‘The Deluge’, by Adam Tooze

The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, by Adam Tooze, Allen Lane RRP£30, 672 pages

Looking back at the 1919 Paris peace conference and its failure to establish an enduring new world order, Harold Nicolson, the British diplomat and author, wrote in 1933 that the US was “the ghost at all our feasts”. It is a verdict that survives to this day. By excluding itself from the League of Nations, declining to underwrite collective security arrangements in Europe and contributing to the financial and economic disorder of the 1920s, the US is deemed to bear an inescapable, albeit indirect, responsibility for the second and even more destructive world war that broke out in 1939.

Adam Tooze’s The Deluge seeks not to overturn but to adjust this judgment in such a way that we appreciate the pressures and motivations behind US behaviour, as well as the manner in which events in the British empire, France, Germany and Russia played their part in destabilising the fragile new international system. It is a boldly argued, fluently written narrative, which has much to say about China, India and Japan as well as Europe and the US, and which is especially strong on the swirling global economic tides of the post-1918 era.

Tooze, a British-born history professor at Yale University, established his expertise on interwar economic history with The Wages of Destruction (2006), a masterly account of Nazi Germany’s economy. With the 100th anniversary of the first world war’s outbreak only weeks away, anyone looking for two penetrating books on that war’s aftermath ought to read The Deluge in conjunction with Zara Steiner’s The Lights that Failed (2005), the gold-standard work on the international dimensions of European history from 1919 to 1933.

Tooze’s book, shorter and less focused on European diplomacy than Steiner’s, possesses the same virtue of analysing the 1920s not as a prelude to the Great Depression, the rise of the dictators and another global conflict, but as a decade worthy of study in its own right. The first nine-tenths of The Deluge take us from the German military attack on Verdun in 1916 to the Locarno conference of 1925, leaving Tooze little space for developments in the later 1920s such as the consolidation of fascist rule in Italy and of Stalinism in the Soviet Union.

In concentrating on the earlier years, Tooze aims to challenge “the Wilsonian construction of interwar history” – by which he means the classic view that Woodrow Wilson, US president from 1913 to 1921, was intent on creating a postwar world order of freedom, peace and democracy, and that such an order might have stood a chance of coming to pass, had it not been for the myopia of the US Senate in rejecting the Versailles treaty and for the machinations of the Old World powers, notably Britain and France.

Wilson is conventionally seen as “the great internationalist amongst American presidents”, says Tooze, but “the world he wanted to create was one in which the exceptional position of America at the head of world civilisation would be inscribed on the gravestone of European power”. Wilson’s groundbreaking Fourteen Points declaration of January 1918, issued nine months after the US entered the war, was less an outburst of radical idealism on the theme of world governance, Tooze observes, than an expression of the “conservative evolutionary liberalism” that had made his name as a political thinker before he arrived in the White House.

The Fourteen Points, which dealt with everything from Belgium, Italy and the Habsburg empire to free trade, disarmament and the settlement of rival colonial claims, embodied “the gradated view of the capacity for self-government [beyond western democracies] that was typical of conservative 19th-century liberalism”, Tooze says. He quotes Goto Shinpei, the Japanese interior minister, as describing the US as “a great hypocritical monster clothed in justice and humanity”.

There was, of course, more to Wilson than this. His ideas had a strong impact on Irish and Indian nationalists, as Britain’s diehard Tory imperialists understood. However, by questioning Wilson’s image as a leader of universalist aspirations, Tooze illuminates the continuities between his presidency and those of his Republican successors, often dismissed as complacent isolationists. All, in their own way, were trying to uphold the US claim to exceptionalism and global pre-eminence, Tooze contends.

Yet although the US, as the leading financial and industrial power, stood at the centre of the post-1918 world order, the capacities of US federal government were far too limited to take on the diplomatic and economic challenges that this position implied. Nor were the US political classes disposed to play such a role. Tooze cites Senator Henry Ashurst of Arizona: “We saved Europe and our Christian civilisation. But that does not imply now that the peril is past that we should feed the Europeans and allow them in their great cities to live in idleness and sometimes in luxury.”

Postwar US isolationism was stimulated, too, by inflation, falling real wages and labour unrest triggered by the wartime mobilisation of the US economy. Irresistible pressure from Congress for tax cuts after the war ruled out a comprehensive writedown of US war loans to the European allies, making it difficult for France in particular to relax its demands for German reparation payments.

Tooze defends France’s leaders against the charge of reckless bullying of a prostrate Germany, noting that German armies had caused billions of dollars in losses by deliberately laying waste to northern France during their retreat in 1918. Moreover, he points out that the democratic leaders of Weimar Germany abhorred the postwar settlement not solely because of reparations but because, in fixing Berlin’s eastern borders, it placed Germany on an equal footing with the restored state of Poland. “The Weimar Republic was never reconciled to the new boundaries with Poland. But the resentment of the defeated Germans is by itself no proof of injustice,” Tooze writes.

Notoriously, the Locarno pact guaranteed western Europe’s borders but had little to say about the east. But Locarno’s other defect was that the US stayed out altogether, leaving a weakened Britain and France to uphold Europe’s precarious order against any future German aggression. Tooze’s book is an invaluable account of why the US and its allies, having defeated Germany in 1918, were unable thereafter to stabilise the world economy and build a collective security system.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.