The modern borders regime was designed to secure international peace

This is part of a book project, see explanation here. It’s written as part 1B in this outline. For the Google Doc version, see here.

The UN-led international order is primarily dedicated to protecting the “sanctity” of borders against foreign invasion, or, to a lesser extent, interference.

The universal hegemony of the Western nation-state model is a major historic victory for the statesmen, especially Anglo-American statesmen, who built first the League of Nations and then the United Nations, and who successfully established a post-WWII world order largely conforming to their ideological vision of how mankind should be politically organized. Though Woodrow Wilson’s career ended in humiliating failure when the US Congress failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty, leaving the US outside the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson is probably the single most important intellectual influence on the modern geopolitical order, which attempts to embody the principle of national self-determination that he propounded.

The world was definitely not organized on the basis of national self-determination in 1914. For one thing, there was great freedom of migration. Though some border controls existed, e.g., at Ellis Island, where a small proportion of would-be immigrants were sent back for medical reasons, it was possible for most people to go migrate into and out of the leading nations of the world without passports or visas. If it is part of national sovereignty to control citizenship and residency in a nation’s territorial boundaries, as is often alleged, the nations of the world in 1914 did not enjoy, or at any rate did not exercise, effective national sovereignty. Furthermore, most of the surface of the globe at that time was governed not by nation-states, but by large transnational empires. Among these, there was a distinction between dynastic empires ruling over large landed territories containing ethnically varied peoples all subject to the same monarch, and colonial empires in which a “mother country” with an independent national life ruled over overseas territories inhabited by peoples who were definitely considered to be at a lower civilizational level, and with whom the mother country’s historic contacts, usually commercial in nature, had begun much more recently, during the European Age of Exploration. Of the dynastic empires, the leading examples were the Austrian Habsburg empire and the tsarist Russian Empire under the Romanov dynasty; China and the Ottoman Empire were other examples. Of the colonial empires, the leading examples were the British, French, and Dutch empires, though the Portuguese and Spanish empires, dissolved well before 1914, had helped to establish the pattern for this kind of colonialism. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination, though initially directed mainly against the dynastic empires, was also inimical to the colonial empires, and the dissolution of most of the dynastic empires in the immediate aftermath of World War I and of the colonial empires after World War II both represent victories for Woodrow Wilson’s idea.

Many reasons can be suggested for the long-run success of Woodrow Wilson’s geopolitical reorganization of the world. Obviously, US military power is one major factor. The US remained potentially the largest military power in the interwar years, and became the world’s largest actual military power during and after World War II, as it remains to this day. Indeed, the military preponderance of the US only increased after the fall of the Soviet Union and may have been at a historic peak at the time of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But the US did not exactly march out and impose its geopolitical vision on the world. It didn’t join the League of Nations and turned isolationist during the interwar years, except for a few interventions in the Western hemisphere. It joined World War II in self-defense after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war. That said, the US needn’t have prioritized the European theater, and the energetic war it waged in western Europe probably reflected sympathy for its democratic allies in Europe and pursuit of its principles of justice and right, more than national self-interest. Moreover, the US aided Britain and blockaded Japan before it was officially at war. From WWII on, US military power was deployed worldwide, but often in ways not particularly consistent with Wilsonian principles. Thus, in WWII, the US was the ally of two empires, and after the war, the US connived at the Soviet conquest of eastern Europe. In the Cold War, the US often made “realist” (i.e., cynical) alliances with authoritarian regimes, violating Wilson’s slogan of “making the world safe for democracy.” Wilsonian principles remained the goal, however. The US preferred to ally itself with democratic nation-states when it could, and US backing made it possible for some of these, especially in Europe and East Asia, to flourish in a security which they lacked the military strength to obtain for themselves.

