
Two Revolutionaries: Napoleon III and Bismarck
While Bismarck was at the helm, these dilemmas were obscured by his
intricate and subtle diplomacy. Yet in the long term, the very complexity
of Bismarck’s arrangements doomed them. Disraeli was right on the
mark. Bismarck had recast the map of Europe and the pattern of interna-
tional relations, but in the end he was not able to establish a design his
successors could follow. Once the novelty of Bismarck’s tactics had worn
off, his successors and competitors sought safety in multiplying arms as a
way of reducing their reliance on the baffling intangibles of diplomacy.
The Iron Chancellor’s inability to institutionalize his policies forced Ger-
many onto a diplomatic treadmill it could only escape, first by an arms
race, and then by war.
In his domestic policy as well, Bismarck was unable to establish a
design his successors could follow. Bismarck, a solitary figure in his
lifetime, was even less understood after he passed from the scene and
attained mythic proportions. His compatriots remembered the three wars
which had achieved German unity but forgot the painstaking preparations
that had made them possible, and the moderation required to reap their
fruits. They had seen displays of power but without discerning the subtle
analysis on which these had been based.
The constitution which Bismarck had designed for Germany com-
pounded these tendencies. Though based on the first universal male
suffrage in Europe, the Parliament (the Reichstag) did not control the
government, which was appointed by the Emperor and could only be
removed by him. The Chancellor was closer to both the Emperor and the
Reichstag than each was to the other. Therefore, within limits, Bismarck
could play Germany’s domestic institutions off against each other, much
as he did the other states in his foreign policy. None of Bismarck’s succes-
sors possessed the skill or the daring to do so. The result was that nation-
alism unleavened by democracy turned increasingly chauvinistic, while
democracy without responsibility grew sterile. The essence of Bismarck’s
life was perhaps best expressed by the Iron Chancellor himself in a letter
he had written to his then still future wife:
That which is imposing here on earth ... has always something of the
quality of the fallen angel who is beautiful but without peace, great in
his conceptions and exertions but without success, proud and lonely . 51
The two revolutionaries who stood at the beginning of the contemporary
European state system incarnated many of the dilemmas of the modern
period. Napoleon, the reluctant revolutionary, represented the trend of
gearing policy to public relations. Bismarck, the conservative revolution-
ary, reflected the tendency to identify policy with the analysis of power.
Napoleon had revolutionary ideas but recoiled before their implica-
tions. Having spent his youth in what the twentieth century would call
protest, he never bridged the gap between the formulation of an idea and
its implementation. Insecure about his purposes and indeed his legiti-
macy, he relied on public opinion to bridge that gap. Napoleon con-
ducted his foreign policy in the style of modern political leaders who
measure their success by the reaction of the television evening news. Like
them, Napoleon made himself a prisoner of the purely tactical, focusing
on short-term objectives and immediate results, seeking to impress his
public by magnifying the pressures he had set out to create. In the pro-
cess, he confused foreign policy with the moves of a conjurer. For in the
end, it is reality, not publicity, that determines whether a leader has made
a difference.
The public does not in the long run respect leaders who mirror its
own insecurities or see only the symptoms of crises rather than the long-
term trends. The role of the leader is to assume the burden of acting on
the basis of a confidence in his own assessment of the direction of events
and how they can be influenced. Failing that, crises will multiply, which
is another way of saying that a leader has lost control over events. Napo-
leon turned out to be the precursor of a strange modern phenomenon —
the political figure who desperately seeks to determine what the public
wants, yet ends up rejected and perhaps even despised by it.
Bismarck did not lack the confidence to act on his own judgments. He
brilliantly analyzed the underlying reality and Prussia’s opportunity. He
built so well that the Germany he created survived defeat in two world
wars, two foreign occupations, and two generations as a divided country.
Where Bismarck failed was in having doomed his society to a style of
policy which could only have been carried on had a great man emerged
in every generation. This is rarely the case, and the institutions of imperial
Germany militated against it. In this sense, Bismarck sowed the seeds not
only of his country’s achievements, but of its twentieth-century tragedies.
“No one eats with impunity from the tree of immortality ,” 52 wrote Bis-
marck’s friend von Roon about him.
Napoleon’s tragedy was that his ambitions surpassed his capacities;
Bismarck’s tragedy was that his capacities exceeded his society’s ability to
absorb them. The legacy Napoleon left France was strategic paralysis; the
legacy Bismarck left Germany was unassimilable greatness.
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
Realpolitik — foreign policy based on calculations of power and the na-
tional interest — brought about the unification of Germany, And the uni-
fication of Germany caused Realpolitik to turn on itself, accomplishing
the opposite of what it was meant to achieve. For the practice of Real-
politik avoids armaments races and war only if the major players of an
international system are free to adjust their relations in accordance with
changing circumstances or are restrained by a system of shared values, or
After its unification, Germany became the strongest country on the
Continent, and was growing stronger with every decade, thereby revolu-
tionizing European diplomacy. Ever since the emergence of the modern
state system in Richelieu’s time, the powers at the edge of Europe — Great
Britain, France, and Russia — had been exerting pressure on the center.
Now, for the first time, the center of Europe was becoming sufficiently
powerful to press on the periphery. How would Europe deal with this
new giant in its midst?
Geography had created an insoluble dilemma. According to all the
traditions of Realpolitik, European coalitions were likely to arise to con-
tain Germany’s growing, potentially dominant, power. Since Germany
was located in the center of the Continent, it stood in constant danger of
what Bismarck called “le cauchemar des coalitions ” — the nightmare of
hostile, encircling coalitions. But if Germany tried to protect itself against
a coalition of all its neighbors — East and West — simultaneously, it was
certain to threaten them individually, speeding up the formation of coali-
tions. Self-fulfilling prophecies became a part of the international system.
What was still called the Concert of Europe was in fact riven by two sets
of animosities: the enmity between France and Germany, and the growing
hostility between the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires.
As for France and Germany, the magnitude of Prussia’s victory in the
1870 war had produced a permanent French desire for revanche, and
German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine gave this resentment a tangible
focal point. Resentment soon mixed with fear as French leaders began to
sense that the war of 1870-71 had marked the end of the era of French
predominance and an irrevocable change in the alignment of forces.
The Richelieu system of playing the various German states off against
each other in a fragmented Central Europe no longer applied. Torn be-
tween memory and ambition, France sublimated its frustrations for
nearly fifty years in the single-minded pursuit of regaining Alsace-
Lorraine, never considering that success in this effort could do no more
than salve French pride without altering the underlying strategic reality.
By itself, France was no longer strong enough to contain Germany; hence-
forth it would always need allies to defend itself. By the same token,
France made itself permanently available as the potential ally of any
enemy of Germany, thereby restricting the flexibility of German diplo-
macy and escalating any crisis involving Germany.
The second European schism, between the Austro-Hungarian Empire
and Russia, also resulted from German unification. Upon becoming Minis-
terprasident in 1862, Bismarck had asked the Austrian ambassador to
convey to his Emperor the startling proposition that Austria, the capital of
the ancient Holy Roman Empire, move its center of gravity from Vienna
to Budapest. The ambassador considered the idea so preposterous that,
in his report to Vienna, he ascribed it to nervous exhaustion on the
part of Bismarck. Yet, once defeated in the struggle for pre-eminence in
Germany, Austria had no choice but to act on Bismarck’s suggestion.
Budapest became an equal, occasionally dominant partner in the newly
created Dual Monarchy.
After its expulsion from Germany, the new Austro-Hungarian Empire
had no place to expand except into the Balkans. Since Austria had not
participated in overseas colonialism, its leaders had come to view the
Balkans, with its Slavic population, as the natural arena for Austrian geo-
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
political ambitions — if only to keep pace with the other Great Powers.
Inherent in such a policy was conflict with Russia.
Common sense should have cautioned Austrian leaders against pro-
voking Balkan nationalism, or taking on Russia as a permanent enemy.
But common sense was not in abundant supply in Vienna, and even less
so in Budapest. Jingoistic nationalism prevailed. The Cabinet in Vienna
continued on its course of inertia at home and fits of hysteria in foreign
policy, which had progressively isolated it since Metternich’s time.
Germany perceived no national interest in the Balkans. But it did per-
ceive a major interest in the preservation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
For the collapse of the Dual Monarchy would have risked undoing Bis-
marck’s entire German policy. The German-speaking Catholic segment of
the empire would seek to join Germany, jeopardizing the pre-eminence
of Protestant Prussia, for which Bismarck had struggled so tenaciously.
And the disintegration of the Austrian Empire would leave Germany with-
out a single dependable ally. On the other hand, though Bismarck wanted
to preserve Austria, he had no desire to challenge Russia. It was a conun-
drum he could obscure for some decades, but never quite overcome.
To make matters worse, the Ottoman Empire was in the throes of a
slow disintegration, creating frequent clashes between the Great Powers
over the division of the spoils. Bismarck once said that, in a combination
of five players, it is always desirable to be on the side of the three. But
since, of the five Great Powers — England, France, Russia, Austria, and
Germany — France was hostile, Great Britain unavailable due to its policy
of “splendid isolation,” and Russia ambivalent because of its conflict with
Austria, Germany needed an alliance with both Russia and Austria for
such a grouping of three. Only a statesman possessed of Bismarck’s will-
power and skill could even have conceived such a precarious balancing
act. Thus, the relationship between Germany and Russia became the key
to the peace of Europe.
Once Russia entered the international arena, it established a dominant
position with astonishing speed. At the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Russia
had not yet been deemed sufficiently important to be represented. From
1750 onward, however, Russia became an active participant in every sig-
nificant European war. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Russia
was already inspiring a vague uneasiness in Western observers. In 1762,
the French charge d'affaires in St. Petersburg reported:
If Russian ambition is not checked, its effects may be fatal to the neigh-
boring powers. ... I know that the degree of Russian power should not
be measured by its expanse and that its domination of eastern territor-
ies is more an imposing phantom than a source of real strength. But I
also suspect that a nation which is capable of braving the intemperance
of the seasons better than any other because of the rigor of its native
climate, which is accustomed to servile obedience, which needs little
to live and is therefore able to wage war at little cost . . . such a nation,
I suspect, is likely to conquer — 1
By the time the Congress of Vienna took place, Russia was arguably the
most powerful country on the Continent. By the middle of the twentieth
century, it had achieved the rank of one of only two global superpowers
before imploding, nearly forty years later, losing many of its vast gains of
the previous two centuries in a matter of months.
The absolute nature of the tsar’s power enabled Russia’s rulers to con-
duct foreign policy both arbitrarily and idiosyncratically. In the space of
six years, between 1756 and 1762, Russia entered the Seven Years’ War
on the side of Austria and invaded Prussia, switched to Prussia’s side at
the death of Empress Elizabeth in January 1762, and then withdrew into
neutrality when Catherine the Great overthrew her husband in June 1762.
Fifty years later, Metternich would point out that Tsar Alexander I had
never held a single set of beliefs for longer than five years. Metternich’s
adviser, Friedrich von Gentz, described the position of the Tsar as follows:
“None of the obstacles that restrain and thwart the other sovereigns —
divided authority, constitutional forms, public opinion, etc. — exists for
the Emperor of Russia. What he dreams of at night he can carry out in the
morning.” 2
Paradox was Russia’s most distinguishing feature. Constantly at war and
expanding in every direction, it nevertheless considered itself perma-
nently threatened. The more polyglot the empire became, the more vul-
nerable Russia felt, partly because of its need to isolate the various
nationalities from their neighbors. To sustain their rule and to surmount
the tensions among the empire’s various populations, all of Russia’s rulers
invoked the myth of some vast, foreign threat, which, in time, turned
into another of the self-fulfilling prophecies that doomed the stability of
As Russia expanded from the area around Moscow toward the center
of Europe, the shores of the Pacific, and into Central Asia, its quest for
security evolved into expansion for its own sake. The Russian historian
Vasili Kliuchevsky described the process as follows: “. . . these wars, de-
fensive in their origin, imperceptibly and unintentionally on the part of
the Muscovite politicians became wars of aggression — a direct continua-
tion of the unifying policy of the old [pre-Romanov] dynasty, a struggle
for Russian territory that had never belonged to the Muscovite state.” 3
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
Russia gradually turned into as much of a threat to the balance of
power in Europe as it did to the sovereignty of neighbors around its vast
periphery. No matter how much territory it controlled, Russia inexorably
pushed its borders outward. This started out as an essentially defensive
motivation, as when Prince Potemkin (best known for placing fake vil-
lages along the Tsarinas routes) advocated the conquest of the Crimea
from Turkey in 1776 on the reasonable ground that this would improve
Russia’s capacity to defend its realm. 4 By 1864, however, security had
become synonymous with continuous expansion. Chancellor Aleksandr
Gorchakov defined Russia’s expansion in Central Asia in terms of a per-
manent obligation to pacify its periphery driven forward by sheer mo-
The situation of Russia in Central Asia is similar to that of all civilized
states that come into contact with half-savage nomadic tribes without a
firm social organization. In such cases, the interests of border security
and trade relations always require that the more civilized state have a
certain authority over its neighbors —
The state therefore must make a choice: either to give up this contin-
uous effort and doom its borders to constant unrest ... or else to ad-
vance farther and farther into the heart of the savage lands . . . where
the greatest difficulty lies in being able to stop . 5
Many historians recalled this passage when the Soviet Union invaded
Afghanistan in 1979.
Paradoxically, it is also true that for the past 200 years the European
balance of power has been preserved on several occasions by Russian
efforts and heroism. Without Russia, Napoleon and Hitler would almost
certainly have succeeded in establishing universal empires. Janus-like,
Russia was at once a threat to the balance of power and one of its key
components, essential to the equilibrium but not fully a part of it. For
much of its history, Russia accepted only the limits that were imposed on
it by the outside world, and even these grudgingly. And yet there were
periods, most notably the forty years after the end of the Napoleonic
Wars, when Russia did not take advantage of its vast power, and instead
put this power in the service of protecting conservative values in Central
and Western Europe.
Even when Russia was pursuing legitimacy, its attitudes were far more
messianic — and therefore imperialistic — than those of the other con-
servative courts. Whereas Western European conservatives defined them-
selves by philosophies of self-restraint, Russian leaders enlisted them-
selves in the service of crusades. Because the tsars faced virtually no
challenge to their legitimacy, they had little understanding of republican
movements beyond deeming them to be immoral. Promoters of the unity
of conservative values — at least until the Crimean War — they were also
prepared to use legitimacy to expand their own influence, earning Nicho-
las I the sobriquet of “gendarme of Europe.” At the height of the Holy
Alliance, Friedrich von Gentz wrote this about Alexander I:
The Emperor Alexander, despite all the zeal and enthusiasm he has
consistently shown for the Grand Alliance, is the sovereign who could
most easily get along without it For him the Grand Alliance is only
an implement with which he exercises in general affairs the influence
that is one of the main objects of his ambition. . . . His interest in the
preservation of the system is not, as is true of Austria, Prussia, or En-
gland, an interest based on necessity or fear; it is a free and calculated
interest, which he is in a position to renounce as soon as a different
system should offer him greater advantages . 6
Like Americans, Russians thought of their society as exceptional. Encoun-
tering only nomadic or feudal societies, Russia’s expansion into Central
Asia had many of the features of America’s own westward expansion, and
the Russian justification for it, in keeping with the Gorchakov citation
above, paralleled the way Americans explained their own “manifest des-
tiny.” But the closer Russia approached India, the more it aroused British
suspicions, until, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Russian
expansion into Central Asia, unlike America’s westward march, turned
into a foreign policy problem.
The openness of each country’s frontiers was among the few common
features of American and Russian exceptionalism. America’s sense of
uniqueness was based on the concept of liberty; Russia’s sprang from
the experience of common suffering. Everyone was eligible to share in
America’s values; Russia’s were available only to the Russian nation, to the
exclusion of most of its non-Russian subjects. America’s exceptionalism
led it to isolationism alternating with occasional moral crusades; Russia’s
evoked a sense of mission which often led to military adventures.
The Russian nationalist publicist Mikhail Katkov defined the difference
between Western and Russian values as follows:
. . . everything there is based on contractual relations and everything
here on faith; this contrast was originally determined by the position
the church adopted in the West and that which it adopted in the East. A
basic dual authority exists there; a single authority here . 7
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
Nationalist Russian and Pan-Slavic writers and intellectuals invariably as-
cribed the alleged altruism of the Russian nation to its Orthodox faith. The
great novelist and passionate nationalist Fyodor Dostoyevsky interpreted
Russian altruism as an obligation to liberate Slavic peoples from foreign
rule, if necessary by defying the opposition of the whole of Western
Europe. During Russia’s 1877 campaign in the Balkans, Dostoyevsky
Ask the people; ask the soldier; Why are they arising? Why are they
going to war and what do they expect from it? They will tell you, as one
man, that they are going to serve Christ and to liberate the oppressed
brethren. . . . [W]e shall watch over their mutual harmony and protect
their liberty and independence, be it even against all Europe . 8
Unlike the states of Western Europe, which Russia simultaneously ad-
mired, despised, and envied, Russia perceived itself not as a nation but as
a cause, beyond geopolitics, impelled by faith, and held together by arms.
Dostoyevsky did not confine the role of Russia to liberating fellow Slavs
and included watching over their harmony — a social undertaking which
easily shaded over into domination. To Katkov, Russia was the Third
The Russian tsar is more than the heir of his ancestors; he is the succes-
sor of the caesars of Eastern Rome, of the organizers of the church and
of its councils which established the very creed of the Christian faith.
With the fall of Byzantium, Moscow arose and the greatness of Russia
began . 9
After the Revolution, the passionate sense of mission was transferred to
the Communist International.
The paradox of Russian history lies in the continuing ambivalence
between messianic drive and a pervasive sense of insecurity. In its ulti-
mate aberration, this ambivalence generated a fear that, unless the empire
expanded, it would implode. Thus, when Russia acted as the prime mover
in the partitioning of Poland, it did so partly for security reasons and
partly for eighteenth-century-style aggrandizement. A century later, that
conquest had taken on an autonomous significance. In 1869, Rostislav
Andreievich Fadeyev, a Pan-Slavist officer, wrote in his influential essay,
“Opinion on the Eastern Question,” that Russia had to continue its west-
ward march to protect its existing conquests:
The historical move of Russia from the Dnieper to the Vistula [the
partition of Poland] was a declaration of war to Europe, which had
broken into a part of the Continent which did not belong to her. Russia
now stands in the midst of the enemy’s lines — such a condition is
only temporary, she must either drive back the enemy or abandon
the position . . . must either extend her preeminence to the Adriatic or
withdraw again beyond the Dnieper 10
Fadeyev’s analysis was not very different from George Kennan’s, which
was made from the opposite side of the dividing line, in his seminal
article on the sources of Soviet conduct. In it, he predicted that if the
Soviet Union did not succeed in expanding, it would implode and col-
lapse. 11
Russia’s exalted view of itself was rarely shared by the outside world.
Despite extraordinary achievements in literature and music, Russia never
emerged as the same sort of cultural magnet for its conquered peoples
as did the mother countries of some of the other colonial empires. Nor
was the Russian Empire ever perceived as a model, either by other socie-
ties or by its own subjects. To the outside world, Russia was an elemental
force — a mysterious, expansionist presence to be feared and contained,
by either co-optation or confrontation.
Metternich had tried the route of co-optation and, for a generation, had
been largely successful. But after the unification of Germany and Italy,
the great ideological causes of the first half of the nineteenth century had
lost their unifying force. Nationalism and revolutionary republicanism
were no longer perceived as threats to the European order. As national-
ism became the prevailing organizing principle, the crowned heads of
Russia, Prussia, and Austria had less and less need to join together in a
common defense of legitimacy.
Metternich had been able to establish an approximation of European
government because the rulers of Europe considered their ideological
unity as the indispensable breakwater against revolution. But by the
1870s, either the fear of revolution had subsided or the various govern-
ments thought they could defeat it without outside assistance. By now,
two generations had passed since the execution of Louis XVI; the liberal
revolutions of 1848 had been mastered; France, though a republic, had
lost its proselytizing zeal. No common ideological bond now constrained
the ever-sharpening conflict between Russia and Austria over the Balkans,
or between Germany and France over Alsace-Lorraine. When the Great
Powers viewed each other, they no longer saw partners in a common
cause but dangerous, even mortal, rivals. Confrontation emerged as the
standard diplomatic method.
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
In an earlier period, Great Britain had contributed to restraint by acting
as the balancer of the European equilibrium. Even now, of all the major
European countries, only Great Britain was in a position to conduct a
balance-of-power diplomacy unfettered by irreconcilable animosity to-
ward some other power. But Great Britain had grown confused as to what
constituted the central threat, and would not regain its bearings for sev-
eral decades.
The balance of power of the Vienna system, with which Great Britain
was familiar, had been radically altered. Unified Germany was achieving
the strength to dominate Europe all by itself — an occurrence which Great
Britain had always resisted in the past when it came about by conquest.
However, most British leaders, Disraeli excepted, saw no reason to op-
pose a process of national consolidation in Central Europe, which British
statesmen had welcomed for decades, especially when its culmination
occurred as the result of a war in which France had been technically the
Ever since Canning had distanced Great Britain from Metternich’s sys-
tem forty years earlier, Great Britain’s policy of splendid isolation had
enabled it to play the role of protector of the equilibrium largely because
no single country was capable of dominating the Continent by itself. After
unification, Germany progressively acquired that capacity. And, confus-
ingly, it did so by means of developing its own national territory and not
by conquest. It was Great Britain’s style to intervene only when the bal-
ance of power was actually under attack and not against the prospect of
attack. Since it took decades for the German threat to the European
equilibrium to become explicit, Great Britain’s foreign policy concerns
for the rest of the century were focused on France, whose colonial ambi-
tions clashed with those of Great Britain, especially in Egypt, and on
Russia’s advance toward the Straits, Persia, India, and later toward China.
All of these were colonial issues. In regard to European diplomacy, which
produced the crises and wars of the twentieth century, Great Britain
continued to practice its policy of splendid isolation.
Bismarck was therefore the dominant figure of European diplomacy
until he was dismissed from office in 1890. He wanted peace for the
newly created German Empire and sought no confrontation with any
other nation. But in the absence of moral bonds among the European
states, he faced a Herculean task. He was obliged to keep both Russia and
Austria out of the camp of his French enemy. This required preventing
Austrian challenges to legitimate Russian objectives and keeping Russia
from undermining the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He needed good rela-
tions with Russia without antagonizing Great Britain, which was keeping
a wary eye on Russian designs on Constantinople and India. Even a genius
like Bismarck could not have performed such a precarious balancing
act indefinitely; the intensifying strains on the international system were
becoming less and less manageable. Nevertheless, for the nearly twenty
years that Bismarck led Germany, he practiced the Realpolitik he had
preached with such moderation and subtlety that the balance of power
never broke down.
Bismarck’s goal was to give no other power — except irreconcilable
France— any cause to join an alliance directed against Germany. Pro-
fessing the unified Germany to be “satiated” and without further territo-
rial ambitions, Bismarck sought to reassure Russia that Germany had no
interest in the Balkans; the Balkans, he said, were not worth the bones of
a single Pomeranian grenadier. Keeping Great Britain in mind, Bismarck
mounted no challenge on the Continent that might trigger a British con-
cern for the equilibrium, and he kept Germany out of the colonial race.
“Here is Russia and here is France and here we are in the middle. That
is my map of Africa,” was Bismarck’s reply to an advocate of German
colonialism 12 — a piece of advice domestic politics would later force him
to modify.
Reassurance was not enough, however. What Germany needed was an
alliance with both Russia and Austria, improbable as that appeared at first
glance. Yet Bismarck forged just such an alliance in 1873 — the first so-
called Three Emperors’ League. Proclaiming the unity of the three conser-
vative courts, it looked a great deal like Metternich’s Holy Alliance. Had
Bismarck suddenly developed an affection for the Metternich system
which he had done so much to destroy? The times had changed largely
as a result of Bismarck’s successes. Though Germany, Russia, and Austria
pledged in true Metternich fashion to cooperate in the repression of
subversive tendencies in each other’s domains, a common aversion to
political radicals could no longer hold the Eastern Courts together —
above all because each had become confident that domestic upheavals
could be repressed without outside aid.
Moreover, Bismarck had lost his solid legitimist credentials. Though
his correspondence with Gerlach (see chapter 5) had not been made
public, his underlying attitudes were common knowledge. As an advocate
of Realpolitik throughout his public career, he could not suddenly make
dedication to legitimacy credible. The increasingly bitter geopolitical ri-
valry between Russia and Austria came to transcend the unity of conserva-
tive monarchs. Each was in pursuit of the Balkan spoils of the decaying
Turkish Empire. Pan-Slavism and old-fashioned expansionism were con-
tributing to an adventurous Russian policy in the Balkans. Plain fear was
producing parallel attitudes in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thus, while
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
on paper the German Emperor had an alliance with his fellow conserva-
tive monarchs in Russia and Austria, these two brethren were in fact at
each other’s throats. The challenge of how to deal with two partners who
perceived each other as mortal threats was destined to torment Bis-
marck’s alliance system for the remainder of his days.
The first Three Emperors’ League taught Bismarck that he could no
longer control the forces he had unleashed by appealing to Austria’s and
Russia’s domestic principles. Henceforth, he would attempt to manipulate
them by emphasizing power and self-interest.
Two events above all demonstrated that Realpolitik had become the
dominant trend of the period. The first occurred in 1875 in the form of a
pseudo-crisis, a contrived war scare triggered by an editorial in a leading
German newspaper bearing the provocative headline “Is War Imminent?”
The editorial had been placed in reaction to an increase in French mili-
tary expenditures and the purchase of a large number of horses by the
French military. Bismarck may well have inspired the war scare without
intending to go any further, for there was no partial German mobilization
or threatening troop movements.
Facing down a nonexistent threat is an easy way to enhance a nation’s
standing. Clever French diplomacy created the impression that Germany
was planning a pre-emptive attack. The French Foreign Office put out the
story that, in a conversation with the French Ambassador, the Tsar had
indicated he would support France in a Franco-German conflict. Great
Britain, ever sensitive to the threat of a single power dominating Europe,
began to stir. Prime Minister Disraeli instructed his Foreign Secretary,
Lord Derby, to approach Russian Chancellor Gorchakov with the idea of
intimidating Berlin.-
My own impression is that we should construct some concerted move-
ment to preserve the peace of Europe like Pam [Lord Palmerston] did
when he baffled France and expelled the Egyptians from Syria. There
might be an alliance between Russia and ourselves for this special
purpose; and other powers, as Austria and perhaps Italy might be in-
vited to accede. . . , 13
That Disraeli, deeply distrustful of Russia’s imperial ambitions, could even
hint at an Anglo-Russian alliance showed how seriously he took the pros-
pect of German domination of Western Europe. The war scare subsided
as quickly as it had blown up, so Disraeli’s scheme was never tested.
Although Bismarck did not know the details of Disraeli’s maneuver, he
was too astute not to have sensed Britain’s underlying concern.
As George Kennan has demonstrated, 14 there was far less to this crisis
than the publicity made it seem. Bismarck had no intention of going to
war so soon after humiliating France, though he did not object to leaving
France with the impression that he might do so if pushed too far. Tsar
Alexander II was not about to guarantee republican France, though he
did not mind conveying to Bismarck that that option existed. 15 Thus,
Disraeli was reacting to what was still a chimera. Still, the combination of
British uneasiness, French maneuvering, and Russian ambivalence con-
vinced Bismarck that only an active policy could stave off the coalition-
building which would result a generation later in the Triple Entente,
aimed at Germany.
The second crisis was real enough. It came in the form of yet another
Balkan crisis, which demonstrated that neither philosophical nor ideolog-
ical bonds could hold the Three Emperors’ League together in the face
of the underlying clash of national interests. Because it laid bare the
conflict which would ultimately doom Bismarck’s European order and
plunge Europe into World War I, it will be treated here in some detail.
The Eastern Question, dormant since the Crimean War, again came
to dominate the international agenda in the first series of convoluted
imbroglios, which, as the century progressed, would become as stereo-
typed as Japanese Kabuki plays. Some almost accidental event would
trigger a crisis; Russia would make threats and Great Britain would dis-
patch the Royal Navy. Russia would then occupy some part of the Ottoman
Balkans to hold as hostage. Great Britain would threaten war. Negotia-
tions would start, during which Russia would reduce its demands, at
which precise point the whole thing would blow up.
In 1876, the Bulgarians, who for centuries had lived under Turkish
rule, rebelled and were joined by other Balkan peoples. Turkey re-
sponded with appalling brutality, and Russia, swept up by Pan-Slavic senti-
ments, threatened to intervene.
In London, Russia’s response raised the all-too-familiar specter of Rus-
sian control of the Straits. Ever since Canning, British statesmen had
observed the maxim that, if Russia controlled the Straits, it would domi-
nate the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, thereby threatening
Great Britain’s position in Egypt. Therefore, according to British conven-
tional wisdom, the Ottoman Empire, decrepit and inhuman as it was, had
to be preserved even at the risk of war with Russia.
This state of affairs presented Bismarck with a grave dilemma. A Russian
advance capable of provoking a British military reaction was also likely to
rouse Austria to enter the fray. And if Germany was forced to choose
between Austria and Russia, Bismarck’s foreign policy would be wrecked
along with the Three Emperors’ League. Whatever happened, Bismarck
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
faced the risk of antagonizing either Austria or Russia, and of quite possi-
bly incurring the wrath of all the parties if he adopted a neutral attitude.
“We have always avoided,” Bismarck said before the Reichstag in 1878, “in
the case of differences of opinion between Austria and Russia, building a
majority of two against one by taking the side of one of [the] parties — ” 16
The moderation was classical Bismarck, though it also defined a mount-
ing dilemma as the crisis unfolded. Bismarck’s first move was to attempt
to tighten the bonds of the Three Emperors’ League by seeking to develop
a common position. In early 1876, the Three Emperors’ League drew up
the so-called Berlin Memorandum warning Turkey against continuing its
repression. It seemed to imply that, with certain provisos, Russia might
intervene in the Balkans on behalf of the Concert of Europe, much as
Metternich’s Congresses of Verona, Laibach, and Troppau had designated
some European power to carry out their decisions.
But there was one enormous difference between taking such action
then and doing so now. In Metternich’s day, Castlereagh was the British
Foreign Secretary and had been sympathetic to intervention by the Holy
Alliance, even though Great Britain had refused to participate in it. But
now Disraeli was the Prime Minister, and he interpreted the Berlin Mem-
orandum as the first step toward dismantling the Ottoman Empire to the
exclusion of Great Britain. This was too close to the European hegemony
Great Britain had been opposing for centuries. Complaining to Shuvalov,
the Russian Ambassador to London, Disraeli said: “England has been
treated as though we were Montenegro or Bosnia.” 17 To his frequent
correspondent Lady Bradford, he wrote:
There is no balance and unless we go out of our way to act with the
three Northern Powers, they can act without us which is not agreeable
for a state like England. 18
Given the unity being displayed by St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Vienna, it
would have been exceedingly difficult for Great Britain to resist whatever
they might agree upon. It appeared that Disraeli had no choice but to
join the Northern Courts while Russia assaulted Turkey.
However, in the tradition of Palmerston, Disraeli decided to flex British
muscles. He moved the Royal Navy to the Eastern Mediterranean and
proclaimed his pro-Turkish sentiments — guaranteeing that Turkey would
prove obdurate, and forcing whatever latent differences existed in the
Three Emperors’ League into the open. Never known for excessive mod-
esty, Disraeli declared to Queen Victoria that he had broken the Three
Emperors’ League. It was, he believed, “virtually extinct, as extinct as the
Roman triumvirate.” 19
Benjamin Disraeli was one of the strangest and most extraordinary
figures ever to head a British government. Upon learning that he would
be named Prime Minister in 1868, he exulted: “Hurray! Hurray! I’ve
climbed to the top of the greasy pole!” By contrast, when Disraeli’s per-
manent adversary, William Ewart Gladstone, was invited to succeed him
that same year, the former penned a prolix reflection on the responsibili-
ties of power and his sacred duties to God, which included the prayer
that the Almighty imbue him with the fortitude required to carry out the
grave responsibilities of the prime minister’s office.
The pronouncements of the two great men who dominated British
politics in the second half of the nineteenth century capture their antipo-
dal natures: Disraeli — meretricious, brilliant, and mercurial; Gladstone —
learned, pious, and grave. It was no small irony that the Victorian Tory
Party, composed of country squires and devoutly Anglican aristocratic
families, should have produced as its leader this brilliant Jewish adven-
turer, and that the party of quintessential insiders should have brought to
the forefront of the world’s stage the quintessential outsider. No Jew had
ever risen to such heights in British politics. A century later, it would
again be the seemingly hidebound Tories rather than the self-consciously
progressive Labour Party that would bring Margaret Thatcher into office
— a greengrocer’s daughter who proved to be another remarkable leader
and Great Britain’s first female prime minister.
Disraeli’s had been an unlikely career. A novelist as a young man, he
was more a member of the literati than a policymaker, and was much
more likely to have concluded his life as a scintillating writer and conver-
sationalist than as one of the seminal British political figures of the nine-
teenth century. Like Bismarck, Disraeli believed in expanding the vote to
the common man, convinced that the middle classes in England would
vote Conservative.
As Tory leader, Disraeli articulated a new form of imperialism different
from the essentially commercial expansion Great Britain had practiced
since the seventeenth century — by which, it was said, it had built an
empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. For Disraeli, the Empire was not an
economic necessity but a spiritual one, and a prerequisite to his country’s
greatness. “The issue is not a mean one,” he proclaimed in his famous
1872 Crystal Palace speech. “It is whether you will be content to be a
comfortable England, modeled and molded upon Continental principles
and meeting in due course an inevitable fate, or whether you will be a
great country — an Imperial country — a country where your sons, when
they rise, rise to paramount positions, and obtain not merely the esteem
of their countrymen, but command the respect of the world.” 20
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
Adhering to convictions such as these, Disraeli was bound to oppose
Russia’s threat to the Ottoman Empire. In the name of the European
equilibrium, he would not accept the prescriptions of the Three Emper-
ors’ League, and in the name of the British Empire, he would oppose
Russia as the enforcer of a European consensus on the approaches to
Constantinople. For, in the course of the nineteenth century, the notion
that Russia was the principal threat to Great Britain’s position in the
world had taken firm hold. Great Britain perceived its overseas interests
menaced by a Russian pincer movement, one prong of which was aimed
at Constantinople and the other at India via Central Asia. In the course of
its expansion across Central Asia during the second half of the nineteenth
century, Russia had elaborated methods of conquest which would be-
come stereotyped. The victim was always so far from the center of world
affairs that few Westerners had any precise idea of what was taking place.
They could thus fall back on their preconceptions that the tsar was in fact
benevolent and his subordinates were bellicose, turning distance and
confusion into tools of Russian diplomacy.
Of the European Powers, only Great Britain concerned itself with Cen-
tral Asia. As Russian expansion pushed ever southward in the direction of
India, London’s protests were stonewalled by Chancellor Prince Alek-
sandr Gorchakov, who often did not know what the Russian armies were
doing. Lord Augustus Loftus, the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg,
speculated that Russia’s pressure on India “had not originated with the
Sovereign, although he is an absolute monarch, but rather from the domi-
nant part played by the military administration. Where an enormous
standing army is maintained, it is absolutely necessary to find employ-
ment for it. . . . When a system of conquest sets in, as in Central Asia, one
acquisition of territory leads to another, and the difficulty is where to
stop.” 21 This observation, of course, practically replicated Gorchakov’s
own words (see page 141, above). On the other hand, the British Cabinet
did not much care whether Russia was threatening India by momentum
or out of deliberate imperialism.
The same pattern was repeated again and again. Each year, Russian
troops would penetrate deeper into the heart of Central Asia. Great Brit-
ain would ask for an explanation and receive all kinds of assurances that
the Tsar did not intend to annex one square meter of land. At first, such
soothing words were able to put matters to rest. But, inevitably, another
Russian advance would reopen the issue. For instance, after the Russian
army occupied Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan) in May 1868, Gor-
chakov told the British Ambassador, Sir Andrew Buchanan, “that the Rus-
sian Government not only did not wish, but that they deeply regretted,
the occupation of that city, and he was assured that it would not be
permanently retained.” 22 Samarkand, of course, remained under Russian
sovereignty until the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a century
In 1872, the same charade was repeated a few hundred miles to the
southeast with respect to the principality of Khiva on the border of pres-
ent-day Afghanistan. Count Shuvalov, the Tsar’s aide-de-camp, was sent to
London to reassure the British that Russia had no intention of annexing
additional territory in Central Asia:
Not only was it far from the intention of the Emperor to take possession
of Khiva, but positive orders had been prepared to prevent it, and
directions given that conditions imposed should be such as could not
in any way lead to a prolonged occupation of Khiva . 23
These assurances had hardly been uttered when word arrived that Rus-
sian General Kaufmann had crushed Khiva and imposed a treaty which
was the dramatic opposite of Shuvalov’s assertions.
In 1875, these methods were applied to Kokand, another principality
on the border of Afghanistan. On this occasion, Chancellor Gorchakov
felt some need to justify the gap between Russia’s assurances and its
actions. Ingeniously, he devised an unprecedented distinction between
unilateral assurances (which, according to his definition, had no binding
force) and formal, bilateral engagements. “The Cabinet in London,” he
wrote in a note, “appears to derive, from the fact of our having on several
occasions spontaneously and amicably communicated to them our views
with respect to Central Asia, and particularly our firm resolve not to
pursue a policy of conquest or annexation, a conviction that we have
contracted definite engagements toward them in regard to this matter.” 24
In other words, Russia would insist on a free hand in Central Asia, would
set its own limits, and not be bound even by its own assurances.
Disraeli was not about to permit a replay of these methods at the
approaches to Constantinople. He encouraged the Ottoman Turks to re-
ject the Berlin Memorandum and to continue their depredations in the
Balkans. Despite this show of British firmness, Disraeli was under severe
domestic pressure. The Turks’ atrocities had turned British public opin-
ion against them, and Gladstone was railing against the amorality of Dis-
raeli’s foreign policy. Disraeli thus felt obliged to accede to the London
Protocol of 1877, in which he joined the three Northern courts in calling
on Turkey to end the slaughter in the Balkans and to reform its adminis-
tration in the region. The Sultan, however, convinced that Disraeli was
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
on his side no matter what formal demands were made, rejected even
this document. Russia’s response was a declaration of war.
For a moment, it appeared as if Russia had won the diplomatic game.
Not only was it backed by the other two Northern courts, but by France
as well, in addition to having a good deal of support in British public
opinion. Disraeli’s hands were tied; going to war on behalf of Turkey
might well bring down his government.
But, as in many previous crises, the Russian leaders overplayed their
hand. Led by the brilliant but reckless general and diplomat Nicholas
Ignatyev, Russian troops arrived at the gates of Constantinople. Austria
began to reconsider its backing of the Russian campaign. Disraeli moved
British warships into the Dardanelles. At that point, Ignatyev shocked all
of Europe by announcing the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, which
would emasculate Turkey and create a “Big Bulgaria.” Extending to the
Mediterranean Sea, this enlarged state, it was widely assumed, would be
dominated by Russia.
Since 1815, conventional wisdom in Europe had deemed that the fate
of the Ottoman Empire could only be resolved by the Concert of Europe
as a whole and not by any one power, least of all by Russia. Ignatyev’s
Treaty of San Stefano raised the possibilities of Russian control of the
Straits, which was intolerable to Great Britain, and Russian control of the
Balkan Slavs, which was intolerable to Austria. Both Great Britain and
Austria-Hungary, therefore, declared that the Treaty was unacceptable.
Suddenly, Disraeli no longer stood alone. To Russia’s leaders, his
moves signaled the ominous portent of a return of the Crimean War
coalition. When Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury issued his famous Mem-
orandum of April 1878 outlining why the Treaty of San Stefano had to be
revised, even Shuvalov, the Russian Ambassador to London and a long-
time rival of Ignatyev, agreed. Great Britain threatened war if Russia
moved into Constantinople, while Austria threatened war over the divi-
sion of the spoils in the Balkans.
Bismarck’s cherished Three Emperors’ League teetered on the verge
of collapse. Until this moment, Bismarck had been extraordinarily cir-
cumspect. In August 1876, a year before Russian armies moved on Turkey
“for the cause of Orthodoxy and Slavdom,” Gorchakov had proposed to
Bismarck that the Germans host a congress to settle the Balkan crisis.
Whereas Metternich or Napoleon III would have jumped at the opportu-
nity to play chief mediator of the Concert of Europe, Bismarck demurred,
believing that a congress could only make the differences within the
Three Emperors’ League explicit. He confided privately that all the partici-
pants, including Great Britain, would emerge from such a congress “ill-
disposed towards us because not one of them would receive from us the
support which he expected.” 25 Bismarck also thought it unwise to bring
Disraeli and Gorchakov together — “ministers of equally dangerous van-
ity,” was how he described them.
Nevertheless, as it increasingly appeared that the Balkans would be-
come the fuse to set off a general European war, Bismarck reluctantly
organized a congress in Berlin, the only capital to which the Russian
leaders were willing to come. Yet he preferred to keep his distance from
the day-to-day diplomacy, prevailing upon Austro-Hungarian Foreign Min-
ister Andrassy to send out the invitations.
The Congress was scheduled to assemble on June 13, 1878. Before it
met, however, Great Britain and Russia had already settled the key issues
in an agreement between Lord Salisbury and the new Russian Foreign
Minister, Shuvalov, signed on May 30. The “Big Bulgaria” created by the
Treaty of San Stefano was replaced by three new entities: a much-reduced,
independent state of Bulgaria; the state of Eastern Rumelia, an autono-
mous entity that was technically under a Turkish governor but whose
administration would be overseen by a European Commission (a forerun-
ner of United Nations peacekeeping projects of the twentieth century);
the rest of Bulgaria reverted to Turkish rule. Russia’s gains in Armenia
were reduced. In separate secret agreements, Great Britain promised
Austria that it would support Austria’s occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina,
and assured the Sultan that it would guarantee Asiatic Turkey. In return,
the Sultan gave England the use of Cyprus as a naval base.
By the time the Congress of Berlin met, the danger of war which had
induced Bismarck to agree to host the gathering had largely dissipated.
The main function of the Congress was to give Europe’s blessing to what
had already been negotiated. One wonders whether Bismarck would
have risked placing himself in the inherently precarious role of mediator
had he been able to foresee this outcome. Of course, it is likely that the
very imminence of a congress had caused Russia and England to settle
separately and rapidly, not wishing to expose to the vagaries of a Euro-
pean congress gains which were far more attainable from each other in
direct negotiations.
Working out the details of an already concluded agreement is not
exactly heroic work. All the major countries except Great Britain were
represented by their foreign ministers. For the first time in British history,
both a prime minister and a foreign minister attended an international
congress outside the British Isles because Disraeli did not want to dele-
gate the already largely assured prospect of a major diplomatic achieve-
ment to Salisbury. The vain and aged Gorchakov, who had negotiated
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
with Metternich at the Congresses of Laibach and Verona more than half
a century before, chose the Congress of Berlin for his final appearance
on the international stage. “I do not wish to be extinguished like a lamp
that is smoking. I want to sink down as though I were a star,” he declared
upon his arrival in Berlin . 26
When asked to reflect on the center of gravity at the Congress, Bismarck
pointed to Disraeli: "Der alte Jude, das ist derMann” (The old Jew, he is
the man ). 27 Though their backgrounds could not have been more differ-
ent, these two men came to admire each other. Both subscribed to Real-
politik and hated what they considered moralistic cant. The religious
overtones of Gladstone’s pronouncements (a man both Disraeli and Bis-
marck detested) seemed pure humbug to them. Neither Bismarck nor
Disraeli had any sympathy for the Balkan Slavs, whom they viewed as
chronic and violent troublemakers. Both men were given to biting, cyni-
cal quips, broad generalizations, and sarcastic barbs. Bored with nettle-
some detail, Bismarck and Disraeli preferred to approach policy in bold,
dramatic strokes.
It can be argued that Disraeli was the only statesman who ever got the
better of Bismarck. Disraeli arrived at the Congress in the impregnable
position of having already achieved his aims — a position which Castle-
reagh had enjoyed at Vienna, and Stalin after the Second World War. The
remaining issues concerned the details of implementing the previous
agreement between Great Britain and Russia, and the essentially technical
military question of whether Turkey or the new Bulgaria should control
the Balkan passes. For Disraeli, the strategic problem at the Congress was
to deflect from Great Britain as much as possible Russia’s frustration at
having to relinquish some of its conquests.
Disraeli succeeded because Bismarck’s own position was so compli-
cated. Bismarck perceived no German interest in the Balkans, and basi-
cally had no preference with respect to the issues at hand other than that
war between Austria and Russia had to be avoided at nearly any cost. He
described his role at the Congress as that of the “ehrlicher Makler” (hon-
est broker) and introduced almost every statement at the Congress with
the words: “L’Mlemagne, qui nest liee par aucun interet direct dans les
affaires d’Orient ...” (Germany, which has no direct interest of any kind
in Eastern questions . . . ). 28
Though Bismarck understood the game being played all too well, he
nevertheless felt like a person in a nightmare who sees danger ap-
proaching but is unable to avoid it. When the German parliament urged
Bismarck to take a stronger stand, he retorted that he intended to steer
clear. Bismarck pointed out the perils of mediation by referring to an
incident in 1851 when Tsar Nicholas I had intervened between Austria
and Prussia, in effect on Austria’s side:
Then Tsar Nicholas played the role that [my opponent] now presumes
to give Germany; he (Nicholas) came and said: “The first one who
shoots, I’ll shoot,” and as a result peace was maintained. To whose
advantage, and to whose disadvantage, that belongs to history, and I
don’t want to discuss it here. I am simply asking, was this role that Tsar
Nicholas played, in which he took one side, ever repaid in gratitude?
Certainly not by us in Prussia! . . . Was Tsar Nicholas thanked by Austria?
Three years later came the Crimean War, and I don’t need to say any-
thing more. 29
Nor, he might have added, did the Tsar’s intervention prevent Prussia
from ultimately consolidating Northern Germany — the real issue in 1851.
Bismarck played the hand he had been dealt as well as possible. His
approach was generally to back Russia on questions concerning the east-
ern part of the Balkans (such as the annexation of Bessarabia) and to
support Austria on those relating to the western part (such as the occupa-
tion of Bosnia-Herzegovina). On only one issue did he come down
against Russia. When Disraeli threatened to leave the Congress unless
Turkey was left in possession of the mountain passes facing Bulgaria,
Bismarck interceded with the Tsar to overrule the Russian negotiator,
In this manner, Bismarck avoided the estrangement with Russia that
had befallen Austria after the Crimean War. But he did not emerge un-
scathed. Many leading Russians felt cheated of victory. Russia might defer
territorial gains for the sake of legitimacy (as Alexander I did in the Greek
rebellion in the 1820s, and Nicholas I during the revolutions of 1848),
but Russia never relinquished an ultimate objective or accepted compro-
mise as just. Checks to Russian expansionism generally produced sullen
Thus, after the Congress of Berlin, Russia blamed its failure to achieve
all of its aims on the Concert of Europe rather than on its own excessive
ambition; not on Disraeli, who had organized the coalition against Russia
and threatened war, but on Bismarck, who had managed the Congress in
order to avoid a European war. Russia had grown accustomed to British
opposition; but that the role of honest broker was being assumed by a
traditional ally like Germany was treated by Pan-Slavists as an affront. The
Russian nationalist press styled the Congress as a “European coalition
against Russia under the leadership of Prince Bismarck,” 30 who was
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
turned into a scapegoat for Russia’s failure to achieve its exorbitant
Shuvalov, the principal Russian negotiator at Berlin, who was therefore
in a position to know the real state of affairs, summed up Russian jingo-
istic attitudes in the aftermath of the Congress:
One prefers to leave people with the mad illusion that Russia’s interests
have been grievously damaged by the action of certain foreign powers,
and in this way one gives sustenance to the most pernicious agitation.
Everyone wants peace; the condition of the country urgently demands
it, but at the same time one tries to divert to the outside world the
effects of the discontents produced, in reality, by the mistakes of one’s
own policies. 31
Shuvalov, however, did not reflect Russian public opinion. Though the
Tsar himself did not venture as far as his jingoist press or radical Pan-
Slavists, neither was he fully reconciled to the outcome of the Congress.
In the decades ahead, German perfidy at Berlin would become the staple
of many a Russian policy document, including several just prior to the
outbreak of World War I. The Three Emperors’ League, based on the unity
of conservative monarchs, could no longer be maintained. Henceforth, if
there was to be any cohesive force in international affairs, it would have
to be Realpolitik itself.
In the 1850s, Bismarck had advocated a policy which was the Continen-
tal equivalent of England’s own policy of “splendid isolation.” He had
urged aloofness from entanglements before throwing Prussia’s weight
behind whichever side seemed best to serve the Prussian national interest
at any given point. This approach avoided alliances, which limited free-
dom of action, and above all, gave Prussia more options than any potential
rival. During the 1870s, Bismarck sought to consolidate the unification of
Germany by returning to the traditional alliance with Austria and Russia.
But in the 1880s, an unprecedented situation came about. Germany was
too strong to stand aloof, for that might unite Europe against it. Nor could
it any longer rely on the historic, almost reflexive, support of Russia.
Germany was a giant in need of friends.
Bismarck solved this dilemma by completely reversing his previous
approach to foreign policy. If he could no longer operate the balance of
power by having fewer commitments than any potential adversary, he
would arrange more relationships with more countries than any conceiv-
able opponent and thereby be able to choose among many allies, as
circumstances required. Abandoning the freedom of maneuver which
had characterized his diplomacy for the previous twenty years, Bismarck
began to build a system of alliances deftly engineered on the one hand
to keep Germany’s potential adversaries from coalescing and, on the
other, to restrain the actions of Germany’s partners. In each of Bismarck’s
sometimes contradictory coalitions, Germany was always closer to the
various partners than any of them was to each other; hence Bismarck
always had a veto over common action as well as an option of indepen-
dent action. For a decade he succeeded in maintaining pacts with his
allies’ adversaries so that he could restrain tension on all sides.
Bismarck initiated his new policy in 1879 by making a secret alliance
with Austria. Aware of Russia’s resentment after the Congress of Berlin,
he now hoped to build a barrier to further Russian expansion. Unwilling,
however, to permit Austria to use German backing to challenge Russia,
he also secured a veto over Austrian policy in the Balkans. The warmth
with which Salisbury greeted the Austro-German alliance — with the bibli-
cal good “tidings of great joy” — assured Bismarck that he was not alone
in wanting to check Russian expansionism. Salisbury no doubt hoped that
henceforth Austria, backed by Germany, would assume Great Britain’s
burden of resisting Russian expansion toward the Straits. Fighting battles
for other countries’ national interest was not Bismarck’s specialty. Fie was
especially loath to do so in the Balkans, because he felt such deep disdain
for that region’s quarrels. “One must give these sheep-stealers plainly to
understand,” he rumbled about the Balkans on one occasion, “that the
European governments have no need to harness themselves to their lusts
and their rivalries.” 32 Unfortunately for the peace of Europe, his succes-
sors would forget these words of caution.
Bismarck proposed to restrain Russia in the Balkans through alliance
rather than confrontation. For his part, the Tsar was brought up short at
the prospect of isolation. Considering Great Britain to be Russia’s chief
adversary and France still too weak and, above all, too republican to be a
plausible ally, the Tsar agreed to resurrect the Three Emperors’ League,
this time on the basis of Realpolitik.
The benefit of an alliance with his principal opponent was not immedi-
ately apparent to the Austrian Emperor. He would have preferred a group-
ing with Great Britain, with which he shared a common interest in
blocking Russia’s advance toward the Straits. But Disraeli’s defeat in 1880
and Gladstone’s advent to power had ended that prospect; Great Britain’s
participation, even indirectly, in a pro-Turkish, anti-Russian alliance was
no longer in the cards.
The second Three Emperors’ League made no pretense to any moral
concerns. Expressed in the precise conditionality of Realpolitik, it com-
mitted its signatories to benevolent neutrality in the event that one of
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
them engaged in a war with a fourth country — for instance, should En-
gland go to war with Russia, or France with Germany. Germany was thus
protected against a two-front war, and Russia was protected against the
restoration of the Crimean coalition (of Great Britain, France, and Aus-
tria), while Germany’s commitment to defend Austria against aggression
remained intact. Responsibility for resisting Russian expansionism in the
Balkans was shifted onto Great Britain by precluding Austria from joining
a coalition aimed at Russia — at least on paper. By balancing partially
offsetting alliances, Bismarck was able to achieve almost the same free-
dom of action he had enjoyed in his previous phase of diplomatic aloof-
ness. Above all, he had removed the incentives that might have turned a
local crisis into a general war.
In 1882, the year following the second Three Emperors’ League, Bis-
marck cast his net even more widely by persuading Italy to transform
the Dual Alliance between Austria and Germany into a Triple Alliance,
including Italy. In general, Italy had stayed aloof from the diplomacy of
Central Europe, but it now resented the French conquest of Tunisia,
which had pre-empted its own designs in North Africa. Likewise, the
shaky Italian monarchy thought that some demonstration of Great Power
diplomacy might enable it to resist better the rising tide of republican-
ism. For its part, Austria sought additional insurance should the Three
Emperors’ League prove incapable of restraining Russia. In forming the
Triple Alliance, Germany and Italy pledged mutual assistance against a
French attack, while Italy pledged neutrality to Austria-Hungary in case
of a war with Russia, easing Austrian worries about a two-front war. Fi-
nally, in 1887, Bismarck encouraged his two allies, Austria and Italy, to
conclude the so-called Mediterranean Agreements with Great Britain, by
which the parties agreed to preserve jointly the status quo in the Mediter-
Bismarck’s diplomacy had produced a series of interlocking alliances,
partially overlapping and partially competitive, which ensured Austria
against Russian attack, Russia against Austrian adventurism, and Germany
against encirclement, and which drew England into resisting Russian
expansion toward the Mediterranean. To reduce challenges to his intri-
cate system, Bismarck did his utmost to satisfy French ambitions every-
where except in Alsace-Lorraine. He encouraged French colonial
expansion, in part to deflect French energies from Central Europe, but
more to embroil France with colonial rivals, especially Great Britain.
For over a decade, that calculation proved accurate. France and Great
Britain nearly clashed over Egypt, France became estranged from Italy
over Tunisia, and Great Britain continued to oppose Russia in Central
Asia and on the approaches to Constantinople. Eager to avoid conflict
with England, Bismarck eschewed colonial expansion until the mid-
1880s, limiting Germany’s foreign policy to the Continent, where his aims
were to preserve the status quo.
But, in the end, the requirements of Realpolitik became too intricate to
sustain. With the passage of time, the conflict between Austria and Russia
in the Balkans became unmanageable. Had the balance of power oper-
ated in its purest form, the Balkans would have been divided into Russian
and Austrian spheres of influence. But public opinion was already too
inflamed for such a policy, even in the most autocratic states. Russia could
not agree to spheres of influence which left Slavic populations to Austria,
and Austria would not agree to strengthening what it considered Russia’s
Slavic dependencies in the Balkans.
Bismarck’s eighteenth-century-style Cabinet Diplomacy was becoming
incompatible with an age of mass public opinion. The two representative
governments of Great Britain and France responded to their public opin-
ions as a matter of course. In France, this meant mounting pressure for
the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine. But the most striking example of the vital
new role of public opinion was in Great Britain, when Gladstone defeated
Disraeli in 1880 in the only British election fought largely over foreign
policy issues, and then reversed Disraeli’s Balkan policy.
Gladstone, perhaps the dominant figure of British politics in the nine-
teenth century, viewed foreign policy in much the same way as Americans
did after Wilson. Judging foreign policy by moral instead of geopolitical
criteria, he argued that the national aspirations of the Bulgarians were in
fact legitimate, and that, as a fellow Christian nation, Great Britain owed
support to Bulgaria against the Muslim Turks. The Turks should be made
to behave, argued Gladstone, by a coalition of powers which would then
assume responsibility for the administration of Bulgaria. Gladstone put
forth the same concept that came to be known under President Wilson as
“collective security”: Europe needed to act jointly, otherwise Great Britain
should not act at all.
It must be done, it can only be done with safety, by the united action of
the Powers of Europe. Your power is great; but what is above all things
essential is, that the mind and heart of Europe in this matter should be
one. I need now only speak of the six whom we call great Powers; of
Russia, Germany, Austria, France, England, and Italy. The union of them
all is not only important, but almost indispensable for entire success
and satisfaction. 33
In 1880, Gladstone, offended by Disraeli’s emphasis on geopolitics,
launched his landmark Midlothian Campaign, the first whistle-stop cam-
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
paign in history and the first in which the issues of foreign policy were
taken directly to the people. In his old age, Gladstone suddenly came into
his own as a public speaker. Asserting that morality was the only basis for
a sound foreign policy, Gladstone insisted that Christian decency and
respect for human rights ought to be the guiding lights of British foreign
policy, not the balance of power and the national interest. At one stop, he
Remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan is
as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own. Remember
that He who has united you as human beings in the same flesh and
blood has bound you by the law of mutual love . . . not limited by the
boundaries of Christian civilization 34
Gladstone blazed a trail which Wilson later followed when he claimed
that there could be no distinction between the morality of the individual
and the morality of the state. Like Wilson a generation later, he thought
that he had detected a global trend toward peaceful change policed by
world public opinion:
Certain it is that a new law of nations is gradually taking hold of the
mind, and coming to sway the practice, of the world; a law which
recognises independence, which frowns upon aggression, which fa-
vours the pacific, not the bloody settlement of disputes, which aims at
permanent and not temporary adjustments; above all, which recognises,
as a tribunal of paramount authority, the general judgement of civilised
mankind. 35
Every word in this paragraph could have been uttered by Wilson and the
implication of it was certainly very similar to Wilson’s League of Nations.
In drawing a distinction between his policy and Disraeli’s in 1879, Glad-
stone stressed that, rather than practicing a balance of power, he would
strive “to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. And why? Be-
cause by keeping all in union together you neutralize and fetter and
bind up the selfish aims of each Common action is fatal to selfish
aims. . . .” 36 Of course, the inability to keep all of Europe together was the
precise cause for mounting tensions. No cause was foreseeable — cer-
tainly not the future of Bulgaria — that could heal the breach between
France and Germany, or between Austria and Russia.
No British prime minister before Gladstone had used such rhetoric.
Castlereagh had treated the Concert of Europe as an instrument for en-
forcing the Vienna settlement. Palmerston saw it as a tool for preserving
the balance of power. Far from viewing the Concert of Europe as an
enforcer of the status quo, Gladstone assigned it the revolutionary role
of bringing about an entirely new world order. These ideas were to
remain dormant until Wilson appeared on the scene a generation later.
To Bismarck, such views were pure anathema. It is not surprising that
these two titanic figures cordially detested each other. Bismarck’s attitude
toward Gladstone paralleled that of Theodore Roosevelt toward Wilson:
he considered the great Victorian part humbug, part menace. Writing to
the German Emperor in 1883, the Iron Chancellor noted.-
Our task would be easier if in England that race of great statesmen of
earlier times who had an understanding of European politics, had not
completely died out. With such an incapable politician as Gladstone,
who is nothing but a great orator, it is impossible to pursue a policy in
which England’s position can be counted upon . 37
Gladstone’s view of his adversary was far more direct, for instance, when
he called Bismarck “the incarnation of evil.” 38
Gladstone’s ideas on foreign policy suffered the same fate as Wilson’s,
in that they stirred his compatriots to withdrawal from global affairs rather
than greater participation. On the level of day-to-day diplomacy, Glad-
stone’s coming to power in 1880 made little difference to Great Britain’s
imperial policy in Egypt and east of Suez. But it did keep England from
being a factor in the Balkans and in the European equilibrium in general.
Gladstone’s second tenure in office (1880-85) thus had the paradoxical
effect of removing the safety net under Bismarck, the most moderate of
the Continental statesmen, just as Canning’s withdrawal from Europe had
driven Metternich toward the Tsar. As long as the Palmerston/Disraeli
view dominated British foreign policy, Great Britain could serve as the
last resort whenever Russia went too far in the Balkans or on the ap-
proaches to Constantinople. With Gladstone, this assurance came to an
end, making Bismarck ever more dependent on his increasingly anachro-
nistic triangle with Austria and Russia.
The Eastern Courts — heretofore the bulwark of conservatism — in a
way proved even more susceptible to nationalistic public opinion than
the representative governments. Germany’s domestic structure had been
designed by Bismarck to permit him to apply to it the maxims of his
balance-of-power diplomacy, yet it also had a strong tendency to invite
demagoguery. Despite the fact that the Reichstag was elected by what was
the widest suffrage in Europe, German governments were appointed by
the emperor and reported to him, not to the Reichstag.
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
Thus deprived of responsibility, Reichstag members were at liberty to
indulge in the most extreme rhetoric. The fact that the military budget
was voted for periods of five years at a time tempted governments to
create crises during the crucial year in which the defense program would
be voted. Given enough time, this arrangement might well have evolved
into a constitutional monarchy with a government responsible to Parlia-
ment. But during the crucial, formative years of the new Germany, gov-
ernments were highly susceptible to nationalist propaganda and too
prone to inventing foreign dangers to rally their constituencies.
Russian foreign policy, too, suffered from the rabid propaganda of the
Pan-Slavs, whose basic themes were a call for an aggressive policy in the
Balkans and a showdown with Germany. A Russian official explained to
the Austrian ambassador toward the end of the reign of Alexander II, in
People here are simply afraid of the nationalistic press — It is the flag
of nationalism they have pinned upon themselves that protects them
and assures them of powerful support. Ever since the nationalistic ten-
dency has come so prominently to the fore, and particularly since it
succeeded in prevailing against all better advice, in the question of
going to war [against Turkey], the so-called “national” party . . . has be-
come a real power, especially because it embraces the entire army. 39
Austria, the other polyglot empire, was in a similar position.
In these circumstances, it became increasingly difficult for Bismarck to
execute his precarious balancing act. In 1881, a new tsar, Alexander III,
came to the throne in St. Petersburg, unrestrained by conservative ideol-
ogy like his grandfather, Nicholas I, or by personal affection for the aged
German Emperor, like his father, Alexander II. Indolent and autocratic,
Alexander III distrusted Bismarck, in part because Bismarck’s policy was
too complicated for him to understand. On one occasion he even said
that, whenever he saw any mention of Bismarck in a dispatch, he placed
a cross next to his name. The Tsar’s suspicions were reinforced by
his Danish wife, who could not forgive Bismarck for taking Schleswig-
Holstein from her native country.
The Bulgarian crisis of 1885 brought all these impulses to a head.
Another revolt produced the greater Bulgaria which Russia had sought so
passionately a decade earlier, and which Great Britain and Austria had
feared. Demonstrating how history can falsify the most firmly held expec-
tations, the new Bulgaria, far from being dominated by Russia, was unified
under a German prince. The court at St. Petersburg blamed Bismarck for
what the German chancellor in fact would have far preferred to avoid.
The Russian court was outraged and the Pan-Slavs, who saw a conspiracy
in every corner west of the Vistula, spread the rumor that Bismarck was
behind a diabolical anti-Russian plot. In this atmosphere, Alexander re-
fused to renew the Three Emperors’ League in 1887.
Bismarck, however, was not ready to give up on his Russian option. He
knew that, left to its own devices, Russia would sooner or later drift into
an alliance with France. Yet in the conditions of the 1880s, with Russia
and Great Britain permanently on the verge of war, such a course in-
creased Russia’s peril vis-a-vis Germany without diminishing British an-
tagonism. Moreover, Germany still had a British option, especially now
that Gladstone had left office. Alexander, in any event, had good reason
to doubt that France would run the risk of war over the Balkans. In
other words, Russo-German ties still reflected a very real, if diminishing,
convergence of national interests and not simply Bismarck’s predilections
— though, without his diplomatic skill, these common interests would
not have found formal expression.
Ever ingenious, Bismarck now came up with his last major initiative,
the so-called Reinsurance Treaty. Germany and Russia promised each
other to stay neutral in a war with a third country unless Germany at-
tacked France, or Russia attacked Austria. Theoretically, Russia and Ger-
many were now guaranteed against a two-front war, provided they stayed
on the defensive. However, much depended on how the aggressor was
defined, especially since mobilization was becoming increasingly equated
with a declaration of war (see chapter 8). Since that question was never
posed, there were obvious limits to the Reinsurance Treaty, the utility of
which was further impaired by the Tsar’s insistence on keeping it secret.
The secrecy of the agreement was the clearest illustration of the conflict
between the requirements of cabinet diplomacy and the imperatives of
an increasingly democratized foreign policy. Matters had become so com-
plex that two levels of secrecy existed within the secret Reinsurance
Treaty. The second level was a particularly confidential codicil in which
Bismarck promised not to stand in the way of Russia’s attempt to acquire
Constantinople, and to help increase Russian influence in Bulgaria. Nei-
ther assurance would have gladdened Germany’s ally, Austria, not to
speak of Great Britain — though Bismarck would hardly have been un-
happy had Great Britain and Russia become embroiled over the future of
the Straits.
Despite its complexities, the Reinsurance Treaty maintained the in-
dispensable link between St. Petersburg and Berlin. And it reassured
St. Petersburg that, though Germany would defend the integrity of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, it would not assist in its expansion at Russia’s
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
expense. Germany thus achieved at least a delay in a Franco-Russian
That Bismarck had put his intricate foreign policy into the service of
restraint and the preservation of peace was shown by his reaction to
pressure from German military leaders urging a pre-emptive war against
Russia when the Three Emperors’ League ended in 1887. Bismarck
doused all such speculations in a speech to the Reichstag in which he
tried to give St. Petersburg a reputation to uphold as a way of discourag-
ing a Franco-Russian alliance:
Peace with Russia will not be disturbed from our side; and I do not
believe Russia will attack us. I also do not believe that the Russians are
looking around for alliances in order to attack us in company with
others, or that they would be inclined to take advantages of difficulties
that we might encounter on another side, in order to attack us with
ease. 40
Nevertheless, for all its dexterity and moderation, Bismarck’s balancing
act was due to end soon. The maneuvers were becoming too complex to
sustain, even for the master. Overlapping alliances designed to ensure
restraint led to suspicion instead, while the growing importance of public
opinion reduced everyone’s flexibility.
However skillful Bismarck’s diplomacy, the need for so high a degree
of manipulation was proof of the strains which a powerful, unified Ger-
many had placed on the European balance of power. Even while Bis-
marck was still at the helm, imperial Germany inspired disquiet. Indeed,
Bismarck’s machinations, which were intended to provide reassurance,
over time had an oddly unsettling effect, partly because his contemporar-
ies had such difficulty comprehending their increasingly convoluted na-
ture. Fearful of being outmaneuvered, they tended to hedge their bets.
But this course of action also limited flexibility, the mainspring of Real-
politik as a substitute for conflict.
Though Bismarck’s style of diplomacy was probably doomed by the
end of his period in office, it was far from inevitable that it should have
been replaced by a mindless armaments race and rigid alliances more
comparable to the later Cold War than to a traditional balance of power.
For nearly twenty years, Bismarck preserved the peace and eased interna-
tional tension with his moderation and flexibility. But he paid the price
of misunderstood greatness, for his successors and would-be imitators
could draw no better lesson from his example than multiplying arms and
waging a war which would cause the suicide of European civilization.
By 1890, the concept of the balance of power had reached the end of
its potential. It had been made necessary in the first place by the multi-
tude of states emerging from the ashes of medieval aspirations to univer-
sal empire. In the eighteenth century, its corollary of raison d’etat had
led to frequent wars whose primary function was to prevent the emer-
gence of a dominant power and the resurrection of a European empire.
The balance of power had preserved the liberties of states, not the peace
of Europe.
Balance-of-power policy reached its zenith in the forty years after the
Napoleonic Wars. It operated smoothly during this period because the
equilibrium had been deliberately designed to enhance balance, and, as
importantly, because it was buttressed by a sense of shared values, at least
among the conservative courts. After the Crimean War, that sense of
shared values gradually eroded, and matters reverted to eighteenth-
century conditions, now made all the more dangerous by modern tech-
nology and the growing role of public opinion. Even the despotic states
could appeal to their publics by invoking a foreign danger— and by sub-
stituting outside threats for democratic consensus. National consolidation
of the states of Europe reduced the number of players and the ability to
substitute diplomatic combinations for the deployment of power, while
the collapse of a shared sense of legitimacy eroded moral restraint.
Despite America’s historic aversion to the balance of power, these
lessons are relevant to post-Cold War American foreign policy. For the
first time in its history, America is currently part of an international system
in which it is the strongest country. Though a military superpower,
America can no longer impose its will because neither its power nor its
ideology lends itself to imperial ambitions. And nuclear weapons, in
which America is preponderant militarily, tend toward an equalization of
usable power.
The United States therefore finds itself increasingly in a world with
numerous similarities to nineteenth-century Europe, albeit on a global
scale. One can hope that something akin to the Metternich system evolves,
in which a balance of power is reinforced by a shared sense of values.
And in the modern age, these values would have to be democratic.
Yet Metternich had not had to create his legitimate order; it essentially
already existed. In the contemporary world, democracy is far from univer-
sal, and where it is proclaimed it is not necessarily defined in commensu-
rable terms. It is reasonable for the United States to try to buttress
equilibrium with moral consensus. To be true to itself, America must try
to forge the widest possible moral consensus around a global commit-
ment to democracy. But it dare not neglect the analysis of the balance of
power. For the quest for moral consensus becomes self-defeating when
it destroys the equilibrium.
