The United States and Central Europe: Tasks for a Second Century Together



Daniel Fried, Jakub Wisniewski, Denise Forsthuber and Alena Kudzko | Atlantic Council

The first US policy toward Central Europe was embedded in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the United States’ first grand strategy, which Wilson presented to the US Congress in January 1918. He took these principles to Europe when he sailed there in early 1919, just after the end of World War I, trying to organize a rules-based world, a new system built on a foundation of US power and reflecting democratic values. The Fourteen Points—a major break with centuries of great-power practice—included

  • “equality of trade conditions” instead of closed economic empires;
  • limitations on (though not yet an end to) colonialism;
  • inviting post-war Germany and post-revolutionary Russia into the new system if, but only if, they respected its rules;
  • welcoming the emergence or re-emergence of nation states in Central and Eastern Europe; and
  • establishment of a League of Nations, backed by US power, to enforce the peace.

This strategy was not vapid “Wilsonian idealism,” as it is often dismissed, but reflected shrewd assumptions (and massive self-confidence) that: “Yankee ingenuity” would flourish best in a rules-based, open world without closed economic empires; US national interests would advance with democracy and the rule of law; the United States would prosper best when other nations prospered as well; and, thus, the United States could make the world a better place and get rich in the process. Its flaws notwithstanding, this first US effort at world leadership ought to be seen in the context of the competition: Vladimir Lenin’s world communist revolution and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s rebooted great-power system.

In this grand strategy, Central Europe’s new nations were to be an integral part of the new system, embedded in an undivided transatlantic community with their independence and security implicitly underwritten by American power. Little wonder that Central Europeans—living in vulnerable states between a sullen Germany and aggressive Bolshevik Russia—liked it (the Poles and Czechoslovaks especially). The legacy of this appreciation still lingers. On the centenary of the Fourteen Points in 2018, Warsaw’s main downtown street near the Presidential Palace had a large outdoor display in honor of Wilson and the Fourteen Points (which is more than can be said for Washington or New York.)

But, Wilson’s Fourteen Points did not survive their first contact with reality at the Versailles Peace Conference. As Clemenceau famously forecast, “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.” France and the UK insisted on imposing a punitive settlement against Germany, rather than welcoming it back to the European family, and the new nations of Central Europe were more fractious than Wilson and his foreign policy team anticipated. They were insecure, often poor, administratively weak, sometimes unsatisfied with post-war borders (especially Hungary, but also Poland, which would shortly be attacked by Bolshevik Russia); and with large, often unsatisfied minorities. Creating more or less homogenous nation states in Central Europe was not possible, given where people actually lived.

The most profound US failure was its unwillingness to underwrite the flawed, but potentially workable, peace that emerged from the Treaty of Versailles. Communist Russia was still weak. The emerging nations of Central Europe were still democracies, seeking allies and models. Even after Versailles, the Germans still had pro-Western leaders. The weaknesses of the Treaty of Versailles might have been mitigated had the United States taken responsibility for implementing the peace of which it was co-author.

Instead, the United States withdrew from Europe. Wilson’s political rigidity at home killed the US Senate’s ratification of the League of Nations. Wilson was a broken man finishing his term in ill health, and the United States abandoned his attempt at world leadership. It left the Germans to themselves, and the French to deal with the Germans. It also forgot about the Poles, Czechoslovaks, and Yugoslavs, of whose independence the United States was a sponsor.



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