October 24, 2005 | World Defense Review

The Enduring Consequences of the First World War

If the First World War was to be the “war to end all wars,” the Paris Peace Conference established a “peace to end all peace.” In both the scale of its devastation and in its political consequences for future generations, the 1914-1918 conflict and the settlement that followed were respectively a bad war and a bad peace. Both left an enduring legacy for future generations.

Despite the goal of a lasting peace, the post-WWI order fashioned by Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau proved unviable. Disputed borders, punitive reparations compounded by global financial distress, public aversion to the use of force, growing isolationism, a political preference for appeasement over war, and belligerent German, Japanese and Italian nationalism and irredentism provided the preconditions for the outbreak of the even more devastating Second World War. The sufficient condition was provided by a German Fuhrer looking for any pretext to justify another European conflagration.

Despite the success of European integration in the post-WWII period, problems in Europe as a result of the post-WWI order remained: The violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s (Europe's first genocide since WWII), the unresolved status of Kosovo, and the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia were the most recent manifestations.

Outside Europe, the Middle East saw conflicting promises on political inheritances and the creation of artificial states with little national identity and deep-seated ethnic and religious divisions. Compounded by decisions and events in the pre and post-WWII period, these promises have resulted in enduring problems and have exploded in hot wars (fought between Arabs, Arabs and Jews, and Arabs and the West), confrontation between the Cold War superpowers, the struggle over oil as a political weapon, and the growth and internationalization of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Today, the legacy of the First World War and the resulting territorial decisions endure with the US-led war in Iraq and the specter of the dissolution of the country into three former Ottoman provinces; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its seemingly irreconcilable claims; the ongoing struggle to truly liberate Lebanon from Syrian occupation; and the war of militant Islamists against the secular order.

The First World War also contributed to the Russian Revolution and the rise of revolutionary Communism, which haunted the peacemakers at Paris and future political leaders. If not for WWI, and an Imperial Russia weakened by war and economic dislocation, Russia might never have gone Communist and the USSR may never have formed as an existential threat to the democratic west.

The post-First World War era saw a focus on the ideal of collective security organizations represented by the failed League of Nations, with questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of such institutions still lingering today on the role of the UN (and to a lesser extent NATO). The decision to go to war and the peace settlements revealed the importance of the role of public opinion in the fashioning of foreign policy, both in war and in peace. With a European population increasingly pacifistic as a result of two world wars, disagreements on questions of national security between the US and European Union remain an enduring consequence of WWI and its aftermath. Finally, Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and its calls for self-determination, political independence and territorial integrity are still a rallying cry for nationalist independence movements worldwide.

Devastation and Pacifism

The war left almost 9.5 million combatants dead and millions more wounded, costing the Western allies alone 3.6 million lives and over $130 billion dollars, according to David Stevenson in his book, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. The enormity of those losses, even for the victors, propelled a shift in political and public opinion. While the European political elites and their publics initially embraced the war, when it came with such surprising ferocity and devastation on an industrial scale, opinion shifted significantly. “Those who started the First World War had expected it to resemble the short wars of their childhood, not understanding the capacity of the industrial age to deliver men and munitions endlessly to the front,” writes Robert Cooper in The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century. The resulting destruction created a deep aversion to future wars, a growing isolationism (particularly in the United States and Great Britain) and a pacifism, which found expression in policies of appeasement and an unwillingness to “bear any burden.” The First World War, “shook forever the supreme self-confidence that had carried Europe to world domination,” writes Margaret Macmillan in Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. “Europeans could no longer talk of a civilizing mission to the world.” With a belligerent nationalism rising in Europe and Asia, the British and American publics were at their most isolationist during the 1930s (motivated in part, in the case of Britain's appeasement of Germany, by a desire to safeguard the British empire) just as the necessity of stopping fascism's rise in Germany, Italy and Japan was at its most urgent.

The Rise of Belligerent Nationalism in Europe and Asia

While the painful consequences of the world war had undermined public support in Allied countries for the future use of force, the peace treaties – with harsh financial and territorial terms including the war guilt clause; reparations from Germany of $40 billion, according to Henry Kissinger in Diplomacy (the exact figure was only arrived at two years after the Peace Conference); military disarmament; and territorial concessions – fueled a belligerent nationalist sentiment amongst the vanquished. In Europe, the allies signed peace treaties with Germany, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, Austria and Hungary that were deeply unpopular in these defeated countries. While Turkey threw off the hated Sèvres peace treaty, the treaties had long-term consequences for the others: revisionism, defiance of the international order, and the rise of right-wing parties committed to avenging their losses from WWI.