Realpolitik Turns on Itself
If a Metternich-type system based on legitimacy is not possible, America
will have to learn to operate in a balance-of-power system, however
uncongenial it may find such a course. In the nineteenth century, there
were two models for balance-of-power systems: the British model exem-
plified by the Palmerston/Disraeli approach; and Bismarck’s model. The
British approach was to wait for the balance of power to be threatened
directly before engaging itself, and then almost always on the weaker
side; Bismarck’s approach sought to prevent challenges from arising by
establishing close relations with as many parties as possible, by building
overlapping alliance systems, and by using the resulting influence to
moderate the claims of the contenders.
Strange as it may seem in light of America’s experiences with Germany
in the course of two world wars, the Bismarck style of operating a balance
of power is probably more attuned to the traditional American approach
to international relations. The Palmerston/Disraeli method would require
a disciplined aloofness from disputes and a ruthless commitment to the
equilibrium in the face of threats. Both the disputes and the threats would
have to be assessed almost entirely in terms of balance of power. America
would find it quite difficult to marshal either the aloofness or the ruth-
lessness, not to mention the willingness to interpret international affairs
strictly in terms of power.
Bismarck’s later policy sought to restrain power in advance by some
consensus on shared objectives with various groups of countries. In an
interdependent world, America will find it difficult to practice Great Brit-
ain’s splendid isolation. But it is also unlikely that it will be able to
establish a comprehensive system of security equally applicable to all
parts of the world. The most likely — and constructive — solution would
be partially overlapping alliance systems, some focusing on security, oth-
ers on economic relations. The challenge for America will be to generate
objectives growing out of American values that can hold together these
various groupings (see chapter 31).
In any event, by the end of the nineteenth century, both of these
approaches to foreign policy were fading. Great Britain no longer felt
predominant enough to risk isolation. And Bismarck was dismissed from
office by an impatient new emperor who set himself the immodest task
of improving on the policy of the master. In the process, the balance of
power turned rigid, and Europe headed toward a catastrophe all the
more devastating because nobody believed it was possible.
A Political Doomsday Machine:
European Diplomacy Before
the First World War
By the end of the twentieth century’s first decade, the Concert of Eu-
rope, which had maintained peace for a century, had for all practical
purposes ceased to exist. The Great Powers had thrown themselves with
blind frivolity into a bipolar struggle that led to petrification into two
power blocs, anticipating the pattern of the Cold War fifty years later.
There was one important difference, however. In the age of nuclear
weapons, the avoidance of war would be a major, perhaps the principal,
foreign policy goal. At the beginning of the twentieth century, wars could
still be started with a touch of frivolity. Indeed, some European thinkers
held that periodic bloodletting was cathartic, a naive hypothesis that was
brutally punctured by the First World War.
For decades, historians have been debating who must bear responsibil-
ity for the outbreak of the First World War. Yet no one country can be
singled out for that mad dash to disaster. Each of the major powers
contributed its quota of shortsightedness and irresponsibility, and did so
A Political Doomsday Machine
with an insouciance which would never again be possible once the disas-
ter they had wrought entered the collective memory of Europe. They had
forgotten Pascal’s warning in Pensees — if they had ever known it — “We
run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to
stop us seeing it.”
There was surely enough blame to go around. The nations of Europe
transformed the balance of power into an armaments race without under-
standing that modern technology and mass conscription had made gen-
eral war the greatest threat to their security, and to European civilization
as a whole. Though all the nations of Europe contributed to the disaster
with their policies, it was Germany and Russia which undermined any
sense of restraint by their very natures.
Throughout the process of German unification, there had been little
concern about its impact on the balance of power. For 200 years, Ger-
many had been the victim, not the instigator, of the wars of Europe. In
the Thirty Years’ War, the Germans had suffered casualties estimated as
high as 30 percent of their entire population, and all the decisive battles
of the dynastic wars of the eighteenth century and of the Napoleonic Wars
were fought on German soil.
It was therefore nearly inevitable that a united Germany would aim to
prevent the recurrence of these tragedies. But it was not inevitable that
the new German state should have approached this challenge largely as a
military problem, or that German diplomats after Bismarck should have
conducted foreign policy with such bullying assertiveness. Whereas Fred-
erick the Great’s Prussia had been the weakest of the Great Powers,
soon after unification, Germany became the strongest and as such proved
disquieting to its neighbors. In order to participate in the Concert of
Europe, it therefore needed to show special restraint in its foreign policy. 1
Unfortunately, after Bismarck’s departure, moderation was the quality
Germany lacked the most.
The reason German statesmen were obsessed with naked power was
that, in contrast to other nation-states, Germany did not possess any integ-
rating philosophical framework. None of the ideals which had shaped the
modern nation-state in the rest of Europe was present in Bismarck’s
construction — not Great Britain’s emphasis on traditional liberties, the
French Revolution’s appeal to universal freedom, or even the benign
universalist imperialism of Austria. Strictly speaking, Bismarck’s Germany
did not embody the aspirations of a nation-state at all, because he had
deliberately excluded the Austrian Germans. Bismarck’s Reich was an
artifice, being foremost a greater Prussia whose principal purpose was to
increase its own power.
The absence of intellectual roots was a principal cause of the aimless-
ness of German foreign policy. The memory of having served for so
long as Europe’s main battlefield had produced a deep-seated sense of
insecurity in the German people. Though Bismarck’s empire was now
the strongest power on the Continent, German leaders always felt vaguely
threatened, as was evidenced by their obsession with military prepared-
ness compounded by bellicose rhetoric. German military planners always
thought in terms of fighting off a combination of all of Germany’s neigh-
bors simultaneously. In readying themselves for that worst-case scenario,
they helped to make it a reality. For a Germany strong enough to defeat
a coalition of all its neighbors was obviously also more than capable of
overwhelming any of them individually. At the sight of the military colos-
sus on their borders, Germany’s neighbors drew together for mutual
protection, transforming the German quest for security into an agent of
its own insecurity.
A wise and restrained policy might have postponed and perhaps even
averted the looming peril. But Bismarck’s successors, abandoning his
restraint, relied more and more on sheer strength, as expressed in one
of their favorite pronouncements — that Germany was to serve as the
hammer and not the anvil of European diplomacy. It was as if Germany
had expended so much energy on achieving nationhood that it had not
had time to think through what purpose the new state should serve.
Imperial Germany never managed to develop a concept of its own na-
tional interest. Swayed by the emotions of the moment and hampered by
an extraordinary lack of sensitivity to foreign psyches, German leaders
after Bismarck combined truculence with indecisiveness, hurling their
country, first into isolation and then into war.
Bismarck had taken great pains to downplay assertions of German
power, using his intricate system of alliances to restrain his many partners
and to keep their latent incompatibilities from erupting into war. Bis-
marck’s successors lacked the patience and the subtlety for such complex-
ity. When Emperor William I died in 1888, his son, Frederick (whose
liberalism had so worried Bismarck), governed for a mere ninety-eight
days before succumbing to throat cancer. He was succeeded by his son,
William II, whose histrionic demeanor gave observers the uneasy sense
that the ruler of Europe’s most powerful nation was both immature and
erratic. Psychologists have ascribed William’s restless bullying to an at-
tempt to compensate for having been born with a deformed arm — a
grave blow to a member of Prussia’s royal family with its exalted military
traditions. In 1890, the brash young Emperor dismissed Bismarck, refus-
ing to govern in the shadow of so towering a figure. Henceforth, it was
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the Kaiser’s diplomacy which would become so central to the peace of
Europe. Winston Churchill captured William’s essence in sardonic style:
Just strut around and pose and rattle the undrawn sword. All he wished
was to feel like Napoleon, and be like him without having had to fight
his battles. Surely less than this would not pass muster. If you are the
summit of a volcano, the least you can do is smoke. So he smoked, a
pillar of cloud by day and the gleam of fire by night, to all who gazed
from afar; and slowly and surely these perturbed observers gathered
and joined themselves together for mutual protection.
. . . but underneath all this posing and its trappings, was a very ordi-
nary, vain, but on the whole well-meaning man, hoping to pass himself
off as a second Frederick the Great. 2
What the Kaiser wanted most was international recognition of Germany’s
importance and, above all, of its power. He attempted to conduct what he
and his entourage called Weltpolitik, or global policy, without ever defin-
ing that term or its relationship to the German national interest. Beyond
the slogans lay an intellectual vacuum: truculent language masked an
inner hollowness; vast slogans obscured timidity and the lack of any sense
of direction. Boastfulness coupled with irresolution in action reflected
the legacy of two centuries of German provincialism. Even if German
policy had been wise and responsible, integrating the German colossus
into the existing international framework would have been a daunting
task. But the explosive mix of personalities and domestic institutions
prevented any such course, leading instead to a mindless foreign policy
which specialized in bringing down on Germany everything it had always
In the twenty years after Bismarck’s dismissal, Germany managed to
foster an extraordinary reversal of alliances. In 1898, France and Great
Britain had been on the verge of war over Egypt. Animosity between
Great Britain and Russia had been a constant factor of international rela-
tions for most of the nineteenth century. At various times, Great Britain
had been looking for allies against Russia, trying Germany before settling
on Japan. No one would have thought that Great Britain, France, and
Russia could possibly end up on the same side. Yet, ten years later, that
was exactly what came to pass under the impact of insistent and threaten-
ing German diplomacy.
For all the complexity of his maneuvers, Bismarck had never attempted
to go beyond the traditions of the balance of power. His successors,
however, were clearly not comfortable with the balance of power, and
never seemed to understand that, the more they magnified their own
strength, the more they would encourage the compensating coalitions
and arms buildups inherent in the system of European equilibrium.
German leaders resented the reluctance of other countries to ally
themselves with a nation that was already the strongest in Europe, and
whose strength was generating fears of German hegemony. Bullying tac-
tics seemed to Germany’s leaders the best way to bring home to their
neighbors the limits of their own strength and, presumably, the benefits
of Germany’s friendship. This taunting approach had quite the opposite
effect. Trying to achieve absolute security for their country, German lead-
ers after Bismarck threatened every other European nation with absolute
insecurity, triggering countervailing coalitions nearly automatically. There
are no diplomatic shortcuts to domination; the only route that leads to it
is war, a lesson the provincial leaders of post-Bismarck Germany learned
only when it was too late to avoid a global catastrophe.
Ironically, for the greater part of imperial Germany’s history, Russia,
not Germany, was considered the main threat to peace. First Palmerston
and then Disraeli were convinced that Russia intended to penetrate into
Egypt and India. By 1913, the corresponding fear among German leaders
that they were about to be overrun by the Russian hordes had reached
such a pitch that it contributed significantly to their decision to force the
fateful showdown a year later.
In fact, there was little hard evidence to substantiate the fear that Russia
might seek a European empire. The claims by German military intelli-
gence of having proof that Russia was in fact preparing for such a war
were as true as they were irrelevant. All the countries of both alliances,
intoxicated with the new technology of railways and mobilization sched-
ules, were constantly engaged in military preparations out of proportion
to any of the issues being disputed. But, precisely because these fervid
preparations could not be related to any definable objective, they were
interpreted as portents of vast, if nebulous, ambitions. Characteristically,
Prince von Billow, German Chancellor from 1900 to 1909, espoused Fred-
erick the Great’s view that “of all Prussia’s neighbors the Russian Empire
is the most dangerous in its strength as well as in its position.” 3
Throughout, Europe found something decidedly eerie about the vast-
ness and persistence of Russia. All the nations of Europe were seeking
aggrandizement by means of threats and counterthreats. But Russia
seemed impelled to expand by a rhythm all its own, containable only
by the deployment of superior force, and usually by war. Throughout
numerous crises, a reasonable settlement often seemed well within Rus-
sia’s reach, much better in fact than what ultimately emerged. Yet Russia
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always preferred the risk of defeat to compromise. This had been true in
the Crimean War of 1854, the Balkan Wars of 1875-78, and prior to the
Russo-Japanese War of 1904.
One explanation for these tendencies was that Russia belonged partly
to Europe, partly to Asia. In the West, Russia was part of the Concert of
Europe and participated in the elaborate rules of the balance of power.
But even there, Russian leaders were generally impatient with appeals to
the equilibrium and prone to resorting to war if their demands were not
met — for example, in the prelude to the Crimean War of 1854, and the
Balkan Wars, and again in 1885, when Russia nearly went to war with
Bulgaria. In Central Asia, Russia was dealing with weak principalities to
which the principle of the balance of power did not apply, and in Siberia
— until it ran up against Japan — it was able to expand much as America
had across a sparsely populated continent.
In European forums, Russia would listen to the arguments on behalf of
the balance of power but did not always abide by its maxims. Whereas
the nations of Europe had always maintained that the fate of Turkey and
the Balkans had to be settled by the Concert of Europe, Russia, on the
other hand, invariably sought to deal with this question unilaterally and
by force — in the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, the Treaty of Unkiar Ske-
lessi in 1833, the conflict with Turkey in 1853, and the Balkan Wars of
1875-78 and 1885. Russia expected Europe to look the other way and felt
aggrieved when it did not. The same problem would recur after the
Second World War, when the Western allies maintained that the fate of
Eastern Europe concerned Europe as a whole, while Stalin insisted that
Eastern Europe, and especially Poland, were within the Soviet sphere and
that therefore their future should be settled without reference to the
Western democracies. And, like his tsarist predecessors, Stalin proceeded
unilaterally. Inevitably, however, some coalition of Western forces would
arise to resist Russia’s military thrusts and to undo Russia’s impositions
on its neighbors. In the post-World War II period, it would take a genera-
tion for the historic pattern to reassert itself.
Russia on the march rarely exhibited a sense of limits. Thwarted, it
nursed its grievances and bided its time for revenge — against Great Brit-
ain through much of the nineteenth century, against Austria after the
Crimean War, against Germany after the Congress of Berlin, and against
the United States during the Cold War. It remains to be seen how the new
post-Soviet Russia will react to the collapse of its historic empire and
satellite orbit once it fully absorbs the shock of its disintegration.
In Asia, Russia’s sense of mission was even less constrained by political
or geographic obstacles. For all of the eighteenth century and most of the
nineteenth, Russia found itself alone in the Far East. It was the first Euro-
pean power to deal with Japan, and the first to conclude an agreement
with China. This expansion, accomplished by relatively few settlers and
military adventurers, produced no conflict with the European powers.
Sporadic Russian clashes with China proved no more significant. In return
for Russian assistance against warring tribes, China conceded large areas
of territory to Russian administration in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, giving rise to a series of “unequal treaties” which every Chinese
government since then, especially the communist one, has denounced.
Characteristically, Russia’s appetite for Asian territory seemed to grow
with each new acquisition. In 1903, Serge Witte, the Russian Finance
Minister and a confidant of the Tsar, wrote to Nicholas II: “Given our
enormous frontier with China and our exceptionally favorable situation,
the absorption by Russia of a considerable part of the Chinese Empire is
only a question of time.” 4 As with the Ottoman Empire, Russia’s leaders
took the position that the Far East was Russia’s own business and that the
rest of the world had no right to intervene. Russia’s advances on all fronts
sometimes occurred simultaneously; more often they shifted back and
forth, depending on where expansion seemed least risky.
Imperial Russia’s policymaking apparatus reflected the empire’s dual
nature. Russia’s Foreign Office was a department of the Chancery, staffed
by independent officials whose orientation was essentially toward the
West. 5 Frequently Baltic Germans, these officials considered Russia a Eu-
ropean state with policies which should be implemented in the context
of the Concert of Europe. The Chancery’s role, however, was contested
by the Asiatic Department, which was equally independent and responsi-
ble for Russian policy toward the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans, and
the Far East — in other words, for every front where Russia was actually
Unlike the Chancery, the Asiatic Department did not consider itself a
part of the Concert of Europe. Viewing the European nations as obstacles
to its designs, the Asiatic Department treated the European nations as
irrelevant and, whenever possible, sought to fulfill Russian goals through
unilateral treaties or by wars initiated without any reference to Europe.
Since Europe insisted that issues concerning the Balkans and the Ottoman
Empire be settled in concert, frequent conflicts were inevitable, while
Russia’s outrage mounted at being thus thwarted by powers it considered
Partly defensive, partly offensive, Russian expansion was always ambig-
uous, and this ambiguity generated Western debates over Russia’s true
intentions that lasted through the Soviet period. One reason for the pe-
A Political Doomsday Machine
rennial difficulty in understanding Russia’s purposes was that the Russian
government, even in the communist period, always had more in common
with an eighteenth-century autocratic court than with a twentieth-century
superpower. Neither imperial nor communist Russia ever produced a
great foreign minister. Like Nesselrode, Gorchakov, Giers, Lamsdorff, and
even Gromyko, its foreign ministers were all accomplished and able but
lacked the authority to design long-range policy. They were little more
than servants of a volatile and easily distracted autocrat, for whose favor
they had to compete amidst many overriding domestic concerns. Imperial
Russia had no Bismarck, no Salisbury, no Roosevelt — in short, no hands-
on minister with executive powers over all aspects of foreign affairs.
Even when the ruling tsar was a dominant personality, the autocratic
system of Russian policymaking inhibited the evolution of a coherent
foreign policy. Once the tsars found a foreign minister with whom they
felt comfortable, they tended to retain him into his dotage, as was the
case with Nesselrode, Gorchakov, and Giers. Among them, these three
foreign ministers served for most of the nineteenth century. Even in
their extreme old age, they proved invaluable to foreign statesmen, who
considered them the only personalities worth seeing in St. Petersburg
because they were the only officials with access to the tsar. Protocol
prohibited virtually anybody else from seeking an audience with the tsar.
To complicate decision-making further, the tsar’s executive power fre-
quently clashed with his aristocratic notions of princely life-style. For
example, immediately after the signing of the Reinsurance Treaty, a key
period in Russia’s foreign affairs, Alexander III left St. Petersburg for four
consecutive months, from July through October 1887, to go yachting,
observe maneuvers, and visit his in-laws in Denmark. With the only real
decision-maker thus out of reach, Russia’s foreign policy floundered. Not
only were the tsar’s policies often driven by the emotions of the moment,
they were greatly influenced by the nationalist agitation fanned by the
military. Military' adventurers, like General Kaufmann in Central Asia, paid
hardly any attention to the foreign ministers. Gorchakov was probably
telling the truth about how little he knew of Central Asia in his conversa-
tions with the British ambassadors described in the previous chapter.
By the time of Nicholas II, who ruled from 1894 to 1917, Russia was
forced to pay the price for its arbitrary institutions. Nicholas first took
Russia into a disastrous war with Japan and then permitted his country to
become captive to an alliance system which made war with Germany
virtually inevitable. While Russia’s energies had been geared to expansion
and consumed by attendant foreign conflicts, its social and political struc-
ture had grown brittle. Defeat in the war with Japan in 1905 should
have served as a warning that the time for domestic consolidation — as
advocated by the great reformer, Peter Stolypin — was drawing short.
What Russia needed was a respite; what it received was another foreign
enterprise. Thwarted in Asia, Russia reverted to its dream of Pan-Slavism
and a push toward Constantinople, which, this time, ran out of control.
The irony was that, after a certain point, expansionism no longer en-
hanced Russia’s power but brought about its decline. In 1849, Russia was
widely considered the strongest nation in Europe. Seventy years later, its
dynasty collapsed and it temporarily disappeared from the ranks of the
Great Powers. Between 1848 and 1914, Russia was involved in over half a
dozen wars (other than colonial wars), far more than any other major
power. In each of these conflicts, except for the intervention in Hungary
in 1849, the financial and political costs to Russia far exceeded the possi-
ble gains. Though each of these conflicts took its toll, Russia continued to
identify Great Power status with territorial expansion; it hungered for
more land, which it neither needed nor was able to digest. Tsar Nicholas
II’s close adviser, Serge Witte, promised him that “from the shores of the
Pacific and the heights of the Himalayas Russia would dominate not only
the affairs of Asia but those of Europe as well.” 6 Economic, social, and
political development would have been far more advantageous to Great
Power status in the Industrial Age than a satellite in Bulgaria or a protec-
torate in Korea.
A few Russian leaders, such as Gorchakov, were wise enough to realize
that, for Russia, “the extension of territory was the extension of weak-
ness,” 7 but their views were never able to moderate the Russian mania
for new conquests. In the end, the communist empire collapsed for es-
sentially the same reasons that the tsars’ had. The Soviet Union would
have been much better off had it stayed within its borders after the
Second World War and established relations with what came to be known
as the satellite orbit comparable to those it maintained with Finland.
When two colossi — a powerful, impetuous Germany and a huge, re-
lentless Russia — rub up against each other at the center of the Continent,
conflict is probable, no matter that Germany had nothing to gain from a
war with Russia and that Russia had everything to lose in a war with
Germany. The peace of Europe therefore depended on the one country
that had played the role of balancer so skillfully and with such moderation
throughout the nineteenth century'.
In 1890, the term “splendid isolation” still accurately described British
foreign policy. British subjects proudly referred to their country as the
“balance wheel” of Europe — the weight of which prevented any one of
the various coalitions among the Continental powers from becoming
A Political Doomsday Machine
dominant. Entanglement in these alliances was traditionally nearly as re-
pugnant to British statesmen as it was to American isolationists. Yet only
twenty-five years later, Englishmen would be dying by the hundreds of
thousands on the muddy fields of Flanders as they fought at the side of a
French ally against a German foe.
A remarkable change occurred in British foreign policy between 1890
and 1914. It was no small irony that the man who led Great Britain
through the first part of this transition represented everything traditional
about Great Britain and British foreign policy. For the Marquis of Salis-
bury was the ultimate insider. He was the scion of the ancient Cecil family,
whose ancestors had served as top ministers to British monarchs since
the time of Queen Elizabeth I. King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901
to 1910 and came from an upstart family compared with the Cecils, was
known to complain occasionally at the condescending tone Salisbury
used toward him.
Salisbury’s rise in politics was as effortless as it was foreordained. Af-
ter an education at Christ Church, Oxford, the young Salisbury toured
Europe, perfected his French, and met heads of state. By the age of forty-
eight, after serving as viceroy of India, he became Disraeli’s Foreign
Minister and played a major role at the Congress of Berlin, where he did
most of the detailed day-to-day negotiating. After Disraeli’s death, he took
over the leadership of the Tory Party and, apart from Gladstone’s last
government of 1892-94, was the dominant figure in British politics dur-
ing the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century.
In some respects, Salisbury’s position was not unlike that of President
George Bush, though he served longer in his nation’s highest office. Both
men bestrode a world which was receding by the time they came to
power, though that fact was not obvious to either of them. Both left an
impact by knowing how to operate what they had inherited. Bush’s view
of the world was shaped by the Cold War, in which he had risen to
prominence and over whose end he was obliged to preside while at the
pinnacle of his career; Salisbury’s formative experiences had been in the
Palmerston era of unparalleled British power overseas and of intractable
Anglo-Russian rivalry, both of which were clearly coming to an end dur-
ing his leadership.
Salisbury’s government had to grapple with the decline in Great Brit-
ain’s relative standing. Its vast economic power was now matched by
Germany’s; Russia and France had expanded their imperial efforts and
were challenging the British Empire nearly everywhere. Though Great
Britain was still pre-eminent, the dominance it had enjoyed in the middle
of the nineteenth century was slipping. Just as Bush adjusted skillfully to
what he had not foreseen, by the 1890s Great Britain’s leaders recognized
the need to relate traditional policy to unexpected realities.
Overweight and rumpled in his physical appearance, Lord Salisbury
more adequately embodied Great Britain’s contentment with the status
quo than he did its transformation. As the author of the phrase “splendid
isolation,” Salisbury, on the face of it, promised to carry on the traditional
British policies of holding a firm line overseas against other imperial
powers, and of involving Great Britain in Continental alliances only when
it was required as a last resort to prevent an aggressor from overturning
the balance. For Salisbury, Great Britain’s insular position meant that its
ideal policy was to be active on the high seas and to remain unentangled
in the customary Continental alliances. “We are fish,” he bluntly asserted
on one occasion.
In the end, Salisbury was obliged to recognize that Great Britain’s
overextended empire was straining under the pressures of Russia in the
Far and Near East, and of France in Africa. Even Germany was entering
the colonial race. Though France, Germany, and Russia were frequently
in conflict with one another on the Continent, they always clashed with
Great Britain overseas. For Great Britain possessed not only India, Can-
ada, and a large portion of Africa, but insisted on dominating vast territor-
ies which, for strategic reasons, it wanted to keep from falling into the
hands of another power even though it did not seek to control them
directly. Salisbury called this claim a “sort of ear-mark upon territory,
which, in case of a break-up, England did not want any other power to
have.” 8 These areas included the Persian Gulf, China, Turkey, and Mo-
rocco. During the 1890s, Great Britain felt beleaguered by endless clashes
with Russia in Afghanistan, around the Straits, and in Northern China, and
with France in Egypt and Morocco.
With the Mediterranean Agreements of 1887, Great Britain became
indirectly associated with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hun-
gary, and Italy in the hope that Italy and Austria might strengthen its hand
in dealing with France in North Africa, and with Russia in the Balkans. Yet
the Mediterranean Agreements proved to be only a stopgap.
The new German empire, deprived of its master strategist, did not
know what to do with its opportunity. Geopolitical realities were gradu-
ally drawing Great Britain out of its splendid isolation, though there was
enough handwringing about it by traditionalists. The first move toward
greater involvement with the Continent was on behalf of warmer relations
with imperial Germany. Convinced that Russia and Great Britain desper-
ately needed Germany, German policymakers thought they could drive a
hard bargain with both of them simultaneously without specifying the
A Political Doomsday Machine
nature of the bargain they were seeking or ever imagining that they might
be pushing Russia and Great Britain closer together. When rebuffed in
these all-or-nothing overtures, German leaders would withdraw into sulk-
iness, which quickly changed to truculence. This approach was in sharp
contrast to that of France, which settled for slow, step-by-step progress,
waiting twenty years for Russia and another decade and a half for Great
Britain to propose an agreement. For all the noise post-Bismarck Ger-
many made, its foreign policy was overwhelmingly amateurish, short-
sighted, and even timid when faced with the confrontations it had itself
William II’s first diplomatic move along what turned into a fated course
came in 1890, shortly after he had dismissed Bismarck, when he rejected
the Tsar’s offer to renew the Reinsurance Treaty for another three-year
term. By rejecting Russia’s overture at the very beginning of his rule, the
Kaiser and his advisers pulled the perhaps most important thread out of
the fabric of Bismarck’s system of overlapping alliances. Three considera-
tions motivated them: first, they wanted to make their policy as “simple
and transparent” as possible (the new Chancellor, Caprivi, confessed on
one occasion that he simply did not possess Bismarck’s ability to keep
eight balls in the air at once); second, they wanted to reassure Austria that
their alliance with it was their top priority; finally, they considered the
Reinsurance Treaty an obstacle to their preferred course of forging an
alliance with Great Britain.
Each of these considerations demonstrated the lack of geopolitical un-
derstanding by which the Germany of William II progressively isolated
itself. Complexity was inherent in Germany’s location and history; no
“simple” policy could take account of its many aspects. It had been pre-
cisely the ambiguity of a simultaneous treaty with Russia and an alliance
with Austria that had enabled Bismarck to act as a balancer between
Austrian fears and Russian ambitions for twenty years without having to
break with either or to escalate the endemic Balkan crises. Ending the
Reinsurance Treaty brought about exactly the opposite situation-, limiting
Germany’s options promoted Austrian adventurism. Nikolai de Giers, the
Russian Foreign Minister, understood this immediately, noting: “Through
the dissolution of our treaty [the Reinsurance Treaty], Vienna has been
liberated from the wise and well-meaning, but also stern control of Prince
Bismarck.” 9
Abandoning the Reinsurance Treaty not only caused Germany to lose
leverage vis4-vis Austria, it above all increased Russia’s anxieties. Ger-
many’s reliance on Austria was interpreted in St. Petersburg as a new
predisposition to support Austria in the Balkans. Once Germany had
positioned itself as an obstacle to Russian aims in a region that had never
before represented a vital German interest, Russia was certain to search
for a counterweight, which France was only too eager to supply.
Russia’s temptations to move in France’s direction were strengthened
by a German colonial agreement with Great Britain, which swiftly fol-
lowed the Kaiser’s refusal to renew the Reinsurance Treaty. Great Britain
acquired from Germany the sources of the Nile and tracts of land in East
Africa, including the island of Zanzibar. As a quid pro quo, Germany
received a relatively inconsequential strip of land linking South-West Af-
rica to the Zambezi River, the so-called Caprivi Strip, and the island of
Helgoland in the North Sea, which was presumed to have some strategic
value in safeguarding the German coast from naval attack.
It was not a bad bargain for either side, though it turned into the first
of a series of misunderstandings. London undertook the agreement as a
means of settling African colonial issues; Germany saw it as a prelude to
an Anglo-German alliance; and Russia, going even further, interpreted it
as England’s first step into the Triple Alliance. Thus Baron Staal, the
Russian Ambassador to Berlin, anxiously reported the pact between his
country’s historic friend, Germany, and its traditional foe, Great Britain,
in these terms:
When one is united by numerous interests and positive engagements
on one point of the globe, one is almost certain to proceed in concert
in all the great questions that may arise in the international field
Virtually the entente with Germany has been accomplished. It cannot
help but react upon the relations of England with the other powers of
the Triple Alliance . 10
Bismarck’s nightmare of coalitions was now in train, for the end of the
Reinsurance Treaty had paved the way for a Franco-Russian alliance.
Germany had calculated that France and Russia would never form an
alliance, because Russia had no interest in fighting for Alsace-Lorraine,
and France had no interest in fighting for the Balkan Slavs. It turned out
to be one of the many egregious misconceptions of imperial Germany’s
post-Bismarck leadership. Once Germany was irrevocably committed to
Austria’s side, France and Russia in fact needed each other, however
divergent their goals, because neither could achieve its own strategic
objectives without first defeating, or at least weakening, Germany. France
needed to do so because Germany would never relinquish Alsace-Lor-
raine without war, while Russia knew it would not be able to inherit
the Slavic parts of the Austrian Empire without defeating Austria — which
A Political Doomsday Machine
Germany had made clear it would resist by its refusal to renew the
Reinsurance Treaty. And Russia had no chance against Germany without
the assistance of France.
Within a year of Germany’s refusal to renew the Reinsurance Treaty,
France and Russia had signed their Entente Cordiale, which provided
mutual diplomatic support. Giers, the venerable Russian Foreign Minister,
warned that the agreement would not solve the fundamental problem that
Great Britain, not Germany, was Russia’s principal adversary. Desperate to
escape the isolation to which Bismarck had consigned it, France agreed
to add a clause to the Franco-Russian agreement obliging France to give
Russia diplomatic support in any colonial conflict with Great Britain.
To French leaders, this anti-British clause seemed a small entrance
fee to establish what was bound to turn into an anti-German coalition.
Thereafter, French efforts would be directed at extending the Franco-
Russian agreement into a military alliance. Though Russian nationalists
favored such a military pact to speed the dismemberment of the Austrian
Empire, Russian traditionalists were uneasy. Giers’ eventual successor as
Foreign Minister, Count Vladimir Lamsdorff, wrote in his diary in early
February 1892:
They (the French) are also preparing to besiege us with proposals for
an agreement about joint military actions in case of an attack by a third
party — But why overdo a good thing? We need peace and quiet in
view of the miseries of the famine, of the unsatisfactory state of our
finances, of the uncompleted state of our armaments program, of the
desperate state of our transportation system, and finally of the renewed
activity in the camp of the nihilists. 11
In the end, French leaders overcame Lamsdorff s doubts, or else he was
overruled by the Tsar. In 1894, a military convention was signed in which
France agreed to aid Russia if Russia was attacked by Germany, or by
Austria in combination with Germany. Russia would support France in
case of an attack by Germany, or by Germany in combination with Italy.
Whereas the Franco-Russian Agreement of 1891 had been a diplomatic
instrument and could plausibly have been argued to be aimed at Great
Britain as well as at Germany, the sole adversary foreseen by this military
convention was Germany. What George Kennan would later call “the
fateful alliance” (the entente between France and Russia of 1891, followed
by the military convention of 1894) marked a watershed in Europe’s rush
toward war.
It was the beginning of the end for the operation of the balance of
power. The balance of power works best if at least one of the following
conditions pertains: First, each nation must feel itself free to align with
any other state, depending on the circumstances of the moment. Through
much of the eighteenth century, the equilibrium was adjusted by con-
stantly shifting alignments; it was also the case in the Bismarck period
until 1890. Second, when there are fixed alliances but a balancer sees to
it that none of the existing coalitions becomes predominant — the situa-
tion after the Franco-Russian treaty, when Great Britain continued to act
as balancer and was in fact being wooed by both sides. Third, when there
are rigid alliances and no balancer exists, but the cohesion of the alliances
is relatively low so that, on any given issue, there are either compromises
or changes in alignment.
When none of these conditions prevails, diplomacy turns rigid. A zero
sum game develops in which any gain of one side is conceived as a loss
for the other. Armaments races and mounting tensions become inevita-
ble. This was the situation during the Cold War, and in Europe tacitly after
Great Britain joined the Franco-Russian alliance, thereby forming the
Triple Entente starting in 1908.
Unlike during the Cold War, the international order after 1891 did not
turn rigid after a single challenge. It took fifteen years before each of the
three elements of flexibility was destroyed in sequence. After the forma-
tion of the Triple Entente, the balance of power ceased to function. Tests
of strength became the rule and not the exception. Diplomacy as the art
of compromise ended. It was only a question of time before some crisis
would drive events out of control.
But in 1891, as France and Russia lined up against it, Germany still
hoped that it could bring about the offsetting alliance with Great Britain
for which William II yearned but which his impetuousness made impossi-
ble. The colonial agreement of 1890 did not lead to the alliance the
Russian Ambassador had feared. Its failure to materialize was partly due
to British domestic politics. When the aged Gladstone returned to office
in 1892 for the last time, he bruised the Kaiser’s tender ego by rejecting
any association with autocratic Germany or Austria.
Yet the fundamental reason for the failure of the several attempts to
arrange an Anglo-German alliance was the German leadership’s persis-
tent incomprehension of traditional British foreign policy as well as of
the real requirements of its own security. For a century and a half, Great
Britain had refused to commit itself to an open-ended military alliance. It
would make only two kinds of engagements: limited military agreements
to deal with definable, clearly specified dangers; or entente-type arrange-
ments to cooperate diplomatically on those issues in which interests with
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another country ran parallel. In a sense, the British definition of entente
was, of course, a tautology: Great Britain would cooperate when it chose
to cooperate. But an entente also had the effect of creating moral and
psychological ties and a presumption — if not a legal obligation — of joint
action in crises. And it would have kept Great Britain apart from France
and Russia, or at least complicated their rapprochement.
Germany refused such informal procedures. William II insisted on
what he called a Continental-type alliance. “If England wants allies or
aid,” he said in 1895, “she must abandon her non-committal policy and
provide continental type guarantees or treaties.” 12 But what could the
Kaiser have meant by a Continental-type guarantee? After nearly a century
of splendid isolation, Great Britain was clearly not ready to undertake the
permanent Continental commitment it had so consistently avoided for
150 years, especially on behalf of Germany, which was fast becoming the
strongest country on the Continent.
What made this German pressure for a formal guarantee so self-
defeating was that Germany did not really need it, because it was strong
enough to defeat any prospective Continental adversary or combination
of them, so long as Great Britain did not take their side. What Germany
should have asked of Great Britain was not an alliance, but benevolent
neutrality in a Continental war — and for that an entente-type arrangement
would have been sufficient. By asking for what it did not need, and by
offering what Great Britain did not want (sweeping commitments to de-
fend the British Empire), Germany led Great Britain to suspect that it was
in fact seeking world domination.
German impatience deepened the reserve of the British, who were
beginning to entertain grave doubts about the judgment of their suitor.
“I do not like to disregard the plain anxiety of my German friends,” wrote
Salisbury. “But it is not wise to be guided too much by their advice now.
Their Achitophel is gone. They are much pleasanter and easier to deal
with; but one misses the extraordinary penetration of the old man [Bis-
marck].” 13
While the German leadership impetuously pursued alliances, the Ger-
man public was demanding an ever more assertive foreign policy. Only
the Social Democrats held out for a time, though in the end they, too,
succumbed to public opinion and supported Germany’s declaration of
war in 1914. The leading German classes had no experience with Euro-
pean diplomacy, much less with the Weltpolitik on which they were so
loudly insisting. The Junkers, who had led Prussia to the domination
of Germany, would bear the weight of opprobrium after the two world
wars, especially in the United States. In fact, they were the social stratum
least guilty of overreaching in foreign affairs, being basically geared to
Continental policy and having little interest in events outside Europe.
Rather, it was the new industrial managerial and the growing professional
classes that provided the nucleus of nationalist agitation without encoun-
tering in the political system the sort of parliamentary buffer which had
evolved in Great Britain and France over several centuries. In the Western
democracies, the strong nationalist currents were channeled through
parliamentary institutioas; in Germany, they had to find expression in
extra-parliamentary pressure groups.
As autocratic as Germany was, its leaders were extremely sensitive to
public opinion and heavily influenced by nationalistic pressure groups.
These groups saw diplomacy and international relations almost as if they
were sporting events, always pushing the government to a harder line,
more territorial expansion, more colonies, a stronger army, or a larger
navy. They treated the normal give-and-take of diplomacy, or the slightest
hint of German diplomatic concession, as an egregious humiliation. Kurt
Rietzler, the political secretary of the German Chancellor Theobald von
Bethmann-Hollweg, who was in office when war was declared, remarked
aptly: “The threat of war in our time lies ... in the internal politics of
those countries in which a weak government is confronted by a strong
nationalist movement.” 14
This emotional and political climate produced a major German diplo-
matic gaffe — the so-called Kruger Telegram — by which the Emperor un-
dermined his option for a British alliance for at least the rest of the
century. In 1895, a Colonel Jameson, supported by British colonial inter-
ests and most notably by Cecil Rhodes, led a raid into the independent
Boer states of the South African Transvaal. The raid was a total failure and
a great embarrassment to Salisbury’s government, which claimed to have
had no direct involvement in it. The German nationalist press gloated,
urging an even more thorough humiliation of the British.
Friedrich von Holstein, a principal councilor and eminence grise in the
Foreign Ministry, saw the disastrous raid as an opportunity to teach the
British the advantages of a friendly Germany by showing them just how
prickly an adversary it could be. For his own part, the Kaiser found the
opportunity to swagger irresistible. Shortly after New Year’s Day 1896, he
dispatched a message to President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal congratu-
lating him for repelling “the attacks from without.” It was a direct slap at
Great Britain and raised the specter of a German protectorate in the heart
of what the British regarded as their own sphere of interest. In reality,
the Kruger Telegram represented neither German colonial aspirations
nor German foreign policy, for it was purely a public-relations ploy and
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it achieved that objective: “Nothing that the government has done for
years,” wrote the liberal Allgemeine Zeitung on January 5, “has given
as complete satisfaction It is written from the soul of the German
people.” 15
Germany’s shortsightedness and insensitivity accelerated this trend.
The Kaiser and his entourage convinced themselves that, since courting
Great Britain had failed to produce an alliance, perhaps some demonstra-
tion of the cost of German displeasure would prove more persuasive.
Unfortunately for Germany, that approach belied the historical record,
which offered no example of a British susceptibility to being bullied.
What started out as a form of harassment to demonstrate the value of
German friendship gradually turned into a genuine strategic challenge.
No issue was as likely to turn Great Britain into an implacable adversary as
a threat to its command of the seas. Yet this was precisely what Germany
undertook, seemingly without realizing that it was embarking on an irrev-
ocable challenge. Starting in the mid-1890s, domestic pressures to build
up a large German navy began to mount, spearheaded by the “navalists,”
one of a growing number of pressure groups which consisted of a mix of
industrialists and naval officers. Since they developed a vested interest in
tensions with Great Britain to justify naval appropriations, they treated
the Kruger Telegram as a godsend, as they did any other issue denoting
the possibility of conflict with Great Britain in remote corners of the
globe, ranging from the status of Samoa to the boundaries of the Sudan
and the future of the Portuguese colonies.
Thus began a vicious cycle which culminated in confrontation. For the
privilege of building a navy which, in the subsequent world war, had only
one inconclusive encounter with the British fleet in the battle of Jutland,
Germany managed to add Great Britain to its growing list of adversaries.
For there was no question that England would resist once a Continental
country already in possession of the strongest army in Europe began
aiming for parity with Great Britain on the seas.
Yet the Kaiser seemed oblivious to the impact of his policies. British
irritation with German bluster and the naval buildup did not, at first,
change the reality that France was pressing Great Britain in Egypt, and
that Russia was challenging it in Central Asia. What if Russia and France
decided to cooperate, applying simultaneous pressure in Africa, Afghani-
stan, and China? What if the Germans joined them in an assault on the
Empire in South Africa? British leaders began to doubt whether splendid
isolation was still an appropriate foreign policy.
The most important and vocal spokesman of this group was the Colo-
nial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. A dashing figure who was Salisbury’s
junior by a whole generation, Chamberlain seemed to embody the twenti-
eth century in his call for some alliance — preferably German — while the
older patrician adhered strictly to the isolationist impulse of the previous
century. In a major speech in November 1899, Chamberlain called for a
“Teutonic” alliance, consisting of Great Britain, Germany, and the United
States. 16 Chamberlain felt so strongly about it that he transmitted his
scheme to Germany without Salisbury’s approval. But the German leaders
continued to hold out for formal guarantees and remained oblivious to
the reality that the terms were irrelevant and that what should have mat-
tered to them most was British neutrality in a Continental war.
In October 1900, Salisbury’s poor health forced him to give up the
office of Foreign Secretary, though he retained the post of Prime Minister.
His successor at the Foreign Office was Lord Lansdowne, who agreed
with Chamberlain that Great Britain could no longer enjoy safety through
splendid isolation. Yet Lansdowne was unable to muster a consensus for
a full-scale formal alliance with Germany, the Cabinet being unwilling to
go further than an entente-style arrangement: “. . . an understanding with
regard to the policy which they (the British and the German govern-
ments) might pursue in reference to particular questions or in particular
parts of the world in which they are alike interested.” 17 It was substantially
the same formula which would lead to the Entente Cordiale with France
a few years later and which proved quite sufficient to bring Great Britain
into the World War on the side of France.
Once again, however, Germany rejected the attainable in favor of what
was on the face of it unachievable. The new German Chancellor Billow
refused an entente-style arrangement with Great Britain because he was
more worried about public opinion than he was about geopolitical vistas
— especially given his priority of persuading the Parliament to vote a
large increase in the German navy. He would curtail the naval program
for nothing less than British adherence to a triple alliance consisting
of Germany, Austria, and Italy. Salisbury rejected Billows all-or-nothing
gambit, and, for the third time in a decade, an Anglo-German agreement
The essential incompatibility between British and German perceptions
of foreign policy could be seen in the way the two leaders explained their
failure to agree. Billow was all emotion as he accused Great Britain of
provincialism, ignoring the fact that Great Britain had been conducting a
global foreign policy for over a century before Germany was even unified:
English politicians know little about the Continent. From a continental
point of view they know as much as we do about ideas in Peru or
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Siam. They are naive in their conscious egotism and in a certain blind
confidence. They find it difficult to credit really bad intentions in others.
They are very quiet, very phlegmatic and very optimistic 18
Salisbury’s reply took the form of a lesson in sophisticated strategic analy-
sis for his restless and rather vague interlocutor. Citing a tactless comment
by the German Ambassador to London, to the effect that Great Britain
needed an alliance with Germany in order to escape dangerous isolation,
he wrote:
The liability of having to defend the German and Austrian frontiers
against Russia is heavier than that of having to defend the British Isles
against France . . . Count Hatzfeldt [the German Ambassador] speaks of
our “isolation” as constituting a serious danger for us. Have we ever
felt that danger practically? If we had succumbed in the revolutionary
war, our fall would not have been due to our isolation. We had many
allies, but they would not have saved us if the French Emperor had
been able to command the Channel. Except during his [Napoleon’s]
reign we have never even been in danger; and, therefore, it is impossi-
ble for us to judge whether the “isolation” under which we are sup-
posed to suffer, does or does not contain in it any elements of peril. It
would hardly be wise to incur novel and most onerous obligations, in
order to guard against a danger in whose existence we have no histori-
cal reason for believing . 19
Great Britain and Germany simply did not have enough parallel interests
to justify the formal global alliance imperial Germany craved. The British
feared that further additions to German strength would turn their would-
be ally into the sort of dominant power they had historically resisted. At
the same time, Germany did not relish assuming the role of a British
auxiliary on behalf of issues traditionally considered peripheral to Ger-
man interests, such as the threat to India, and Germany was too arrogant
to understand the benefits of British neutrality.
Foreign Secretary Lansdowne’s next move demonstrated that the Ger-
man leaders’ conviction that their country was indispensable to Great
Britain was a case of inflated self-appraisal. In 1902, he stunned Europe
by forging an alliance with Japan, the first time since Richelieu’s dealings
with the Ottoman Turks that any European country had gone for help
outside the Concert of Europe. Great Britain and Japan agreed that if
either of them became involved in a war with one other power over
China or Korea, the other would observe neutrality. If, however, either
signatory was attacked by two adversaries, the other signatory was obliged
to assist its partner. Because the alliance would operate only if Japan were
fighting two adversaries, Great Britain finally had discovered an ally which
was willing, indeed eager, to contain Russia without, however, seeking to
entangle it in extraneous arrangements — one, moreover, whose Far East
location placed it in an area of greater strategic interest to Great Britain
than the Russo-German frontier. And Japan was protected against France,
which, without the alliance, might have sought to use the war to
strengthen its claims on Russian support. From then on, Great Britain
would lose interest in Germany as a strategic partner; indeed, in the
course of time, it would come to regard Germany as a geopolitical threat.
As late as 1912, there was still a chance of settling Anglo-German diffi-
culties. Lord Haldane, first Lord of the Admiralty, visited Berlin to discuss
a relaxation of tensions. Haldane was instructed to seek an accommoda-
tion with Germany on the basis of a naval accord along with this pledge
of British neutrality: “If either of the high contracting parties (i.e., Britain
and Germany) becomes entangled in a war in which it cannot be said to
be the aggressor, the other will at least observe towards the Power so
entangled a benevolent neutrality.” 20 The Kaiser, however, insisted that
England pledge neutrality “should war be forced upon Germany,” 21
which sounded to London like a demand that Great Britain stand on the
sidelines if Germany decided to launch a pre-emptive war against Russia
or France. When the British refused to accept the Kaiser’s wording, he in
turn rejected theirs; the German Navy Bill went forward, and Haldane
returned to London empty-handed.
The Kaiser still had not grasped that Great Britain would not go beyond
a tacit bargain, which was really all that Germany needed. “If England
only intends to extend her hand to us under the condition that we must
limit our fleet,” he wrote, “that is an unbounded impudence which con-
tains in it a bad insult to the German people and their Emperor. This
offer must be rejected a limine. . . ,” 22 As convinced as ever that he could
intimidate England into a formal alliance, the Kaiser boasted: “I have
shown the English that, when they touch our armaments, they bite on
granite. Perhaps by this I have increased their hatred but won their re-
spect, which will induce them in due course to resume negotiations, it is
to be hoped in a more modest tone and with a more fortunate result.” 23
The Kaiser’s impetuous and imperious quest for alliance merely suc-
ceeded in magnifying Great Britain’s suspicions. The German naval pro-
gram on top of German harassment of Great Britain during the Boer War
of 1899-1902 led to a thorough reassessment of British foreign policy.
For a century and a half, Great Britain had considered France as the
principal threat to the European equilibrium, to be resisted with the
A Political Doomsday Machine
assistance of some German state, usually with Austria, occasionally with
Prussia. And it had viewed Russia as the gravest danger to its empire. But
once it had the Japanese alliance in hand, Great Britain began to recon-
sider its historic priorities. In 1903, Great Britain initiated a systematic
effort to settle outstanding colonial issues with France, culminating in the
so-called Entente Cordiale of 1904 — precisely the sort of arrangement
for informal cooperation that Germany had consistently rejected. Almost
immediately afterward, Great Britain began to explore a similar arrange-
ment with Russia.
Because the Entente was formally a colonial agreement, it did not
represent a technical break with the traditional British policy of “splendid
isolation." Yet its practical effect was that Great Britain abandoned the
position of balancer and attached itself to one of the two opposing alli-
ances. In July 1903, when the Entente was being negotiated, a French
representative in London told Lansdowne as a quid pro quo that France
would do its utmost to relieve Great Britain of Russian pressures else-
. . . that the most serious menace to the peace of Europe lay in Germany,
that a good understanding between France and England was the only
means of holding German designs in check, and that if such an under-
standing could be arrived at, England would find that France would be
able to exercise a salutary influence over Russia and thereby relieve us
from many of our troubles with that country. 24
Within a decade, Russia, previously tied to Germany by the Reinsurance
Treaty, had become a military ally of France, while Great Britain, an on-
again-off-again suitor of Germany, joined the French diplomatic camp.
Germany had achieved the extraordinary feat of isolating itself and of
bringing together three erstwhile enemies in a hostile coalition aimed
against it.
A statesman aware of approaching danger has to make a basic decision.
If he believes that the threat will mount with the passage of time, he must
try to nip it in the bud. But if he concludes that the looming danger
reflects a fortuitous, if accidental, combination of circumstances, he is
usually better off waiting and letting time erode the peril. Two hundred
years earlier, Richelieu had recognized the danger in the hostile encircle-
ment of France — indeed, avoiding it was the core of his policy. But he
understood as well the various components of that potential danger. He
decided that premature action would drive the states surrounding France
together. Thus he made time his ally and waited for the latent differences
among France’s adversaries to emerge. Then, and only after these had
become entrenched, did he permit France to enter the fray.
The Kaiser and his advisers had neither the patience nor the acumen
for such a policy — even though the countries by which Germany felt
threatened were anything but natural allies. Germany’s reaction to the
looming encirclement was to accelerate the same diplomacy which had
brought about the danger in the first place. It tried to split the young
Entente Cordiale by finding some pretext to face down France, thereby
demonstrating that British support was either illusory or ineffective.
Germany’s opportunity to test the strength of the Entente presented
itself in Morocco, where French designs were in violation of a treaty
affirming Morocco’s independence, and where Germany had substantial
commercial interests. The Kaiser chose to make his point while on a
cruise in March 1905- Landing at Tangier, he declared Germany’s resolve
to uphold the independence of Morocco. The German leaders were gam-
bling, first, that the United States, Italy, and Austria would support their
open-door policy, second, that in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese
War, Russia would not be able to involve itself, and third, that Great
Britain would be only too happy to be relieved of its obligation to France
at an international conference.
All of these assumptions were proved wrong because fear of Germany
overrode every other consideration. In the first challenge to the Entente
Cordiale, Great Britain backed France to the hilt and would not go along
with Germany’s call for a conference until France had accepted it. Austria
and Italy were reluctant to venture anywhere near the brink of war.
Nevertheless, German leaders invested a huge amount of prestige in this
growing dispute, on the reasoning that anything less than a diplomatic
victory demonstrating the irrelevance of the Entente would be disastrous.
Throughout his reign, the Kaiser was better at staning crises than he
was at concluding them. He found dramatic encounters exciting but
lacked the nerve for prolonged confrontation. William II and his advisers
were correct in their assessment that France was not prepared to go to
war. But, as it turned out, neither were they. All they really achieved was
the dismissal of French Foreign Minister Delcasse, a token victory because
Delcasse soon returned in another position, retaining a major role in
French politics. In terms of the substance of the dispute, the German
leaders, lacking the courage of their boastful rhetoric, permitted them-
selves to be fobbed off with a conference scheduled in six months’ time
in the Spanish town of Algeciras. When a country threatens war and then
backs down in favor of a conference to be held at some later date, it
automatically diminishes the credibility of its threat. (This was also the
A Political Doomsday Machine
way the Western democracies would defuse Khrushchev’s Berlin ultima-
tum a half century later.)
The extent to which Germany had isolated itself became evident at
the opening of the Algeciras Conference in January 1906. Edward Grey,
the Foreign Secretary of Great Britain’s new Liberal government, warned
the German Ambassador to London that, in the event of war, Great Britain
would stand alongside France:
... in the event of an attack upon France by Germany arising out of our
Morocco Agreement, public feeling in England would be so strong that
no British government could remain neutral . .
The German leaders’ emotionalism and inability to define long-range
objectives turned Algeciras into a diplomatic debacle for their country.
The United States, Italy, Russia, and Great Britain all refused to take Ger-
many’s side. The results of this first Moroccan crisis were the exact oppo-
site of what German leaders had sought to achieve. Instead of wrecking
the Entente Cordiale, it led to Franco-British military cooperation and
lent impetus to the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907.
After Algeciras, Great Britain agreed to the military cooperation with a
Continental power that it had avoided for so long. Consultations began
between the leaders of the British and French navies. The Cabinet was
not at ease with this new departure. Grey wrote to Paul Cambon, the
French Ambassador to London, in an effort to hedge his bets:
We have agreed that consultation between experts is not, and ought not
to be, regarded as an engagement that commits either Government to
action in a contingency that has not arisen and may never arise — 26
It was the traditional British escape clause that London not commit itself
legally to specific circumstances in which it would be obliged to take
military action. France accepted this sop to parliamentary control, con-
vinced that military staff talks would wield their own reality, whatever the
legal obligation. For a decade and a half, German leaders had refused to
grant Great Britain this son of leeway. The French had the political acu-
men to live with British ambiguity, and to rely on the conviction that a
moral obligation was developing which, in a time of crisis, might well
carry the day.
With the emergence of the Anglo-French-Russian bloc of 1907, only
two forces remained in play in European diplomacy: the Triple Entente
and the alliance between Germany and Austria. German encirclement
became complete. Like the Anglo-French Entente, the British agreement
with Russia began as a colonial accord. For some years, Great Britain and
Russia had been slowly putting their colonial disputes to rest. Japan’s
victory over Russia in 1905 effectively ruined Russia’s Far Eastern ambi-
tions. By the summer of 1907, it became safe for Great Britain to offer
Russia generous terms in Afghanistan and Persia, dividing Persia into
three spheres of influence: the Russians were given the northern region;
a central region was declared neutral; and Great Britain claimed control
of the south. Afghanistan went to the British sphere. Anglo-Russian rela-
tions, which ten years earlier had been marred by disputes covering a
third of the globe from Constantinople to Korea, were finally serene. The
degree of British preoccupation with Germany was shown by the fact that,
to secure Russian cooperation, Great Britain was prepared to abandon its
determination to keep Russia out of the Dardanelles. As Foreign Secretary
Grey remarked: “Good relations with Russia meant that our old policy of
closing the Straits against her, and throwing our weight against her at any
conference of the Powers must be abandoned.” 27
Some historians 28 have claimed that the real Triple Entente was two
colonial agreements gone awry, and that Great Britain had wanted to
protect its empire, not to encircle Germany. There is a classic document,
however, the so-called Crowe Memorandum, which leaves no reasonable
doubt that Great Britain joined the Triple Entente in order to thwart what
it feared was a German drive for world domination. On January 1, 1907,
Sir Eyre Crowe, a prominent British Foreign Office analyst, explained
why, in his view, an accommodation with Germany was impossible and
entente with France was the only option. The Crowe Memorandum was
at a level of analysis never reached by any document of post-Bismarck
Germany. The conflict had become one between strategy and brute
power — and unless there is a huge disproportion of strength, which was
not the case, the strategist has the upper hand because he can plan his
actions while his adversary is obliged to improvise. Admitting to major
differences between Great Britain and both France and Russia, Crowe
nevertheless assessed these as being subject to compromise because they
reflected definable, and therefore limited, objectives. What made German
foreign policy so menacing was the lack of any discernible rationale
behind its ceaseless global challenges, which extended across regions as
far-flung as South Africa, Morocco, and the Near East. In addition, the
German drive for maritime power was “incompatible with the survival of
the British Empire.”
According to Crowe, Germany’s unconstrained conduct guaranteed
confrontation: “The union of the greatest military with the greatest naval
A Political Doomsday Machine
power in one state would compel the world to combine for the riddance
of such an incubus.” 29
True to the tenets of Realpolitik, Crowe argued that structure, not
motive, determined stability: Germany’s intentions were essentially irrele-
vant; what mattered were its capabilities. He put forward two hypotheses:
Either Germany is definitely aiming at a general political hegemony
and maritime ascendancy, threatening the independence of her
neighbours and ultimately the existence of England; Or Germany, free
from any such clear-cut ambition, and thinking for the present merely
of using her legitimate position and influence as one of the leading
Powers in the council of nations, is seeking to promote her foreign
commerce, spread the benefits of German culture, extend the scope of
her national energies, and create fresh German interests all over the
world wherever and whenever a peaceful opportunity offers 30
Crowe insisted that these distinctions were irrelevant because, in the end,
they would be overridden by the temptations inherent in Germany’s
growing power:
... it is clear that the second scheme (of semi-independent evolution,
not entirely unaided by statecraft) may at any stage merge into the first,
or conscious-design scheme. Moreover, if ever the evolution scheme
should come to be realized, the position thereby accruing to Germany
would obviously constitute as formidable a menace to the rest of the
world as would be presented by any deliberate conquest of a similar
position by malice aforethought’. 31
Though the Crowe Memorandum did not actually go further than to
oppose an understanding with Germany, its thrust was clear: if Germany
did not abandon its quest for maritime supremacy and moderate its so-
called Weltpolitik, Great Britain was certain to join Russia and France in
opposing it. And it would do so with the implacable tenacity that had
brought down French and Spanish pretensions in previous centuries.
Great Britain made it clear that it would not stand for any further
accretion of German strength. In 1909, Foreign Secretary Grey made this
point in response to a German offer to slow down (but not end) its naval
buildup if Great Britain agreed to stay neutral in a German war against
France and Russia. The proposed agreement, argued Grey,
. . . would serve to establish German hegemony in Europe and would
not last long after it had served that purpose. It is in fact an invitation to
help Germany to make a European combination which could be di-
rected against us when it suited her to use it If we sacrifice the other
Powers to Germany, we shall eventually be attacked. 32
After the creation of the Triple Entente, the cat-and-mouse game Germany
and Great Britain had played in the 1890s grew deadly serious and turned
into a struggle between a status quo power and a power demanding a
change in the equilibrium. With diplomatic flexibility no longer possible,
the only way to alter the balance of power was by adding more arms or
by victory in war.
The two alliances were facing each other across a gulf of growing
mutual distrust. Unlike the period of the Cold War, the two groupings did
not fear war; they were in fact more concerned with preserving their
cohesiveness than with avoiding a showdown. Confrontation became the
standard method of diplomacy.
Nevertheless, there was still a chance to avoid catastrophe because
there were actually few issues that justified war dividing the alliances. No
other member of the Triple Entente would have gone to war to help
France regain Alsace-Lorraine; Germany, even in its exalted frame of
mind, was unlikely to support an Austrian war of aggression in the Bal-
kans. A policy of restraint might have delayed the war and caused the
unnatural alliances gradually to disintegrate — especially as the Triple En-
tente had been forged by fear of Germany in the first place.
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the balance of
power had degenerated into hostile coalitions whose rigidity was
matched by the reckless disregard for consequence with which they had
been assembled. Russia was tied to a Serbia teeming with nationalist,
even terrorist, factions and which, having nothing to lose, had no concern
for the risk of a general war. France had handed a blank check to a Russia
eager to restore its self-respect after the Russo-Japanese War. Germany
had done the same for an Austria desperate to protea its Slavic provinces
against agitation from Serbia, which, in turn, was backed by Russia. The
nations of Europe had permitted themselves to become captives of reck-
less Balkan clients. Far from restraining these nations of unbounded pas-
sion and limited sense of global responsibility, they allowed themselves
to be dragged along by the paranoia that their restless partners might
shift alliances if they were not given their way. For a few years, crises were
still being surmounted although each new one brought the inevitable
showdown closer. And Germany’s reaction to the Triple Entente revealed
a dogged determination to repeat the same mistake over and over again;
every problem became transformed into a test of manhood to prove that
Germany was decisive and powerful while its adversaries lacked resolu-
A Political Doomsday Machine
tion and strength. Yet, with each new German challenge, the bonds of the
Triple Entente grew tighter.
In 1908, an international crisis occurred over Bosnia-Herzegovina,
worth retelling because it illustrates the tendency of history to repeat
itself. Bosnia-Herzegovina had been the backwater of Europe, its fate
having been left in an ambiguous status at the Congress of Berlin because
no one really knew what to do with it. This no-man’s-land between the
Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, which contained Roman Catholic, Or-
thodox, and Muslim religions, and Croatian, Serbian, and Muslim popula-
tions, had never been a state or even self-governing. It only seemed
governable if none of these groups was asked to submit to the others.
For thirty years, Bosnia-Herzegovina had been under Turkish suzerainty,
Austrian administration, and local autonomy without experiencing a seri-
ous challenge to this multinational arrangement which left the issue of
ultimate sovereignty unsettled. Austria had waited thirty years to initiate
outright annexation because the passions of the polyglot mix were too
complex even for the Austrians to sort out, despite their long experience
of administering in the midst of chaos. When they finally did annex Bos-
nia-Herzegovina, they did so more to score a point against Serbia (and
indirectly Russia) than to achieve any coherent political objective. As a
result, Austria upset the delicate balance of offsetting hatreds.
Three generations later, in 1992, the same elemental passions erupted
over comparable issues, confounding all but the zealots directly involved
and those familiar with the region’s volatile history. Once more, an abrupt
change in government turned Bosnia-Herzegovina into a cauldron. As
soon as Bosnia was declared an independent state, all the nationalities
fell upon each other in a struggle for dominance, with the Serbs settling
old scores in a particularly brutal manner.
Taking advantage of Russia’s weakness in the wake of the Russo-Japa-
nese War, Austria frivolously implemented a thirty-year-old secret codicil
from the Congress of Berlin in which the powers had agreed to let Austria
annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. Heretofore, Austria had been satisfied with de
facto control because it wanted no more Slavic subjects. But in 1908,
Austria reversed that decision, fearing its empire was about to dissolve
under the impact of Serbian agitation and thinking that it needed some
success to demonstrate its continued pre-eminence in the Balkans. In the
intervening three decades, Russia had lost its dominant position in Bul-
garia and the Three Emperors’ League had lapsed. Not unreasonably,
Russia was outraged that the all-but-forgotten agreement should now be
invoked to permit Austria to acquire a territory which a Russian war had
But outrage does not guarantee success, especially when its target is
already in possession of the prize. For the first time, Germany placed
itself squarely behind Austria, signaling that it was prepared to risk a
European war if Russia challenged the annexation. Then, making matters
even more tense, Germany demanded formal Russian and Serbian recog-
nition of Austria’s move. Russia had to swallow this humiliation because
Great Britain and France were not yet ready to go to war over a Balkan
issue, and because Russia was in no position to go to war all alone so
soon after its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War.
Germany thus placed itself as an obstacle in Russia’s path and in an
area where it had never before asserted a vital interest — indeed, where
Russia had heretofore been able to count on Germany to moderate Aus-
tria’s ambitions. Germany demonstrated not only its recklessness but a
severe lapse of historical memory. Only half a century before, Bismarck
had accurately predicted that Russia would never forgive Austria for hu-
miliating it in the Crimean War. Now, Germany was making the same
mistake, compounding Russia’s estrangement, which had started at the
Congress of Berlin.
Humiliating a great country without weakening it is always a dangerous
game. Though Germany thought it was teaching Russia the importance of
German goodwill, Russia resolved never to be caught flat-footed again.
The two great Continental powers thus began to play a game called
“chicken” in American slang, in which two drivers hurtle their vehicles
toward each other, each hoping that the other will veer off at the last
moment while counting on his own more steady nerves. Unfortunately,
this game was played on several different occasions in pre-World War I
Europe. Each time a collision was avoided, the collective confidence in
the game’s ultimate safety was strengthened, causing everyone to forget
that a single failure would produce irrevocable catastrophe.
As if Germany wanted to make perfectly sure that it had not neglected
to bully any potential adversary or to give all of them sufficient reason to
tighten their bonds to each other in self-defense, it next challenged
France. In 1911, France, now effectively the civil administrator of Mo-
rocco, responded to local unrest by sending troops to the city of Fez, in
clear violation of the Algeciras accord. To the wild applause of the nation-
alist German press, the Kaiser reacted by dispatching the gunboat Panther
to the Moroccan port of Agadir. “Hurrah! A Deed!” wrote the Rheinisch-
Westfaliscbe Zeitung on July 2, 1911. “Action at last, a liberating deed
which must dissolve the cloud of pessimism everywhere.” 33 The Miin-
chener Neueste Nachrichten advised that the government push ahead with
every energy, “even if out of such a policy, circumstances arise that we
cannot foresee today.” 34 In what passed for subtlety in the German press,
the journal was basically urging Germany to risk war over Morocco.
A Political Doomsday Machine
The grandiloquently named ‘‘Panther Leap” had the same ending as
Germany’s previous efforts to break its self-inflicted encirclement. Once
again, Germany and France seemed poised on the brink of a war, with
Germany’s goals as ill-defined as ever. What sort of compensation was it
seeking this time? A Moroccan port? Part of Morocco’s Atlantic coast?
Colonial gains elsewhere? It wanted to intimidate France but could find
no operational expression for that objective.
In keeping with their evolving relationship, Great Britain backed
France more firmly than it had at Algeciras in 1906. The shift in British
public opinion was demonstrated by the attitude of its then Chancellor of
the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, who had a well-deserved reputation
for pacifism and as an advocate of good relations with Germany. On this
occasion, however, he delivered a major speech which warned that if
... a situation were to be forced upon us in which peace could only be
preserved by the surrender of the great and beneficent position we had
won by centuries of heroism and achievement . . . then I say emphati-
cally that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a
great country like ours to endure. 35
Even Austria turned a cold shoulder on its powerful ally, seeing no point
in staking its survival on a North African adventure. Germany backed
down, accepting a large but worthless tract of land in Central Africa, a
transaction which elicited a groan from Germany’s nationalistic press.
“We practically risked a world war for a few Congolese swamps,” wrote
the Berliner Tagehlatt on November 3, 191 1. 36 Yet what ought to have
been criticized was not the value of the new acquisitions but the wisdom
of threatening a different country with war every few years without being
able to define a meaningful objective, each time magnifying the fear
which had brought the hostile coalitions into being in the first place.
If German tactics had by now become stereotyped, so had the Anglo-
French response. In 1912, Great Britain, France, and Russia started mili-
tary staff talks, the significance of which was only formally limited by the
usual British disclaimer that they constituted no legally binding commit-
ment. Even this constraint was belied to some extent by the Anglo-French
Naval Treaty of 1912, according to which the French fleet was moved to
the Mediterranean and Great Britain assumed responsibility for de-
fending the French Atlantic coast. Two years later, this agreement would
be invoked as a moral obligation for Great Britain to enter the First
World War because, so it was claimed, France had left its Channel coast
undefended in reliance on British support. (Twenty-eight years later, in
1940, a similar agreement between the United States and Great Britain
would enable Great Britain to move its Pacific fleet to the Atlantic, im-
plying a moral obligation on the part of the United States to protect Great
Britain’s nearby defenseless Asian possessions against Japanese attack.)
In 1913, German leaders culminated the alienation of Russia by another
of their fitful and pointless maneuvers. This time, Germany agreed to
reorganize the Turkish army and to send a German general to assume
command over Constantinople. William II dramatized the challenge by
sending off the training mission with a typically grandiloquent flourish,
expressing his hope that “the German flags will soon fly over the fortifi-
cations of the Bosphorus.” 37
Few events could have enraged Russia more than Germany’s laying
claim to the position in the Straits that Europe had denied to Russia for a
century. Russia had with difficulty reconciled itself to the control of the
Straits by a weak country like Ottoman Turkey, but it would never acqui-
esce to domination of the Dardanelles by another Great Power. The
Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov, wrote to the Tsar in December
1913: “To abandon the Straits to a powerful state would be synonymous
with subordinating the whole economic development of southern Russia
to this state.” 38 Nicholas II told the British Ambassador that “Germany was
aiming at acquiring such a position at Constantinople as would enable it
to shut in Russia altogether in the Black Sea. Should she attempt to carry
out this policy, he would have to resist it with all his power, even if war
should be the only alternative.” 39
Though Germany devised a face-saving formula for removing the Ger-
man commander from Constantinople (by promoting him to field mar-
shal, which, according to German tradition, meant he could no longer
command troops in the field), irreparable damage had been done. Russia
understood that Germany’s support to Austria over Bosnia-Herzegovina
had not been an aberration. The Kaiser, regarding these developments as
tests of his manhood, told his chancellor on February 25, 1914: “Russo-
Prussian relations are dead once and for all! We have become enemies!” 40
Six months later, World War I broke out.
An international system had evolved whose rigidity and confrontational
style paralleled that of the later Cold War. But in fact, the pre-World War
I international order was far more volatile than the Cold War world. In
the Nuclear Age, only the United States and the Soviet Union had the
technical means to start a general war in which the risks were so cataclys-
mic that neither superpower dared to delegate such awesome power to
an ally, however close. By contrast, prior to World War I, each member
of the two main coalitions was in a position not only to start a war but to
blackmail its allies into supporting it.
A Political Doomsday Machine
For a while, the alliance system itself provided a certain restraint.
