The Habsburg Empire’s declaration of war on Serbia on 28 July 1914 was its last independent political act. Four years later, and after seven centuries as a permanent fixture of the European political order, the tottering Habsburg Empire would finally implode. The Habsburgs were not the only monarchical empire claimed by the Great War. All the European land empires—the German, Russian and Ottoman empires—were also swept away, and with it, the system of Great Power politics that had dominated the world order during the long nineteenth century. Although the global maritime empires of Britain and France survived the general war of 1914-1918, both emerged from it seriously and irrevocably damaged. The 1914-1918 war confirmed the end of France’s claim to be a power of global rank, while Britain’s sprawling global empire would limp along for a few more decades, but in reality the empire was buying and not biding time.
The Great War upended the global geopolitical order even before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. Out of the horrors of the 1914-1918 war it seemed that a new international order had emerged. This new global order was led by a single dominant nation, America, the one nation that escaped apparently unscathed and emerging vastly more powerful from the war. As the war ground on, financial and naval power shifted across the Atlantic, never to return. Even Britain accepted the reality of this new authority, surrendering its pre-1914 position as arbiter in global affairs, including the mantle of global financial leadership.
Adam Tooze shows how the outcome of the Great War unhinged the “old” world order, creating an unprecedented power vacuum that, first, Britain attempted but failed to fill. The British Empire had done relatively less badly out of the war, but “[t]here was only one power, if any, that could fill this role―a new role, one that no nation had ever seriously attempted before―the United States”. America’s vision of the aftermath of the war differed sharply from Britain’s so-called world system of imperial preference. This was no mere changing of the guard, either; rather, it was an attempt to shift the international order beyond the practices of autocracy and militarism that had been blamed for the conflict.
To be sure, at the outset of the war, the United States refrained from taking sides. In the midst of war, US President Woodrow Wilson was critical of both Britain and France for attempting to prolong it and pull America into it. Wilson tried desperately to preserve America’s neutrality. It was only Germany’s resumption, in 1917, of unrestricted U-boat activity, targeting US-flag merchant shipping, which tipped a reluctant America into the Entente camp. Until that point, America had studiously avoided confrontation with other major powers.
Unlike today, US power in that vital decade from the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the Wall Street Crash in 1929 manifested itself in the form of a latent, potential force rather than an immediate evident presence. “The new order that was in the making”, Tooze argues, “was defined in large part by the absent presence of its most defining element―the new power of the United States”. Tooze deals superbly with America’s struggle, and ultimate failure, to shape a new global order from the horrors of the Great War. This new paradigm, the brainchild of US President, Woodrow Wilson, was in the process of being fashioned in the 1920s, but events overtook it before it could be fully articulated. Still, in the mid-1920s, statesmen from Britain, Germany, France and Japan regarded the American vision of a global system based on a liberal economic order underpinned by newly institutionalised forms of cooperation as a noble accomplishment and strove to play their part in making it work. Britain, although accorded equal global power status, had quietly ceded primacy to the United States. Other world powers―France, Germany, Japan, even Italy for a time―were either aligned to the United States or in the process of orientating themselves toward the United States as the pivot in this new global order. But forces hostile to America’s reordering of the international system were lying in wait.
In the 1920s, for all its economic and military might, America was not yet capable of rising to the challenge of managing its global aspirations. While Woodrow Wilson’s vision of an American-centred world system captured the imagination of world leaders, there was recognition of the limits of what the American polity was actually capable of. Every American administration of the interwar period may have believed in its providential destiny, but America was still a hesitant titan unprepared to lead the rebuilding task ahead of it. Its greatest foe, in some ways, was itself. American reticence, borne of its own innate conservatism, itself associated with its own short, blood-soaked history, enabled other global forces that feared the overwhelming scale of American might to burst forward and seize a unique moment of opportunity. These forces were, in a sense, the world’s first global insurgencies, fully unleashed in the 1930s and 40s with lethal effect.
Italian Fascism, Japanese Imperialism, Russian Communism and German Nazism were not so much by-products of European imperialism as responses to “the uncouth heralds of America’s … internationalist ethos of peace, progress and profit”. The “threatened global hegemony of the North American continent” was the common factor driving Hitler, Stalin, the Italian Fascists and their Japanese counterparts to such radical action. These radical insurgents railed against the new American order. But, in the 1920s, the coalition arrayed against America’s global hegemony was still groping in the dark, too feeble to proliferate, their political solidarity much too fragile to mount a serious challenge to America’s global ambitions. And so these insurgents chose to wait for a window of opportunity. They did not have to wait long.
The economic meltdown of 1929-1933 allowed these radical forces to shred the Pax Americana and unleash their own distinctive forms of revolutionary violence with devastating consequences. Facing a crippling economic depression at home, the Roosevelt administration decided to relinquish America’s global role to concentrate on the domestic economic slump. America pulled back. Here was the breach that German, Italian and Japanese expansionists, as well as Stalin, had been praying for. The Great Depression, which hit America hardest, set in motion a convulsion of nature not unlike the 1914-1918 war, releasing forces that America was powerless to stop. It would take another global conflagration to finally snuff it out. Like the First World War, America emerged from the Second World War with an even greater economic and military advantage over every other major power, finally allowing it to step up to its global role.
No one alive today can recall a time when the United States was anything other than a super state, rivalled only by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and a resurgent China today. Adam Tooze’s bold retelling of the crucial decade from the Versailles Treaty to the Wall Street Crash reminds us that the origin of the Pax Americana was a long and painful process. The world of The Deluge still defines our world today.
Adam Tooze. The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order. London: Allen Lane. 2014.
Mark Donoghue has held faculty appointments at the Australian National University, National University of Singapore and the University of Notre Dame (Australia). He is currently on the faculty of SIM University, Singapore. He has published extensively in the field of the history of economic thought and has a biography of William Thomas Thornton forthcoming.