“What book had the greatest influence on the way you think about policy?” The question can’t be answered. Not honestly, at any rate. It can only be constructed. For all I know, the greatest influence came from the didacticism in the tales of Hans Christian Andersen or the brothers Grimm”tales read to me at bedside long before I could read myself. The biggest influences, after all, are the ones we internalize. They’re like oil in an engine. We don’t know they’re there”although we soon enough start to cough and sputter if they dry up. We find then that we can’t run. We have nothing to say.
So the answer has to be construct- ed. It can’t be induced. And the con- struction itself must be built on mem- ory”usually a memory from youth, not from maturity. The heads of the young are nearly empty, and their minds impressionable. The heads of the old fill up (or shrink, more likely), so it’s harder to get new ideas in. They bounce off (although to be fair to filled-up heads, in the study of politics this is often because the new ideas aren’t really new after all).
As an alleged policy wonk who has made a modest living out of peanut-gallery observations on foreign policy and international affairs”an academic spectator’s sport if ever there was one”I’d have to construct my own answer in favour of Harold Nicolson’s Peacemaking 1919, first pub- lished, in two parts, in 1933, and again, with a new introduction, ten years later, when the world was once more at war.
I read it first as an undergraduate student of history at Dalhousie in the late 1950s. Neither of the two world wars had then acquired the place they now hold among the young, who appear to see them in much the same way as I, at their age, saw the Crusades, or the Wars of the Roses”as the bar- barous happenings of a dead past, hav- ing no relevance, and offering no les- sons, for a living present. But for us the two great shooting wars of the 20th cen- tury were far from empty abstractions. Our fathers and grandfathers had served in them. As adolescent males, we won- dered and debated (and doubted) whether we would have been able to match their courage if challenged as they had been in combat; whether we would have had the strength to keep faith with our comrades if we had been tortured, like captured members of the Resistance, by the Gestapo; whether we would have tried”somehow”to defend and protect the Jews had we been ordinary Germans in Hitler’s time. The world wars, in short, were still very real in the 1950s, and with atomic bombs spreading about, and sabres rat- tling, and the forces of the Warsaw Pact and the NATO alliance bristling at one another, it was self-evident that such lessons as could be found in them might still be germane. This was a ”œmodern,” not a postmodern age, and we knew it to be dangerous. States mattered. Nations mattered. Beliefs mattered. And they all had a terrible habit of killing.
It was easy to move, when young, from so melodramatic a perspective to a fascination with Nicolson’s melan- choly tale, and his own reaction to it. Nicolson was only 33 and a relatively junior British diplomat when he arrived in Paris in January 1919 to take part in the conference that was sup- posed to bring the peace that was to end all wars. Like many of the young, though perhaps not so many of the old, he had been gripped and inspired 12 months before by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Four Principles and Five Particulars. He ”œ[t]ook it for granted,” as he later reported, ”œthat on them alone would the Treaties of Peace be based.” They were morally compelling. There was general agreement that they would form the basis of negotiation. And he was sure that President Wilson ”œpos- sessed unlimited physical power to enforce his views.”
But then the real work began, and one by one the principles came tum- bling down, or were compromised beyond recognition. Their collapse started with the very first. The ”œcovenants,” the negotiators soon found out, could not be ”œopenly arrived at,” for if the bargaining were truly in the open, the howls of their respective constituency populations would deprive them of the power to make the concessions they knew they had to make. The concessions them- selves, moreover, depended on a will- ingness to violate, one after another, the very points, principles and partic- ulars that the final result was sup- posed to embody. The diplomatic agenda was cluttered in any case by shadowy deals and self-serving com- mitments that not long before had been secretly contrived in response to the necessities, or at least to the con- veniences, of war. It was all too clear, as the process wound down, that its intended job could not be done. At the end of the stiffly formal ceremony in which the Treaty of Versailles is signed, Nicolson finds a colleague, Headlam Morley, ”œstanding miserably in the littered immensity of the Galerie des Glaces.” They ”œsay noth- ing to each other. It has all been hor- rible.” Back at the hotel, after an apparently sombre celebration with ”œvery bad champagne” and a stroll on the boulevards of Paris, the defeated idealist retreats ”œ[t]o bed, sick of life.”
Here was the portrait of a politics whose stakes were not merely power and property, but life and death”a politics that had not only failed, but failed cataclysmically. It was the por- trait also of a clash of optimism and idealism with the brutish realities of world affairs. In the contest, the opti- mism and idealism lost. It was the por- trait, further, of an encounter of an elitist diplomacy with vox populi. But as it turned out, there was precious lit- tle to be said for the wisdom or perspi- cacity of either the diplomats them- selves or the populations they were there to serve. Small wonder that one of the lessons that Nicolson identified in his fresh introduction to the 1943 edition was that ”œPeace must be found- ed on realities rather than on hopes.”
Perhaps it was not the best of les- sons to learn. Certainly former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy would not think so. But it must have seemed the right lesson to draw in 1943, when the cataclysm that had begun with the fail- ure of Versailles was wrecking its havoc around the globe. And it seemed a per- suasive enough lesson for an undergrad- uate to learn in 1959.
There have been more influential expositors of the realist position by far than Harold Nicolson” Thucydides, for example, in ancient times, and Hans J. Morgenthau in a time that I have to recognize as my own. But Nicolson, with his telling combination of historical analysis and daily diary, made the link to the personal. In so doing, he also made his world-view stick.
Denis Stairs is McCulloch Professor in Political Science at Dalhousie University. He is also a member of the IRPP’s Board of Directors.