France held Russia back in conflicts which primarily involved Austria;
Germany played a similar role with Austria vis-a-vis Russia. In the Bosnian
crisis of 1908, France made it clear that it would not go to war over a
Balkan issue. During the Moroccan crisis of 1911, French President Calli-
aux was told firmly that any French attempt to resolve a colonial crisis by
force would not receive Russian support. As late as the Balkan War of
1912, Germany warned Austria that there were limits to German backing,
and Great Britain pressured Russia to moderate its acts on behalf of the
volatile and unpredictable Balkan League, which was led by Serbia. At
the London Conference of 1913, Great Britain helped to thwart Serbian
annexation of Albania, which would have been intolerable to Austria.
The London Conference of 1913 would, however, be the last time that
the pre-World War I international system could ease conflicts. Serbia was
unhappy with Russia’s lukewarm support, while Russia resented Great
Britain’s posture as an impartial arbiter and France’s clear reluctance to
go to war. Austria, on the verge of disintegrating under Russian and
South Slav pressures, was upset that Germany was not backing it more
vigorously. Serbia, Russia, and Austria all expected greater support from
their allies; France, Great Britain, and Germany feared that they might
lose their partners if they did not support them more forcefully in the
next crisis.
Afterward, each Great Power was suddenly seized by panic that a con-
ciliatory stance would make it appear weak and unreliable and cause its
partners to leave it facing a hostile coalition all alone. Countries began to
assume levels of risk unwarranted by their historic national interests or
by any rational long-term strategic objective. Richelieu’s dictum that
means must correspond to ends was violated almost daily. Germany ac-
cepted the risk of world war in order to be seen as supportive of Vienna’s
South Slav policy, in which it had no national interest. Russia was willing
to risk a fight to the death with Germany in order to be viewed as Serbia’s
steadfast ally. Germany and Russia had no major conflict with each other;
their confrontation was by proxy.
In 1912, the new French President, Raymond Poincare, informed the
Russian Ambassador with respect to the Balkans that “if Russia goes to
war, France will also, as we know that in this question Germany is behind
Austria.’’ 41 The gleeful Russian Ambassador reported “a completely new
French view” that “the territorial grabs by Austria affect the general Euro-
pean balance and therefore France’s interests.” 42 That same year, the
British Undersecretary in the Foreign Office, Sir Arthur Nicholson, wrote
to the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg: “I do not know how much
longer we shall be able to follow our present policy of dancing on a tight
rope, and not be compelled to take some definite line or other. I am also
haunted by the same fear as you — lest Russia should become tired of us
and strike a bargain with Germany.” 43
Not to be outdone in recklessness, the Kaiser promised Austria in 1913
that, in the next crisis, Germany would follow it into war if necessary. On
July 7, 1914, the German Chancellor explained the policy which, less than
four weeks later, would lead to actual war: “If we urge them [the Austri-
ans] ahead, then they will say we pushed them in; if we dissuade them,
then it will become a matter of our leaving them in the lurch. Then they
will turn to the Western Powers, whose arms are wide open, and we will
lose our last ally, such as it is.” 44 The precise benefit Austria was to draw
from an alliance with the Triple Entente was left undefined. Nor was it
likely that Austria could join a grouping containing Russia, which sought
to undermine Austria’s Balkan position. Historically, alliances had been
formed to augment a nation’s strength in case of war; as World War I
approached, the primary motive for war was to strengthen the alliances.
The leaders of all the major countries simply did not grasp the implica-
tions of the technology at their disposal, or of the coalitions they were
feverishly constructing. They seemed oblivious to the huge casualties of
the still relatively recent American Civil War, and expected a short, deci-
sive conflict. It never occurred to them that the failure to make their
alliances correspond to rational political objectives would lead to the
destruction of civilization as they knew it. Each alliance had too much at
stake to permit the traditional Concert of Europe diplomacy to work.
Instead, the Great Powers managed to construct a diplomatic doomsday
machine, though they were unaware of what they had done.
Into the Vortex: The Military
Doomsday Machine
ihe astonishing aspect of the outbreak of the First World War is not that
a crisis simpler than many already surmounted had finally triggered a
global catastrophe, but that it took so long for it to happen. By 1914, the
confrontation between Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one side,
and the Triple Entente on the other, had turned deadly earnest. The
statesmen of all the major countries had helped to construct the diplo-
matic doomsday mechanism that made each succeeding crisis progres-
sively more difficult to solve. Their military chiefs had vastly compounded
the peril by adding strategic plans which compressed the time available
for decision-making. Since the military plans depended on speed and the
diplomatic machinery was geared to its traditional leisurely pace, it be-
came impossible to disentangle the crisis under intense time pressure.
To make matters worse, the military planners had not adequately ex-
plained the implications of their handiwork to their political colleagues.
Military planning had, in effect, become autonomous. The first step in
this direction occurred during the negotiation for a Franco-Russian mili-
tary alliance in 1892. Up to that time, alliance negotiations had been about
the casus belli, or what specific actions by the adversary might oblige
allies to go to war. Almost invariably, its definition hinged on who was
perceived to have initiated the hostilities.
In May 1892, the Russian negotiator, Adjutant General Nikolai Obru-
chev, sent a letter to his Foreign Minister, Giers, explaining why the
traditional method for defining the casus belli had been overtaken by
modern technology. Obruchev argued that what mattered was who mobi-
lized first, not who fired the first shot: “The undertaking of mobilization
can no longer be considered as a peaceful act; on the contrary, it repre-
sents the most decisive act of war.” 1
The side that procrastinated in mobilizing would lose the benefit of its
alliances and enable its enemy to defeat each adversary in turn. The need
for all the allies to mobilize simultaneously had become so urgent in the
minds of European leaders that it turned into the keystone of solemn
diplomatic engagements. The purpose of alliances was no longer to guar-
antee support after a war had started, but to guarantee that each ally
would mobilize as soon as and, it was hoped, just before, any adversary
did. When alliances so constructed confronted each other, threats based
on mobilization became irreversible because stopping mobilization in
midstream was more disastrous than not having started it at all. If one
side stopped while the other proceeded, it would be at a growing disad-
vantage with every passing day. If both sides tried to stop simultaneously,
it would be technically so difficult that almost certainly the mobilization
would be completed before the diplomats could agree on how to arrest
This doomsday procedure effectively removed the casus belli from
political control. Every crisis had a built-in escalator to war — the decision
to mobilize — and every war was certain to become general.
Far from deploring the prospect of automatic escalation, Obruchev
welcomed it enthusiastically. The last thing he wanted was a local conflict.
For, if Germany were to stay out of a war between Russia and Austria, it
would simply emerge afterward in a position to dictate the terms of the
peace. In Obruchev’s fantasy, this was what Bismarck had done at the
Congress of Berlin:
Less than any other can our diplomacy count on an isolated conflict of
Russia, for example, with Germany, or Austria, or Turkey alone. The
Congress of Berlin was lesson enough for us in this connection, and it
Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine
taught us whom we should regard as our most dangerous enemy — the
one who fights with us directly or the one who waits for our weakening
and then dictates the terms of peace? . . . 2
According to Obruchev, it was in Russia’s interest to make certain that
every war would be general. The benefit to Russia of a well-constructed
alliance with France would be to prevent the possibility of a localized
At the outset of every European war there is always a great temptation
for the diplomats to localize the conflict and to limit its effects as far as
possible. But in the present armed and agitated condition of continental
Europe, Russia must regard any such localization of the war with partic-
ular skepticism, because this could unduly strengthen the possibilities
not only for those of our enemies who are hesitating and have not
come out into the open, but also for vacillating allies. 3
In other words, a defensive war for limited objectives was against Russia’s
national interest. Any war had to be total, and the military planners could
grant no other option to the political leaders:
Once we have been drawn into a war, we cannot conduct that war
otherwise than with all our forces, and against both our neighbors. In
the face of the readiness of entire armed peoples to go to war, no other
sort of war can be envisaged than the most decisive sort — a war that
would determine for long into the future the relative political positions
of the European powers, and especially of Russia and Germany. 4
However trivial the cause, war would be total; if its prelude involved only
one neighbor, Russia should see to it that the other was drawn in. Almost
grotesquely, the Russian general staff preferred to fight Germany and
Austria-Hungary jointly than just one of them. A military convention car-
rying out Obruchev’s ideas was signed on January 4, 1894. France and
Russia agreed to mobilize together should any member of the Triple
Alliance mobilize for any reason whatsoever. The doomsday machine
was complete. Should Germany’s ally, Italy, mobilize against France over
Savoy, for instance, Russia would have to mobilize against Germany; if
Austria mobilized against Serbia, France was now obliged to mobilize
against Germany. Since it was virtually certain that at some point some
nation would mobilize for some cause, it was only a matter of time before
a general war broke out, for it required only one mobilization by a major
power to start the doomsday machinery for all of them.
At least Tsar Alexander III understood that the game now being played
was for the highest stakes. When Giers asked him, . . what would we
gain by helping the French destroy Germany?” he replied: “What we
would gain would be that Germany, as such, would disappear. It would
break up into a number of small, weak states, the way it used to be.” 5
German war aims were equally sweeping and nebulous. The much-in-
voked European equilibrium had turned into a battle to the death, though
not one of the statesmen involved could have explained what cause justi-
fied such nihilism or what political aims would be served by the confla-
What Russian planners were putting forward as theory, the German
general staff translated into operational planning at almost the exact mo-
ment that Obruchev was negotiating the Franco-Russian military alliance.
And with German thoroughness, the imperial generals pushed the mobi-
lization concept to its absolute extreme. The chief of the German staff,
Alfred von Schlieffen, was as obsessed by mobilization schedules as his
Russian and French counterparts. But whereas the Franco-Russian military
leaders were concerned with defining the obligation to mobilize, Schlief-
fen focused on implementing the concept.
Refusing to leave anything to the vagaries of the political environment,
Schlieffen tried to devise a foolproof plan for escaping Germany’s
dreaded encirclement. Just as Bismarck’s successors had abandoned
his complex diplomacy, so Schlieffen jettisoned the strategic concepts
of Helmuth von Moltke, the military architect of Bismarck’s three rapid
victories between 1864 and 1870.
Moltke had devised a strategy that left open the option of a political
solution to Bismarck’s nightmare of hostile coalitions. In case of a two-
front war, Moltke planned to split the German army more or less evenly
between the East and the West, and to go on the defensive on both fronts.
Since France’s principal objective was to regain Alsace-Lorraine, it was
certain to attack. If Germany defeated that offensive, France would be
obliged to consider a compromise peace. Moltke specifically warned
against extending military operations to Paris, having learned in the
Franco-Prussian War how difficult it was to conclude a peace while be-
sieging the enemy’s capital.
Moltke proposed the same strategy for the Eastern front — namely, to
defeat a Russian attack and to follow it by pushing the Russian army back
to a strategically significant distance, and then to offer a compromise
peace. Whichever forces first achieved victory would be available to aid
the armies on the other front. In this manner, the scale of the war,
the sacrifices, and the political solution would be kept in some son of
balance. 6
Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine
But just as Bismarck’s successors had been uncomfortable with the
ambiguities of his overlapping alliances, so Schlieffen rejected Moltke’s
plan because it left the military initiative to Germany’s enemies. Nor did
Schlieffen approve of Moltke’s preference for political compromise over
total victory. Determined to impose terms which were, in effect, uncondi-
tional surrender, Schlieffen elaborated a scheme for a quick and decisive
victory on one front and then throwing all of Germany’s forces against
the other adversary, thereby achieving a clear-cut outcome on both fronts.
Because a quick, knockout blow in the East was precluded by the slow
pace of Russian mobilization, which was expected to take six weeks, and
by Russia’s vast territory, Schlieffen decided to destroy the French army
first, before the Russian army was fully mobilized. To circumvent the
heavy French fortifications at the German border, Schlieffen came up
with the idea of violating Belgian neutrality by wheeling the German
army through its territory. He would capture Paris and trap the French
army from the rear in its fonresses along the border. In the meantime,
Germany would stay on the defensive in the East.
The plan was as brilliant as it was reckless. A minimum knowledge of
history would have revealed that Great Britain would surely go to war if
Belgium was invaded — a fact which seems to have totally eluded the
Kaiser and the German general staff. For twenty years after the Schlieffen
Plan was devised in 1892, Germany’s leaders had made innumerable
proposals to Great Britain to gain its support — or at least neutrality — in
a European war, all of which were rendered illusory by German military
planning. There was no cause for which Great Britain had fought as
consistently or implacably as the independence of the Low Countries.
And Great Britain’s conduct in the wars against Louis XTV and Napoleon
testified to its tenacity. Once engaged, it would fight to the end, even if
France were defeated. Nor did the Schlieffen Plan allow for the possibility
of failure. If Germany did not destroy the French army — which was possi-
ble, since the French had interior lines and railways radiating from Paris
whereas the German army had to march by foot in an arc through a
devastated countryside — Germany would be forced into Moltke’s strategy
of defense on both fronts after it had destroyed the possibility of a politi-
cal compromise peace by occupying Belgium. Where the principal goal
of Bismarck’s foreign policy had been to avoid a two-front war and of
Moltke’s military strategy to limit it, Schlieffen insisted on a two-front war
conducted in an all-out fashion.
With German deployment focused against France while the most likely
origin of the conflict would be in Eastern Europe, Bismarck’s nightmare
question, “what if there is a two-front war?” was transformed into Schlief-
fen’s nightmare question, “what if there is not a two-front war?” If France
were to declare neutrality in a Balkan war, Germany might face the dan-
ger of a French declaration of war after Russian mobilization was com-
plete, as Obruchev had already explained from the other side of the
European dividing line. If, on the other hand, Germany ignored France’s
offer of neutrality, Schlieffen’s plan would put Germany in the uncomfort-
able position of attacking non-belligerent Belgium in order to get to non-
belligerent France. Schlieffen therefore had to invent a reason to assault
France should France stay on the sidelines. He created an impossible
standard for what Germany would accept as French neutrality. Germany
would regard France as neutral only if it agreed to cede one of its major
fortresses to Germany — in other words, only if France put itself at Ger-
many’s mercy and abdicated its position as a Great Power.
The unholy mix of general political alliances and hair-trigger military
strategies guaranteed a vast bloodletting. The balance of power had lost
any semblance of the flexibility it had had during the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. Wherever war erupted (and it would almost cer-
tainly be in the Balkans), the Schlieffen Plan saw to it that the initial battles
would be fought in the West between countries having next to no interest
in the immediate crisis. Foreign policy had abdicated to military strategy,
which now consisted of gambling on a single throw of the dice. A more
mindless and technocratic approach to war would have been difficult to
Though the military leaders of both sides insisted on the most destruc-
tive kind of war, they were ominously silent about its political conse-
quences in light of the military technology they were pursuing. What
would Europe look like after a war on the scale they were planning? What
changes could justify the carnage they were preparing? There was not a
single specific Russian demand on Germany or a single German demand
on Russia, which merited a local war, much less a general one.
The diplomats on both sides were silent, too, largely because they did
not understand the political implications of their countries’ time bomb,
and because nationalistic politics in each country made them afraid to
challenge their military establishments. This conspiracy of silence pre-
vented the political leaders of all the major countries from requesting
military plans which established some correspondence between military
and political objectives.
Considering the catastrophe they were brewing, there was something
almost eerie about the lightheartedness of European leaders as they em-
barked on their disastrous course. Surprisingly few warnings were ever
uttered, an honorable exception being that of Peter Durnovo, a former
Russian Interior Minister who became a member of the State Council.
Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine
In February 1914 — six months before the war — he wrote a prophetic
memorandum for the Tsar:
The main burden of the war will undoubtedly fall on us, since England
is hardly capable of taking a considerable part in a continental war,
while France, poor in manpower, will probably adhere to strictly defen-
sive tactics, in view of the enormous losses by which war will be at-
tended under present conditions of military technique. The pan of a
battering-ram, making a breach in the very thick of the German defense,
will be ours — 7
In Durnovo’s judgment, these sacrifices would be wasted because Russia
would not be able to make permanent territorial gains by fighting on the
side of Great Britain, its traditional geopolitical opponent. Though Great
Britain would concede gains to Russia in Central Europe, an additional
slice of Poland would only magnify the already strong centrifugal tenden-
cies within the Russian Empire. Adding to the Ukrainian population, said
Durnovo, would spur demands for an independent Ukraine. Therefore,
victory might have the ironic result of fostering enough ethnic turmoil to
reduce the Tsar’s empire to Little Russia.
Even if Russia realized its century-old goal of conquering the Darda-
nelles, Durnovo pointed out that such an achievement would prove stra-
tegically empty:
[It] would not give us an outlet to the open sea, however, since on the
other side of them there lies a sea consisting almost wholly of territorial
waters, a sea dotted with numerous islands where the British navy, for
instance, would have no trouble whatever in closing to us every inlet
and outlet, irrespective of the Straits. 8
Why this simple geopolitical fact should have eluded three generations
of Russians desiring the conquest of Constantinople — and of Englishmen
determined to thwart them — remains a mystery.
Durnovo went on to argue that a war would bring even fewer eco-
nomic benefits to Russia. By any calculation, it would cost far more than
could possibly be recouped. A German victory would destroy the Russian
economy while a Russian victory would drain the German economy,
leaving nothing for reparations no matter which side won:
There can be no doubt that the war will necessitate expenditures which
are beyond Russia’s limited financial means. We shall have to obtain
credit from allied and neutral countries, but this will not be granted
gratuitously. As to what will happen if the war should end disastrously
for us, I do not wish to discuss now. The financial and economic conse-
quences of defeat can be neither calculated nor even foreseen, and will
undoubtedly spell the total ruin of our entire national economy. But
even victory promises us extremely unfavorable financial prospects; a
totally ruined Germany will not be in a position to compensate us for
the cost involved. Dictated in the interest of England, the peace treaty
will not afford Germany opportunity for sufficient economic recupera-
tion to cover our war expenditures, even at a distant time. 9
Yet Durnovo’s strongest reason for opposing the war was his prediction
that war would inevitably lead to social revolution — first in the defeated
country and then spreading from there to the victor:
It is our firm conviction, based upon a long and careful study of all
contemporary subversive tendencies, that there must inevitably break
out in the defeated country a social revolution which, by the very nature
of things, will spread to the country of the victor. 10
There is no evidence that the Tsar saw the memorandum that might have
saved his dynasty. Nor is there any record of a comparable analysis in
other European capitals. The closest anyone came to Durnovo’s views
were a few epigrammatic comments by Bethmann-Hollweg, the Chancel-
lor who would lead Germany into the war. In 1913, already much too late,
he had expressed, quite accurately, why German foreign policy proved so
unsettling to the rest of Europe:
Challenge everybody, put yourself in everybody’s path and actually
weaken no one in this fashion. Reason: aimlessness, the need for little
prestige successes and solicitude for every current of public opinion. 11
That same year, Bethmann-Hollweg laid down another maxim, which
might have saved his country had it been put into practice twenty years
We must keep France in check through a cautious policy towards Russia
and England. Naturally this does not please our chauvinists and is un-
popular. But I see no alternative for Germany in the near future. 12
By the time these lines were written, Europe was already headed into the
vortex. The locale of the crisis that triggered the First World War was
Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine
irrelevant to the European balance of power, and the casus belli as acci-
dental as the preceding diplomacy had been reckless.
On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, paid
for Austria’s rashness in having annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 with
his life. Not even the manner of his assassination could escape the singu-
lar mix of the tragic and the absurd that marked Austria’s disintegration.
The young Serbian terrorist failed in his first attempt to assassinate Franz
Ferdinand, wounding the driver of the Archduke’s vehicle instead. After
arriving at the governor’s residence and chastising the Austrian adminis-
trators for their negligence, Franz Ferdinand, accompanied by his wife,
decided to visit the victim at the hospital. The royal couple’s new driver
took a wrong turn and, in backing out of the street, came to a stop in
front of the astonished would-be assassin, who had been drowning his
frustrations in liquor at a sidewalk cafe. With his victims so providentially
delivered to him by themselves, the assassin did not fail a second time.
What started out as a near-accident turned into a conflagration with the
inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Because the Archduke’s wife was not of
royal blood, none of the kings of Europe attended the funeral. Had the
crowned heads of state congregated and had an opportunity to exchange
views, they might have proven more reluctant to go to war a few weeks
later over what had been, after all, a terrorist plot.
In all likelihood, not even a royal summit could have prevented Austria
from lighting the fuse which the Kaiser now rashly handed it. Remember-
ing his promise of the previous year to back Austria in the next crisis, he
invited the Austrian Ambassador to lunch on July 5 and urged speedy
action against Serbia. On July 6, Bethmann-Hollweg confirmed the Kai-
ser’s pledge: “Austria must judge what is to be done to clear up her
relations with Serbia; but whatever Austria’s decision, she could count
with certainty upon it, that Germany will stand behind her as an ally.” 13
Austria at last had the blank check it had sought for so long, and a real
grievance to which it might be applied. Insensitive as ever to the full
implications of his bravado, William II vanished on a cruise to the Norwe-
gian fjords (this in the days before radio). Exactly what he had in mind is
not clear, but he obviously did not anticipate a European war. The Kaiser
and his chancellor apparently calculated that Russia was not yet ready for
war and would stand by while Serbia was humiliated, as it had done in
1908. In any event, they believed they were in a better position for a
showdown with Russia than they would be a few years later.
Maintaining their unbroken record of misjudging the psychology of
potential adversaries, the German leaders were now as convinced of the
vastness of their opportunity as when they had tried to force Great Britain
into an alliance by building a large navy, or to isolate France by threaten-
ing war over Morocco. Operating from the assumption that Austria’s suc-
cess might break their ever-tighter encirclement by disillusioning Russia
with the Triple Entente, they ignored France, which they deemed irrecon-
cilable, and evaded mediation by Great Britain lest it spoil their triumph.
They had persuaded themselves that if, against all expectations, war did
break out, Great Britain would either remain neutral or intervene too
late. Yet Serge Sazonov, Russia’s Foreign Minister at the outbreak of the
war, described why Russia would not back off this time:
Ever since the Crimean War, we could entertain no illusions on the
subject of Austria’s feelings toward us. On the day she initiated her
predatory policy in the Balkans, hoping thereby to prop up the tottering
structure of her dominion, her relations with us became more and
more unfriendly. We were able, however, to reconcile ourselves to this
inconvenience, until it became clear that her Balkan policy had the
sympathy of Germany, and received encouragement from Berlin . 14
Russia felt it had to resist what it interpreted as a German maneuver to
destroy its position among the Slavs by humiliating Serbia, its most reli-
able ally in the area. “It was clear,” wrote Sazonov, “that we had to do not
with the rash decision of a short-sighted Minister, undertaken at his own
risk and on his own responsibility, but with a carefully prepared plan,
elaborated with the aid of the German Government, without whose con-
sent and promise of support Austria-Hungary would never have ventured
upon its execution .” 15
Another Russian diplomat later wrote nostalgically of the difference
between the Germany of Bismarck and the Germany of the Kaiser-.
The Great War was the inevitable consequence of the encouragement
given by Germany to Austria-Hungary in her policy of penetration into
the Balkans, which was combined with the grandiose Pan-German idea
of a Germanized “Middle-Europe.” In Bismarck’s day this never would
have happened. What did happen was the result of Germany’s novel
ambition to grapple with a task more stupendous than that of Bismarck
— without a Bismarck. 16 *
* The Russian memoirs must be taken with a grain of salt because they were trying to shift
the total responsibility for the war onto Germany’s shoulders. Sazonov in particular must
bear part of the blame because he clearly belonged to the war party pushing for full
mobilization — even though his overall analysis has much merit.
Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine
The Russian diplomats were paying the Germans too great an honor, for
the Kaiser and his advisers had no more of a long-range plan in 1914 than
they had had during any previous crisis, The crisis over the Archduke’s
assassination ran out of control because no leader was prepared to back
down and every country was concerned above all with living up to formal
treaty obligations rather than to an overall concept of long-range common
interest. What Europe lacked was some all-encompassing value system to
bind the powers together, such as had existed in the Metternich system
or the cold-blooded diplomatic flexibility of Bismarck’s Realpolitik. World
War I started not because countries broke their treaties, but because they
fulfilled them to the letter.
Of the many curious aspects of the prelude to the First World War, one
of the strangest was that nothing happened at first. Austria, true to its
operating style, procrastinated, in part because Vienna needed time to
overcome the reluctance of Hungarian Prime Minister Stephen Tisza to
risk the Empire. When he finally yielded, Vienna issued a forty-eight-hour
ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, deliberately putting forward such onerous
conditions that they were sure to be rejected. Yet the delay had cost
Austria the benefits of the widespread initial feelings of indignation in
Europe over the Archduke’s assassination.
In Metternich’s Europe, with its shared commitment to legitimacy,
there can be little doubt that Russia would have sanctioned Austrian
retribution against Serbia for the assassination of a prince in direct line
of succession to the Austrian throne. But by 1914, legitimacy was no
longer a common bond. Russia’s sympathy for its ally, Serbia, outweighed
its outrage at the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
For the entire month following the assassination, Austrian diplomacy
had been dilatory. Then came the mad rush to cataclysm in the space of
less than a week. The Austrian ultimatum drove events out of the control
of the political leaders. For once the ultimatum had been issued, any
major country was in a position to trigger the irreversible race to mobili-
zation. Ironically, the mobilization juggernaut was set off by the one
country for which mobilization schedules were essentially irrelevant. For,
alone among all the major powers, Austria’s military plans were still old-
fashioned in that they did not depend on speed. It mattered little to
Austrian war plans which week the war started, as long as its armies were
able to fight Serbia sooner or later. Austria had delivered its ultimatum to
Serbia in order to forestall mediation, not to speed military operations.
Nor did Austrian mobilization threaten any other major power, since it
would take a month to be completed.
Thus, the mobilization schedules which made war inevitable were set
21 1
in motion by the country whose army did not actually start fighting until
after the major battles in the West were already over. On the other hand
and whatever the state of Austria’s readiness, if Russia wanted to threaten
Austria, it would have to mobilize some troops, an act which would
trigger the irreversible in Germany (though none of the political leaders
seemed to have grasped this danger). The paradox of July 1914 was that
the countries which had political reasons to go to war were not tied to
rigid mobilization schedules while nations with rigid schedules, such as
Germany and Russia, had no political reason to go to war.
Great Britain, the country in the best position to arrest this chain of
events, hesitated. It had next to no interest in the Balkan crisis, though it
did have a major interest in preserving the Triple Entente. Dreading
war, it feared a German triumph even more. Had Great Britain declared
unambiguously its intentions and made Germany understand that it
would enter a general war, the Kaiser might well have turned away from
confrontation. That is how Sazonov saw it later:
I cannot refrain from expressing the opinion that if in 1914 Sir Edward
Grey had, as I insistently requested him, made a timely and equally
unambiguous announcement of the solidarity of Great Britain with
France and Russia, he might have saved humanity from that terrible
cataclysm, the consequences of which endangered the very existence
of European civilization. 17
The British leaders were reluctant to risk the Triple Entente by indicating
any hesitation to support their allies and, somewhat contradictorily, did
not want to threaten Germany so as to keep open the option of mediating
at the right moment. As a result, Great Britain fell between two stools. It
had no legal obligation to go to war on the side of France and Russia, as
Grey assured the House of Commons on June 11, 1914, a little more than
two weeks before the Archduke’s assassination:
... if war arose between European Powers, there were no unpublished
agreements which would restrict or hamper the freedom of the Gov-
ernment or Parliament to decide whether or not Great Britain should
participate in a war 18
Legally, this was certainly true. But there was an intangible moral dimen-
sion involved as well. The French navy was in the Mediterranean because
of France’s naval agreement with Great Britain; as a result, the coast of
northern France would be wide open to the German navy if Great Britain
Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine
stayed out of the war. As the crisis developed, Bethmann-Hollweg
pledged not to employ the German navy against France if Great Britain
promised to remain neutral. But Grey refused this bargain, for the same
reason that he had rejected the German offer in 1909 to slow down its
naval buildup in return for British neutrality in a European war — he
suspected that after France was defeated, Great Britain would be at Ger-
many’s mercy.
You must inform the German Chancellor that his proposal that we
should bind ourselves to neutrality on such terms cannot for a moment
be entertained.
. . . For us to make this bargain with Germany at the expense of
France would be a disgrace from which the good name of this country
would never recover.
The Chancellor also in effect asks us to bargain away whatever obliga-
tion or interest we have as regards the neutrality of Belgium. We could
not entertain that bargain either. 19
Grey’s dilemma was that his country had become snared between the
pressures of public opinion and the traditions of its foreign policy. On
the one hand, the lack of public support for going to war over a Balkan
issue would have suggested mediation. On the other hand, if France were
defeated or lost confidence in the British alliance, Germany would be in
the dominant position the British had always resisted. Therefore, it is
highly probable that, in the end, Great Britain would have gone to war to
prevent a French military collapse even if Germany had not invaded
Belgium, although it could have taken some time for the British people’s
support for the war to crystallize. During that period, Great Britain might
have tried to mediate. However, Germany’s decision to challenge one of
the most established principles of English foreign policy — that the Low
Countries must not fall into the hands of a major power — served to
resolve British doubts and guaranteed that the war would not end with a
Grey reasoned that, by not taking sides in the early stages of the crisis,
Great Britain would retain its claim to the impartiality which might permit
it to broker a solution. And past experience supported this strategy. The
outcome of heightened international tensions for twenty years had invari-
ably been a conference. However, in no previous crisis had there been
any mobilization. As all the Great Powers were getting ready to mobilize,
the margin of time available for traditional diplomatic methods vanished.
Thus, in the crucial ninety-six hours during which mobilization schedules
destroyed the opportunity for political maneuvering, the British Cabinet
in effect assumed the role of bystander.
Austria’s ultimatum backed Russia against the wall at a moment when
it already believed it had been sorely misused. Bulgaria, whose liberation
from Turkish rule had been brought about by Russia through several
wars, was leaning toward Germany. Austria, having annexed Bosnia-Her-
zegovina, seemed to be seeking to turn Serbia, Russia’s last significant
Balkan ally, into a protectorate. Finally, with Germany establishing itself
in Constantinople, Russia could only wonder whether the age of Pan-
Slavism might not end in the Teutonic domination of everything it had
coveted for a century.
Even so, Tsar Nicholas II was not eager for a showdown with Germany.
At a ministerial meeting on July 24, he reviewed Russia’s options. The
Finance Minister, Peter Bark, reported the Tsar as saying: "War would be
disastrous for the world, and once it had broken out it would be difficult
to stop.” In addition, Bark noted, "The German Emperor had frequently
assured him of his sincere desire to safeguard the peace of Europe.” And
he reminded the ministers of "the German Emperor’s loyal attitude dur-
ing the Russo-Japanese War and during the internal troubles that Russia
had experienced afterwards.” 20
The rebuttal came from Aleksandr Krivoshein, the powerful Minister
of Agriculture. Demonstrating Russia’s endemic refusal to forget a slight,
he argued that, despite the Kaiser’s kind letters to his cousin, Tsar Nicho-
las, the German had bullied Russia during the Bosnian crisis of 1908.
Therefore, "public and parliamentary opinion would fail to understand
why, at the critical moment involving Russia’s vital interest, the Imperial
Government was reluctant to act boldly. . . . Our exaggeratedly prudent
attitudes had unfortunately not succeeded in placating the Central Euro-
pean Powers.” 21
Krivoshein’s argument was supported by a dispatch from the Russian
Ambassador in Sofia to the effect that, if Russia backed down, "our pres-
tige in the Slav world and in the Balkans would perish never to return.” 22
Heads of government are notoriously vulnerable to arguments that ques-
tion their courage. In the end, the Tsar suppressed his premonitions of
disaster and opted for backing Serbia even at the risk of war, though he
stopped short of ordering mobilization.
When Serbia responded to Austria’s ultimatum on July 25 in an unex-
pectedly conciliatory fashion — accepting all Austrian demands except
one — the Kaiser, just back from his cruise, thought that the crisis was
over. But he did not count on Austria’s determination to exploit the
backing he had proffered so incautiously. Above all, he had forgotten — if
Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine
indeed he had ever known it — that, with the Great Powers so close to the
brink of war, mobilization schedules were likely to outrun diplomacy.
On July 28, Austria declared war against Serbia, even though it would
not be ready for military action until August 12. On the same day, the Tsar
ordered partial mobilization against Austria and discovered to his sur-
prise that the only plan the general staff had readied was for general
mobilization against both Germany and Austria, despite the fact that for
the past fifty years Austria had stood in the way of Russia’s Balkan am-
bitions, and that a localized Austro-Russian war had been a staple of
military-staff schools during that entire period. Russia’s Foreign Minister,
unaware that he was living in a fool’s paradise, sought to reassure Berlin
on July 28: “The military measures taken by us in consequence of the
Austria declaration of war . . . not a single one of them was directed
against Germany.” 23
The Russian military leaders, without exception disciples of Obruchev’s
theories, were appalled by the Tsar’s restraint. They wanted general mobi-
lization and thus war with Germany, which had taken no military steps so
far. One of the leading generals told Sazonov that “war had become
inevitable and that we were in danger of losing it before we had time to
unsheath our sword.” 24
If the Tsar had been too hesitant for his generals, he was far too
decisive for Germany. All German war plans were based on knocking
France out of a war within six weeks, and then turning against a presum-
ably still not fully mobilized Russia. Any Russian mobilization — even a
partial one — would cut into this timetable and lower the odds of Ger-
many’s already risky gamble. Accordingly, on July 29, Germany demanded
that Russia stop its mobilization or Germany would follow suit. And every-
one knew that German mobilization was tantamount to war.
The Tsar was too weak to yield. Stopping partial mobilization would
have unraveled the entire Russian military planning, and the resistance of
his generals convinced him that the die was cast. On July 30, Nicholas
ordered full mobilization. On July 31, Germany once more demanded an
end to Russian mobilization. When that request was ignored, Germany
declared war on Russia. This occurred without a single serious political
exchange between St. Petersburg and Berlin about the substance of the
crisis, and in the absence of any tangible dispute between Germany and
Germany now faced the problem that its war plans required an imme-
diate attack on France, which had been quiescent throughout the crisis
except to encourage Russia not to compromise by pledging France’s
unconditional support. Understanding at last where twenty years of histri-
onics had landed him, the Kaiser tried to divert Germany’s mobilization
away from France and toward Russia. His attempt to rein in the military
was as much in vain as the Tsar’s previous, similar effort to limit the scope
of Russian mobilization. The German general staff was no more willing
than its Russian counterpart to scrap twenty years of planning; indeed, no
more than the Russian staff did it have an alternate plan. Though both the
Tsar and the Emperor had wanted to pull back from the brink, neither
knew how to do it — the Tsar because he was prevented from carrying
out partial mobilization, the Kaiser because he was kept from mobilizing
only against Russia. Both were thwarted by the military machinery which
they had helped to construct and which, once set in motion, proved
On August 1 , Germany inquired of France whether it intended to re-
main neutral. Had France replied in the affirmative, Germany would have
demanded the fortresses of Verdun and Toulon as tokens of good faith.
Instead, France replied rather enigmatically that it would act in accor-
dance with its national interest. Germany, of course, had no specific issue
with which to justify war with France, which had been a bystander in the
Balkan crisis. Again, the mobilization schedules were the driving force.
Thus, Germany trumped up some French border violations and, on Au-
gust 3, declared war. The same day, German troops, carrying out the
Schlieffen Plan, invaded Belgium. On the next day, August 4, to the sur-
prise of no one except the German leaders, Great Britain declared war
on Germany.
The Great Powers had succeeded in turning a secondary Balkan crisis
into a world war. A dispute over Bosnia and Serbia had led to the invasion
of Belgium, at the other end of Europe, which had in turn made Great
Britain’s entry into the war inevitable. Ironically, by the time the decisive
battles were being fought on the Western front, Austrian troops had still
not taken the offensive against Serbia.
Germany learned too late that there can be no certainty in war and that
its obsessive quest for a quick and decisive victory had landed it in a
draining war of attrition. In implementing the Schlieffen Plan, Germany
dashed all its hopes for British neutrality without succeeding in destroy-
ing the French army, which had been the purpose of taking the risks in
the first place. Ironically, Germany lost the offensive battle in the West
and won the defensive battle in the East, much as the elder Moltke had
foreseen. In the end, Germany was obliged to adopt Moltke’s defensive
strategy in the West as well after having committed itself to a policy which
excluded the compromise political peace on which Moltke’s strategy had
been based.
Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine
The Concert of Europe failed miserably because the political leader-
ship had abdicated. As a result, the sort of European Congress which
throughout most of the nineteenth century had provided a cooling-off
period or led to an actual solution, was not even attempted. European
leaders had provided for every contingency except the time needed for
diplomatic conciliation. And they had forgotten Bismarck’s dictum: “Woe
to the leader whose arguments at the end of a war are not as plausible as
they were at the beginning.”
By the time events had run their course, 20 million lay dead; the Austro-
Hungarian Empire had disappeared; three of the four dynasties which
entered the war — the German, the Austrian, and the Russian — were over-
thrown. Only the British royal house remained standing. Afterward, it was
hard to recall exactly what had triggered the conflagration. All that anyone
knew was that, from the ashes produced by monumental folly, a new
European system had to be constructed, though its nature was difficult to
discern amidst the passion and the exhaustion deposited by the carnage.
The New Face of Diplomacy:
Wilson and the Treaty
of Versailles
On November 11, 1918, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George
announced that an armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers
had been signed with these words: “I hope that we may say that thus, this
fateful morning, come to an end all wars.” 1 In reality, Europe was a mere
two decades away from an even more cataclysmic war.
Since nothing about the First World War had gone as planned, it was
inevitable that the quest for peace would prove as futile as the expecta-
tions with which nations had launched themselves into the catastrophe.
Every participant had anticipated a brief war and had left the determina-
tion of its peace terms to the sort of diplomatic congress which had ended
European conflicts for the past century. But as the casualties mounted to
horrendous proportions, they obliterated the political disputes of the
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
prelude to the conflict — the competition for influence in the Balkans, the
possession of Alsace-Lorraine, and the naval race. The nations of Europe
came to blame their suffering on the inherent evil of their adversaries,
and convinced themselves that compromise could bring no real peace;
the enemy had to be totally defeated or the war fought to utter exhaustion.
Had European leaders continued the practices of the prewar interna-
tional order, a compromise peace would have been made in the spring of
1915. Offensives by each side had run their bloody course, and stalemate
prevailed on all fronts. But just as mobilization schedules had run away
with diplomacy in the week prior to the outbreak of the war, so now the
scale of the sacrifices stood in the way of a sensible compromise. Instead,
the leaders of Europe kept raising their terms, thereby not only com-
pounding the incompetence and the irresponsibility with which they had
slid into war, but destroying the world order in which their nations had
coexisted for nearly a century.
By the winter of 1914-15, military strategy and foreign policy had
lost touch with each other. None of the belligerents dared to explore a
compromise peace. France would not settle without regaining Alsace-
Lorraine; Germany would not consider a peace in which it would be
asked to give up the territory it had conquered. Once plunged into war,
the leaders of Europe became so obsessed with fratricide, so maddened
by the progressive destruction of an entire generation of their young
men, that victory turned into its own reward, regardless of the ruins
on which that triumph would have to be erected. Murderous offensives
confirmed the military stalemate and produced casualties unimaginable
before the advent of modern technology. Efforts to enlist new allies deep-
ened the political deadlock. For each new ally — Italy and Romania on the
Allied side, Bulgaria on the side of the Central Powers— demanded its
share of the anticipated booty, thereby destroying whatever flexibility
might have remained to diplomacy.
Peace terms gradually took on a nihilistic character. The aristocratic,
somewhat conspiratorial style of nineteenth-century diplomacy proved
irrelevant in the age of mass mobilization. The Allied side specialized in
couching the war in moral slogans such as “the war to end all wars’’ or
“making the world safe for Democracy” — especially after America en-
tered the war. The first of these goals was understandable, if not highly
promising, for nations that had been fighting each other in various combi-
nations for a thousand years. Its practical interpretation was the complete
disarmament of Germany. The second proposition — spreading democ-
racy — required the overthrow of German and Austrian domestic institu-
tions. Both Allied slogans therefore implied a fight to the finish.
Great Britain, which in the Napoleonic Wars had produced a blueprint
for European equilibrium via the Pitt Plan, supported the pressures for
an all-out victory. In December 1914, a German feeler offering to with-
draw from Belgium in exchange for the Belgian Congo was rejected by
British Foreign Secretary Grey with the argument that the Allies must be
given “security against any future attack from Germany.” 2
Grey’s comment marked a transformation in the British attitude. Until
shortly before the outbreak of the war, Great Britain had identified its
security with the balance of power, which it protected by supporting the
weaker side against the stronger. By 1914, Great Britain felt less and less
comfortable in this role. Sensing that Germany had become stronger than
all the rest of the Continent combined, Great Britain felt it could no
longer play its traditional role of trying to remain above the fray in Eu-
rope. Because it perceived Germany as a hegemonic threat in Europe, a
return to the status quo ante would do nothing to alleviate the fundamen-
tal problem. Thus, Great Britain, too, would no longer accept compro-
mise and insisted on its own “guarantees,” which amounted to the
permanent weakening of Germany, especially a sharp reduction of the
German High Sea Fleet — something Germany would never accept unless
it were totally defeated.
The German terms were both more precise and more geopolitical. Yet
with their characteristic lack of a sense of proportion, the German lead-
ers, too, asked for what amounted to unconditional surrender. In the
West, they demanded the annexation of the coal fields of northern France
and military control over Belgium, including the port of Antwerp, which
guaranteed Great Britain’s implacable hostility. In the East, Germany only
stated formal terms with respect to Poland, where, on November 5, 1916,
it promised to create “an independent State with a hereditary and consti-
tutional monarchy” 3 — dashing any prospect for a compromise peace with
Russia. (Germany’s hope had been that the promise of Polish indepen-
dence would produce enough Polish volunteers for five divisions; as it
turned out, only 3,000 recruits showed up.) 4 After defeating Russia, Ger-
many imposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, by which it
annexed a third of European Russia and established a protectorate over
the Ukraine. In finally defining what it meant by Weltpolitik, Germany was
opting for the domination of Europe at the very least.
The First World War began as a typical cabinet war, with notes being
passed from embassy to embassy, and telegrams being distributed among
sovereign monarchs at all the decisive steps on the road to actual combat.
But once war had been declared, and as the streets of European capitals
filled with cheering throngs, the conflict ceased being a conflict of chan-
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
celleries and turned into a struggle of the masses. After the first two years
of the war, each side was stating terms incompatible with any notion of
What proved beyond everyone’s imagination was that both sides would
win and lose at the same time: that Germany would defeat Russia and
seriously weaken both France and England; but that, in the end, the
Western Allies, with America’s indispensable assistance, would emerge as
the victors. The aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars had been a century of
peace based on equilibrium and sustained by common values. The after-
math of World War I was social upheaval, ideological conflict, and another
world war.
The enthusiasm that marked the beginning of the war evaporated once
the peoples of Europe came to understand that their governments’ ability
to produce the carnage was not matched by a commensurate ability to
achieve either victory or peace. In the resulting maelstrom, the Eastern
Courts, whose unity had sustained the peace of Europe in the days of the
Holy Alliance, were overthrown. The Austro-Hungarian Empire disap-
peared altogether. The Russian Empire was taken over by the Bolsheviks
and for two decades receded into the periphery of Europe. Germany was
successively racked by defeat, revolution, inflation, economic depression,
and dictatorship. France and Great Britain did not benefit from the weak-
ened state of their adversaries. They had sacrificed the best of their young
men for a peace which left the enemy geopolitically stronger than it had
been before the war.
Before the full dimension of this largely self-inflicted debacle could
become evident, a new player appeared on the scene to end once and
for all what had up to this time been called the Concert of Europe. Amidst
the rubble and the disillusionment of three years of carnage, America
stepped into the international arena with a confidence, a power, and an
idealism that were unimaginable to its more jaded European allies.
America’s entry into the war made total victory technically possible, but
it was for goals which bore little relation to the world order Europe had
known for some three centuries and for which it had presumably entered
the war. America disdained the concept of the balance of power and
considered the practice of Realpolitik immoral. America’s criteria for in-
ternational order were democracy, collective security, and self-determina-
tion — none of which had undergirded any previous European settlement.
To Americans, the dissonance between their philosophy and European
thought underlined the merit of their beliefs. Proclaiming a radical depar-
ture from the precepts and experiences of the Old World, Wilson’s idea
of world order derived from Americans’ faith in the essentially peaceful
nature of man and an underlying harmony of the world. It followed that
democratic nations were, by definition, peaceful; people granted self-
determination would no longer have reason to go to war or to oppress
others. Once all the peoples of the world had tasted of the blessings of
peace and democracy, they would surely rise as one to defend their gains.
European leaders had no categories of thought to encompass such
views. Neither their domestic institutions nor their international order
had been based on political theories postulating man’s essential good-
ness. Rather, they had been designed to place man’s demonstrated
selfishness in the service of a higher good. European diplomacy was
predicated not on the peace-loving nature of states but on their propen-
sity for war, which needed to be either discouraged or balanced. Alliances
were formed in the pursuit of specific, definable objectives, not in the
defense of peace in the abstract.
Wilson’s doctrines of self-determination and collective security put Eu-
ropean diplomats on thoroughly unfamiliar terrain. The assumption be-
hind all European settlements had been that borders could be adjusted
to promote the balance of power, the requirements of which took prece-
dence over the preferences of the affected populations. This was how Pitt
had envisaged the “great masses” to contain France at the end of the
Napoleonic Wars.
Throughout the nineteenth century, for example, Great Britain and
Austria resisted the breakup of the Ottoman Empire because they were
convinced that the smaller nations emerging from it would undermine
international order. To their way of thinking, the smaller nations’ inexpe-
rience would magnify endemic ethnic rivalries, while their relative weak-
ness would tempt Great Power encroachment. In the British and Austrian
view, the smaller states had to subordinate their national ambitions to the
broader interests of peace. In the name of equilibrium, France had been
prevented from annexing the French-speaking Walloon part of Belgium,
and Germany was discouraged from uniting with Austria (though Bis-
marck had his own reasons for not seeking a union with Austria).
Wilson entirely rejected this approach, as the United States has done
ever since. In America’s view, it was not self-determination which caused
wars but the lack of it; not the absence of a balance of power that pro-
duced instability but the pursuit of it. Wilson proposed to found peace
on the principle of collective security. In his view and that of all his
disciples, the security of the world called for, not the defense of the
national interest, but of peace as a legal concept. The determination of
whether a breach o ? peace had Indeed been committed required an
international institution, which Wilson defined as the League of Nations.
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
Oddly enough, the idea for such an organization first surfaced in Lon-
don, heretofore the bastion of balance-of-power diplomacy. And the mo-
tive for it was not an attempt to invent a new world order but England’s
search for a good reason why America should enter a war of the old
order. In September 1915, in a revolutionary departure from British prac-
tice, Foreign Secretary Grey wrote to Wilson’s confidant, Colonel House,
with a proposal which he believed the idealistic American President
would not be able to refuse.
To what extent, asked Grey, might the President be interested in a
League of Nations committed to enforcing disarmament and to the pacific
settlement of disputes?
Would the President propose that there should be a League of Nations
binding themselves to side against any Power which broke a treaty . . .
or which refused, in case of dispute, to adopt some other method of
settlement than that of war? 5
It was unlikely that Great Britain, which for 200 years had steered clear
of open-ended alliances, had suddenly developed a taste for open-ended
commitments on a global scale. Yet Great Britain’s determination to pre-
vail against the immediate threat of Germany was so great that its Foreign
Secretary could bring himself to put forward a doctrine of collective
security, the most open-ended commitment imaginable. Every member
of his proposed world organization would have an obligation to resist
aggression anywhere and from whatever quarter, and to penalize nations
which rejected the pacific settlement of disputes.
Grey knew his man. From the days of his youth, Wilson had believed
that American federal institutions should serve as a model for an eventual
“parliament of man”; early in his presidency, he was already exploring a
Pan-American pact for the Western Hemisphere. Grey could not have
been surprised — though surely he was gratified — to receive a prompt
reply falling in with what was, in retrospect, his rather transparent hint.
The exchange was perhaps the earliest demonstration of the “special
relationship” between America and Great Britain that would enable Great
Britain to maintain a unique influence in Washington long after the de-
cline of its power in the wake of the Second World War. A common
language and cultural heritage combined with great tactfulness to enable
British leaders to inject their ideas into the American decision-making
process in such a manner that they imperceptibly seemed to be a part of
Washington’s own. Thus, when, in May 1916, Wilson advanced for the first
time his scheme for a world organization, he was no doubt convinced
that it had been his own idea. And in a way it had been, since Grey had
proposed it in full awareness of Wilson’s likely convictions.
Regardless of its immediate parentage, the League of Nations was a
quintessential^ American concept. What Wilson envisaged was a “univer-
sal association of the nations to maintain the inviolate security of the
highway of the seas for the common and unhindered use of all the nations
of the world, and to prevent any war begun either contrary to treaty
covenants or without warning and full submission of the causes to the
opinion of the world — a virtual guarantee of territorial integrity and polit-
ical independence.” 6
Initially, however, Wilson refrained from offering American participa-
tion in this “universal association.” Finally in January 1917, he took the
leap and advocated American membership, using, amazingly enough, the
Monroe Doctrine as a model:
I am proposing, as it were, that the nations should with one accord
adopt the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world:
that no nation should seek to extend its polity over any other nation or
people, . . . that all nations henceforth avoid entangling alliances which
would draw them into competitions of power 7
Mexico was probably astonished to learn that the president of the country
which had seized a third of its territory in the nineteenth century and had
sent its troops into Mexico the preceding year was now presenting the
Monroe Doctrine as a guarantee for the territorial integrity of sister na-
tions and as a classic example of international cooperation.
Wilson’s idealism stopped short of the belief that his views would
prevail in Europe on their inherent merits. He showed himself quite
prepared to supplement argument with pressure. Shortly after America
entered the war in April 1917, he wrote to Colonel House: “When the
war is over we can force them to our way of thinking, because by that
time they will, among other things, be financially in our hands.” 8 For the
time being, several of the Allies lingered over their responses to Wilson’s
idea. Though they could not quite bring themselves to approve views so
contrary to their traditions, they also needed America far too much to
voice their reservations.
In late October 1917, Wilson dispatched House to ask the Europeans
to formulate war aims which would reflect his proclaimed aim for a peace
without annexations or indemnities safeguarded by a world authority. For
several months, Wilson refrained from putting forward his own views
because, as he explained to House, France and Italy might object if
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
America expressed doubts about the justice of their territorial aspira-
tions. 9
Finally, on January 8, 1918, Wilson proceeded on his own. With extraor-
dinary eloquence and elevation, he put forward America’s war aims be-
fore a joint session of Congress, presenting them in the form of Fourteen
Points which were divided into two parts. He described eight points as
being obligatory in the sense that they “must” be fulfilled. These included
open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, general disarmament, the removal
of trade barriers, impartial settlement of colonial claims, the restoration
of Belgium, the evacuation of Russian territory, and, as the crown jewel,
the establishment of a League of Nations.
Wilson introduced the remaining six points, which were more specific,
with the statement that they “should” rather than “must” be achieved,
presumably because, in his view, they were not absolutely indispensable.
Surprisingly, the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France was included in
the non-obligatory category, even though a determination to regain that
region had sustained French policy for half a century and through unprec-
edented sacrifices in the war. Other “desirable” goals were described as
autonomy for the minorities of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Em-
pires, readjustment of Italy’s frontiers, evacuation of the Balkans, interna-
tionalization of the Dardanelles, and the creation of an independent
Poland with access to the sea. Did Wilson mean to imply that these six
conditions were subject to compromise? Poland’s access to the sea and
the modification of Italy’s frontiers would surely be difficult to reconcile
with the principle of self-determination and were, for this reason, the first
flaws in the moral symmetry of Wilson’s design.
Wilson concluded his presentation with an appeal to Germany in the
name of the spirit of conciliation with which America would approach
the building of a new international order — an attitude precluding histori-
cal war aims:
We grudge her no achievement or distinction of learning or of pacific
enterprise such as have made her record very bright and very enviable.
We do not wish to injure her or to block in any way her legitimate
influence or power. We do not wish to fight her either with arms or
with hostile arrangements of trade if she is willing to associate herself
with us and the other peace-loving nations of the world in covenants of
justice and law and fair dealing. We wish her only to accept a place of
equality among the peoples of the world 10
Never before had such revolutionary goals been put forward with so few
guidelines as to how to implement them. The world Wilson envisaged
would be based on principle, not power; on law, not interest — for both
victor and vanquished; in other words, a complete reversal of the histori-
cal experience and method of operation of the Great Powers. Symbolic
of this was the way Wilson described his and America’s role in the war.
America had joined what, due to Wilson’s aversion to the word “ally,” he
preferred to call ‘‘one side” of one of the most ferocious wars in history,
and Wilson was acting as if he were the principal mediator. For what
Wilson seemed to be saying was that the war had been fought not to
achieve certain specific conditions but to engender a particular attitude
on the part of Germany. Hence the war had been about conversion, not
In an address at London’s Guildhall on December 28, 1918, after the
Armistice, Wilson explicitly condemned the balance of power as unstable
and based on “jealous watchfulness and an antagonism of interests”:
They [the Allied soldiers] fought to do away with an old order and to
establish a new one, and the center and characteristic of the old order
was that unstable thing which we used to call the “balance of power”
— a thing in which the balance was determined by the sword which was
thrown in the one side or the other; a balance which was determined by
the unstable equilibrium of the competitive interests The men who
have fought in this war have been the men from free nations who were
determined that that sort of thing should end now and forever. 11
Wilson was surely right about the European nations’ having made a mess
of things. However, it was not so much the balance of power as Europe’s
abdication of it that had caused the debacle of World War I. The leaders
of pre- World War I Europe had neglected the historic balance of power
and abandoned the periodic adjustments which had avoided final show-
downs. They had substituted a bipolar world much less flexible than even
the Cold War world of the future, in that it lacked the cataclysmic inhibi-
tions of the Nuclear Age. While paying lip service to equilibrium, the
leaders of Europe had catered to the most nationalistic elements of their
public opinion. Neither their political nor their military arrangements
allowed for any flexibility; there was no safety valve between the status
quo and conflagration. This had led to crises that could not be settled and
to endless public posturing that, in the end, permitted no retreat.
Wilson accurately identified some of the principal challenges of the
twentieth century — most especially how to put power into the service of
peace. But his solutions too often compounded the problems he identi-
fied. For he ascribed competition among states primarily to the absence
22 6
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
of self-determination and to economic motives. Yet history shows many
other, more frequent, causes of competition, prominent among which
are national aggrandizement and the exaltation of the ruler or the ruling
group. Disdainful of such impulses, Wilson was convinced that the spread
of democracy would arrest them and self-determination would deprive
them of their focal points.
Wilson’s remedy of collective security presupposed that the nations of
the world would unite against aggression, injustice, and, presumably,
excessive selfishness. In an appearance before the Senate early in 1917,
Wilson asserted that the establishment of equal rights among states would
provide the precondition for maintaining peace through collective secu-
rity regardless of the power each nation represented.
Right must be based upon the common strength, not upon the individ-
ual strength, of the nations upon whose concert peace will depend.
Equality of territory or of resources there of course cannot be; nor any
other son of equality not gained in the ordinary peaceful and legitimate
development of the peoples themselves. But no one asks or expects
anything more than an equality of rights. Mankind is looking now for
freedom of life, not for equipoises of power. 12
Wilson was proposing a world order in which resistance to aggression
would be based on moral rather than geopolitical judgments. Nations
would ask themselves whether an act was unjust rather than whether
it was threatening. Though America’s allies had little faith in this new
dispensation, they felt too weak to challenge it. America’s allies knew or
thought they knew how to calculate equilibrium based on power; they
had no confidence that they, or anyone else, knew how to assess equilib-
rium on the basis of moral precepts.
Before America’s entry into the war, the European democracies never
dared to express openly their doubts about Wilson’s ideas and indeed
made every attempt to enlist Wilson by humoring him. By the time
America did join the Allies, they were desperate. The combined forces of
Great Britain, France, and Russia had not been sufficient to overcome
Germany and, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, they feared that
America’s entry into the war might do no more than offset Russia’s col-
lapse. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia showed what fate Germany
had in mind for the losers. Fear of German victory kept Great Britain and
France from debating war aims with their idealistic American partner.
After the Armistice, the Allies found themselves in a better position to
express their reservations. Nor would it have been the first time that a
European alliance was strained or broken in the aftermath of victory (for
example, the Congress of Vienna went through a phase in which the
victors threatened each other with war). Yet the victors of the First World
War were too drained by their sacrifices and still too dependent on the
American giant to risk a testy dialogue with it, or its withdrawal from the
peace settlement.
This was especially true of France, which now found itself in a truly
tragic position. For two centuries it had struggled to achieve the mastery
of Europe, but, in the war’s aftermath, it no longer had confidence in its
ability to protect even its own frontiers against a defeated enemy. French
leaders felt instinctively that containing Germany was beyond the capacity
of their ravaged society. War had exhausted France and the peace seemed
to induce premonitions of further catastrophe. France, which had fought
for its existence, now struggled for its identity. France dared not stand
alone, yet its most powerful ally was proposing to found the peace on
principles that turned security into a judicial process.
Victory brought home to France the stark realization that revanche had
cost it too dearly, and that it had been living off capital for nearly a
century. France alone knew just how weak it had become in comparison
with Germany, though nobody else, especially not America, was prepared
to believe it. Thus, on the eve of victory began a Franco-American dia-
logue which accelerated the process of French demoralization. Like Israel
in the modern period, France masked its vulnerability with prickliness,
and incipient panic with intransigence. And, like Israel in the modern
period, it stood in constant danger of isolation.
Though France’s allies insisted that its fears were exaggerated, French
leaders knew better. In 1880, the French had represented 15.7 percent of
Europe’s population. By 1900, that figure had declined to 9.7 percent. In
1920, France had a population of 41 million and Germany a population
of 65 million, causing the French statesman Briand to answer critics of
his conciliatory policy toward Germany with the argument that he was
conducting the foreign policy of France’s birthrate.
France’s relative economic decline was even more dramatic. In 1850,
France had been the largest industrial nation on the Continent. By 1880,
German production of steel, coal, and iron exceeded that of France. In
1913, France produced 41 million tons of coal compared with Germany’s
279 million tons; by the late 1930s, the disparity was to widen to 47
million tons produced by France against Germany’s total of 351 million
tons. 13
The residual strength of the defeated enemy marked the essential dif-
ference between the post-Vienna and post-Versailles international orders,
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
and the reason for it was the disunity of the victors after Versailles. A
coalition of powers defeated Napoleon and a coalition of powers was
needed to surmount imperial Germany. Even after losing, both of the
vanquished — France in 1815 and Germany in 1918 — remained strong
enough to overcome any one of the coalition members singly and per-
haps even a combination of two of them. The difference was that, in 1815,
the peacemakers at the Congress of Vienna stayed united and formed
the Quadruple Alliance — an overwhelming coalition of four powers that
would crush any revisionist dreams. In the post-Versailles period, the
victors did not remain allied, America and the Soviet Union withdrew
altogether, and Great Britain was highly ambivalent as far as France was
It was not until the post-Versailles period that France came to the
searing realization that its defeat by Germany in 1871 had not been an
aberration. The only way France could have maintained equilibrium with
Germany by itself would have been to break Germany up into its compo-
nent states, perhaps by re-establishing the German Confederation of the
nineteenth century. Indeed, France fitfully pursued this objective by en-
couraging separatism in the Rhineland and by occupying the Saar coal
Two obstacles, however, stood in the way of the partitioning of Ger-
many. For one, Bismarck had built too well. The Germany he created
retained its sense of unity through defeats in two world wars, through the
French occupation of the Ruhr area in 1923, and the Soviet imposition of
a satellite state in Eastern Germany for a generation after the Second
World War. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, French President
Mitterrand briefly toyed with the idea of cooperating with Gorbachev to
obstruct German unification. But Gorbachev was too preoccupied with
domestic problems to undertake such an adventure, and France was not
strong enough to attempt it alone. A similar French weakness prevented
the partitioning of Germany in 1918. Even if France had been up to the
task, its allies, especially America, would not have tolerated so crass a
violation of the principle of self-determination. But neither was Wilson
prepared to insist on a peace of reconciliation. In the end, he went
along with several punitive provisions contradicting the equal treatment
promised in the Fourteen Points.
The attempt to reconcile American idealism with France’s nightmares
turned out to be beyond human ingenuity. Wilson traded modification of
the Fourteen Points for the establishment of the League of Nations, to
which he looked to remedy any legitimate grievances left over from the
peace treaty. France settled for far fewer punitive measures than it
thought commensurate with its sacrifices in the hope of evoking a long-
term American commitment to French security. Ultimately, no country
achieved its objective: Germany was not reconciled, France was not made
secure, and the United States withdrew from the settlement.
Wilson was the star of the Peace Conference, which convened in Paris
between January and June 1919. In the days when travel to Europe took a
week by ship, many of Wilsons advisers had warned that an American
president could not afford to be away from Washington for months on
end. In fact, in Wilson’s absence his strength in the Congress did deterio-
rate, proving especially costly when the peace treaty came up for ratifica-
tion. Wilsons absence from Washington aside, it is almost always a
mistake for heads of state to undertake the details of a negotiation. They
are then obliged to master specifics normally handled by their foreign
offices and are deflected onto subjects more appropriate to their subordi-
nates, while being kept from issues only heads of state can resolve. Since
no one without a well-developed ego reaches the highest office, compro-
mise is difficult and deadlocks are dangerous. With the domestic positions
of the interlocutors so often dependent on at least the semblance of
success, negotiations more often concentrate on obscuring differences
than they do on dealing with the essence of a problem.
This proved to be Wilson’s fate at Paris. With every passing month,
he was drawn more deeply into haggling over details which had never
concerned him before. The longer he stayed, the more the sense of
urgency to bring matters to a conclusion overrode the desire to create an
entirely new international order. The final outcome was made inevitable
by the procedure used to negotiate the peace treaty. Because a dispropor-
tionate amount of time was spent adjusting territorial questions, the
League of Nations emerged as a sort of deus ex machina, to straighten
out later the ever-widening gap between Wilson’s moral claims and the
actual terms of the settlement.
The mercurial Welshman David Lloyd George, who represented Great
Britain, had told his public shortly before the Peace Conference that he
would “squeeze Germany until the pips squeak.” But, confronted by a
volatile Germany and a fretful France, he focused on maneuvering be-
tween Clemenceau and Wilson. In the end, he went along with the puni-
tive provisions, invoking the League as the mechanism by which any
inequities would later be corrected.
Arguing on behalf of France’s point of view was the battle-scarred and
aged Georges Clemenceau. Nicknamed “the Tiger,” he was a veteran of
decades of domestic battles, from the overthrow of Napoleon III to the
vindication of Captain Dreyfus. Yet, at the Paris Conference, he set himself
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
a task that was beyond even his ferocious capacities. Striving for a peace
which would somehow undo Bismarck’s work and reassert Richelieu-
style primacy on the Continent, he exceeded the tolerance of the interna-
tional system and, indeed, the capacities of his own society. The clock
simply could not be turned back 150 years. No other nation either shared
or fully grasped France’s objectives. Frustration would prove to be Cle-
menceau’s lot, and progressive demoralization France’s future.
Vittorio Orlando, the Italian Prime Minister, represented the last of the
“Big Four.” Though he cut a fine figure, he was frequently overshadowed
by his energetic Foreign Minister, Sidney Sonnino. The Italian negotia-
tors, it turned out, had come to Paris to collect their booty rather than to
design a new world order. The Allies had induced Italy into the war by
promising it the South Tirol and the Dalmatian coast in the Treaty of
London of 1915. Since the South Tirol was predominantly Austro-German
and the Dalmatian coast Slavic, Italy’s claims were in direct conflict with
the principle of self-determination. Yet Orlando and Sonnino deadlocked
the Conference until, in utter exasperation, South Tirol (though not Dal-
matia) was turned over to Italy. This “compromise” demonstrated that
the Fourteen Points were not etched in stone, and opened the floodgates
to various other adjustments which, collectively, ran counter to the pre-
vailing principle of self-determination without either improving the old
balance of power or creating a new one.
Unlike the Congress of Vienna, the Paris Peace Conference did not
include the defeated powers. As a result, the months of negotiation cast
the Germans beneath a pall of uncertainty, which encouraged illusions.
They recited Wilson’s Fourteen Points as if by heart and, though their
own peace program would have been brutal, deluded themselves into
believing that the Allies’ final settlement would be relatively mild. There-
fore, when the peacemakers revealed their handiwork in June 1919, the
Germans were shocked and embarked on two decades of systematically
undermining it.
Lenin’s Russia, which was also not invited, attacked the entire enter-
prise on the ground that it was a capitalist orgy organized by countries
whose ultimate goal was to intervene in the civil war in Russia. Thus it
happened that the peace concluding the war to end all wars did not
include the two strongest nations of Europe — Germany and Russia —
which, between them, contained well over half of Europe’s population
and by far the largest military potential. That fact alone would have
doomed the Versailles settlement.
Nor did its procedures encourage a comprehensive approach. The
Big Four — Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando — were the
dominant figures, but they could not control the proceedings in the same
way that the ministers of the Great Powers had dominated the Congress
of Vienna a hundred years earlier. The negotiators at Vienna had concen-
trated above all on establishing a new balance of power, for which the
Pitt Plan had served as a general blueprint. The leaders at Paris were
constantly being diverted by an unending series of sideshows.
Twenty-seven states were invited. Envisioned as a forum for all the
peoples of the world, the Conference, in the end, turned into a free-
for-all. The Supreme Council — composed of the heads of government
of Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States — was the highest-
ranking of the innumerable commissions and sections making up the
Conference. In addition, there was the Council of Five, composed of the
Supreme Council plus the head of government of Japan; and a Council of
Ten, which was the Council of Five and their foreign ministers. Delegates
from the smaller countries were free to address the more elite groups
about their various concerns. It underlined the democratic nature of the
Conference, but was also very time-consuming.
Since no agenda had been agreed upon prior to the Conference, dele-
gates arrived not knowing in what particular order the issues would be
addressed. Thus, the Paris Conference ended up having fifty-eight differ-
ent committees. Most of them dealt with territorial questions. A separate
committee for each country was established. Additionally, there were
committees dealing with war guilt and war criminals, with reparations,
ports, waterways and railways, with labor, and, finally, with the League of
Nations. All together, the Conference’s committee members sat through
1,646 meetings.
Endless discussions about peripheral subjects obscured the central fact
that, for the peace to be stable, the settlement had to have some overarch-
ing concept — especially a long-term view about the future role of Ger-
many. In theory, the American principles of collective security and self-
determination were to play that role. In practice, the real issue at the
Conference, and one which would prove irresoluble, was the differences
between the American concept of international order and that of the
Europeans, particularly the French. Wilson rejected the idea that interna-
tional conflicts had structural causes. Deeming harmony to be natural,
Wilson strove for institutions which would sweep away the illusion of
clashing interests and permit the underlying sense of world community
to assert itself.
France, the theater of many a European war and itself a participant in
many more, was not to be persuaded that clashing national interests
were illusory, or that there existed some nebulous, underlying harmony
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
heretofore hidden from mankind. Two German occupations in the course
of fifty years had made France obsessively fearful of another round of
conquest. It would aspire to tangible guarantees of its security and leave
the moral improvement of mankind to others. But tangible guarantees
implied either a weakening of Germany or an assurance that, in the event
of another war, other countries, especially the United States and Great
Britain, would be on the side of France.
Since dismembering Germany was opposed by America, and collective
security was too nebulous for France, the only remaining solution to
France’s problem was an American and British pledge to defend it. And
that, precisely, was what both Anglo-Saxon countries were extremely re-
luctant to give. With no such assurance forthcoming, France was reduced
to pleading for expedients. Geography protected America, and the sur-
render of the German fleet had dispersed British concerns about control
of the seas. France alone among the victors was being asked to rest its
security on world opinion. Andre Tardieu, a principal French negotiator,
argued that:
For France, as for Great Britain and the United States, it is necessary to
create a zone of safety — This zone the naval Powers create by their
fleets, and by the elimination of the German fleet. This zone France,
unprotected by the ocean, unable to eliminate the millions of Germans
trained to war, must create by the Rhine, by an inter-allied occupation
of that river . 14
Yet France’s demand to separate the Rhineland from Germany ran up
against the American conviction that “such a peace would then be made
as would be contrary to everything we have stood for .” 15 The American
delegation argued that separating the Rhineland from Germany and sta-
tioning Allied troops there would engender a permanent German griev-
ance. Philip Kerr, a British delegate, told Tardieu that Great Britain
considered an independent Rhenish state “a source of complication and
of weakness. ... If local conflicts occur, whither will they lead? If war
results from these conflicts, neither England nor her Dominions will have
that deep feeling of solidarity with France which animated them in the
last war .” 16
French leaders were far less worried about later German grievances
than about Germany’s ultimate power. Tardieu held his ground:
You say that England does not like English troops to be used away from
home. It is a question of fact. England has always had troops in India
and Egypt. Why? Because she knows that her frontier is not at Dover.
... 7b ask us to give up occupation , is like asking England and the
United States to sink their fleet of battleships . 17
If France was denied a buffer, it would need some other assurance,
preferably an alliance with Great Britain and the United States. If need
be, France was prepared to accept an interpretation of the concept of
collective security to achieve the same result as a traditional alliance.
