June 28th is the one-hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles. This was the landmark agreement that ended the First World War and attempted to prevent a second one.
Versailles was a bewildering mix of idealism and realism. The pact included fear of German power and popular thirst for revenge, but sometimes Versailles simply reflected what was possible in a complicated world.
The idealism came mostly from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points, a sweeping vision to create a demilitarized, decolonized, open-border, free-trade, and multilateral world managed rationally by the League of Nations.
But Wilson’s grand agenda also included a healthy dose of American self-interest or realism. Decolonization, for example, would implement self-determination, one of Wilson’s cherished principles, but it was also good for business because former colonies would be open for American trade. The big joke has always been French Premier Georges Clemenceau’s quip that “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.” So much for idealism.
Worldly realism and Clemenceau’s skepticism notwithstanding, Versailles has always been associated with the Fourteen Points and idealism. Given this, Brethren might take this moment to ask if Versailles actually achieved anything that approached idealism and, more broadly, whether Brethren can ever look to the nation to promote their values around the world.
In the end, Versailles contained only a partial implementation of Wilsonian principles. True, Wilson’s self-determination spawned new eastern European nations, and the League of Nations was a step forward in multilateral cooperation. Also, Versailles nudged along decolonization. Although the colonies of defeated nations went to the victors, rather than achieve independence, in theory the League of Nations was the ultimate authority in these new arrangements. In the long run, this helped undermine imperialism.
Yet, hard-boiled realism often appeared. Self-determination was only applied when it benefitted the allies. Defeated powers lost their colonies but the victorious kept theirs. The losers were forced to demilitarize but not the winners. Perhaps most embarrassing was the failure to approve a proposed clause that endorsed racial equality.
For Brethren, then, the lesson of Versailles is that governments struggle to implement Brethren-oriented or idealistic foreign policy. No wonder; governments are secular. No knock on the Department of State. It simply is accountable to a different power than the church, and, as such, will operate in a different way.
Put another way, the government is part of the popular culture. It draws sustenance, as it should, from the same source as popular music, popular entertainment, and popular advertising. Do these behaviors show strong Christian influence? Think about the intellectual level of election campaigns. While popular politics might make for effective government and a strong democracy, it is not the generally accepted path to a more Christian life.
Foggy Bottom, therefore, is part of the world. Hopefully, Brethren across the ideological spectrum will still agree, at least in theory, that for all the flaws of the church, religious is better than secular.
The Versailles system, part of the world, was short-lived. Twenty years later the world went back to war, this time even worse. The lesson is that Brethren looking for hope in government and its foreign policy will find occasional encouragement but mostly a disappointment, as always happens when they rely on the world.
Stephen, You write well. As a christian, I'm reminded that there are but 'two forces' (spiritual) at play in this life. Government, to me, is just an organization with a hierarchy of people to lead it. My definition includes not only secular but also religious governments. Any government that doesn't put God and his commandments above the traditions/desires of people is following the opposing spiritual force.