Post-World War I Deals Had Nasty Consequences

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- During the commemorations of the Armistice that ended World War I, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — the leaders of two key nations that fought each other in that conflict — both condemned nationalism as a prime cause of bloodshed. They, however, missed an opportunity to reflect on the lasting consequences of the great power deals that followed the Great War: Many of today’s problem spots and war zones were created by those deals.

By breaking up the loose, senescent Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the winners of World War I, primarily the British and the French, freed up the nationalisms that had festered within them. It wasn’t always for the worse initially — but it invariably backfired. 

In the Middle East with its arbitrary borders drawn by Mark Sykes for the British Empire and Francois Georges-Picot for France, Arab nationalism and the priority of kicking the Europeans out initially masked the sectarian differences within the Arab world. These are now tearing the region apart. Neither Syria nor Iraq is convincing as a unitary state given the ethnic and religious strife within both. Turkey, one of the Great War’s biggest losers, has ended up involved against its will in the Syrian civil war, which has its roots in the way Syria was originally set up as a French mandate. (The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which are in many ways still not over, were also a direct consequence of the faulty post-World War I realignment.)

In Europe, World War I created an independent Ukraine, the Ukrainian People’s Republic, recognized by the Central Powers in 1917 and, under its separate peace with Germany and its allies, by Soviet Russia — but not by the soon-to-be winners of the war. The independent state’s brief but stormy history ended after the Red Army overran it in 1920; in 1921, it was carved up between Soviet Ukraine and Poland. Had the victorious allies backed Ukrainian independence, history could have taken a different turn, and the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict probably would have been prevented.

Hungarian nationalism, one of the current European Union’s biggest problems, feeds on the resentments created by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, when the allies cut off 72 percent of Hungary’s territory. The current frictions between Hungary and Ukraine, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has been courting the Hungarian minority much to official Kiev’s dismay, are echoes of Hungary’s post-World War I forced shrinking. 

Poland, another Eastern European state currently ran by nationalists, celebrated the centenary of its independence — a direct result of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s famous “14 Points,” one of which spoke of the need to establish a Polish state on “territories inhabited by indisputably Polish population” — with a government-sanctioned right-wing march. It’s finally clear after decades of strife what “indisputably Polish” means: Poland is one of Europe’s most xenophobic countries. In fact, most of the countries where majorities wouldn’t accept a Muslim, and often also a Jew, as a family member or neighbor were set up or ruthlessly carved up in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Nationalism there is, at least in part, a response to being disregarded, to perceived humiliations.

The horrors of World War II and its political consequences often overshadow the lasting legacy of the previous war. And yet Bolshevism, which, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “stole” from Russia its victory in World War I, couldn’t have won in Russia and then taken over much of Europe, Asia and Africa had it not been for the war that began in 1914. Diplomat and historian George Kennan argued that the Wilson administration may have inadvertently helped the Bolsheviks after the overthrow of the czar in February, 1917 “by insisting that Russia should continue the war effort, and by making this demand the criterion of its support.” The Bolsheviks, the only party in Russia that insisted on pulling the country out of the war, exploited the cash-strapped provisional government’s acquiescence with U.S. demands to agitate the war-weary population and military against it.

The victory of the supposedly internationalist Bolshevik ideology in Russia led inexorably to the rise of nationalism in Russia’s colonies and satellites and in Russia itself: It was the easiest alternative to dysfunctional Communism. 

What this should teach elites in today’s powerful nations is that they should be extra careful in shaping the destinies of smaller or vanquished countries. The West did little to help Russia rise after it collapsed at the end of the Cold War; now it has to deal with Putin’s revanchism. Attempts to fix the Middle East by foreign interference have failed miserably. The Balkans, while outwardly pacified by more great power interference, are still a patchwork of resentments. In the European Union, a project designed to ask everyone before any decision goes ahead, rash attempts to impose immigration solutions on unwilling members have angered eastern Europeans, who have long suspected the EU elite treated them as second-class.

The U.S. is increasingly impatient with the United Nations, a body in which small nations’ opinions are supposed to be taken into consideration. In Europe, Macron wants to push ahead with ambitious integration plans despite the obvious reservations of smaller EU members. Great power thinking, itself born of nationalism, whether it’s stated, as in President Donald Trump’s case, or hotly denied, as in Macron’s, provokes nationalism and breeds conflicts in the smaller countries, just as it ended up doing after World War I.

Given the lasting, disastrous consequences of that conflict, consensus and compromise mechanisms should have been much stronger in today’s world. That they’re as fragile as they are today is in large part the fault of the great powers, the winners of recent wars large and small. That would have been something for leaders to discuss as they marked a century after the Armistice and congratulated themselves on an obvious achievement — Europe’s long peace. They aren’t doing so badly: The EU is largely a success, despite its many challenges. But great power arrogance can yet sink it, and I missed the recognition of this threat in the speeches.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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