Wilson was so eager to establish the League of Nations that he occasion-
ally put forward theories encouraging French hopes. On several occa-
sions, Wilson described the League as an international tribunal to
adjudicate disputes, alter boundaries, and infuse international relations
with much-needed elasticity. One of Wilson’s advisers, Dr. Isaiah Bow-
man, summed up Wilson’s ideas in a memorandum drafted aboard the
ship transporting them to the Peace Conference in December 1918. The
League would provide for:
. . . territorial integrity plus later alteration of terms and alteration of
boundaries if it could be shown that injustice had been done or that
conditions had changed. And such alteration would be the easier to
make in time as passion subsided and matters could be viewed in the
light of justice rather than in the light of a peace conference at the close
of a protracted war [The] opposite of such a course was to maintain
the idea of the Great Powers and of balance of power, and such an idea
had always produced only “ aggression and selfishness and war ” 18
After the plenary session of February 14, 1919, at which Wilson unveiled
the League Covenant, he spoke in nearly identical terms to his wife: “This
is our first real step forward, for I now realize, more than ever before,
that once established, the League can arbitrate and correct mistakes which
are inevitable in the treaty we are trying to make at this time.” 19
As Wilson envisaged it, the League of Nations would have the dual
mandate of enforcing the peace and rectifying its inequities. Nevertheless,
Wilson was gripped by a profound ambivalence. It would have been
impossible to find a single historical example of European borders being
changed by appeals to justice or purely legal processes; in almost every
instance, they had been altered — or defended — in the name of the na-
tional interest. Yet Wilson was well aware that the American people were
not even remotely ready for a military commitment in defense of the
provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. In essence, Wilson’s ideas translated
into institutions tantamount to world government, which the American
people were even less prepared to accept than a global police force.
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
Wilson sought to sidestep this problem by invoking world public opin-
ion rather than world government or military force as the ultimate sanc-
tion against aggression. This is how he described it to the Peace
Conference in February 1919:
. . . throughout this instrument [the League of Nations] we are de-
pending primarily and chiefly upon one great force, and that is the
moral force of the public opinion of the world — 20
And what public opinion could not resolve, economic pressure would
surely accomplish. According to the Bowman Memorandum:
In cases involving discipline there was the alternative to war, namely,
the boycott; trade, including postal and cable facilities, could be denied
a state that had been guilty of wrongdoing. 21
No European state had ever seen such mechanisms at work or could
bring itself to believe in their feasibility. In any case, it was too much to
expect from France, which had expended so much blood and treasure in
order just barely to survive, only to find itself faced with a vacuum in
Eastern Europe and a Germany whose actual strength was much greater
than its own.
For France, therefore, the League of Nations had only one purpose,
and that was to activate military assistance against Germany should that
be needed. An ancient and by this time depleted country, France could
not bring itself to trust in the basic premise of collective security, that all
nations would assess threats in the same way or that, if they did, they
would reach identical conclusions about how to resist. If collective secu-
rity failed, America — and perhaps Great Britain — could always defend
themselves, as a last resort, on their own. But for France, there was no
last resort; its judgment had to prove right the first time. If the basic
assumption of collective security turned out to be wrong, France, unlike
America, could not fight another traditional war; it would cease to exist.
France was therefore not seeking a general assurance, but a guarantee
applicable to its specific circumstances. This the American delegation
resolutely refused to give.
Though Wilson’s reluctance to commit America to more than a declara-
tion of principles was understandable in light of his domestic pressures,
it magnified France’s forebodings. The United States had never hesitated
to use force to back up the Monroe Doctrine, which Wilson constantly
invoked as a model for his new international order. Yet America turned
coy when the issue of German threats to the European balance of power
arose. Did this not signify that the European equilibrium was a lesser
security interest for the United States than conditions in the Western
Hemisphere? To remove this distinction, the French representative on
the relevant committee, L6on Bourgeois, kept pressing for an interna-
tional army or any other mechanism that would endow the League of
Nations with automatic enforcement machinery in case Germany abro-
gated the Versailles settlement — the only cause of war that interested
For a fleeting moment, Wilson seemed to endorse the concept by
referring to the proposed Covenant as a guarantee of the “land titles
of the world.” 22 But Wilson’s entourage was horrified. Its members
knew that the Senate would never ratify a standing international
army or a permanent military commitment. One of Wilson’s advisers
even argued that a provision stipulating the use of force to resist aggres-
sion would be unconstitutional:
A substantial objection to such a provision is that it would be void if
contained in a treaty of the United States, as Congress under the Consti-
tution had the power to declare war. A war automatically arising upon
a condition subsequent, pursuant to a treaty provision, is not a war
declared by Congress. 23
Taken literally, this meant that no alliance with the United States could
ever have binding force.
Wilson quickly tacked back to the undiluted doctrine of collective secu-
rity. In rejecting the French proposal, he described standby enforcement
machinery as unnecessary because the League itself would serve to in-
spire overwhelming confidence around the world. He maintained that
“the only method . . . lies in our having confidence in the good faith of
the nations who belong to the League. . . . When danger comes, we too
will come, but you must trust us.” 24
Trust is not a commodity in abundant supply among diplomats. When
the survival of nations is at stake, statesmen look for more tangible guar-
antees — especially if a country is as precariously situated as France. The
persuasiveness of the American argument resided in the absence of an
alternative; however ambiguous the League obligations, they were still
better than nothing. Lord Cecil, one of the British delegates, was saying
just that when he scolded L6on Bourgeois for his threats not to join the
League unless the Covenant was endowed with enforcement machinery.
“America,” Cecil told Bourgeois, “had nothing to gain from the League
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
of Nations; . . . she could let European affairs go and take care of her
own; the offer that was made by America for support was practically a
present to France ” 25
Though beset by many doubts and premonitions, France finally yielded
to the painful logic of the Briton’s argument, and acceded to the tautology
contained in Article 10 of the League of Nations Charter: “The Council
shall advise upon the means by which this obligation [i.e., the preserva-
tion of territorial integrity] shall be fulfilled.” 26 That is, in case of an
emergency, the League of Nations would agree to that on which it could
agree. This was, of course, what the nations of the world would have
typically done even if there had been no Covenant; and this was precisely
the circumstance which traditional alliances sought to remedy by invok-
ing the formal obligation of mutual assistance for specifically defined
A French memorandum bluntly stressed the inadequacy of the pro-
posed League security arrangements:
Suppose that instead of a defensive military understanding — very lim-
ited indeed — which was given effect between Great Britain and France
in 1914, there had been no other bond between the two countries than
the general agreements contained in the Covenant of the League, the
British intervention would have been less prompt and Germany’s vic-
tory thereby assured. So we believe that, under present conditions, the
aid provided for by the Covenant of the League would arrive too late. 27
Once it had become clear that America was refusing to incorporate any
concrete security provisions into the Covenant, France resumed its pres-
sure for dismembering Germany. It proposed the establishment of an
independent Rhenish republic as a demilitarized buffer zone, and sought
to create an incentive for such a state by exempting it from reparations.
When the United States and Great Britain balked, France suggested that, at
a minimum, the Rhineland be separated from Germany until the League’s
institutions had had a chance to develop and its enforcement machinery
could be tested.
In an effort to placate France, Wilson and the British leaders offered as
a substitute for the dismemberment of Germany a treaty guaranteeing the
new settlement. America and Great Britain would agree to go to war if
Germany violated the settlement. It was very similar to the agreement
that the allies at the Congress of Vienna had created to reinsure them-
selves against France. But there was one important difference: after the
Napoleonic Wars, the allies had genuinely believed in a French threat and
sought to provide security against it; after World War I, Great Britain and
the United States did not really believe in a German threat; they offered
their guarantee without being either convinced that it was necessary or
particularly determined to implement it.
The principal French negotiator was jubilant, describing the British
guarantee as “unprecedented.” Great Britain had occasionally entered
into temporary agreements, he maintained, but had never previously
submitted to a permanent obligation: “She has at times lent her aid; she
has never bound herself in advance to give it .” 28 Tardieu considered
America’s proposed commitment an equally momentous departure from
its historic pattern of isolationism . 29
In their eagerness for formal guarantees, French leaders overlooked
the crucial fact that the “unprecedented” Anglo-Saxon decisions were
primarily a tactic to induce France to abandon its demand that Germany
be dismembered. In foreign policy, the term “unprecedented” is always
somewhat suspect, because the actual range of innovation is so circum-
scribed by history, domestic institutions, and geography.
Had Tardieu been privy to the American delegation’s reaction, he
would have understood how tenuous the guarantee really was. Wilson’s
advisers were unanimous in opposing their chief. Had not the new diplo-
macy been explicitly created to do away with this type of national commit-
ment? Had America fought the war only to end up in a traditional alliance?
House wrote in his diary:
I thought I ought to call the President’s attention to the perils of such a
treaty. Among other things, it would be looked upon as a direct blow at
the League of Nations. The League is supposed to do just what this
treaty proposed, and if it were necessary for the nations to make such
treaties, then why the League of Nations ? 30
It was a fair question. For, if the League performed as advertised, the
guarantee was unnecessary; and if the guarantee was necessary, the
League was not living up to its design and all postwar concepts would be
in doubt. The isolationists in the United States Senate had misgivings of
their own. They were not so much worried that the guarantee conflicted
with the League as that the devious Europeans were luring America into
the web of their corrupt ancient entanglements. The guarantee did not
last long. The Senate’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles rendered it
moot; and Great Britain jumped at the pretext to release itself from its
commitment as well. France’s abandonment of its claims turned out to be
permanent, and the guarantee ephemeral.
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
Out of all these crosscurrents finally emerged the Treaty of Versailles,
named after the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles Palace in which it was signed.
The location seemed to invite unnecessary humiliation. Fifty years earlier,
Bismarck had tactlessly proclaimed the unified Germany there; now, the
victors inflicted an insult of their own. Nor was their handiwork likely to
calm the international environment. Too punitive for conciliation, too
lenient to keep Germany from recovering, the treaty of Versailles con-
demned the exhausted democracies to constant vigilance and to the need
for permanent enforcement against an irreconcilable and revisionist Ger-
The Fourteen Points notwithstanding, the Treaty was punitive in territo-
rial, economic, and military areas. Germany had to surrender 13 percent
of its prewar territory. Economically important Upper Silesia was handed
over to a newly created Poland, which also received an outlet to the Baltic
Sea and the area around Posen, thereby creating the “Polish Corridor”
separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany. The tiny territory of
Eupen-et-Malmedy was given to Belgium, and Alsace-Lorraine was re-
turned to France.
Germany lost its colonies, the legal status of which occasioned a dis-
pute between Wilson on the one side and France, Great Britain, and Japan
on the other, all three of which wanted to annex their share of the spoils.
Wilson insisted that such a direct transfer would violate the principle
of self-determination. The Allies finally arrived at the so-called Mandate
Principle, which was as ingenious as it was hypocritical. German colonies
as well as former Ottoman territories in the Middle East were assigned to
the various victors with a “mandate” under League supervision, to facili-
tate their independence. What that meant was never specifically defined,
nor in the end did the mandates lead to independence any more rapidly
than in other colonial areas.
The Treaty’s military restrictions reduced the German army to 100,000
volunteers and its navy to six cruisers and a few smaller vessels. Germany
was forbidden to possess offensive weapons such as submarines, aircraft,
tanks, or heavy artillery, and its general staff was dissolved. To supervise
German disarmament, an Allied Military Control Commission was created
and given, as it turned out, extremely vague and ineffective authority.
Despite Lloyd George’s electioneering promise to “squeeze” Germany,
the Allies began to realize that an economically prostrate Germany might
produce a world economic crisis affecting their own societies. But the
victorious populations showed little interest in the warnings of theoretical
economists. The British and the French demanded that Germany indem-
nify their civilian populations for all damages, Against his better judgment,
Wilson finally agreed to a provision that made Germany pay for the
pensions of war victims and some compensation for their families. Such
a provision was unheard of; no previous European peace treaty had ever
contained such a clause. No figure was set for these claims; it was to be
determined at some later date, generating a source of endless contro-
Other economic penalties included immediate payment of $5 billion
in cash or in kind. France was to receive large quantities of coal as
compensation for Germany’s destruction of its mines during the occupa-
tion of eastern France. To make up for ships sunk by German submarines,
Great Britain was awarded much of the German merchant fleet. Ger-
many’s foreign assets, totaling about $7 billion, were seized, along with
many German patents (thanks to the Versailles Treaty, Bayer Aspirin is an
American, not a German product). Germany’s major rivers were interna-
tionalized, and its ability to raise tariffs was restricted.
These terms mortgaged the new international order instead of helping
to create it. When the victors assembled in Paris, they proclaimed a new
era in history. So eager were they to avoid what they considered the
mistakes of the Congress of Vienna that the British delegation commis-
sioned the renowned historian Sir Charles Webster to write a treatise on
the subject. 31 Yet what they finally produced was a fragile compromise
between American utopianism and European paranoia — too conditional
to fulfill the dreams of the former, too tentative to alleviate the fears of
the latter. An international order that can be preserved only by force is
precarious, all the more so when the countries which must bear the
principal burden for enforcement — in this case Great Britain and France
— were at odds.
It soon became apparent that, as a practical matter, the principle of self-
determination could not be applied in the clear-cut sort of way envisaged
by the Fourteen Points, especially among the successor states of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czechoslovakia ended up with 3 million Ger-
mans, 1 million Hungarians, and half a million Poles out of a population
of some 15 million; nearly a third of the total population was neither
Czech nor Slovak. And Slovakia was not an enthusiastic part of a Czech-
dominated state, as it would demonstrate by seceding in 1939 and again
in 1992.
The new Yugoslavia fulfilled the aspirations of South Slavic intellectu-
als. But to create that state, it was necessary to cross the fault line of
European history, which divided the Western and the Eastern Roman
empires, the Catholic and the Orthodox religions, the Latin and the Cyril-
lic scripts — a fault line running roughly between Croatia and Serbia,
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
which had never in their complex histories belonged to the same political
unit. The bill for this came due after 1941, in a murderous civil war which
started all over again in 1991.
Romania acquired millions of Hungarians, Poland millions of Germans
and the guardianship of a corridor separating East Prussia from the rest
of Germany. At the end of this process, which was conducted in the name
of self-determination, nearly as many people lived under foreign rule as
during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, except that now they
were distributed across many more, much weaker, nation-states which,
to undermine stability even further, were in conflict with each other.
When it was too late, Lloyd George understood the dilemma into which
the victorious Allies had maneuvered themselves. In a memorandum to
Wilson dated March 25, 1919, he wrote:
I can not conceive any greater cause of future war than that the German
people, who have certainly proved themselves one of the most vigorous
and powerful races in the world should be surrounded by a number of
small states, many of them consisting of people who have never pre-
viously set up a stable government for themselves, but each of them
containing large masses of Germans clamouring for reunion with their
native land. 32
But by then, the conference had already progressed too far toward its
closing date in June. Nor was any alternative principle for organizing the
world order available, now that the balance of power had been discarded.
Later on, many German leaders were to claim that their country had
been tricked into the Armistice by Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which were
then systematically violated. Such propositions were so much self-pitying
nonsense. Germany had ignored the Fourteen Points as long as it thought
that it had a chance of winning the war, and had, soon after the proclama-
tion of the Fourteen Points, imposed a Carthaginian peace on Russia at
Brest-Litovsk, violating every one of Wilson’s principles. The only reason
Germany finally ended the war had to do with pure power calculations
— with the American army involved, its final defeat was only a question
of time. When it asked for an armistice, Germany was exhausted, its
defenses were breaking, and Allied armies were about to drive into Ger-
man territory. Wilson’s principles in fact spared Germany much more
severe retribution.
With better reason, historians have argued that it was the refusal of the
United States to join the League that doomed the Treaty of Versailles.
America’s failure to ratify the Treaty or the guarantee of French borders
connected with it certainly contributed to France’s demoralization. But,
given the isolationist mood of the country, American membership in the
League or ratification of the guarantee would not have made a significant
difference. Either way, the United States would not have used force to
resist aggression, or else it would have defined aggression in terms which
did not apply to Eastern Europe — much as Great Britain was to do in the
The debacle of the Treaty of Versailles was structural. The century of
peace produced by the Congress of Vienna had been buttressed by three
pillars, each of which was indispensable: a peace of conciliation with
France; a balance of power; and a shared sense of legitimacy. The rela-
tively conciliatory peace with France would not in itself have prevented
French revisionism. But France knew that the Quadruple and Holy Alli-
ances could always assemble superior power, making French expan-
sionism far too risky. At the same time, periodic European congresses
gave France an opportunity to participate in the Concert of Europe as an
equal. Above all, the major countries had shared common values so that
existing grievances did not coalesce into an attempt to overthrow the
international order.
The Treaty of Versailles fulfilled none of these conditions. Its terms
were too onerous for conciliation but not severe enough for permanent
subjugation. In truth, it was not easy to strike a balance between satisfying
and subjugating Germany. Having considered the prewar world order
too confining, Germany was not likely to be satisfied with any terms
available after defeat.
France had three strategic choices: it could try to form an anti-German
coalition; it could seek to partition Germany; or it could try to conciliate
Germany. All attempts to form alliances failed because Great Britain and
America refused, and Russia was no longer part of the equilibrium. Parti-
tioning Germany was resisted by the same countries which rejected an
alliance but on whose support in an emergency France nevertheless had
to rely. And it was both too late and too early for the conciliation of
Germany — too late because conciliation was incompatible with the
Treaty of Versailles, too early because French public opinion was not yet
ready for it.
Paradoxically, France’s vulnerability and Germany’s strategic advantage
were both magnified by the Treaty of Versailles despite its punitive provis-
ions. Before the war, Germany had faced strong neighbors in both the
East and the West. It could not expand in either direction without encoun-
tering a major state — France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or Russia.
But after the Treaty of Versailles, there was no longer a counterweight to
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
Germany in the East. With France weakened, the Austro-Hungarian Em-
pire dissolved, and Russia out of the picture for some time, there was
simply no way of reconstructing the old balance of power, especially
since the Anglo-Saxon powers refused to guarantee the Versailles settle-
As early as 1916, Lord Balfour, then British Foreign Secretary, foresaw
at least a part of the danger that lay ahead for Europe when he warned
that an independent 'Poland might leave France defenseless in another
war: if “Poland was made an independent kingdom, becoming a buffer
state between Russia and Germany, France would be at the mercy of
Germany in the next war, for this reason, that Russia could not come to
her aid without violating the neutrality of Poland” 33 — exactly the dilemma
in 1939. To contain Germany, France needed an ally in the East that could
force Germany to fight a two-front war. Russia was the only country
strong enough to fulfill that role. But with Poland separating Germany
and Russia, Russia could only pressure Germany by violating Poland. And
Poland was too weak to play Russia’s role. What the Treaty of Versailles
did was to give an incentive to Germany and Russia to partition Poland,
precisely what they did twenty years later.
Lacking a Great Power in the East with which to ally itself, France
sought to strengthen the new states to create the illusion of a two-front
challenge to Germany. It backed the new East European states in their
effort to extract more territory from Germany or from what was left of
Hungary. Obviously, the new states had an incentive to encourage the
French delusion that they might come to serve as a counterweight to
Germany. Yet these infant states could not possibly assume the role that,
up to this time, Austria and Russia had played. They were too weak and
racked by internal conflicts and mutual rivalries. And to their east loomed
a reconstituted Russia, seething over its own territorial losses. Once it
recovered its strength, Russia would prove as great a threat to the inde-
pendence of the small states as Germany.
Thus the stability of the Continent came to rest on France. It had taken
the combined forces of America, Great Britain, France, and Russia to
subdue Germany. Of these countries, America was again isolationist, and
Russia was severed from Europe by a revolutionary drama and by the so-
called cordon sanitaire of small Eastern European states standing in the
way of direct Russian assistance to France. To preserve the peace, France
would have, had to play policeman all over Europe. Not only had it lost
the stomach and the strength for so interventionist a policy but, had it
attempted one, it would have found itself alone, abandoned by both
America and Great Britain.
The most dangerous weakness of the Versailles settlement, however,
was psychological. The world order created by the Congress of Vienna
had been cemented by the principle of conservative unity that had
meshed with the requirements of the balance of power; in effect, the
powers that were most needed to maintain the settlement also considered
it just. The Versailles settlement was stillborn because the values it ex-
tolled clashed with the incentives needed to enforce it: the majority of
the states required to defend the agreement considered it unjust in one
way or another.
The paradox of the First World War was that it had been fought to
curb German power and looming predominance, and that it had aroused
public opinion to a pitch which prevented the establishment of a concilia-
tory peace. Yet, in the end, Wilsonian principles inhibited a peace which
curbed Germany’s power and there was no shared sense of justice. The
price for conducting foreign policy on the basis of abstract principles is
the impossibility of distinguishing among individual cases. Since the lead-
ers at Versailles were not willing to reduce German power by either the
implicit rights of victory or the calculations of the balance of power, they
were obliged to justify German disarmament as the first installment of a
general plan of disarmament, and reparations as an expiation of guilt for
the war itself.
In justifying German disarmament in this way, the Allies undermined
the psychological readiness that was required to sustain their agreement.
From the first, Germany could, and did, claim that it was being discrimi-
nated against, and demanded that it either be permitted to rearm or that
other nations disarm to its level. In the process, the disarmament provis-
ions of the Treaty of Versailles ended up demoralizing the victors. At
every disarmament conference, Germany would seize the moral high
ground, in which it was usually supported by Great Britain. But if France
did grant Germany equality in rearmament, the possibility of safeguarding
the independence of the nations of Eastern Europe would vanish. The
disarmament clauses were therefore bound to lead to either the disarma-
ment of France or the rearmament of Germany. In neither case would
France be strong enough to defend Eastern Europe or, in the long run,
even itself.
Similarly, the prohibition against the union of Austria and Germany
violated the principle of self-determination, as did the presence of a large
German minority in Czechoslovakia and, to a lesser extent, of a German
minority in Poland. German irredentism was thus supported by the or-
ganizing principle of the Treaty of Versailles, compounding the guilty
conscience of the democracies. »
The New Face of Diplomacy: Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
The gravest psychological blight on the Treaty was Article 231, the so-
called War Guilt clause. It stated that Germany was solely responsible for
the outbreak of World War I, and delivered a severe moral censure.
Most of the punitive measures against Germany in the Treaty — economic,
military, and political — were based on the assertion that the whole con-
flagration had been entirely Germany’s fault.
Eighteenth-century peacemakers would have regarded “war guilt
clauses” as absurd. For them, wars were amoral inevitabilities caused by
clashing interests. In the treaties that concluded eighteenth-century wars,
the losers paid a price without its being justified on moral grounds. But
for Wilson and the peacemakers at Versailles, the cause of the war of
1914-18 had to be ascribed to some evil which had to be punished.
When the hatreds had diminished, however, astute observers began to
see that responsibility for the outbreak of the war was far more compli-
cated. To be sure, Germany bore a heavy responsibility, but was it fair to
single out Germany for punitive measures? Was Article 231 really proper?
Once this question began being asked, especially in Great Britain in the
1920s, the will to enforce the punitive measures against Germany con-
tained in the Treaty began to waver. The peacemakers, assailed by their
own consciences, wondered if what they had wrought was fair, and this
fostered a lack of resolve in maintaining the Treaty. Germany, of course,
was irresponsible on this issue. In German public discourse, Article 231
became known as the “War Guilt Lie.” The physical difficulty of establish-
ing a balance of power was matched by the psychological difficulty of
creating a moral equilibrium.
Thus, the framers of the Versailles settlement achieved the precise
opposite of what they had set out to do. They had tried to weaken Ger-
many physically but instead strengthened it geopolitically. From a long-
term point of view, Germany was in a far better position to dominate
Europe after Versailles than it had been before the war. As soon as Ger-
many threw off the shackles of disarmament, which was just a matter of
time, it was bound to emerge more powerful than ever. Harold Nicolson
summed it up: “We came to Paris confident that the new order was about
to be established; we left it convinced that the new order had merely
fouled the old.”*
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The Dilemmas
of the Victors
The policing of the Versailles agreement was based on two general
concepts which canceled each other out. The first failed because it was
too sweeping, the second, because it was too grudging. The concept of
collective security was so general as to prove inapplicable to circum-
stances most likely to disturb the peace; the informal Franco-English
cooperation which replaced it was far too tenuous and ambivalent to
resist major German challenges. And before five years had elapsed, the
two powers vanquished in the war came together at Rapallo. The growing
cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union was a crucial blow
to the Versailles system, something the democracies were too demoral-
ized to grasp immediately.
The Dilemmas of the Victors
At the end of the First World War, the age-old debate about the relative
roles of morality and interest in international affairs seemed to have been
resolved in favor of the dominance of law and ethics. Under the shock of
the cataclysm, many hoped for a better world as free as possible from the
kind of Realpolitik which, in their view, had decimated the youth of a
generation. America emerged as the catalyst of this process even as it was
withdrawing into isolationism. Wilson’s legacy was that Europe embarked
on the Wilsonian course of trying to preserve stability via collective secu-
rity rather than the traditional European approach of alliances and the
balance of power, despite the absence of America.
In subsequent American usage, alliances in which America participated
(such as NATO) were generally described as instruments of collective
security. This is not, however, how the term was originally conceived, for
in their essence, the concepts of collective security and of alliances are
diametrically opposed. Traditional alliances were directed against specific
threats and defined precise obligations for specific groups of countries
linked by shared national interests or mutual security concerns. Collective
security defines no particular threat, guarantees no individual nation, and
discriminates against none. It is theoretically designed to resist any threat
to the peace, by whoever might pose it and against whomever it might be
directed. Alliances always presume a specific potential adversary; collec-
tive security defends international law in the abstract, which it seeks to
sustain in much the same way that a judicial system upholds a domestic
criminal code. It no more assumes a particular culprit than does domestic
law. In an alliance, the casus belli is an attack on the interests or the
security of its members. The casus belli of collective security is the viola-
tion of the principle of “peaceful” settlement of disputes in which all
peoples of the world are assumed to have a common interest. Therefore,
force has to be assembled on a case-by-case basis from a shifting group
of nations with a mutual interest in “peacekeeping.”
The purpose of an alliance is to produce an obligation more predict-
able and precise than an analysis of national interest. Collective security
works in the exact opposite way. It leaves the application of its principles
to the interpretation of particular circumstances when they arise, uninten-
tionally putting a large premium on the mood of the moment and, hence,
on national self-will.
Collective security contributes to security only if all nations — or at least
all nations relevant to collective defense — share nearly identical views
about the nature of the challenge and are prepared to use force or apply
sanctions on the “merits” of the case, regardless of the specific national
interest they may have in the issues at hand. Only if these conditions are
fulfilled can a world organization devise sanctions or act as an arbiter of
international affairs. This was how Wilson had perceived the role of col-
lective security as the end of the war approached in September 1918:
National purposes have fallen more and more into the background and
the common purpose of enlightened mankind has taken their place.
The counsels of plain men have become on all hands more simple and
straightforward and more unified than the counsels of sophisticated
men of affairs, who still retain the impression that they are playing a
game of power and playing for high stakes. 1
The fundamental difference between the Wilsonian and the European
interpretations of the causes of international conflict is reflected in these
words. European-style diplomacy presumes that national interests have a
tendency to clash, and views diplomacy as the means for reconciling
them; Wilson, on the other hand, considered international discord the
result of “clouded thinking,” not an expression of a genuine clash of
interests. In the practice of Realpolitik, statesmen shoulder the task of
relating particular interests to general ones through a balance of incen-
tives and penalties. In the Wilsonian view, statesmen are required to apply
universal principles to specific cases. Moreover, statesmen are generally
treated as the causes of conflict, because they are believed to distort man’s
natural bent toward harmony with abstruse and selfish calculations.
The conduct of most statesmen at Versailles belied Wilsonian expecta-
tions. Without exception, they stressed their national interests, leaving the
defense of the common purposes to Wilson, whose country in fact had
no national interest (in the European sense) in the territorial issues of
the settlement. It is in the nature of prophets to redouble their efforts,
not to abandon them, in the face of a recalcitrant reality. The obstacles
Wilson encountered at Versailles raised no doubt in his mind about the
feasibility of his new dispensation. On the contrary, they fortified his faith
in its necessity. And he was confident that the League and the weight of
world opinion would correct the many provisions of the Treaty that de-
parted from his principles.
Indeed, the power of Wilson’s ideals was demonstrated by their impact
on Great Britain, the motherland of the balance-of-power policy. The
official British commentary on the League Covenant declared that “the
ultimate and most effective sanction must be the public opinion of
the civilised world.” 2 Or, as Lord Cecil argued before the House of Com-
mons, “what we rely upon is public opinion . . . and if we are wrong about
it, then the whole thing is wrong.” 3
The Dilemmas of the Victors
It seems improbable that the scions of the policy of Pitt, Canning,
Palmerston, and Disraeli would have come to such conclusions on their
own. At first they went along with Wilson’s policy in order to ensure
American support in the war. As time went on, Wilsonian principles suc-
ceeded in capturing British public opinion. By the 1920s and 1930s, Great
Britain’s defense of collective security was no longer tactical. Wilsonian-
ism had made a genuine convert.
In the end, collective security fell prey to the weakness of its central
premise — that all nations have the same interest in resisting a particular
act of aggression and are prepared to run identical risks in opposing it.
Experience has shown these assumptions to be false. No act of aggression
involving a major power has ever been defeated by applying the principle
of collective security. Either the world community has refused to assess
the act as one which constituted aggression, or it has disagreed over the
appropriate sanctions. And when sanctions were applied, they inevitably
reflected the lowest common denominator, often proving so ineffectual
that they did more harm than good.
At the time of the Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1932, the League
had no machinery for sanctions. It remedied this defect, but faced with
Italian aggression against Abyssinia, it voted for sanctions while stopping
short of imposing a cutoff of oil with the slogan “All sanctions short of
war.” When Austria was forcibly united with Germany and Czechoslova-
kia’s freedom was extinguished, there was no League reaction at all. The
last act of the League of Nations, which no longer contained Germany,
Japan, or Italy, was to expel the Soviet Union after it attacked Finland in
1939. It had no effect on Soviet actions.
During the Cold War, the United Nations proved equally ineffective in
every case involving Great Power aggression, due to either the commu-
nist veto in the Security Council or the reluctance on the part of smaller
countries to run risks on behalf of issues they felt did not concern them.
The United Nations was ineffective or at the sidelines during the Berlin
crises and during the Soviet interventions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia,
and Afghanistan. It was irrelevant in the Cuban Missile Crisis until the two
superpowers agreed to settle. America was able to invoke the authority
of the United Nations against North Korean aggression in 1950 only be-
cause the Soviet representative was boycotting the Security Council and
the General Assembly was still dominated by countries eager to enlist
America against the threat of Soviet aggression in Europe. The United
Nations did provide a convenient meeting place for diplomats and a
useful forum for the exchange of ideas. It also performed important
technical functions. But it failed to fulfill the underlying premise of collec-
tive security — the prevention of war and collective resistance to aggres-
This has been true of the United Nations even in the post-Cold War
period. In the Gulf War of 1991, it did indeed ratify American actions, but
resistance to Iraqi aggression was hardly an application of the doctrine of
collective security. Not waiting for an international consensus, the United
States had unilaterally dispatched a large expeditionary force. Other na-
tions could gain influence over America’s actions only by joining what
was in effect an American enterprise; they could not avoid the risks of
conflict by vetoing it. Additionally, domestic upheavals in the Soviet Union
and China gave the permanent members of the UN Security Council an
incentive to maintain America’s goodwill. In the Gulf War, collective secu-
rity was invoked as a justification of American leadership, not as a substi-
tute for it.
Of course, these lessons had not yet been learned in the innocent days
when the concept of collective security was first being introduced into
diplomacy. The post-Versailles statesmen had half-convinced themselves
that armaments were the cause of tensions, not the result of them, and
half-believed that if goodwill replaced the suspiciousness of traditional
diplomacy, international conflict might be eradicated. Despite having
been emotionally drained by the war, the European leaders should have
realized that a general doctrine of collective security could never work,
even if it overcame all the other hurdles it faced, as long as it excluded
three of the most powerful nations of the world-, the United States, Ger-
many, and the Soviet Union. For the United States had refused to join the
League, Germany was barred from it, and the Soviet Union, which was
treated as a pariah, disdained it.
The country suffering most grievously under the postwar order was
“victorious” France. French leaders knew that the provisions of the Treaty
of Versailles would not keep Germany permanently weak. After the last
European war — the Crimean War of 1854-56 — the victors, Great Britain
and France, had managed to maintain the military provisions for less than
twenty years. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, France became a full-
fledged member of the European Concert after only three years. After
Versailles, France’s decline vis-a-vis Germany grew progressively more
evident, even as it seemed to dominate Europe militarily. France’s victori-
ous Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, was right when he
said about the Treaty of Versailles: “This is not peace; it is an Armistice
for twenty years.” 4
By 1924, the staff of the British ground forces had reached the same
conclusion when it predicted that Germany would again be going to war
The Dilemmas of the Victors
with Great Britain over issues that would be “simply a repetition of the
conditions which brought us into the late war.” 5 The restraints imposed
by the Treaty of Versailles, it argued, would delay German rearmament
by at most nine months once Germany felt strong enough politically to
throw off the shackles of Versailles — which the general staff presciently
assessed as being probable within ten years. Concurring with the analysis
of the French, the British general staff also predicted that France would
be helpless unless, in the meantime, it made a military alliance with “first-
class powers.”
Yet the only first-class power available was Great Britain, whose politi-
cal leaders did not accept the views of their military advisers. Instead,
their policy was based on the mistaken belief that France was already too
powerful and that the last thing it needed was a British alliance. Great
Britain’s leaders considered demoralized France to be the potentially
dominant power and in need of being balanced, while revisionist Ger-
many was perceived as the aggrieved party in need of conciliation. Both
assumptions — that France was militarily dominant and that Germany had
been harshly treated — were correct in the short term; but as premises of
British policy, they were disastrous in the long term. Statesmen stand or
fall on their perceptions of trends. And British postwar leaders failed to
perceive the long-range dangers before them.
France desperately wanted a military alliance with Great Britain, to
replace the guarantee that had lapsed when the United States Senate
refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty. Never having made a military alli-
ance with the country they considered to be the strongest in Europe,
British leaders now perceived France as rekindling its historic threat to
dominate the Continent. In 1924, the Central Department of the British
Foreign Office described the French occupation of the Rhineland as a
“jumping-off point for an incursion into Central Europe,” 6 a judgment
totally at variance with French psychology of the period. Even more
inanely, the Foreign Office memorandum treated the occupation of the
Rhineland as an encirclement of Belgium, creating “a direct menace to
the Scheldt and Zuider Zee, and therefore an indirect menace to this
country.” 7 Not to be outdone in generating anti -French suspicions, the
Admiralty weighed in with an argument straight from the wars of the
Spanish Succession or the Napoleonic Wars: that the Rhineland domi-
nated Dutch and Belgian ports whose control would severely impair the
British Royal Navy’s planning in the event of war with France. 8
There was no hope whatsoever of maintaining a balance of power in
Europe so long as Great Britain considered the primary threat to be a
country whose nearly panicky foreign policy was geared to fending off
another German assault. Indeed, in a kind of historic reflex, many in
Great Britain began to look to Germany to balance France. For example,
the British Ambassador in Berlin, Viscount d’Abernon, reported that it
was in England’s interest to maintain Germany as a counterweight to
France. “As long as Germany is a coherent whole, there is more or less a
balance of power in Europe,” he wrote in 1923. If Germany disintegrated,
France would be “in undisputed military and political control, based
upon her army and her military alliances.” 9 This was true enough but
hardly the likely scenario that British diplomacy would confront in the
decades ahead.
Great Britain was right to argue, as it always had, that, after victory, the
reconstruction of international order required the return of the erstwhile
enemy to the community of nations. But appeasing Germany’s grievances
would not restore stability as long as the balance of power continued to
shift inexorably in Germany’s direction. France and Great Britain, whose
unity was essential to maintaining the last shred of the European balance
of power, were glaring at each other in frustration and incomprehension,
while the real threats to the equilibrium — Germany and the Soviet Union
— stood at the sidelines in sullen resentment. Great Britain vastly exagger-
ated France’s strength; France vastly overestimated its ability to use the
Treaty of Versailles to compensate for its growing inferiority vis-a-vis
Germany. Great Britain’s fear of possible French hegemony on the Conti-
nent was absurd; France’s belief that it could conduct foreign policy on
the basis of keeping Germany prostrate was delusion tinged by despair.
Perhaps the most important reason for Great Britain’s rejection of a
French alliance was that its leaders did not in their hearts consider the
Versailles Treaty just, least of all the settlement of Eastern Europe, and
feared that an alliance with France, which had pacts with the Eastern
European countries, might draw them into a conflict over the wrong
issues and in defense of the wrong countries. Lloyd George expressed
the conventional wisdom of that time:
The British people . . . would not be ready to be involved in quarrels
which might arise regarding Poland or Danzig of Upper Silesia The
British people felt that the populations of that quarter of Europe were
unstable and excitable; they might start fighting at any time and the
rights and wrongs of the dispute might be very hard to disentangle. 10
Holding attitudes such as these, British leaders used discussions about
the possibility of a French alliance primarily as a tactical device to ease
French pressures on Germany, not as a serious contribution to interna-
tional security.
The Dilemmas of the Victors
France thus continued its hopeless quest of keeping Germany weak;
Great Britain sought to devise security arrangements to calm French fears
without incurring a British commitment. It was a circle never to be
squared, for Great Britain could not bring itself to extend to France
the one assurance that might have brought about a calmer and more
conciliatory French foreign policy toward Germany — a full military alli-
Realizing in 1922 that the British Parliament would never countenance
a formal military commitment, French Prime Minister Briand reverted to
the precedent of the Entente Cordiale of 1904 — Anglo-French diplomatic
cooperation without military provisions. But in 1904, Great Britain had
felt threatened by Germany’s naval program and by its constant bullying.
By the 1920s, it feared Germany less than France, whose conduct it mis-
takenly attributed to arrogance rather than to panic. Though Great Britain
grudgingly acceded to Briand’s proposal, its real motive in doing so was
reflected in a cynical Cabinet note which defended the French alliance as
a means of strengthening Great Britain’s relations with Germany:
Germany is to us the most important country in Europe not only on
account of our trade with her, but also because she is the key to the
situation in Russia. By helping Germany we might under existing condi-
tions expose ourselves to the charge of deserting France; but if France
was our ally no such charge could be made. 11
Whether it was because French President Alexandre Millerand sensed the
British evasion or simply found the arrangement too amorphous, he
rejected Briand’s scheme, which led to the Prime Minister’s resignation.
Frustrated in its attempt to elicit a traditional British alliance, France
next attempted to achieve the same result through the League of Nations
by elaborating a precise definition of aggression. This would then be
turned into a precise obligation within the framework of the League
of Nations— thereby transforming the League into a global alliance. In
September 1923, at French and British urging, the League Council devised
a universal treaty of mutual assistance. In the event of conflict, the Council
would be empowered to designate which country’ was the aggressor and
which the victim. Every League member would then be obliged to assist
the victim, by force if necessary, on the continent on which that signatory
was situated (this clarification was added to avoid incurring a League
obligation to help in colonial conflicts). Since obligations of the doctrine
of collective security are meant to derive from general causes rather
than from national interests, the treaty stipulated that, to be eligible for
assistance, the victim must have previously signed a disarmament
agreement approved by the League, and have been reducing its armed
forces according to an agreed schedule.
Since the victim is usually the weaker side, the Leagues Treaty of
Mutual Assistance was in fact providing incentives for aggression by ask-
ing the more vulnerable side to compound its difficulties. There was
something absurd about the proposition that the international order
would henceforth be defended on behalf of excellent disarmers rather
than of vital national interests. Moreover, since reduction schedules of a
general disarmament treaty would take years to negotiate, the universal
Treaty of Mutual Assistance was creating a vast vacuum. With the League
obligation to resist being placed into a distant and nebulous future,
France and any other threatened country would have to face their perils
Despite its escape clauses, the Treaty failed to command support. The
United States and the Soviet Union refused to consider it. Germany’s
opinion was never solicited. Once it became clear that the draft treaty
would have obliged Great Britain, with colonies on every continent, to
assist any victim of aggression anywhere, Labour Prime Minister Ramsay
MacDonald also felt obliged to report that Great Britain could not accept
the Treaty, even though it had helped to draft it.
By now, Frances quest for security had turned obsessive. Far from
accepting the futility of its effort, it refused to abandon its search for
criteria compatible with collective security, especially since the British
government under Ramsay MacDonald so strongly supported collective
security and disarmament — the so-called progressive causes represented
by the League. Finally, MacDonald and the new French Prime Minister,
Edouard Herriot, came up with a variation of the previous proposal. The
Geneva Protocol of 1924 required League arbitration for all international
conflicts and established three criteria for a universal obligation to assist
victims of aggression: the aggressor’s refusal to permit the Council to
settle the dispute by conciliation; the aggressor’s failure to submit the
issue to judicial settlement or arbitration; and, of course, the victim’s
membership in a scheme for general disarmament. Each signatory was
obliged to assist the victim by all available means against the aggressor so
defined. 12
The Geneva Protocol, however, failed as well for the same reason as
the Treaty of Mutual Assistance and all the other schemes for collective
security in the 1920s had failed. It went too far for Great Britain and not
nearly far enough for France. Great Britain had proposed it in order to
draw France into disarmament, not to generate an additional defense
obligation. France had pursued the Protocol primarily as an obligation of
The Dilemmas of the Victors
mutual assistance — having only a secondary interest, if that, in disarma-
ment. To underscore the futility of this exercise, the United States an-
nounced that it would not honor the Geneva Protocol or tolerate any
interference with U.S. trade under its provisions. When the chairman
of the British Imperial Defense Staff warned that the Protocol would
dangerously overextend British forces, the Cabinet withdrew it in early
It was a preposterous state of affairs. Resisting aggression had been
made dependent on the prior disarmament of the victim. Geopolitical
considerations and the strategic importance of the region, reasons for
which nations had been going to war for centuries, were being deprived
of legitimacy. According to this approach, Great Britain would defend
Belgium because it had disarmed, not because it was strategically vital.
After months of negotiations, the democracies were advancing neither
disarmament nor security. The tendency of collective security to trans-
form aggression into an abstract, legal problem and its refusal to consider
any specific threat or commitment had a demoralizing rather than a reas-
suring effect.
Despite the passionate lip service it paid to the concept, Great Britain
clearly considered the obligations of collective security less binding than
those of traditional alliances. For the Cabinet proved to be quite fertile in
inventing various formulae for collective security while it adamantly re-
jected a formal alliance with France until the very eve of the war, a decade
and a half later. Surely it would not have made such a distinction unless
it viewed the obligations of collective security as less likely to have to be
implemented or easier to evade than those of alliances.
The wisest course for the Allies would have been to relieve Germany
voluntarily of the most onerous provisions of Versailles and to forge a
firm Franco-British alliance. This is what Winston Churchill had in mind
when he advocated an alliance with France “if (and only if) she entirely
alters her treatment of Germany and loyally accepts a British policy of
help and friendship towards Germany .” 13 Such a policy was never pur-
sued with any consistency, however. French leaders were too afraid
of both Germany and their own public opinion, which was deeply
hostile to Germany, and British leaders were too suspicious of French
The disarmament provisions of the Treaty of Versailles widened the
Anglo-French split. Ironically, they eased Germany’s road toward military
parity, which, given the weakness of Eastern Europe, would spell geopo-
litical superiority in the long run. For one thing, the Allies had com-
pounded discrimination with incompetence by neglecting to set up any
verification machinery for the disarmament provisions. In a letter to Colo-
nel House in 1919, Andre Tardieu, a principal French negotiator at Ver-
sailles, predicted that the failure to set up verification machinery would
cripple the disarmament clauses of the Treaty:
... a weak instrument is being drawn up, dangerous and absurd
Will the League say to Germany, ‘Prove that my information is false,’ or
even, We wish to verify.’ But then it is claiming a right of supervision,
and Germany will reply: ‘By what right?’
That is what Germany will reply and she will be justified in so reply-
ing, if she is not forced by the Treaty to recognize the right of verifica-
tion. 14
In the innocent days before the study of arms control had become an
academic subject, no one thought it odd to be asking Germany to verify
its own disarmament. To be sure, an Inter-Allied Military Control Com-
mission had been set up. But it had no independent right of inspection;
it could only ask the German government for information about German
violations — not exactly a foolproof procedure. The Commission was dis-
banded in 1926, leaving the verification of German compliance to Allied
intelligence services. No wonder the disarmament provisions were being
grossly violated long before Hitler refused to carry them out.
On the political level, German leaders skillfully insisted on the general
disarmament promised in the Versailles Treaty, of which their own disar-
mament was to have been the first stage. With the passage of time, they
managed to obtain British support for this proposition, and used it as
well to justify the failure to fulfill other provisions of the Treaty. To put
pressure on France, Great Britain announced dramatic reductions of its
own ground forces (on which it had never relied for security), though
not of its navy (on which, of course, it did). France’s security, on the other
hand, depended totally on its standing army’s being significantly larger
than Germany’s because the industrial potential of Germany and its popu-
lation were so superior. The pressure to alter this balance — through
either German rearmament or French disarmament — had the practical
consequence of reversing the results of the war. By the time Hitler came
to power, it was already quite apparent that the disarmament provisions
of the Treaty would soon be in tatters, making Germany’s geopolitical
advantage apparent.
Reparations were another element of the disunity between France and
Great Britain. Until the Versailles Treaty, it had been axiomatic that the
vanquished paid reparations. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Ger-
The Dilemmas of the Victors
many did not feel compelled to invoke any principle other than its victory
for the indemnity it imposed on France; nor did it do so in 1918 with
respect to the staggering reparations bill it presented to Russia in the
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
Yet, in the new world order of Versailles, the Allies had come to believe
that reparations required a moral justification. They found it in Article
231, or the War Guilt Clause, described in the previous chapter. The
clause was furiously attacked in Germany, and eliminated the already low
incentive there to cooperate with the peace settlement.
One of the astonishing aspects of the Versailles Treaty was that its
drafters included so invidious and precise a clause on war guilt without
specifying the total amount to be paid in reparations. The determination
of the reparations figure had been left to future expert commissions
because the amount which the Allies had led their publics to expect was
so exorbitant, it could never have survived Wilson’s scrutiny or the analy-
sis of serious financial experts.
In this manner, reparations, like disarmament, became a weapon of the
German revisionists; experts increasingly doubted not only the morality
but the feasibility of the claims. John Maynard Keynes’ Treatise on the
Economic Consequences of the Peace was a prime example. 15 Finally, the
bargaining position of the victor always diminishes with time. Whatever
is not exacted during the shock of defeat becomes increasingly difficult
to attain later — a lesson America had to learn with respect to Iraq at the
end of the 1991 Gulf War.
It was not until 1921 — two years after the signing of the Versailles
Treaty — that a figure for reparations was finally established. It was ab-
surdly high: 132 billion Goldmarks (some $40 billion, which amounts to
approximately $323 billion in present value), a sum which would have
necessitated German payments for the rest of the century. Predictably,
Germany claimed insolvency; even if the international financial system
could have accommodated such a vast transfer of resources, no demo-
cratic German government could have survived agreeing to it.
In the summer of 1921, Germany paid the first installment of the repa-
rations bill, transferring 1 billion Marks ($250 million). But it did so by
printing paper Marks and selling them for foreign currency on the open
market — in other words, by inflating its currency to the point where no
significant transfer of resources was taking place. At the end of 1922,
Germany proposed a four-year moratorium on reparations.
The demoralization of the Versailles international order and of France,
its leading European pillar, was now far advanced. No enforcement ma-
chinery existed for reparations, and no verification machinery for disar-
advocated the policy of “no war, no peace.” 19 Yet the weaker side has
the option of playing for time only against an adversary that considers
negotiations as operating according to their own internal logic — an illu-
sion to which the United States has been especially subject. The Germans
had no such views. When Trotsky returned with instructions proclaiming
a policy of neither peace nor war and announced unilaterally that the war
was over, the Germans resumed military operations. Faced with total
defeat, Lenin and his colleagues accepted Hoffmann’s terms and signed
the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, accepting coexistence with imperial Germany.
The principle of coexistence would be invoked time and again over
the next sixty years by the Soviets, with the reactions of the protagonists
remaining constant: the democracies would each time hail the Soviet
proclamation of peaceful coexistence as a sign of conversion to a perma-
nent policy of peace. Yet, for their part, communists always justified peri-
ods of peaceful coexistence on the ground that the relation of forces was
not conducive to confrontation. The obvious corollary was that, as that
relationship changed, so would the Bolsheviks’ devotion to peaceful co-
existence. According to Lenin, it was reality which dictated coexistence
with the capitalist foe:
By concluding a separate peace, we are freeing ourselves in the largest
measure possible at the present moment from both warring imperialist
groups; by utilizing their mutual enmity we utilize the war, which
makes a bargain between them against us difficult. 20
The high point of that policy was, of course, the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939.
Potential inconsistencies were easily rationalized. “We are convinced,”
said a communist statement, “that the most consistent socialist policy can
be reconciled with the sternest realism and most level-headed practical-
ity.” 21
In 1920, Soviet policy took the final step in acknowledging the need
for a more traditional policy toward the West when Foreign Minister
Georgi Chicherin said:
There may be differences of opinion as to the duration of the capitalist
system, but at present the capitalist system exists, so that a modus
vivendi must be found 22
Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, in the end national interest emerged
as a dominant Soviet goal, becoming elevated into a socialist verity just
as it had stood for so long at the core of the policies of the capitalist
The Dilemmas of the Victors
states. Survival was now the immediate goal and coexistence the
Yet the socialist state soon confronted another military threat when, in
April 1920, it was attacked by Poland. Polish forces reached the neighbor-
hood of Kiev before they were defeated. When the Red Army, in a coun-
terthrust, approached Warsaw, the Western Allies intervened, demanding
an end to the offensive and peace. British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon
proposed a dividing line between Poland and Russia which the Soviets
were prepared to accept. Poland, however, refused, so the final settlement
was made along the prewar military lines, far to the east of what Curzon
had proposed.
Poland thus managed to sharpen the antagonism of its two historic
enemies: Germany, from which it had acquired Upper Silesia and the
Polish corridor; and the Soviet Union, from which it had seized the terri-
tory east of what became known as the Curzon Line. When the smoke
cleared, the Soviet Union found itself free at last of wars and revolution,
yet having paid for it with the loss of most of the tsars’ conquests in the
Baltic, Finland, Poland, Bessarabia, and along the Turkish frontier. By
1923, Moscow had reclaimed control of Ukraine and Georgia, which
had seceded from the Russian Empire during the turmoil — an event not
forgotten by many contemporary Russian leaders.
To restore domestic control, the Soviet Union had to make a pragmatic
compromise between revolutionary crusades and Realpolitik, between
the proclamation of world revolution and the practice of peaceful coexis-
tence. Though it opted to defer world revolution, the Soviet Union was
far from a supporter of the existing order. It saw in peace an opportunity
to pit the capitalists against each other. Its particular target was Ger-
many, which had always played a major role in Soviet thought and in
Russian sentiment. In December 1920, Lenin described the Soviet strat-
Our existence depends, first, on the existence of a radical split in the
camp of the imperialist powers and, secondly, on the fact that the
victory of the Entente and the Versailles peace have thrown the vast
majority of the German nation into a position where they cannot live.
. . . The German bourgeois government madly hates the Bolsheviks, but
the interests of the international situation are pushing it towards peace
with Soviet Russia against its own will. 23
Germany was coming to the same conclusion. During the Russo-Polish
war, General Hans von Seeckt, the architect of the postwar German army,
had written:
The present Polish state is a creation of the Entente. It is to replace
the pressure formerly exercised by Russia on the eastern frontier of
Germany. The fight of Soviet Russia with Poland hits not only the latter,
but above all the Entente — France and Britain. If Poland collapses the
whole edifice of the Versailles Treaty totters. From this it follows clearly
that Germany has no interest in rendering any help to Poland in her
struggle with Russia. 24
Von Seeckt’s view confirmed the fears aired by Lord Balfour a few years
earlier (and quoted in the last chapter) — that Poland gave Russia and
Germany a common enemy and obviated their balancing one another, as
they had done throughout the nineteenth century. In the Versailles sys-
tem, Germany faced not a Triple Entente but a multitude of states in
various stages of disagreement with each other, all of them opposed as
well by a Soviet Union with territorial grievances very similar to Ger-
many’s. It was only a matter of time before the two outcasts pooled their
The occasion arose in 1922 at Rapallo, an Italian seaside town near
Genoa, and the site of Lloyd George’s international conference. Ironically,
it was made possible by the constant haggling over reparations that had
been going on since the Treaty of Versailles, and that had intensified after
the presentation of the Allied reparations bill and Germany’s claim that it
was unable to pay.
A major obstacle to the conference’s success was that Lloyd George had
neither the power nor the wisdom with which Secretary of State George
Marshall would later steer his own reconstruction program to fruition. At
the last moment, France refused to permit the subject of reparations to
be included in the agenda, fearing, quite correctly, that France would be
pressed to reduce the total amount. It seemed that France prized above
all its unfulfillable, albeit internationally recognized, claim to some attain-
able compromise. Germany was looking for a moratorium on reparations.
The Soviets were suspicious that the Allies might try to end the impasse
by linking tsarist debts to German reparations, whereby the Soviet Union
would be asked to acknowledge the tsars’ debts and to reimburse itself
from German reparations. Article 116 of the Treaty of Versailles had left
open precisely this possibility.
The Soviet government had no more intention of acknowledging tsarist
debts than it did of recognizing British and French financial claims. Nor
was it anxious to add Germany to its already extensive list of adversaries
by joining the reparations merry-go-round. In order to prevent the Genoa
Conference from resolving this issue to the Soviets’ disadvantage, Moscow
proposed in advance of the conference that the two pariahs establish
The Dilemmas of the Victors
diplomatic relations and mutually renounce all claims against each other.
Not wanting to be the first European country to establish diplomatic
relations with the Soviet Union and thereby possibly jeopardize its
chances of obtaining relief from the reparations bill, Germany evaded the
proposition. The proposal remained on the table until events at Genoa
forced a change of attitude.
Soviet Foreign Minister Georgi Chicherin, an aristocrat by birth who
became a passionate believer in the Bolshevik cause, relished the oppor-
tunity provided by Genoa to put revolutionary convictions into the service
of Realpolitik. He proclaimed “peaceful coexistence” in terms which
placed practical cooperation above the requirements of ideology:
. . . the Russian delegation recognize that in the present period of his-
tory, which permits the parallel existence of the old social order and of
the new order now being born, economic collaboration between the
States representing these two systems of property is imperatively neces-
sary for the general economic reconstruction . 25
At the same time, Chicherin coupled the appeal for cooperation with
proposals well designed to compound the confusion of the democracies,
He spelled out an agenda so sweeping that it could neither be imple-
mented nor ignored by democratic governments — a tactic that would
remain a constant of Soviet diplomacy. This agenda included the abolition
of weapons of mass destruction, a world economic conference, and inter-
national control of all waterways. The purpose was to mobilize Western
public opinion and to give Moscow a reputation for peaceful internation-
alism which would make it difficult for the democracies to organize the
anticommunist crusade which was the Kremlin’s nightmare.
Chicherin found himself an outsider at Genoa, though no more so than
the members of the German delegation. The Western Allies remained
oblivious to the temptations they were creating for both Germany and
the Soviet Union by pretending that these two most powerful countries
on the Continent could simply be ignored. Three requests by the German
Chancellor and his Foreign Minister for a meeting with Lloyd George
were rebuffed. Simultaneously, France proposed holding private consul-
tations with Great Britain and the Soviet Union from which Germany
would be excluded. The purpose of these meetings was to resurrect the
shopworn scheme of trading tsarist debts for German reparations — a
proposal which even less suspicious diplomats than the Soviets would
have construed as a trap to undermine the prospect of improved German-
Soviet relations.
By the end of the first week of the conference, both Germany and the
Soviet Union were worried that they would be pitted against each other.
When one of Chicherin’s aides telephoned the German delegation at
the conspiratorial hour of one-fifteen in the morning on April 16, 1922,
proposing a meeting later that day at Rapallo, the Germans jumped at the
invitation. They were anxious to end their isolation as much as the Soviets
wanted to avoid the dubious privilege of becoming German creditors.
The two foreign ministers lost little time drafting an agreement in which
Germany and the Soviet Union established full diplomatic relations, re-
nounced claims against each other, and granted each other Most Favored
Nation status. Lloyd George, upon receiving belated intelligence of the
meeting, frantically tried to reach the German delegation to invite them
to the interview he had repeatedly rejected. The message reached Ra-
thenau, the German negotiator, as he was about to leave for the signing
of the Soviet-German agreement. He hesitated, then muttered: “Le vin est
tire-, il faut le boire” (The wine is drawn; it must be drunk). 26
Within a year, Germany and the Soviet Union were negotiating secret
agreements for military and economic cooperation. Though Rapallo later
came to be a symbol of the dangers of Soviet-German rapprochement, it
was in fact one of those fateful accidents which seem inevitable only in
retrospect: accidental in the sense that neither side planned for it to
happen when it did; inevitable because the stage for it had been set by
the Western Allies’ ostracism of the two largest Continental countries, by
their creation of a belt of weak states between them hostile to each, and
by their dismemberment of both Germany and the Soviet Union. All of
this created the maximum incentive for Germany and the Soviet Union
to overcome their ideological hostility and to cooperate in undermining
Rapallo by itself did not have that consequence; it symbolized, how-
ever, a common overriding interest which continued to draw together
Soviet and German leaders for the remainder of the interwar period.
George Kennan has ascribed this agreement in part to Soviet persistence,
in part to Western disunity and complacency. 27 Clearly, the Western de-
mocracies were shortsighted and fatuous. But once they had made the
error of drafting the Treaty of Versailles, only extremely forbidding
choices were left to them. In the long run, Soviet-German cooperation
could have been forestalled only by a British and French deal with one
or the other of them. But the minimum price of such a deal with Germany
would have been the rectification of the Polish border and, almost cer-
tainly, the abolition of the Polish Corridor. In such a Europe, France could
only have avoided German domination by a firm alliance with Great
The Dilemmas of the Victors
Britain, which, of course, the British refused to consider. Similarly, the
practical implication of any deal with the Soviet Union would have been
the restoration of the Curzon Line, which Poland would have rejected
and France would not consider. The democracies were not prepared to
pay either price, or even to admit to the dilemma of how to defend the
Versailles settlement without allowing either Germany or the Soviet
Union a significant role.
This being the case, there was always the possibility that the (wo Conti-
nental giants might opt to partition Eastern Europe between themselves
rather than join a coalition directed against the other. Thus it remained
to Hitler and Stalin, unfettered by the past and driven by their lusts for
power, to blow away the house of cards assembled by the well-meaning,
peace-loving, and essentially timid statesmen of the interwar period.
Stresemann and the
Re-emergence of the
All the principles of balance-of-power diplomacy as they had been prac-
ticed in Europe since William III would have commanded that Great
Britain and France form an anti-German alliance to rein in the revisionist
impulses of their restless neighbor. Ultimately, Great Britain and France
were each weaker than Germany — even a defeated Germany — and could
hope to counterbalance it only in coalition. But that coalition was never
formed. Great Britain abandoned the single-minded pursuit of equilib-
rium that had distinguished its policy for three centuries. It oscillated
between a superficial application of the balance of power, which it aimed
at France, and a growing devotion to the new principle of collective
security, which it recoiled from enforcing. France pursued a foreign pol-
Stresemann and the Re-emercence of the Vanquished
icy of desperation, alternating between using the Treaty of Versailles to
delay German recovery and making halfhearted attempts to reconcile its
ominous neighbor. Thus it happened that the statesman destined to do
the most to shape the diplomatic landscape of the 1920s — Gustav Stre-
semann — came not from one of the victorious powers, but from defeated
But before the emergence of Stresemann, there was to be one more
doomed effort by France to assure its security by its own efforts. At
the end of 1922, with reparations elusive, disarmament controversial,
meaningful British security guarantees unavailable, and German-Soviet
rapprochement taking place, France found itself at the end of its emo-
tional tether. Raymond Poincare, its wartime President, took over as Prime
Minister and decided in favor of unilateral enforcement of the Versailles
reparations clause. In January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied
the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, without consulting the other
Lloyd George would remark many years later: “If there had been no
Rapallo, there would have been no Ruhr.” 1 But it is also true that, had
Great Britain been prepared to undertake a security guarantee, France
would not have embarked on so desperate a step as occupying Germany’s
industrial heartland. And if France had been more ready to compromise
on reparations (and on the disarmament issue), Great Britain might have
been more forthcoming about forging an alliance — though how mean-
ingful this alliance would have been, given the near-pacifist state of British
public opinion, is another matter.
Ironically, France’s sole unilateral military initiative demonstrated that
it had in fact lost the capacity to act alone. France took control of the
industries of the Ruhr region in order to exploit its steel and coal as a
substitute for the reparations payments refused by the Germans. The
German government ordered passive resistance and paid the coal and
steel workers not to work. Though the policy bankrupted the German
government— and sparked hyperinflation — it also prevented France
from achieving its objective, thereby turning the occupation of the Ruhr
into a massive French failure.
France was now thoroughly isolated. The United States expressed its
displeasure by withdrawing its own army of occupation from the Rhine-
land. Great Britain glowered. Germany saw in this split between the
Allies an opportunity for rapprochement with Great Britain. The heady
atmosphere of national resistance to the French occupation even led
some German leaders to resurrect the old project of an Anglo-German
alliance — another instance of Germany’s ingrained tendency to overesti-
mate its options. The British Ambassador to Berlin, Lord d’Abernon, re-
ported a conversation in which a leading German statesman resurrected
some of the arguments of imperial Germany for a British alliance, declar-
ing that “the position of 1914 is today reversed. It is quite clear that, as in
1914 England had fought Germany to withstand a military domination of
Europe, so in the course of a few years she might fight France on the
same grounds. The question is whether England would carry on that fight
alone or whether she would have allies.” 2
No responsible British leader thought of going so far as allying his
country with Germany. Nevertheless, on August 11, 1923, Foreign Secre-
tary Curzon and Foreign Office official Sir Eyre Crowe (author of the
Crowe Memorandum of 1907) demanded that France reconsider its
course in the Ruhr at the risk of losing Great Britain’s support in a future
crisis with Germany. Poincare was not impressed. He did not consider
British support a favor to France but, rather, a requirement of the British
national interest: “. . . in case a situation like in 1914 develops . . . England,
in its own interest, will have to take the same measure as she took back
then.” 3
Poincare turned out to be right about what Great Britain’s ultimate
choice would be when faced with a situation similar to that of 1914. But
he miscalculated as to the amount of time it would take Great Britain to
realize it was indeed facing a similar crisis and that, in the interim, the
rickety Versailles system would be in a shambles.
The occupation of the Ruhr ended in the fall of 1923. France did not
succeed in generating a significant separatist movement in the Ruhr or
even in the Rhineland, which, according to the terms of the Versailles
Treaty, the German army was not permitted to enter and therefore could
not go into to quell a separatist movement. The coal mined during the
occupation barely paid for the costs of administering the territory. In the
meantime, Germany was beset by insurrections developing in Saxony
(from the political left) and in Bavaria (from the right). Inflation raged,
threatening the ability of the German government to carry out any of its
obligations. France’s insistence on full reparations had become unful-
fil lab le as a result of French actions.
France and Great Britain had managed to checkmate each other:
France, by insisting on weakening Germany by unilateral action and
thereby forfeiting British support; Great Britain, by insisting on concilia-
tion without considering its impact on the balance of power, thereby
forfeiting French security. Even a disarmed Germany proved strong
enough to thwart unilateral French actions — an augury of what lay ahead
once Germany threw off the shackles of Versailles.
In the 1920s, whenever the democracies came to a dead end, they
would invoke the League of Nations rather than face geopolitical realities.
Stresemann and the Re-emercence of the Vanquished
Even the British general staff fell into this trap. The very memorandum
quoted in the previous chapter that had identified Germany as the princi-
pal threat and deemed France incapable of offering effective resistance,
fell in with the prevailing orthodoxies: in its conclusions, the general staff
had no better idea than “strengthening” the League (whatever that meant)
and making “alliances ad hoc in such situations as . . . Germany running
amok.” 4
That recommendation was a nearly guaranteed prescription for failure.
The League was too divided and, by the time Germany ran amok, it would
be too late to organize alliances. Now, all Germany needed to ensure for
itself an even more commanding long-term position than it had enjoyed
before the war was a statesman sufficiently farsighted and patient to erode
the discriminatory provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.
Such a leader emerged in 1923, when Gustav Stresemann became
Foreign Minister and then Chancellor. His method for renewing Ger-
many’s strength was the so-called policy of “fulfillment,” which amounted
to a total reversal of previous German policy and the abandonment of the
diplomatic guerrilla war his predecessors had waged against the provi-
sions of the Versailles Treaty. “Fulfillment” relied on taking advantage of
the obvious discomfort of Great Britain and France with the distance
between their principles and the terms of Versailles. In return for a
German effort to meet an eased reparations schedule, Stresemann strove
to be released from the most onerous political and military provisions of
Versailles by the Allies themselves.
A nation defeated in war and partially occupied by foreign troops has
basically two choices. It can challenge the victor in the hope of making
enforcement of the peace too painful; or it can cooperate with the victor
while regaining strength for a later confrontation. Both strategies contain
risks. After a military defeat, resistance invites a test of strength at the
moment of maximum weakness; collaboration risks demoralization, be-
cause policies which appeal to the victor also tend to confuse the public
opinion of the vanquished.
Before Stresemann, Germany had pursued the policy of resistance.
Confrontational tactics had enabled it to prevail in the Ruhr crisis, but
Germany’s grievances were hardly allayed by the French withdrawal from
the Ruhr. Strangely enough, the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France was
not controversial. But the redrawing of Germany’s borders, giving Poland
large tracts of German territory, faced passionate nationalistic opposition.
Finally, there were widespread pressures to throw off the restrictions on
German military strength. And there was nearly unanimous consensus in
Germany that the Allied reparations demands were outrageous.
Unlike the nationalists, Stresemann understood that no matter how
unpopular the Versailles Treaty — indeed, regardless of how much he
hated it himself — he needed British and, to some extent, French help to
throw off its most onerous provisions. The Rapallo understanding had
been a useful tactic to unnerve the Western democracies. But because the
Soviet Union was too impoverished to aid German economic recovery
and too isolated to lend support in most diplomatic confrontations, its
real impact would be felt only after Germany became strong enough to
challenge the Versailles settlement openly. Above all, regaining economic
strength required foreign loans, something Germany would find difficult
in an atmosphere of confrontation. Thus, Stresemann’s policy of fulfill-
ment reflected above all his realistic assessment of the requirements
of German political and economic recovery: “Germany’s basic military
weakness,” he wrote, “spells out the limits, the nature, and the methods
of Germany’s foreign policy.” 5
Though the fulfillment policy was grounded in realism, that commodity
was in no more abundant supply in postwar Germany (especially in
conservative circles) than it had been in the days when the conservatives’
policies had so heavily contributed to the outbreak of World War I. End-
ing the war while German forces still stood on Allied soil had enabled
those responsible for Germany’s participation in the war to escape the
consequences of their folly, and to saddle their more moderate succes-
sors with the blame. Lloyd George had foreseen this result when, on
October 26, 1918, he commented to the War Cabinet about Germany’s
first peace overtures:
The Prime Minister said that industrial France had been devastated and
Germany had escaped. At the first moment when we were in a position
to put the lash on Germany’s back she said “I give up.” The question
arose whether we ought not to continue lashing her as she had lashed
France. 6
His colleagues, however, thought Great Britain too exhausted to pursue
such a course. Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain replied wearily that
“vengeance was too expensive these days.” 7
As Lloyd George had predicted, the new Weimar Republic was from
the outset besieged by nationalist agitators, even though it had been
granted peace terms far more generous than what the military high com-
mand could have obtained. Germany’s new democratic leaders received
no credit for preserving their country’s substance under the most difficult
of circumstances. In politics, however, there are few rewards for mitigat-
ing damage because it is rarely possible to prove that worse conse-
quences would in fact have occurred.
Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished
Just as, two generations later, it took a conservative American president
to engineer America’s opening to China, only a leader with the impecca-
ble conservative credentials of Stresemann could have even thought of
basing German foreign policy on cooperating, however ambivalently,
with the hated Versailles settlement. The son of a beer distributor,
Stresemann was bom in Berlin in 1878 and had built his political career
by espousing the views of the conservative, pro-business bourgeois Na-
tional Liberal Party. He became its leader in 1917. A man of great convi-
viality, he loved literature and history, and his conversations were
frequently sprinkled with allusions to German classics. Nevertheless,
his early views on foreign policy reflected the conventional conserva-
tive wisdom. For example, he was convinced that Germany had been
lured into the war by a jealous Great Britain eager to preserve its own
As late as 1917, Stresemann had advocated vast conquests in both the
East and the West, as well as the annexation of French and British colonial
possessions in Asia and Africa. He had also supported unrestricted subma-
rine warfare, the calamitous decision which brought America into the
war. That the man who had called the Treaty of Versailles “the greatest
swindle in history'” 8 should initiate a policy of fulfillment seems a strange
turn of events only to those who believe that Realpolitik cannot teach the
benefits of moderation.
