The extraordinary announcement on Thursday that President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-Un caught the world by surprise. The two leaders have spent the better part of a year calling each other names, such as “Rocket Man,” “dotard,” and “lunatic,” and threatening to unleash nuclear destruction and “fire and fury.” Now they will attempt to negotiate a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. The details regarding when and where the summit will occur remain unknown, but one thing we can say with confidence is that the stakes of the summit meeting—if it actually takes place—will be immense.
Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-Un without consulting Congress in advance is consistent with long-standing American foreign policy. Article II of the Constitution not only makes the president “commander in chief” but also vests in the office of president the full “executive power” of the federal government. The president must secure the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senate to make treaties, but otherwise the president enjoys sweeping latitude in the conduct of foreign affairs. Indeed, in the 1936 case of United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation, the U.S. Supreme Court described the president as “the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations.”
Accordingly, many presidents have used international summits to engage in free-wheeling diplomacy, such as FDR’s World War II conferences with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. During the Cold War, summit meetings became a routine feature of Russian-American relations, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and culminating with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. But without question the most celebrated summit meeting in history was Richard Nixon’s surprise visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972. Nixon’s highly successful meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai opened the door to a dramatic improvement in the relationship between Washington and Beijing. As Trump prepares for his face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-Un, Nixon’s historic trip to China offers an auspicious model for the Trump White House to emulate.
But the Donald Trump—Kim Jong-Un meeting is no ordinary summit and the circumstances that surround it are far more ominous than those accompanying the Nixon-Mao summit in 1972. If Trump fails to achieve a breakthrough with the North Koreans, there is a very real risk of general war on the Korean Peninsula. Accordingly, there is a century-old precedent to Trump's audacious and risky decision to meet one-on-one with the North Korean dictator that should send a chill down Trump’s spine. The ultimate cautionary tale for any summit-bound president is Woodrow Wilson’s personal participation in the diplomatic negotiations to end World War I. Although Wilson's peace mission raised the hopes of the world, his failure to deliver a lasting peace set the stage for an era so destabilizing it led to the nightmarish conflagration of World War II. The tragedy of Wilson's trip to Paris illustrates the enormous risks associated with a president who takes personal responsibility for negotiating peace terms.
The Paris Peace Conference of 1919
No international conference has ever had higher stakes than the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. At the end of the First World War, the victorious Allied powers of Britain, France, Italy, and the United States convened in Paris to negotiate post-war terms with the defeated Germans. The goals of the Paris Peace Conference were breathtakingly ambitious. Besides negotiating a formal end to the war, the delegates sought to establish an international organization—called the League of Nations—that would ensure that a similar conflict would never occur again.
Inspired by the momentous stakes of the conference, President Woodrow Wilson made the extremely bold decision to lead the American delegation himself. Wilson was only the third sitting president in history to leave the United States. But Wilson's trip to France really had no precedent in history. The previous foreign trips by President Roosevelt and President Taft involved visits to nearby countries (Mexico and Panama) for very short stays of a few days at most. In contrast, in December 1918 Wilson traveled halfway around the world and spent 6 months in Europe. By leading the American negotiating team, Wilson gambled his presidency on the idea that his personal presence at the peace negotiations would secure a just settlement and a new global order built on law and the peaceful resolution of international disputes.
Unfortunately, however, Wilson’s gamble backfired in spectacular fashion, and 20 years later the world plunged into an even more devastating conflict, the consequences of which are still felt today.
The Problem of Leverage
The first reason why Wilson failed was the fact that he had very little political leverage in Paris. As Prof. John Milton Cooper, Jr. argues in his outstanding 2011 biography of Wilson, “World War I ended too soon.” When the Germans capitulated in November 1918 amid an economic collapse at home and battlefield reversals in France and Belgium, the sudden end to the war deprived the Allies of a clear and decisive military victory over Germany. The Germans had essentially quit and gone home to avoid facing precisely the type of humbling, crushing, and overwhelming defeat they would later experience in 1945.
Consequently, in the aftermath of 1918, many ordinary Germans felt not beaten but robbed by the war’s outcome. The unexpected and indecisive nature of Germany's defeat laid the groundwork for Adolf Hitler’s sinisterly effective “stabbed in the back” propaganda. As Prof. Ian Kershaw explains in the first volume of his brilliant two-volume biography of Hitler, the "stabbed in the back" argument was "a legend the Nazis would use as a central element of their propaganda armoury."
