In Chapter 3 of the Economic Consequences of the Peace Keynes sets forth his analysis of why President Woodrow Wilson failed to gain acceptance of his Fourteen Points. Put simply, perhaps even a bit simplistically, Keynes’ explanation is that Wilson was simply not prepared, given his overall temperament, to confront the more polished, persistent, and skilled statesmanship of George Clemenceau. Consequently, having been outmaneuvered by Clemenceau, Wilson was boxed into making a series of unprincipled compromises which laid the basis for the outcome that Keynes terms a Carthaginian peace. This outcome in Keynes’ view was simply not practical. One has the sense in reading Chapter 3 that he also regards it as uncivilized but that he recognizes the better strategy in persuading the reader of his perspective is to focus on practicality. As we will see in the following chapters, Keynes views the outcome as failing to provide for a stable set of institutions that can actually guarantee the peace.
When I discuss the differences between varieties of Liberalism and Realism in my International Political Economy class one of the points I struggle to convey to students is that there is at least some possible common ground between Liberal Idealism and Realism. And one of the foundations for that common ground is Keynes. Here again, due to space constraints, I’ll put that matter simplistically. A standard caricature of Realism (think Macchiavelli, Henry Kissinger, or Bismarck) is that it is concerned only with power, order and stability: moral principles, international obligations and international law be damned when they conflict with the realpolitik of power. The standard caricature of Liberal Idealism, of the sort generally associated with Wilson, is of a naive idealist lecturing to the world on human rights, democracy, self determination and a whole range of other platitudes, with no concern for the impact this might have on global order and stability. There is a lot that is wrong this caricature on both sides. We can look at Keynes as a Liberal who is tempered by practical considerations, or as a Realist who recognizes that order and stability are empty unless supported by just and widely accepted principles. In terms of contemporary comparisons, there are strong parallels between Keynes and the late Susan Strange.
In providing the context for the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles Keynes makes an explicit connection between the economic and political trends that led to WWI. In this Chapter, Keynes makes an interesting point that is explored in detail in the seminal work of Paul Kenneddy. From the end of the Hundred Years War until 1870, France was the seminal European land power and its status was due in large part to the realism of the French Monarchy and its relative economic strength. However, France’s economic and population growth in the 19th century was relatively slow, while Germany’s after unification following the Franco-Prussian War was explosive. Indeed, the Franco-Prussian War signaled the rise of Germany as a modern nation state and sealed an imbalance in international affairs that led to WWI. In Keynes’ judgement, Clemenceau interpreted events at Versailles as a zero sum game between France and Germany. If France were to have peace, then Germany would have to be disarmed and brought to heel. And this was the agenda that Clemenceau set out to achieve and accomplished at Versailles.
But in Keynes’ view, the Liberal Principles of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were actually the more realistic and practical arrangements for human affairs.