Stresemann was the first postwar German leader — and the only demo-
cratic leader — who exploited the geopolitical advantages which the Ver-
sailles settlement conferred on Germany. He grasped the essentially
brittle nature of the Franco-English relationship, and used it to widen the
wedge between the two wartime allies. He cleverly exploited the British
fear of a German collapse vis-a-vis both France and the Soviet Union. An
official British analyst described Germany as a crucial bulwark against the
spread of Bolshevism, using arguments which would show that “fulfill-
ment” was making progress. The German government was “supported
by [a] majority of National Assembly, is genuinely democratic, intends to
carry out [the] Treaty of Peace to [the] best of its ability, and is deserving
[of] frank support from Allies.” If British support failed, Germany “will
inevitably gravitate toward Bolshevism now and ultimately perhaps to
absolute monarchism again.” 9
Great Britain’s arguments in favor of assistance to Germany bear a
certain resemblance to American propositions regarding aid to Russia
in the Yeltsin period. In neither case was there an assessment of the
consequences of the “success” of the policy being advocated. If fulfill-
ment succeeded, Germany would become progressively stronger and be
in a position to threaten the equilibrium of Europe. Similarly, if a post-
Cold War international aid program to Russia achieves its objective, grow-
ing Russian strength will produce geopolitical consequences all around
the vast periphery of the former Russian Empire.
In both cases, the advocates of conciliation had positive, even far-
sighted, goals. The Western democracies were wise to go along with
Stresemann’s fulfillment policy. But they erred in not tightening the
bonds among themselves. The policy of fulfillment was bound to bring
closer the day described by General von Seeckt: “We must regain our
power, and as soon as we do, we will naturally take back everything we
lost.” 10 America was farsighted in offering aid to post-Cold War Russia;
but once Russia recovers economically, its pressure on neighboring
countries is certain to mount. This may be a price worth paying, but it
would be a mistake not to recognize that there is a price.
In the early stages of his fulfillment policy, Stresemann’s ultimate aims
were irrelevant. Whether he was seeking permanent conciliation or an
overthrow of the existing order — or, as was most likely, keeping both
options open — he first had to free Germany from the controversy over
reparations. With the exception of France, the Allies were equally eager
to put the issue behind them and to begin receiving some reparations at
last. As for France, it hoped to escape from the self-inflicted trap of having
occupied the Ruhr.
Stresemann skillfully proposed international arbitration for a new
schedule of reparations, expecting an international forum to prove less
exacting than France alone was likely to be. In November 1923, France
accepted the appointment of an American banker, Charles G. Dawes, as
“impartial arbiter” to reduce France’s reparation claim — a galling symbol
of the disintegration of the wartime alliance. The Dawes Committee’s
recommendations establishing a reduced schedule of payments for five
years were accepted in April 1924.
Over the next five years, Germany paid out about $1 billion in repara-
tions and received loans of about $2 billion, much of it from the United
States. In effect, America was paying Germany’s reparations, while Ger-
many used the surplus from American loans to modernize its industry.
France had insisted on reparations in order to keep Germany weak.
Forced to choose between a weak Germany and a Germany capable of
paying reparations, France had opted for the latter, but then had to stand
by as reparations helped to rebuild Germany’s economic and, ultimately,
its military power.
By the end of 1923, Stresemann was in a position to claim some suc-
Stresemann and the Re-emercence of the Vanquished
All our measures of a political and diplomatic nature, through deliber-
ate co-operation by the two Anglo-Saxon Powers, the estrangement of
Italy from her neighbour [France], and the vacillation of Belgium, have
combined to create a situation for France that the country will not in
the long run be able to sustain . 11
Stresemann’s assessment was accurate. The fulfillment policy produced
an insoluble quandary for both France and the entire European order.
French security required a certain amount of discrimination against Ger-
many in the military field; otherwise, Germany’s superior potential in
manpower and resources would prevail. But without equality — the right
to build armaments like any other European country — Germany would
never accept the Versailles system, and fulfillment would come to a halt.
Fulfillment placed British diplomats in a difficult position as well. If
Great Britain did not grant Germany military equality as a quid pro quo
for Germany’s meeting its reparations payments, Germany could well
revert to its earlier intransigence. But military equality for Germany
would imperil France. Great Britain might have made an alliance with
France to counterbalance Germany, but it did not wish to become entan-
gled in France’s alliances in Eastern Europe or to find itself at war with
Germany over some piece of Polish or Czech territory. “For the Polish
Corridor,” said Austen Chamberlain in 1925, paraphrasing Bismarck’s
remark about the Balkans, “no British government ever will or ever can
risk the bones of a British grenadier.” 12 His prediction, like Bismarck’s,
was disproved by events: Great Britain did go to war — just as Germany
had earlier in the century — and for the very cause it had so consistently
To avoid this dilemma, Austen Chamberlain in 1925 developed an idea
for a limited alliance among Great Britain, France, and Belgium which
would guarantee only their borders with Germany — in essence a military
alliance to resist German aggression in the West. By this time, however,
Stresemann’s fulfillment policy had made such headway that he held a
near-veto over Allied initiatives. To forestall Germany’s being identified
as the potential aggressor, he declared that a pact without Germany was
a pact against Germany.
Half-convinced that Germany’s fear of encirclement had contributed to
its bellicose prewar policy, Chamberlain retreated to a curious hybrid
agreement in which he sought to blend a traditional alliance with the
new principle of collective security. In keeping with the alliance concept
originally proposed, the new pact — signed at Locarno, Switzerland —
guaranteed the borders between France, Belgium, and Germany against
aggression. True to the principle of collective security, the draft presumed
neither aggressor nor victim but promised resistance against aggression
from whatever quarter in either direction. The casus belli was no longer
an aggressive act by a specific country but the violation of a legal norm
by any country.
By the mid-1920s, Stresemann, the Minister of defeated Germany, was
in the driver’s seat much more than Briand and Chamberlain, the repre-
sentatives of the victors. In return for renouncing revisionism in the West,
Stresemann drew from Briand and Chamberlain an implicit recognition
that the Versailles Treaty required revision in the East. Germany accepted
its Western frontier with France and Belgium, and the permanent demili-
tarization of the Rhineland; Great Britain and Italy guaranteed this ar-
rangement, pledging assistance to repel invasions across the frontiers or
into the demilitarized Rhineland from whatever direction. At the same
time, Stresemann refused to accept Germany’s border with Poland, which
the other signatories also refused to guarantee. Germany concluded arbi-
tration agreements with its Eastern neighbors, pledging peaceful settle-
ment of all disputes. Yet Great Britain refused to extend its guarantee
even to that pledge. Finally, Germany agreed to enter the League of
Nations, thereby assuming a general obligation to settle all disputes by
peaceful means, which, in theory, included the unrecognized borders in
the East.
The Locarno Pact was greeted with exuberant relief as the dawning of a
new world order. The three foreign ministers — Aristide Briand of France,
Austen Chamberlain of Great Britain, and Gustav Stresemann of Germany
— received the Nobel Peace Prize. But amidst all the jubilation, no one
noticed that the statesmen had sidestepped the real issues; Locarno had
not so much pacified Europe as it had defined the next battlefield.
The reassurance felt by the democracies at Germany’s formal recogni-
tion of its Western frontier showed the extent of the demoralization and
the confusion that had been caused by the melange of old and new views
on international affairs. For in that recognition was implicit that the Treaty
of Versailles, which had ended a victorious war, had been unable to
command compliance with the victors’ peace terms, and that Germany
had acquired the option of observing only those provisions which it
chose to reaffirm. In this sense, Stresemann’s unwillingness to recognize
Germany’s Eastern frontiers was ominous; while Great Britain’s refusal to
guarantee even the arbitration treaties gave international sanction to two
classes of frontier in Europe — those accepted by Germany and guaran-
teed by the other powers, and those neither accepted by Germany nor
guaranteed by the other powers.
Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished
To confuse matters further, three tiers of commitments now prevailed
in Europe. The first consisted of traditional alliances backed by the con-
ventional machinery of staff talks and political consultations. No longer in
vogue, these were confined to French arrangements with the weak new
states in Eastern Europe — alliances which Great Britain refused to join.
In the event of German aggression in Eastern Europe, France would
face a choice between undesirable alternatives: abandoning Poland and
Czechoslovakia, or fighting alone, which had been its recurring night-
mare since 1870 and was not something it was very likely to undertake.
The second tier consisted of special guarantees such as Locarno, obvi-
ously deemed less binding than formal alliances, which explains why they
never encountered obstacles in the House of Commons. Finally, there
was the League of Nations’ own commitment to collective security, which
was in practice devalued by Locarno. For, if collective security was in fact
reliable, Locarno was unnecessary; and if Locarno was necessary, the
League of Nations was, by definition, inadequate to assure the security of
even its principal founding members.
Because neither the Locarno-type guarantee nor the general concept of
collective security identified a potential aggressor, both rendered advance
military planning impossible. Even if concerted military action had been
possible — and there is no example of it during the League period — the
bureaucratic machinery guaranteed endless delays for fact-finding and
various other League conciliation procedures.
All of these unprecedented diplomatic stipulations compounded the
uneasiness of the countries which considered themselves most threat-
ened. Italy ended up guaranteeing frontiers along the Rhine, which it had
never in its history identified with national security. Italy’s primary inter-
est in Locarno had been to gain recognition as a Great Power. Having
achieved that goal, it saw no reason to run any actual risks — as it would
amply demonstrate when the Rhine frontier was challenged ten years
later. For Great Britain, Locarno signified the first agreement in which a
major power simultaneously guaranteed an erstwhile ally and a recently
defeated enemy while pretending to be impartial between them.
Locarno represented not so much reconciliation between France and
Germany as endorsement of the military outcome of the recent war.
Germany had been defeated in the West but had overcome Russia in
the East. Locarno in effect confirmed both results and laid the basis for
Germany’s ultimate assault on the Eastern settlement.
Locarno, hailed in 1925 as turning the corner toward permanent peace,
in fact marked the beginning of the end of the Versailles international
order. From then on, the distinction between victor and vanquished be-
came more and more murky — a situation which could have been benefi-
cial had the victor gained from it a heightened sense of security or the
defeated become reconciled to living with a modified settlement. Neither
occurred. France’s frustration and sense of impotence grew with every
passing year. So did nationalist agitation in Germany. The wartime Allies
had all abdicated their responsibilities — America shirked its role in de-
signing the peace, Great Britain renounced its historic role as balancer,
and France relinquished its responsibility as guardian of the Versailles
settlement. Only Stresemann, leader of a defeated Germany, had a long-
range policy, and he inexorably moved his country to the center of the
international stage.
The sole remaining hope for a peaceful new world order was that the
emotional lift of the agreement itself and the expectations it produced, as
summed up in the slogan “the spirit of Locarno,” might overcome its
structural failings. Contrary to Wilson’s teachings, it was not the broad
masses which promoted this new atmosphere but the foreign ministers
— Chamberlain, Briand, and Stresemann — of the countries whose suspi-
cions and rivalries had produced the war and prevented the consolidation
of the peace.
Since there was no geopolitical basis for the Versailles order, the states-
men were driven to invoking their personal relationships as a means of
maintaining it — a step none of their predecessors had ever taken. The
aristocrats who had conducted foreign policy in the nineteenth century
belonged to a world in which intangibles were understood in the same
way. Most of them were comfortable with each other. Nevertheless, they
did not believe that their personal relations could influence their assess-
ments of their countries’ national interests. Agreements were never justi-
fied by the “atmosphere” they generated, and concessions were never
made to sustain individual leaders in office. Nor did leaders address each
other by their first names as a way of underlining their good relations
with each other for the sake of their publics’ opinions.
That style of diplomacy changed after World War I. Since then, the
trend toward personalizing relations has accelerated. When Briand wel-
comed Germany to the League, he stressed Stresemann’s human qualities,
and Stresemann responded in kind. Similarly, Austen Chamberlain’s
alleged personal predilection for France caused Stresemann to accelerate
his policy of fulfillment and to recognize Germany’s Western border
when Chamberlain replaced the more pro-German Lord Curzon as for-
eign secretary in 1924.
Austen Chamberlain was the scion of a distinguished family. The son
of the brilliant and mercurial Joseph Chamberlain, advocate of an alliance
Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished
with Germany early in the century, he was the half-brother of Neville
Chamberlain, who was to make the Munich settlement. Like his father,
Austen wielded massive power in Great Britain’s coalition governments.
But, also like his father, he never reached the highest office; indeed, he
was the only leader of the Conservative Party in the twentieth century
who did not become prime minister. As one quip had it, Austen “always
played the game, and always lost it.’’ Harold Macmillan said of Austen
Chamberlain: “He spoke well, but never in the grand style. He was clear,
but not incisive. ... He was respected, but never feared.” 13
Chamberlain’s major diplomatic accomplishment was his role in forg-
ing the Locarno Pact. Because Chamberlain was known to be a Franco-
phile, having once remarked that he “loved France like a woman,” Stre-
semann feared an incipient Franco-English alliance. It was this fear that
moved Stresemann to originate the process that led to Locarno.
In retrospect, the weakness of the policy of creating two classes of
frontiers in Europe has become obvious. But Chamberlain viewed it as a
crucial extension of Great Britain’s strategic commitments, which went to
the limit of what the British public would support. Until the beginning of
the eighteenth century, Great Britain’s security frontier had been at the
Channel. Throughout the nineteenth century, the security frontier had
been at the borders of the Low Countries. Austen Chamberlain tried to
extend it to the Rhine, where, in the end, it was not supported when
Germany challenged it in 1936. A guarantee to Poland was beyond the
ken of British statesmen in 1925.
Aristide Briand was a classic political leader of the Third Republic.
Starting his career as a left-wing firebrand, he became a fixture in French
Cabinets — occasionally as prime minister but more frequently as foreign
minister (he served in fourteen governments in that capacity). He recog-
nized early on that France’s relative position vis-a-vis Germany was declin-
ing and concluded that reconciliation with Germany represented France’s
best hope for long-term security. Relying on his convivial personality, he
hoped to relieve Germany of the most onerous provisions of the Treaty
of Versailles.
Briand’s policy could not be popular in a country devastated by Ger-
man armies. Nor is it at all easy to determine to what extent Briand’s was
an attempt to end a century-old enmity or whether it represented a reluc-
tant Realpolitik. In times of crisis, Frenchmen preferred the tough and
austere Poincare, who insisted on rigid enforcement of Versailles. When
crises became too painful to sustain — as after the occupation of the Ruhr
— Briand would re-emerge. The trouble with this constant alternation
was that France lost the capacity to pursue the policies of either of these
two antipodal figures to their logical conclusions: France was no longer
strong enough to carry out Poincare’s policy, yet French public opinion
gave Briand too little to offer to Germany to achieve permanent reconcili-
Whatever his ultimate motives, Briand understood that, if France did
not pursue conciliation, it would be extorted from it by Anglo-Saxon
pressure and by Germany’s growing strength. Stresemann, though an
ardent opponent of the Treaty of Versailles, believed that a relaxation of
tensions with France would speed revision of the disarmament clauses
and lay the basis for a revision of Germany’s eastern borders.
On September 27, 1926, Briand and Stresemann met in the quaint
village of Thoiry, in the French Jura Mountains near Geneva. Germany
had just been admitted to the League of Nations and welcomed by a
warm, eloquent, and personal speech from Briand. In this heady atmo-
sphere, the two statesmen worked out a package deal designed to settle
the war once and for all. France would return the Saar without the plebi-
scite called for by the Treaty of Versailles. French troops would evacuate
the Rhineland within a year, and the Inter-Allied Military Control Commis-
sion (IMCC) would be withdrawn from Germany. In return, Germany
would pay 300 million Marks for the Saar mines, speed up reparations
payments to France, and fulfill the Dawes Plan. Briand was in effect offer-
ing to trade the most invidious provisions of Versailles for help with
French economic recovery. The agreement demonstrated the unequal
bargaining position of the two sides. Germany’s gains were permanent
and irrevocable; France’s benefits were one-time, transitory, financial con-
tributions, some of which repeated what Germany had previously prom-
The agreement ran into problems in both capitals. German nationalists
violently opposed any form of cooperation with Versailles, however ad-
vantageous the specific terms, and Briand was accused of throwing away
the Rhineland buffer. There were further difficulties with the bond issue
for financing additional German expenditures. On November 11, Briand
abruptly broke off the talks, declaring that “the prompt fulfillment of the
Thoiry idea had been crushed by technical obstacles.” 14
This was the last attempt at a general settlement between France and
Germany in the interwar period. Nor is it clear whether it would have
made all that much difference had it been implemented. For the basic
question posed by Locarno diplomacy remained — whether conciliation
would cause Germany to accept the Versailles international order or
accelerate Germany’s capacity to threaten it.
After Locarno, that question became increasingly moot. Great Britain
Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished
was convinced that conciliation was the only practical course. America
believed it was a moral imperative as well. Strategic or geopolitical analy-
sis having become unfashionable, the nations talked about justice even
while they strenuously disagreed about its definition. A spate of treaties
affirming general principles and appeals to the League followed — partly
from conviction, partly from exhaustion, and partly from the desire to
avoid painful geopolitical realities.
The post-Locarno period witnessed France’s step-by-step retreat from
the Versailles settlement — against its better judgment — under constant
British (and American) pressures to go even further. After Locarno, capital
— mostly American — poured into Germany, accelerating the moderniza-
tion of its industry. The Inter-Allied Military Control Commission, which
had been created to supervise German disarmament, was abolished in
1927, and its functions were turned over to the League of Nations, which
had no means of verifying compliance.
Germany’s secret rearmament accelerated. As early as 1920, the then
minister of industry, Walther Rathenau, had consoled the German military
with the argument that the provisions of Versailles leading to the disman-
tling of heavy German armaments would affect primarily weapons which
would in any event soon become obsolete. And nothing, he argued, could
prevent research on modern weapons or the creation of the industrial
capacity to build them quickly. Attending army maneuvers in 1926, shortly
after Locarno was ratified and at the moment that Briand and Stresemann
were meeting at Thoiry, Field Marshal von Hindenburg, the Commander
of the German army for the last three years of the war and the recently
elected President of Germany, said: “I have seen today that the German
army’s traditional standard of spirit and skill has been preserved.” 15 If
that was so, France’s security would be in jeopardy as soon as the restric-
tions on the size of the German army were lifted.
As the disarmament issue moved to the forefront of international diplo-
macy, this threat loomed ever closer. Demanding political equality, Ger-
many was carefully creating the psychological framework for insisting on
military parity later. France refused to disarm unless it obtained additional
security guarantees; Great Britain, the only country in a position to extend
them, refused to guarantee the Eastern settlement and would go no fur-
ther than Locarno with respect to the Western settlement, thereby un-
derlining the fact that Locarno was less of a commitment than an alliance.
To avoid, or at least to delay, the day of formal German equality, France
began to play the game of developing criteria for the reduction of arms
as favored by League of Nations disarmament experts. It submitted an
analytical paper to the League Preparatory Commission relating actual
power to potential power, trained reserves to demographic trends, and
weapons-in-being to the rate of technological change. But none of the
finely spun theories could get around the key issue, which was that, at
equal levels of armaments, however low, French security was in jeopardy
because of Germany’s superior mobilization potential. The more France
seemed to accept the premises of the Preparatory Commission, the more
pressure it generated against itself. In the end, all the various French
maneuvers served primarily to magnify the Anglo-Saxons’ conviction that
France was the real obstacle to disarmament and therefore to peace.
The poignancy of the French dilemma was that, after Locarno, France
was no longer in a position to pursue its convictions and had to settle for
mitigating its fears. French policy grew increasingly reactive and defen-
sive. Symbolic of this state of mind was that France began to construct the
Maginot Line within two years of Locarno — at a time when Germany was
still disarmed and the independence of the new states of Eastern Europe
depended on France’s ability to come to their aid. In the event of German
aggression, Eastern Europe could only be saved if France adopted an
offensive strategy centered on its using the demilitarized Rhineland as a
hostage. Yet the Maginot Line indicated that France intended to stay on
the defensive inside its own borders, thereby liberating Germany to work
its will in the East. French political and military strategies were no longer
in step.
Confused leaders have a tendency to substitute public relations maneu-
vers for a sense of direction. Driven by the desire to be perceived as
doing something, Briand used the occasion of the tenth anniversary of
America’s entry into the war to submit in June 1927 a draft treaty to
Washington according to which the two governments would renounce
war in their relations with each other and agree to settle all their disputes
by peaceful means. The American Secretary of State, Frank B. Kellogg, did
not quite know how to respond to a document which renounced what
no one feared and offered what everyone took for granted. The approach
of the election year of 1928 helped to clear Kellogg’s mind; “peace” was
popular, and Briand’s draft had the advantage of not involving any practi-
cal consequence.
In early 1928, Secretary Kellogg ended his silence and accepted the
draft treaty. But he went Briand one better, proposing that the renuncia-
tion of war include as many other nations as possible. The offer proved
as irresistible as it was meaningless. On August 27, 1928, the Pact of Paris
(popularly known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact), renouncing war as an
instrument of national policy, was signed with great fanfare by -fifteen
nations. It was quickly ratified by practically all the countries of the world,
Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished
including Germany Japan, and Italy, the nations whose aggressions would
blight the next decade.
No sooner was the Pact signed than second thoughts began to seize the
world’s statesmen. France qualified its original proposal by inserting a
clause legalizing wars of self-defense and wars to honor obligations aris-
ing out of the League Covenant, the Locarno guarantees, and all of
France’s alliances. This brought matters back to their starting point, for
the exceptions encompassed every conceivable practical case. Next, Great
Britain insisted on freedom of action in order to defend its empire.
America’s reservations were the most sweeping of all; it invoked the
Monroe Doctrine, the right of self-defense, and the stipulation that each
nation be its own judge of the requirements of self-defense. Retaining
every possible loophole, the United States rejected participation in any
enforcement action as well.
In testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a few
months later, Kellogg presented the extraordinary theory that the United
States had no obligation under the Pact to help victims of aggression,
since such aggression would already have proved that the Pact had been
abrogated. “Supposing some other nation does break this treaty; why
should we interest ourselves in it?” asked Senator Walsh from Montana.
“There is not a bit of reason,” replied the Secretary of State. 16
Kellogg had reduced the treaty to the tautology that the Pact of Paris
would preserve the peace as long as the peace was being preserved. War
was banned in all circumstances except those which were foreseeable.
No wonder that D. W. Brogan had this to say about the Kellogg-Briand
Pact: “The United States, which had abolished the evils of drink by the
Eighteenth Amendment, invited the world to abolish war by taking the
pledge. The world, not quite daring to believe or doubt, obeyed.” 17
In the event, Briand’s original idea was transformed by his erstwhile
allies into a new means of putting pressure on France. Henceforth it
was widely argued that, with war outlawed, France had an obligation to
accelerate its own disarmament. To symbolize the era of goodwill, the
Allies ended the occupation of the Rhineland in 1928, five years ahead of
Concurrently, Austen Chamberlain let it be known that, as far as Great
Britain was concerned, the Polish border with Germany could, and in-
deed should, be modified, if only the Germans were civilized about it:
If she [Germany] comes into the League and plays her part there in a
friendly and conciliatory spirit I myself believe that within a reasonable
number of years she will find herself in a position where her economic
and commercial support is so necessary and her political friendship so
desirable to Poland that, without having recourse to the League machin-
ery, she will be able to make a friendly arrangement on her own
account directly with the Poles If the German public and press
could be restrained from talking so much about the eastern frontiers,
they might get more quickly to a solution. 18
Stresemann skillfully used Germany’s entry into the League both to in-
crease his options toward the Soviet Union and to intensify German
pressure on France for parity in armaments. For example, Stresemann
asked for and was granted an exemption permitting German participation
in the enforcement provisions of the League Charter (Article 16) on the
ground that a disarmed Germany was in no position to face the risks of
sanctions. Next, in Bismarckian fashion, Stresemann notified Moscow that
his request for the exemption had been due to Germany’s reluctance to
join any anti-Soviet coalition.
Moscow took the hint. Within a year of Locarno, in April 1926, a treaty
of neutrality between the Soviet Union and Germany was signed in Berlin.
Each party agreed to remain neutral if the other was attacked; each agreed
not to join any political combination or economic boycott aimed at the
other — presumably regardless of the issue. In effect, this meant that the
two countries excluded themselves from the application of collective
security against each other. And Germany had already exempted itself
from sanctions against anyone else. Berlin and Moscow were united in
hostility to Poland, as German Chancellor Wirth told his Ambassador to
Moscow, Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau: “One thing I tell you frankly;
Poland must be eliminated. ... I do not conclude any treaty which might
strengthen Poland.” 19
Nevertheless, French leaders, especially Briand, concluded that the ful-
fillment policy remained Frances only realistic option. If France’s worst
fears came to pass and Germany resumed a bellicose policy, the hope of
eventually gaining British support and maintaining America’s goodwill
would surely be jeopardized if France could be blamed for having
wrecked conciliation.
Gradually, Europe’s center of gravity shifted to Berlin. Amazingly, at
least in retrospect, Stresemann’s domestic position was disintegrating all
this time. The prevailing nationalist attitude could be seen in the reaction
to the so-called Young Plan, which the Allies had proposed when the five-
year term for the Dawes Plan ran out in 1929. The Young Plan reduced
German reparations even further and established a terminal, albeit dis-
tant, date for them. In 1924, the Dawes Plan had been adopted with the
Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished
support of German conservatives; in 1929, the Young Plan, which offered
considerably better terms, came under violent attack from German con-
servatives who were backed by the surging Nazi Party and by the commu-
nists. It was finally approved in the Reichstag by just twenty votes.
For a few years, the purported spirit of Locarno had signified the aspira-
tion toward goodwill among the former adversaries of the First World
War. But in German, the word “spirit” is also a synonym for “ghost,” and
by the end of the decade it was becoming fashionable in nationalistic
circles to joke about the “ghost” of Locarno. This cynical attitude toward
the centerpiece of the Versailles international order existed even in the
halcyon days of German economic recovery, before the Depression had
radicalized German politics beyond repair.
Stresemann died on October 3, 1929. He proved irreplaceable because
Germany had no other leader of comparable talent or subtlety and, above
all, because the rehabilitation of Germany and the pacification of Europe
had in such large part been due to the confidence the Western powers
had placed in his personality. For quite a long time, the prevailing view
was that Stresemann had embodied all the qualities of the “good Euro-
pean.” In this sense, he was treated as a precursor of the great Konrad
Adenauer, who recognized that France and Germany in fact shared a
common destiny across the gulf of their historic rivalries.
Yet, when Stresemann ’s papers became available, they seemed to con-
tradict the benign estimation of him. They revealed a calculating prac-
titioner of Realpolitik who pursued the traditional German national
interest with ruthless persistence. For Stresemann, these interests were
straightforward: to restore Germany to its pre-1914 stature, to dispose of
the financial burdens of reparations, to attain military parity with France
and Great Britain, to revise Germany’s Eastern border, and to achieve
the union ( Anschluss ) of Austria and Germany. Edgar Stern-Rubarth, a
Stresemann aide, described his chief s objectives as follows:
Stresemann’s ultimate hope, as he once confessed to me, was: To free
the Rhineland, to recover Eupen-Malmedy, and the Saar, to perfect
Austria’s Anschluss, and to have, under mandate or otherwise an African
colony where essential tropical raw materials could be secured and an
outlet created for the surplus energy of the younger generation. 20
Stresemann was therefore clearly not a “good European” in the post-
World War II sense of the phrase, a criterion which did not yet exist,
however. Most Western statesmen shared Stresemann’s view that Ver-
sailles required revision, especially in the East, and that Locarno was but
a stage in this process. For France, of course, it was unbearably painful to
have to deal with a resurgent Germany after a war in which it had ex-
pended its very substance. Yet this was also an accurate reflection of the
new distribution of power. Stresemann understood that, even within the
limits of Versailles, Germany was potentially the strongest nation in Eu-
rope. He drew from this assessment the Realpolitik conclusion that he
had before him an opportunity to rebuild Germany to at least its pre-
1914 level and probably beyond.
Unlike his nationalist critics, however — and quite contrary to the Nazis
— Stresemann relied on patience, compromise, and the blessing of Euro-
pean consensus to achieve his goals. Mental agility allowed him to trade
paper concessions — especially on the sensitive and symbolic issue of
reparations — for an end to the military occupation of Germany and for
the prospect of long-term changes which could not fail to place his coun-
try in an increasingly pivotal position. Unlike the German nationalists,
however, he saw no need for a violent revision of Versailles.
Stresemann’s opportunity to pursue his policy was inherent in Ger-
many’s resources and potential. The war had not crippled Germany’s
power, and Versailles had enhanced its geopolitical position. Not even a
vastly more catastrophic defeat in World War II would succeed in elimi-
nating Germany’s influence in Europe. Rather than seeing Stresemann as
a precursor of the Nazi assault on Western values, it would be more
accurate to view Nazi excesses as an interruption of Stresemann’s gradual
and almost certainly peaceful progression to achieving a decisive role for
his country in Europe.
Over time, tactic for Stresemann might well have turned into strategy,
and expedient into conviction. In our own period, the original motive
for President Sadat’s rapprochement with Israel was almost certainly to
undermine the West’s image of Arab bellicosity and to place Israel on the
psychological defensive. Like Stresemann, Sadat tried to drive a wedge
between his adversary and its friends. By fulfilling reasonable Israeli de-
mands, he hoped to weaken its ultimate refusal to return Arab, and espe-
cially Egyptian, land. But as time went on, Sadat actually turned into the
apostle of peace and the healer of international rifts, which at first may
well have been a pose. In time, the pursuit of peace and conciliation
ceased to be for Sadat tools of the national interest and turned into values
in and of themselves. Was Stresemann heading along a similar path? His
premature death has left us with that possibility as one of history’s un-
solved riddles.
At the time of Stresemann’s death, the reparations issue was on the
way to being resolved, and Germany’s western border had been settled.
Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished
Germany remained revisionist with respect to its eastern borders and to
the disarmament provisions of the Versailles Treaty. The attempt to pres-
sure Germany by occupying its territory had failed, and the modified
collective security approach of Locarno had not stilled German claims for
parity. The statesmen of Europe now took refuge in an all-out commit-
ment to disarmament as their best hope for peace.
The notion that Germany was entitled to parity had by now become
fixed in the British mind. As early as in his first term in office, in 1924,
Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had proclaimed disarmament
as his top priority. In his second term, starting in 1929, he stopped con-
struction of a naval base in Singapore and the building of new cruisers
and submarines. In 1932, his government announced a moratorium on
airplane construction. MacDonald’s principal adviser on the subject,
Philip Noel-Baker, declared that only disarmament could prevent another
The basic inconsistency between parity for Germany and security for
France remained unresolved, however, perhaps because it was irresolu-
ble. In 1932, a year before Hitler came to power, French Prime Minister
Edouard Herriot predicted: “I have no illusions. I am convinced that
Germany wishes to rearm — We are at a turning point in history. Until
now Germany has practised a policy of submission. . . . [N]ow she is begin-
ning a positive policy. Tomorrow it will be a policy of territorial de-
mands.” 21 The most remarkable aspect of this statement was its passive,
resigned tone. Herriot said nothing about the French army, which was
still the largest in Europe; about the Rhineland, demilitarized under Lo-
carno; about a still-disarmed Germany; or about French responsibility for
the security of Eastern Europe. Unwilling to fight for its convictions,
France now simply awaited its fate.
Great Britain saw matters on the Continent from a quite different per-
spective. Wanting to conciliate Germany, it relentlessly pressed France to
accede to German parity in armaments. Disarmament experts are notori-
ously ingenious in coming up with schemes which meet the formal aspect
of security issues without addressing the substance. Thus, the British
experts devised a proposal granting Germany parity but without allowing
conscription, thereby theoretically putting a premium on France’s larger
pool of trained reserves (as if Germany, having come this far, could not
find a means to evade this last, relatively minor, restriction).
In that same fateful year before Hitler’s rise to power, the democratic
German government felt confident enough to walk out of the Disarma-
ment Conference in protest against what it called French discrimination.
It was wooed back with the promise of “[ejquality of rights in a system
which would provide security for all nations,” 22 a weaseling phrase im-
plying the theoretical right to parity with “security” provisions which
made it too difficult to achieve. The public mood had gone beyond such
subtleties. The New Statesman, an organ of the British Labour Party,
greeted the formula as “the unqualified recognition of the principle of
the equality of states.” At the other end of the British political spectrum,
the Times spoke approvingly of “the timely redress of inequality.” 23
The formula of “equality [within] a system [of] security” was, however,
a contradiction in terms. France was no longer strong enough to defend
itself against Germany, and Great Britain continued to refuse the military
alliance with France that could have established a crude approximation
of geopolitical equality (though, based on the experience of the war, even
that was questionable). While insisting on defining equality in the purely
formalistic terms of ending the discriminatory treatment of Germany,
England remained silent about the impact of such equality on the Euro-
pean equilibrium. In 1932, an exasperated Prime Minister MacDonald
told French Foreign Minister Paul-Boncour: “French demands always cre-
ated the difficulty that they required of Great Britain that she should
assume further obligations, and this at the moment could not be contem-
plated.” 24 This demoralizing impasse continued until Hitler walked out
of disarmament negotiations in October 1933.
After a decade in which diplomacy had focused on Europe, it was —
unexpectedly — Japan which demonstrated the hollowness of collective
security and of the League itself, ushering in a decade of mounting vio-
lence in the 1930s.
In 1931, Japanese forces occupied Manchuria, which legally was a part
of China, although the authority of the Chinese central government had
not operated there for many years. Intervention on such a scale had not
been attempted since the founding of the League. But the League had no
enforcement machinery for even the economic sanctions contemplated
in its article 16. In its hesitations, the League exemplified the basic di-
lemma of collective security: no country was prepared to fight a war
against Japan (or was in a position to do so without American participa-
tion, since the Japanese navy dominated Asian waters). Even if the machin-
ery for economic sanctions had existed, no country was willing to curtail
trade with Japan in the midst of the Depression; on the other hand, no
country was willing to accept the occupation of Manchuria. None of the
League members knew how to overcome these self-inflicted contradic-
Finally, a mechanism was devised for doing nothing at all. It .took the
form of a fact-finding mission — the standard device for diplomats signal-
Stresemann and the Re-emergence of the Vanquished
ing that inaction is the desired outcome. Such commissions take time to
assemble, to undertake studies, and to reach a consensus — by which
point, with luck, the problem might even have gone away. Japan felt so
confident of this pattern that it took the lead in recommending such a
study. What came to be known as the Lytton Commission reported that
Japan had justified grievances but had erred by not first exhausting all
peaceful means of redress. This mildest of rebukes for occupying a terri-
tory larger than itself proved too much for Japan, which responded by
withdrawing from the League of Nations. It was the first step toward the
unraveling of the entire institution.
In Europe, the whole incident was treated as a kind of aberration
peculiar to distant continents. Disarmament talks continued as if there
were no Manchurian crisis, turning the debate over security versus parity
into a largely ceremonial act. Then, on January 30, 1933, Hitler came to
power in Germany and demonstrated that the Versailles system had in-
deed been a house of cards.
The End of Illusion:
Hider and the
Destruction of Versailles
Hitler 's advent to power marked one of the greatest calamities in the
history of the world. But for him, the collapse of the house of cards which
represented the Versailles international order might have proceeded in a
peaceful, or at least noncatastrophic, fashion. That Germany would
emerge from that process as the strongest nation on the Continent was
inevitable; the orgy of killing and devastation that it unleashed was the
work of one demonic personality.
Hitler attained eminence through his oratory. Unlike other revolution-
The End of Illusion
ary leaders, he was a solitary political adventurer representing no major
school of political thought. His philosophy, as expressed in Mein Kampf,
ranged from the banal to the fantastic and consisted of a popularized
repackaging of right-wing, radical, conventional wisdom. Standing alone,
it could never have launched an intellectual current that culminated in
revolution, as had Marx’s Das Kapital or the works of the philosophers of
the eighteenth century.
Demagogic skill catapulted Hitler to the leadership of Germany and
remained his stock in trade throughout his career. With the instincts of
an outcast and an unerring eye for psychological weaknesses, he shunted
his adversaries from disadvantage to disadvantage, until they were thor-
oughly demoralized and ready to acquiesce to his domination. Interna-
tionally, he ruthlessly exploited the democracies’ guilty conscience about
the Treaty of Versailles.
As the head of government, Hitler operated by instinct rather than
analysis. Fancying himself an artist, he resisted sedentary habits and was
constantly and restlessly on the move. He disliked Berlin and found so-
lace in his Bavarian retreat, to which he would repair for months at a
time, though he quickly grew bored even there. Since he disdained or-
derly work procedures and his ministers found it difficult to gain access
to him, policymaking occurred in fits and starts. Anything consistent with
his flashes of frenetic activity thrived; anything requiring sustained effort
tended to languish.
The essence of demagoguery resides in the ability to distill emotion
and frustration into a single moment. Gratifying that moment and achiev-
ing a mesmeric, nearly sensual relationship with his entourage and the
public at large became Hitler’s specialties. Abroad, Hitler was most suc-
cessful when the world perceived him as pursuing normal, limited objec-
tives. All his great foreign policy triumphs occurred in the first five years
of his rule, 1933-38, and were based on his victims’ assumption that
his aim was to reconcile the Versailles system with its purported prin-
Once Hitler abandoned the pretense of rectifying injustice, his credibil-
ity vanished. Embarking on naked conquest for its own sake made him
lose his touch. There were still occasional flashes of intuition, as in his
design of the campaign against France in 1940 and in his refusal to permit
a retreat in front of Moscow in 1941, which would almost certainly have
caused a collapse of the German army. However, Hitler’s seminal experi-
ence seems to have been Germany’s defeat in World War I. He never
ceased to recount how he first learned of it while bedridden in a military
hospital, partially blinded by mustard gas. Ascribing Germany’s collapse
to treachery, a Jewish conspiracy, and lack of will, he would for the rest
of his life insist that Germany could be defeated only by itself, not by
foreigners. This line of thinking transmuted the defeat of 1918 into trea- .
son, while the failure on the part of Germany’s leaders to fight to the
end became a staple of Hitler’s obsessive rhetoric and mind-numbing
Hitler always seemed strangely unfulfilled by his victories; in the end,
he only seemed able to realize his image of himself by overcoming
imminent collapse through sheer willpower. Psychologists may find
therein one explanation for his conducting the war in a manner that
seemed to lack a strategic or political rationale until Germany’s resources
had been squandered and Hitler could finally, and still unyieldingly, fulfill
himself by defying the world in a bomb shelter in the encircled capital of
his almost completely occupied country.
Demagogic skill and egomania were two sides of the same coin.
Hitler was incapable of normal conversation, and either engaged in long
monologues or lapsed into bored silences when some interlocutor
managed to seize the floor — and at times even dozed off. 1 Hitler was
wont to ascribe his, in truth, nearly miraculous rise from Vienna’s
netherworld to unchallenged rule over Germany to personal qualities
unrivaled by any contemporary. Thus, a recital of his rise to power
entered the deadening liturgy of Hitler’s “table talks” as transcribed by
his disciples. 2
Hitler’s egomania had deadlier consequences as well; he had con-
vinced himself — and, what is more significant, his entourage — that, be-
cause his faculties were so unique, all his goals had to be accomplished
in his own lifetime. Since, on the basis of his family history, he had
estimated that his life would be relatively short, he was never able to
permit any of his successes to mature, and pushed forward according to
a timetable established by his assessment of his physical powers. History
offers no other example of a major war being started on the basis of
medical conjecture.
When all was said and done, Hitler’s startling early successes amounted
to an accelerated harvesting of opportunities which had been created by
the policies of the predecessors he despised, especially Stresemann. Like
the Peace of Westphalia, the Treaty of Versailles left a powerful country
confronting a group of much smaller and unprotected states on its eastern
border. The difference, however, was that while this had been intentional
at Westphalia, quite the opposite was true of Versailles. Versailles and
Locarno had smoothed Germany’s road into Eastern Europe, where a
patient German leadership would in time have achieved a preponderant
The End of Illusion
position by peaceful means, or perhaps even have had it handed to it by
the West. But Hitler’s reckless megalomania turned what could have been
a peaceful evolution into a world war.
At first, Hitler’s true nature was obscured by his seeming ordinariness.
Neither the German nor the Western European establishment believed
that he really meant to overturn the existing order, even though he an-
nounced his intentions to that effect often enough. Tired of harassment by
the ever-growing Nazi Party, demoralized by the Depression and political
chaos, a conservative German leadership appointed Hitler as Chancellor,
and tried to reassure itself by surrounding him with respectable conserva-
tives (there were only three Nazi Party members in Hitler’s first Cabinet
of January 30, 1933). Hitler, however, had not come all that long way to
be contained by parliamentary maneuvers. With a few brusque strokes
(and on June 30, 1934, a purge assassinating a number of rivals and
opponents), he made himself dictator of Germany within eighteen
months of taking office.
The Western democracies’ initial reaction to Hitler’s ascendancy was to
accelerate their commitment to disarmament. Germany’s government
was now headed by a chancellor who had proclaimed his intention to
overthrow the Versailles settlement, to rearm, and then to engage in a
policy of expansion. Even so, the democracies saw no need for taking
special precautions. If anything, Hitler’s accession to power strengthened
Great Britain’s determination to pursue disarmament. Some British diplo-
mats even thought that Hitler represented a better hope for peace than
the less stable governments which had preceded him. “[Hitler’s] signature
would bind all Germany like no other German’s in all her past,” 3 British
Ambassador Phipps wrote exuberantly to the Foreign Office. A British
guarantee for France was unnecessary, according to Ramsay MacDonald,
because, if Germany broke a disarmament agreement, “the strength of
world opposition to her cannot be exaggerated.” 4
France, of course, was not reassured by such soothing pronounce-
ments. Its chief problem still remained how to find security if Germany
rearmed and Great Britain refused a guarantee. If world public opinion
were really all that decisive in dealing with violators, why should Great
Britain be so reluctant to give a guarantee? Because “public opinion in
England would not support it,” replied Sir John Simon, the Foreign Secre-
tary, thus making explicit France’s nightmare that Great Britain could not
be relied on to defend what it would not guarantee. 5 But why would the
British public not support a guarantee? Because it did not consider such
an attack likely, replied Stanley Baldwin, head of the Conservative Party
and in all but name leader of the British government:
If it could be proved that Germany was rearming, then a new situation
would immediately arise, which Europe would have to face — If that
situation arose, His Majesty’s Government would have to consider it
very seriously, but that situation had not yet arisen. 6
The argument was endlessly circular and endlessly contradictory: a guar-
antee was both too risky and unnecessary; after achieving parity, Germany
would be satisfied. Yet a guarantee of what Germany presumably was not
challenging would be too dangerous even though the condemnation of
world opinion would stop a violator in its tracks. Finally, Hitler himself
put an end to the evasions and the hypocrisy. On October 14, 1933,
Germany left the Disarmament Conference forever — not because Hitler
had been rebuffed but because he was afraid that German demands
for parity might be met, thereby thwarting his desires for unrestricted
rearmament. A week later, Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations.
In early 1934, he announced German rearmament. In separating itself
from the world community in this way, Germany did not suffer any visible
Hitler had clearly laid down a challenge, yet the democracies were
uncertain as to what it really meant. By rearming, was Hitler not in fact
implementing what most members of the League had already conceded
in principle? Why react before Hitler had in fact committed some defin-
able act of aggression? After all, was that not what collective security was
all about? In this manner, the leaders of the Western democracies avoided
the pain of being obliged to make ambiguous choices. It was much easier
to wait for some clear demonstration of Hitler s bad faith because, in its
absence, public backing for strong measures could not be relied on — or
so the leaders of the democracies thought. Hitler, of course, had every
incentive to obscure his true intentions until it was too late for the West-
ern democracies to mount effective resistance. In any event, the demo-
cratic statesmen of the interwar period feared war more than they feared
a weakening of the balance of power. Security, argued Ramsay MacDon-
ald, must be sought “not by military but by moral means.”
Hitler skillfully exploited such attitudes by periodically launching
peace offensives that were deftly geared to the illusions of his potential
victims. When he withdrew from the disarmament talks, he offered to
limit the German army to 300,000 men and the German air force to half
the size of that of France. The offer diverted attention from the fact that
Germany had scrapped the limit of 100,000 established at Versailles while
seemingly agreeing to new ceilings that could not be reached for several
years — at which point those limits, too, would no doubt be jettisoned.
The End of Illusion
France refused the offer, declaring it would look after its own security.
The haughtiness of the French reply could not obscure the reality that
France’s nightmare — military parity with Germany (or worse) — was now
upon it. Great Britain drew the conclusion that disarmament had become
more important than ever. The Cabinet announced: “Our policy is still to
seek by international cooperation the limitation and reduction of world
armaments, as our obligations under the Covenant and as the only means
to prevent a race in armaments.” 7 Indeed, the Cabinet reached the ex-
traordinary decision that the best option was to bargain from what, by its
own estimate, was turning into a position of weakness. On November 29,
1933 — six weeks after Hitler had ordered the German delegation to leave
the Disarmament Conference — Baldwin told the Cabinet:
If we had no hope of achieving any limitation of armaments we should
have every right to feel disquietude as to the situation not only so far as
concerns the Air Force, but also the Army and Navy. [Britain was] using
every possible effort to bring about a scheme of disarmament which
would include Germany . 8
Since Germany was rearming and the state of British defenses was, in
Baldwin’s own words, disquieting, a greater British defense effort might
indeed have seemed to be in order. Yet Baldwin took exactly the opposite
approach. He continued a freeze in the production of military aircraft,
which had been instituted in 1932. The gesture was intended “as a further
earnest of His Majesty’s Government’s desire to promote the work of
the Disarmament Conference.” 9 Baldwin failed to explain what incentive
Hitler would have to negotiate disarmament as long as Great Britain was
engaging in unilateral disarmament. (A more charitable explanation for
Baldwin’s actions is that Great Britain was developing new models of
aircraft; having nothing to produce until these were ready, Baldwin was
making a virtue out of a necessity.)
As for France, it took refuge in wishful thinking. The British Ambassa-
dor to Paris reported: “France has, in fact, fallen back on a policy of
extreme caution, she is opposed to any forceful measures which would
savour of military adventure.” 10 A report to Edouard Daladier, then Minis-
ter of War, shows that even France had begun to lean toward League
orthodoxy. The French military attache in Berlin proclaimed disarma-
ment as the most effective way of containing Hitler, having convinced
himself that more dangerous fanatics than Hitler were lurking in the
It seems that there is no other way for us than to reach an understand-
ing which will contain ... at least for a while, Germany’s military devel-
{ %
opment If Hitler is sincere in proclaiming his desire for peace, we
will be able to congratulate ourselves on having reached agreement; if
he has other designs or if he has to give way one day to some fanatic
we will at least have postponed the outbreak of a war and that is indeed
a gain. 11
Great Britain and France opted to let German rearmament unfold be-
cause, quite literally, they did not know what else to do. Great Britain was
not yet prepared to give up on collective security and the League, and
France had become so dispirited that it could not bring itself to act on its
premonitions: France dared not act alone, and Great Britain refused to
act in concert.
In retrospect, it is easy to ridicule the fatuousness of the assessment of
Hitlers motives by his contemporaries. But his ambitions, not to mention
his criminality, were not all that apparent at the outset. In his first two
years in office, Hitler was primarily concerned with solidifying his rule.
But in the eyes of many British and French leaders, Hitlers truculent
foreign policy style was more than counterbalanced by his staunch anti-
communism, and by his restoration of the German economy.
Statesmen always face the dilemma that, when their scope for action is
greatest, they have a minimum of knowledge. By the time they have
garnered sufficient knowledge, the scope for decisive action is likely to
have vanished. In the 1930s, British leaders were too unsure about Hit-
ler’s objectives and French leaders too unsure about themselves to act on
the basis of assessments which they could not prove. The tuition fee for
learning about Hitler’s true nature was tens of millions of graves stretch-
ing from one end of Europe to the other. On the other hand, had the
democracies forced a showdown with Hitler early in his rule, historians
would still be arguing about whether Hitler had been a misunderstood
nationalist or a maniac bent on world domination.
The West’s obsession with Hitler’s motives was, of course, misguided
in the first place. The tenets of the balance of power should have made it
clear that a large and strong Germany bordered on the east by small and
weak states was a dangerous threat. Realpolitik teaches that, regardless of
Hitler’s motives, Germany’s relations with its neighbors would be deter-
mined by their relative power. The West should have spent less time
assessing Hitler’s motives and more time counterbalancing Germany’s
growing strength.
No one has stated the result of the Western Allies’ hesitancy to confront
Hitler better than Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s diabolical propaganda chief.
In April 1940, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Norway, he told a secret
The End of Illusion
Up to now we have succeeded in leaving the enemy in the dark con-
cerning Germany’s real goals, just as before 1932 our domestic foes
never saw where we were going or that our oath of legality was just a
trick They could have suppressed us. They could have arrested a
couple of us in 1925 and that would have been that, the end. No, they
let us through the danger zone. That’s exactly how it was in foreign
policy too In 1933 a French premier ought to have said (and if I had
been the French premier I would have said it): “The new Reich Chan-
cellor is the man who wrote Mein Kampf, which says this and that. This
man cannot be tolerated in our vicinity. Either he disappears or we
march!” But they didn’t do it. They left us alone and let us slip through
the risky zone, and we were able to sail around all dangerous reefs.
And when we were done, and well armed ' better than they, then they
started the war! [Italics in original.] 12
The leaders of the democracies refused to face the fact that, once Ger-
many attained a given level of armaments, Hitler’s real intentions would
become irrelevant. The rapid growth of German military strength was
bound to overturn the equilibrium unless it was either stopped or bal-
This in fact was Churchill’s lonely message. But in the 1930s, the lead
time for recognizing prophets was still quite long. So the British leaders,
in a rare show of unanimity extending across the entire political spec-
trum, rejected Churchill’s warnings. Starting from the premise that disar-
mament, not preparedness, was the key to peace, they treated Hitler as a
psychological problem, not a strategic danger.
When, in 1934, Churchill urged that Great Britain respond to German
rearmament by a buildup in the Royal Air Force, government and opposi-
tion leaders united in scorn. Herbert Samuel spoke on behalf of the
Liberal Party: “It would seem as if he were engaged not in giving sound,
sane advice . . . but ... in a reckless game of bridge. ... All these formulas
are dangerous.” 13 Sir Stafford Cripps put forward the Labour Party’s case
with supercilious sarcasm:
One could picture him as some old baron in the Middle Ages who is
laughing at the idea of the possibility of disarmament in the baronies
of this country and pointing out that the only way in which he and his
feudal followers could maintain their safety and their cows was by
having as strong an armament as possible. 14
Conservative Prime Minister Baldwin made the rejection of Churchill
unanimous when he informed the House of Commons that he had not
“given up hope either for the limitation or for the restriction of some
kind of arms.” According to Baldwin, accurate information about German
air strength was “extraordinarily difficult” to obtain — though he did not
reveal why this should be so. 15 Nevertheless, he was confident that “[i]t is
not the case that Germany is rapidly approaching equality with us.” 16
Baldwin felt “no ground at this moment for undue alarm and still less for
panic.” Chiding Churchill’s figures as “exaggerated,” he stressed that
“there is no immediate menace confronting us or anyone in Europe at
this moment — no actual emergency.” 17
France sought shelter behind an accumulation of halfhearted alliances
by transforming the unilateral guarantees of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and
Romania of the 1920s into mutual defense treaties. It meant that those
countries would now be obliged to come to France’s assistance even if
Germany chose to settle scores with France before turning east.
It was an empty, indeed a pathetic, gesture. The alliances were logical
enough as French guarantees for the weak new states of Eastern Europe.
But they were not suited for serving as the sort of mutual assistance
treaties which would confront Germany with the risk of a two-front war.
They were too weak to rein in Germany in the East; offensive operations
against Germany to relieve France were out of the question. Underscor-
ing the irrelevance of these pacts, Poland balanced its commitments to
France with a nonaggression treaty with Germany so that, in case of an
attack on France, Poland’s formal obligations would cancel each other out
— or, more precisely, they would leave Poland free to choose that align-
ment which promised it the greatest benefit at the moment of crisis.
A new Franco-Soviet agreement signed in 1935 demonstrated the mag-
nitude of France’s psychological and political demoralization. Before
World War I, France had eagerly sought a political alliance with Russia
and did not rest until that political understanding had been turned into a
military pact. In 1935, France’s position was strategically far weaker and
its need for Soviet military support nearly desperate. Nevertheless, France
grudgingly concluded a political alliance with the Soviet Union while
adamantly rejecting military staff talks. As late as 1937, France would not
permit Soviet observers to attend its annual maneuvers.
There were three reasons for the aloof behavior of French leaders,
all of which surely magnified Stalin’s congenital distrust of the Western
democracies. The first was their fear that too close an association with the
Soviet Union would weaken France’s indispensable ties to Great Britain.
Second, France’s Eastern European allies, situated between the Soviet
Union and Germany, were not prepared to permit Soviet troops to enter
their territory, rendering it difficult to find a subject for meaningful Fran-
co-Soviet staff talks. Finally, as early as 1938, French leaders felt so intimi-
The End of Illusion
dated by Germany that they feared staff talks with the Soviet Union might,
in the words of then Prime Minister Chautemps, “produce a declaration
of war by Germany.” 18
France thus ended up in a military alliance with countries too weak to
help it, a political alliance with the Soviet Union with which it dared not
cooperate militarily, and strategic dependence on Great Britain, which
flatly refused to consider any military commitment. This arrangement
was a prescription for a nervous breakdown, not a grand strategy.
The only serious moves France made in response to growing German
strength were in the direction of Italy. Mussolini was not exactly a devotee
of collective security but he had a clear sense of Italy’s limitations, espe-
cially where Germany was concerned. He feared that German annexation
of Austria would lead to a demand for the return of the South Tirol, which
was ethnically German. In January 1935, then Foreign Minister Pierre
Laval concluded what came close to being a military alliance. Agreeing to
consult each other in the event of any threat to the independence of
Austria, Italy and France initiated military-staff talks in which they went so
far as to discuss stationing Italian troops along the Rhine and French
troops along the Austrian frontier.
Three months later, after Hitler had reintroduced conscription, an ap-
proximation of an alliance among Great Britain, France, and Italy seemed
to be developing. Their heads of government met in the Italian resort of
Stresa, where they agreed to resist any German attempt to change the
Versailles Treaty by force. It was a minor historical irony that Mussolini
should have hosted a conference to defend the Versailles settlement since
he had long been a critic of Versailles, arguing that the treaty had short-
changed Italy.
Stresa was to be the last time that the victors of the First World War
considered joint action. Two months after the conference, Great Britain
signed a naval accord with Germany, which showed that, where its
own security was concerned, Great Britain preferred to rely on bilateral
deals with the adversary rather than on its Stresa partners. Germany
agreed to limit its fleet to thirty-five percent of Great Britain’s for the next
ten years, though it was granted the right to an equal number of sub-
The terms of the Naval Treaty were less significant than what they
revealed about the state of mind of the democracies. The British Cabinet
surely realized that the naval agreement in effect acquiesced to the Ger-
man abrogation of the naval provisions of the Versailles Treaty and
thereby, at a minimum, went against the spirit of the Stresa front. Its
practical effect was to establish new ceilings on a bilateral basis — ceilings,
moreover, at the outer limit of Germany’s capacity to build — a method
of arms control that was to become increasingly popular during the Cold
War. The naval agreement also signified that Great Britain preferred to
conciliate the adversary rather than rely on its partners in the Stresa front
— the psychological framework for what later came to be known as the
policy of appeasement.
Soon thereafter, the Stresa front collapsed altogether. An adherent of
Realpolitik, Mussolini took it for granted that he had a free hand for the
kind of colonial expansion that had been routine prior to World War I.
Consequently, he set about carving out an African empire in 1935 by
conquering Abyssinia, Africa’s last independent nation, and, in the pro-
cess, avenging an Italian humiliation by Abyssinian forces dating back to
the turn of the century.
But, whereas Mussolini’s aggression would have been accepted prior
to World War I, it was now being initiated in a world that was in thrall to
collective security and the League of Nations. Public opinion, especially
in Great Britain, had already castigated the League for “failing” to prevent
Japan’s conquest of Manchuria; in the interim, a mechanism for economic
sanctions had been put in place. By the time Italy invaded Abyssinia in
1935, the League had an official remedy for such aggression. Abyssinia
was, moreover, a member of the League of Nations, though only as the
result of a rather curious reversal of circumstances. In 1925, Italy had
sponsored Abyssinia’s admission to the League in order to check pre-
sumed British designs. Great Britain had acquiesced reluctantly, after
arguing that Abyssinia was too barbaric for full-fledged membership in
the international community.
Now both countries were hoist by their own petard: Italy, by engaging
in what had, by any standard, been unprovoked aggression against a
member of the League; Great Britain, because it faced a challenge to
collective security and not just another African colonial problem. To com-
plicate matters, Great Britain and France had already conceded at Stresa
that Abyssinia lay within Italy’s sphere of interest. Laval was to say later
that he had had in mind a role for Italy similar to that of France in
Morocco — that is, one of indirect control. But Mussolini could not be
expected to understand that France and Great Britain, having conceded
this much, would sacrifice a near-alliance against Germany over the dis-
tinction between annexation and indirect control over Abyssinia.
France and Great Britain never came to grips with the reality that they
faced two mutually exclusive options. If they concluded that Italy was
essential, to protecting Austria and, indirectly, perhaps even to helping
maintain the demilitarized Rhineland it had guaranteed at Locarno, they
would have needed to come up with some compromise to save Italy’s
The End of Illusion
face in Africa and to keep the Stresa front intact. Alternatively, if the
League was indeed the best instrument for both containing Germany and
for rallying the Western public against aggression, it was necessary to
pursue sanctions until it had been demonstrated that aggression did not
pay. There was no middle ground.
Yet the middle ground was exactly what the democracies, no longer
having the self-confidence to define their choices, sought. Under British
leadership, the League machinery of economic sanctions was activated. At
the same time, Laval privately assured Mussolini that Italy’s access to oil
would not be disrupted. Great Britain pursued essentially the same
course by politely inquiring in Rome whether oil sanctions would lead to
war. When Mussolini — both predictably and untruthfully — answered in
the affirmative, the British Cabinet had the alibi it needed to combine its
support for the League with an appeal to the widespread dread of war.
This policy came to be expressed in the slogan “all sanctions short of
Later, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was to say somewhat wistfully
that any sanctions that were likely to have worked would also have been
likely to lead to war. So much, at any rate, for the notion that economic
sanctions provide an alternative to force in resisting aggression — an argu-
ment that would be repeated some fifty years later in the United States
over the issue of how to deal with Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, albeit with
a happier outcome.
Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare understood that Great Britain had
derailed its own strategy. To resist the impending German threat, Great
Britain’s leaders should have confronted Hitler and conciliated Mussolini.
They did just the opposite: they appeased Germany and confronted Italy.
Grasping the absurdity of this state of affairs, Hoare and Laval devised a
compromise in December 1935: Italy would receive Abyssinia’s fertile
plains; Haile Selassie would continue to rule in the mountain fastness
which was the historical site of his kingdom; Great Britain would contrib-
ute to these compromises by giving landlocked Abyssinia access to the
sea via British Somalia. Mussolini was fully expected to accept the plan,
and Hoare was to present it for League approval.
The Hoare-Laval plan came to naught because it was leaked to the press
before it could be placed before the League of Nations — an extraordi-
narily rare event in those days. The resulting cry of outrage forced Hoare
to resign — the victim of seeking a practical compromise in the face of an
aroused public opinion. Anthony Eden, his successor, speedily returned
to the cocoon of collective security and economic sanctions — without,
however, being willing to resort to force.
In a pattern that would be repeated in successive crises, the democra-
cies justified their aversion to using force by vastly overestimating the
military prowess of the adversary. London convinced itself that it could
not handle the Italian fleet without French assistance. France went along
halfheartedly and moved its fleet to the Mediterranean, further jeopardiz-
ing its relationship with Italy as a Locarno guarantor and a Stresa partner.
Even with this overwhelming accumulation of force, oil sanctions were
never invoked. And ordinary sanctions did not work rapidly enough to
prevent Abyssinia’s defeat — if indeed they could have worked at all.
Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia was completed by May 1936, when Musso-
lini proclaimed the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, as emperor of the
newly named Ethiopia. Less than two months later, on June 30, the Coun-
cil of the League of Nations met to consider the fait accompli. Haile
Selassie sounded the death knell of collective security in a forlorn per-
sonal appeal:
It is not merely a question of a settlement in the matter of Italian
aggression. It is a question of collective security; of the very existence
of the League; of the trust placed by States in international treaties; of
the value of promises made to small states that their integrity and their
independence shall be respected and assured. It is a choice between
the principle of equality of States and the imposition upon small Powers
of the bonds of vassalage. 19
On July 15, the League lifted all sanctions against Italy. Two years later, in
the wake of Munich, Great Britain and France subordinated their moral
objections to their fear of Germany by recognizing the Abyssinian con-
quest. Collective security had condemned Haile Selassie to losing all of
his country rather than the half he would have lost under the Realpolitik
of the Hoare-Laval plan.
In terms of military power, Italy was not remotely comparable to Great
Britain, France, or Germany. But the void created by the aloofness of
the Soviet Union turned Italy into a useful auxiliary in maintaining the
independence of Austria and, to a limited extent, of the demilitarized
Rhineland. As long as Great Britain and France had appeared to be the
strongest nations in Europe, Mussolini had supported the Versailles settle-
ment, especially since he profoundly distrusted Germany and at first
disdained Hitler’s personality. His resentment over Ethiopia, coupled
with his analysis of the actual power relationships, convinced Mussolini
that persistence in the Stresa front might end up compelling Italy to bear
the full brunt of German aggressiveness. Ethiopia therefore marked the
beginning of Italy’s inexorable march toward Germany, motivated in
equal parts by acquisitiveness and fear.
The End of Illusion
It was in Germany, however, that the Ethiopian fiasco left the most
lasting impression. The British Ambassador in Berlin reported: “Italy’s
victory opened a new chapter. It was unavoidable that in a land where
power is worshipped England’s prestige would sink.” 20 With Italy out of
the Stresa front, Germany’s sole remaining obstacle on the road to Austria
and Central Europe was the open door provided by the demilitarized
Rhineland. And Hitler wasted no time slamming it.
On the morning of Sunday, March 7, 1936, Hitler ordered his army into
the demilitarized Rhineland, marking the overthrow of the last remaining
safeguard of the Versailles settlement. According to the Versailles Treaty,
German military forces were barred from the Rhineland and a zone of
fifty kilometers to the east of it. Germany had confirmed this provision at
Locarno; the League of Nations had endorsed Locarno, and Great Britain,
France, Belgium, and Italy had guaranteed it.
If Hitler could prevail in the Rhineland, Eastern Europe would be at
Germany’s mercy. None of the new states of Eastern Europe stood a
chance of defending themselves against a revisionist Germany, either
through their own efforts or in combination with each other. Their only
hope was that France could deter German aggression by threatening to
march into the Rhineland.
Once again, the Western democracies were torn by uncertainty over
Hitler’s intentions. Technically, he was merely reoccupying German terri-
tory. Simultaneously, he was offering all sorts of reassurances, including
the offer of a nonaggression treaty with France. Once again, it was argued
that Germany would be satisfied as soon as it had been conceded the
right to defend its own national borders, something every other European
nation simply took for granted. Did British and French leaders have the
moral right to risk their peoples’ lives in order to maintain a so blatantly
discriminatory state of affairs? On the other hand, was it not their moral
duty to confront Hitler while Germany was not yet fully armed, and
thereby possibly save untold lives?
History has given the answer; contemporaries, however, were tor-
mented by doubt. For, in 1936, Hitler continued to benefit from his
unique combination of psychotic intuition and demonic willpower. The
democracies still believed that they were dealing with a normal, if some-
what excessive, national leader who was seeking to restore his country to
a position of equality in Europe. Great Britain and France were absorbed
in trying to read Hitler’s mind. Was he sincere? Did he really want peace?
To be sure, these were valid questions, but foreign policy builds on
quicksand when it disregards actual power relationships and relies on
prophesies of another’s intentions.
With his uncanny ability to exploit his adversaries’ weaknesses, Hitler
chose precisely the right moment to reoccupy the Rhineland. The League
of Nations, bogged down in sanctions against Italy, was far from eager to
take on a confrontation with another major power. The war in Abyssinia
had driven a wedge between the Western Powers and Italy, one of the
guarantors of Locarno. Great Britain, another guarantor, having just re-
coiled from imposing oil sanctions against Italy at sea, where it was domi-
nant, would surely be even less eager to risk ground warfare for a cause
which involved no violation of national boundaries.
Though no country had a bigger stake in a demilitarized Rhineland
than France, none was more ambivalent about resisting Germany’s viola-
tion of it. The Maginot Line bespoke France’s obsession with the strategic
defensive, and the military equipment and training of the French army
left little doubt that the First World War had quenched its traditional
offensive spirit. France seemed resigned to await its fate behind the Magi-
not Line and to risk nothing beyond its frontiers — not in Eastern Europe
or, for that matter, in the Rhineland.
Nevertheless, the reoccupation of the Rhineland represented a bold
gamble on Hitler’s part. Conscription had been in effect for less than a
year. The German army was far from ready for war. Indeed, the small
advance guard entering the demilitarized zone was ordered to conduct a
fighting retreat at the first signs of French intervention. Hitler, however,
compensated for his lack of military strength with ample psychological
daring. He flooded the democracies with proposals hinting at his willing-
ness to discuss troop limitations in the Rhineland and to bring Germany
back into the League of Nations. He appealed to widespread distrust of
the Soviet Union by claiming his move was a riposte to the Franco-Soviet
Pact of 1935. He offered a fifty-kilometer demilitarized zone on both sides
of the German frontier and a twenty-five-year nonaggression treaty. The
demilitarization proposal had the double virtue of hinting that permanent
peace was only the stroke of a pen away, while neatly demolishing the
Maginot Line, which backed up against the German frontier.
Hitler’s interlocutors did not require a great deal of encouragement to
adopt a passive stance. A convenient alibi here and there suited their
preference for doing nothing. Ever since Locarno, it had been a cardinal
principle of French policy never to risk war with Germany except in
alliance with Great Britain, though British assistance was technically un-
necessary so long as Germany remained disarmed. In the single-minded
pursuit of that goal, French leaders had swallowed countless frustrations
and supported many disarmament initiatives which, in their hearts, they
knew to be ill-conceived.
The End of Illusion
France’s overwhelming psychological dependence on Great Britain
may explain why it made no military preparations, not even when the
French Ambassador in Berlin, Andre Frangois-Poncet, warned on Novem-
ber 21, 1935, that a German move on the Rhineland was imminent — a
full three and a half months before it actually occurred. 2! Yet France dared
neither to mobilize nor to undertake precautionary military measures lest
it be accused of provoking what it feared. France also did not raise the
issue in negotiations with Germany because it did not know what to do if
Germany ignored its warnings or declared its intentions.
What is nearly inexplicable about France’s conduct in 1935, however,
is why the French general staff made no provisions whatsoever in its own
internal planning even after Frangois-Poncet’s warning. Did the French
general staff not believe its own diplomats? Was it because France could
not bring itself to leave the shelter of its fortifications even in defense of
the vital buffer zone represented by the demilitarized Rhineland? Or did
France already feel so utterly doomed that its primary goal had become
to defer war in the hope that some unforeseeable change would occur in
its favor — though it would no longer be able to bring such a change
about by its own actions?
The towering symbol for this state of mind was, of course, the Maginot
Line, which France had constructed at huge cost over a period of ten
years. France had thereby committed itself to the strategic defensive in
the very year when it had guaranteed the independence of Poland and
Czechoslovakia. A sign of equal confusion was the incomprehensible
French decision to stop construction of the Maginot Line at the Belgian
frontier, which belied all the experiences of the First World War. For, if a
Franco-German war was indeed possible, then why not a German assault
through Belgium? If France feared that Belgium would collapse if it indi-
cated that the main line of defense excluded that country, Belgium could
have been given the choice of agreeing to the extension of the Maginot
Line along the Belgian-German frontier, and, if this were rejected, the
Maginot Line could have been extended to the sea along the Franco-
Belgian frontier. France did neither.
What political leaders decide, intelligence services tend to seek to jus-
tify. Popular literature and films often depict the opposite — policymakers
as the helpless tools of intelligence experts. In the real world, intelligence
assessments more often follow than guide policy decisions. This may
explain the wild exaggeration of German strength that blighted French
military estimates. At the time of the German reoccupation of the Rhine-
land, General Maurice Gamelin, the French Commander-in-Chief, told
civilian leaders that Germany’s trained military manpower already
equaled that of France, and that Germany had more equipment than
France — an absurd estimate in the second year of German rearmament.
Policy recommendations flowed from this flawed premise of German
military might. Gamelin concluded that France must not undertake any
military countermeasures without general mobilization, a step which its
political leaders would not risk without British support — not even though
the German force entering the Rhineland numbered about 20,000, while
the French standing army could count on 500,000 even without mobiliza-
Everything now came back to the dilemma which had bedeviled the
democracies for twenty years. Great Britain would recognize only one
threat to the European balance of power — the violation of France’s bor-
ders. Determined never to fight for Eastern Europe, it perceived no vital
British interest in a demilitarized Rhineland serving as a kind of hostage
in the West. Nor would Great Britain go to war to uphold its own Locarno
guarantee. Eden had made this clear a month before the occupation of
the Rhineland. In February 1936, the French government finally roused
itself to inquire of Great Britain what its position would be if Hitler
carried out what Frangois-Poncet had reported. Eden’s treatment of the
potential violation of two international agreements — Versailles and Lo-
carno — sounded like the opening of a commercial bargain:
... as the zone was constituted primarily to give security to France and
Belgium, it is for these two Governments, in the first instance, to make
up their minds as to what value they attach to, and what price they are
prepared to pay for, its maintenance It would be preferable for
Great Britain and France to enter betimes into negotiations with the
German Government for the surrender on conditions of our rights in
the zone while such surrender still has a bargaining value. 22
Eden in effect took the position that the best that could be hoped for was
a negotiation in which the Allies, in return for giving up established and
recognized rights (and in which Great Britain refused to honor its own
guarantee), would receive — what exactly? Time? Other assurances? Great
Britain left the answer regarding the quid pro quo to France, but con-
veyed by its conduct that fighting on behalf of solemn obligations in the
Rhineland was not part of the British strategy.
