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3 lessons from Versailles on Iran

The growing crisis between Iran and the United States may not seem to have much to do with World War I.  But on the recent 100th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty that formed the most important part of the Great War’s settlement, there are some striking lessons for today. 

The first lesson is that the costs of war often greatly exceed expectations. Europeans marched to war in 1914 almost expressing relief after years of growing tensions that the outbreak of hostilities finally offered a chance to “get it over with.” This combined with a popular sense that the war would be “over by Christmas.”

Historians have since questioned how widespread those views really were. But history might have encouraged cavalier attitudes about war. There had been no major European war in nearly a century, since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Yet WWI became one of the most lethal conflicts of all time, claiming more than 20 million lives, destroying four great and famous empires and creating a political vacuum in the Islamic world that persists today. It also led to the beginning of the end of European global dominance that had prevailed for more than 400 years. 

Like those who went to war in 1914, we today have lived in a world largely free from major great power war for the better part of a century. It is hard for many of us to fathom the scale of destruction and misery wrought by the Great War or the even deadlier World War II. But the costs of modern wars also tend to go underestimated: consider Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Even conflicts that appeared more straightforwardly successful at least in military terms, such as Korea and Kosovo, created enduring commitments where U.S. forces remain decades later. On reports this week that President Trump decided to call off strikes he previously ordered on Iran once becoming more fully aware of the consequences, the instinct to avoid disproportionate costs of war is right.

A second lesson that faced negotiators at Versailles a century ago is that war aims tend to change as wars are fought. Whatever the original intentions of the belligerents in 1914, the war quickly became one of national survival that the Austrian, German, Ottoman and Russian emperors lost. 

For the U.S. entering the war in 1917 in part to guard its ships from Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare, President Woodrow Wilson’s post-war Fourteen Points was a sweeping program to remake the world “safe for democracy.” If Wilson didn’t entirely convince his European allies of his vision, he also failed to convince Congress, which rejected the Versailles Treaty altogether.

Wilson suffered a stroke shortly thereafter and never regained the power to lead. War’s aims and political risks can outlast presidents and travel in unpredictable or unmanageable directions. On war with Iran, President Trump is also right to avoid rushing into the breach.

Once in the breach, war is by nature difficult to control. Thus a third lesson of Versailles is one of humility. 

A common view in 1914 was that the military plans of major powers were so finely laid and calibrated that force could be wielded with scientific precision like so many railroad timetables and telegrams. Not only did such plans fail, leading to the wreckage of stalemated trench warfare on the Western front, but they exemplified larger forces that were difficult for leaders to comprehend fully much less control. 

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia said as much to German Kaiser Wilhelm II, his third cousin, in a series of telegrams in the days before the outbreak of war. “I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war,” he wrote. “It is technically impossible to stop our military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria’s mobilisation.”

Owing to the web of entangling alliances and detailed war plans, the dominoes fell: Russian mobilization led to German mobilization, the invasion of Belgium and France, entry of Britain, and so on.

The recent news that Trump canceled the previously ordered strikes on Iran with only ten minutes to spare reflects well on the quality of modern communications technology and the agility of the U.S. military. But reliance on such exquisite execution is risky and unnecessary.  Imperfect information, or the “fog of war,” physical and material obstacles, accidents, mistakes, luck and the actions of the enemy – whether deliberate or not, rational or the result of their own mistakes or miscalculations – can and often do derail the best made plans. 

All of these factors increase the risks that brinkmanship may result in going over the brink.  Trump has been right to say the U.S. should avoid costly and ineffective wars, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Until force becomes a last resort necessity, deliberately decided upon, the U.S. should privilege diplomacy in dealing with Iran. 

The chief criticism of the Versailles Treaty is not that it marked an end to the Great War, but that its imperfections sowed the seeds of an even greater conflict only twenty years later. It failed to prevent war. We can do better. To serve the national interest while avoiding the excesses of war, diplomacy is our first and best instrument.

Dr. Seth A. Johnston is Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow at Harvard University. He is an Afghanistan war veteran and writes in a personal capacity.

Tags Donald Trump Iran military history Treaty of Versailles Versailles Woodrow Wilson World War I World War I

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