The Senate rejected Woodrow Wilson’s Treaty of Versailles for the first time 100 years ago, on Nov. 19, 1919—thwarting his ambition to bring the U.S. into the League of Nations. This wasn’t the epochal tragedy that generations of internationalist historians and orators have sometimes made it out to be. The world wasn’t ready, and probably never will be, for the great powers to outsource their vital interests to an international organization. Wilson’s frantic efforts to buy foreign support for the league by making large concessions to partners like France and Italy left the treaty a grotesque and ultimately unsustainable mix of unrealistic aspirations and sordid political deals.
Wilson’s opponents included moderate realists like Henry Cabot Lodge, who wanted to engage with Britain and France to stabilize Europe but who thought the league as designed wasn’t fit for its purpose, and isolationists like William Borah, who believed that the U.S. could be free and secure without entangling itself in the convoluted politics of the Old World.
Wilson lost his battle, but his passion for a multilateral system that would somehow regulate and pacify the storms of great-power politics is with us still. Before World War I, the British Empire had a role in the world something like the one the U.S. has played since World War II. Britain policed the seas, maintained a balance of power, managed the world’s currency system, and promoted what today we could call the globalization of finance and trade. Wilson, like many educated Americans of his day, understood that World War I had significantly reduced Britain’s ability to play this role—but very few people in the U.S. were willing to consider taking its place.
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