After Hitler marched into the Rhineland, Great Britain’s attitude be-
came even more explicit. The day after the German move, the British
Secretary of State for War told the German Ambassador:
. . . though the British people were prepared to fight for France in the
event of a German incursion into French territory, they would not
The End of Illusion
resort to arms on account of the recent occupation of the Rhineland.
. . . [M]ost of them [the British people] probably took the view that they
did not care “two hoots” about the Germans reoccupying their own
territory. 23
Great Britain’s doubts were soon extended even to countermeasures
short of war. The Foreign Office told the American charge d’affaires:
“England would make every endeavour to prevent the imposition of
military and/or economic sanctions against Germany.” 24
Foreign Minister Pierre Flandin pleaded France’s case in vain. He pre-
sciently told the British that, once Germany had fortified the Rhineland,
Czechoslovakia would be lost and that, soon after, general war would
become unavoidable. Although he was proved right, it was never alto-
gether clear whether Flandin was seeking British support for French
military action or developing a French alibi for inaction. Churchill obvi-
ously thought the latter, noting dryly, “These were brave words; but
action would have spoken louder.” 25
Great Britain was deaf to Flandin’s entreaties. The vast majority of its
leadership still believed that peace depended on disarmament, and that
the new international order would have to be based on reconciliation
with Germany. The British felt that it was more important to rectify the
mistakes of Versailles than to vindicate the commitments of Locarno. A
Cabinet minute of March 17 — ten days after Hitler’s move — noted that
“our own attitude had been governed by the desire to utilize Herr Hitler’s
offers in order to obtain a permanent settlement.” 26
What the Cabinet had to say sotto voce, the Opposition felt quite free
to put forward without restraint. During the course of a debate on defense
matters in the House of Commons that same month, it was declared by
Labour member Arthur Greenwood:
Herr Hitler made a statement sinning with one hand but holding out
the olive branch with the other, which ought to be taken at face value.
They may prove to be the most important gestures yet made It is
idle to say these statements were insincere. . . . The issue is peace and
not defence. 27
In other words, the Opposition clearly advocated the revision of Ver-
sailles and the abandonment of Locarno. They wanted Great Britain to sit
back and wait for Hitler’s purposes to become clearer. It was a reasonable
policy as long as its advocates understood that every passing year would
increase exponentially the ultimate cost of resistance should the policy
It is not necessary to retrace step by step the path by which France and
Great Britain attempted to transform strategic dross into political gold, or
upheaval into an opportunity for the policy of appeasement. What matters
is that, at the end of this process, the Rhineland was fortified, Eastern
Europe had fallen beyond the reach of French military assistance, and
Italy was moving closer to providing Hitler’s Germany with its first ally.
Just as France had been reconciled to Locarno by an ambiguous British
guarantee — whose virtue in British eyes had been that it was less than an
alliance — so the abrogation of Locarno elicited the even more ambiguous
British commitment to send two divisions to defend France should the
French border be violated.
Once again, Great Britain had skillfully dodged a full commitment to
defend France. But what exactly did it achieve? France, of course, saw
through the evasion but accepted it as a halfhearted British step toward
the long-sought formal alliance. Great Britain interpreted its pledge of
two divisions as a means of restraining France from undertaking a defense
of Eastern Europe. For the British commitment would not apply if the
French army invaded Germany in defense of Czechoslovakia or Poland.
On the other hand, two British divisions were not remotely relevant to
the problem of deterring a German attack on France. Great Britain, the
mother country of the balance-of-power policy, had totally lost touch with
its operating principles.
For Hitler, the reoccupation of the Rhineland opened the road to Cen-
tral Europe, militarily as well as psychologically. Once the democracies
had accepted it as a fait accompli, the strategic basis for resisting Hitler
in Eastern Europe disappeared. “If on 7 March you could not defend
yourself,” asked the Romanian Foreign Minister, Nicolae Titulescu, of his
French counterpart, “how will you defend us against the aggressor?” 28
The question grew increasingly unanswerable as the Rhineland was being
Psychologically, the impact of the democracies’ passive stance was even
more profound. Appeasement now became an official policy, and rectify-
ing the inequities of Versailles the conventional wisdom. In the West,
there was no longer anything left to rectify. But it stood to reason that, if
France and Great Britain would not defend Locarno, which they had
guaranteed, there was not a chance of their upholding the Versailles
settlement in Eastern Europe, which Great Britain had questioned from
the beginning and had explicitly refused to guarantee on more than
one occasion — the last time in the undertaking to send two divisions to
By now, France had abandoned the Richelieu traditions. It no longer
The End of Illusion
relied even on itself, but sought surcease from its dangers through Ger-
man goodwill. In August 1936, five months after the reoccupation of
the Rhineland, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, Germany’s Economics Minister, was
received in Paris by Leon Blum — Prime Minister of a Popular Front gov-
ernment containing communists and a Jew. “I am a Marxist and a Jew,”
said Blum, but “we cannot achieve anything if we treat ideological barri-
ers as insurmountable.” 29 Blum’s Foreign Minister, Yvon Delbos, was at a
loss as to how to describe what this meant practically, other than “making
concessions to Germany piecemeal in order to stave off war.” 30 Nor did
he explain whether this process had a terminal point. France, the country
which, for 200 years, had fought innumerable wars in Central Europe in
order to control its own fate, had retreated to grasping at whatever secu-
rity could be wrung out of trading piecemeal concessions for time and to
hoping that, along the way, either German appetites would become sati-
ated or some other dens ex machina would remove the danger.
The policy of appeasement which France implemented warily, Great
Britain pursued eagerly. In 1937, the year after the Rhineland was remili-
tarized, British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax symbolized the democra-
cies’ moral retreat by visiting Hitler’s aerie at Berchtesgaden. He praised
Nazi Germany “as the bulwark of Europe against Bolshevism” and listed
a number of issues with respect to which “possible alterations might be
destined to come about with the passage of time.” Danzig, Austria, and
Czechoslovakia were specifically mentioned. Halifax’s only caveat related
to the method by which the changes would be accomplished: “England
was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course
of peaceful evolution and that methods should be avoided which might
cause far-reaching disturbances.” 31
It would have taxed the comprehension of a less determined leader
than Hitler why, if it was prepared to concede adjustments in Austria,
Czechoslovakia, and the Polish Corridor, Great Britain would balk at the
method Germany used to make those adjustments. Having yielded the
substance, why should Great Britain draw the line at procedure? What
possible peaceful argument did Halifax expect could convince the victims
of the merits of suicide? League orthodoxy and the doctrine of collective
security had it that it was the method of change which had to be resisted;
but history teaches that nations go to war in order to resist the fact of
By the time of Halifax’s visit to Hitler, France’s strategic situation had
deteriorated even further. In July 1936, a military coup led by General
Francisco Franco had triggered the Spanish Civil War. Franco was openly
supported by large shipments of equipment from Germany and Italy;
soon thereafter, German and Italian “volunteers” were dispatched, and
fascism seemed poised to spread its ideas by force. France now faced the
same challenge Richelieu had resisted 300 years earlier— the prospect of
hostile governments on all its borders. But unlike their great predecessor,
the French governments of the 1930s dithered, unable to decide which
they feared more — the dangers they were facing or the means needed to
redress them.
Great Britain had participated in the wars of the Spanish succession
early in the eighteenth century, and against Napoleon in Spain a century
later. In each case, Great Britain had resisted the most aggressive Euro-
pean power’s attempt to draw Spain into its orbit. Now it either failed to
perceive a threat to the balance of power in a fascist victory in Spain or it
perceived fascism as a lesser threat than a radical left-wing Spain tied to
the Soviet Union (which seemed to many to be the most likely alterna-
tive). But, above all, Great Britain wanted to avoid a war. Its Cabinet
warned France that Great Britain reserved the right to remain neutral if a
war should result from French arms deliveries to republican Spain —
even though, under international law, France had every right to sell arms
to the legitimate Spanish government. France waffled, then proclaimed
an embargo on arms shipments while periodically acquiescing in its viola-
tion. That policy, however, only demoralized France’s friends and cost
France the respect of its adversaries.
In this atmosphere, French and British leaders met in London on No-
vember 29-30, 1937, to chart a common course. Neville Chamberlain,
who had replaced Baldwin as prime minister, came straight to the point.
He invited discussion of the obligations inherent in France’s alliance with
Czechoslovakia. This is the sort of query diplomats initiate when they are
looking for loopholes in order to escape honoring their commitments.
Presumably, the independence of Austria was not even worth talking
French Foreign Minister Delbos responded in a manner which con-
veyed that he had understood the implications of the question very well
indeed. Treating the Czech issue in terms of juridical rather than political
or strategic considerations, he confined himself to a strictly legal exegesis
of France’s obligation:
. . . this treaty engaged France in the event of Czechoslovakia being a
victim of an aggression. If uprisings among the German population
occurred and were supported by armed intervention from Germany,
the treaty committed France in a manner to be determined according
to the gravity of the facts. 32
The End of Illusion
Delbos did not discuss the geopolitical importance of Czechoslovakia or
the impact which France’s abandonment of an ally would have on his
country’s credibility in maintaining the independence of other countries
in Eastern Europe. Instead, he stressed that Frances obligations might
or might not apply to the one realistic existing threat — unrest among
Czechoslovakia’s German minority backed by German military force.
Chamberlain grasped at the proffered loophole and turned it into a ratio-
nale for appeasement:
It seemed desirable to try to achieve some agreement with Germany
on Central Europe, whatever might be Germany’s aims, even if she
wished to absorb some of her neighbours; one could in effect hope to
delay the execution of German plans, and even to restrain the Reich for
such a time that its plans might become impractical in the long run. 33
But if procrastination did not work, what was Great Britain going to do?
Having conceded that Germany would revise its eastern borders, would
Great Britain go to war over the timetable? The answer was self-evident
— countries do not go to war over the rate of change by which something
they have already conceded is being achieved. Czechoslovakia was
doomed not at Munich but at London, nearly a year earlier.
As it happened, Hitler had decided at about the same time to sketch his
own long-term strategy. The occasion was an assemblage of almost all of
Germany’s general officers, whom, on November 5, 1937, Hitler treated
to a candid expose of his strategic views. His adjutant, Hossbach, kept a
detailed record. No one present had cause to complain afterward that he
did not know in which direction his leader was heading. For Hitler made
it clear that his aims went far beyond an attempt to restore Germany’s
pre -World War I position. What Hitler outlined was the program of Mein
Kampf — the conquest of large tracts of land in Eastern Europe and in the
Soviet Union for colonization. Hitler knew very well that such a project
would encounter resistance: “German policy [would] have to reckon with
the two hateful antagonists England and France.” 34 He stressed that Ger-
many had stolen a march on Great Britain and France in its rearmament
but that the advantage was transitory and would diminish at an accelerat-
ing rate after 1943. War, therefore, had to start before then.
Hitler’s generals were disturbed by the vastness of his plans and by the
imminence of their execution. But they timidly swallowed Hitler’s de-
signs. Some military leaders toyed vaguely with the idea of a coup once
Hitler had given the actual order to go to war. But Hitler always moved
too fast. His stunning early successes deprived his generals of the moral
justification (in their eyes) for such a step — not that making coups against
constituted authority had ever been a specialty of German generals.
As for the Western democracies, they did not yet grasp the ideological
gulf that separated them from the German dictator. They believed in
peace as an end, and were straining their every nerve to avoid war. Hitler,
on the other hand, feared peace and craved war. “Mankind has grown
strong in eternal struggles,” he had written in Mein Kampf; “and it will
only perish through eternal peace.” 35
By 1938, Hitler felt strong enough to cross the national boundaries
established at Versailles. His first target was his native country of Austria,
which had been left in an anomalous position by the settlements of St.-
Germain in 1919 and Trianon in 1920 (the equivalent of Versailles for the
Austro-Hungarian Empire). Until 1806, Austria had been the center of
the Holy Roman Empire; until 1866, it had been a leading — for some, the
leading — German state. Expelled from its historic role in Germany by
Bismarck, it had shifted its emphasis to its Balkan and Central European
possessions until it lost them as well in the First World War. A one-
time empire shrunk to its small German-speaking core, Austria had been
prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles from joining Germany — a clause
which stood in obvious defiance of the principle of self-determination.
Even though Anschluss with Germany remained the goal of many on both
sides of the Austro-German border (including Stresemann), it was again
blocked by the Allies in 1930.
Thus, the union of Germany and Austria had about it that sense of
ambiguity so essential to the success of Hitler’s early challenges. It ful-
filled the principle of self-determination while undermining the balance
of power, which statesmen were less and less willing to invoke to justify
the use of force. After a month of Nazi threats and Austrian concessions
and second thoughts, on March 12, 1938, German troops marched into
Austria. There was no resistance, and the Austrian population, much of it
deliriously joyful, seemed to feel that, shorn of its empire and left helpless
in Central Europe, it preferred a future as a German province to being a
minor player on the Central European stage.
The democracies’ halfhearted protests against Germany’s annexation
of Austria hardly registered moral concern while shying away from any
concrete measures. As the death knell of collective security was sounded,
the League of Nations stood silent while a member country was swal-
lowed by a powerful neighbor. The democracies now turned doubly
committed to appeasement in the hope that Hitler would stop his march
once he had returned all ethnic Germans to the fatherland.
Destiny chose Czechoslovakia as the subject of that experiment. Like
The End of Illusion
other successor states of Austro-Hungary, it was nearly as multinational as
the Empire had been. Out of a population of some 15 million, nearly a
third were neither Czech nor Slovak, and the Slovak commitment to the
state was shaky. Three and a half million Germans, close to a million
Hungarians, and nearly half a million Poles were incorporated into the
new state. To exacerbate matters, these minorities dwelled in territories
contiguous to their ethnic homelands, which rendered the claim that they
should rejoin their mother countries even more weighty in light of the
prevailing Versailles orthodoxy of self-determination.
At the same time, Czechoslovakia was politically and economically the
most advanced of the successor states. It was genuinely democratic and
had a standard of living comparable to Switzerland’s. It maintained a large
army, much of whose excellent equipment was of domestic Czech design
and manufacture; it had military alliances with France and the Soviet
Union. In terms of traditional diplomacy, therefore, it was no easy matter
to abandon Czechoslovakia; in terms of self-determination, it was equally
difficult to defend it. Emboldened by his successful remilitarization of the
Rhineland, Hitler began in 1937 to threaten Czechoslovakia on behalf of
its ethnic Germans. At first, these threats were ostensibly to pressure the
Czechs into granting special rights to the German minority in “Sudeten-
land,” as the German propaganda dubbed that territory. But in 1938,
Hitler turned up the heat of his rhetoric by intimating that he intended to
annex Sudetenland into the German Reich by force. France was commit-
ted to protecting Czechoslovakia, as was the Soviet Union, though Soviet
help for the Czechs had been made conditional on prior French actions.
Moreover, whether Poland or Romania would have allowed Soviet troops
to traverse their territory in defense of Czechoslovakia remains very
From the start, Great Britain opted for appeasement. On March 22,
shortly after the annexation of Austria, Halifax reminded the French lead-
ers that the Locarno guarantee applied only to the French border and
might lapse if France implemented its treaty commitments in Central
Europe. A Foreign Office memorandum warned: “Those commitments
[the Locarno guarantee] are, in their view, no mean contribution to the
maintenance of peace in Europe and, though they have no intention of
withdrawing from them, they cannot see their way to add to them.” 36
Great Britain’s sole security frontier was at the borders of France; if
France’s security concerns extended any further, specifically, if it tried to
defend Czechoslovakia, it would be on its own.
A few months later, the British Cabinet sent a fact-finding mission to
Prague under Lord Runciman to explore possible means of conciliation.
The practical consequence of that mission was to advertise Great Britain’s
reluctance to defend Czechoslovakia. The facts were already well known;
any conceivable conciliation would have required some dismemberment
of Czechoslovakia. Munich, therefore, was not a surrender but a state of
mind and the nearly inevitable outgrowth of the democracies’ effort to
sustain a geopolitically flawed settlement with rhetoric about collective
security and self-determination.
Even America, the country most identified with the creation of Czecho-
slovakia, dissociated itself from the crisis at an early stage. In September,
President Roosevelt suggested holding a negotiation on some neutral
ground. 37 Yet, if American embassies abroad were reporting accurately,
Roosevelt could have had no illusion about the attitudes which France,
and even more so Great Britain, would bring to any such conference.
Indeed, Roosevelt reinforced these attitudes by making the statement that
“the Government of the United States . . . will assume no obligations in
the conduct of the present negotiations.” 38
The situation was as if made to order for Hitler’s talent in waging
psychological warfare. Throughout the summer, he worked to magnify
hysteria about an imminent war without, in fact, making any specific
threat. Finally, after Hitler had engaged in a vicious personal attack on the
Czech leadership at the annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in early
September 1938, Chamberlain’s nerves snapped. Though no formal de-
mands had been made and no real diplomatic exchanges had taken place,
Chamberlain decided to end the tension on September 15 by visiting
Hitler. Hitler showed his disdain by choosing Berchtesgaden as the meet-
ing place — the location in Germany farthest from London and the least
accessible. In those days, traveling from London to Berchtesgaden re-
quired an airplane trip of five hours, in what turned out to be Chamber-
lain’s first flight, at the age of sixty-nine.
After enduring several hours of Hitler’s ranting about the alleged mis-
treatment of the Sudeten Germans, Chamberlain agreed to dismember
Czechoslovakia. All Czechoslovak districts with populations that were
more than 50-percent German were to be returned to Germany. The
details were to be worked out at a second meeting in a few days’ time, at
Bad Godesberg, in the Rhineland. It was symptomatic of Hitler’s negotiat-
ing style that he termed this subsequent locale a “concession”; though
much closer to London than the first site, it was still well within Germany.
In the interval, Chamberlain “persuaded” the Czechoslovak government
to accept his proposal — “sadly” so, in the words of the Czech leaders. 39
At Bad Godesberg on September 22, Hitler raised the ante and made it
clear that he sought the abject humiliation of Czechoslovakia. He would
The End of Illusion
not agree to the time-consuming procedure of district-by-district plebi-
scites and frontier demarcations, demanding instead the immediate evac-
uation of the entire Sudeten territory, the process to start on September
26 — four days later — to be completed in no more than forty-eight hours.
Czech military installations were to be left intact for the German armed
forces. To weaken the rump state even further, Hitler demanded border
rectifications for Hungary and Poland on behalf of their own minorities.
When Chamberlain objected to being presented with an ultimatum, Hitler
snidely pointed to the word “memorandum” typed on top of his presenta-
tion. After hours of acrimonious argument, Hitler made another “conces-
sion”: he would give Czechoslovakia until 2:00 p.m. on September 28
to reply, and until October 1 to begin withdrawing from the Sudeten
Chamberlain could not bring himself to inflict such a total humiliation
on Czechoslovakia, and French Prime Minister Daladier drew the line
even more adamantly. For some days, war seemed imminent. Trenches
were being dug in British parks. This was the period in which Chamber-
lain made the melancholy comment that Great Britain was being asked to
go to war for a faraway country about which it knew nothing — this from
the leader of a country which had fought for centuries on the approaches
to India without blinking.
But what was the casus belli? Great Britain had already accepted the
principle of Czechoslovak dismemberment along with self-determination
for the Sudeten Germans. Great Britain and France were approaching the
decision to go to war not in order to sustain an ally but over the few
weeks’ difference in the rate at which it would be dismantled and a few
territorial adjustments which were marginal compared to what had al-
ready been conceded. Perhaps it was just as well that Mussolini took
everybody off the hook right before the deadline by proposing that a
conference already being planned between the foreign ministers of Italy
and Germany be expanded to include the heads of government of France
(Daladier), Great Britain (Chamberlain), Germany (Hitler), and Italy
The four leaders met on September 29 in Munich, the birthplace of the
Nazi Party, the sort of symbolism victors reserve for themselves. Little time
was spent on negotiations: Chamberlain and Daladier made a halfhearted
attempt to return to their original proposal; Mussolini produced a paper
containing Hitler’s Bad Godesberg proposal; Hitler defined the issues in
the form of a sarcastic ultimatum. Since his deadline of October 1 had
caused him to be accused of proceeding in an atmosphere of violence,
he said that the task at hand was “to absolve the action of such a charac-
ter ” 40 In other words, the sole purpose of the conference was to accept
Hitlers Bad Godesberg program peacefully before he went to war to
impose it.
Chamberlain and Daladier’s conduct over the previous months gave
them no real choice but to accept Mussolini’s draft. Czech representatives
were left languishing in anterooms while their country was being dis-
membered. The Soviet Union was not invited at all. Great Britain and
France assuaged their guilty consciences by offering to guarantee the
remaining fragment of disarmed Czechoslovakia — a preposterous ges-
ture coming from nations which had refused to honor the guarantee of
an intact, well-armed fellow democracy. It goes without saying that the
guarantee was never implemented.
Munich has entered our vocabulary as a specific aberration — the pen-
alty of yielding to blackmail. Munich, however, was not a single act but
the culmination of an attitude which began in the 1920s and accelerated
with each new concession. For over a decade, Germany had been throw-
ing off the restrictions of Versailles one by one: the Weimar Republic had
rid Germany of reparations, of the Inter-Allied Military Control Commis-
sion, and of Allied occupation of the Rhineland. Hitler had denounced
the restrictions on German armaments, the prohibition against con-
scription, and the demilitarization provisions of Locarno. Even in the
1920s, Germany had never accepted the Eastern frontiers, and the Allies
had never insisted that it accept them. Finally, as so often happens, deci-
sions cumulatively developed their own momentum.
By conceding that the Versailles settlement was iniquitous, the victors
eroded the psychological basis for defending it. The victors of the Napole-
onic Wars had made a generous peace, but they had also organized the
Quadruple Alliance in order to leave no ambiguity about their determina-
tion to defend it. The victors of World War I had made a punitive peace
and, after having themselves created the maximum incentive for revision-
ism, cooperated in dismantling their own settlement.
For two decades, the balance of power had been alternately rejected
and ridiculed; the leaders of the democracies told their peoples that,
henceforth, the world order would be based on a higher morality. Then,
when the challenge to the new world order finally came, the democracies
— Great Britain with conviction, France with doubt tinged by despair —
had no recourse but to drain the cup of conciliation to demonstrate to
their peoples that Hitler could not in fact be appeased.
This explains why the Munich agreement was greeted with such wild
acclaim by the vast majority of its contemporaries. Franklin Roosevelt was
among those congratulating Chamberlain: “Good man,” he said. 41 The
The End of Illusion
leaders of the British Commonwealth were more effusive. The Prime
Minister of Canada wrote:
May I convey to you the warm congratulations of the Canadian people,
and with them, an expression of their gratitude, which is felt from one
end of the dominion to the other. My colleagues and Government join
with me in unbounded admiration at the service you have rendered
mankind . 42
Not to be outdone, the Australian Prime Minister said:
Colleagues and I desire to express our warmest congratulations at the
outcome of the negotiations at Munich. Australians in common with all
other peoples of the British empire owe a deep debt of gratitude to
you for your unceasing efforts to preserve the peace . 43
Strangely enough, all of the eyewitnesses to the Munich Conference con-
curred that, far from triumphant, Hitler was morose. He had wanted war,
which he regarded as indispensable to the realization of his ambitions.
He probably needed it for psychological reasons as well; nearly all of his
public utterances, which he viewed as the most vital aspect of his public
life, related in one way or another to his wartime experiences. Even
though Hitler’s generals strongly opposed war — to the point of fitfully
planning to overthrow him should he make a final decision to attack —
Hitler left Munich with the sense of having been cheated. And, by his own
inverted reasoning, he may well have been right. For had he managed to
contrive a war over Czechoslovakia, it is doubtful that the democracies
could have sustained the sacrifices necessary to win it. The issue was too
incompatible with the principle of self-determination, and public opinion
was not sufficiently prepared for the almost certain initial reverses of such
a war.
Paradoxically, Munich turned into the psychological end of the line for
Hitler’s strategy. Until then, he had always been able to appeal to the
democracies’ sense of guilt about the inequities of Versailles; afterward,
his only weapon was brute force, and there was a limit to how much
blackmail even those most afraid of war would accept before taking a
This was especially true of Great Britain. By his conduct at Bad Godes-
berg and at Munich, Hitler used up the last reserves of British goodwill.
Despite his fatuous statement of having brought “peace for our time,”
when he returned to London, Chamberlain was determined never to be
blackmailed again, and launched a major rearmament program.
In fact, Chamberlain’s conduct in the Munich crisis was more complex
than posterity has depicted it. Wildly popular in the wake of Munich,
he was ever after associated with surrender. The democratic public is
unforgiving in the face of debacles, even when these result from carrying
out its own immediate wishes. Chamberlain’s reputation collapsed once
it became clear that he had not achieved “peace for our time.” Hitler
soon found another pretext for war, and by then Chamberlain could not
even garner credit for having managed the process by which Great Britain
was able to weather the storm as a united people and with a restored air
In retrospect, it is easy to disparage the often naive pronouncements
of the appeasers. Yet most of them were decent men earnestly seeking to
implement the new dispensation contrived by Wilsonian idealism under
the cloud of general disillusionment with traditional European diplo-
ma^, and the pervasive sense of spiritual and physical exhaustion. In no
previous period could a British prime minister have justified an
agreement, in the way Chamberlain had Munich — as a “removal of those
suspicions and those animosities which have so long poisoned the air” 44
— as if foreign policy belonged to a branch of psychology. Still, these
views had all sprung from an idealistic effort to transcend the legacies of
Realpolitik and European history by appealing to reason and justice.
It did not take Hitler long to shatter the illusions of the appeasers,
thereby hastening his own ultimate downfall. In March 1939, less than six
months after Munich, Hitler occupied the rump of Czechoslovakia. The
Czech portion became a German protectorate; Slovakia was designated a
technically independent state, if a German satellite. Though Great Britain
and France had offered to guarantee Czechoslovakia at Munich, that
pledge was never formalized, nor could have been.
The destruction of Czechoslovakia made no geopolitical sense whatso-
ever; it showed that Hitler was beyond rational calculation and bent on
war. Deprived of its defenses and of its French and Soviet alliances,
Czechoslovakia was bound to slip into the German orbit, and Eastern
Europe was certain to adjust to the new power realities. The Soviet Union
had just purged its entire political and military leadership and would not
be a factor for some time. All Hitler had to do was wait, because, with
France in effect neutralized, Germany would eventually emerge as the
dominant power in Eastern Europe. Waiting, of course, was what Hitler
was emotionally least capable of doing.
The British and French reaction (spearheaded by London) of drawing
The End of Illusion
the line made equally little sense in terms of traditional power politics.
The seizure of Prague changed neither the balance of power nor the
foreseeable course of events. But in terms of the Versailles principles, the
occupation of Czechoslovakia marked a watershed because it demon-
strated that Hitler sought the domination of Europe and not self-determi-
nation or equality.
Hitler’s blunder was not so much to have violated historic principles
of equilibrium as to have offended the moral premises of British postwar
foreign policy. His transgression was to incorporate fzcw-German popula-
tions into the Reich, thereby violating the principle of self-determination,
on behalf of which all his previous unilateral exactions had been toler-
ated. Great Britain’s patience was neither inexhaustible nor the result of
a weak national character; and Hitler had, at last, fulfilled the British
public’s moral definition of aggression, if not yet the British govern-
ment’s. After a few days of hesitation, Chamberlain moved his policy into
line with British public opinion. From that point on, Great Britain would
resist Hitler not in order to comply with historic theories of equilibrium,
but, quite simply, because Hitler could no longer be trusted.
Ironically, the Wilsonian approach to international relations, which had
facilitated Hitler’s advances beyond what any previous European system
would have considered acceptable, after a certain point also caused Great
Britain to draw the line more rigorously than it would have in a world
based on Realpolitik. If Wilsonianism had prevented earlier resistance to
Hitler, it also laid the foundation for implacable opposition to him once
its moral criteria had been unambiguously violated.
When Hitler laid claim to Danzig in 1939 and sought modification of
the Polish Corridor, the issues at hand were essentially no different from
those of the year before. Danzig was a thoroughly German town, and its
free-city status flew as much in the face of the principle of self-determina-
tion as had adjudication of the Sudeten territory to Czechoslovakia.
Though the population of the Polish Corridor was more mixed, some
adjustment of borders that was more responsive to the principle of self-
determination was quite possible — at least theoretically. Yet what had
changed beyond Hitler’s comprehension was that, once he had crossed
the line of what was morally tolerable, the same moral perfectionism
which had formerly generated pliability in the democracies transformed
itself into unprecedented intransigence. After Germany occupied Czecho-
slovakia, British public opinion would tolerate no further concessions;
from then on, the outbreak of the Second World War was only a matter
of time — unless Hitler remained quiescent, which, for him, proved psy-
chologically impossible.
Before that momentous event could come to pass, however, the inter-
national system received one more shock — this time from the other great
revisionist power it had ignored throughout most of the turbulent 1930s
— Stalin’s Soviet Union.
French Expansion from 1648 to 1801 320
German Expansion from 1919 to 1939 321
William Ill’s Grand Alliance from 1701 to 1713 322
Alliances in the 1950s 323
Europe After the Congress of Vienna, 1815 324
Europe on the Eve of the First World War, 1914 326
The Cold War World from 1945 to 1989 328
The Post-Cold War World 330
Power Vacuums Both the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Treaty of Versailles (1919) created power vacuums on the borders of military
heavyweights. The stronger powers — Louis XIV s France and Hitler’s Germany — found the temptation to expand at the expense of weaker neighbors
Containment Old and New In order to rein in chronically expansionist powers, William III of England built a “Grand Alliance” to “contain” France’s
outward thrusts. The United States similarly built a system of alliances to contain the Soviet Union in the 1950s,
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Balance of Power and the Congress System The peacemakers at Vienna consoli-
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block French aggression. European congresses, the last of which was held in Berlin
in 1878, met periodically to sort out solutions to Europe’s major conflicts.
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When war broke out in 1914, the Franco-Russian
Alliance was already twenty-three years old, and the Austro-German Alliance was
thirtv-five years old. A newcomer to Continental alliances, Great Britain joined the
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Spheres ofIn fluen ce
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Cold War Spheres of Influence In the years following 1945, the United States and
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were consolidated in Northeast Asia. In the 1960s, the theater of competition moved
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The Post-Cold War World With the collapse of the Soviet sphere of influence in
1989, new instability has emerged in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf, the
Horn of Africa, and the Balkans. In the meantime, new power centers have developed
in Japan, China, and Western Europe, making for a multipolar world
Stalin’ s Bazaar
If ideology necessarily determined foreign policy, Hitler and Stalin
would never have joined hands any more than Richelieu and the Sultan
of Turkey would have three centuries earlier. But common geopolitical
interest is a powerful bond, and it was pushing the old enemies, Hitler
and Stalin, inexorably together.
When it happened, the democracies were incredulous; their stunned
surprise indicated that they had no better understanding of Stalin’s men-
tality than they had of Hitler’s. Stalin’s career, like Hitler’s, had been
forged on the fringes of society, though it took him much longer to reach
absolute power. Hitler’s reliance on demagogic brilliance caused him
to stake everything on a single throw of the dice. Stalin prevailed by
undermining his rivals from deep within the communist bureaucracy,
where the other contenders for power had ignored him because they did
not at first view the sinister figure from Georgia as a serious rival. Hitler
succeeded by overwhelming his associates with elemental single-mind-
edness; Stalin accrued power by dint of implacable anonymity.
Hitler transposed his Bohemian work habits and mercurial personality
into decision-making, endowing his government with a fitful and occa-
Stalin's Bazaar
sionally dilettantish quality. Stalin incorporated the rigorous catechisms
of his early religious training into the brutal exegeses of the Bolshevik
world view, and transformed ideology into an instrument of political
control. Hitler thrived on the succor of the adoration of the masses. Stalin
was far too paranoid to rely on so personal an approach. He craved
ultimate victory far more than immediate approbation, and preferred to
achieve it by destroying, one by one, all of his potential rivals.
Hitler’s ambitions needed to be fulfilled within his own lifetime; in his
statements, he represented only himself Stalin was equally megalomania-
cal but viewed himself as a servant of historical truth. Unlike Hitler, Stalin
had incredible patience. Unlike the leaders of the democracies, he was at
all times prepared to undertake a meticulous study of power relation-
ships. Precisely because he was so convinced that his ideology embodied
historical truth, Stalin ruthlessly pursued the Soviet national interest un-
encumbered by what he considered hypocritical moral baggage or senti-
mental attachments.
Stalin was indeed a monster; but in the conduct of international rela-
tions, he was the supreme realist — patient, shrewd, and implacable, the
Richelieu of his period. Without knowing it, the Western democracies
were tempting fate by counting on an irreconcilable ideological conflict
between Stalin and Hitler, by teasing Stalin with a French pact that fore-
swore military cooperation, by excluding the Soviet Union from the Mu-
nich Conference, and by rather ambivalently entering into military talks
with Stalin only when it was already too late to prevent him from making
a pact with Hitler. The leaders of the democracies confused Stalin’s pon-
derous, mildly theological speeches with rigidity of both thought and
policy. Yet Stalin’s rigidity extended only to communist ideology. His
communist convictions enabled him to be extraordinarily flexible in his
Beyond these psychological aspects, Stalins character had a philosophi-
cal core which made him nearly incomprehensible to Western leaders.
As an old Bolshevik, he had suffered imprisonment, exile, and privation
on behalf of his convictions for decades before coming to power. Priding
themselves on having a superior insight into the dynamics of history, the
Bolsheviks saw their role as helping along the objective historical process.
In their view, the difference between themselves and noncommunists
was akin to the difference between scientists and laymen. In analyzing
physical phenomena, the scientist does not actually bring them about; his
understanding of why they occur enables him occasionally to manipulate
the process, though never according to anything but the phenomena’s
own inherent laws. In the same spirit, the Bolsheviks thought of them-
selves as scientists of history — helping to make its dynamics apparent,
perhaps even to speed them up, but never to change their immutable
Communist leaders presented themselves as implacable, beyond com-
passion, and as unswerving from their historical task as they were unsway-
able by conventional arguments, especially when these came from
nonbelievers. The communists felt they had an edge in the conduct of
diplomacy because they thought they understood their interlocutors bet-
ter than they could ever understand themselves. In the communist mind,
concessions could only be made, if at all, to “objective reality,” never to
the persuasiveness of the diplomats with whom they were negotiating.
Diplomacy thus belonged to the process by which the existing order
would eventually be overturned; whether it would be overthrown by a
diplomacy of peaceful coexistence or by military conflict depended on
the assessment of the relation of forces.
One principle in Stalin’s universe of inhuman and cold-blooded calcu-
lation was, however, immutable: nothing could justify fighting hopeless
battles for dubious causes. Philosophically, the ideological conflict with
Nazi Germany was part of a general conflict with the capitalists that, as far
as Stalin was concerned, embraced France and Great Britain. Which coun-
try ended up bearing the brunt of Soviet hostility depended entirely on
which one Moscow considered the greater threat at any given moment.
Morally, Stalin did not distinguish among the various capitalist states.
His true opinion of the countries extolling the virtues of universal peace
was evident in his reaction to the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in
They talk about pacifism; they speak about peace among European
states. Briand and [Austen] Chamberlain are embracing each other
All this is nonsense. From European history we know that every time
that treaties envisaging a new arrangement of forces for new wars have
been signed, these treaties have been called treaties of peace . . . [al-
though] they were signed for the purpose of depicting new elements
of the coming war . 1
Stalin’s ultimate nightmare, of course, was a coalition of all the capitalist
countries attacking the Soviet Union simultaneously. In 1927, Stalin de-
scribed Soviet strategy in the same way Lenin had a decade earlier: “. . . a
great deal . . . depends on whether we shall succeed in deferring the inev-
itable war with the capitalist world . . . until the time . . . when the capital-
ists start fighting each other ” 2 To encourage this prospect, the Soviet
Stalin's Bazaar
Union had concluded the Rapallo agreement with Germany in 1922 and
the neutrality treaty of Berlin in 1926, which it renewed in 1931, explicitly
promising to stay out of a capitalist war.
As far as Stalin was concerned, Hitler’s vituperative anticommunism did
not constitute an insuperable obstacle to good relations with Germany.
When Hitler came to power, Stalin wasted no time making conciliatory
gestures. “(W]e are far from being enthusiastic about the fascist regime in
Germany,” Stalin stated at the Seventeenth Party Congress in January
1934. “[I]t is not a question of fascism here, if only for the reason that
fascism in Italy, for example, has not prevented the USSR from establish-
ing the best relations with that country. . . . Our orientation in the past
and our orientation at the present time is towards the USSR, and the USSR
alone. And if the interests of the USSR demand rapprochement with one
country or another which is not interested in disturbing peace, we adopt
this course without hesitation.” 3
Stalin, the great ideologue, was in fact putting his ideology in the
service of Realpolitik. Richelieu or Bismarck would have had no difficulty
understanding his strategy'. It was the statesmen representing the democ-
racies who were wearing ideological blinkers; having rejected power
politics, they thought that the precondition to good relations among na-
tions was a general belief in the premises of collective security, and that
ideological hostility would preclude any possibility of practical coopera-
tion between the fascists and the communists.
The democracies were wrong on both counts. In due course, Stalin did
move into the anti-Hitler camp, but only very reluctantly and after his
overtures to Nazi Germany had been rebuffed. Convinced at last that
Hitler’s anti-Bolshevik rhetoric might well be serious, Stalin set about
constructing the widest possible coalition to contain it. His new strategy
emerged at the Seventh (and last) Congress of the Communist Interna-
tional in July and August 1935. 4 Calling for a united front of all peace-
loving peoples, it signaled the abandonment of the communist tactics of
the 1920s, when, in an effort to paralyze European parliamentary institu-
tions, Communist Parties had consistently voted with antidemocratic
groups, including the fascists.
The principal spokesman of the new Soviet foreign policy was Maxim
Litvinov, who had been appointed Foreign Minister in order to play just
this role. Urbane, fluent in English, and Jewish, he was of bourgeois
origin and was married to the daughter of a British historian. His formal
credentials were better suited to a class enemy than a man destined for a
career in Soviet diplomacy. Under Litvinov’s stewardship, the Soviet
Union joined the League of Nations, and became one of the most vocal
proponents of collective security. Stalin was quite prepared to resort to
Wilsonian rhetoric in order to gain insurance against the prospect that
Hitler might actually carry out what he had written in Mein Kampf and
make the Soviet Union his principal target. As the political scientist Robert
Legvold has pointed out, Stalin’s purpose was to extract maximum assis-
tance from the capitalist world, not to make peace with it. 5
A deep sense of mutual distrust pervaded the relations between the
democracies and the Soviet Union. Stalin signed pacts with France in
1935 and with Czechoslovakia the following year. But the French leaders
of the 1930s took the opposite course and refused military staff talks.
Inevitably, Stalin interpreted this as an invitation to Hitler to attack the
Soviet Union first. To reinsure himself, Stalin made Soviet help to Czecho-
slovakia dependent on the prior fulfillment of French obligations to
Czechoslovakia. This, of course, gave Stalin the option of leaving the
imperialists to fight it out among themselves. The Franco-Soviet treaty
was hardly a relationship made in heaven.
France’s willingness to create political ties with the Soviet Union while
simultaneously rejecting a military alliance with it illustrates the never-
never land into which the foreign policy of the democracies had drifted
between the wars. The democracies valued the rhetoric of collective
security but recoiled from giving it an operational content. World War I
should have taught Great Britain and France that, even in alliance, fighting
Germany by themselves was a precarious enterprise. After all, Germany
had nearly prevailed in 1918, despite the fact that America had joined the
Allies. To consider fighting Germany without Soviet or American assis-
tance combined the Maginot Line mentality with a gross overestimation
of their strength.
Only extremely wishful thinking on the part of the democracies’ lead-
ers could have led to the widespread belief that Stalin — the original
Bolshevik and a staunch believer in so-called objective, material factors
— could have converted to the juridical and moral doctrine of collective
security. For Stalin and his colleagues had reasons other than ideology' to
be unenthusiastic about the established international order. After all, the
Soviet frontiers with Poland had been imposed by force and Romania had
seized Bessarabia, which the Soviets considered their own.
Nor did the potential German victims in Eastern Europe desire Soviet
help. The combination of the Versailles settlement and the Russian Revo-
lution had created an insoluble problem for any system of collective
security in Eastern Europe: without the Soviet Union, it could not work
militarily; with it, it could not work politically.
Western diplomacy did little to ease Stalin’s paranoia about a capitalist
Stalin's Bazaar
anti-Soviet cabal. The Soviet Union was not consulted in the diplomacy
surrounding the abrogation of the Locarno Pact, and was excluded alto-
gether from the Munich Conference. It was brought into discussions for
a security system in Eastern Europe only grudgingly and quite late, after
the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939.
Nevertheless, it is a misreading of Stalin’s psychology to blame the
Hitler-Stalin Pact largely on Western policy. Stalin’s paranoia was amply
demonstrated by his elimination of all potential domestic rivals and the
murder or deportation of millions more who opposed him only in his
fantasies. In spite of that, when it came to foreign policy, Stalin proved
himself the ultimate cold calculator and took great pride in not letting
himself be provoked into any rash moves, especially by capitalist leaders
whose understanding of the correlation of forces he rated far below his
One can only speculate what Stalin might have intended at the time of
Munich. Yet his least likely course at the moment when he was convulsing
his country with purge after purge would have been automatic and sui-
cidal implementation of a mutual assistance treaty. Since the treaty with
Czechoslovakia committed the Soviet Union only after France was at war,
it left Stalin with a number of options. For instance, he could demand
passage through Romania and Poland and use the nearly certain refusal
of those countries as an alibi to await the outcome of battles in Central
and Western Europe. Or else, depending on his assessment of the conse-
quences, he could recapture the Russian territories lost to Poland and
Romania in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, much as he did a
year later. The most unlikely outcome was one in which the Soviet Union
would mount the barricades as the last defender of the Versailles territo-
rial settlement in the name of collective security.
No doubt, Munich confirmed Stalin’s suspicions about the democra-
cies. Yet nothing could fundamentally deflect him from seeking to fulfill,
at nearly any cost, what he considered his Bolshevik duty — pitting the
capitalists against each other and keeping the Soviet Union from becom-
ing a victim of their wars. The effect of Munich, therefore, was primarily
to alter Stalin’s tactics. For now he opened up a bazaar for bids on a
Soviet pact — one which the democracies had no hope of winning if Hitler
was prepared to make a serious offer. When, on October 4, 1938, the
French Ambassador called on the Soviet Foreign Ministry to explain the
Munich agreement, he was greeted by Vladimir Potemkin, the Deputy
Commissar for Foreign Affairs, with these menacing words: “My poor
friend, what have you done? For us, I see no other outcome than a fourth
partition of Poland.” 6
The epigram was a glimpse into Stalin’s icy approach to foreign policy.
After Munich, Poland was certain to become Germany’s next target. Since
Stalin wanted neither to confront the German army at the existing Soviet
frontier nor to fight Hitler, a fourth partition of Poland was the only
alternative (indeed, similar reasoning had led Catherine the Great to
promote the first partition of Poland with Prussia and Austria in 1772).
The fact that Stalin waited an entire year for Hitler to make the first move
attested to the steely nerves with which he conducted his foreign policy.
With his objective firmly in place, Stalin next moved swiftly to withdraw
the Soviet Union from the front line. On January 27, 1939, the London
News Chronicle published an article by its diplomatic correspondent
(known to be close to Moscow’s ambassador, Ivan Maisky) outlining a
possible deal between the Soviet Union and Germany. The author re-
peated Stalin’s standard thesis that there was no significant difference
between the Western democracies and the fascist dictators and used it to
release the Soviet Union from any automatic commitment to collective
At present, the Soviet government evidently has no intention of giving
any help to Great Britain and France if the latter come into conflict with
Germany and Italy — From the point of view of the Soviet government,
there is no great difference between the positions of the British and
French governments on the one hand and the German and Italian on
the other, which would justify serious sacrifices in the defence of West-
ern democracy. 7
Since the Soviet Union saw no need to choose between the various
capitalists on the basis of ideology, disagreements between Moscow and
Berlin could be solved on a practical basis. Lest the point be missed, Stalin
took the unprecedented step of having the article reprinted verbatim in
Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper.
On March 10, 1939 — five days before Hitler occupied Prague — Stalin
stepped forward with his own authoritative statement of Moscow’s new
strategy. The occasion was the Eighteenth Party Congress, the first such
meeting held since Stalin’s endorsement of collective security and
“united fronts” five years earlier. The delegates’ feelings must have been
dominated by relief at still being alive, for the purges had decimated their
ranks: only thirty-five of the 2,000 delegates from five years before were
now in attendance; 1,100 of the remainder had been arrested for counter-
revolutionary activities; ninety-eight of the 131 members of the Central
Committee had been liquidated, as had been three out of five marshals
Stalin's Bazaar
of the Red Army, all eleven deputy commissars for defense, all military
district commanders, and seventy-five out of the eighty members of the
Supreme Military Council. 8 The Eighteenth Party Congress was hardly a
celebration of continuity. Its attendees were vastly more concerned with
the requirements of their own personal survival than with the arcane
subtleties of foreign policy.
As had been the case in 1934, Stalin’s basic theme before this terrified
audience was the peaceful intentions of the Soviet Union in a hostile
international environment. His conclusions, however, marked a radical
break from the collective security concept of the previous Party Congress.
For, in effect, Stalin declared Soviet neutrality in the conflict among the
The foreign policy of the Soviet Union is clear and explicit. We stand
for peace and the strengthening of business relations with all countries.
That is our position; and we shall adhere to this position as long as
these countries maintain like relations with the Soviet Union and as
long as they make no attempt to trespass on the interests of our coun-
try . 9
To make certain that the obtuse capitalist leaders did not miss his point,
Stalin repeated almost verbatim the central argument of the Neu>s Chroni-
cle article: that, since the democracies and Germany had similar social
structures, the differences between Germany and the Soviet Union were
no more insurmountable than the differences between any other capital-
ist country and the Soviet Union. Summing up, he voiced his determina-
tion to retain freedom of action and to sell Moscow’s goodwill in any
impending war to the highest bidder. In an ominous phrase, Stalin vowed
“[tjo be cautious and not allow our country to be drawn into conflicts by
warmongers who are accustomed to have others pull the chestnuts out
of the fire for them.” 10 In effect, Stalin was inviting Nazi Germany to make
a bid.
Stalin’s new policy differed from the old primarily in terms of empha-
sis. Even in the heyday of his support for collective security and “united
fronts,” Stalin had always hedged Soviet commitments in a way that per-
mitted him to retain the option of making a separate deal after the war
had begun. But now, in the spring of 1939, when the remaining fragment
of Czechoslovakia had not yet been occupied by Germany, Stalin was
going one step further. He began maneuvering for the opportunity to
make a separate deal before the war. No one should have complained
that Stalin had kept his intentions secret; the shock of the democracies
was due to their inability to understand that Stalin, the passionate revolu-
tionary, was above all a cold-blooded strategist.
After the occupation of Prague, Great Britain abandoned its policy of
appeasement toward Germany. The British Cabinet now exaggerated the
imminence of a Nazi threat to the same degree to which it had previously
underestimated it. It was convinced that Hitler would immediately follow
the destruction of Czechoslovakia with another assault — some thought
on Belgium, others on Poland. In late March 1939, rumor had it that the
target was Romania, which did not even share a border with Germany.
Yet it would have been highly uncharacteristic of Hitler to attack a second,
unrelated, target quite so soon. More typically, his tactic was to allow the
impact of one coup to demoralize his next intended victim before striking
again. At any rate, we know in retrospect that Great Britain had far more
time to plan its strategy than its leaders believed. Moreover, had the
British Cabinet carefully analyzed Stalin’s pronouncements at the Eigh-
teenth Party Congress, it would have realized that, the more eagerly Great
Britain organized resistance to Hitler, the more aloof Stalin was likely to
be in order to magnify his leverage vis-a-vis both sides.
The British Cabinet now faced a fundamental strategic choice, though
there is no evidence that it was aware of it. In resisting Hitler, it had to
decide whether its approach would be based on constructing a system of
collective security or a traditional alliance. If it chose the former, the
widest group of nations would be invited to join the anti-Nazi resistance;
if it chose the latter, Britain would have to make compromises — to har-
monize its interests with those of potential allies, like the Soviet Union.
The Cabinet opted for collective security. On March 17, notes were
sent to Greece, Yugoslavia, France, Turkey, Poland, and the Soviet Union
inquiring how they would respond to the supposed threat to Romania —
the premise being that they must all share the same interests and repre-
sent a single attitude. Britain suddenly seemed to be offering what it had
withheld since 1918 — a territorial guarantee for all of Eastern Europe.
The responses of the various nations once again demonstrated the
essential weakness of the doctrine of collective security — the assumption
that all nations, and at a minimum all the potential victims, have the same
interest in resisting aggression. Every Eastern European nation presented
its own problems as a special case and emphasized national, not collec-
tive, concerns. Greece made its reaction dependent on Yugoslavia’s; Yu-
goslavia inquired as to Great Britain’s intentions — bringing matters back
to their starting point. Poland indicated that it was not prepared to take
sides between Great Britain and Germany, or to engage itself in the
defense of Romania. Poland and Romania would not agree to Soviet
Stalin's Bazaar
participation in the defense of their countries. And the response of the
Soviet Union was to propose a conference in Bucharest of all the coun-
tries to which the British inquiry had been addressed.
This was a clever maneuver. If the conference took place, it would
establish the principle of Soviet participation in the defense of countries
that were as afraid of Moscow as they were of Berlin; if its initiative was
rejected, the Kremlin would have an excuse to stay aloof while pursuing
its preferred option of exploring accommodation with Germany. Moscow
was in effect asking the countries of Eastern Europe to identify Germany
as the principal threat to their existence, and to challenge it before Mos-
cow had clarified its intentions. Since no Eastern European country was
prepared to do this, the Bucharest conference never came about.
The unenthusiastic responses caused Neville Chamberlain to pursue
other arrangements. On March 20, he suggested a declaration of intent
by Great Britain, France, Poland, and the Soviet Union to consult with
each other in the event of any threat to the independence of any Euro-
pean state, “with a view to taking common action.” A revival of the Triple
Entente of pre-World War I, the proposal said nothing about either the
military strategy that would be implemented should deterrence fail or
the prospects for cooperation between Poland and the Soviet Union,
which was simply taken for granted.
For its part, Poland, whose romantic overestimation of its military ca-
pacities Great Britain seemed to share, refused joint action with the Soviet
Union, facing Great Britain with a choice between Poland and the Soviet
Union. If it guaranteed Poland, Stalin’s incentive to participate in the
common defense would decline. Since Poland was situated between Ger-
many and the Soviet Union, Great Britain would be committed to go to
war before Stalin needed to make any decision. On the other hand, if
Great Britain concentrated on a Soviet pact, Stalin was sure to demand
his pound of flesh for helping the Poles by pushing the Soviet border
westward, toward the Curzon Line.
Spurred on by public outrage and convinced that retreat would further
weaken Great Britain’s position, the British Cabinet refused to sacrifice
any more countries, whatever the dictates of geopolitics. At the same
time, British leaders suffered from the misapprehension that Poland was
somehow militarily stronger than the Soviet Union, and that the Red Army
had no offensive value — a plausible enough assessment in light of the
massive purges of Soviet military leaders that had just taken place. Above
all, the British leaders deeply distrusted the Soviet Union. “I must con-
fess,” Chamberlain wrote, “to the very most profound distrust of Russia. I
have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive,
even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives, which seem to me to
have little connection with our ideas of liberty, and to be concerned only
with getting everyone else by the ears.” 11
Believing itself to be under a severe time constraint, Great Britain took
the plunge and announced the kind of peacetime Continental guarantee
it had consistently rejected since the Treaty of Versailles. Worried about
reports of an imminent German attack on Poland, Chamberlain did not
even pause to negotiate a bilateral alliance with Poland. Instead, he
drafted a unilateral guarantee to Poland with his own hand on March 30,
1939, and presented it to Parliament the next day. The guarantee was
meant to be a stopgap to deter Nazi aggression, a threat which turned out
to be based on false information. The guarantee was to be followed by a
more leisurely attempt to create a broad system of collective security.
Soon thereafter, unilateral guarantees based on the same reasoning were
extended to Greece and Romania.
Driven by moral outrage and strategic confusion, Great Britain thus
slid into guarantees on behalf of countries which all of its postwar prime
ministers had insisted it could not, and would not, defend. The post-
Versailles realities of Eastern Europe had grown so remote to the British
experience that the Cabinet did not even realize it had made a choice
which would multiply Stalin’s options toward Germany and ease his with-
drawal from the proposed common front.
Great Britain’s leaders took Stalin’s participation in their strategy so
much for granted that they believed they could control both its timing
and scope. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax urged that the Soviet Union be
held in reserve and “invited to lend a hand in certain circumstances in
the most convenient form.” 12 What Halifax had specifically in mind was
supplying munitions, not moving Soviet troops to beyond their border.
He did not explain what incentive the Soviet Union might have to play so
subsidiary a role.
In fact the British guarantee to Poland and Romania removed whatever
incentive the Soviets might have had to enter into a serious negotiation
about an alliance with the Western democracies. For one thing, it guaran-
teed all the borders of the Soviet Union’s European neighbors except for
the Baltic States, and, at least on paper, thwarted Soviet ambitions as
much as it did Germany’s. (The fact that Great Britain could have been
oblivious to this reality was a measure of the degree to which the “united
front of peace-loving countries” had taken hold in the Western mind.)
But, more important, the unilateral British guarantees were a gift to Stalin
because they provided him with the maximum he would have asked for
in any negotiation which started, as most negotiations do, with an empty
Stalin's Bazaar
slate. If Hitler moved east, Stalin was now assured of Great Britain’s
commitment to go to war well before the Soviet frontier was reached.
Stalin thus garnered the benefit of a de facto alliance with Great Britain
without any need to reciprocate.
Great Britain’s guarantee to Poland was based on four assumptions,
each of which turned out to be wrong: that Poland was a significant
military power, perhaps more so than the Soviet Union; that France and
Great Britain together were strong enough to defeat Germany without
the help of other allies; that the Soviet Union had an interest in main-
taining the status quo in Eastern Europe; and that the ideological gulf
between Germany and the Soviet Union was ultimately so unbridgeable
that the Soviet Union would join the anti-Hitler coalition sooner or later.
Poland was heroic, but it was not a significant military power. Its task
was made all the less manageable because the French general staff misled
Poland about its actual intentions, implying that some sort of French
offensive was in prospect. The defensive strategy to which France was in
fact committed would oblige Poland to face the full fury of the German
onslaught alone — a task which Western leaders should have known was
far beyond Poland’s capacities. At the same time, Poland could not be
induced to accept Soviet help, because its leaders were convinced (cor-
rectly, as it turned out) that any “liberating” Soviet army would turn into
an army of occupation. And the democracies’ assessment was that they
could win a war against Germany by themselves even if Poland were
The Soviets’ interest in preserving the status quo in Eastern Europe
ended with the Eighteenth Party Congress — if, indeed, it had ever really
existed. Crucially, Stalin did in fact have the option of turning to Hitler
and, after the British guarantee to Poland, could play his Nazi card with
considerable safety. His task was eased because the Western democracies
refused to grasp his strategy — which would have been quite clear to
Richelieu, Metternich, Palmerston, or Bismarck. Quite simply, it was to
make certain that the Soviet Union was always the last major power
to commit itself, thereby achieving the freedom of action for a bazaar in
which either Soviet cooperation or Soviet neutrality would be offered to
the highest bidder.
Before the British guarantee to Poland, Stalin had had to be wary lest
Soviet overtures to Germany cause the democracies to wash their hands
of Eastern Europe, leaving him to face Hitler alone. After the guarantee,
he had an assurance not only that Great Britain would fight for his West-
ern frontier but that the war would start 600 miles to the west, on the
German-Polish frontier.
Stalin had only two remaining concerns. First, he had to make certain
that the British guarantee to Poland was solid; second, he would have to
find out whether the German option really existed. Paradoxically, the
more Great Britain demonstrated its good faith with respect to Poland,
which it was required to do in order to deter Hitler, the more maneuver-
ing room Stalin gained with respect to Germany. Great Britain sought to
preserve the Eastern European status quo. Stalin aimed for the greatest
range of choices and to overturn the Versailles settlement. Chamberlain
wanted to prevent war. Stalin, who felt war was inevitable, wanted the
benefits of war without participating in it.
Stalin decorously pirouetted between the two sides. But in the end, it
was no contest. Hitler alone was in a position to offer him the territorial
gain in Eastern Europe that he was after, and for this he was quite willing
to pay the price of a European war which spared the Soviet Union. On
April 14, Great Britain proposed a unilateral declaration by the Soviet
Union that “in the event of any act of aggression against any European
neighbour of the Soviet Union, which was resisted by the country con-
cerned, the assistance of the Soviet government would be available.” 13
Stalin refused to put his head inside a noose and rejected the one-sided
and naive proposal. On April 17, he replied with a counteroffer in three
pans: an alliance among the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain; a
military convention to give it effect; and a guarantee for all the countries
between the Baltic and the Black seas.
Stalin had to know that such a proposal would never be accepted. First
of all, the Eastern European countries did not want it; second, negotiating
a detailed military convention would have taken more time than was
available; and, finally, Great Britain had not been withholding an alliance
from France for the past decade and a half to give one now to a country
it had deemed worthy of no more important a role than as a supplier of
munitions. “It cannot be pretended,” said Chamberlain, “that such an
alliance is necessary in order that the smaller countries of Eastern Europe
should be furnished with munitions.” 14
Overcoming their reservations, the British leaders inched week by
week toward meeting Stalin’s terms while he continually raised the ante.
In May, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s trusted confidant, had replaced Litvi-
nov as Foreign Minister, signifying that Stalin had personally taken charge
of the negotiations and that good personal relations between the negotia-
tors were no longer a Soviet priority. In his abrasively pedantic manner,
Molotov demanded that all the countries along the Soviet Union’s western
border be guaranteed by both sides and that they be specifically enumer-
ated (ensuring a formal refusal from at least some of them). He also
Stalin's Bazaar
insisted that the term “aggression” be expanded to cover “indirect aggres-
sion,” defined as any concession to German threats, even if force had not
actually been used. Since the Soviet Union reserved for itself the defini-
tion of what was meant by “yielding,” Stalin was also in effect demanding
an unlimited right of intervention in the domestic affairs of all the Soviet
Union’s European neighbors.
By July, Stalin had learned enough. He knew that the British leaders
would consent — however reluctantly — to an alliance on close to his
terms. On July 23, the Soviet and Western negotiators agreed on a draft
treaty that was apparently satisfactory to both sides. Stalin had now ac-
quired a safety net for determining exactly what Hitler had to offer.
Throughout the spring and summer, Stalin carefully signaled that he
was ready to entertain a German proposal. Hitler, however, was wary of
making the first move lest Stalin use it to extract better terms from Great
Britain and France. Stalin had the same fear in reverse. He too was reluc-
tant to make the first move because, if it became public, Great Britain
might abandon its Eastern commitments and oblige him to face Hitler
alone. Nor was he in any hurry; unlike Hitler, he faced no deadlines, and
his nerves were strong. So Stalin waited, raising Hitler’s anxieties.
On July 26, Hitler blinked. If he were to attack Poland before the
autumn rains, he needed to know by September 1 at the latest what Stalin
intended to do. Karl Schnurre, the head of a German team negotiating a
new trade agreement with the Soviet Union, was instructed to begin
broaching political subjects. Using mutual hostility toward the capitalist
West as a bond, he assured his Soviet counterpart that “there was no
problem between these two countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea
or in the Far East that could not be solved.” 15 Schnurre offered to have
these discussions continued at a high-level political meeting with the
Showing eagerness rarely speeds up negotiations. No experienced
statesman settles just because his interlocutor feels a sense of urgency; he
is far more likely to use such impatience to try to extract even better
terms. In any case, Stalin was not to be stampeded. Thus, it was not until
mid-August that Molotov was instructed to receive the German Ambassa-
dor, von der Schulenburg, with a list of questions to determine precisely
what Schnurre was offering. Pressure on the Japanese not to threaten
Siberia? A nonaggression treaty? A pact on the Baltic States? A deal on
By this time, Hitler was in such a hurry that, although he hated doing
so, he was prepared to give way on every point. On August 11, he told
the high commissioner of Danzig:
Everything I undertake is directed against Russia. If the West is too
stupid and too blind to comprehend that, I will be forced to come
to an understanding with the Russians, to smash the West, and then
after its defeat, to turn against the Soviet Union with my assembled
forces. 16
It was certainly an accurate statement of Hitler’s priorities: from Great
Britain, he wanted noninterference in Continental affairs, and from the
Soviet Union, he wanted Lebensraum, or living space. It was a measure
of Stalin’s achievement that he was about to reverse Hitler’s priorities,
however temporarily.
In responding to Molotov’s questions, von der Schulenburg informed
him that Hitler was prepared to send his Foreign Minister, Joachim von
Ribbentrop, to Moscow immediately with full authority to settle all out-
standing issues. Stalin could not help noticing that Hitler was prepared to
negotiate at a level Great Britain had consistently evaded, for no British
minister had seen fit to visit Moscow during all the months of negotiation,
even though some had ventured as far east as Warsaw.
Unwilling to show his hand until he knew precisely what was being
offered, Stalin turned up the pressure on Hitler another notch. Molotov
was instructed to express appreciation for Ribbentrop’s enthusiasm but
to say that an agreement in principle was needed before the utility of a
visit could be determined. Hitler was invited to frame a precise proposal,
including a secret protocol to deal with specific territorial questions. Even
the obtuse Ribbentrop must have understood the purpose of Molotov’s
request. Any leak of the proposal would be a German draft; Stalin’s hands
would remain clean, and failure of the negotiations could be ascribed to
a Soviet refusal to go along with German expansionism.
By now, Hitler’s nervousness had reached a fever pitch. For a decision
to strike at Poland had to be reached in a matter of days. On August 20,
he wrote directly to Stalin. The letter itself posed something of a chal-
lenge for German protocol officers. Since Stalin’s only title was “General
Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” and he held no
governmental position, they could not decide how to address him. Fi-
nally, the letter was dispatched simply to “M. Stalin, Moscow.” It stated: “I
am convinced that the substance of the supplementary protocol desired
by the Soviet Union can be cleared in the shortest possible time if a
responsible German statesman can come to Moscow himself to negoti-
ate.” 17
Stalin had won his gamble on keeping Soviet options open until the last
second. For Hitler was clearly about to offer him for free what, in any alli-
Stalin's Bazaar
ance with Great Britain and France, he could only have gained after a bloody
war with Germany. On August 21, Stalin replied, expressing his hope “that
the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact will mark a decisive turn for the
better in the political relations between our two countries ” 18 Ribben-
trop was invited to come to Moscow forty-eight hours later, on August 23.
Ribbentrop had been in Moscow no more than an hour before he was
ushered into Stalin’s presence. The Soviet leader showed little interest in
a nonaggression pact and even less in the professions of friendship which
Ribbentrop had incorporated into his remarks. The focal point of his
concern was the secret protocol dividing up Eastern Europe. Ribbentrop
proposed that Poland be divided into spheres of influence along the 1914
border, the principal difference being that Warsaw would remain on the
German side. Whether some semblance of Polish independence would
be maintained or whether Germany and the Soviet Union would annex
all their conquests was left open. With respect to the Baltics, Ribben-
trop proposed that Finland and Estonia fall within the Russian sphere
(giving Stalin his long-desired buffer zone around Leningrad), that Lithua-
nia go to Germany, and that Latvia be partitioned. When Stalin demanded
all of Latvia, Ribbentrop telegraphed Hitler, who gave way — as he would
with respect to Stalin’s claim to take Bessarabia from Romania. An elated
Ribbentrop returned to Berlin, where a euphoric Hitler greeted him as
“a second Bismarck.” 19 A mere three days had transpired between the
time of Hitler’s initial message to Stalin and the completion of a diplo-
matic revolution.
Afterward, there was the usual postmortem about who was responsible
for this shocking turn of events. Some blamed Great Britain’s grudging
negotiating style. The historian A. J. P. Taylor has shown that, in the
exchanges between Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the Soviets, rather
uncharacteristically, responded to British proposals much more quickly
than the British did to Soviet messages. From this fact Taylor concluded,
in my view incorrectly, that the Kremlin was more anxious for an alliance
than London was. 20 I believe it was much more a case of Stalin’s being
eager to keep Great Britain in play and not rattle it prematurely — at least
until he could determine Hitler’s intentions.
The British Cabinet obviously made a number of grave psychological
errors. Not only did no minister visit Moscow, but London delayed its
agreement to joint military planning until early August. Even then, an
admiral was made the head of the British delegation, though ground
warfare was the principal, if not the only, subject on Soviet minds. More-
over, the delegation traveled to the Soviet Union by boat, taking five days
to reach its destination, which did not exactly denote a sense of urgency.
Finally, however worthy the moral considerations, Great Britain’s reluc-
tance to guarantee the Baltic States was bound to be interpreted by the
paranoid leader in Moscow as an invitation to Hitler to attack the Soviet
Union, bypassing Poland.
Yet it was not Great Britain’s clumsy diplomatic conduct that had led to
the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The real problem was that Great Britain could not
meet Stalin’s terms without abandoning every principle it had stood for
since the end of the First World War. There was no point in drawing a
line against the rape of small countries by Germany if that implied having
to grant the same privilege to the Soviet Union. A more cynical British
leadership might have drawn the line at the Soviet border instead of
Poland’s, thereby greatly improving Great Britain’s bargaining position
with the Soviet Union and giving Stalin a serious incentive to negotiate
about protecting Poland. To their moral credit, the democracies could
not bring themselves to consecrate another set of aggressions, not even
on behalf of their own security. Realpolitik would have dictated an analy-
sis of the strategic implications of Great Britain’s guarantee to Poland,
whereas the Versailles international order required that Great Britain’s
course be sustained by essentially moral and legal considerations. Stalin
had a strategy but no principles; the democracies defended principle
without ever developing a strategy.
Poland could not be defended with the French army inert behind the
Maginot Line, and the Soviet army waiting inside its own frontiers. In
1914, the nations of Europe had gone to war because military and political
planning had lost touch with each other. As the general staffs had polished
their plans, the political leaders neither understood them nor had any
political objectives commensurate with the magnitude of the military
effort being envisaged.
In 1939, military and political planning again lost touch, this time for
the exactly opposite reason. The Western powers had an eminently sensi-
ble and moral political objective — to stop Hitler. But they were never
able to develop a military strategy to attain that goal. In 1914, strategists
were too reckless; in 1939, they were too self-effacing. In 1914, the mili-
tary of every country were spoiling for war; in 1939, they had so many
misgivings (even in Germany) that they abdicated their judgment to the
political leaders. In 1914, there had been a strategy but no policy; in 1939,
there was a policy but no strategy.
Russia played a decisive role in the outbreak of both wars. In 1914,
Russia had contributed to the start of the war by rigidly adhering to its
alliance with Serbia and to an inflexible mobilization schedule; in 1939,
when Stalin relieved Hitler of the fear of a two-front war, he must have
Stalin's Bazaar
known that he was making a general war inevitable. In 1914, Russia had
gone to war to preserve its honor; in 1939, it encouraged war to share in
the spoils of Hitler’s conquests.
Germany, however, conducted itself in exactly the same manner prior
to the outbreak of both world wars — with impatience and a lack of per-
spective. In 1914, it had gone to war to break up an alliance which almost
surely would not have held together in the absence of German bullying;
in 1939, it was unwilling to wait for its inevitable evolution into the
decisive nation of Europe. And that would have required the precise
opposite of Hitler’s strategy — a period of repose to permit post-Munich
geopolitical realities to sink in. In 1914, the German Emperor’s emotional
imbalance and lack of a clear concept of the national interest had pre-
vented him from waiting; in 1939, an ingenious psychotic determined to
wage war while still at the height of his physical powers swept all rational
calculations aside. The needlessness of Germany’s decision to go to war
in both instances has been illustrated by the fact that, despite two major
defeats and after being deprived of about a third of its pre-World War I
territory, Germany remains Europe’s most powerful, and probably most
influential, nation.
As for the Soviet Union in 1939, it was ill-equipped for the struggle that
was about to take place. Yet, by the end of World War II, it counted as a
global superpower. As Richelieu had in the seventeenth century, Stalin in
the twentieth century took advantage of the fragmentation in Central
Europe. The ascent of the United States to superpower status was fore-
ordained by America’s industrial might. The Soviet ascendancy had its
origin in the ruthless manipulation of Stalin’s bazaar.