In addition, the disappearance of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires meant that Europe now had nation states in Eastern and Central Europe, such as Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia with restless minority populations. The new nation state – by definition one ethnic nation within a state – was at odds with the multiethnic makeup of the imperial state, which left minorities in the new nation state or an ethnic group's brethren in neighboring states. These new nation states proved unwilling and unable to accommodate these minority groups and became increasingly authoritarian and repressive. States like Germany, Hungary, Austria and Bulgaria became increasingly irredentist and used the protection of their brethren in other countries as a pretext for invasion of their neighbors. As this irredentism became increasingly pronounced, the Western powers did little to check it. Opposed to the use of force, they allowed Germany to march into the Rhineland and Sudetenland until it became clear that only another war could stop Hitler. In Asia, the post-WWI order left a strengthened and militaristic Japan emboldened by its victory in WWI against Russia. With Russia defeated, Japan emerged as the dominant power in Asia, which fuelled the rise of Japanese imperialist militarism. Once again, the Western powers refused to enforce promises of collective security, allowing Japan to occupy Manchuria and setting the stage for Tokyo's territorial expansionism of the 1930s.

While a common enemy had unified the allies against the Axis threat in war, divisions between the allies, on display in Paris in 1919, intensified in the 1920s and 1930s. With disunity amongst the European allies, and the US showing little interest in continuing its entanglements in Europe, the opportunity to contain Hitler and the rise of fascism, without a return to the terrible bloodshed of WWI, slipped away. While the Paris peace treaty was, as Macmillan says, “a godsend for his propaganda,” Hitler did not wage war against the Allies, the Jews and democracy because of any treaty. Rather, the Treaty of Versailles provided him with a convenient pretext around which to justify his expansionist goals. In German, Italy and Japan, in particular, peace treaties were seized on by right-wing populists committed to reversing territorial losses, challenging financial reparations, undermining fledging democracies, and, in the case of Germany, exposing the traitors who had – it was said – betrayed their nations at Paris.

In the end, the international order that the post-WWI treaties set up in Europe was destroyed by the rise of revanchist regimes in Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria, committed to war, and Allies unwilling take the difficult decision to commit force or to credibly threaten force to prevent another European conflict. The Second World War, as a result, was a consequence of “twenty years of decisions taken or not taken, not of arrangements made in 1919,” says Macmillan. In this regard, the First World War and the decisions in Paris were a necessary condition though not sufficient for the next world war to come. Setting in motion a chain of events leading to WWII, the Great War and the Paris peace conference remain defining events in the shape of the modern political order almost a century later.

The Middle East

The post-WWI developments left an imprint on the Middle East as well. The dismemberment of the Ottoman after WWI, and the establishment of British and French mandates resulted in a number of politically artificial states including Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The legitimacy of the boundaries separating these states, and indeed the legitimacy of these states themselves, fueled further conflict.

Iraq never relinquished its designs on oil-rich Kuwait; Syria invaded, and occupied Lebanon while still hungrily eyeing Jordan, both of which it considered part of a greater Syria; the British (and then the Americans) struggled to hold Iraq's Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions together; and the Sunni Hashemites and Shias throughout the region never accepted the legitimacy of Wahhabi rule in Saudi Arabia (a view reciprocated by the Wahhabis). The struggle over Palestine, with contradictory promises made by Britain to both Jews and Arabs, fueled four Arab-Israeli wars, brought the US and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, contributed to the use of oil and terrorism as political weapons, and was used as a pretext (amongst others) for Islamists dedicated to Israel's and the West's destruction.

Collective Security

The post First World War era also saw an emphasis on security not through the old European system of balance of power – of Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Congress of Vienna – but through the collective security of Wilson's League of Nations. Under the League of Nations, the international community would enforce the peace and commit each member state to the protection of the territorial integrity and political independence of all other member states. In the face of Republican opposition and Wilson's unwillingness to compromise with a Republican-controlled Congress, the US never joined the League and the institution proved incapable of resisting German, Japanese, and Italian territorial aggression. By providing a false sense of security to the Western powers, and a poor substitute for the military resources and power alliances required to confront German, Italian and Japanese militarism, the League also undermined the psychological readiness required to deal with the gathering storm in Europe.

While the League failed, the modern world is still living through a collective security debate on its successor organization, the United Nations. While many outside the US (and some in the US) demand the UN's imprimatur to legitimize military action by a UN member, and see the institution as an essential part of a multilateral strategy of crisis management, others disagree. They emphasize the UN's ineffectual response to genocides in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and the Sudan, the corruption revealed in the Oil-for-Food scandal, the appointment of human-rights abusers to key positions on the UN human rights commission, the litany of anti-Israel and anti-American resolutions and the UN's silence on the behavior of rogue regimes. As importantly, with the growth in influence of institutions like the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court in the Hague, and calls from some for the UN to function as a world government, these critics refuse to permit American sovereignty and security to undermined by supranational institutions. For them, only America could guarantee its own security, in coalitions of preferred partners where desired, and alone and through pre-emption if necessary.

