Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Their Consequences for Europe

Today the European system still wrestles with the very problems the 14 points were trying to address; how to embed Germany, contain Russia, and create a system of shared values.

In 1917, after three years of bloody world war, Germany strained every nerve to force the issue. She resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February in order to starve Britain out. The Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, promised Mexico the return of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if she sided with Berlin in the event of outbreak of war between the Reich and the USA.

Washington’s subsequent discovery of this bribe outraged American public opinion. Coupled with news of the first sinkings of US ships, many Americans became convinced that developments in Europe, particularly the perceived German bid for predominance, had profound implications for their security in the western hemisphere.

On Wilson’s reading, Imperial Germany was not just a menace to the European balance, it also represented a profound ideological challenge to American political values.

They had the potential to threaten not only the commerce of the United States, but their very territorial integrity. The danger could only be contained through direct American intervention in the European state system. To stand aside, President Wilson warned, would be to risk a map in which the “[German] black stretched all the way from Hamburg to Baghdad—the bulk of German power inserted into the heart of the world.” At the time, German armies stood deep inside France and the Russian Empire.

 

An Ideological Challenge to American Political Values

On Wilson’s reading, Imperial Germany was not just a menace to the European balance, it also represented a profound ideological challenge to American political values. “We are glad,” he told Congress in his speech in April 1917 declaring war on Germany, “to fight thus for…the liberation of peoples, the German peoples included; for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy.” “German rulers,” he explained on another occasion, “have been able to upset the peace of the world only because the German people… were allowed to have no opinion of their own.” It was the belief of the American government, in other words, that the defense of US democracy at home required its defense abroad. Wilson’s aim, in short, was not so much his professed intention make the “world safe for democracy,” but to make America safer in the world through the promotion of democracy.

Wilson’s aim, in short, was not so much his professed intention make the “world safe for democracy,” but to make America safer in the world through the promotion of democracy.

This is why in January 1918, 100 years ago, Wilson announced his famous “14 Points.” These were designed to prevent the emergence of a German-dominated bloc in Europe, and establish a new order based on democracy and self-determination for all people, including the Germans, qualified by geopolitics. Point six demanded the “evacuation of all Russian territory;” point eight called for the evacuation of all French territory by Germany, and the return of Alsace-Lorraine; point nine requested that the Italian borders be “readjusted” on national lines. Point ten spoke for the “autonomous development” of the peoples of Austria-Hungary; it left open, however, whether the empire should not remain united for external purposes to act as a counterweight to Germany. According to point eleven, Romania, Montenegro, and Serbia—then under Austro-German occupation—were all to be restored. Point thirteen called for the establishment of an “independent Polish state,” with access to the sea guaranteed by the great powers, contain- ing “indisputably Polish populations.”

Unlike the punitively-minded French, Wilson believed that the best way of dealing with Germany was by changing her behavior rather than her capabilities.

Finally, the fourteenth point called for a “general association of nations” to safeguard world peace and the territorial integrity of states. The driving force behind these demands was not any abstract principle, but a concern to reduce German power in Europe to manageable proportions. They set the agenda for the years to come and in many ways still shape our world today.

Changing the Behavior vs. Changing the Capabilities

American intervention proved militarily decisive by the autumn of 1918. In early October 1918, the liberal Prince Max von Baden was made German chancellor as a concession to President Wilson’s democratic agenda. The new German government, hopeful that it would be able to negotiate a settlement based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, put out peace feelers to the allies. At the end of October as the sailors at Kiel mutinied and Germany erupted in revolution, the kaiser abdicated and on 11 November the Germans signed an Armistice which amounted in effect to a surrender. Now one would see how much of Wilson’s vision would be realized.

Unlike the punitively-minded French, Wilson believed that the best way of dealing with Germany was by changing her behavior rather than her capabilities. There was, however, an ambivalence in President Wilson’s strategic conception of democracy which was later to have far-reaching consequences. The president was shy of imposing democracy where it was not welcome or had no local roots. “I am not fighting for democracy except for peoples that want democracy,” he had remarked in mid-February 1918, “if they don’t want it, that is none of my business.” The trouble was, of course, that those who needed democracy the most were either the last to realize it or the least able to ask for it. They were the peoples for whom intervention was required not merely for their sake, but for the security of their neighbors.

President Wilson did not want the League, as he put it, to become merely a “Holy Alliance” directed against Germany.

The Neutralization of the Center of Europe

The Treaty of Versailles, which settled the future of Western and Central Eu- rope in late June 1919, reflected much of the Fourteen Points. It was designed to guard against a revival of German expansionism. Germany gave up all of her colonies and certain European territories including Alsace-Lorraine and Danzig. In all, the Reich lost about thirteen percent of its territory and about ten percent of its population. Germany was also subjected to a regime of disarmament, occupation, and reparation payments with the occupation of the Rhineland and Palatinate for up to 10 years, rendering Germany militarily defenseless. Despite the severity of the Treaty’s effects on Germany, it paled in comparison with the fate of its ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was effectively dismantled. The center of Europe was in effect neutralized, and monitored by the victorious coalition.