While the military power of the US, and its persistent bias in favor of democratic nation-states, was an important factor in the triumph of Wilsonian ideals, it would have had little impact had these ideals not enjoyed widespread appeal. Why did national self-determination (first) and national sovereignty (later) enjoy significant global support? For that matter, why did Americans pretty consistently want to reorganize the world this way? For Americans, national sovereignty was partly a projection of their own political model worldwide. Americans believed in democracy; democracy is “rule of the people;” so there must be a “people” to do the ruling, and if universal democracy is to be established, the world must first be organized into peoples. It didn’t seem possible to democratize a polity like the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Habsburgs, the only basis for the unity of which was the historic rights of a certain dynasty. The irony was that America itself had never been a nation in the same sense as were the “nations” which it now sought to invest with rights of self-determination. It was a polity first, then a nation. North America was the ancestral homeland of almost none of its people, certainly not of the people who had founded the polity and given it its distinctive character, and since its founding the United States had attracted large populations of immigrants from all over Europe, with their own languages which they largely forgot in favor of English, with their own religions and holidays and cuisines which they often kept. America interpreted itself as a democratic nation-state, and the democratic nation-state model as the peculiar American best practice which it should now export to a benighted world. But this was only one among many ways that Americans could have learned from their own history. They might have sought to export the ideas of natural rights and freedom of religion and conscience instead. But freedom was not fashionable at the time. Jonah Goldberg has plausibly argued that Woodrow Wilson’s regime in the United States was literally a fascist dictatorship. Both racist/nationalist and socialist ideas were in their heyday, and probably conditioned Americans’ reading of their own history. That may be why Wilson’s slogan was “make the world safe for democracy,” and not, alas, “make the world safe for freedom.” At any rate, the rest of the world seems to have bought into Wilson’s ideas partly for the same reason Americans themselves did: because they saw the success of the United States, and thought it was worth emulating, and interpreted it as an illustration of the virtue of democracy, and by extension of the nation-state with a well-defined people who could rule themselves democratically.

Wilson’s ideas spread quickly. Lenin and the Bolsheviks declared their support for national self-determination early, and Wilson’s Fourteen Points were arguably even written as a response to Lenin, who had committed the Bolsheviks to national self-determination. This may seem like the purest hypocrisy, given that the Bolsheviks ruthlessly restored Russian domination over various subject peoples, and the Soviet Union later conquered eastern Europe and imposed satellite regimes there, so that the collapse of Soviet power in 1989-91 was a victory for national self-determination against Soviet imperialism. But there was nonetheless some truth to the Bolshevik claim to favor national self-determination. The Soviet Union was organized internally on a national basis, with the various “republics,” such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and so forth, being given roughly national borders, retaining and consolidating historic languages, and allowing them a limited national life. Later, eastern Europe was not simply annexed. Rather, satellite states were imposed. Henry Kissinger, in his book Diplomacy, argues that the English were genuinely converted to Wilson’s ideas about “collective security”– his preferred mechanism for preventing international aggression, to replace the pre-WWI “balance of power”– in the 1920s. Wilson’s ideas encouraged nationalism irredentism in various places, starting with Italy, and later, importantly, in Germany. Hitler’s early successes, including the annexation of the Rhineland and the annexations of the Sudetenland and Austria, were justifiable, and were justified, in terms of national self-determination, and were tolerated and even abetted by the British and French “appeasers” partly for that reason. The Nazi slogan Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer– “one people, one state, one homeland”– was a spin on the idea of national self-determination. The apartheid regime in South Africa made creative use of the idea of national self-determination by declaring certain regions within South Africa “homelands” of native peoples, recognizing their “sovereignty,” and then denying them full rights in the newly defined republic of South Africa itself. Historian Paul Johnson has noted that South Africa under apartheid was a sort of microcosm of the world, and whatever he meant by it, he was right in that the world order today, like South Africa under apartheid, uses sovereignty as a pretext for segregating a privileged, mainly white, elite, from the impoverished and oppressed masses. National self-determination was inherently connected to racism, since “race” and “nation” are historically almost synonyms, between which the United States has managed to drive a wedge with the help of its own peculiar history, though even in the United States, that unique post-national nation, the recognition of equal citizenship for nonwhite peoples is a recent development.

