David Frum just published a fascinating article in the Atlantic. When I first saw “What If the Allies Had Lost World War I” I was really excited.
The choice to undertake a counter-factual exercise like this demonstrates exactly the kind of imagination that we need in talking about geopolitics.
So much of what we say and think about foreign policy operates from the assumption that the world has to be the way it is, and opinion only varies between the poles of “The US should be more cautious about exercising its great power” and “The US should be using its great power more strenuously”.
100 years later we are still living out the ramifications of Woodrow Wilson’s decision to take the United States into World War I.
So I was very excited to read this article. I was deeply disappointed.
The article sloppily maps the motivations and world of 1938 onto the world of 1914.
The article proceeds with essentially zero consideration of events that occurred outside of the United States during either of the World Wars, or the 20th century in general. It also operates under the assumption that the only way to spread democracy is with a gun.
David Frum has just demonstrated everything that’s wrong with foreign policy journalism in a single piece.
It made me angry enough to write my own version in response.
My article differs from his in actually utilizing history, and my limited knowledge of what happened outside of the US over the past 100 years.
Please read Mr. Frum’s effort, and then tell me who you think did a better job…
What Really Would have Happened if the Allies Had Lost World War I
Mr. Frum’s analysis only kinda works on a reductive view of American power and aims.
Yes, if the US hadn’t entered WWI, then we might not be the world hegemon that we are today.
Also, Europe would never have been our problem.
The idea that the Kaiser was anywhere near as bad as Hitler or Stalin is farcical. A book could be written on the topic, but the fact that Kaiser never ordered a mass killing of his own people alone should persuade you. Yes, the nascent German and Austro-Hungarian democracy faded in wartime. So did French, British and American democracy. Rage at the human cost of the war and the idiocy of the generals would have prevailed on all sides in peace time just as it did in the actual event.
The Kaiserate would have survived as an institution, but its powers would most likely have been circumscribed, if not immediately then by now for certain.
What would we have missed if the Allies had lost the war?
Well Hitler for starters. He would have remained a failed painter.
Austria-Hungary would have had the breathing space necessary to develop the more national-federalized system it was already contemplating.
Eastern Europe under the triumphant Germans and Austro-Hungarians would have continued the rapid economic development it was already experiencing in the first decade of the 20th century, rather than experiencing seven or eight lost decades.
The whole bloodlands era that saw tens of millions of people slaughtered in a nationalist inferno spreading from Berlin to Moscow might have been averted completely.
The extraordinary engine that was 19th century German culture and science would never have been derailed.
Russia might have been spared its horrific civil war and the consolidation of the extreme Soviet state that it enabled.
All of the most serious battlefronts of the Russian Civil War were signed over to Germany and Austria-Hungary by the 1918 treaty of Brest-Livotsk.
A much smaller Soviet state that quickly won its civil war would not have been as cruel, and it would not have been able to adopt its expansionist foreign policy with Germany next door.
Stalin might never have come to absolute power.
The earlier collapse of the French, Dutch and British colonies in Asia might have allowed Japan to undergo a more peaceful rise.
This means no Pearl Harbor.
The Pacific region could have developed with a real balance between the US, Japan and China, without sowing the seeds of bitterness that could still bloom into a third world war.
Without the economic crack cocaine of the birth of the American military industrial complex in World War I, we probably would have missed out on the roaring 1920s in the United States.
But this would mean that US development would have been more measured, and we could have missed the Great Depression.
The entire world could have been spared a lost decade and the rise of Fascism in Europe and Japan.
Downsides? The idea of an Ottoman empire under a victorious triumvirate is pretty distasteful, but the damage to the Armenians had already been done by 1917.
It’s hard to imagine that the Germans and Austro-Hungarians would have allowed the Ottomans to take much land back in Eastern Europe, and impossible to imagine them allowing the reconquest of Greece, a place that already had a dominant (undeserved) place in the German imagination.
A 20th century Middle East under the Ottomans couldn’t possibly have been worse than what we actually got. For starters they would have crushed the Saudis.
The Islamic world would have been led by the oil money of a modernizing Caliph rather than the radical Wahabist garbage we’ve been dealing with.
So 9/11 certainly wouldn’t have happened.
You might also be able to argue that contemporary Western culture would be more antisemitic without the horrific counter-example of the Nazis, but I think it’s more likely that the two century long process of assimilation and tolerance would have continued, and perhaps even have been accelerated by victory in the Germanic territories.
One thing that does give me pause is the question of imperialism.
Without the second half of Europe’s great suicidal collapse (1914-1945), would European world empire have survived? I tend to think not.
China and Japan were already on a path to independent modernity, a defeated Britain wouldn’t have been able to afford India, and independence movements were already beginning across the world. This is the bit I am least confident about. Regardless, missing out on the kleptocratic generals and proxy wars of the Cold War would have been amazing for world wide economic development.
So yeah, from an incredibly blinkered, presentist, American power centered view point of view, I guess the American entry into World War I could be been seen as a good thing.
From the perspective of hundreds of millions of dead in the rest of the world, from 1930s Ukraine to 1970s Cambodia, not so much.
Robert Morris blogs occasionally, but puts the majority of his efforts into his weekly YouTube videos on history and current events.