The Nazi- Soviet Pact
Until 1941, Hitler and Stalin had pursued untraditional goals by using
traditional means. Stalin waited for the day wiien a communist world
might be steered from within the Kremlin. Hitler had outlined his mad
vision of a racially pure empire governed by the German master race in
his book, Mein Kampf. Two more revolutionary visions could hardly
have been imagined. Yet the means which Hitler and Stalin employed,
culminating in their pact of 1939, could have been taken from a treatise
on eighteenth-century statecraft. On one level, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was a
repetition of the partitions of Poland effected by Frederick the Great,
Catherine the Great, and Empress Maria Theresa in 1772. Unlike these
The Nazi-Soviet Pact
three monarchs, however, Hitler and Stalin were ideological adversaries.
For a while, their common national interest in seeking the demise of
Poland overrode their ideological differences. When their pact finally
unraveled in 1941, the largest land war in the history of mankind was
unleashed, in effect by the will of one man. It is no small irony that the
twentieth century — the age of popular will and of impersonal forces —
should have been forged by so few individuals, and that its greatest calam-
ity might have been avoided by the elimination of a single individual.
As the German army smashed Poland in less than a month, the French
forces, confronting only under-strength German divisions, watched pas-
sively from behind the Maginot Line. A period appropriately nicknamed
the “phony war” followed, during which France’s demoralization became
complete. For hundreds of years, France had been fighting wars for spe-
cific political objectives — to keep Central Europe divided or, as in World
War I, to regain Alsace-Lorraine. Now it was supposed to be fighting on
behalf of a country which had already been conquered and in the defense
of which it had not lifted a finger. In effect, France’s dispirited population
faced another fait accompli and a war which lacked an underlying strat-
For how did Great Britain and France propose to win the war against a
country which had nearly prevailed against them when Russia and the
United States were on the side of the Allies? They were acting as if it were
possible to wait behind the Maginot Line for the British blockade of
Germany to squeeze Hitler into submission. But why should Germany
hold still for this slow strangulation? And why should it attack the Maginot
Line when the road through Belgium lay wide open, this time to be taken
by the full German army since there was no longer an Eastern front? And
if defense was indeed as dominant in war as the French general staff
believed— despite the contrary lesson of the Polish campaign — what
other fate could await France than a second war of attrition in a genera-
tion and before it had recovered from the first?
While France waited, Stalin seized his strategic opportunity. But before
the secret protocol regarding the division of Eastern Europe could be
implemented, Stalin wanted it revised. Like an eighteenth-century prince
disposing of territory without even a tip of the hat to self-determination,
Stalin proposed a new deal to Germany less than a month after complet-
ing the Nazi-Soviet Pact: swapping the Polish territory between Warsaw
and the Curzon Line, which, under the secret protocol, was to go to the
Soviet Union, for Lithuania, which was to go to Germany. Stalin’s purpose,
of course, was to create an additional buffer for Leningrad. Nor did he
seem to feel the need for so much as the pretense of any justification for
his geostrategic maneuvers other than the requirements of Soviet secu-
rity. Hitler accepted Stalin’s proposal.
Stalin wasted no time collecting on his end of the secret protocol. With
the war in Poland still raging, the Soviet Union proposed a military alli-
ance to the three tiny Baltic States, along with the right to establish mili-
tary bases on their territory. Denied help from the West, the small
republics had no alternative other than to take this first step in losing
their independence. On September 17, 1939, less than three weeks after
the outbreak of the war, the Red Army occupied the slice of Poland that
had been designated to the Soviet sphere.
By November, it was Finland’s turn. Stalin demanded Soviet military
bases on Finnish soil and the surrender of the Karelian Isthmus, near
Leningrad. But Finland proved to be made of sterner stuff. It rejected the
Soviet demand and fought when Stalin went to war. Though Finnish
forces inflicted severe losses on the Red Army, which was still reeling
from Stalin’s massive purges, in the end numbers told. After a few months
of heroic resistance, Finland succumbed to the Soviet Union’s crushing
In terms of the grand strategy of the Second World War, the Russo-
Finnish war was a sideshow. Yet it served to demonstrate the degree to
which France and Great Britain had lost their sense for the strategic
realities. Blinded by a temporary stalemate imposed by the outnumbered
Finns, London and Paris seduced themselves with the suicidal speculation
that the Soviet Union might represent the soft underbelly of the Axis (to
which, of course, it did not belong). Preparations were made to send
30,000 troops into Finland through Sweden and Northern Norway. On
the way, they would cut Germany off from the iron ore in Northern
Norway and Sweden, which was being shipped to Germany from the
northern Norwegian port of Narvik. The fact that neither of these coun-
tries was prepared to grant them transit rights did not dim the enthusiasm
of the French and British planners.
The threat of Allied intervention may have helped Finland to obtain a
better settlement than the original Soviet demands would have suggested
but, in the end, nothing could keep Stalin from pushing the Soviet de-
fense line away from the approaches to Leningrad. For historians, the
puzzle remains as to what possessed Great Britain and France to come
within a hairsbreadth of fighting both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany
simultaneously three months before the collapse of France proved the
whole scheme was nothing but a pipedream.
In May 1940, the “ph<pny war” ended. The German army repeated its
maneuver of 1914 by wheeling through Belgium, the principal difference
The Nazi-Soviet Pact
being that the major thrust was now at the center of the front rather than
on the right wing. Paying the price for a decade and a half of doubts and
evasions, France collapsed. Though the efficiency of the German military
machine was by now well established, observers were shocked at the
speed with which France was routed. In the First World War, German
armies had spent four years pushing toward Paris in vain; every mile was
achieved at enormous human expense. In 1940, the German Blitzkrieg
cut through France; by the end of June, German troops were marching
along the Champs-Elysdes. Hitler seemed to be master of the Continent.
But, like other conquerors before him, Hitler did not know how to end
the war he had so recklessly started. He had three choices: he could try
to defeat Great Britain; he could make peace with Great Britain; or he
could seek to conquer the Soviet Union and then, using its vast resources,
turn back west with all his forces and complete the destruction of Great
During the summer of 1940, Hitler attempted the first two approaches.
In a boastful speech on July 19, he hinted that he was prepared to make
a compromise peace with Great Britain. In effect, he asked it to relinquish
the prewar German colonies and to renounce interference in affairs on
the Continent. In return, he would guarantee the British Empire. 1
Hitler’s proposal was analogous to what imperial Germany had been
offering Great Britain for two decades prior to World War I — though then
it had been framed in more conciliatory language and England’s strategic
situation had been much more favorable. Perhaps, if Hitler had been
more specific about what a Europe organized by Germany would look
like, some of the British leaders — such as Lord Halifax, though never
Churchill — toying with the idea of negotiating with Germany might have
been tempted. By in effect asking Great Britain to grant Germany com-
plete freedom of action on the Continent, Hitler evoked the traditional
British response — one which Sir Edward Grey had made in 1909 in
reaction to a similar proposal by far more rational German leaders than
Hitler (and while France was still a major power) when he noted that, if
Great Britain sacrificed the Continental nations to Germany, it would
sooner or later be attacked on the British Isles (see chapter 7). Nor would
Great Britain take seriously a “guarantee” for its Empire. No German
leader ever grasped the British view that any nation capable of protecting
the Empire was also capable of conquering it — as Sir Eyre Crowe had
already pointed out in his famous 1907 Memorandum (see chapter 7).
Churchill, of course, was far too sophisticated and had studied too
much history to have any illusion that, at the end of the war, Great Britain
would still be the premier world power or even in the front rank. Either
Germany or the United States would claim that position. Churchill’s
intransigence toward Germany in the summer of 1940 can therefore
be interpreted as a decision in favor of American over German hege-
mony. American pre-eminence might prove uncomfortable at times, but
at least its culture and language were familiar and there were no ostensi-
bly clashing interests. Finally, there was always the prospect of that “spe-
cial” relationship between Great Britain and America that would have
been inconceivable with Nazi Germany. By the summer of 1940, Hitler
had maneuvered himself into the position where he himself had become
the casus belli.
Hitler now turned to his second option of seeking to destroy the British
air force and, if necessary, of invading the British Isles. But he never went
further than to toy with the idea. Landing operations had not been a part
of German prewar planning, and the plan was abandoned because of a
shortage of landing craft and the inability of the Luftwaffe to destroy the
Royal Air Force. By the end of the summer, Germany again found itself in
a position not so very dissimilar from the one it had been in during the
First World War; having achieved major successes, it was unable to trans-
late them into final victory.
Hitler, of course, was in an excellent position to go on the strategic
defensive — Great Britain was not strong enough to challenge the German
army alone; America would have found it nearly impossible to enter the
war; and Stalin, however he might play with the idea of intervention,
would in the end always have found some reason to postpone it. But
waiting for others to take the initiative was against Hitler’s nature. It was
therefore inevitable that his mind would turn to an attack on the Soviet
As early as July 1940, Hitler ordered preliminary staff plans for a Soviet
campaign. He told his generals that, once the Soviet Union was defeated,
Japan would be able to throw all its armed forces against America, divert-
ing Washington’s attention to the Pacific. An isolated Great Britain without
the prospect of American support would be forced to give up the fight:
“Britain’s hope lies in Russia and the United States,” Hitler noted accu-
rately. “If the hopes pinned on Russia are disappointed then America too
will fall by the wayside, because elimination of Russia would tremen-
dously increase Japan’s power in the Far East. . . . ” 2 Hitler, however, was
not quite ready to give the order to attack. First he would explore the
possibility of luring the Soviets into a joint attack on the British Empire
and of disposing of the British before turning east.
Stalin realized all too well the difficulty of his position. France’s col-
lapse wrecked the expectation — which Stalin had shared with all the
Western military experts — that the war would be the same sort of lengthy
The Nazi-Soviet Pact
struggle of attrition that World War I had been. Stalin’s fondest hope, that
Germany and the Western democracies would exhaust themselves, had
evaporated. If Great Britain fell as well, the German army would be freed
for an attack eastward, and would be able to make use of the full re-
sources of Europe according to the concept Hitler had advertised in Mein
Stalin reacted in nearly stereotypic fashion. At no point in his career
did he react to danger by displaying fear, even when he must have felt it.
Convinced that an admission of weakness would tempt an adversary to
raise his terms, he always tried to obscure strategic dilemmas with intran-
sigence. If Hitler tried to exploit his victory in the West by applying
pressure against the Soviet Union, Stalin would make the prospect of
extracting concessions from him as unattractive and painful as possible.
An excruciatingly careful calculator, he failed, however, to take into ac-
count Hitler’s neurotic personality and thus excluded the possibility that
Hitler might respond to a challenge with a two-front war, no matter how
reckless such a course.
Stalin opted for a two-pronged strategy. He accelerated harvesting the
remainder of the booty promised him in the secret protocol. In June
1940, while Hitler was still occupied with France, Stalin issued an ultima-
tum to Romania to cede Bessarabia and also demanded northern Buko-
vina. The latter was not part of the secret agreement, and possession of it
would place Soviet forces all along the Romanian portion of the Danube
River. That same month, he incorporated the Baltic States into the Soviet
Union by forcing them to agree to sham elections in which not quite 20
percent of the population participated. When the process was completed,
Stalin had regained all the territory Russia had lost at the end of the First
World War; and the Allies had paid the last of a series of installments on
the cost of having excluded both Germany and the Soviet Union from the
1919 Peace Conference.
Concurrent with strengthening his strategic position, Stalin continued
his efforts to placate his ominous neighbor by supplying Hitler’s war
machine with raw materials. As early as February 1940 — before Ger-
many’s victory over France — a trade agreement was signed in Stalin’s
presence committing the Soviet Union to deliver large quantities of raw
materials to Germany. Germany, in turn, provided the Soviet Union with
coal and manufactured goods. The Soviet Union meticulously observed
the provisions of the agreement and generally exceeded them. Indeed,
literally up to the very moment when the Germans finally attacked, Soviet
railroad cars were still crossing the border checkpoints with their deliver-
None of Stalin’s moves, however, could alter the geopolitical reality
that Germany had become the dominant power in Central Europe. Hitler
had made it quite plain that he would not tolerate any Soviet expansion
beyond the provisions of the secret protocol. In August 1940, Germany
and Italy forced Romania, which Stalin by this time considered a part of
the Soviet sphere of influence, to return two-thirds of Transylvania to
Hungary, a near-ally of the Axis Powers. Determined to protect Romania’s
oil supplies, Hitler drew the line more explicitly in September by guaran-
teeing Romania and ordering a motorized division and air forces to Ro-
mania to back up the guarantee.
In the same month, tension grew at the other end of Europe. In
violation of the secret protocol, which had placed Finland in the Soviet
sphere of influence, Finland agreed to permit German troops to cross its
territory en route to Northern Norway. Moreover, there were significant
German arms deliveries, whose only conceivable objective could be to
strengthen Finland against Soviet pressure. When Molotov asked Berlin
for more concrete information, he was given evasive replies. Soviet and
German troops were beginning to jostle each other across the entire
length of Europe.
For Stalin, the most ominous new development, however, occurred on
September 27, 1940, when Germany, Italy, and Japan signed a Tripartite
Pact obliging each of them to go to war against any additional country
that joined the British side. To be sure, the Pact specifically excluded the
relations of each of the signatories with the Soviet Union. This meant that
Japan undertook no obligation to participate in a German-Soviet war, no
matter who struck first, but was required to fight America in case it
entered the war against Germany. Though the Tripartite Pact was ostensi-
bly aimed at Washington, Stalin had no cause to feel reassured. Whatever
the legal provisions, he had to expect that the three Pact members would
at some point turn on him. That he was the odd man out was evident
from the fact that he had not even been informed about the negotiations
until the Pact had been concluded.
By the fall of 1940, tensions were mounting at such a rate that the two
dictators made what would turn out to be their last diplomatic effort to
outmaneuver each other. Hitler’s goal was to lure Stalin into a joint assault
on the British Empire so as to destroy him all the more surely once
Germany’s rear was secure. Stalin attempted to gain time in the hope that
Hitler might overreach somewhere along the way, but also in order to
determine what he might be able to scavenge in the process. Nothing
came of the efforts to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Hitler and
Stalin in the wake of the Tripartite Pact. Each leader did his best to avoid
it by claiming he could not leave his own country, and the logical meeting
The Nazi -Soviet Pact
place — Brest-Litovsk, at the frontier — carried too much historical bag-
On October 13, 1940, Ribbentrop wrote a long letter to Stalin giving
his own interpretation of the course of events since his visit to Moscow
the year before. It was an unusual breach of protocol for a foreign minis-
ter to address not his counterpart but a leader who did not even have
a formal governmental office (Stalin’s sole position remained General
Secretary of the Communist Party).
Ribbentrop’s letter compensated in pomposity for its lack of diplomatic
finesse. He blamed Soviet-German disagreements over Finland and Ro-
mania on British machinations, without explaining how London might
have accomplished such a feat. And he insisted that the Tripartite Pact had
not been directed against the Soviet Union — indeed, the Soviet Union
would be welcome to join in a division of the spoils between the Euro-
pean dictators and Japan after the war. Ribbentrop concluded by inviting
Molotov to pay a return visit to Berlin. On that occasion, Ribbentrop
averred the possibility that the Soviet Union’s joining the Tripartite Pact
could be discussed. 3
Stalin was far too cautious to divide spoils which had not yet been
conquered, or to enter the front line of a confrontation designed by
others. Still, he would keep open the option of dividing the booty with
Hitler in case Great Britain simply collapsed — just as he would do in
1945, when he joined the war against Japan in its final stage for a heavy
price. On October 22, Stalin replied to Ribbentrop’s letter with alacrity
laced with irony. Thanking Ribbentrop for his “instructive analysis of
recent events,” he refrained from offering his own personal assessment
of them. Perhaps to show that two could play at stretching protocol, he
accepted the invitation for Molotov to come to Berlin, unilaterally setting
a very early date — November 10 — less than three weeks away. 4
Hitler accepted the proposal immediately, which led to another misun-
derstanding. Stalin interpreted the speed of Hitler’s acceptance to mean
that the Soviet relationship remained as crucial to Germany as it had been
the previous year, hence as proof that his tough tactics were paying off.
Hitler’s eagerness, however, sprang from his need to get on with his
planning if he were indeed to attack the Soviet Union in the spring of
The depth of distrust between these two would-be partners was evi-
dent before the meetings even started. Molotov refused to board a Ger-
man train sent to the border to escort him to Berlin. The Soviet delegation
was obviously concerned that the elegance of the German cars might be
matched by the extensiveness of their bugging devices. (In the end, the
German cars were hitched onto the back of the Soviet train, whose under-
carriages had been specially constructed so that they could be adjusted
to the narrower European gauge at the border.)
Negotiations finally began on November 12. Molotov, who had a faculty
to irritate far more stable personalities than Hitler, exhibited his abrasive
tactics with a vengeance before the Nazi leadership. His innate truculence
was reinforced by his terror of Stalin, whom he feared much more than
he did Hitler. Molotov’s obsessive concern with his own domestic situa-
tion was typical of diplomats during the entire Soviet period, though it
was particularly acute while Stalin was in power. Soviet negotiators always
seemed much more aware of their domestic constraints than of those in
the international arena.
Since foreign ministers were rarely members of the Politburo (Gro-
myko only became a member in 1973, after sixteen years as Foreign
Minister), their domestic base was weak and they were always in danger
of becoming scapegoats for negotiations gone wrong. Moreover, since
the Soviets assumed that history was ultimately on their side, they were
more inclined to stonewall than to seek broad solutions. Every negotia-
tion with Soviet diplomats turned into a test of endurance; no concession
would ever be forthcoming until the Soviet negotiator had convinced
himself — and particularly those who read the cables in Moscow — that
every last ounce of flexibility had been extracted from the other side. On
the basis of this kind of diplomatic guerrilla warfare, they obtained what-
ever could be had through persistence and pressure, but they usually
missed the opportunity for a real breakthrough. Soviet negotiators — with
Gromyko as the master of the game— became extremely adept at wearing
down opponents who were saddled with preconceived ideas and impa-
tient for a settlement. On the other hand, they tended to miss the forest
for the trees. Thus, in 1971, they lost the opportunity to hold a summit
meeting with Nixon, which would have delayed his opening to Beijing,
by spending months haggling over essentially meaningless preconditions
— all of which the Soviets dropped as soon as Washington had acquired
a Chinese option.
It is not possible to imagine two men less likely to communicate than
Hitler and Molotov. Hitler was not in any event suited to negotiations,
preferring to overwhelm his interlocutors with extended monologues
while exhibiting no sign of listening to the response, if indeed he left
time for a response. In dealing with foreign leaders, Hitler usually con-
fined himself to passionate statements of general principle. On the few
occasions he did participate in actual negotiations — as with the Austrian
Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg or Neville Chamberlain — he adopted a
The Nazi -Soviet Pact
bullying manner and put forward peremptory demands which he rarely
modified. Molotov, on the other hand, was less interested in principles
than in their application. And he had no scope for compromise.
In November 1940, Molotov found himself in a genuinely difficult posi-
tion. Stalin was bound to be hard to please, torn as he was between his
reluctance to contribute to a German victory and his worry that, should
Germany defeat Great Britain without Soviet assistance, he might miss an
opportunity to share in Hitler’s conquests. Whatever did happen, Stalin
was determined never to return to the Versailles arrangement, and at-
tempted to protect his position by hedging every move. The secret proto-
col and subsequent events had made his conception of appropriate
arrangements quite clear to the Germans — perhaps too clear. In this
sense, Molotov s visit to Berlin was seen as an opportunity for elaboration.
As for the democracies, Stalin had used the occasion of a visit in July 1940
by the new British Ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, to reject any possibil-
ity of a return to the Versailles order. When Cripps argued that the fall of
France had made it necessary for the Soviet Union to take an interest in
restoring the balance of power, Stalin replied icily:
The so-called European balance of power had hitherto oppressed not
only Germany but also the Soviet Union. Therefore the Soviet Union
would take all measures to prevent the reestablishment of the old
balance of power in Europe. 5
In diplomatic language, “all measures” usually embraces the threat of
For Molotov, the stakes could hardly have been higher. Since Hitler’s
record left little doubt that he would not let 1941 go by without launching
some kind of major campaign, it was probable that, if Stalin did not
join him in attacking the British Empire, he might well attack the Soviet
Union. Molotov therefore faced a de facto ultimatum masquerading as
seduction — though Stalin underestimated how short the deadline actu-
ally was.
Ribbentrop opened the conversations by outlining why a German vic-
tory 7 was inevitable. He urged Molotov to join the Tripartite Pact, unde-
terred by the fact that this treaty was an elaboration of what had originally
been the Anti-Comintern Pact. On that basis, argued Ribbentrop, it would
be possible to “establish spheres of influence between Russia, Germany,
Italy, and Japan along very broad lines.” 6 According to Ribbentrop, this
should not lead to conflict, because each of the prospective partners was
above all interested in expanding southward. Japan would move into
Southeast Asia, Italy into North Africa, and Germany would reclaim its
former colonies in Africa. After many circumlocutions to emphasize his
cleverness, Ribbentrop finally identified the prize which had been re-
served for the Soviet Union: “. . . whether Russia in the long run would
not also turn to the South for the natural outlet to the open sea that was
so important for Russia ." 7
Anyone even vaguely familiar with Hitler’s public statements knew this
was nonsense. Africa had always been a low Nazi priority. Not only had
Hitler never shown any particular interest in it, but Molotov probably had
read enough of Mein Kampf to realize that it was Lebensraum in Russia
that Hitler was really after. Having silently sat through Ribbentrop’s expo-
sition, Molotov now inquired matter-of-factly, though somewhat inso-
lently, to what sea the Soviet Union was supposed to be seeking this
outlet. Answering with another ponderous circumlocution, Ribbentrop
finally mentioned the Persian Gulf, as if it were already Germany’s to give
The question now was, whether they could not continue in the future
also to do good business together . . . whether in the long run the most
advantageous access to the sea for Russia could not be found in the
direction of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and whether at the
same time certain other aspirations of Russia in this part of Asia —
in which Germany was completely disinterested — could not also be
realized . 8
Molotov had no interest in so bombastic a proposal. Germany did not yet
possess what it purported to offer, and the Soviet Union did not need
Germany to conquer these territories for itself. Expressing his willingness
in principle to join the Tripartite Pact, Molotov immediately hedged the
concession with the argument that “precision was necessary in a delinea-
tion of spheres of influence over a rather long period of time .’’ 9 This, of
course, could not be completed on just one visit to Berlin and would
require extended consultations, including a return visit to Moscow by
That afternoon, Molotov met with Hitler in the newly completed mar-
ble Chancellery 7 . Everything had been arranged to awe the proletarian
minister from Moscow. Molotov was led along a vast corridor on both
sides of which, every few yards, tall SS men in black uniforms came to
attention and raised their arms in the Nazi salute. The doors to Hitler’s
office reached all the way to the high ceiling and were thrown open by
two particularly tall SS men whose raised arms formed an arch beneath
The Nazi -Soviet Pact
which Molotov was ushered into Hitler’s presence. Seated at his desk
along the far wall of the enormous room, Hitler silently observed his
visitors for a few moments, then sprang up and, still without saying a
word, shook hands with each member of the Soviet delegation. As he
invited them to sit down in the lounge area, some curtains were parted
and Ribbentrop and a few advisers joined the group. 10
Having inflicted the Nazi version of majesty on his guests, Hitler laid
out his idea of the purpose of their meeting. He proposed agreeing on a
joint long-term strategy because both Germany and the Soviet Union “had
at their helm men who possessed sufficient authority to commit their
countries to a development in a definite direction.” 11 What Hitler had in
mind was setting up a kind of joint Monroe Doctrine with the Soviets for
the whole of Europe and Africa, and dividing the colonial territories
between themselves.
Demonstrating that he had not been in the least intimidated by his
reception, seemingly drawn from some Viennese operettas vision of
grandeur, Molotov confined himself to a series of precise questions: What
was the ultimate purpose of the Tripartite Pact? Of Hitler’s definition of
his self-proclaimed New Order? Of the Greater Asian Sphere? Of German
intentions in the Balkans? Was the understanding placing Finland in the
Soviet sphere of influence still valid?
No one had ever taken over a conversation with Hitler in this manner,
or subjected him to a cross-examination. In any event, Hitler was not
interested in limiting German freedom of action in any area his armies
were capable of reaching — certainly not in Europe.
The next day’s meeting with Hitler was prefaced by a spartan lunch and
did not make any better progress. Characteristically, Hitler started out
with an extended monologue, during which he explained how he pro-
posed to divide the world with Stalin:
After the conquest of England the British Empire would be apportioned
as a gigantic worldwide estate in bankruptcy. ... In this bankrupt estate
there would be access for Russia to the ice-free and really open ocean.
Thus far, a minority of 45 million Englishmen had ruled the 600 million
inhabitants of the British Empire. He was about to crush this minor-
ity. .. .
In these circumstances there arose worldwide perspectives — Rus-
sia’s participation in the solution of these problems would have to be
arranged. All the countries that could possibly be interested in the
bankrupt estate would have to stop all controversies and concern them-
selves exclusively with apportioning the British Empire. 12
Replying sardonically that he agreed with what he had understood, Molo-
tov promised to report the remainder to Moscow. Concurring in principle
with Hitler’s statement that the Soviet Union and Germany had no con-
flicting interests, he immediately put the proposition to a practical test by
inquiring what Germany’s reaction would be if the Soviet Union extended
a guarantee to Bulgaria similar to the one Germany had given to Romania
(which would in effect block further extension of German influence in
the Balkans). And what about the Soviet Unions annexing Finland?
Clearly, self-determination was not a principle of Soviet foreign policy,
and Stalin would not hesitate to annex non-Russian populations if he
could do so without German interference. Not only the territorial settle-
ment but the moral principles of the Versailles settlement were dead.
The tense atmosphere at the meeting did not ease any when Hitler
pointed out rather testily that Bulgaria did not seem to have asked for a
Soviet alliance. And he rejected the annexation of Finland on the ground
that it went beyond the secret protocol, sidestepping the fact that going
beyond the protocol had been the whole point of Molotov’s journey to
Berlin. The meeting was ending on a sour note. As Hitler rose, mumbling
something about the possibility of a British air raid, Molotov reiterated
his basic message: “The Soviet Union, as a great power, cannot remain
aloof from the great issues in Europe and Asia .’’ 13 Without specifying how
the Soviet Union would reciprocate if Hitler granted its wishes, Molotov
merely promised that, after he had reported to Stalin, he would convey
his chief s ideas about an appropriate sphere of influence to Hitler.
Hitler was so annoyed that he did not attend a dinner hosted by Molo-
tov at the Soviet Embassy — though most of the other Nazi leaders were
present. The dinner was interrupted by a British air raid and, since the
Soviet Embassy had no air-raid shelter, the guests scattered in all direc-
tions. The Nazi leaders shuttled off in limousines, the Soviet delegation
to the Bellevue Castle (which currently houses the German president
when he is in Berlin), while Ribbentrop took Molotov to his private
air-raid shelter nearby. There, he brandished a German draft of Soviet
adherence to the Tripartite Pact without seeming to understand that Molo-
tov had neither the inclination nor the authority to go beyond what he
had told Hitler. Molotov, on his part, ignored the draft and went on to
raise the very issues Hitler had avoided, reiterating that the Soviet Union
could not be excluded from any European question. He then specifically
listed Yugoslavia, Poland, Greece, Sweden, and Turkey, conspicuously
avoiding the grand vistas along the Indian Ocean which Ribbentrop and
Hitler had earlier put before him . 14
Behind Molotov’s insolent and intransigent style was an attempt to gain
The Nazi -Soviet Pact
time for Stalin to resolve a nearly insoluble quandary. Hitler was offering
him a partnership in the defeat of Great Britain. But it did not take much
imagination to realize that, afterward, the Soviet Union would stand naked
before its would-be partners in the Tripartite Pact, all of them former
associates in the Anti-Comintern Pact. On the other hand, if Great Britain
were to collapse without Soviet assistance, it might be desirable for the
Soviet Union to improve its strategic position for the inevitable show-
down with Hitler.
In the end, Stalin never did decide which course to pursue. On Novem-
ber 25, Molotov sent Stalin’s conditions for joining the Tripartite Pact to
Ribbentrop: Germany would have to withdraw its troops from Finland
and give the Soviet Union a free hand in that country; Bulgaria would
need to join a military alliance with the Soviet Union and permit Soviet
bases on its territory; Turkey would be required to accept Soviet bases
on its territory, including the Dardanelles. Germany would stand aside if
the Soviet Union pursued its strategic objectives in the Balkans and the
Dardanelles by force. As an elaboration of Hitler’s own offer that the area
south of Batum and Baku be recognized as a Soviet sphere of interest,
Stalin now defined the sphere to include Iran and the Persian Gulf. As for
Japan, it would have to abandon any claim to mineral rights on Sakhalin
Island. 15 Stalin had to know that these conditions would never be ac-
cepted since they blocked any further German expansion toward the east,
and since he had offered no commensurable Soviet reciprocal act.
Stalin’s reply to Hitler therefore primarily served to signal what he
considered to be the Soviet sphere of interest, and as a warning that he
would resist its impairment, at least diplomatically. Over the course of
the next decade, employing the tactics of the tsars, Stalin proceeded to
establish that sphere by agreement whenever possible, by force when
necessary. He pursued the objectives outlined in the November 25 mem-
orandum, first in concert with Hitler, next on the side of the democracies
against Hitler, and finally through confrontation with the democracies.
Then, toward the very' end of his life, Stalin seemed on the verge of
exploring a grand bargain with the democracies to safeguard what he
never ceased to treat as the Soviet sphere of influence (see chapter 20).
For Hitler, the die was already cast. As early as the day of Molotov’s
arrival in Berlin, Hitler had ordered all preparations for an attack on the
Soviet Union to continue, with the final decision to be delayed until an
operational plan had been approved. 16 In Hitler’s mind, the only decision
had always been whether to attack the Soviet Union before or after he
had defeated Great Britain. And Molotov’s visit settled that issue. On
November 14, the day Molotov left Berlin, Hitler ordered the staff plans
of the summer to be turned into an operational concept for an attack on
the Soviet Union by the summer of 1941. When he received Stalin’s
proposal of November 25, he ordered that no reply be returned. Nor did
Stalin ever ask for one. German military preparations for a war on Russia
now moved into high gear.
There has been considerable debate about whether Stalin ever grasped
the impact of his tactics on a personality like Hitler. In all likelihood, he
underestimated the deadly impatience of his adversary. For he seems to
have assumed that Hitler was, like himself, a cool and careful calculator
who would not willingly launch his armies into the vast spaces of Russia
before he had concluded the war in the west. In this assumption, Stalin
was wrong. Hitler believed that willpower could overcome all obstacles.
His typical response to resistance was to turn it into a personal confronta-
tion. Hitler could never wait for conditions to mature fully, if only because
the act of waiting implied that circumstances might transcend his will.
Stalin not only was more patient but, as a communist, had more respect
for historical forces. In his nearly thirty years of rule, he never staked
everything on one throw of the dice and, mistakenly, believed that Hitler
would not do so either. In the meantime, Stalin was morbidly concerned
that rash Soviet deployments might trigger a German pre-emptive attack.
And he misconstrued Hitler’s eagerness to enlist him in the Tripartite Pact
as proof that the Nazis were planning to devote 1941 to further attempts
to bring down Great Britain. Apparently, Stalin believed that the following
year, 1942, was to be the year of decision for a war with Germany. His
biographer Dmitri Volkogonov told me that Stalin was keeping open the
option of a pre-emptive war against Germany in that year, which may
explain why Soviet armies were deployed so far forward in 1941. Ex-
pecting Hitler to state major demands before attacking, Stalin probably
would have gone quite a distance to meet these demands — at least in
All such calculations failed because their basic assumption was that
Hitler engaged in rational calculations; however, Hitler did not consider
himself bound by a normal calculation of risks. Nary a year of Hitler’s rule
had gone by without his committing some action which his entourage had
warned him was too dangerous: rearmament in 1934-35; reoccupying
the Rhineland in 1936; occupying Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938;
attacking Poland in 1939; and the campaign against France in 1940. Nor
was it Hitler’s intention to let 1941 turn into an exception. Given his
personality, he could only have been bought off if the Soviet Union had
decided to join the Tripartite Pact with minimum conditions and had
participated in a military' operation against Great Britain in the Middle
The Nazi-Soviet Pact
East. Then, with Great Britain defeated and the Soviet Union isolated,
Hitler would surely have gone on to fulfill his lifelong obsession for
conquests in the east.
No amount of clever maneuvering on the part of Stalin could, in the
end, prevent his country’s ending up in much the same position as Poland
had the year before. The Polish government could only have avoided a
German attack in 1939 by agreeing to yield the Polish Corridor and
Danzig, and then by joining a Nazi crusade against the Soviet Union — at
the end of all of which Poland would still have been at Hitler’s mercy.
Now, a year later, it seemed that the Soviet Union could only buy a respite
from German aggression by submitting to Nazi proposals (at the price of
total isolation and by entering a risky war against Great Britain). In the
end, however, it would still face an attack from Germany.
Steely-nerved, Stalin maintained his two-track policy of cooperating
with Germany by supplying war materials while opposing it geopoliti-
cally, as if no danger existed at all. Though he was not willing to join the
Tripartite Pact, he did grant Japan the sole benefit which Soviet adherence
to the Pact would have brought it by freeing Japan’s rear for adventures
in Asia.
Though obviously unaware of Hitler’s briefing to his generals that an
attack on the Soviet Union would enable Japan to challenge the United
States overtly, Stalin reached the same conclusion independently and
set out to remove that incentive. On April 13, 1941, he concluded a
nonaggression treaty with Japan in Moscow, following essentially the
same tactics in the face of mounting Asian tensions that he had adopted
toward the Polish crisis eighteen months earlier. In each case, he re-
moved the aggressor’s risk of a two-front war, and he managed to deflect
war from Soviet territory by encouraging what he considered a capitalist
civil war elsewhere. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had gained him a two-year
respite, and the nonaggression treaty with Japan enabled him six months
later to throw his Far Eastern army into the battle for Moscow, which
decided the outcome of the war in his favor.
After concluding the nonaggression treaty, Stalin, in an unprecedented
gesture, saw the Japanese Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, off at the
train station. Symbolic of the importance Stalin attached to the treaty, it
also provided him with the occasion — in the presence of the entire diplo-
matic corps — to invite negotiations with Germany while flaunting his
increased bargaining power. “The European problem can be solved in a
natural way if Japan and the Soviets cooperate,” said Stalin to the Foreign
Minister loudly enough for everyone to hear — probably to imply that,
with his eastern border secure, his bargaining position in Europe had
improved, but perhaps also that Germany did not need to go to war with
the Soviet Union to free Japan’s rear for war with the United States.
“Not only the European problem,” replied the Japanese Foreign Minis-
ter. “The whole world can be settled!” affirmed Stalin — as long as others
do the fighting, he must have thought, and the Soviet Union receives
compensation for their successes.
As a way of conveying his message to Berlin, Stalin then walked over
to German Ambassador von der Schulenburg, put his arm around him,
and announced, “We must remain friends and you must now do every-
thing to that end.” To make sure he had used every channel, including
the military, to convey his message, Stalin next walked over to the acting
German military 7 attache and said loudly, “We will stay friends with you,
whatever happens.” 17
Stalin had every reason to be concerned about German attitudes. As
Molotov had hinted in Berlin, he had been pressing Bulgaria to accept a
Soviet guarantee. Stalin had also negotiated a friendship and nonaggres-
sion treaty with Yugoslavia in April 1941, at the precise moment Germany
was seeking transit rights through Yugoslavia to attack Greece — a course
of conduct certain to encourage Yugoslav resistance to German pressures.
As it turned out, the Soviet treaty with Yugoslavia was signed only hours
before the German army crossed the Yugoslav frontier.
Stalin’s principal weakness as a statesman was his tendency to ascribe
to his adversaries the same capacity for cold calculation of which he was
so proud in himself. This caused Stalin to underestimate the impact of his
own intransigence and to overestimate the scope available in his, how-
ever rare, efforts at conciliation. This attitude was to blight his relations
with the democracies after the war. In 1941, he was clearly convinced up
until the time the Germans crossed the Soviet border that he might at the
last minute stave off the assault by generating a negotiation — during
which all the indications are that he was prepared to make vast conces-
Stalin certainly did not fail to deflect an attack from Germany for lack
of trying. On May 6, 1941, the Soviet people were informed that Stalin had
taken over the position of Prime Minister from Molotov, who remained as
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was the first time
that Stalin emerged from the recesses of the Communist Party to assume
visible responsibility for the day-to-day conduct of affairs.
Only circumstances of extreme peril could have propelled Stalin to
abandon the aura of mysterious menace that was his preferred method
of government. Andrei Vyshinsky, then Deputy Foreign Minister, told the
Ambassador of Vichy France that Stalin’s emergence in public office
The Nazi-Soviet Pact
marked “the greatest historical event in the Soviet Union since its incep-
tion.” 18 Von der Schulenburg thought he had divined Stalins purpose.
“In my opinion,” he told Ribbentrop, “it may be assumed with certainty
that Stalin has set himself a foreign policy goal of overwhelming impor-
tance for the Soviet Union, which he hopes to attain by his personal
efforts. I firmly believe that, in an international situation which he consid-
ers serious, Stalin has set himself the goal of preserving the Soviet Union
from a conflict with Germany.” 19
The next few weeks demonstrated the accuracy of the German Ambas-
sador’s prediction. As a way of sending a signal of reassurance to Ger-
many, TASS, on May 8, denied that there were any unusual Soviet troop
concentrations along the western borders. Over the following weeks,
Stalin broke diplomatic relations with every European government-in-
exile located in London — with the wounding explanation that their affairs
should henceforth be dealt with by the German Embassy. Stalin simulta-
neously recognized the puppet governments Germany had set up in
some of the occupied territories. In sum, Stalin went out of his way to
assure Germany that he recognized all its existing conquests.
To remove any possible pretext for aggression, Stalin would not permit
forward Soviet military units to be placed on heightened alert. And he
ignored British and American warnings of an imminent German attack —
in part because he suspected the Anglo-Saxons of trying to embroil him in
a fight with Germany. Though Stalin forbade firing on the ever-mounting
German reconnaissance overflights, well back from the front he did per-
mit civil-defense exercises and the calling up of reserves. Obviously,
Stalin had decided that his best chance for any last-minute deal was to
reassure the Germans of his intentions, especially since, of the counter-
measures available, none was really likely to make a decisive difference.
On June 13, nine days before the Germans attacked, TASS published
another official statement denying widespread rumors of imminent war.
The Soviet Union, the statement read, planned to observe all its existing
agreements with Germany. The release also hinted broadly at the possi-
bility of new negotiations leading to improved arrangements on all dis-
puted issues. That Stalin had indeed been prepared to make major
concessions could be seen from Molotov’s reaction when, on June 22,
von der Schulenburg brought him the German declaration of war. The
Soviet Union, Molotov remonstrated plaintively, had been prepared to
remove all its troops from the frontier as a reassurance to Germany. All
other demands were negotiable. Molotov said, being uncharacteristically
defensive, “Surely we have not deserved that.” 20
Apparently Stalin was so shocked by Germany’s declaration of war that
he fell into something of a depression for a period of about ten days. On
July 3, however, he resumed command, delivering a major radio address.
Unlike Hitler, Stalin was not a born orator. He rarely spoke in public, and
when he did, he was extremely pedantic. In this address too he relied on
a dry recitation of the monumental task that lay before the Russian peo-
ples. Yet his very matter-of-factness conveyed a certain resolution and the
sense that the job, however huge, was manageable.
“History shows,” said Stalin, “that there are no invincible armies, and
never have been.” Issuing orders for the destruction of all machinery and
rolling stock, and for the formation of guerrilla forces behind German
lines, Stalin read off a sheaf of figures as if he were an accountant. His
sole bow to rhetoric had been at the beginning of the speech. Never
before had Stalin appealed to his people on a personal level — nor would
he ever again; “Comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters, fighting men of
our army and navy. I am speaking to you, my friends!” 21
Hitler finally had the war he had always wanted. And he had sealed his
doom, which, it is possible, he had also always wanted. German leaders,
now fighting on two fronts, had overreached for the second time in a
generation. Some 70 million Germans were engaged in combat against
some 700 million adversaries once Hitler had brought America into the
war in December 1941. Apparently even Hitler was awestruck at the task
he had set before himself. Just hours before the attack, he told his staff: “I
feel as if I am pushing open the door to a dark room, never seen before,
without knowing what lies behind the door.” 22
Stalin had gambled on Hitler’s rationality, and he had lost; Hitler had
gambled that Stalin would quickly collapse, and he too had lost. But
whereas Stalin’s error was retrievable, Hitler’s was not.
America Re-enters the Arena:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
For contemporary political leaders governing by public opinion polls,
Roosevelt’s role in moving his isolationist people toward participation in
the war serves as an object lesson on the scope of leadership in a democ-
racy. Sooner or later, the threat to the European balance of power would
have forced the United States to intervene in order to stop Germany’s
drive for world domination. The sheer, and growing, strength of America
was bound to propel it eventually into the center of the international
arena. That this happened with such speed and so decisively was the
achievement of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
All great leaders walk alone. Their singularity springs from their ability
to discern challenges that are not yet apparent to their contemporaries.
Roosevelt took an isolationist people into a war between countries whose
conflicts had only a few years earlier been widely considered inconsistent
with American values and irrelevant to American security. After 1940,
Roosevelt convinced the Congress, which had overwhelmingly passed a
series of Neutrality Acts just a few years before, to authorize ever-increas-
ing American assistance to Great Britain, stopping just short of outright
belligerency and occasionally even crossing that line. Finally, Japans at-
tack on Pearl Harbor removed America’s last hesitations. Roosevelt was
able to persuade a society which had for two centuries treasured its
invulnerability of the dire perils of an Axis victory. And he saw to it that,
this time, America’s involvement would mark a first step toward perma-
nent international engagement. During the war, his leadership held the
alliance together and shaped the multilateral institutions which continue
to serve the international community to this day.
No president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, has
made a more decisive difference in American history. Roosevelt took the
oath of office at a time of national uncertainty, when America’s faith in
the New World’s infinite capacity for progress had been severely shaken
by the Great Depression. All around him, democracies seemed to be
faltering and antidemocratic governments on both the Left and the Right
were gaining ground.
After Roosevelt had restored hope at home, destiny imposed on him
the obligation of defending democracy around the world. No one has
described this aspect of Roosevelt’s contribution better than Isaiah Berlin:
[Roosevelt] looked upon the future with a calm eye, as if to say ‘Let it
come, whatever it may be, it will all be grist to our great mill. We shall
turn it all to benefit.’ ... In a despondent world which appeared divided
between wicked and fatally efficient fanatics marching to destroy, and
bewildered populations on the run, unenthusiastic martyrs in a cause
they could not define, he believed in his own ability, so long as he was
at the controls, to stem this terrible tide. He had all the character and
energy and skill of the dictators, and he was on our side. 1
Roosevelt had already served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in Wilson’s
Administration, and had been the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
in thel920 election. Many leaders, among them de Gaulle, Churchill, and
Adenauer, have been impelled to come to terms with the loneliness
inherent in the journey toward greatness by a period of withdrawal from
public life. Roosevelt’s was imposed on him when he was struck down by
polio in 1921. In an extraordinary demonstration of willpower, he over-
came his disability and learned to stand with the aid of braces and even
to walk a few steps, which enabled him to appear before the public as if
he were not paralyzed at all. Until his report to the Congress on Yalta in
1945, Roosevelt stood whenever he delivered a major speech. Because
the media cooperated with Roosevelt’s attempt to play his role with dig-
nity, the vast majority of Americans never realized the extent of Roose-
velt’s handicap or had its perceptions of him tinged by pity.
Roosevelt, an ebullient leader who used charm to maintain his aloof-
ness, was an ambiguous combination of political manipulator and vision-
ary. He governed more often by instinct than by analysis, and evoked
strongly contrasting emotions. 2 As has been summarized by Isaiah Berlin,
Roosevelt had serious shortcomings of character, which included unscru-
pulousness, ruthlessness, and cynicism. Yet Berlin concluded that, in the
end, these were more than dramatically outweighed by Roosevelt’s posi-
tive traits:
What attracted his followers were countervailing qualities of a rare
and inspiring order: he was large-hearted and possessed wide political
horizons, imaginative sweep, understanding of the time in which he
lived and of the direction of the great new forces at work in the twenti-
eth century — 3
This was the president who propelled America into a leadership role
internationally, an environment where questions of war or peace, prog-
ress or stagnation all around the world came to depend on his vision and
America’s journey from involvement in the First World War to active
participation in the Second proved to be a long one — interrupted as it
was by the nation’s about-face to isolationism. The depth of America’s
revulsion toward international affairs illustrates the magnitude of Roose-
velt’s achievement. A brief sketch of the historical backdrop against which
Roosevelt conducted his policies is therefore necessary.
In the 1920s, America’s mood was ambivalent, oscillating between a
willingness to assert principles of universal applicability and a need to
justify them on behalf of an isolationist foreign policy. Americans took to
reciting the traditional themes of their foreign policy with even greater
emphasis: the uniqueness of America’s mission as the exemplar of liberty,
the moral superiority of democratic foreign policy, the seamless relation-
ship between personal and international morality, the importance of
open diplomacy, and the replacement of the balance of power by interna-
tional consensus as expressed in the League of Nations.
All of these presumably universal principles were enlisted on behalf of
American isolationism. Americans were still incapable of believing that
anything outside the Western Hemisphere could possibly affect their se-
curity. The America of the 1920s and 1930s rejected even its own doctrine
of collective security lest it lead to involvement in the quarrels of distant,
bellicose societies. The provisions of the Treaty of Versailles were inter-
preted as vindictive, and reparations as self-defeating. When the French
occupied the Ruhr, America used the occasion to withdraw its remaining
occupying forces from the Rhineland. That Wilsonian exceptionalism had
established criteria no international order could fulfill, made disillusion-
ment a part of its very essence.
Disillusionment with the results of the war erased to a considerable
extent the distinctions between the internationalists and the isolationists.
Not even the most liberal internationalists any longer discerned an Ameri-
can interest in sustaining a flawed postwar settlement. No significant
group had a good word to say about the balance of power. What passed
for internationalism was being identified with membership in the League
of Nations rather than with day-to-day participation in international diplo-
macy. And even the most dedicated internationalists insisted that the
Monroe Doctrine superseded the League of Nations, and recoiled before
the idea of America’s joining League enforcement measures, even eco-
nomic ones.
The isolationists carried these attitudes toward their ultimate conclu-
sion. They attacked the League of Nations in principle, on the ground that
it jeopardized the twin pillars of historic American foreign policy — the
Monroe Doctrine and isolationism. The League was believed to be incom-
patible with the Monroe Doctrine because collective security entitled,
indeed required, the League to involve itself in disputes within the West-
ern Hemisphere. And was inconsistent with isolationism because the
League obliged America to involve itself in disputes outside the Western
The isolationists had a point. If the entire Western Hemisphere were
somehow excluded from the operation of collective security, what was to
keep the other nations of the world from organizing regional groupings
of their own and excluding them from the operations of the League? In
that case, the League of Nations would have led to a restoration of a
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
balance-of-power system, albeit on a regional basis. In practice, the inter-
nationalists and the isolationists converged on a bipartisan foreign policy.
Both rejected foreign intervention within the Western Hemisphere and
any participation in League enforcement machinery outside of it. They
supported disarmament conferences because there was a clear consensus
that arms caused war and that the reduction of arms contributed to peace.
They favored internationally endorsed general principles of peaceful set-
tlement, such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, as long as these agreements did
not imply enforcement. Finally, the United States was always helpful on
technical, usually financial, issues with no immediate political conse-
quence, such as working out agreed reparations schedules.
The gap in American thinking between approving a principle and par-
ticipating in its enforcement became dramatically apparent after the
1921-22 Washington Naval Conference. The Conference was important
in two respects. It provided for ceilings in naval armaments for the United
States, Great Britain, and Japan, granting to the United States a navy equal
in size to that of Great Britain, and to Japan a navy three-fifths the size of
the United States. This provision reaffirmed America’s new role as the
dominant power in the Pacific alongside Japan. Great Britain’s role in that
theater was henceforth secondary. Most important, a second, so-called
Four-Power Treaty among Japan, the United States, Great Britain, and
France providing for the peaceful settlement of disputes was to replace
the old Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, and to usher in an era of coopera-
tion in the Pacific. But if one of the signatories of the Four-Power Treaty
disregarded its provisions, would the others take action against it? “The
four-power treaty contains no war commitment. . . . There is no commit-
ment to armed force, no alliance, no written or moral obligation to join
in defense . . . President Harding explained to a skeptical American Sen-
ate. 4
Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes reinforced the President s
words by putting all of the signatories to the pact on notice that America
would under no circumstances participate in enforcement measures. But
the Senate was still not satisfied. In ratifying the Four-Power Treaty, the
Senate added reservations stipulating that this would not commit the
United States to using armed force in repelling aggression. 5 In other
words, the agreement stood on its own merit; failure to observe it would
involve no consequence. America would decide each case as it arose, just
as if there were no agreement.
In terms of the way diplomacy had been routinely practiced for centu-
ries, it was indeed an extraordinary proposition that a solemn treaty
conferred no right of enforcement, and that enforcement had to be sepa-
rately negotiated with the Congress on a case-by-case basis. It was a
foretaste of the debates between the Nixon Administration and the Con-
gress after the Vietnam Peace agreement of January 1973, wherein the
Congress argued that an agreement for which America had fought
through three administrations of both parties did not confer any right of
enforcement. According to that theory, agreements with America would
reflect Washington’s mood of the moment; whatever consequences grew
out of them would likewise depend on Washington’s mood at some other
moment — an attitude not very likely to engender confidence in America’s
The Senate’s reserve had not inhibited President Harding’s enthusiasm
for the Four-Power Treaty. At the signing ceremony, he praised it because
it protected the Philippines and marked “the beginning of a new and
better epoch in human progress. ” How was it possible for a treaty without
enforcement provisions to protect a prize as rich as the Philippines?
Despite his position on the opposite end of the political spectrum, Har-
ding invoked the standard Wilsonian liturgy. The world, he said, would
punish violators by proclaiming “the odiousness of perfidy or infamy.” 6
Harding, however, failed to explain how world public opinion was to be
determined, let alone marshaled, and for what cause, so long as America
refused to join the League of Nations.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact, the impact of which on Europe was discussed
in chapter 11, turned into another example of America’s tendency to treat
principles as self-implementing. Although American leaders enthusiasti-
cally proclaimed the historic nature of the treaty because sixty-two nations
had renounced war as an instrument of national policy, they adamantly
refused to endorse any machinery for applying it, much less for enforcing
it. President Calvin Coolidge, waxing effusive before the Congress in
December 1928, asserted: “Observance of this Covenant ... promises
more for the peace of the world than any other agreement ever negoti-
ated among the nations.” 7
Yet how was this utopia to be achieved? Coolidge’s passionate defense
of the Kellogg-Briand Pact spurred internationalists and supporters of the
League to argue, quite reasonably, that, war having been outlawed, the
concept of neutrality had lost all meaning. In their view, since the League
had been designed to identify aggressors, the international community
was obliged to punish them appropriately. “Does anyone believe,” asked
one of the proponents of this view, “that the aggressive designs of Musso-
lini could be checked merely by the good faith of the Italian people and
the power of public opinion?” 8
The prescience of this question did not enhance its acceptability. Even
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
while the treaty bearing his name was still in the process of being de-
bated, Secretary of State Kellogg, in an address before the Council on
Foreign Relations, stressed that force would never be used to elicit com-
pliance. Reliance on force, he argued, would turn what had been intended
as a long stride toward peace into precisely the sort of military alliance
that was so in need of being abolished. Nor should the Pact include a
definition of aggression, since any definition would omit something and
thereby weaken the nobility of the Pacts wording . 9 For Kellogg, the word
was not only the beginning, it was the end:
A nation claiming to act in self-defense must justify itself before the bar
of world opinion as well as before the signatories of the treaty. For that
reason I declined to place in the treaty a definition of aggressor or of
self-defense because I believed that no comprehensive legalistic defini-
tion could be framed in advance. . . . This would make it more difficult
rather than less difficult for an aggressor nation to prove its inno-
cence . 10
The Senate was no more impressed by Kellogg’s explanations than it had
been six years earlier by Harding’s exegesis of why the Four- Power Treaty
did not mean what it said. Now it added three “understandings” of its
own: in the Senate’s view, the treaty did not limit either the right of self-
defense or of the Monroe Doctrine, nor did it create any obligation to
assist victims of aggression — which meant that every foreseeable contin-
gency had been exempted from its provisions. The Senate endorsed the
Kellogg-Briand Pact as a statement of principle while insisting that the
treaty had no practical implications, raising the question whether involv-
ing America even in an enunciation of principle was worth the reserva-
tions it would inevitably elicit.
If the United States rejected alliances and was casting doubts on the
efficacy of the League, how was the Versailles system to be safeguarded?
Kellogg’s answer proved far less original than his critique, being that old
standby, the force of public opinion:
... if by this treaty all the nations solemnly pronounce against war as an
institution for settling international disputes, the world will have taken
a forward step, created a public opinion, marshaled the great moral
forces of the world for its observance, and entered into a sacred obliga-
tion which will make it far more difficult to plunge the world into
another great conflict . 11
Four years later, Kellogg’s successor, Henry Stimson, as distinguished and
sophisticated a public servant as America had produced in the entire
interwar period, was not able to advance a better remedy against aggres-
sion than the Kellogg-Briand Pact — backed, of course, by the strength of
public opinion:
The Kellogg-Briand Pact provides for no sanctions of force Instead
it rests upon the sanction of public opinion which can be made one of
the most potent sanctions of the world Those critics who scoff at it
have not accurately appraised the evolution in world opinion since the
Great War . 12
To a distant island power — as the United States stood vis-a-vis Europe and
Asia — the disputes of Europe necessarily appeared abstruse and often
irrelevant. Since America possessed a wide margin of safety to insulate it
from challenges which threatened European countries without affecting
American security, the European countries were in effect functioning as
Americas safety valves. A similar line of reasoning had led to Great Brit-
ain’s aloofness from day-to-day European politics during the period of its
“splendid isolation.”
There was, however, a fundamental difference between Great Britain’s
“splendid isolation” of the nineteenth century and America’s isolationism
of the twentieth century. Great Britain, too, had sought to steer clear
of Europe’s daily squabbles. It recognized, however, that its own safety
depended on the balance of power, and it was quite prepared to defend
that balance by using the traditional methods of European diplomacy. In
contrast, America never accepted the importance of either the balance of
power or of the European style of diplomacy. Believing itself blessed by
a unique and ultimately superior dispensation, America simply did not
engage itself, and if it did, then only for general causes and in accordance
with its own particular style of diplomacy — which was vastly more public,
more juridical, and ideological than Europe’s.
The interaction of the European and American styles of diplomacy
during the interwar period therefore tended to combine the worst of
both approaches. Feeling threatened, the European countries, especially
France and the new nations of Eastern Europe, did not accept Americas
legacy of collective security and international arbitration, or its juridical
definitions of war and peace. The nations which had become converts to
the American agenda, principally Great Britain, had no experience in
conducting policy on that basis. Yet all of these countries were very well
aware that Germany could never have been defeated without America’s
help. Since the end of the war, the balance of power had become even
less favorable toward the wartime Allies. In any new war with Germany,
American help would be needed more urgently, and probably sooner
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
than it had been the last time, especially since the Soviet Union was no
longer a player.
The practical result of this mixture of fear and hope was that European
diplomacy continued to drift further away from its traditional moorings
and toward greater emotional dependence on America, producing a dou-
ble veto: France would not act without Great Britain, and Great Britain
would not act contrary to views strongly held in Washington, never mind
that American leaders never tired of volubly insisting that they would in
no circumstance risk war on behalf of European issues.
America’s consistent refusal throughout the 1920s to commit itself to
safeguarding the Versailles system proved to be terrible psychological
preparation for the 1930s, when international tensions began to erupt. A
foretaste of what lay ahead came in 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria,
separated it from China, and turned it into a satellite state. The United
States condemned Japan’s actions but refused to participate in collective
enforcement. In censuring Japan, America introduced a sanction of its
own, which at the time seemed like an evasion but which, a decade later,
would, in Roosevelt’s hands, turn into a weapon for forcing a showdown
with Japan. This sanction was the policy of refusing to recognize territorial
changes brought about by force. Originated by Stimson in 1932, it was
invoked by Roosevelt in the fall of 1941 to demand that Japan withdraw
from Manchuria and all of its other conquests.
On January 30, 1933, the world crisis began in earnest with Hitler’s
accession to the position of German Chancellor. Destiny had decreed that
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who did as much as any other individual to
lay Hitler low, would take his oath of office a little more than four weeks
later. Still, nothing in Roosevelt’s first term foreshadowed such an out*
come. Roosevelt rarely deviated from the standard rhetoric of the in-
terwar period and repeated the isolationist themes handed down by his
predecessors. In a speech before the Woodrow Wilson Foundation on
December 28, 1933, Roosevelt addressed the imminent end of the agreed
term of the Naval Treaties of the 1920s. He proposed to extend these
accords by calling for the abolition of all offensive weapons and — hark-
ening back to Kellogg — by a commitment that no nation permit its mili-
tary forces to enter the territory of another.
The subject was as familiar as Roosevelt’s solution to possible violations
of what he was proposing. Once again, the censure of public opinion was
invoked as the only available remedy:
... no such general agreement for the elimination of aggression or the
elimination of the weapons of offensive warfare would be of any value
in this world unless every Nation, without exception, would enter into
such an agreement by solemn obligation [T]hen, my friends, it
would be a comparatively easy matter to separate the sheep from the
goats — It is but an extension of the challenge of Woodrow Wilson
for us to propose in this newer generation that from now on war by
governments shall be changed to peace by peoples . 13
There was no provision for what might happen to the goats once they
were separated from the sheep.
Roosevelt’s proposal was moot by the time it was put forward, since
Germany had left the Disarmament Conference two months earlier and
refused to return. In any event, banning offensive weapons was not on
Hitlers agenda. Nor, as it turned out, did Hitler suffer global opprobrium
for having opted for rearmament.
Roosevelt’s first term coincided with the heyday of revisionism about
the First World War. In 1935, a special Senate Committee under North
Dakotas Senator Gerald Nye published a 1400-page report blaming
America’s entry into the war on armaments manufacturers. Soon thereaf-
ter, Walter Millis’ best-selling book, The Road to War ; popularized the
thesis for a mass audience. 14 Under the impact of this school of thought,
America’s participation in the war came to be explained by malfeasance,
conspiracy, and betrayal rather than by fundamental or permanent inter-
To prevent America from once again being lured into war, the Con-
gress passed three so-called Neutrality Acts between 1935 and 1937.
Prompted by the Nye Report, these laws prohibited loans and any other
financial assistance to belligerents (whatever the cause of war) and im-
posed an arms embargo on all parties (regardless of who the victim was).
Purchases of nonmilitary goods for cash were allowed only if they were
transported in non-American ships. 15 The Congress was not abjuring
profits so much as it was rejecting risks. As the aggressors bestrode Eu-
rope, America abolished the distinction between aggressor and victim by
legislating a single set of restrictions on both.
The national interest came to be defined in legal rather than geostrate-
gic terms. In March 1936, Secretary of State Hull advised Roosevelt in
exclusively legal terms about the significance of the remilitarization of
the Rhineland, which had toppled the military balance of Europe and left
the countries of Eastern Europe defenseless: “It would appear from this
brief analysis that the action of the German Government has constituted
both a violation of the Versailles and Locarno pacts, but as far as the
United States is concerned it does not appear to constitute a violation of
our treaty 16 of August 25, 1921 with Germany ” 17
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
After his landslide electoral victory of 1936, Roosevelt went far beyond
the existing framework. In fact, he demonstrated that, though preoccu-
pied with the Depression, he had grasped the essence of the dictators’
challenge better than any European leader except Churchill. At first, he
sought merely to enunciate America’s moral commitment to the cause of
the democracies. Roosevelt began this educational process with the so-
called Quarantine Speech, which he delivered in Chicago on October 3,
1937. It was his first warning to America of the approaching peril, and his
first public statement that America might have to assume some responsi-
bilities with respect to it. Japan’s renewed military aggression in China,
coupled with the previous year’s announcement of the Berlin-Rome Axis,
provided the backdrop, giving Roosevelt’s concerns a global dimension:
The peace, the freedom and the security of ninety percent of the popu-
lation of the world is being jeopardized by the remaining ten percent
who are threatening a breakdown of all international order and law. . . .
It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness
is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the
community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order
to protect the health of the community against the spread of the dis-
ease . 18
Roosevelt was careful not to spell out what he meant by “quarantine” and
what, if any, specific measures he might have in mind. Had the speech
implied any kind of action, it would have been inconsistent with the
Neutrality Acts, which the Congress had overwhelmingly approved and
the President had recently signed.
Not surprisingly, the Quarantine Speech was attacked by isolationists,
who demanded clarification of the President’s intentions. They argued
passionately that the distinction between “peace-loving” and “warlike”
nations implied an American value judgment which, in turn, would lead
to the abandonment of the policy of nonintervention, to which both
Roosevelt and the Congress had pledged themselves. Two years later,
Roosevelt described the uproar that resulted from the speech as follows:
“Unfortunately, this suggestion fell upon deaf ears — even hostile and
resentful ears It was hailed as war mongering; it was condemned as
attempted intervention in foreign affairs; it was even ridiculed as a ner-
vous search under the bed’ for dangers of war which did not exist.” 19
Roosevelt could have ended the controversy by simply denying the
intentions being ascribed to him. Yet, despite the critical onslaught, Roo-
sevelt spoke ambiguously enough at a news conference to keep open the
option of collective defense of some kind. According to the journalistic
practice of the day, the President always met with the press off-the-record,
which meant that he could neither be quoted nor identified, and these
rules were respected.
Years later, the historian Charles Beard published a transcript showing
Roosevelt dodging and weaving but never denying that the Quarantine
Speech represented a new approach, while refusing to say just what the
new approach was. 20 Roosevelt insisted that his speech implied actions
that went beyond moral condemnation of aggression: “There are a lot of
methods in the world that have never been tried yet.” 21 Asked whether
this meant that he had a plan, Roosevelt replied, “I can’t give you any clue
to it. You will have to invent one. I have got one." 22 He never explained
what that plan was.
Roosevelt the statesman might warn against the impending danger;
Roosevelt the political leader had to navigate among three currents of
American opinion: a small group advocating unambiguous support for all
“peace-loving” nations; a somewhat more significant group that went
along with such support as long as it stopped well short of war; and a vast
majority supporting the letter and the spirit of the neutrality legislation. A
skillful political leader will always try to keep open as many options as
possible. He will want to present his ultimate course as his own optimum
choice rather than as having been imposed by events. And no modern
American president was better at this kind of tactical management than
In a Fireside Chat devoted mostly to domestic issues on October 12,
1937 — a week after the Quarantine Speech — Roosevelt tried to satisfy all
three groups. Underlining his commitment to peace, he spoke approv-
ingly of a forthcoming conference of the signatories of the Washington
Naval Treaty of 1922 and described American participation in it as a
demonstration of “our purpose to cooperate with the other signatories
to this Treaty, including China and Japan.” 23 The conciliatory language
suggested a desire for peace, even with Japan; at the same time, it would
serve as a demonstration of good faith if cooperation with Japan should
prove impossible. Roosevelt was equally ambiguous about America’s in-
ternational role. He reminded his audience of his own wartime experi-
ence as Assistant Secretary of the Navy: . . remembering] that from 1913
to 1921, I personally was fairly close to world events, and in that period,
while I learned much of what to do, I also learned much of what not to
do.” 24
Roosevelt surely would not have objected if his audience had interpre-
ted this ambiguous statement to mean that his wartime experiences had
taught him the importance of nonentanglement. On the other hand, if
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
that was in fact what Roosevelt meant, he would have gained far more
popularity had he simply said so. In the light of his later actions, it is
more likely that Roosevelt meant to suggest that he would pursue the
Wilsonian tradition by means of more realistic methods.
Despite the hostile reaction to his pronouncements, Roosevelt told
Colonel Edward Flouse, Wilson’s erstwhile confidant, in October 1937,
that it would take time to “make people realize that war will be a greater
danger to us if we close all doors and windows than if we go out in the
street and use our influence to curb the riot.” 25 It was another way of
saying that the United States would need to participate in international
affairs in an as yet unspecified way to help quell the pattern of aggression.
Roosevelt’s immediate problem was an outburst of pro-isolationist sen-
timent. In January 1938, the House of Representatives nearly passed a
constitutional amendment requiring a national referendum for declara-
tions of war except in the event of an invasion of the United States.
Roosevelt had to make a personal appeal to prevent its passage. In these
circumstances, Roosevelt viewed discretion as the better part of valor. In
March 1938, the United States government did not react to Austria’s An-
schluss to Germany, following the pattern of the European democracies,
which had confined themselves to perfunctory protests. During the crisis
leading to the Munich Conference, Roosevelt felt obliged to emphasize
repeatedly that America would not join a united front against Hitler. And
he disavowed subordinates and even close friends who so much as hinted
at that possibility.
In early September 1938, at a dinner celebrating Franco-American rela-
tions, the American Ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt, repeated a
standard platitude — that France and the United States were “united in
war and peace.” 26 This was enough to trigger an isolationist uproar.
Roosevelt, who could not have known of Bullitt’s comments in advance
since they were the sort of boilerplate rhetoric left to the discretion of
ambassadors, nevertheless took pains to reject the insinuation that the
United States was aligning itself with the democracies as being “100 per-
cent wrong.” 27 Later that month, when war seemed imminent and after
Chamberlain had already met with Hitler twice, Roosevelt sent Chamber-
lain two messages, on September 26 and 28, urging a conference of the
interested powers that, in the existing circumstances, could only magnify
pressures for major Czech concessions.
Munich seems to have been the turning point which impelled Roose-
velt to align America with the European democracies, at first politically
but gradually materially as well. From then on, his commitment to thwart-
ing the dictators was inexorable, culminating three years later in Amer-
ica’s entry into a second world war. The interplay between leaders and
their publics in a democracy is always complex. A leader who confines
himself to the experience of his people in a period of upheaval purchases
temporary popularity at the price of condemnation by posterity, whose
claims he is neglecting. A leader who gets too far ahead of his society
will become irrelevant. A great leader must be an educator, bridging
the gap between his visions and the familiar. But he must also be will-
ing to walk alone to enable his society to follow the path he has
There is inevitably in every great leader an element of guile which
simplifies, sometimes the objectives, sometimes the magnitude, of the
task. But his ultimate test is whether he incarnates the truth of his society’s
values and the essence of its challenges. These qualities Roosevelt pos-
sessed to an unusual degree. He deeply believed in America; he was
convinced that Nazism was both evil and a threat to American security,
and he was extraordinarily guileful. And he was prepared to shoulder the
burden of lonely decisions. Like a tightrope walker, he had to move, step
by careful, anguishing step, across the chasm between his goal and his
society’s reality in demonstrating to it that the far shore was in fact safer
than the familiar promontory.
On October 26, 1938, less than four weeks after the Munich Pact, Roose-
velt returned to the theme of his Quarantine Speech. In a radio address
to the Herald-Tribune Forum, he warned against unnamed but easily
identifiable aggressors whose “national policy adopts as a deliberate in-
strument the threat of war.” 28 Next, while upholding disarmament in
principle, Roosevelt also called for strengthening America’s defenses:
... we have consistently pointed out that neither we, nor any nation,
will accept disarmament while neighbor nations arm to the teeth. If
there is not general disarmament, we ourselves must continue to arm.
It is a step we do not like to take, and do not wish to take. But, until
there is general abandonment of weapons capable of aggression, ordi-
nary rules of national prudence and common sense require that we be
prepared. 29
In secret, Roosevelt went much further. At the end of October 1938, in
separate conversations with the British air minister and also with a per-
sonal friend of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, he put forward a
project designed to circumvent the Neutrality Acts. Proposing an outright
evasion of legislation he had only recently signed, Roosevelt suggested
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
setting up British and French airplane-assembly plants in Canada, near
the American border. The United States would supply all the components,
leaving only the final assembly to Great Britain and France. This arrange-
ment would technically permit the project to stay within the letter of the
Neutrality Acts, presumably on the ground that the component parts were
civilian goods. Roosevelt told Chamberlain’s emissary that, “in the event
of war with the dictators, he had the industrial resources of the American
nation behind him.” 30
Roosevelt’s scheme for helping the democracies restore their air power
collapsed, as it was bound to, if only because of the sheer logistical
impossibility of undertaking an effort on such a scale in secret. But from
then on, Roosevelt s support for Britain and France was limited only when
the Congress and public opinion could neither be circumvented nor
In early 1939, in his State of the Union message, Roosevelt identified
the aggressor nations as being Italy, Germany, and Japan. Alluding to the
theme of his Quarantine Speech, he pointed out that “there are many
methods short of war, but stronger and more effective than mere words,
of bringing home to aggressor governments the aggregate sentiments of
our own people.” 31
In April 1939, within a month of the Nazi occupation of Prague, Roose-
velt for the first time designated aggression against smaller countries as
constituting a general threat to American security. At a press conference
on April 8, 1939, Roosevelt told reporters that “the continued political,
economic and social independence of every small nation in the world
does have an effect on our national safety and prosperity. Each one that
disappears weakens our national safety and prosperity.” 32 In a speech
before the Pan American Union on April 14, he went a step further by
arguing that the United States’ security interests could no longer be lim-
ited to the Monroe Doctrine:
Beyond question, within a scant few years air fleets will cross the ocean
as easily as today they cross the closed European seas. Economic func-
tioning of the world becomes therefore necessarily a unit; no interrup-
tion of it anywhere can fail, in the future, to disrupt economic life
The past generation in Pan American matters was concerned with
constructing the principles and the mechanisms through which this
hemisphere would work together. But the next generation will be con-
cerned with the methods by which the New World can live together in
peace with the Old . 33
In April 1939, Roosevelt addressed Hitler and Mussolini directly in a
message which, though ridiculed by the dictators, had been cleverly de-
signed to demonstrate to the American people that the Axis countries
indeed had aggressive designs. Surely one of America’s subtlest and most
devious presidents, Roosevelt asked the dictators — but not Great Britain
or France — for assurances that they would not attack some thirty-one
specific European and Asian nations for a period of ten years. 34 Roosevelt
then undertook to obtain similar assurances from those thirty-one nations
with respect to Germany and Italy. Finally, he offered America’s participa-
tion in any disarmament conference resulting from a relaxation of ten-
Roosevelt’s note will not go down in diplomatic history for meticulous
staff work. For instance, Syria and Palestine, French and British mandates
respectively, were listed as independent states. 35 Hitler had a grand time
using Roosevelt’s message as a prop in one of his Reichstag speeches. To
general hilarity, Hitler slowly read the long list of countries which Roose-
velt was imploring him to leave alone. As the Fiihrer pronounced the
names of country after country in a bemused tone of voice, peals of
laughter echoed through the Reichstag. Hitler proceeded to inquire of
each of the countries listed in Roosevelt’s note, many of which were
already quaking before him, whether they indeed felt menaced. They, of
course, strenuously denied any such concern.
