It has been nearly 100 years since the “War to End All Wars” officially ended at the Palace of Versailles in November 1918. Indeed, this term itself, born of the optimism stemming from a sense that this war was so destructive, involving the first weapons of mass destruction, and caused death at such an unprecedented scale that humankind surely would never tempt such fate again. Instead, in what would be a series of 20th Century conflicts stemming in large measure from the unresolved issues of World War I, the term “War to End All Wars” became a cruel joke that derided the hope that humans can find some way to conduct their affairs such that vaporizing millions would not be considered. There were 37 million casualties in World War 1, 20 million military and civilian dead and 17 million wounded. When added to the some 50 million that perished in the parallel but not entirely unrelated global Spanish flu epidemic, the world had never seen death at such a pace. Much has been written about the war itself, and it is not necessary to recount its history here. However, much less attention has been paid to the more subtle outcomes of the war, a process that eventually affected every citizen of every country on earth. Indeed, it is said that the 20th Century truly began with World War 1. What is its legacy and what impacts can we yet learn in its aftermath in ways other than to engage in ever more brutal warfare?
The Rise of the Nation-State and International Governance
One of the major post-war changes concerned how the nations of the world would be organized and governed, and how they would, in turn, engage one another. Clearly, the League of Nations was the first effort to establish global norms and procedures by which international relations should unfold. That the League was ultimately unsuccessful, in large measure due to the lack of participation of the United States, is hardly the point. An aspiration for a world order defined by something other than conquest expressed itself and became a feature of global engagement, later taken up somewhat more successfully by the United Nations.
However, the focus on international institutions of governance cloaks a rather larger and more impactful fact. For the first time, the expected and normative arrangement of societies was to be nation-states, as opposed to empires, on one hand, and specific to a circumscribed geographic area with cities and capitals, as opposed to the shifting power centers of nomadic tribes, on the other. World War 1 created the movement toward the disintegration of empires and their replacement by the nation-state, viewed as the more “modern” condition of governance. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” attempted to form the basis of the peace made at Versailles, and contained highly specific prescriptions for the lands of the vanquished empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans. Indeed, with specific regard to the Ottoman Empire, Wilson called for:
XII: “The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.”
Under the auspices of the Treaty of Versailles, a series of sub-treaties emerged, including the Treaty of Sevres, which attempted to implement the twelfth point by the division of the Ottoman Empire into seven zones under the control of the Allied victors. The intent was to hatch new nations on this territory, presumed to gather “nationalities” including, potentially, an enlarged Greece, an Armenian nation, a Kurdish area, and the implementation of the heretofore-secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France. This represented an historic shift of emphasis from states defined through conquest to those with a presumed ethnicity as defining its borders. Moreover, the structure of these new states was to be primarily secular, but certainly including, in some cases, installing heads of state that appeared to have traditional and religious legitimacy. However, the essential feature of this movement toward the expansion of the nation-state model was that the Allies saw the path to peace as a function of its structure of governance. Further, and very importantly, in place of a popular expression for nationhood, as evidenced by the rise of the United States more than a century before and of the emergence of the Soviet Union during the war itself, they were more than willing to impose it. Since that time, this pattern of powerful nations imposing themselves on the less powerful in the name of “modernity”, and according to some narrative of “progress”, became the hallmark of international relations between the developed and developing world in the 20th Century.
The End of the Ottomans and the Rise of the New Middle East
While WW 1 has had an enormous impact on world events since 1918, the pattern we see in the Middle East is exemplary of much of what has happened elsewhere. First, even the terms that characterize world regions, such as the Near East, the Middle East, and the Far East, are “near”, “middle” and “far” relative to Britain. Indeed, the British influence has had the greatest impact on the Eastern Mediterranean region and the Arabian Peninsula. Including Sykes-Picot, the actions of the British government before, during, and after the war created the borderlines and even the nomenclature of the nations that emerged after the war. Despite the Wilsonian attempt to organize nations according to perceived ethnicity, which certainly did influence the carving up of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, even “nationality” was imposed in what became known as the Middle East. There were no such people known as “Palestinians”, “Jordanians”, or “Iraqis” prior to the war, except by British reference. These were names that the British gave these “nations”. They had little to nothing to do with the people living there. Indeed, many “ethnicities”, some with ancient grudges with one another, were herded into the same “nation”. How else could a country like Iraq, home to Sunni, Shia, Kurd, and Turkmen tribes, with all their centuries of past conflict, assume any functional notion of “modern” citizenship and nationhood? Only through a supreme ruler credited with having some type of historical legitimacy with which the British sought to convince the locals. More important to the British than the inevitable local conflicts was the threat that they may be drawn into those confcits. Thus, they needed an absolute ruler to maintain sufficient order to allow the British to leave. Indeed, Britain was in a century-long process of divesting itself from its empire, exchanging colonial rule for a client state to do its bidding without requiring direct control (or resources) from the Crown. Accordingly, Britain introduced and supported the Third House of Saud in 1902 and ceded the Holy sites of Mecca and Medina to it after the fall of the Ottomans. They introduced the House of Hashim in Iraq, despite the fact that these “royals” were foreign to the area. The post-war British Transjordan Mandate brought forward the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan. France, under Sykes-Picot similarly imposed satellite governance in Syria and Lebanon. Finally, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 began the process of ultimately introducing Israel to the region in 1947. Certainly, national leadership in the area changed over the years in several of the new nations, particularly the Ba’athist revolution in Syria and Iraq. Although these revolts against the British proxies served to depose them, this did not change the fact that these “nations” were fundamentally ungovernable. The instability in the region and the tendency toward internal conflict was “baked in” at the creation of these new states. Not only was the premise of nation-statehood coming out of Versailles extremely naïve at the outset, this weakness was exacerbated by the Allied nations’ tendency to confuse their own national interests with Wilson’s noble goal of “(a) free, open and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims…” The price the people of the region paid for this betrayal has been on-going conflict, instability, human suffering, and anything but peace.
The Permanent War
The Treaty of Versailles, and its inspiration by Wilson’s Fourteen Points, sparked the beginning of a global perspective in international relations. Empires crumbled, replaced by a dominant set of primarily Western nations, the core of which grew out of the “Triple Entente” of World War 1. Direct control over land was exchanged for outsized influence in the lives of new nations, and the process of creating those new nations became a new imperialism that characterized the entire 20th Century. The events in the Middle East, while in many ways peculiar to the region, are also emblematic of what happened in the development of nation-states elsewhere in the world, particularly in Africa and Asia after the World War 2. It is conflict, not peace, which has characterized the world since 1918 and that is directly due to Versailles. While there are notable exceptions to the pattern of events in the Middle East, such as the development of Turkey in 1923, even then this revolution was a reaction against the legacy of Versailles. As such, Turkey’s exception proves the rule. The “peace treaty” created little but more war.
World War 1 was an extraordinary historical event, the impacts of which are still being felt today. Indeed, it was the true beginning of the 20th Century. Some have argued that the events of September 11, 2001 constitutes the true beginning of the 21st Century. Let us hope that we can recover from that catastrophe with greater wisdom than we did from the one in 1918.