If you want an introduction to the mind-boggling complexity of international relations, a good example can be found in A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. This is the story of the creation of the modern Middle East, and the interrelationships among all the interested parties. Most of the transactions read like my very favorite joke from The Joys of Yiddish:
“The two traveling salesmen, competitors in selling notions, spied each other on the platform. “Hello, Liebowitz.” “Hello, Posner.” Silence. “So – where are you going?” asked Liebowitz. “To Minsk,” said Posner. Silence. “Listen, Posner,” sighed Liebowitz, who was a very bright shaygets [in this sense: clever lad; rascal], “when you say you’re going to Minsk, you want me to think you’re going to Pinsk. But I happen to know that you ARE going to Minsk – so why are you lying?!!”
Multiply the idea of the joke by adding in all the players for the Middle East: Britain, France, Russia, Turkey, Arabs (with rival clans), Jews (with rival ideologies), the United States, Italy, and so on. You need a constantly readjusted flow chart to ascertain who is on which side and whose side the other side thinks the other side is on!
This masterful narrative by David Fromkin describes the formation of the modern Middle East between the years 1914-1922: the fabrication of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia by Britain, the setting of the frontiers of Syria and Lebanon by France, and the creation of the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan by Russia. Fromkin contends that the conflicts that unsettle the region today are largely a result of the presumptuous manipulation of peoples and places by the imperialist ambitions of the Triple Entente.
The first prize to be divvied up was the Ottoman Empire. Even before the war, secret pacts divided the “Sick Man of Europe” among the allies in anticipation of its seemingly inevitable demise. But one of Britain’s largest mistakes was underestimating the Turks, both as military actors and as a people capable of self-determination, in part because of racism.
Another racist current coloring events was a pervasive anti-Semitism among the British governing classes. It caused them to believe that Jews were conspiring with the Germans, the Turks, and of course the Russians for power. (Although many Bolsheviks were born into the Jewish religion, they could be identified as Jews in “racial” terms only.) As Fromkin notes, “The Foreign Office believed that the Jewish communities in America and, above all, Russia, wielded great power.” This led them to bizarre misunderstandings of the motives and goals of their adversaries, and to policy formation geared toward an accommodation of the non-existent Jewish conspiracies they saw looming around every corner.
The story, told from the perspective of British involvement, begins with the decision by the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, to partition the Middle East after World War I. After Lord Kitchener’s death in 1916, David Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister) and Winston Churchill (serving in several different capacities) played larger roles in the British enterprise in the Middle East. “Winston Churchill,” Fromkin writes, “above all, presides over the pages of this book: a dominating figure whose genius animated events and whose larger-than-life personality colored and enlivened them.”
Fromkin firmly opposes aspersions on Churchill’s reputation that arose from his policies in WWI. Contrary to statements of Churchill’s contemporaries (with their own reputations to protect), Fromkin’s research shows that Churchill first opposed the Gallipoli option, then tried to make it contingent on a joint army-navy operation, then tried to salvage what was left with what he was given. When disaster ensued (a suspension of the failed campaign after a quarter of a million casualties on Britain’s side and a similar amount on Turkey’s), Churchill was made the scapegoat for the ill-conceived and miscarried engagement.
Churchill’s worth was recognized by British leaders, however, and he continued to help formulate policy even after he left the government. After the war, Churchill alone recognized that Britain’s terms could not be imposed if Britain’s armies left the field; and he most forcefully argued that the Moslem character of Britain’s remaining troops in the East must be taken into account lest the army’s loyalty be compromised.
Woodrow Wilson comes off poorly in Fromkin’s telling — his insistence on attending peace negotiations upset protocol and added nothing to the process, since he came with “many general opinions but without specific proposals….” “Lacking both detailed knowledge and negotiating skills, Wilson was reduced to an obstructive role….” Naïve and ill-informed, he was manipulated by Lloyd George into furthering Britain’s imperial aims. Back home, Wilson “committed one political blunder after another, driving even potential supporters to oppose him.” Nevertheless, Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” played an influential role in the politics of Europe.
Fromkin ends his fascinating account by observing that following WWI, “administration of most of the planet was conducted in a European mode, according to European precepts, and in accordance with European concepts.” Native political structures and cultures were ignored, destroyed, and/or replaced. But legitimacy cannot be conferred by drawing lines on a map; the legacy of the dissection of the Middle East by the great powers informs our politics yet today, and thus the events discussed in this book remain highly relevant and absorbing.
Note: National Book Critics Circle Award (1989)
Published by Henry Holt & Company, 1989