The principal objections to the peace treaty and the League was not that it was presumptuous to legislate for the stability for the world, but that it was wrong to do so on false principles.

Underpinning this new territorial dispensation in Europe was the new international order of the League of Nations, which for the first time provided an institutionalized forum for all states to confer on matters relating to international peace and stability. The first twenty-six articles of the Versailles Treaty contained the League of Nations Covenant, and thus the machinery for its enforcement. Its primary purpose was the containment of Germany through the guarantee of the territorial settlement at Versailles and its disarmament clauses; she was not admitted to the league.

However, if at one level the post-war settlement owed directly from the principles set out in the Fourteen Points, it was in other respects a betrayal of them, because it denied self-determination to the Germans torn from the Reich.

The League of Nations Guaranteed Minority Treaties

President Wilson did not want the League, as he put it, to become merely a “Holy Alliance” directed against Germany. He always intended that Berlin should be admitted to full membership once it had demonstrated democratic credentials, not least in order to contain the Russians. Wilson therefore sought to embed the central European settlement in a broader transformation of international behavior, attempting to change not only relations between states, but also behavior within states through the establishment of a Commission for Refugees, a Health organization, a slavery commission, a Committee for the Study of the Legal Status of Women, and various other

The Republican criticism, in other words, was not that the League of Nations embroiled Americans too much in the outside world, but that it failed to so comprehensively and effectively enough.

transnational bodies. Most importantly of all, the League guaranteed a se- ries of bilateral “Minority Treaties” by which the contractants undertook to protect the basic religious, civil, and cultural rights of all inhabitants. In part these provisions reflected a free-standing progressive agenda pursued for its own sake, but the real motivation was to reduce domestic tensions which might lead to international tension and even war.

The president soon ran into serious trouble at home. He lost control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the mid-term Congressional elections. This put a question mark over US participation in the peace treaty and the projected League of Nations Covenant, both of which could be signed by the president but required ratification by the Senate with a two-thirds majority. “Dare we reject it,” Wilson asked, “and break the heart of the world.” Praising article ten of the covenant, which committed signatories to the defense of the territorial integrity of all members, as “the very backbone of the whole covenant,”

Wilson called upon the United States to assume “the leadership of the world.” If many Americans were deeply skeptical of the president’s vision only a minority were rigidly isolationist. The principal objections to the peace treaty and the League was not that it was presumptuous to legislate for the stability for the world, but that it was wrong to do so on false principles. Irish Americans, for example, could not forgive Wilson for speaking of self-determination, yet failing to insist on Irish independence at Versailles, while Italian Americans felt that Italy had been territorially short-changed.

Hitler Rolled Back Wilson’s Fourteen Points

The most serious resistance to the League, however, came from the Republican Party, the traditional standard-bearer for American internationalism. Critics such as the former Senator and Secretary of War Elihu Root were concerned that the rhetorical flourish of Wilsonianism masked a weak and ineffective treaty. They proposed amendments by which member states undertook to submit all disputes, including those involving vital national interests, to bind- ing international arbitration; the draft and final Covenant failed to require this. The former Republican President William Howard Taft vigorously supported article ten, but only if it entailed an absolute obligation to go to war in its defense, rather than the vague “moral obligations… binding in conscience only, not in law” that Wilson had in mind. In particular, the Republicans demanded concrete security guarantees for France against Germany, which Wilson was very reluctant to give. The Republican criticism, in other words, was not that the League of Nations embroiled Americans too much in the outside world, but that it failed to so comprehensively and effectively enough.

Today the European system still wrestles with the very problems the 14 points were trying to address; how to embed Germany, contain Russia, and create a system of shared values.

Wilson, however, refused to countenance any change to his beloved charter and the battle lines were drawn. The League treaty not only went down to defeat in the Senate, where it failed to secure a two-thirds majority, but the Democrats were worsted in the 1920 presidential election thanks not least to the votes of hyphenated Americans—mainly Irish, German, and Italian—outraged by Versailles. The United States became neither a member of the League of Nations, nor a signatory and thus a guarantor of the Versailles settlement.

The League failed through the 1920s and 40s due to the onset of a different German expansionist threat—Nazism. Hitler rolled back the Fourteen Points, one by one, an eventually plunged the continent into an even more disastrous war. After 1945, the missing enforcement mechanism, which had doomed the Fourteen Points and the League, was supplied by the United States through NATO. Today the European system still wrestles with the very problems the 14 points were trying to address; how to embed Germany, contain Russia, and create a system of shared values. Perhaps Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to recast Europe today, will have more success than Woodrow Wilson did 100 years ago.

Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms is a Professor of the History of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge and President of the Project for Democratic Union, which advocates a full political union of the eurozone on Anglo-American constitutional principles. His research focuses on the history of European foreign policy. He has written a variety of books and articles on this subject.

Author of “Europe: The struggle for supremacy, 1453 to the present day” (Penguin Press, 2013) and “The longest afternoon: The 400 men who decided the battle of Waterloo” (Penguin Press, 2014), which is about the King’s German Legion as prototype for a future European army.

Constance Simms

is in the second year of reading German at St John’s College, Oxford and is a Non Fiction Editor at the Isis Magazine Oxford.

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