'Star Wars“ movies are conservative in at least one sense. Francis Fukuyama, author of a new book being talked about in Washington, ”The Great Disruption,“ argues that technological and economic progress naturally turns countries onto the path of liberal democracy. But in the four ”Star Wars“ movies so far—as in the comedy, ”Mars Attacks!“—material advances do not eliminate evil. No matter how fast space ships go, a kiss is still a kiss, and Machiavellian rules still apply, as time goes by.
The final outcome of NATO's war against Yugoslavia is still far from certain, but we should exercise critical thinking toward any statements about dictators learning their lessons. Such happy talk brings to my mind the treaty signed in June, 80 years ago, that was designed to bring about international harmony.
Sadly, that Treaty of Versailles, pushed by Woodrow Wilson in 1919 as the means to win the peace following World War I, “the war to end wars,” actually opened the door to more war.
Wilson maintained higher standards through most of his career than Bill Clinton has—he did not have an extramarital affair until age 50 —but some parallels exist. Wilson, like Clinton, did not want to see himself as a sinner, so he covered up his wrongs and began seeing the Ten Commandments as 10 suggestions.
He learned to lie, winning re-election in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war, ” while privately telling Cabinet members, “I can't keep the country out of war.” One month after his second inauguration, Wilson led the United States into World War I and enjoyed its successful (for the United States) completion in 1918.
Temporary success bred arrogance, as it always has done in Clinton. A million Parisians chanted “Wilson, Wilson” as he rode through the city, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said there was no greater reception “in the history of the world.” Wilson began claiming direct divine inspiration for the League of Nations agreement he had put together: It came about “by no plan of our conceiving but by the hand of God who had led us into this way.”
Wilson, however, was far from omniscient. He stitched together on maps countries like “Yugoslavia” or “Czechoslovakia” without having any understanding of ethnic divisions.
Wilson said he was “the personal instrument of God” in Paris, but after the 1918 congressional elections, when many of his supporters were voted out of office, he was barely the personal instrument of the United States. Still, he wanted to produce a newer testament: According to British Prime Minister Lloyd George, Wilson once said that “Jesus Christ so far (has) not succeeded in inducing the world to follow His teaching because He taught the ideal without devising any practical scheme to carry out his aims.” The League of Nations, according to Wilson, was the wise plan Christ had missed.
But the Versailles treaty, signed in June 1919, represented the worst of both worlds. Punitive enough to contribute to the German economic collapse that made possible the rise of Hitler, it was so high-minded that French and English leaders who put their hopes in it were lax about the military preparedness that could have forestalled the dictator' s early success. When the U.S. Senate refused to support the treaty, Wilson refused to examine his own arrogance, but instead traveled the country by train, hoping to rally voters to his side —only to find little trust in a man who had last stumped the country on a no-war pledge. Then came the crushing blow: Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke, and his presidency effectively ended.
Applying historical lessons to our present situation is not as simple a matter as being pro-war or anti-war concerning Kosovo. Rather, Wilson' s experience suggests that those who think themselves smart and good enough to solve the problems of millennia can learn from the wiser attitude of Wilson's counterpart in Britain.
Lloyd George did not think agreements on paper changed much of anything, and in 1919 he wearily predicted the next generation's ordeal: “A great pity. We shall have to do the same thing all over again in twenty- five years at three times the cost.”
Agreements that bear the stamp of Clinton's character (an emphasis on surface plausibility and whatever feels good at the time) only make the world safe for hypocrisy at best, and low-pocrisy more often.
In a dangerous world that will remain so, prayer plus preparedness —as the old line goes, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”—will remain essential.