The Washington Post reports variously today that the U.S. government is either “privately encouraging” or more actively “pushing” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to reconsider his stance against negotiating with Russia so long as Vladimir Putin remains President. The more deeply reported of those accounts, the “privately encouraging” one, is sourced to “people close to the discussions” who asked not to be named.
The idea that allegedly private diplomatic initiatives like the one reported should have been leaked to sympathetic reporters is one that non-Americans may have trouble getting their heads around, though it is common enough in Washington DC. These reports come amid many indications of “Ukraine war fatigue” both inside Western Europe and globally.
Such fatigue has not spread widely–yet– in a United States that has thus far shoveled $18.2 billion of taxpayers’ money into the conflict, though there are clear indications that it is on the upswing in the Republican Party. Also, two weeks ago, a tiny peep of a suggestion from leftwing Democratic members of Congress that Pres. Biden just might want to explore diplomacy alongside his continued commitment to arming Ukraine was roundly squashed by a Democratic leadership that forced the pro-diplomacy dissidents into a humiliating retraction of their request.
At this point, and in light of the upcoming commemorations of the Armistice that ended World War I in 1918, we can very helpfully look at the fate of an (ultimately unsuccessful) peace effort undertaken almost exactly midway through that war.
It’s worth recalling how deeply consequential that war was. Its length, the very high human and economic costs it incurred, and the way it ended led to, among other sequelae:
- the Bolshevik takeover in Russia and the consolidation of their power there;
- the rise of Nazism in Germany and therefore also the horrors of World War II;
- the United States’ first-ever insertion of military power into Europe;
- the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; and
- the extreme weakening of many West European economies and empires, in addition to those of Germany.
A recent book by historian Philip Zelikow indicates that all those sequelae could have been avoided (or at least, their effect substantially reduced) if some key, but hitherto little-studied, peace explorations undertaken by leaders in Germany, France, and Britain in 1916 had been successful.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was also a key part of that behind-the-scenes diplomacy. In his book, The Road Less Traveled: The secret Battle to End the Great War 1916-1917, Zelikow noted that the three European leaders all felt obliged to maintain in public a strong facade of optimism about the prospects of imminent victory on the battlefield. They did not want to be seen by their publics as undermining the morale of the men who were dying in hundreds of thousands in the trenches of northern France.
Does that sound familiar?
By April 1916, these leaders had privately concluded that victory was not in fact going to come either soon or easily. So that month, both the Germans and the Brits (who were also acting on behalf of French President Raymond Poincaré, with his permission) quietly reached out to Wilson to ask him to broker a peace.
British PM Herbert Asquith then had some second thoughts about this overture. But after a brief summer escalation of the war ended badly, he recommitted strongly to it in August 1916.
For his part, Wilson, who was up for re-election in November 1916, was committed to neutrality regarding the war in Europe and was strongly inclined to play the requested brokering role.
Zelikow writes (pp.8-9):
For more than five months, from August 1916 until the end of January 1917, leaders secretly struggled to end the Great War. They did so far out of public sight
Few know that that the German government secretly sought peace and pleaded for Wilson to mediate a peace conference. This was no informal feeler. It was a direct move made at the top, coordinated with allies and key political figures in Germany.
Few know that Wilson… sought to act on [this move] as quickly and emphatically as he could. He placed it at the top of his agenda as soon as he was reelected. Wilson also knew he had practically absolute leverage–mainly financial– over the Allied ability to continue the war…
Few know that the divided British coalition government was intensely, secretly, debating its own growing pessimism about the war and its imminent bankruptcy in the dollars to sustain it.
The bulk of The Road less Traveled traces the fate, and the ultimate failure, of the peace diplomacy of 1916-17, which Zelikow described as, “a unique opportunity.” After that period, he adds,
there would be other discussions about peace. But the alignment of possibilities slipped away. In March 1917, the Russian Revolution began. The Russian war effort slowly collapsed. That collapse eased some major problems for Germany and its allies. It gave them hope to carry on.
After 1916-1917, the British and French also had fresh reason to hope. They had America on their side. That sustained them, quite literally. In their darkest days, later in 1917 and in 1918, the rising American support always spurred them them on.
As Zelikow somberly notes, the 27 months of war that followed August 1916, “changed the whole course of world history.”
Last night, I watched Netflix’s release of a new movie version of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic World War I memoir All Quiet on the Western Front. This version is the first ever made by a German film-maker (Edward Berger.)
I urge everyone who’s able to watch it this week to do so. In this review, Fred Kaplan notes some of the changes that Berger has made to the original story. Though he does not approve of all those changes, he concludes that, “Throughout, Berger’s new film summons up the shifting tones, moods, and colors of Remarque’s novel so brilliantly, he can almost be forgiven for departing from it in other ways—some minor, others puzzling and significant.”
One of Berger’s innovations that Kaplan notes is that, “Throughout the film, [he] cuts to the true-life story of Matthias Erzberger, the German politician who pressed for and negotiated a cease-fire—which turned into an unbridled surrender—with French officials.”
This prompted me to explore Erzberger’s record a little more. As a leader of the Reichstag faction of the Center Party, in July 1917 Erzberger brought together a coalition that passed by 212 votes to 126 a resolution calling for peace without annexations or indemnities, freedom of the seas, and international arbitration. But the parliamentary peace coalition remained unable to impose its preferred policy for more than 14 months more of slogging trench war.
