The British Diplomatist Harold Nicolson recorded in his memoires on the peacemaking of 1919 that he “had no doubt [……] that upon the basis of President Wilson’s principles would the peace be founded”, and that his confidence was shared by many of his colleagues. This article examines the “Wilsonian” ideals shared by the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference.
The basic tenets of “Wilsonianism”, which can be summarised as supporting national aspirations and upholding international cooperation, had roots dating back to the foreign policy pursued by British Liberal administrations in the 19th century. Soon after the war broke out in 1914, proponents of the peace movement sought to design a post-war settlement that would diminish the possibility of future wars and perpetuate peace. These ideas managed to penetrate the echelons of the British government, and by 1916 many prominent members of the Cabinet and Foreign Office were in favour of a drastic redefining of international affairs after the end of the war. The proponents of this new kind of diplomacy, sought to redraw the map of Europe based on ethnographical lines and to create a League of Nations to manage international disputes. These aims developed parallel to and in conjunction with President Woodrow Wilson’s peace programmes on the other side of the Atlantic. By 1918, these “Wilsonian” war aims became official policy of the British government.
At the Paris Peace Conference, the British delegation pursued their goals while in many cases gaining Wilson’s backing. Thus, the League of Nations was established largely based on Britain’s wartime design, and a considerable part of the territorial settlement was based on the principle of “national self-determination”, which the British government generally supported (as long its application was confined to continental Europe).
However, once the general outline of the German settlement became apparent in March 1919, David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, and his entourage became apprehensive that the collective effect of the treaty will destabilise Germany. The revolutionary struggle in Russia, and its perceived encroachment towards Central Europe, put considerable pressure on the British delegation to successfully conclude the conference as early as possible, and to create a bulwark against Bolshevism. This pressure led Lloyd George to try to ease the peace terms on Germany, but his efforts were largely in vain.
The Treaty of Versailles was heavily criticized by the British “Wilsonians”. Yet some of them, such as James Headlam-Morley, defended the treaty as a substantial achievement in forwarding the aims for a liberal international order.