Equally important, the war's quick end meant that the victorious British, French, and Italians did not feel particularly indebted to the United States, which had intervened relatively late in the war. The United States lost "only" 117,000 troops dead in the war, whereas Italy lost about 500,000 dead, Britain lost 800,000 dead, France lost 1.2 million dead, Russia lost 1.7 million dead, and Germany lost 1.8 million dead. What's more, those figures only account for military deaths. Civilian losses, particularly in southern and eastern Europe and the Middle East, reached into the millions of deaths as well. Amid such suffering and destruction, America's contribution to Allied victory looked fairly modest as the delegates convened in Paris in 1919.
Prof. Cooper makes a compelling case that Wilson's negotiating position at Paris would have enormously benefited from a longer war, even by just six months. When the war came to a stunning close in November 1918, over two million fresh American troops had surged onto the western front. If the conflict had lasted into 1919, and if it had culminated in the invasion and conquest of Germany, the United States would have emerged as the central player in Germany’s defeat. Under those circumstances, Cooper explains, “the Allies would have been utterly dependent on America and Wilson would have been able to dictate the terms of the settlement.” Instead, Germany’s sudden collapse meant that Wilson arrived in Paris with the inspiring rhetoric of his Fourteen Points but with no political capital to hold over the victors or the vanquished.
An Impossible Task
The second problem Wilson faced was the fact that the vast scale of the issues before the Paris Peace Conference exceeded the ability of any single individual to manage successfully. The war not only cost the lives of 9 million troops and at least 5 million civilians, it also inflicted severe physical and emotional trauma on tens of millions of people. Not surprisingly, institutions crumbled across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Three of the world's major powers collapsed during the war—the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires—and a fourth major power—the German Empire—succumbed to political and economic chaos. The profound instability unleashed by the war rippled across Europe and the Middle East for years after the fighting ended.
Faced with immense challenges and uncontrollable historical forces, Woodrow Wilson took on the impossible task of organizing the post-war world. One of the conference’s defining images is that of Wilson hunched over maps late into the night, redrawing national boundaries across the Eastern Hemisphere.
But the lines that Wilson and the European leaders drew failed to reflect the patchwork quilt of ethnic groups spread across vast stretches of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The Paris delegates lacked even the most basic information about the people whose lives would be profoundly shaped by the new borders. Compounding the problem was the fact that throughout the conference the colonial interests of Britain and France took precedence over common sense, resulting in the creation of unstable new nations that 100 years later continue to be rocked by internecine warfare, such as Iraq and Syria.
In short, Wilson was set up to fail at Paris, and fail he did.
Hitler's "Vindictive Peace"
Even when Wilson succeeded, he failed. Far more than is commonly understood, Wilson did a reasonably good job of watering down the most vindictive demands of the victorious European powers. But he lost the perception battle. Instead of thanking Wilson for giving them a fairer peace than they had a right to expect, the Germans perceived the Treaty of Versailles as an inexcusably harsh and unforgiving peace settlement. Adding insult to injury, even some Allies made erroneous claims that the peace terms were unreasonably harsh on Germany.
As modern historians have made clear, the actual reparations imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles were not particularly onerous. During the conference Wilson negotiated a major reduction in the reparations initially demanded by the Allies, and in the 1920s the Coolidge and Hoover administrations assumed responsibility for footing the bill for a large share of Germany’s war debt. By the time Adolf Hitler renounced the reparations payments in the 1930s, Germany had only paid a small fraction of its war debt. In fact, by some measures, the total amount of American loans and outright grants to Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s exceeded the total amount Germany paid in reparations payments. In any case, the reparations Germany imposed on the French following France's defeat in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War exceeded the amount that Germany paid in reparations to all Allied powers after World War I.