In early October 1918, Erzberger was brought into the government by German Chancellor, Prince Maximilian von Baden, as a Secretary of State without portfolio. In early November, Von Baden sent him to negotiate peace with the Allies in a railway car in France’s Forest of Compiègne, as we see in the movie. The chief Allied negotiator there, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, held out for an unconditional surrender, conceding only a slight extension of the time allotted to the German army to fully withdraw from France. After consulting with Germany’s Chief of the General Staff (later President) Paul von Hindenburg, Erzberger signed.
In June 1919, the parties to the war concluded their final peace agreement with the Treaty of Versailles. It imposed punitive, very humiliating terms on Germany that greatly exacerbated the country’s economic collapse. Erzberger came under harsh criticism from the rightwing fanatics already starting to gather force across the Germany, who blamed him for having signed the Armistice.
In August 1921 two of them assassinated him.
What lessons might we take from that train of events during and after World War I?
The greatest lesson, I think, is that efforts to resolve the Ukraine conflict through negotiation not continued military escalation should be stepped up considerably. Imagine how different– almost certainly, how much better— the record of the 20th century would have been if World War I had been ended in late 1916 or early 1917, instead of dragging on until November 1918. (Just in my own British birth family, my mother’s only two uncles, Howard Marlow and Norman Williams, both died fighting in WW-I; and her only brother, who was named for both of them, died fighting in WW-2… But I know that the eventual human and socio-political costs of WW-I, of the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Hitlerism, WW-2, and so on were exponentially broader and worse at the global level.)
In the early weeks of the war, Ukrainian Pres. Zelenskiy was prepared to negotiate quite a range of issues with Russian Pres. Putin, and emissaries of the two sides did so in both Belarus and Turkey. In early April, however, Britain’s then-PM Boris Johnson visited Kyiv, and it was reportedly he who persuaded Zelenskiy to break off the talks with Moscow. Later, though, Moscow and Kyiv were able to negotiate the limited grain-export agreement through the intermediation of both Turkey and the United Nations.
It is very welcome if the Biden administration is now urging Zelenskiy to back off from the extreme “regime change” agenda he has been espousing in recent weeks, for Moscow. But that is not nearly enough. The pretense that Zelenskiy can hold the United States and the whole world hostage to his own political preferences needs to be ended once and for all.
The United States and its allies have their own very strong interests in the web of issues over which Russia is currently fighting in Ukraine. These include not only the geopolitical neutrality of Ukraine (and its non-inclusion in the NATO alliance) but also a whole raft of issues to do with European security more broadly, especially given the collapse over the past decade of the INF and ABM treaties and the continued march of NATO ever further east.
Plus, of course, the United States and the whole of humanity have very powerful interests in (a) the avoidance of nuclear war or nuclear escalation, and (b) ending a military conflict that has already set the world’s climate-control goals back by several Giga-tons’ worth of CO2.
Back in 1916, the United States was a neutral country, determined– as of then– not to become embroiled in the conflict then roiling Europe. But it also had considerable, mainly financial, sway over the Allied side. Per Zelikow, the leaders of both sides in Europe were begging Pres. Wilson to use his good offices to broker a peace. He was eager to do so but for various reasons failed to follow through energetically enough to make that happen.
Today, in the Russian-Ukraine conflict, Washington occupies nothing like the neutral position it still had regarding the fighting parties, in 1916. For that reason, and because the United States enjoys nothing like the relative heft in international relations that it had in 1916, it is not in a position today either to broker or to dictate the terms of a peace in Ukraine.
It does, however, retain a lot of power to block, or conversely to encourage, any peace efforts. This conflict continues to impose massive, and most likely escalating, costs on countries and peoples all around the world, including in Ukraine and here at home. Therefore, the President and Congress should immediately start to work together to see how U.S. power can best be used to bring the conflict to an end that is speedy, sustainable, and gives enough chance of stability inside Ukraine and the rest of eastern/central Europe that it can win longlasting support both in that continent and worldwide.
Indeed, the whole world is very lucky that in 2022 the position that Washington takes on matters of war and peace in Europe is no longer as determinative as it was in 1916. In 2022 there are countries and blocs that have real power in world affairs that are not under the sway of Washington. Three of the five countries in the loose BRICS coalition have held to a more or less neutral position as between Russia and Ukraine, and Brazil now looks set to join them. Some combination of “BICS” members, and Turkey, could therefore be well positioned to be the convenors and organizers of a peace effort. (Let’s call it “BICTS”?) Plus, we have the machinery of the United Nations, creaking, cranky, and US-dominated as it is. But still, it provides a fine framework of values and negotiating mechanisms that didn’t exist in 1916.
Of course, the United States remains a significant power in world affairs. After the dust of this week’s mid-term elections settles, can our leaders step away from crass anti-Russian and anti-Chinese populism for long enough to see that today, in 2022, if humankind as a whole is to survive the threats already at our doorstep, then the United States will have to work in good partnership with the 95% of humanity that is not American, and to do so urgently, with the emphasis on peacemaking not more war-fighting? Especially regarding the world-changing conflict in Ukraine…
I certainly hope so.