The New Post-WWI Order and the Upcoming Challenges

  January 21, 2024   Read time 7 min
The New Post-WWI Order and the Upcoming Challenges
The military and financial role of the United States in the war had made her into a world power; and while the ending of the war a year earlier than anticipated had kept that role from being as overwhelming as it would have become a year later, there was here an entirely new factor on the world stage.

Joined to the realities of American power were three additional elements enhancing the United States' position. The United States itself had been strengthened, not weakened, by the events of the war; its industrial and actual or potential military power could be expected to become even greater into the distant future; and the articulation by President Woodrow Wilson of American ideals, projected onto the world scene by his oratory, made many look to him and his views as harbingers of a new world order.

Another new power present at Paris was Japan. Though clearly not as important in the war or as likely to play a major role in European affairs, Japan shared with the United States the characteristic of having been strengthened rather than weakened by the war. Furthermore, if the representatives of the United States, like those of Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, were non-Europeans participating in the settlement of European issues, these were all individuals of European ancestry. The inclusion of Japan among the great powers brought onto the scene a people who had adapted European material and social technology to their own cultural and political traditions; but who were, who saw themselves, and who were seen by others, as basically non-Western.
When as a result of the peace settlement a portion of eastern Germany came to be under the control of the reborn country of Lithuania in order to provide that nation with a good port on the Baltic Sea at Memel (Klaipeda), certain restrictions were placed on the Lithuanian government to protect the rights of the Germans living in that area. Japan was one of the powers designated as monitors for this arrangement. It would be difficult to imagine a more conspicuous reversal from the days when German citizens enjoyed extra-territorial rights in Japan to the time when Germans in the Memel territory had to look, among other places, to Tokyo for the protection of their own rights under Lithuanian rule.
One power was as conspicuous by the novelty of its absence as the United States and Japan were by their presence: Russia. One of the original allies in the war against Germany had withdrawn from the conflict. The Tsarist government had been overthrown by revolution early in 1917, and the successor regime which had continued in the war against Germany had in turn itself been overthrown in November of that year by the Bolsheviks, who had then pulled Russia out of the war." Preferring to consolidate their hold on whatever portions of the country a settlement with Germany would leave them—a decision made easier for them by their belief in the imminence of world-wide revolutionary upheaval and their own prior support from the German government— the Bolsheviks in March 1918 signed a peace treaty dictated by Germany.
This dramatic breach in the alliance against the Central Powers had a host of implications. Inside Russia, it meant a breach between the Bolsheviks and their only internal political allies; from then on they would rule whatever they controlled as a one-party state. Externally it meant the release of German troops for use on other fronts, primarily in the West, in Germany's last great bid for total victory in the war. For the Western Powers it meant a challenge to their domestic institutions, but more immediately it threatened them with utter defeat at Germany's hands.
To revive the dispersion of forces imposed on Germany by an Eastern Front, the Western Allies supported those internal Russian enemies of the Bolsheviks who were willing to have Russia return to the war, but these efforts failed. The Western Allies barely held on in the West and then defeated Germany as well as the other Central Powers by themselves. They thereby incidentally saved the Bolsheviks from the fate that a victorious Germany intended for them, but they had no intention of inviting them to the peace conference. Whatever the outcome of the internal upheavals still shaking Russia during the proceedings in Paris, that country would be present in the thoughts of the conferees as an object of hopes and fears, not as a participant.
Two additional novel features of the situation in Paris require comment. One has already been mentioned: the presence of representatives from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand and, though not with the same status, of India. Here was a first internationally visible sign of one of the major results of World War I, the breakup of the European colonial empires into independent political entities. The "British Dominions," as they were then called, had earned their independence and their right to participate in the proceedings on their own by their share in the fighting.
This share was the converse of the declining ability of the mother country to provide by itself the military forces required for victory. For the future, this meant that only with the assured support of these extra-European ex-colonies now turned independent could the European settlement of 1919 be upheld and defended—a matter of crucial importance in 1938 and 1939. It is not an accident of history, though a fact frequently overlooked, that at the turning of the tide in North Africa in 1942 the majority of the "British" forces engaged came not from the United Kingdom but from Britain's allies, that is, from Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa; from what by then was called the "British Commonwealth."
The other novel feature was the general belief that the prevention of any new calamity like the war just concluded required the establishment of new international institutions. The fact that the first part of each of the peace treaties with the defeated was the text of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and that similarly included in the peace settlement were provisions for the establishment of the International Labor Organization and of the World Court, reflected the perception that making peace at the end of such a terrible conflict required more than drawing new boundaries, arranging for compensations, and imposing other limitations on the defeated. A general additional attempt should be made so to order international affairs as to preclude a repetition of what had just taken place.
These idealistic aspirations—with some justice one might call them the only truly realistic conclusions drawn from the war—were almost certain to be shattered by the other terms of any peace settlement. As the human and material costs of the war had mounted, only the hopes for a better world to follow had sustained much of the enormous effort required of the participants. But the very escalation of sacrifice supported by rising expectations of a new and improved world in the postwar era practically guaranteed disillusionment. How could a world in which over thirty million had lost their lives or their health in combat, in which millions had been uprooted, and in which the ingenuity of advanced industrial societies had for years concentrated on the maximum destruction of the material resources of mankind, be so much improved over the by then shadowy pre-war world, now surrounded with a halo of memory conferred by the intervening horrors?
The higher the hopes raised, the swifter and surer the disappointment. Nothing, measured against the lives lost and suffering endured, was likely to look worth the sacrifices made. And that an even worse fate might have been averted by victory seemed little consolation, especially as with the passage of time the fear of defeat, once so acute, faded from people's minds, but the empty places in the family circle remained conspicuously empty. That under such circumstances most of the disappointment, disillusionment, and disgust born of the war and its aftermath should focus in the first instance not on the war but on the peace settlement should not occasion great surprise.
The terms of the peace imposed on the defeated included, along with the provisions for new international organizations, primarily territorial, military, and financial terms. The territorial arrangement provided for substantial transfers to the victors, with Serbia gaining enormously at the expense of Austria-Hungary and becoming under the name of Yugoslavia a multinational state of its own, Romania gaining at the expense of Hungary and Bulgaria, as well as regaining territory it had lost to Russia in 1878, a new state called Czechoslovakia being formed out of portions of Austria-Hungary, Italy gaining some land also at Austria-Hungary's expense, and Greece being awarded what had been Bulgaria's coast on the Aegean Sea. Germany had to return part of northern Schlesvig to Denmark after a plebiscite, turn over small pieces of land to Belgium, and return Alsace and Lorraine to France.

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