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In January 1918, exactly 100 years ago, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson promulgated his 14 points: a set of principles that he hoped would guarantee peace and prosperity for the community of nations in a new post-war order. A grateful Tomas Masaryk, the founding president of Czechoslovakia, had Prague’s main train station named in honor of the man who had championed his new country’s independence after World War I.
However, things did not work out quite as Wilson planned. A century later, we are still not that much closer to a stable world order than we were in 1918. The end of the Cold War in 1989 did not usher in a restructuring of the architecture of the European security system. Rather, it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union’s alliance system, and the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union: Western institutions that were predicated on the exclusion of Russia. Just as the Treaty of Versailles penalized Germany as the defeated power, so the post-1989 European settlement effectively treated Russia as the loser in the Cold War.
The question of Wilson’s legacy was discussed in a panel at the Gaidar Forum in Moscow on 18 January, an annual gathering of politicians, academics, and businesspeople in memory of Yegor Gaidar, the reformist prime minister of Russia in the early 1990s. Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev suggested that it was particularly appropriate to have a panel discussing the 14 points because World War II is “over” (in the sense that Germany is reconciled with its neighbors) while World War 1 is not (in the sense that the boundaries of Russia and Turkey remain the subject of military contestation).
Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of World in Disarray, defended Wilson’s model of a community of nations that respect each other’s sovereignty, while understanding that membership in the club of states requires obligations as well as rights – to tackle global challenges, and to rein in rogue regimes. Haas argued that the post-1945 international institutions largely created by the United States were beneficial to all members of the global community. He remains confident that the U.S. should play a more assertive role in shaping a new world order, based on free trade and agreed norms of behavior.
In contrast two other panelists – Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Center Moscow and Zia Qureshi, a former World Bank economist – argued that the U.S.-led post-1945 order worked out disproportionately to the benefit of the U.S. at the expense of other countries. The U.S. can no longer play the role of world leader, if other countries do not accept the argument that Washington is providing a public good for the global community.
Similar criticisms can be made of Wilson’s 14 points. Wilson promised self-determination to the European nations who were former subjects of the German, Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman empires. But that right was not to be extended to the colonies of Britain, France, and the other allied powers. On the contrary, Britain and France took over Germany’s colonies in Africa and were granted mandates over the former Ottoman provinces that became Iraq, Syria, and Palestine.
A request by Japan for inclusion in the Versailles treaty of a statement about the equality of all races was vetoed by the Australians. Wilson himself, it must be said, was a racist, who re-segregrated the federal civil service, and held a premiere showing of the infamous “Birth of a Nation” film at the White House. Strange indeed that such a man is regarded by international relations theorists today as the architect of an “idealist” liberal world order.
Russia, China, and India are all too aware that the Wilsonian system, and the post-1945 order, were based on hierarchy and exclusion, despite their protestations of equality and inclusion. They are understandably wary about signing off on a new Pax Americana.
Zia Qureshi suggested that it is pointless to expect a new global order unless and until nation-states are able to put their own house in order. National governments are scapegoating globalization to cover up their own inability to deal with rising inequality and stagnant productivity, he said.
Dmitri Trenin argued that the world is currently in transition away from a U.S.-dominated system to new system with new global powers (China), new regional powers (such as Turkey), and even local powers (such as North Korea) capable of standing up to Washington. Russia does not yet know what the new system will look like (no one does) – but whatever the system, they want recognition as a great power. A December 2017 poll found that 72 percent of Russians consider Russia to be a great power – the highest level since the fall of the Soviet Union. Trenin was skeptical about the capacity of China to come up with ideas for shaping a viable global world order.
In a recent article Trenin bluntly stated that “Since February 2014, the Russian leadership has been in a de facto war mode with regard to the United States” and that Russia’s goal is to “undermine the United States’ global dominance of the post–Cold War period.”
The new U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) similarly argues that “China and Russia challenge American power, inﬂuence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity,” leading the U.S. to rethink “the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.” Trenin refers to the new situation as “hybrid war,” the NSS describes it as “continuous competition” – neither peace nor war.
With hardline views gaining the upper hand in Washington and Moscow, the prospects for international cooperation over Iran and North Korea, and for a de-escalation of violence in Ukraine and Syria, look grim.
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