Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Deluge: The Great War, America & the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze

Published 2014, 518 pages of text
Just a century ago, Europe was reeling from the destruction of the First World War. In the summer of 1916, the British initiated with Battle of the Somme with great aspirations and an immense artillery barrage. The results of their efforts included an astronomical number of casualties and no strategic gain. The course and eventual outcome of the war remained in doubt, but one thing no longer remained in question: neither of the two conflicting sides could maintain the level of dedication of manpower and resources to the conflict without threatening the very basis of their state and society. From this point forward, the states and maps of Eurasia would change, and a new, non-Eurasian power—the United States—would step into the forefront of leading world powers.

The story of these changes have been told before, of course, but Tooze’s book does an outstanding job of tracking the shifting players and constraints upon those players. As the war eventually came to a stop—I think that “conclusion” would prove too strong a word—the parties had to establish a new world order while in the midst of political and social revolutions, extremes of inflation and deflation, and continuing security concerns. Students of international relations will find evidence for every theory of IR, including realism, balance-of-power, institutionalism, geopolitics, political economy, and domestic effects. That many policies were tried and failed seems easier to understand when one has a survey of all of the conflicting demands and considerations placed on policy-makers during this period.

The U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia/Soviet Union, China, and Japan are the major players in this drama. Each of these nation-states was affected by a variety of ideologies, perceptions, and needs. The U.S., under Woodrow Wilson, wanted to stay out of the fray and reap the eventual rewards of having done so, but events—German U-boat attacks—dragged the U.S. into the war. But before that time the U.S. had already become a major actor by financing much of the Allied war effort. With the coming of the Armistice, Wilson’s mix of liberal internationalism and self-righteousness made for significant changes in everything except direct U.S. participation in the new order. The British saw their financial leadership slip away while they fretted over the viability of their Empire, especially given events in Ireland and India. France came out of the war deeply crippled by physical destruction and with an unresolved concern of its security vis-a-vi Germany. Germany, meanwhile, suffered threats of violent revolution and civil war, with Communists and Hitler’s efforts first after the war, only to survive these and then enter into an economic roller-coaster. Russia in the form of the Romanov dynasty collapsed, and out of it came the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union. The new regime led by Lenin had to sue for peace and attempt to establish internal order and secure borders while establishing and maintaining a working government and ideology. China hoped to gain freedom from Western domination and a place at the table while it still lacked a viable national government. And Japan teetered back and forth between liberal internationalists and military imperialists.

 I could go on; my list is a sample, but it should give some sense of the complexity and magnitude of change in which governments were operating. Tooze’s account, a chronological narrative, sometimes seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, but that’s how events unfolded. Imagine the problems perceived by decision-makers operating in real time!

You have no doubt noted that the nations that I mentioned above and upon which Tooze’s account focuses, are still the predominant players on the world stage today. This is all the more fascinating given the forces of change that are yet to come after Tooze’s account ends in 1931. Of course, the relative power and influence of the players have changed, Britain declining and China sharply rising, but we know that there will no longer be a British or Hapsburg empire. (Russian? There are certainly some aspirations there.)

In reading the 518 pages of Tooze’s account, I felt a bit like I was reading a potboiler, with a new plot twist arising with the turn of each page. But that’s the way the world was. And although I had some familiarity with the events, I certainly learned a lot and gained a much deeper knowledge and understanding of how events unfolded. For instance, Wilson’s problems in the U.S. were not so much a matter of isolationism as it was a more nationalistic sense of its proper international role held by those such as Henry Cabot Lodge. Also, the peace treaties and arms limitations agreements negotiated during the 1920s were not just wishful thinking. Also, Tooze, an economic historian by training, mixes realities of political economy with diplomatic negotiations to provide a more comprehensive sense of the dynamics behind the political maneuvering.

Tooze: Not your tweedy professor
This is an excellent book for understanding the effort to construct a new international order in the wake of the First World War. It ultimately failed with the dislocation caused by the Great Depression (leaders take note!) and the rise of aggressive dictatorships based on lethal cocktails of nationalism, militarism, and racism, which led to an even greater, wider conflagration. If history ever needed to establish its cash value (which it shouldn’t have to do), this work would provide a compelling exhibit to help prove the proposition of history’s value. Any leader in a major nation-state would benefit from appreciating the experiences of these leaders who tried to shape the contemporary world. 

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