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Treaty of Versailles, Peacemaking, FailuresResearch Paper

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¶ … 1919, one of the most significant treaties of the 20th century was hammered out in Paris after lengthy deliberation. Although it marked an end to the conflicts of World War One, what would become known as the Versailles Settlement did not create a lasting peace in Europe by any means. In fact, the principles of the treaty all but laid the foundation stones for the Second World War. The methods by which the Paris peace conference took place also reflected the stagnant climate of international politics, as gradually the United States and Great Britain assumed dominance of the political discourse. The treaty was theoretically multilateral and yet deliberations not only failed to include its principle target: Germany, but also principle victors among the allies such as France and Italy. Woodrow Wilson had intended for the treaty to be markedly different from those that had evolved from past peace conferences, but the Versailles settlement ended up bearing the same markers that generated conflict Europe for centuries. Comparing the Versailles settlement with the Treaty of Paris almost exactly a century earlier shows that idealistic faith in diplomacy is not a strategic approach to peacemaking in a bellicose world.

Diagnoses, Prescriptions, and New Institutions

The goals of the leading statesmen involved in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles differed significantly. The key actors in the peace conference included President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Georges Clemeanceau of France, and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy. However, Wilson's goals ended up riding roughshod over the goals of his allies. According to Holsti (1991), Wilson envisioned a radical peace process that would be a strong departure from past treaties. Wilson was an unbridled idealist whose views on human nature and international affairs seemed unrealistic to the major European players. Wilson believed that lasting peace could come about by facilitations in communication between all stakeholders. On the contrary, France, Italy, and to a lesser degree Great Britain all wanted the Paris Peace Conference and the resulting Treaty of Versailles to provide more concrete outlines of how sovereign states were to participate in a common European community that would become the League of Nations. It was not as if Wilson's allied brethren did not want the League of Nations; only that their goals and underlying belief systems about the nature of conflict and war differed.

President Woodrow Wilson shifted his stance during the course of the First World War from a president relatively disinterested in the European arena to one who wanted the "universalization of the American constitutional and historical experience" (Holsti, 1991, p. 194). Moreover, Wilson came to believe sincerely in the potential for leagues of nations to bond together over commonly shared goals. For Wilson, justice and righteousness governed the decision-making process during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, far more so than the need for peace. In fact, Wilson devised a hard-lined measure that basically insisted that the defeated powers like Germany must accept the terms of the treaty wholesale or else return to war (Holsti, 1991). Global best interest, for Wilson, did not mean peace but rather, a balance of power based on his brand of justice.

Clemenceau and Orlando had different goals from Wilson, and wanted the League of Nations to be more representative of the diverse landscape in the continent. For France and Italy, it was essential to involve and consult with smaller states during the conflict resolution process, and also to bond together against mutual aggressors. Wilson's goals were more diplomatic in nature, whereas France, Italy, and the smaller powers they purported to represent needed to be sanctioned and deterred from future aggression. France hoped that the League of Nations would be much stronger, performing a transnational peacemaking force with pooled military resources and not just diplomacy.

Wilson did not care much to entertain some of the reservations and objections of two of Germany's neighbors: France and Italy. France raised objections throughout the peace conference in Paris, but Wilson overrode their concerns. According to Holsti (1991), the four main areas of contention included the rules by which decisions were being made and would theoretically be made in the proposed League of Nations. Another area of disagreement between the Anglophone and non-Anglophone powers was the nature of international crises themselves -- what caused them and how they could be resolved (Holsti, 1991). Whether deterrence or persuasion were more effective was another bone of contention, as was the methods by which disarmament might be achieved (Holsti, 1991). Wilson diagnosed the problem as if it were children in a schoolyard. The League of Nations would provide a forum whereby conflicting interests could be negotiated and problems ironed out through dialogue and discourse. France, Italy, and other European powers that had lived through centuries of armed conflict took on a more realistic stance. Their diagnosis of war was that there will always be aggressor nations and that the problem of armed conflict will not disappear with idealistic leagues. As an effort to construct peace, the League of Nations was created but on shaky ground.

Winners and Losers

One of the hallmarks of the Versailles Settlement was the belief, championed by the United States and Great Britain, that peace should be negotiated only by the victors and that the victors could impose whatever rules they wished onto the enemy (Holsti, 1991). Although all the allied powers were technically winners in the aftermath of World War One, it ended up being the United States and Great Britain that made all the decisions during the Paris Peace Conference, to the degree that Wilson and George were refraining from translating key documents into French and Italian (Holsti, 1991). The treaty might have been multilateral on paper, but it was truly a bilateral document. The United States and Great Britain viewed their "great power leadership" as a bastion of world peace, and reluctantly considered introducing the opinions of any smaller powers (Holsti, 1991).

Germany was the primary power defeated by World War One and the main source of concern for the allies. Because Wilson's approach to peacemaking excluded minority voices, though, all stakeholders ended up losing out on the potential for lasting peace. It was not only because Germany was excluded during the treaty drafting, but also because France, Italy, Belgium, and other nations were as well. The new settlements and new world order Wilson intended to create with the League of Nations was too artificial to be salient.

France hoped for an even harsher approach to Germany in order to minimize the potential for future armed conflict. On the other hand, George of Great Britain feared the repercussions of isolating Germany overly much. As it turned out, a bruised Germany did perceive itself as being outcast as well as financially strained.

Longevity/Viability

Because of the Anglo-American dominance of the political discourse in Paris, "the French were confirmed in their view that they could never rely on the new League of Nations for their security," (Holsti, 1991, p. 200). Wilson advocated disarmament; many other nations vied for a bolstering of military might in response to Germany's aggressive behaviors and the realities of an imperialistic landscape. The League of Nations failed partly because Wilson failed to recognize the geo-political realities in Europe, instead projecting American values and ideals onto the continent.

A similar situation can be found in history, and also happened to take place in Paris with the 1815 Treaty following the Napoleonic Wars. Both 1815 and 1919 marked shifts in global balances of power, highlighting the problems with hegemony and imperialism. Just as Wilson was acting with too much idealism during the 1919 peace conferences, the steering committee of the 1815 Treaty of Paris likewise "reflected the optimism of the Enlightenment" including the predilection for people to prefer peace and diplomatic negotiation over war (Holsti, 1991, p. 114). In 1815, the seeds of the League of Nations were laid in that it was then believed that alliances and collective security systems might provide the keys to peace. Goals included disarmament and the reduced need for war by offering dialogue as an alternative for resolving conflict.

Although both the 1815 Treaty of Paris and the 1919 Versailles Settlement offered some modicum of peace and a framework for conflict resolution, both failed to provide Europe with lasting harmonious relations between sovereign nation-states, most of which had conflicting interests. Especially in the aftermath of the devastation of World War One, reconstruction and recovery efforts consumed the needs of many members of the League of Nations. The League of Nations was perceived as being "illegitimate" in many circles (Holsti, 1991, p. 210). Decisions had to be made unanimously, something that was nearly impossible with so many divergent opinions and needs. Most importantly, Germany and other aggressor nations did not view diplomacy or dialogue as being desirable or legitimate. The allies and the defeated powers were speaking different languages.

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