The Role of Public Opinion

A further enduring consequence of WWI and its aftermath is the role of public opinion in the shaping of foreign policy. The decisions and deliberations, both in rumors and in fact, of the Paris Peace Conference were reported by an international press corps. An appeal to public opinion, both as a negotiating tactic and as a genuine concern by conference delegates, was a frequent occurrence. In the post-WWI period, a public aversion to war was a crucial factor in the failure of the Western allies to confront growing fascism.

Since WWI, public opinion has remained a crucial factor in influencing policy decisions. The failures of American leaders to secure continued public support for the war in Vietnam, the difficulty in maintaining European public support for an aggressive containment strategy of the Soviet Union, the enormous European public resistance and the growing US public disillusionment to the War in Iraq – these are all examples of how wars can be won or lost on the basis of whether or not policy makers succeed in maintaining public support. Since 9/11, Jihadist terrorists have understood the role of the media, and the power that televised images of suicide bombings, roadside bombings, and beheadings can have in undermining public support for the War in Iraq.

The EU, the US and Divergent Approaches to Security

In its destruction of men, territory and economies, the First World War (reinforced by the even greater devastation of the Second World War) resulted in a European public wary of war and committed to the peaceful resolution of conflict. In the First World War, while the US had lost 114,000 men, the losses of Germany (2.037 million), Russia (1.8 million), France (1.4 million), Austria-Hungary (1.1 million), Bulgaria and Turkey (892,000), the UK (723,000) and Italy (578,000) were staggering in comparison.

After centuries of bloodshed on the continent, with reconstruction after WWII financed by the American Marshall plan and protection provided by the American military during the Cold War, old adversaries in Europe achieved reconciliation and integration. Led by France and Germany, bitter European enemies created a common market and common institutions, including a European Union, a joint currency and shared European institutions. The enduring legacy of both world wars is a Western Europe which has enjoyed over six decades of peace and integrated many Eastern and Central European countries without violence. With Yugoslavia as the glaring exception (an artificial nation that never successfully addressed the consequences of post-WWI peacemaking), Europe has been a glowing political success.

Yet transatlantic tensions between the Continent and the US (and to a lesser extent the UK) since the fall of Communism, and most pronounced over the War in Iraq, reveal the divergence between a postmodern European Union, skeptical of the use of force to protect state sovereignty and interests, and the mostly modern and still nationalistic United States, willing and capable of projecting force to protect its interests against other modern and pre-modern states and non-state actors. In Robert Kagan's formulation (Paradise and Power), a fundamental disagreement exists between a Europe focused on process, diplomacy and treaties in a “Kantian paradise” and a United States reliant on power to protect its interests in a “Hobbesian jungle.”

Policy makers like Cooper have argued for a “Third Way,” an aggressive multilateralism backed by the credible threat or application of force if necessary, a close cooperation between transatlantic allies against common threats, and a reformed and effective UN.

Despite this proposed strategic synthesis, Europe and the US still perceive and manage threats differently. Europeans see a responsible and democratic Germany, integrated into a common European destiny thanks to complex and multilateral political and economic arrangements. Americans see a Germany that was wounded in WWI, destroyed in WWII, and then rehabilitated and protected (in the case of West Germany) in the post-war period thanks to American military might and American money. As a result of these different interpretations of history, the enduring legacy of a 20th century of devastating world wars, which began with the industrialization of death in WWI and which still influences a pacifistic European public today, will likely shape diverse national security approaches for the foreseeable future.


In its brutality on the battlefield, and its far-reaching political consequences, the First World War scarred combatants, civilians, and politicians as well as generations since who continued to struggle with its enduring legacy. Today, with Kosovo, a UN protectorate in the heart of Europe; the festering conflicts in the Middle East and Africa; Chinese-Japanese antagonism in East Asia; significant skepticism about the legitimacy and efficacy of collective security institutions like the UN; transatlantic disagreements over the use of force; and a battle for public opinion in the media no less important than the war on the ground, the modern world is still living through a post-WWI conjuncture.


— Mark Dubowitz is the chief operating officer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C.
    Currently a candidate for a Masters in International Public Policy in Chinese studies at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Dubowitz has combined JD/MBA degrees from the University of Toronto and has also studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ecole Supèrieure de Commerce de Paris and McGill University. He speaks three languages and has lived in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North America.
    The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is a policy institute focused on promoting democratic values and defeating terrorist ideologies.


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