But the most important motive of all for the establishment of the new geopolitical order was peace, or more precisely, solving the problem of international war. World War I had delegitimized war. It was too horrific a sacrifice, and too obviously useless. It was no longer respectable to regard major wars between major powers in a romantic light, and desire them in a spirit of adventure, as had been common before World War I. World War I also largely delegitimized the entire pre-war political order, leaving a legitimacy vacuum, into which the United States breathed new ideas. Wilson’s vision for world peace failed catastrophically on the first attempt. The League of Nations provided a pretext for naivete on the part of the great powers, then failed to stop any of the new aggressions of the 1930s. But the second iteration of the Wilsonian vision, the United Nations-led world order that was formed after WWII, was far more successful. The post-WWII decades, in spite of the long tension of the Cold War, has been unprecedentedly peaceful. There were no head-to-head conflicts between major powers, and while there were some proxy wars, the worst of these were one or two orders of magnitude less bloody than WWII. Conscription was eventually abolished, and dying in war became a negligible risk for those born to rich countries. War became a phenomenon largely restricted to poorer and more backward parts of the world, and even there it rarely took the form of a contest for territory between hostile states. The 1991 Gulf War, in which an enormous US-led coalition under the auspices of the UN forced Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, confirmed the emergence of a new world order in which the “sanctity” of “sovereign” borders was safeguarded by a credible threat of collective action. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 violated this principle, but overall, the Wilsonian world order has for the last few decades been stunningly successful in mitigating the historic scourge of international war.

A few contradictions within the Wilsonian vision are worth mentioning. First, there is a conflict between national self-determination and national sovereignty. National sovereignty cannot really be established until national self-determination has atrophied, just as monarchy cannot really be established until the opportunities to make oneself a monarch have been closed off. A sovereign nation enjoys secure dominance within a given territory. Its dominance cannot be secure if sections of that territory enjoy a right to secede. This leads to hypocrisy, in that nations continually evoke national self-determination in their own bids for independence and then repress movements favoring secession from themselves. Of course, in a mythical world where nationality was an essential, necessary, and unambiguous part of each human being’s identity, and people of the same nationality naturally lived in contiguous territories and in harmony with each other, then this problem would not arise. Nationalism was a potent ideology in the late 19th century and may have induced some people to imagine that the world really was like that, while today some such myth seems to propagate itself through a lazy-minded reading of maps and simplistic analogies that assume a Zambian’s Zambianness and a German’s Germanness and an American’s Americanness must fill the same niche in people’s identities. But in the real world, nationality is a far more protean, fissiparous, varied, and even inessential and superfluous phenomenon, so nationality can’t really provide a rational basis for the definition of borders partitioning the entire landed surface of the globe. Many of the world’s borders are quite arbitrary, and alien to the consciousness of the peoples on whom the Wilsonian geopolitical order has imposed them.

While the Wilsonian order has seen a welcome decline in international war, it has also seen an explosion of global economic inequality, as some countries have remained at subsistence level and may have even seen their living standards fall, while others, home to a small minority of the world’s population, have seen continual economic growth leading to unprecedented affluence. The Wilsonian order has not mitigated, and may even have exacerbated, the problem of civil war. Indeed, one of the special scourges of the 20th century– ethnic cleansing and genocide– seems to have taken its cue directly from the new ascendancy of the nation-state as a political ideal, which makes national minorities an intolerable anomaly, to which their expulsion or extermination is the only solution, though they may have coexisted peacefully with the majority nationality for centuries when nationality had not been rendered politically important by prevailing ideas of governmental legitimacy. Thus the Turks massacred the Armenians and the Greeks and Turks expelled each other, the Germans killed the Jews and then the Czechs and Poles expelled the Germans, a million died in the Partition of the British Raj, on religio-national lines, into India and Pakistan, Indians were expelled from Uganda in Africa, the Hutus murdered the Tutsis, Yugoslavia fragmented in bloody disarray along religio-national lines, and so on. Wilson’s dream of making the world safe for democracy had an ironic triumph in the fact that almost all the world’s countries now call themselves democracies, and hold elections, but without freedom, which Wilson neglected, this kind of “democracy” is fictitious, with rigged elections, suppression of opposition parties, a subservient state-run press, and so forth. And of course, “national sovereignty” protects dictators from the intervention of foreigners who, whatever their faults, are often more liberal-minded. Germany and Japan had the good fortune to be reconstructed by America, since they forfeited their national sovereignty temporarily by launching an aggressive war, so they are prosperous democracies, but elsewhere the conduct of powerful Western states is conditioned by the peculiarly modern idea that it is somehow right for them to tolerate the misrule of regimes deplored alike by the West and by their own subjects, and which the West could easily overthrow.

