November 15, 2018

This Week's Reads - A Return to the Interwar Era


I was struck by the solitary figure President Emmanuel Macron cut at Sunday's ceremony in Paris, the centennial of the armistice ending World War I. Under threatening skies at the Arc de Triomphe, Macron spoke into the empty center aisle between two risers of diplomats and dignitaries belonging to World War I's major belligerent nations, each facing the other across the rain-soaked Champs-Élysées.

President Macron rejected nationalism in his speech, calling for internationalism instead, insisting on global cooperation: "Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism," he warned, "By saying 'our interests first, who cares about the others,' we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values."

This was a speech no one would have thought necessary to give only a few years ago. But today there is a sense of dread that the warning may already be coming too late.

In 1918, at the end of World War I, there was a great promise that the war to end all wars would usher in an era of democratic peace. The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations were the core of that effort, with Versailles establishing conditions for peace and the League providing a forum for resolving future disputes. But the effort failed. The instruments of the new peace were flawed. But any chance of their being able to function was snuffed out by the US decision to return to the precepts of the late 18th century, avoiding entangling alliances, rather than taking up the responsibilities laid before it at the dawn of the 20th century.

It would take a Great Depression and a second, even-more deadly world war for the United States to finally take on the global leadership position it had been handed after the Great War. A liberal order was built, based not on "naïve optimism about human existence," but on "pessimism born of hard experience, earned on the battlefields of Europe and the beaches of the Pacific islands," as Robert Kagan put it. The United Nations was founded, the Bretton Woods system agreed to, and NATO established.

Since then, the absolute number of people dying in conflicts declined to its lowest levels in recorded history, from around half a million people annually in some of the early post-war years down to about 90,000 in 2017. At the same time, the number of people rising above extreme poverty also rose to its highest levels in history, from 45 percent of the world in the early post-war years to about 90 percent today.

But today we seem to have returned to the precepts of the 19th century—a world of competing global powers, looking out for themselves with little care for or interest in others. How long the road to global leadership, how short the road back.

Macron's speech Sunday sounded more like desperation than hope, afraid that we may have already turned the corner into a world full of nationalism, populism, and competition.

Sitting on the risers as he spoke were the personifications of this new world order: Donald Trump, who has given nationalism his full embrace; Vladimir Putin, who flexed his military muscles to invade and bomb other countries; and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose dog-eat-dog autocracy has played allies from every angle.

Representatives of the 20th century style of liberal leadership were underwhelming: The United Kingdom's Theresa May was missing entirely—too preoccupied forging her own nationalist, post-Brexit path out of the European Union. Germany's Angela Merkel was in attendance but she is on her way out, depleted and exhausted from what increasingly looks like a failed attempt to sustain the liberal order she long championed.

After the ceremony, Macron opened the Paris Peace Forum with a group photo, asking whether it would be a "ringing symbol of a durable peace among nations, or the photograph of the last moment of unity before the world goes down in new disorder.”

History will tell whether Macron's rainy speech marked a return to the grim era of the interwar years—an era of deep depression and large-scale destruction. But every cloud has a silver lining. The order is crumbling, but it hasn't collapsed. We can still act if we want to, shore up our peace-building institutions, and act, not hope, like it isn't too late.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. If you haven't already, click here to subscribe to This Week's Reads.

Can Europe’s Liberal Order Survive as the Memory of War Fades?

Katrin Bennhold / The New York Times

The last veteran of World War I died in 2012, and the conflict seems ever more remote to Europeans living today, writes Katrin Bennhold in the New York Times. But does remoteness also mean irrelevance? On one hand, there are notable similarities between then and now. “Europe’s political center is weak and the fringes are radicalizing. Nationalism, laced with ethnic hatred, has been gaining momentum,” Bennhold writes. On the other hand, things are different. "A century ago, Europe was the center of the world—even if it was the dark tragic center of the world,” French author Dominique Moïsi tells Bennhold. “Today we might be back to tragedy but not to centrality.”

On This World War I Anniversary, Let’s Not Celebrate Woodrow Wilson

Michael Beschloss / The Washington Post

More than 100,000 Americans died heroically in World War I, writes historian Michael Beschloss in the Washington Post. “Their commander in chief, Woodrow Wilson, did not match the quality of their service,” he adds. The 28th US president harbored deep racist beliefs, Beschloss explains, as well as curtailed important civil liberties during the war. “One can admire Wilson for his progressive reforms, for his idealism and eloquence about America’s role in the world, as I do, without sugarcoating his displays of political incompetence as a president of war,” he writes. Beschloss recently spoke at the Council about his new book Presidents of War, and you can watch the video of the event here.

