Europe’s Enlightened Order
By JONATHAN GREEN
At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson travelled to Paris to meet with leaders of the victorious Allied Powers. After four years of war, Europe was exhausted. The enormous costs of the conflict were widely blamed on Europe’s decrepit, outdated class of ministers, statesmen, and diplomats. The old norms of European diplomacy stood in disrepute.
Wilson’s task, as he saw it, was to found a new order of diplomacy, one to replace the retrograde system whose breakdown led to the Great War. This set him in opposition to defenders of the old order, who believed its principles were still relevant in their time. One such traditionalist was William Massey, the prime minister of New Zealand, who made the mistake of approaching Wilson at the Paris conference and comparing the Allies’ position in 1919 to that of their predecessors at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the same way that the Congress of Vienna had crafted a stable European peace in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Massey told Wilson, the Allies now had a chance to build a lasting peace for the 20th century.
Wilson was outraged. He demanded of Massey and all others present that “even by reference, no odor of Vienna would again be brought into the proceedings” of the Paris summit. For Wilson, the Congress of Vienna embodied everything that was wrong with the old European system of diplomacy: it conjured images of privileged elites in a smoke-filled room, cynically swapping territory with one another to sate their lust for power. Precisely these autocratic vices, Wilson argued, were the root causes of World War I.
Wilson’s antipathy towards the Congress of Vienna was deep-seated. In a 1917 speech to the U.S. Congress he had already declared his desire to “utterly destroy the old order of international politics.” If the mindset of 19th-century diplomacy was to blame for the war, then a durable peace could not be built on the basis of “such covenants of selfishness and compromise as were entered into at the Congress of Vienna.” Wilson envisioned a new international system that transcended the cynical power politics of the old European one, a new system rooted in the universal “principles of peace and justice.”
In order to moralize diplomacy, greed and avarice needed to be punished: Germany had to be penalized in the war’s aftermath. The universal right of national self-determination meant that Austria’s polyglot empire must be broken up into a series of new states—Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland. And Wilson’s commitment to the principle of self-government led him to call for regime change in Germany and Austria. Their old monarchical governments needed to be replaced with new republican ones. These measures, he believed, would banish the vices of the old European diplomacy from modern international relations, paving the way for a new system of nations bound together by their shared cosmopolitan values.
Two decades later, the world was back at war.
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