Though Hitler scored the oratorical point, Roosevelt achieved his polit-
ical objective. By asking only Hitler and Mussolini for assurances, he had
stigmatized them as the aggressors before the only audience that, for
the moment, mattered to Roosevelt — the American people. To enlist the
American public in supporting the democracies, Roosevelt needed to
frame the issues in terms that went beyond the balance of power and to
portray them as a struggle in defense of innocent victims against an evil
aggressor. Both his note and Hitler’s reaction to it helped him to achieve
that objective.
Roosevelt was quick to translate America’s new psychological threshold
into strategic coin. During the same month, April 1939, he inched the
United States closer to de facto military cooperation with Great Britain.
An agreement between the two countries freed the Royal Navy to concen-
trate all of its forces in the Atlantic while the United States moved the
bulk of its fleet to the Pacific. This division of labor implied that the
United States assumed responsibility for the defense of Great Britain’s
Asian possessions against Japan. Prior to World War I, an analogous ar-
rangement between Great Britain and France (which had led to the con-
centration of the French fleet in the Mediterranean) had been used as an
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
argument that Great Britain was morally obliged to enter World War I in
defense of France’s Atlantic coast.
Isolationists observing Roosevelt’s actions were deeply disturbed. In
February 1939, before the outbreak of the war, Senator Arthur Vanden-
berg had eloquently put forward the isolationist case:
True, we do live in a foreshortened world in which, compared with
Washington’s day, time and space are relatively annihilated. But I still
thank God for two insulating oceans; and even though they be fore-
shortened, they are still our supreme benediction if they be widely and
prudently used. . . .
We all have our sympathies and our natural emotions in behalf of the
victims of national or international outrage all around the globe; but we
are not, we cannot be, the world’s protector or the world’s policeman. 36
When, in response to the German invasion of Poland, Great Britain de-
clared war on September 3, 1939, Roosevelt had no choice but to invoke
the Neutrality Acts. At the same time, he moved rapidly to modify the
legislation to permit Great Britain and France to purchase American arms.
Roosevelt had avoided invoking the Neutrality Acts in the war between
Japan and China, ostensibly because no war had been declared, in reality
because he believed that an arms embargo would hurt China far more
than it would Japan. But if war broke out in Europe, it would be formally
declared and he would not be able to resort to subterfuge to circumvent
the Neutrality Acts. Therefore, in early 1939, Roosevelt called for a revi-
sion of the Neutrality Acts on the ground that they “may operate unevenly
and unfairly — and may actually give aid to the aggressor and deny it to
the victim.” 37 The Congress did not act until after the European war had
actually started. Indicating the strength of the isolationist mood, Roose-
velt’s proposal had been defeated three times in the Congress earlier in
the year.
The same day that Great Britain declared war, Roosevelt called a special
session of the Congress for September 21. This time, he prevailed. The
so-called Fourth Neutrality Act of November 4, 1939, permitted belliger-
ents to purchase arms and ammunition from the United States, provided
they paid in cash and transported their purchases in their own or neutral
ships. Since, because of the British blockade, only Great Britain and
France were in a position to do so, “neutrality” was becoming an increas-
ingly technical term. The Neutrality Acts had lasted only as long as there
had been nothing to be neutral about.
During the so-called phony war, America’s leaders continued to believe
that only material aid was required of them. Conventional wisdom had it
that the French army, behind the Maginot Line, and backed by the Royal
Navy, would strangle Germany through the combination of a defensive
ground war and a naval blockade.
In February 1940, Roosevelt sent Undersecretary of State Sumner
Welles on a mission to Europe to explore the possibilities of peace during
the “phony war.” French Prime Minister Daladier inferred that Welles
was urging a compromise peace that left Germany in control of Central
Europe, though the majority of Welles’ interlocutors did not interpret his
remarks that way and, for Daladier, the wish may have been father to the
thought. 38 Roosevelt’s purpose in sending Welles to Europe had been not
to mediate so much as to demonstrate his commitment to peace to his
isolationist people. He also wanted to establish America’s claim to partici-
pation should the “phony war” culminate in a peace settlement. Ger-
many’s assault on Norway a few weeks later put an end to that particular
On June 10, 1940, as France was falling to the Nazi invaders, Roosevelt
abandoned formal neutrality and came down eloquently on the side of
Great Britain. In a powerful speech in Charlottesville, Virginia, he com-
bined a scathing denunciation of Mussolini, whose armies had attacked
France that day, with America’s commitment to extend all-out material
aid to every country resisting German aggression. At the same time, he
proclaimed that America would increase its own defenses:
On this tenth day of June, 1940, in this University founded by the first
great American teacher of democracy, we send forth our prayers and
our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnifi-
cent valor their battle for freedom.
In our American unity, we will pursue two obvious and simultaneous
courses; we will extend to the opponents of force the material re-
sources of this nation; and, at the same time, we will harness and speed
up the use of those resources in order that we ourselves in the Ameri-
cas may have equipment and training equal to the task of any emer-
gency and every defense. 39
Roosevelt’s Charlottesville speech marked a watershed. Faced with Great
Britain’s imminent defeat, any American president might have discovered
in the Royal Navy an essential component to the security of the Western
Hemisphere. But it is difficult to imagine any contemporary of Roosevelt
— of either political party — who, having had the courage and foresight to
recognize the challenge, would have had the willpower to lead his isola-
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
tionist people, step by step, toward the commitment to do whatever was
necessary to defeat Nazi Germany.
The expectation thus raised that America would, sooner or later, be-
come Great Britain’s ally was surely one of the most decisive elements in
sustaining Churchill’s decision to continue to fight alone:
We shall go on to the end — And even if, which I do not for a moment
believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,
then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British
Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God s good time, the New
World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the
liberation of the Old. 40
Roosevelt’s methods were complex — elevated in their statement of objec-
tives, devious in tactic, explicit in defining the issues, and less than frank
in explaining the intricacies of particular events. Many of Roosevelt’s
actions were on the fringes of constitutionality. No contemporary presi-
dent could resort to Roosevelts methods and remain in office. Yet Roose-
velt had clearly seen that America’s margin of safety was shrinking and
that a victory of the Axis Powers would eliminate it. Above all, he found
Hitler to be anathema to all the values for which America had historically
After the fall of France, Roosevelt increasingly stressed the imminent
threat to American security. To Roosevelt, the Atlantic was possessed of
the same meaning which the English Channel held for British statesmen.
He saw it as a vital national interest that it not be dominated by Hitler.
Thus, in his State of the Union Address of January 6, 1941, Roosevelt
linked American security to the survival of the Royal Navy:
I have recently pointed out how quickly the tempo of modern warfare
could bring into our very midst the physical attack which we must
eventually expect if the dictator nations win the war.
There is much loose talk of our immunity from immediate and direct
invasion from across the seas. Obviously, as long as the British Navy
retains its powers, no such danger exists. 41
Of course, if that were true, America was obliged to make every effort to
prevent Great Britain’s defeat — in the extreme case, even to enter the
war itself.
Roosevelt had for many months been acting on the premise that
America might have to enter the war. In September 1940, he had devised
an ingenious arrangement to give Great Britain fifty allegedly over-age
destroyers in exchange for the right to set up American bases on eight
British possessions, from Newfoundland to the South American mainland.
Winston Churchill later called it a “decidedly unneutral act,” for the de-
stroyers were far more important to Great Britain than the bases were to
America. Most of them were quite remote from any conceivable theater
of operations, and some even duplicated existing American bases. More
than anything, the destroyer deal represented a pretext based on a legal
opinion by Roosevelt’s own appointee, Attorney General Francis Biddle
— hardly an objective observer.
Roosevelt sought neither Congressional approval nor modification of
the Neutrality Acts for his destroyer-for-bases deal. Nor was he chal-
lenged, as inconceivable as that seems in the light of contemporary prac-
tice. It was the measure of Roosevelt’s concern about a possible Nazi
victory and of his commitment to bolstering British morale, that he took
this step as a presidential election campaign was just beginning. (It
was fortunate for Great Britain and for the cause of American unity that
the foreign policy views of his opponent, Wendell Willkie, were not sig-
nificantly different from Roosevelts.)
Concurrently, Roosevelt vastly increased the American defense budget
and, in 1940, induced the Congress to introduce peacetime conscription.
So strong was lingering isolationist sentiment that conscription was re-
newed by only one vote in the House of Representatives in the summer
of 1941, less than four months before the outbreak of the war.
Immediately after the election, Roosevelt moved to eliminate the re-
quirement of the Fourth Neutrality Act — that American war materials
could only be purchased for cash. In a Fireside Chat, borrowing a term
from Wilson, he challenged the United States to become the “arsenal of
democracy.” 42 The legal instrument for bringing this about was the Lend-
Lease Act, which gave the President discretionary authority to lend, lease,
sell, or barter under any terms he deemed proper any defense article to
“the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital
to the defense of the United States.” Secretary of State Hull, normally a
passionate Wilsonian and an advocate of collective security, rather un-
characteristically justified the Lend-Lease Act on strategic grounds. With-
out massive American help, he argued, Great Britain would fall and
control of the Atlantic would pass into hostile hands, jeopardizing the
security of the Western Hemisphere. 43
Yet, if this were true, America could avoid participation in the war only
if Great Britain were by itself able to overcome Hitler, which even
Churchill did not believe was possible. Senator Taft stressed this point in
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
his opposition to Lend-Lease. The isolationists organized themselves as
the so-called America First Committee, headed by General Robert E.
Wood, Chairman of the board of Sears, Roebuck and Company, and sup-
ported by prominent leaders in many fields, among them Kathleen Nor-
ris, Irvin S. Cobb, Charles A. Lindbergh, Henry Ford, General Hugh S,
Johnson, Chester Bowles, and Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Mrs. Nich-
olas Longworth.
The passion behind the isolationists’ opposition to Lend-Lease was cap-
tured in a comment by Senator Arthur Vandenberg, one of their most
thoughtful spokesmen, on March 11, 1941: “We have tossed Washington’s
Farewell Address into the discard. We have thrown ourselves squarely
into the power politics and the power wars of Europe, Asia and Africa.
We have taken the first step upon a course from which we can never
hereafter retreat.” 44 Vandenberg’s analysis was correct, but it was the
world that had imposed the necessity; and it was Roosevelt’s merit to have
recognized it.
After proposing Lend-Lease, Roosevelt made his determination to bring
about the defeat of the Nazis more explicit with every passing month.
Even before the Act was passed, the British and American chiefs of staff,
anticipating its approval, met to organize the resources about to be made
available. While together, they also began planning for the time when the
United States would be an active participant in the war. For these plan-
ners, only the timing of America’s entry into the war remained yet to be
settled. Roosevelt did not initial the so-called ABC- 1 Agreement, according
to which, in case of war, top priority would be given to the struggle
against Germany. But it was clear that this was due to domestic impera-
tives and constitutional restrictions, not to any ambiguity about his pur-
Nazi atrocities increasingly eroded the distinction between fighting to
promote American values and fighting to defend American security. Hitler
had gone so far beyond any acceptable norm of morality that the battle
against him assimilated the triumph of good over evil into the struggle
for naked survival. Thus, in January 1941, Roosevelt summed up America s
objectives in what he called the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech,
freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These
goals went far beyond those of any previous European war. Not even
Wilson had proclaimed a social issue like freedom from want as a war
In April 1941, Roosevelt took another step toward war by authorizing
an agreement with the Danish representative in Washington (whose rank
was minister) to allow American forces to occupy Greenland. Since Den-
mark was under German occupation and since no Danish government-
in-exile had been formed, the diplomat without a country took it upon
himself to “authorize” American bases on Danish soil. At the same time,
Roosevelt privately informed Churchill that, henceforth, American ships
would patrol the North Atlantic west of Iceland — covering about two-
thirds of the entire ocean — and “publish the position of possible aggres-
sor ships or planes when located in the American patrol area.” 45 Three
months later, at the invitation of the local government, American troops
landed in Iceland, another Danish possession, to replace British forces.
Then, without Congressional approval, Roosevelt declared the whole area
between these Danish possessions and North America a part of the West-
ern Hemisphere Defense system.
In a lengthy radio address on May 27, 1941, Roosevelt announced a
state of emergency and restated Americas commitment to social and
economic progress:
We will not accept a Hitler-dominated world. And we will not accept a
world, like the postwar world of the 1920s, in which the seeds of
Hitlerism can again be planted and allowed to grow.
We will accept only a world consecrated to freedom of speech and
expression — freedom of every person to worship God in his own way
— freedom from want — and freedom from terror. 46
The phrase “will not accept” had to mean that Roosevelt was in effect
committing America to go to war for the Four Freedoms if they could not
be achieved in any other way.
Few American presidents have been as sensitive and perspicacious as
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his grasp of the psychology of his
people. Roosevelt understood that only a threat to their security could
motivate them to support military preparedness. But to take them into a
war, he knew he needed to appeal to their idealism in much the same
way that Wilson had. In Roosevelt’s view, America’s security needs might
well be met by control of the Atlantic, but its war aims required some
vision of a new world order. Thus “balance of power” was not a term
ever found in Roosevelt’s pronouncements, except when he used it dis-
paragingly. What he sought was to bring about a world community com-
patible with America’s democratic and social ideals as the best guarantee
of peace.
In this atmosphere, the president of a technically neutral United States
and Great Britain’s quintessential wartime leader, Winston Churchill, met
in August 1941 on a cruiser off the coast of Newfoundland. Great Britain’s
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
position had improved somewhat when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union
in June, but England was far from assured of victory. Nevertheless, the
joint statement these two leaders issued reflected not a statement of
traditional war aims but the design of a totally new world bearing Amer-
ica’s imprimatur. The Atlantic Charter proclaimed a set of "common prin-
ciples” on which the President and Prime Minister based "their hopes for
a better future for the world .” 47 These principles enlarged upon Roose-
velt’s original Four Freedoms by incorporating equal access to raw mate-
rials and cooperative efforts to improve social conditions around the
The Atlantic Charter cast the problem of postwar security entirely in
Wilsonian terms and contained no geopolitical component at all. "After
the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” the free nations would re-
nounce the use of force and impose permanent disarmament on the
nations "which threaten . . . aggression.” This would lead to the encour-
agement of "all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-
loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments .” 48 Two categories of
nations were being envisaged: aggressor nations (specifically Germany,
Japan, and Italy), which would be permanently disarmed, and "peace-
loving countries,” which would be permitted to retain military forces,
though, it was hoped, at greatly reduced levels. National self-determina-
tion would serve as the cornerstone of this new world order.
The difference between the Atlantic Charter and the Pitt Plan, by which
Great Britain had proposed to end the Napoleonic Wars, showed the
extent to which Great Britain had become the junior partner in the Anglo-
American relationship. Not once did the Atlantic Charter refer to a new
balance of power, whereas the Pitt Plan had purported to be about noth-
ing else. It was not that Great Britain had become oblivious to the balance
of power after just having fought the most desperate war in its long
history; rather, Churchill had realized that America’s entry into the war
would of itself alter the balance of power in Great Britain’s favor. In the
meantime, he had to subordinate long-term British objectives to immedi-
ate necessities — something Great Britain had never felt obliged to do
during the Napoleonic Wars.
When the Atlantic Charter was proclaimed, German armies were ap-
proaching Moscow and Japanese forces were preparing to move into
Southeast Asia. Churchill was above all concerned with removing the
obstacles to America’s participation in the war. For he understood very
well that, by itself, Great Britain would not be able to achieve a decisive
victory, even with Soviet participation in the war and American material
support. In addition, the Soviet Union might collapse and some compro-
mise between Hitler and Stalin was always a possibility, threatening Great
Britain with renewed isolation. Churchill saw no point in debating post-
war structure before he could even be certain that there would be one.
In September 1941, the United States crossed the line into belligerency.
Roosevelt’s order that the position of German submarines be reported to
the British Navy had made it inevitable that, sooner or later, some clash
would occur. On September 4, 1941, the American destroyer Greer was
torpedoed while signaling the location of a German submarine to British
airplanes. On September 11, without describing the circumstances, Roo-
sevelt denounced German “piracy.” Comparing German submarines to a
rattlesnake coiled to strike, he ordered the United States Navy to sink “on
sight” any German or Italian submarines discovered in the previously
established American defense area extending all the way to Iceland. To all
practical purposes, America was at war on the sea with the Axis powers. 49
Simultaneously, Roosevelt took up the challenge of Japan. In response
to Japan’s occupation of Indochina in July 1941, he abrogated America’s
commercial treaty with Japan, forbade the sale of scrap metal to it, and
encouraged the Dutch government-in-exile to stop oil exports to Japan
from the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). These pressures led
to negotiations with Japan, which began in October 1941. Roosevelt in-
structed the American negotiators to demand that Japan relinquish all of
its conquests, including Manchuria, by invoking America’s previous re-
fusal to “recognize” these acts.
Roosevelt must have known that there was no possibility that Japan
would accept. On December 7, 1941, following the pattern of the Russo-
Japanese War, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and de-
stroyed a significant part of America’s Pacific fleet. On December 11,
Hitler honored his treaty with Tokyo by declaring war on the United
States. Why Hitler thus freed Roosevelt to concentrate America’s war effort
on the countiy Roosevelt had always considered to be the principal
enemy has never been satisfactorily explained.
America’s entiy into the war marked the culmination of a great and
daring leader’s extraordinary diplomatic enterprise. In less than three
years, Roosevelt had taken his staunchly isolationist people into a global
war. As late as May 1940, 64 percent of Americans had considered the
preservation of peace more important than the defeat of the Nazis. Eigh-
teen months later, in December 1941, just before the attack on Pearl
Harbor, the proportions had been reversed — only 32 percent favored
peace over preventing triumph. 50
Roosevelt had achieved his goal patiently and inexorably, educating his
people one step at a time about the necessities before them. His audi-
America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
ences filtered his words through their own preconceptions and did not
always understand that his ultimate destination was war, though they
could not have doubted that it was confrontation. In fact, Roosevelt was
not so much bent on war as on defeating the Nazis; it was simply that, as
time passed, the Nazis could only be defeated if America entered the war.
That their entry into the war should have seemed so sudden to the
American people was due to three factors: Americans had had no experi-
ence with going to war for security concerns outside the Western Hemi-
sphere; many believed that the European democracies could prevail on
their own, while few understood the nature of the diplomacy that had
preceded Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor or Hitler’s rash declaration of
war on the United States. It was a measure of the United States’ deep-
seated isolationism that it had to be bombed at Pearl Harbor before it
would enter the war in the Pacific; and that, in Europe, it was Hitler who
would ultimately declare war on the United States rather than the other
way around.
By initiating hostilities, the Axis powers had solved Roosevelt’s linger-
ing dilemma about how to move the American people into the war. Had
Japan focused its attack on Southeast Asia and Hitler not declared war
against the United States, Roosevelt’s task of steering his people toward
his views would have been much more complicated. In light of Roose-
velt’s proclaimed moral and strategic convictions, there can be little doubt
that, in the end, he would have somehow managed to enlist America in
the struggle he considered so decisive to both the future of freedom and
to American security.
Subsequent generations of Americans have placed a greater premium
on total candor by their chief executive. Yet, like Lincoln, Roosevelt
sensed that the survival of his country and its values was at stake, and that
history itself would hold him responsible for the results of his solitary
initiatives. And, as was the case with Lincoln, it is a measure of the debt
free peoples owe to Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the wisdom of his
solitary passage is now, quite simply, taken for granted.
Three Approaches to Peace:
Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill
in World War II
When he attacked the Soviet Union, Hitler launched the most massive
land war in the history of mankind. The horror of that war was unprece-
dented even in comparison to the barbarity attending previous European
conflicts. It was a genocidal struggle to the finish. As German armies
thrashed their way deep into Russia, Hitler declared war on the United
States, turning what had been a European war into a global struggle. The
German army ravaged Russia, but was unable to score a knockout blow.
In the winter of 1941, it was stopped at the outskirts of Moscow. Then, in
the winter of 1942-43, the German offensive, this time aimed at southern
Three Approaches to Peace
Russia, ground to a halt. In a vicious battle in frozen Stalingrad, Hitler lost
the entire Sixth Army. The back of the German war effort was broken.
The Allied leaders — Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin — could now begin
to think about victory, and the future shape of the world.
Each of the victors was speaking in terms of his own nation’s historical
experiences. Churchill wanted to reconstruct the traditional balance of
power in Europe. This meant rebuilding Great Britain, France, and even
defeated Germany so that, along with the United States, these countries
could counterbalance the Soviet colossus to the east. Roosevelt envi-
sioned a postwar order in which the three victors, along with China,
would act as a board of directors of the world, enforcing the peace against
any potential miscreant, which he thought would most likely be Germany
— a vision that was to become known as the “Four Policemen.” Stalin’s
approach reflected both his communist ideology and traditional Russian
foreign policy. He strove to cash in on his country’s victory by extending
Russian influence into Central Europe. And he intended to turn the coun-
tries conquered by Soviet armies into buffer zones to protect Russia
against any future German aggression.
Roosevelt had been far ahead of his people when he discerned that a
Hitler victory would jeopardize American security. But he was at one with
his people in rejecting the traditional world of European diplomacy.
When he insisted that a Nazi victory would threaten America, he did not
mean to enlist America on behalf of restoring the European balance of
power. To Roosevelt, the purpose of the war was to remove Hitler as the
obstacle to a cooperative international order based on harmony, not on
Roosevelt was therefore impatient with truisms claiming to embody
the lessons of history. He rejected the idea that a total defeat of Germany
might create a vacuum, which a victorious Soviet Union might then try to
fill. He refused to countenance safeguards against possible postwar rivalry
among the victors, because these implied the reestablishment of the bal-
ance of power, which he in fact wanted to destroy. Peace would be
preserved by a system of collective security maintained by the wartime
Allies acting in concert and sustained by mutual goodwill and vigilance.
Since there would be no equilibrium to maintain but a state of univer-
sal peace, Roosevelt determined that, after the defeat of Nazi Germany,
the United States should call its military forces back home. Roosevelt had
no intention of permanently stationing American forces in Europe, even
less of doing so in order to counterbalance the Soviets, which, in his
view, the American public would never countenance. On February 29,
1944, before American troops ever set foot in France, he wrote to
Do please don't ask me to keep any American forces in France. I just
cannot do it! I would have to bring them all back home. As I suggested
before, I denounce and protest the paternity of Belgium, France and
Italy. You really ought to bring up and discipline your own children. In
view of the fact that they may be your bulwark in future days, you
should at least pay for their schooling now! 1
In other words, Great Britain would have to defend Europe without any
help from America.
In the same spirit, Roosevelt rejected any American responsibility for
the economic reconstruction of Europe:
I do not want the United States to have the postwar burden of reconsti-
tuting France, Italy and the Balkans. This is not our natural task at a
distance of 3,500 miles or more. It is definitely a British task in which
the British are far more vitally interested than we are. 2
Roosevelt vastly overestimated the postwar capacities of Great Britain by
asking it to handle simultaneously the defense and the reconstruction of
Europe. Great Britain’s position in this scheme was all the more over-
blown because of Roosevelt’s deep disdain for France. In February 1943
at Yalta, the most important conference among the victors, Roosevelt
chided Churchill in Stalin’s presence for “artificially” trying to build
France into a strong power. As if the absurdity of such an endeavor
required no elaboration, he mocked Churchill’s motive, which he de-
scribed as an effort to establish a defense line along France’s eastern
border, behind which Great Britain would then be able to assemble its
army. 3 At that time, this happened to be the only conceivable means of
opposing Soviet expansionism.
Without being prepared to undertake a permanent American role, Roo-
sevelt wanted the victorious Allies to supervise the disarming and parti-
tioning of Germany and to subject various other countries to their control
(amazingly, Roosevelt included France in the category of countries to be
controlled). As early as the spring of 1942, on the occasion of a visit by
Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov to Washington, Roosevelt sketched his
idea of the “Four Policemen” to enforce peace in the postwar world.
Harry Hopkins reported the President’s thinking in a letter to Churchill:
Roosevelt had spoken to Molotov of a system allowing only the great
powers — Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and possi-
bly China — to have arms. These “policemen” would work together to
preserve the peace. 4
Three Approaches to Peace
Finally, Roosevelt was determined to put an end to the British and French
colonial empires:
When we’ve won the war, I will work with all my might and main to
see to it that the United States is not wheedled into the position of
accepting any plan that will further France’s imperialistic ambitions, or
that will aid or abet the British Empire in its imperial ambitions. 5
Roosevelt’s policy was a heady mixture of traditional American exception-
alism, Wilsonian idealism, and Roosevelt s own canny insight into the
American psyche, which had always been more attuned to universal
causes than to calculations of rewards and penalties. Churchill had suc-
ceeded too well in fostering the illusion that Great Britain was still a great
power capable of resisting Soviet expansionism on its own. For only such
a conviction can explain Roosevelt’s advocacy of a world order based on
American troop withdrawals from overseas, a disarmed Germany, a
France reduced to second-class status, and a Soviet Union left with a huge
vacuum opening up before it. The postwar period thus turned into an
exercise for teaching America just how essential it was to the new balance
of power.
Roosevelt’s scheme of the Four Policemen to bring about and guaran-
tee global peace represented a compromise between Churchill’s tradi-
tional balance-of-power approach and the unconstrained Wilsonianism of
Roosevelt’s advisers as epitomized by Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
Roosevelt was determined to avoid the failings of the League of Nations
and the system which had been established in the wake of the First World
War. He wanted some form of collective security, but knew from the
experience of the 1920s that collective security required enforcers, and
this was to be the role of the Four Policemen.
Roosevelt’s concept of the Four Policemen was in fact structurally simi-
lar to Metternich’s Holy Alliance, though American liberals would be
horrified at such a thought. Each system represented an attempt to pre-
serve the peace through a coalition of victors upholding shared values.
Metternich’s system had worked because it had protected a genuine bal-
ance of power, the key countries of which had in fact shared common
values, and Russia, though at times disruptive, had more or less cooper-
ated. Roosevelt’s concept could not be implemented because no real
balance of power emerged from the war, because there was a profound
ideological gulf between the victors, and because Stalin, once free of the
threat of Germany, had no inhibition about pursuing Soviet ideological
and political interests even at the price of confrontation with his erstwhile
Roosevelt made no provision for what might happen if one of the
proposed Policemen refused to play the role assigned to it — especially if
that Policeman turned out to be the Soviet Union. For, in that case, the
despised balance of power would have to be reconstructed after all.
And the more thoroughly the elements of traditional equilibrium were
jettisoned, the more herculean the task of creating a new balance of
power would become.
Had he searched the world, Roosevelt could not have found an inter-
locutor more different from himself than Stalin. Whereas Roosevelt
wanted to implement the Wilsonian concept of international harmony,
Stalin’s ideas about the conduct of foreign policy were strictly those of
Old World Realpolitik . When an American general at the Potsdam Confer-
ence tried to flatter Stalin by observing how gratifying it had to be to see
Russian armies in Berlin, Stalin replied tartly, “Tsar Alexander I reached
Stalin defined the requirements of peace in the same way that Russian
statesmen had for centuries — as the widest possible security belt around
the Soviet Unions vast periphery. He welcomed Roosevelt’s emphasis on
unconditional surrender because it would eliminate the Axis Powers as
factors in a peace settlement and prevent the emergence of the German
equivalent of Talleyrand at a peace conference.
Ideology reinforced tradition. As a communist, Stalin refused to make
any distinction between democratic and fascist nations, though he no
doubt considered the democracies less ruthless and perhaps less formi-
dable as well. Stalin possessed no conceptual apparatus to enable him to
forgo territory on behalf of goodwill, or “objective” reality for the mood
of the moment. Therefore, he was bound to propose to his democratic
Allies the same arrangements that he had asked of Hitler a year earlier.
Cooperation with Hitler had made him no more sympathetic to Nazism
than his subsequent alliance with the democracies impelled him to ap-
preciate the virtues of free institutions. He would take from each tempo-
rary partner whatever was possible through diplomacy, and seize by force
whatever had not been granted to him freely — as long as he could do so
without risking war. His lodestar remained the Soviet national interest
as refracted through the prism of communist ideology. To paraphrase
Palmerston, he had no friends, only interests.
Stalin had proved most ready to negotiate postwar aims when his mili-
tary position was the most difficult. With the knife literally at his throat,
he attempted to do so in December 1941, when Foreign Secretary An-
thony Eden visited Moscow, and again in May 1942, when he sent Molotov
to London and then to Washington. These efforts were thwarted, however,
Three Approaches to Peace
because Roosevelt was passionately opposed to any detailed discussion
of peace aims. After the battle of Stalingrad, Stalin became increasingly
certain that the war would end with the Soviet Union in possession of
most of the territories likely to be in dispute. Having less and less to gain
from negotiations, Stalin entrusted the shape of the postwar world to the
reach of his armies.
Churchill would have been quite prepared to enter a negotiation with
Stalin about the postwar European order before Stalin was ever in a
position to seize his prizes. After all, expansionist allies like Stalin had
been encountered and overcome more than once in British history. Had
Great Britain been more powerful, Churchill surely would have sought
to extract practical settlements from Stalin while he was still in need of
assistance — much as Castlereagh had obtained his allies’ commitment to
the freedom of the Low Countries well before the end of the Napoleonic
Churchill had been in the war longer than either of his partners. For
nearly a year after the fall of France in June 1940, Great Britain had stood
alone against Hitler and had been in no position to reflect on postwar
aims. Sheer survival was absorbing all of its energy, and the outcome of
the war was quite uncertain. Even with massive American material help,
Great Britain could not have hoped to win. If America and the Soviet
Union had not entered the war when they did, Great Britain would have
eventually been driven to compromise or defeat.
Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Japan’s attack on
Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Hitler’s bizarre declaration of
war on the United States a few days later guaranteed that Great Britain
would be on the winning side no matter how long and painful the war
turned out to be. Only from that moment on could Churchill realistically
begin to deal with war aims. He would have to do so in a context that was
unprecedented for Great Britain. As the war went on, it became more
and more apparent that Great Britain’s traditional goal of maintaining a
balance of power in Europe was moving out of reach and that, after
unconditional surrender was imposed on Germany, the Soviet Union
would emerge as the dominant nation on the Continent, especially if the
United States withdrew its forces.
Churchill’s wartime diplomacy therefore consisted of maneuvering be-
tween two behemoths — both of which threatened Great Britain’s posi-
tion, albeit from opposite directions. Roosevelt’s advocacy of worldwide
self-determination was a challenge to the British Empire; Stalin’s attempt
to project the Soviet Union into the center of Europe threatened to under-
mine British security.
Trapped between Wilsonian idealism and Russian expansionism,
Churchill did his best, from a position of comparative weakness, to vindi-
cate his country’s ancient policy — that, if the world is not to be left to the
strongest and the most ruthless, peace must be based on some kind of
equilibrium. He also clearly understood that, at the end of the war, Great
Britain was no longer able to defend its vital interests all by itself, much
less to police the balance of power. However outwardly self-assured,
Churchill knew — better than his American friends, who still believed that
Great Britain would be able to maintain the European equilibrium by
itself — that his nations wartime role was to be its last as a truly indepen-
dent global power. For Churchill, therefore, no aspect of Allied diplomacy
was more important than creating bonds of friendship with America so
solid that Great Britain would not need to face the postwar world alone.
This was why, at the end of the day, he generally gave in to American
preferences — although he often succeeded in convincing his American
partner that Washington’s strategic interests closely corresponded to
those of London.
It proved to be a formidable task. For Roosevelt and his associates were
profoundly suspicious of British motives, specifically of the possibility
that Churchill might be concerned above all with advancing British na-
tional and imperial interests and enhancing the balance of power rather
than their own approach to world order.
Most other societies would have treated the British pursuit of the na-
tional interest as a matter of course. To American leaders, however,- it
represented a flaw inherent in the British character. At a private dinner
shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had put it this way:
Our popular idea of that role may not be entirely objective — may not
be one hundred per cent true from the British point of view, but there
it is; and I’ve been trying to tell him [Churchill] that he ought to con-
sider it. It’s in the American tradition, this distrust, this dislike and even
hatred of Britain 6
Since Roosevelt did not want to discuss war aims before Stalingrad, and
since Stalin preferred to let the battle lines determine the political out-
come afterward, most of the wartime ideas about a postwar order came
from Churchill. The American reaction to them was aptly captured by
Secretary of State Hull in November 1943, in terms highly disparaging to
traditional British verities:
. . . there will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances,
for balance of power, or any other of the special arrangements through
Three Approaches to Peace
which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their secu-
rity or to promote their interests . 7
Throughout the war, Roosevelt was, on a human level, closer to Churchill
than he was to almost any American. Yet, on specific issues, he could also
be more acerbic toward the Prime Minister than he was toward Stalin. In
Churchill, he found a wartime comrade-in-arms; in Stalin, he saw a part-
ner in preserving postwar peace.
America’s ambivalence toward Great Britain was focused on three is-
sues: America’s own anticolonial tradition; the nature of wartime strategy;
and the shape of postwar Europe. To be sure, Russia was also a huge
empire, but its colonies were contiguous to its territory and Russian
imperialism had never impinged on the American consciousness in the
same way that British colonialism had. Churchill might complain that
Roosevelts comparison of the Thirteen Colonies with British possessions
in the twentieth century demonstrated “the difficulties of comparing situ-
ations in various centuries and scenes where almost every material fact is
totally different ” 8 Roosevelt, however, was less interested in refining
historical analogies than in laying down fundamental American princi-
ples. At his very first meeting with Churchill, at which the two leaders
proclaimed the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt insisted that the Charter apply
not just in Europe, but everywhere, including the colonial areas:
I am firmly of the belief that if we are to arrive at a stable peace it must
involve the development of backward countries — I can’t believe that
we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work
to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy . 9
The British War Cabinet utterly rejected such an interpretation:
... the Atlantic Charter . . . was directed to the nations of Europe whom
we hoped to free from Nazi tyranny, and was not intended to deal with
the internal affairs of the British Empire, or with relations between the
United States, and, for example, the Philippines . 10
The reference to the Philippines was intended to restrain what London
considered American overexuberance by bringing home to America’s
leaders what they stood to lose if they pressed their arguments too far.
Yet it ended up missing its mark because America was in fact practicing
what it preached, having already decided to grant independence to its
only colony as soon as the war ended.
The Anglo-American debate over colonialism would not end. In a 1942
Memorial Day address, Roosevelt’s friend and confidant Undersecretary
of State Sumner Welles reiterated America’s historic opposition to colo-
If this war is in fact a war for the liberation of peoples it must assure
the sovereign equality of peoples throughout the world, as well as in
the world of the Americas. Our victory must bring in its train the
liberation of all peoples The age of imperialism is ended. 11
Roosevelt subsequently sent a note to Secretary of State Hull, informing
him that Welles’ statement was authoritative — the sort of gesture which
does not exactly strengthen the bonds of affection between a secretary of
state and his deputy because it implies that the deputy has the closer
relationship with the president. Hull eventually succeeded in having
Welles dismissed.
Roosevelt’s views on colonialism were prescient. 12 He wanted America
to take the lead in the inevitable liberation of colonial areas lest the quest
for self-determination turn into a racial struggle — as Roosevelt confided
to his adviser, Charles Taussig:
The President said he was concerned about the brown people in the
East. He said that there are 1,100,000,000 brown people. In many East-
ern countries, they are ruled by a handful of whites and they resent it.
Our goal must be to help them achieve independence — 1,100,000,000
potential enemies are dangerous. 13
The debate about colonialism could have no practical consequence until
the end of the war, by which time Roosevelt would no longer be alive.
But the controversy over strategy had immediate implications, reflecting
widely differing national concepts of war and peace. Where American
leaders tended to believe that military victory was an end in itself, their
British counterparts sought to relate military operations to a precise dip-
lomatic plan for the postwar world.
America’s most significant military experiences had been its own Civil
War, which had been fought to the finish, and the First World War. Both
of which had ended in total victory. In American thinking foreign policy
and strategy were compartmentalized into successive phases of national
policy. In the ideal American universe, diplomats stayed out of strategy,
Three Approaches to Peace
and military personnel completed their task by the time diplomacy started
— a view for which America was to pay dearly in the Korean and Vietnam
By contrast, for Churchill, war strategy and foreign policy were closely
linked. Since Great Britain's resources were far more limited than those
of the United States, its strategists had always been obliged to focus on
means as much as ends. And, having been nearly bled white by the First
World War, British leaders were determined to avoid another similar
carnage. Any strategy which held the promise of minimizing casualties
appealed to them.
Almost as soon as America had entered the war, Churchill therefore
proposed an attack on what he called the soft underbelly of the Axis in
Southern Europe. At the end of the war, insistently though in vain, he
urged Eisenhower to capture Berlin, Prague, and Vienna ahead of the
Soviet armies. To Churchill, the attractiveness of these targets was neither
the vulnerability of the Balkans (which are, in fact, extremely difficult
terrain) nor the military potential of the Central European capitals, but
their utility in limiting postwar Soviet influence.
America's military leaders reacted to Churchills recommendations
with impatience bordering on outrage. Viewing the soft-underbelly strat-
egy as another example of the British proclivity to enlist America in
national British pursuits, they dismissed it on the ground that they would
not risk lives for such secondary objectives. From the onset of joint plan-
ning, the American commanders were eager to open a second front in
France. Indifferent as to the location of the front lines as long as the war
ended in total victory, they argued that only in this manner could the
main force of the German army be brought to battle. By March 1942,
General George Marshall, the United States Army Chief of Staff, infuriated
at British resistance to his plans for a second front, threatened to reverse
the so-called ABC-1 decision of a year earlier, which had given priority to
the European theater, and to switch the main American effort to the
Roosevelt now showed that he was as strong a leader in wartime as he
had been in guiding his country into the war. Overriding Marshall, Roose-
velt reminded the quarreling generals that the initial decision to give
priority to the defeat of Germany had been made in the common interest,
not as a favor to Great Britain:
It is of the utmost importance that we appreciate that defeat of Japan
does not defeat Germany and that American concentration against Japan
this year or in 1943 increases the chance of complete German domina-
tion of Europe and Africa Defeat of Germany means the defeat of
Japan, probably without bring a shot or losing a life . 14
Roosevelt went along with much of Churchill’s strategy 7 but drew the line
at a landing in the Balkans. Roosevelt supported the landing in North
Africa in November 1942 and, after the conquest of the northern shore of
the Mediterranean, a landing in Italy in the spring of 1943, which knocked
Italy out of the war. The second front in Normandy did not come about
until June 1944, by which time Germany was so weakened that Allied
casualties were greatly reduced and a decisive victory was within reach.
Stalin was as passionate an advocate of the second front as were Ameri-
can military leaders, but his motives were geopolitical rather than mili-
tary. In 1941, he was no doubt eager to draw German forces away from
the Russian front. In fact, he was so desperate for military assistance that
he invited Great Britain to send an expeditionary force to the Caucasus. 15
In 1942, during the German advance into southern Russia, he continued
to press insistently for a second front, though he no longer mentioned an
Allied expeditionary force.
Stalin’s clamor for a second front continued even after the battle of
Stalingrad, in late 1942, had signaled that the tide was turning against
Germany. What Stalin found so attractive about a second front was, above
all, its distance from Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, where
Western and Soviet interests were most likely to clash. And it also guaran-
teed that the capitalists would not escape undamaged from the war. Char-
acteristically, Stalin, even while he insisted on having a voice in Allied
planning in the West, denied the democracies the slightest access to
Soviet planning or any more than the barest minimum knowledge of
Soviet military dispositions.
As it turned out, the Allies drew as many German divisions into Italy —
some thirty-three — as Stalin had requested in his demands for a second
front in France (he kept asking for between thirty and forty). 16 Still, Stalin
accelerated his protests against the Southern strategy. From his point of
view, its primary flaw was its geographic proximity to countries which
were the object of Soviet ambitions. Stalin pressed for a second front in
1942 and 1943 for the same reason that Churchill sought to delay it:
because it would draw the Allies away from the politically disputed
In the debate about the origin of the Cold War, it came to be argued
by some distinguished critics that the failure to open a second front
earlier had caused Stalin’s intransigence in Eastern Europe. According to
this line of reasoning, the delay in opening a second front aroused Soviet
Three Approaches to Peace
anger and cynicism far more than any other factor. 17 It defies credulity,
however, that the old Bolshevik, fresh from a pact with Hitler and a
negotiation to divide the world with the Nazi leader, could be “disillu-
sioned” by Realpolitik — if indeed that is what the Allied policy was. It is
difficult to imagine the organizer of the purge trials and of the Katyn
massacres driven to cynicism by a strategic decision to relate military to
political objectives. He played the second front gambit as he did every-
thing else — coldly, calculatingly, and realistically.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff were in any event merely reflecting the convic-
tion of America’s political leadership, which was to postpone any discus-
sions of the postwar world until after victory had been achieved. This was
the fateful decision that shaped the postwar world and made the Cold
War inevitable.
As a general rule, countries striving for stability and equilibrium should
do everything within their power to achieve their basic peace terms while
still at war. As long as the enemy is in the field, his strength indirectly
enhances that of the more peaceful side. If this principle is neglected and
the key issues are left unresolved until the peace conference, the most
determined power ends up in possession of the prizes and can be dis-
lodged only by a major confrontation.
An Allied agreement on postwar aims, or at least a discussion of them,
was especially necessary during World War II because of the policy of
unconditional surrender promulgated by Roosevelt and Churchill at Casa-
blanca in January 1943. Roosevelt had proposed the policy for a variety of
reasons. He feared that a discussion of peace terms with Germany might
prove divisive, and he wanted to focus all of the Allies’ energy on winning
the war. He was also eager to reassure Stalin, who was then in the throes
of the battle of Stalingrad, that there would be no separate peace. But
above all, Roosevelt wanted to prevent another round of German revi-
sionist claims later on about how Germany had been tricked into ending
the war by unfulfilled promises.
Yet Roosevelt’s refusal to discuss the shape of the postwar world while
the war was in progress threw America’s vast influence behind an out-
come which lacked such crucial elements as a balance of power or any
criteria for political solutions. In all matters to which the Wilsonian as-
sumptions of an underlying harmony were relevant, Roosevelt played the
major role in shaping the postwar world. Under his aegis, a series of
international conferences elaborated blueprints for the cooperative com-
ponents of the postwar world order: for what became the United Nations
(at Dumbarton Oaks), for world finance (at Bretton Woods), for food and
agriculture (at Hot Springs), for relief and rehabilitation (in Washington),
and for civil aviation (in Chicago). 18 But he was adamant in his refusal to
discuss war aims, or to risk disagreement with the Soviets on that subject.
At first, Stalin treated Roosevelt s evasion of a discussion of the postwar
settlement on the geopolitical level as a tactical maneuver designed to
exploit his military difficulties. For him, the war had been about creating
a new and more favorable balance of power out of the vacuum left by the
imminent disintegration of the Axis. Far too traditional to expect the West
to leave the final peace terms to the outcome of military operations, Stalin
had tried to involve Eden in December 1941 in a postwar settlement even
as German troops were advancing toward the suburbs of Moscow. Stalin’s
introductory remarks on that occasion made it clear that he was not
talking about the Atlantic Charter. Declarations of principle, he said, were
like algebra; he preferred practical arithmetic. Stalin did not want to
waste time on abstractions, and preferred to trade reciprocal concessions,
hopefully in the form of territory.
What Stalin had in mind was plain, old-fashioned Realpolitik. Germany
should be dismembered, and Poland moved west. The Soviet Union
would return to the borders of 1941, meaning specifically the Curzon
Line with Poland and the retention of the Baltic states — a clear violation
of the principle of self-determination as proclaimed in the Atlantic Char-
ter. In return, the Soviet Union would support any demand Great Britain
might choose to make for bases in France, Belgium, the Netherlands,
Norway, and Denmark 19 — all of them British allies. Stalin viewed the
situation as any eighteenth-century prince would have: to the victor be-
long the spoils.
On the other hand, Stalin was not yet making any demands about the
political future of the Eastern European countries, and he indicated some
unspecified flexibility about the frontier with Poland. Nevertheless, Great
Britain could not totally violate the Atlantic Charter only three months
after its proclamation. And America’s leaders would not so much as con-
sider what seemed to them a return to the secret arrangements that had
blighted the diplomacy of the First World War. Even so, the terms offered
by Stalin, however brutal, were better than what finally emerged from the
war — and they probably could have been improved by negotiation. Eden
avoided a deadlock by promising to report on his conversations with
Stalin to Churchill and Roosevelt, and to continue the dialogue after-
Despite the extremity of his military situation — and perhaps because
of it — Stalin returned to the subject in the spring of 1942. Churchill was
quite prepared to explore a Soviet quid pro quo for recognition of the
1941 frontiers. But Roosevelt and his advisers, bent on avoiding any sem-
Three Approaches to Peace
blance of balance-of-power arrangements, rejected a discussion of post-
war issues. Hull wrote to Churchill on behalf of Roosevelt:
... it would be a doubtful course to abandon our broad basic declara-
tions of policy, principles, and practice. If these are departed from in
one or two important instances, such as you propose, then neither of
the two countries parties to such an act will have any precedent to stand
on, or any stable rules by which to be governed and to insist that other
Governments be governed. 20
Stalin next tried to bring matters to a head by sending Molotov to London
in May 1942. In the preparatory discussions for that visit in April 1942, the
Soviet Ambassador, Ivan Maisky, raised Stalin’s terms of four months
earlier. 21 The Soviet Union now demanded pacts of mutual assistance
with Romania and Finland for the postwar period. Considering that Ger-
man armies were still deep inside the Soviet Union, this came as another
extraordinary expression of Stalin’s long-range goals — though, it must be
noted, it still fell far short, both in terms of reach and of substance, of the
satellite orbit which emerged at the end of the war in the absence of an
Churchill encountered violent opposition from Washington to pursu-
ing these conversations. Hull described the Anglo-Soviet exchanges as
contrary to the Atlantic Charter, as a defiance of America’s historic opposi-
tion to territorial changes by force, and as a throwback to the power
politics of a discredited past. 22 Roosevelt weighed in with Stalin along
much the same lines. Stalin replied with a curt note acknowledging re-
ceipt of Roosevelt’s message but without commenting on it, a clear signal
that it had not been favorably received. In a note sent simultaneously to
Churchill, Stalin urged him to ignore “American interference.” 23
Early in the war, Stalin was clearly eager for an arrangement on the
1941 frontiers; and he was much too cynical not to have expected a
request for some kind of quid pro quo. Nothing is more futile than
historical might-have-beens; the price Stalin was willing to pay will never
be known because Roosevelt cut short the Anglo-Soviet dialogue by invit-
ing Molotov to Washington.
On the occasion of Eden’s visit to Moscow in December 1941, Stalin
had indicated his flexibility on the issue of Poland’s borders by calling it
an “open question.” 24 With 20/20 historical hindsight, Stalin might have
been willing to trade the recognition of the 1941 borders for his accep-
tance of the Eastern European governments-in-exile (which he had not
yet challenged) with a caveat for the Baltic States to return to their 1940
independent status and permit Soviet bases on their territory. This might
then have led to an outcome for Eastern Europe on the Finnish model —
respectful of Soviet security but also democratic and free to conduct a
nonaligned foreign policy. It would surely have been better for the well-
being of the peoples of Eastern Europe than what transpired and, in the
end, even for the Soviet Union.
All such prospects vanished as soon as Molotov reached Washington at
the end of May 1942 and learned that America was asking the Soviet
Union not for a political arrangement but for an agreement to a new
approach to world order. Roosevelt presented Molotov with the American
alternative to Stalin’s (and Churchill’s) ideas on spheres of influence.
Quite simply, the formula was a return to Wilson’s concept of collective
security as modified by the idea of the Four Policemen. Such an arrange-
ment, argued Roosevelt, would provide the Soviet Union with better
security than the traditional balance of power. 25
Why Roosevelt believed that Stalin, who had made such Machiavellian
proposals to Churchill, would find world government attractive is not
clear. Perhaps he thought that, if worse came to worst and Stalin insisted
on keeping the territory his armies had conquered, it would be easier
domestically to acquiesce to a fait accompli than to agree to Stalin’s
demands while the military outcome was still uncertain.
Roosevelt was more specific regarding the colonial issue. He proposed
an international trusteeship for all former colonies which “ought for our
own safety to be taken away from weak nations” (a category in which he
included France). 26 And he invited the Soviet Union to become a founding
member of the Trusteeship Council.
Had Molotov been more of a philosopher, he might have reflected on
the circularity of history by which, in the space of eighteen months, he
had been offered membership in two different, opposing, alliances: by
Hitler and Ribbentrop in a tripartite pact consisting of Germany, Italy, and
Japan; and by Roosevelt in a coalition including the United States, Great
Britain, and China. In each case, the suitor had tried to woo Molotov with
the prospect of exotic lands to the south: Berlin had offered the Middle
East; Washington, colonial trusteeships. In neither case would Molotov
permit himself to be deflected from his single-minded pursuit of immedi-
ate Soviet objectives within the reach of Soviet armies.
Nor did Molotov see any need to adjust his tactics to the interlocutor at
hand. In Washington, as he had done earlier in Berlin, Molotov agreed in
principle to join the proposed arrangement. That the Four Policemen
would have placed him in the company of the sworn enemies of the
grouping whose offer he had likewise entertained eighteen months ear-
Three Approaches to Peace
lier did not seem to disturb him. Nor, as in Berlin, did Molotovs
agreement in principle imply any cause for him to abandon Stalin’s terri-
torial ambitions in Europe. In Washington, as in Berlin, Molotov was
adamant about the 1941 borders, about demanding a dominant Soviet
influence in Bulgaria, Romania, and Finland, and special rights in the
Straits. On both occasions, he deferred the colonial issue to a later date.
In all probability, Stalin could hardly believe his good fortune when
Molotov informed him of Washington’s refusal to discuss a political settle-
ment while the war was in progress. For this meant that he needed to
make no concessions as long as the German army was still in the field.
Significantly, once Stalin understood that America was deferring a politi-
cal settlement into the postwar period, he abandoned his usual persistent,
hectoring style and never raised the subject again. With his bargaining
position improving at each step closer to an Allied victory, Stalin stood to
gain the most by delaying political discussions and by seizing as much
booty as he could, if only to use these gains as bargaining chips at a peace
conference. Nobody was more conscious than Stalin of the old adage that
possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Roosevelt’s reluctance to jeopardize postwar cooperation with the So-
viet Union by prematurely discussing war aims may have had a strategic
as well as a Wilsonian rationale. Roosevelt may have been aware of the
possibility of Soviet postwar expansionism but may have felt trapped
between his people’s convictions and the looming strategic peril. To
maintain the war effort, Roosevelt above all needed to appeal to American
ideals, which deplored spheres of influence and the balance of power. It
was, after all, only a few years since the Congress had enthusiastically
passed the Neutrality Acts, and the ideas underlying them had not disap-
peared. Roosevelt may have concluded that, whatever the Soviet inten-
tions, his optimum strategy was to give Stalin a reputation to uphold. For
only against such a backdrop would he have a chance to mobilize America
to resist Soviet expansionism if it really came to pass.
This is the view of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who has argued that Roose-
velt had prepared a fail-back position in case Soviet-American relations
went sour: “a great army, a network of overseas bases, plans for peacetime
universal military training and the Anglo-American monopoly of the
atomic bomb.” 27
True, Roosevelt had all of these means at his disposal. But his motiva-
tion in assembling them was to spruce up the war effort rather than as a
hedge against Soviet expansionism. The bases had been acquired to make
possible the transfer of destroyers to Great Britain; the atom bomb was
aimed at the Nazis and Japan; and all indications are that Roosevelt would
have demobilized the army rapidly and brought it home — indeed, he
said so on many occasions. No doubt, once Roosevelt had become con-
vinced of Stalin’s bad faith he would have become a skillful and deter-
mined opponent of Soviet expansionism and would have had at his
disposal the tools described. There is little evidence, however, that he
had ever reached that judgment or viewed his military capabilities in
terms of a possible confrontation with the Soviet Union.
As the war drew T to a close, Roosevelt did express irritation with Stalin’s
tactics. Yet, throughout the war, Roosevelt had remained remarkably con-
sistent, even eloquent, in his commitment to Soviet-American coopera-
tion, and he considered no assignment more important than overcoming
Stalin’s distrust. Walter Lippmann may have been right when he said of
Roosevelt, “He distrusted everybody. What he thought he could do was
to outwit Stalin, which is quite a different thing.” 28 If that was his inten-
tion, he did not succeed.
Roosevelt relied on personal relations with Stalin in a way that
Churchill never would. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Churchill
explained Great Britain’s decision to support Stalin with a phrase which
involved neither personal nor moral endorsement: “If Hitler invaded
Hell, he [Churchill] would at least make a favourable reference to the
Devil!” 29 Roosevelt showed no such reserve. Shortly after America’s entry
into the war, he attempted to arrange a meeting with Stalin at the Bering
Straits to the exclusion of Churchill. It was to be “an informal and com-
pletely simple visit for a few days between you and me” to achieve “a
meeting of minds.” Roosevelt would bring only Harry Hopkins, an inter-
preter, and a stenographer; the seals and the gulls would be their wit-
nesses. 30
The Bering Straits meeting never took place. But two summits did
occur — at Teheran from November 28 to December 1, 1943, and at Yalta
from February 7 4 to 11, 1945. On both occasions, Stalin went to great
lengths to demonstrate to Roosevelt and Churchill that they needed the
meeting much more than he did; even the settings were designed to
reduce the Anglo-Americans’ confidence in their ability to extract conces-
sions from him. Teheran was only a few hundred miles from the Soviet
border, and Yalta, of course, was on Soviet territory. In each case, the
Western leaders had to travel thousands of miles, an especially arduous
imposition on a man of Roosevelt’s handicaps even at the time of the
Teheran meeting. By the time of Yalta, the President was mortally ill.
Yalta has borne the opprobrium for the shape of the postwar world.
Yet, when it occurred, Soviet armies had already crossed all their 1941
borders and were in a position to impose unilaterally Soviet political
Three Approaches to Peace
control over the rest of Eastern Europe. If a postwar settlement was ever
to have been negotiated at any summit, the appropriate time would have
been at Teheran, fifteen months earlier. Before then, the Soviet Union
had been struggling to avert defeat; at the time of Teheran, the battle for
Stalingrad had been won, victory was certain, and a separate Soviet-Nazi
deal was highly improbable.
In Teheran, Roosevelt had initially planned to stay at the American
legation, some distance from the Soviet and British embassies, which
stood back to back. There was a constant worry that, en route to a meeting
at the Soviet or British compound, Roosevelt might fall victim to a bomb-
throwing Axis sympathizer. Therefore, at the first plenary session, which
was held in the American legation, Roosevelt accepted Stalin’s invitation
to move to a villa in the Soviet compound. It was furnished according to
the pretentious and gaudy style of Soviet interior design for high person-
ages and, no doubt, was suitably bugged for the occasion.
Roosevelt could have offered no stronger signal of trust and goodwill
than to accept Stalin’s offer of Soviet lodgings. Yet the gesture left no
significant impact on Stalin’s strategy, which was to castigate Churchill
and Roosevelt about the delay in opening the second front. Stalin liked
to put interlocutors on the defensive. In this instance, it had the additional
benefit of focusing attention on a region far from the areas that would
soon be in contention. He elicited a formal promise to open a second
front in France by the spring of 1944. The three Allies also agreed on the
complete demilitarization of Germany and on their respective occupation
zones. On one occasion, when Stalin urged the execution of 50,000 Ger-
man officers, Churchill walked out and returned only after Stalin had
followed him to give his assurances that he had been jesting — which, in
light of what we now know of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers, was
probably not true. 31 Then, at a private meeting, Roosevelt outlined his
idea of the Four Policemen to a skeptical Stalin.
All of these issues delayed discussion of postwar arrangements, which
was left until the last day of the Conference. Roosevelt agreed to Stalin’s
plan to move the frontiers of Poland westward and indicated that he
would not press Stalin on the question of the Baltics. If Soviet armies
occupied the Baltic States, he said, neither the United States nor Great
Britain would “turn her out” — though he also recommended holding a
plebiscite. The fact was, Roosevelt was as reluctant to undertake a full-
scale discussion of the postwar world as he had been when Molotov
visited Washington eighteen months earlier. He therefore put forward his
comments on Stalin’s postwar plans for Eastern Europe so tentatively as
to sound almost apologetic. Roosevelt called Stalin’s attention to the 6
million American voters of Polish extraction who were in a position to
influence his re-election in the coming year. Though “personally he
agreed with the views of Marshal Stalin as to the necessity of the restora-
tion of a Polish state [he] would like to see the Eastern border moved
farther to the west and the Western border moved even to the River Oder.
He hoped, however, that the Marshal would understand that for political
reasons outlined above, he could not participate in any decision here in
Teheran or even next winter on this subject and that he could not publicly
take part in any such arrangement at the present time . ” 32 This could hardly
have conveyed to Stalin that he was running a great risk by proceeding
unilaterally; indeed, it implied that America’s agreement after the election
was largely a formality.
The reason Roosevelt was putting forward American political goals so
halfheartedly was that he viewed his principal objective at Teheran as
establishing the concept of the Four Policemen. One of the methods
he used to attempt to gain Stalin’s confidence was to dissociate himself
ostentatiously from Churchill, as he reported to Frances Perkins, an old
friend and his Secretary of Labor:
Winston got red and scowled, and the more he did so, the more Stalin
smiled. Finally, Stalin broke out into a deep, hearty guffaw, and for the
first time in three days I saw light. I kept it up until Stalin was laughing
with me, and it was then that I called him “Uncle Joe.” He would have
thought me fresh the day before, but that day he laughed and came
over and shook my hand.
From that time on our relations were personal The ice was bro-
ken and we talked like men and brothers. 33
The reinvention of Stalin, organizer of purges and recent collaborator of
Hitler, into “Uncle Joe,” the paragon of moderation, was surely the ulti-
mate triumph of hope over experience. Yet Roosevelt’s emphasis on
Stalin’s goodwill w^as not a personal idiosyncrasy, but vented the attitude
of a people with more faith in the inherent goodness of man than in
geopolitical analysis. They preferred to see Stalin as an avuncular friend
rather than as a totalitarian dictator. In May 1943, Stalin disbanded the
Comintern, the Communist Party’s formal instrument of world revolution.
It came at a moment in time when world revolution could hardly have
been either a top Soviet priority or a serious capability. Yet Senator
Tom Connally of Texas, a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee and soon to be its chairman, greeted Stalin’s move as a funda-
mental turn toward Western values: “Russians for years have been chang-
Three Approaches to Peace
ing their economy and approaching the abandonment of Communism,
and the whole Western world will be gratified at the happy climax of
their efforts.” 34 Even Fortune magazine, a bastion of American capitalism,
wrote in a similar vein. 35
At the end of the Teheran Conference, therefore, the American people
saw nothing unusual in their president’s summing up its achievements
through a personal evaluation of the Soviet dictator:
I may say that I “got along fine” with Marshal Stalin. He is a man who
combines a tremendous, relentless determination with a stalwart good
humor. I believe he is truly representative of the heart and soul of
Russia; and I believe that we are going to get along very well with him
and the Russian people — very well indeed. 36
When, in June 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy and advanced from
the west, Germany’s doom was sealed. As the military situation turned
irrevocably in his favor, Stalin progressively raised his terms. In 1941, he
had asked for acceptance of the 1941 borders (with a possibility of modi-
fying them), and indicated a willingness to recognize the London-based
free Poles. In 1942, he began to complain about the composition of the
Polish government-in-exile. In 1943, he created an alternative to it in the
so-called free Lublin Committee. By late 1944, he had recognized the
Lublin group — dominated by communists — as the provisional govern-
ment, and banned the London Poles. In 1941, Stalin’s primary issue had
been frontiers; by 1945, it had become political control of territories
beyond those frontiers.
Churchill understood what was taking place. But Great Britain had
become too dependent on the United States to sustain solitary initiatives.
Nor was Great Britain strong enough to oppose by itself Stalin’s increas-
ingly bold creation of a Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe. In October 1944,
Churchill undertook an almost quixotic enterprise to settle the future of
Eastern Europe directly with Stalin. During a visit to Moscow which lasted
eight days, Churchill jotted down a spheres-of-influence arrangement and
handed it to Stalin. In it, he envisaged a delineation of spheres in terms
of percentages, with Great Britain obtaining 90 percent in Greece, and
the Soviet Union 90 percent in Romania and 75 percent in Bulgaria;
Hungary and Yugoslavia were divided according to a 50-50 basis. Stalin
accepted on the spot — though Molotov, in the best Soviet tradition of
horse trading, sought in a dialogue with Eden to shave the British percent-
ages, giving the Soviets a greater edge in every East European country
except Hungary 37
The British effort had a certain pathos about it. Never before had
spheres of influence been defined by percentages. No criteria to measure
compliance existed, or any means of enforcement. Influence would be
defined by the presence of the contending armies. In this manner, Greece
fell into the British sphere, with or without the agreement, while all the
other states — except Yugoslavia — became Soviet satellites regardless of
the percentages assigned to them. Even Yugoslavia’s freedom of action
resulted not from the Churchill-Stalin agreement but from the fact that it
had been under Soviet occupation for only a very brief period and had
liberated itself from German military 7 occupation through a major guer-
rilla effort of its own.
By the time of the Yalta Conference in February 1945, nothing re-
mained of the Churchill-Stalin agreement. The Soviet army was already
in possession of all the disputed territories, making the frontiers issue
largely moot. Moreover, it was intervening massively in the internal ar-
rangements of all the occupied countries.
Already in severely failing health, Roosevelt had to fly from Malta to a
snowy airport in Saki, in the Crimea, and from there was driven the ninety
miles to Yalta in some five hours over difficult, snow-covered roads. His
quarters were a three-room suite in the Livadia Palace. (In the nineteenth
century, Livadia had been a favorite winter resort of the tsars: in 1877 ,
Alexander II had planned his Balkan invasion from there; in 1911 , Tsar
Nicholas II had built a white granite palace on the bluffs overlooking the
Black Sea, which became the site of the Conference of the Big Three.)
The tactics of the participants did not change with the new surround-
ings. Churchill was anxious to discuss postwar political arrangements but
was overruled by his two colleagues, each of whom pursued his own
distinct agenda. Roosevelt sought an agreement on voting procedures for
the United Nations, and to nail down Soviet participation in the war
against Japan. Stalin was happy enough to discuss both subjects, because
the time spent on them would not be available for a discussion of Eastern
Europe, and because he was eager (not reluctant, as some Americans
thought ) to enter the war against Japan, which would make it possible for
him to share in the spoils of that victory as well.
Churchill was above all concerned with the European balance of
power. He wanted to restore France to Great Power status, to resist the
dismemberment of Germany, and to reduce exorbitant Soviet demands
for reparations. Though Churchill was successful with respect to all three
issues, they were essentially sideshows to the settlement of Eastern Eu-
rope — which was even then being foreclosed daily by the behavior of
the Red Army. By this time, Stalin had prepared a riposte to Roosevelt’s
Three Approaches to Peace
ploy that the Soviet Union should make concessions in order to spare
him the wrath of his domestic opposition: when Roosevelt asked that the
city of Lvov remain with Poland in order to pacify his domestic Polish
critics, Stalin replied that, much as he would like to oblige, his own
Ukrainian population would create an insuperable domestic problem for
him. 38
In the end, Churchill and Roosevelt accepted Russia’s 1941 borders, a
painful step for Churchill, whose country had gone to war to preserve
Poland’s territorial integrity. They agreed as well that Poland’s western
frontier would be moved toward the Oder and Neisse rivers. Since there
were two Neisse rivers, the final delineation was left unresolved.
Churchill and Roosevelt accepted the Moscow-created Lublin government
with the proviso that it be broadened to include some democratic politi-
cal figures from the London-based Polish government-in-exile.
Stalin’s concession to his allies was a Joint Declaration on Liberated
Europe, which promised free elections and the establishment of demo-
cratic governments in Eastern Europe. Stalin obviously thought that he
was promising the Soviet version of free elections, especially since the
Red Army would have already occupied the countries in question. This
is in fact what happened, though Stalin vastly underestimated the
seriousness with which Americans have traditionally approached legal
documents. Later, when it decided to organize resistance to Soviet expan-
sionism, America did so on the basis of Stalin’s failure to keep his word
— as given at Yalta and as the American leaders and public had under-
stood it.
Stalin’s reaction to Roosevelt’s appeal to join the war against Japan
illustrated how different his rules of the coalition game were from Roose-
velt’s. In a discussion from which Churchill was excluded — even though
Great Britain had been an early victim of Japanese aggression — nothing
was heard of Allied unity as its own reward or of avoiding political issues
so as to create favorable preconditions for the Four Policemen. Stalin felt
not the least bit inhibited about insisting on special benefits while the
war was still going on, and on being paid in strategic, not emotional, coin.
The quid pro quo he demanded was unabashedly resurrected from the
days of the tsars.
Stalin’s claim to the southern part of Sakhalin Island and to the Kurile
Islands did bear a certain, albeit vague, relationship to Soviet security and
Russian history. But his demand for free ports in Darien and Port Arthur
and the right to manage the Manchurian railways was straight out of tsarist
imperialist textbooks from the turn of the century. In Roosevelt’s least
comprehensible decision at Yalta, he granted these demands in a secret
agreement which amounted to returning to Moscow the predominant
role in Manchuria that it had lost in the Russo-Japanese War — one it was
not to lose until the Chinese communists took over Beijing in 1949.
After the Yalta Conference, all was jubilation. In reporting to the Con-
gress, Roosevelt emphasized the agreement reached on the United Na-
tions but not the decision regarding the political future of either Europe
or Asia. For the second time in a generation, an American president
was returning from Europe to proclaim the end of history. “The Yalta
Conference,” affirmed Roosevelt,
. . . ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclu-
sive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all
the other expedients that have been tried for centuries — and have
always failed. We propose to substitute for all these, a universal organi-
zation in which all peace-loving Nations will finally have a chance to
join. I am confident that the Congress and the American people will
accept the results of this Conference as the beginnings of a permanent
structure of peace. 39
In other words, Roosevelt had granted Stalin a sphere of influence in
northern China to encourage him to participate in a world order that
would make spheres of influence irrelevant.
When the Yalta Conference ended, only the unity of the wartime alli-
ance was being celebrated; the fissures that would later undo it were not
yet widely perceived. Hope still reigned supreme and “Uncle Joe” was
viewed as an uncomplicated partner. Reflecting on Yalta, Harry Hopkins
expressed his concern that Stalin, the presumed moderate, might buckle
under pressure from hard-liners in the Kremlin:
The Russians had proved that they could be reasonable and farseeing
and there wasn’t any doubt in the minds of the President or any of us
that we could live with them and get along with them peacefully for as
far into the future as any of us could imagine. But I have to make one
amendment to that— I think we all had in our minds the reservation
that we could not foretell what the results would be if anything should
happen to Stalin. We felt sure that we could count on him to be reason-
able and sensible and understanding — but we never could be sure who
or what might be in back of him there in the Kremlin. 40
The theme that the incumbent in the Kremlin was in his heart of hearts a
peaceful moderate in need of help in overcoming his intransigent col-
leagues was to remain a constant of American discussions ever after,
Three Approaches to Peace
regardless of the Soviet leader. Indeed, these assessments survived even
into the postcommunist period, when they were applied, first to Mikhail
Gorbachev, and then to Boris Yeltsin.
The importance of personal relations among leaders and of the exis-
tence of an underlying harmony among nations continued to be affirmed
by America as the war drew to a conclusion. On January 20, 1945, in his
fourth inaugural address, Roosevelt described his approach by quoting
from Emerson: “ . . the only way to have a friend is to be one.” 41 Soon
after Yalta, Roosevelt characterized Stalin to the Cabinet as “having some-
thing else in him besides this revolutionist Bolshevist thing.” He ascribed
that special quality to Stalin’s early education for the priesthood: “I think
that something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian
gentleman should behave.” 42
Stalin, however, was a master practitioner of Realpolitik, not a Christian
gentleman. As the Soviet armies advanced, Stalin was implementing what
he had privately told Milovan Djilas, then a Yugoslav communist leader:
This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes
on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as
his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise. 43