The War That Never Ended

Ted Widmer / The New York Times

“I am now playing for 100 years hence,” President Woodrow Wilson wrote as World War I was ending and he was ramping up his campaign to make the world safe for democracy. Now, 100 years later, the legacy of the Great War and the current health of democracy are decidedly mixed. Conflict and division continued after World War I and continue still today—an idea wonderfully captured by the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen as “We only know war lasts.” It is with Owen’s idea in mind that, as Ted Widmer writes in the New York Times, “a sense of self-restraint would be the most fitting way to remember the tragedy that ended in 1918.”

US Midterms: Why the World Fears ‘Trumpism’ Is Here to Stay

Gideon Rachman / Financial Times

Midterm elections in the United States are not typically followed very closely abroad, explains Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times. “But this time is different,” he adds. While the midterms have passed, Rachman’s essay still serves as an important tour du monde of US allies, partners, and adversaries, revealing how each has viewed the current US administration to date and what each hopes happens next. The essay is a nuanced look at the world that finds some foreign capitals eager for President Trump’s success, others not, and others still, as Rachman explains, “either neutral or simply confused by the current American political scene and the midterms.”

The United States Seeks Collaboration, Not Control, in the Indo-Pacific

Mike Pence / The Washington Post

Vice President Mike Pence has embarked on a week-long tour of Asia, representing President Trump at summits in Singapore and Papua New Guinea and meeting with US allies. As Pence explained in an op-ed in the Washington Post before he left, the trip represents the US commitment to the “Indo-Pacific”—a name the administration has sought to popularize for the region spanning from the Korean peninsula to the northwestern shores of India. In part, the term “Indo-Pacific” reflects closer cooperation between India and Japan in recent years, not least in conducting naval exercises together. Yet what looms at the center of the administration’s strategy in the region—indeed, at the center of the very Indo-Pacific itself—is a rising China.

Trophy Infrastructure, Troublesome Debt: China Makes Inroads in Europe

James T. Areddy / Wall Street Journal

Don’t be fooled by the dateline “Belgrade” on this smart report by James T. Areddy in the Wall Street Journal. The report is in fact about Beijing’s growing ambitions abroad. “Deal by deal, applying experience honed in Asia and Africa, China is constructing parallel financial and commercial networks in Central and Eastern Europe to challenge the global order,” Areddy writes. Beijing is intent on reducing China’s dependence on a US-led economic order, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative to develop trade and communication networks worldwide, China has been increasingly quick to dole out financing for large infrastructure projects as far away as Europe.

Even Lobsters Can’t Escape Trump’s Trade War

Shawn Donnan / Bloomberg Businessweek

Consider the lobster, Shawn Donnan suggests in his new essay for Bloomberg Businessweek. The crustacean is immensely valuable if you want to understand the global economy, the effects of climate change, and the consequences of President Trump’s trade policies, Donnan writes. Earlier this year, Beijing imposed a tariff on importing live lobsters in response to President Trump’s trade policies. The tariff has come as a major blow to Maine’s lobster industry, which not only has found itself shut out of a lucrative market, but also now has to compete with a Canadian industry lowering its own trade barriers and with changing coastlines due to warming waters.

We Are Living in an Age of Unprecedented Risks

Henry Paulson / Financial Times

“Over the course of my 50-year career, with the exception of the 2008 financial crisis, I have never seen the public and private sectors buffeted by so much risk,” writes Henry Paulson in the Financial Times. It is an unsettling warning, not least since Paulson was President George W. Bush’s treasury secretary and was front and center for the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Among the sources of uncertainty today, Paulson explains, are the rise of populism, a raft of opaque regulations ostensibly regarding competition, and more governments invoking a murky definition of “national security” that blurs the distinction between commerce and defense. Paulson recently spoke at the Council, and you can watch the video of the event here.

Trump Has Only Sticks, No Carrots

Gardiner Harris / The New York Times

“No modern American president has been as dismissive of ‘globalism’ or as vigorous in the defense of sovereignty as Mr. Trump,” writes Gardiner Harris in the New York Times. “And yet the power of sanctions springs from the very system of international agreements that Mr. Trump rejects, and it is a device widely seen outside of the United States as an assault on sovereignty and a form of American coercion and domination,” he adds. As President Trump ramps up sanctions against countries such as Iran, this contradiction between sovereignty and sanctions has become a central feature of US foreign policy, Harris writes. Even worse, he adds, is the fact that sanctions rarely work, especially when imposed unilaterally.

Iran Is Now the Biggest Test for Trump's Disruptive Foreign Policy

Fred Kempe / CNBC

Iran may become the defining foreign policy issue for the Trump administration in the next two years, writes Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. At the center of the White House’s plan is the expectation that ramping up unilateral sanctions will force Tehran to the negotiating table, and that once negotiations have begun, Iran will agree to a comprehensive deal including everything from its nuclear program to its support for terrorism and proxy warfare. Some have argued this strategy is hopelessly naïve, Kempe writes. Yet, for all the lofty ambitions the Trump administration hopes for, Kempe explains, “they are more pragmatic in their thinking and execution than most media reporting on Iran suggests.”


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