But the perception of a “vindictive peace” proved more important than facts. With a demonically cynical understanding of how ordinary people perceived events, Hitler exploited the myth of “crushing” reparations to propel the Nazi Party to power in 1933. Only by opposing all reparations payments and territorial adjustments would Wilson have preempted Hitler's “vindictive peace” myth, but the British and French governments would never have permitted such an outcome. The Germans had not only imposed severe reparations and territorial concessions on defeated enemies in the past, they had even done so during World War I. When Russia sued for peace in March 1918, the Germans imposed far more severe terms on the Russians in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk than the Allies imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. That fact was not lost on the Allied representatives in Paris in 1919. In light of the harsh terms Germany had always pursued when it had the upper hand over its enemies, it was simply not politically feasible for the Allies to let Berlin off the hook without reparations payments of some kind.
Consequently, Wilson was doomed to a public relations failure no matter what the Paris peace terms ultimately contained. Indeed, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles before the British economist John Maynard Keynes excoriated the reparations payments in his incredibly (but unjustifiably) influential book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Years before Hitler emerged as a major player in German politics, Keynes's erroneous claim that the Treaty of Versailles imposed economically ruinous terms on Germany shaped public perception far more profoundly than Wilson could ever counter with arguments and speeches of his own.
Wilson's Political and Personal Collapse
But Wilson was more than just a victim of circumstance. He brought his worst defeat on himself.
For all its shortcomings, the Treaty of Versailles brought an end to the war and created the League of Nations, the first international organization for peace and security in history. As Prof. Margaret MacMillan explains in her exceptionally even-handed account of the conference, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, the covenant of the League of Nations "underlined the idea that there were certain things that all humanity had in common and there could be international standards beyond those of mere national interest." In light of the important step forward the League represented, the Treaty should have been ratified by the United States Senate.
But congressional elections in the United States one week before Germany’s surrender transformed the terms of debate in Washington. Republicans won control of the Senate by a 2-seat margin after 6 years of Democratic control. Led by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republicans opposed Article X of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which provided for collective defense. Lodge viewed Article X as a violation of Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which entrusts the House of Representatives with the power to declare war. Lodge insisted that America should only approve the Treaty (and thereby join the League of Nations) under the critical reservation that Article X did not apply to the United States.
Although partisan politics clearly played a role in Lodge's decision-making, his position on Article X was not without merit. Wilson could and should have found common ground with Lodge and the other Senate Republicans. Nevertheless, in a self-destructive act of stunning proportions, Wilson obstinately refused to compromise with the Republicans. In Paris Wilson had been highly flexible and amenable to compromise, but not in Washington. Irrationally rigid in his outlook, he insisted the Treaty was all or nothing. With the president unwilling to meet the Republicans halfway, the Treaty fight raged in the Senate through the summer and fall of 1919. Aware that time was running out, Wilson went on a barnstorming lecture tour across the United States to build public support for the Treaty.
But after weeks on the road, he collapsed of exhaustion in Colorado and was rushed back to the White House. A few days later, in early October 1919, Wilson suffered a devastating stroke that paralyzed his left-side and nearly blinded him. He would never give a public speech again. In dramatic votes in November 1919 and March 1920, the Treaty of Versailles failed to gain the necessary two-thirds support in the Senate. Wilson left office in March 1921 a shell of the man who had entered the White House in March 1913.
The United States would never join the League of Nations. Instead, it would watch from the sidelines as Nazi Germany's escalating aggression triggered the biggest war in human history in the late 1930s. By the time the United States belatedly joined the war in December 1941, it would take years of fighting and millions of deaths to stop Hitler and Nazi Germany.
The Lessons of History
The tragic outcome of the Paris Peace Conference demonstrates just how much risk any president assumes in personally leading high stakes peace negotiations. When Wilson arrived in Paris in December 1918, he was widely hailed as the world’s greatest leader. One year later, he was a physical and emotional wreck, and his administration was shattered.
It seems unlikely that President Trump has spent any time studying the Wilson Administration, let alone the broader history of American foreign relations. Other than claiming that Sen. Orrin Hatch ranks him as a better president than Washington and Lincoln, President Trump has never displayed much interest in history.
But as he prepares to meet with Kim Jong-Un, he would be wise to learn from the lessons of Woodrow Wilson’s trip to Paris. The Korean Peninsula is a tinderbox, and any conflict on it would likely draw in not only the United States, but also the world’s two other major superpowers: China and Russia.
Accordingly, the high stakes of Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-Un resemble those of Wilson’s negotiations in Paris a century ago. We can only hope that the outcome is far better this time around.