The Return of the Fourteen

by Dave Schuler on March 4, 2014

For reasons not entirely clear to me Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which formed the basis of the armistice agreement that ended World War I, is receiving new attention. Over just the last few days I’ve read three different invocations of them. Here are the fourteen points, excerpted from a longer speech:

1. Open covenants of peace must be arrived at, after which there will surely be no private international action or rulings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
2. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.
3. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.
4. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest points consistent with domestic safety.
5. A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the population concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.
6. The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy, and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.
7. Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations. No other single act will serve as this will serve to restore confidence among the nations in the laws which they have themselves set and determined for the government of their relations with one another. Without this healing act the whole structure and validity of international law is forever impaired.
8. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.
9. A re-adjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
10. The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.
11. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states should be entered into.
12. The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.
13. An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.
14. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

Some are obviously obsolete (#7) while others, e.g. 2, 3, at least notionally guide U. S. policy today. I think that #1 could use a little more attention than it receives.

Relevant? Irrelevant? Dated? Remarkably current? As I pointed out elsewhere I think that we’re still reeling from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. I’m pretty sure I could go to Google News and find three stories that stem from that collapse without trying particularly hard.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

PD Shaw March 4, 2014 at 10:11 am

I raised the Fourteen Points in an argument yesterday w/ someone familiar with Mearsheimer’s realism foreign policy views on the nature of hegemons. Basically, Mearsheimer believes the U.S. entered WWI at the precise moment that Germany was about to win in order to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon. This despite the reality that Germany was concerned that it was losing the war, and so decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, knowing that it risked bringing the U.S. into the war and sought to enlist Mexico to run interference. From my p.o.v., the U.S. didn’t decide to go to war, Germany decided for it. Furthermore, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, hardly appear to be a realistic document, nor does it put the screws on Germany — they were lenient enough that Germany entered into a cease-fire with the expectation that they would control the peace terms, but the peace process was largely determined by Germany’s regional rivals.

Mearsheimer apparently believes in pre-destination; nations have agency when they act in accordance with his theories, but outcomes are pre-determined even when they don’t act their parts.

Cstanley March 4, 2014 at 11:03 am

I have reread them recently because of discovery of a remote personal connection. It seems that one or both of my father’s grandfathers were tangentially involved in Paderewski’s lobbying of Wilson to support an independent Polish state.

A lot of the points are outdated in that they were specific to the border conflicts of that time. As for permanent relevance, the fact that the principles had no enforcement mechanism became problematic pretty quickly and made the abstract points irrelevant except as proof that good intentions don’t keep the peace.

PD Shaw March 4, 2014 at 11:04 am

On the self-determination aspects of the Fourteen Points, I think they largely reflect observed reality at the time. A few of the major powers in Europe were multi-national empires, with internal divisions that created international conflicts, most notably the Austro-Hungarian conflict with its Serbian nation. As the war progressed, the Western nations without such internal divisions (UK, France & Germany) were more successful and often sought to exploit divisions within the multi-national Empires (Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottomon). Ukraine was one of many nations to emerge from the War, and it ended up making a separate peace with the Central Powers, much to Lenin’s anger. Had Ukraine been within the sphere of Western control at the end of the wars, its independence would have been assured. The Soviets were successful at repackaging an empire around an internationalist ideology that was appealing to a lot of Ukranians in a way that being part of a Czar’s fiefdom would never have been. I don’t think the pre-1917 past can be recreated, not that I’m sure that is Russia’s ambition anyway.

(Interesting in my NAZI book I’m reading, NAZI realists advise Hitler to reach out to the Ukranians to make it easier to defeat the Russians. Hitler rejects the notion out-of-hand, because (a) his hatred of the Russians, Poles and Ukrainians is second only to his hatred of Jews and he wants them all exterminated, and (b) his strategic goal is to capture Ukraine and make it a German homeland.)

Cstanley March 4, 2014 at 12:29 pm

As the war progressed, the Western nations without such internal divisions (UK, France & Germany) were more successful and often sought to exploit divisions within the multi-national Empires (Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottomon).

That rings even more true when read alongside point #5 where in colonies the right of self determination is artfully determined to be only 50%, balanced with the territorial claims of the government that holds title.

... March 4, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Take the first three, add to them a point calling for open borders, and another that international capital MUST have ultimate veto on all national sovereign actions, and it seems like it currently fits the bill nicely.

... March 4, 2014 at 1:56 pm

I’m still laughing about that Wiki entry about “Thus democracy having been restored …” in Haiti, but only after the newly installed President agreed to do what the international financiers wanted – which was completely against the wishes of the people of Haiti.

Forget an insurance company with an army. The US is a bank with an army.

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