After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars

By G. John Ikenberry | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
THE SETTLEMENT OF 1919

OF ALL the great postwar settlements, the peace of 1919 has provoked the most study, controversy, and regret. The “failure” of the Versailles settle/ ment has been the source of unending debate over the causes and implica/ tions of the lost peace, the limits of liberal internationalism, and the possi/ bility of international order based on democracy, self-determination, and the rule of law. No peace settlement has been more frequently invoked in public and scholarly argument about the sources of peace and the lessons of history.

The peace settlement after World War I is striking in several respects: it involved the most explicit and public discussion of the principles and organization of postwar order yet seen; postwar leaders clashed over com/ peting designs for postwar order—not unusual, except that the differences were deep ones concerning the basic logic of order; and the public and political parties in Europe and America were heavily engaged in inspiring or constraining war aims and postwar proposals, shaping and limiting the ability of American and European leaders to pursue their postwar order/ building goals.

The United States emerged as the leading world power after the war, and it brought an ambitious institutional agenda aimed at binding demo/ cratic states together in a universal rule-based association. These institu/ tional proposals were more sweeping than those that Britain brought to Vienna in 1815; they envisioned a worldwide organization of democra/ cies—a League of Nations—operating according to more demanding rules and obligations. The great powers would still form the core of this demo/ cratic community, but power balancing would be replaced by more legal/ and rule-based mechanisms of power management and dispute resolution.

The constitutional model is useful in several respects in identifying the logic that informed America's institutional strategy and the disputed post/ war order that followed. First, the United States did try to use its momen/ tary power advantages during and after the war to secure a postwar settle/ ment that locked in a favorable order, and it attempted to use offers of restraint on and commitment of its own power to gain an institutional agreement with European states. An institutional agreement that would bind the great powers together, including Germany, and create principled commitments and mechanisms for the settlement of disputes was at the heart of Woodrow Wilson's proposal for a postwar league. The willingness

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