Trump’s Terrifying Treaty of Versailles Precedent

The last time America withdrew from its own international security agreement, it led to the most devastating war in history.

A copy of the original Versailles Peace Treaty of Peace signed on June 28, 1919. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images/Foreign Policy Illustration)
A copy of the original Versailles Peace Treaty of Peace signed on June 28, 1919. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images/Foreign Policy Illustration)

President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the seven-nation agreement to halt Iranian nuclear production — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which his own country had largely designed — is a repudiation of traditional American diplomacy. But it also echoes an inauspicious American precedent. In leaving the Iran deal, the United States is replaying its rejection of the Treaty of Versailles — a move that ultimately led to the most devastating war in history.

The United States has been responsible for negotiating and enforcing some of the most enduring multinational diplomatic agreements of the 20th century, including the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, the United Nations Charter of 1945, the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. Each of these agreements, hammered together by numerous countries with divergent interests, contributed to the peaceful, open international system that has benefited the United States and its allies by obliging all the parties to adhere to long-term commitments pertaining to their security. Each of these agreements would have been impossible without U.S. support and adherence. More than any other nation, the United States has been the author and enforcer of the liberal world order that makes capitalism and democracy, as we know them, possible.

But the Treaty of Versailles represents a dark blemish on this record. Building on President Theodore Roosevelt’s pre-World War I proposal for a League of Peace, President Woodrow Wilson led efforts to craft a multinational settlement at the end of the war that would insure a “lasting peace.” The League of Nations was the centerpiece of the treaty — an international body inclusive of all nations that would adjudicate disputes between them, encourage cooperation, and punish aggression.

The infamous rejection of the Treaty of Versailles by the U.S. Senate in November 1919, and again in March 1920, destroyed this dream. Appealing to U.S. war fatigue, anti-British sentiment, and a distrust of complex diplomatic agreements, a mix of Republican and Democratic lawmakers used their opposition to the settlement to score partisan points. Especially for Republicans who challenged Wilson, it proved beneficial politically to stoke domestic fears of foreign entanglements. Walls of separation sounded safer than new cooperative connections with former belligerents. Of course, the opposite was true.

American isolationism delegitimized the Treaty of Versailles. Why would other societies invest in the agreement if one of its leading proponents, also one of the emerging world powers, refused to participate? Many observers appreciated the domestic politics behind the U.S. rejection of the treaty, but that only deepened long-standing perceptions that the United States was an unreliable partner. Why should others tie their hands if the United States acted as a free rider? In the decade after the First World War, U.S. actions encouraged unilateralism by other powerful actors, especially Japan, Germany, and the newly formed Soviet Union.

The leaders of these “revisionist” countries characterized the Treaty of Versailles as unfair “victors’ justice” — a continuation of the imperialist aggression practiced by Britain and France for more than a century. As early as 1922, Germany and the Soviet Union used this critique to justify military and financial collaboration in Eastern Europe that strengthened both governments and violated the terms of the settlement in the region. U.S. rejection of the treaty lent these claims more credibility, and for that reason ideas of collective security and liberal internationalism remained widely unpopular in Europe, Asia, and North America during the 1920s and 1930s.

These conflict-prone circumstances hurt Americans. A nonmember of the League of Nations, without any other alliances, the United States was unable to exert international influence comparable to its size and wealth. Economic sanctions, popular with President Herbert Hoover in response to Japanese expansion, were difficult to impose without coordination among diverse states. International arbitration, repeatedly promoted by the United States in China, was impossible to enforce when there was no international body capable of consistent implementation. And when the fascists invaded their neighbors, the countries defending the existing order, including the United States, negotiated in ad hoc and largely ineffective ways. Appeasement became the strategy of the lowest common denominator in a world with limited multilateral coordination.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized that the United States’ short-sighted unilateralism contributed to an even worse World War II. Before the United States entered the conflict, he emphasized multilateral commitments through his advocacy of an expansive “Four Freedoms” agenda and his signature on the Atlantic Charter in 1941. The United States won the Second World War, and then emerged triumphant in the Cold War, because Roosevelt and his successors from both parties led a postwar multilateral order after 1945, as they did not after 1919.

And nobody doubted that international agreements signed by presidents from one party would be honored by successors from the other side of the aisle. Ronald Reagan, for example, criticized SALT II and the Panama Canal treaties when running for president, but he adhered to both when in office. Reagan understood that international cooperation transcended partisanship, and a global leader must keep its word.

Through the United Nations, Bretton Woods, NATO, and the Helsinki Act, Washington multiplied its sources of political, military, and economic power to deter and defeat communist adversaries. The United States cultivated more national strength and international support than ever before. It was the most responsible powerful actor in the Cold War.

This is no longer the case. U.S. military power has been challenged, and came up short, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and numerous other places since Sept. 11, 2001. China has emerged as an economic peer competitor, often turning the global capitalist system to its advantage against the United States. And Washington has alienated allies that it needs, perhaps more than ever, to support its commitments around the globe, as well as its voracious consumers at home. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, opposed by most of its allies, the United States has repeatedly torn apart the liberal international order that it created, acting in ways earlier presidents would have found profoundly irresponsible. And, after Trump’s rejection of the Iran deal, the world again, as after Versailles, has cause to wonder whether the United States will adhere to other security agreements (including NATO) that it has designed and promoted.

Another world war is unlikely in the near future, but we should expect more conflict, more violence, and more defeats for an isolated United States. A chaotic world will increase the United States’ insecurity and will leave it with fewer sources of leverage over peer competitors, such as China, and revisionist threats, such as Russia. Breaking multilateral agreements diminishes U.S. influence in established institutions, it alienates those who might help Americans, and it emboldens those who wish to hurt them. It turns the United States into the enemy of international order; that is not only irresponsible, but it is also self-defeating.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

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