What relation there is, if any, between the “sanctity” of borders with respect to international war and foreign interference, and the closure of borders with respect to international migration, is not clear. Chronologically, the sanctity of borders in both these senses dates to about the same time. Universal passport regimes were established in World War I, and stayed in place thereafter, at about the same time that Wilsonian norms were being embraced as the new desideratum of international relations. The freedom of states from foreign interference and their right to regulate international migration, though logically separable, seem conceptually related.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

12 thoughts on “The modern borders regime was designed to secure international peace”

  1. I may misunderstand your argument, but it sounds as if you think Wilson came up with “national self-determination” as a new principle and exported it to the world. And that in turn resulted in the demise of open borders. I don’t think that is true. America was a late-comer to these ideas which had been common in Europe for at least a century.

    According to the Wikipedia page the word “national self-determination” itself is a translation of the German “Selbstbestimmungsrecht der Völker”. In your overview you leave out countries in whose establishment such ideas played a large role, e. g. in the unification of Italy in 1861, the unification of Germany in 1871, the independence of countries in the Balkans, such as Romania or Bulgaria in 1878. And you can go back even further, to the revolutions of 1848 where national self-determination was viewed as a major goal. Or Greek independence in 1822 and the various Polish uprisings from 1830 on, or Irish nationalism, and maybe as a precursor even the French Revolution. Pretty much any ethnic group in Central and Eastern Europe had some version of it by the late 19th century. Thinkers who had a hand in these ideas were e. g. Fichte in Germany or Garibaldi and Mazzini in Italy.

    At the same time, Germany had open borders from 1867 to 1885, cf. John Torpey: The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. So the relationship of national self-determination and open borders seems to be somewhat more complicated.

  2. Thanks Hansjorg, good points. Rereading the post, yes, I did overemphasize the American role, and the role of Wilson in particular, and might have given the impression, which is certainly false, that national self-determination wasn’t an influential idea prior to 1914. I’ve edited the chapter (not the post) somewhat to better convey this. Certainly aspirations to national self-determination were widespread in Europe throughout the later decades of the 19th century, and even before. Yet it is nonetheless the case that in 1914 only a small part of mankind lived in nation-states of which they could regard themselves as both citizens and nationals. In spite of German and Italian unification and several other events tending to alter the map of Europe and make it somewhat more conformable to the ideal of national self-determination, most of the human race, and most of the surface of the earth, was ruled by multinational empires before World War I. And however important the thinkers and histories of Germany, Italy, and elsewhere were, it seems to me that America’s prominent role in promoting a world order based on national self-determination leading to national sovereignty was a crucial turning point, so that a century after WWI began, the whole world is organized into juridically equal sovereign nation-states. Is that correction of emphasis sufficient to establish agreement, or do we differ more substantively?

    1. Thanks for your reply. I agree that Wilson’s 14 points were a game-changer, but only in legitimizing and putting the force of the US government behind what would have happened anyway, namely the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires along ethnic lines and the re-establishment of an independent Polish state.

      National self-determination appealed to all sides because the idea had been around for such a long time. However, the problem with it was and is that everybody thinks only of their own self-determination, and with mixed populations throughout Central and Eastern Europe that meant reality had to fit fictitious pure “nations” via “population transfers”, ethnic cleansing, suppression and forced assimilation of minorities. After you have battled that out, you may have rather undisputed borders, but only with incredible carnage on all sides. It was perhaps meant to secure international peace, but its effect was different.

      I like the older model much better where “the people” is individual people and not a collective “das Volk” (although the word had and has also the former meaning in German, though overshadowed by the latter). I would associate that with the US or Switzerland. The contribution of Fichte and the like seems at best dubious to me, or even desastrous.

  3. Well, I don’t think it’s clear that all that “would have happened anyway.” For one thing, without American intervention, I think Germany and Austria would have won World War I, and they would not have wanted to implement national self-determination. And if America had joined the war and clinched an Allied victory but had a very different agenda for the peace, very different settlements were possible. The Russian empire had already been beaten by Germany and plunged into revolution, so it couldn’t have been restored in its former state, and the Austro-Hungarian empire was probably too far gone to hold together, but the German empire was plenty strong enough to hold onto its wartime gains in the East if the Allies had seen fit to recognize them.

    For example, suppose France had insisted on keeping Alsace-Lorraine and on getting reparations from Germany, and America and Britain had backed that demand, but to appease Germany for these losses, they had allowed it to annex Austria and the Sudetenland, and to keep the Polish corridor, while demanding, as the price for this generosity, that Germany surrender all its overseas possessions to a new American Empire, and contribute a large military contingent to an Allied effort to suppress the revolution in Russia and restore the tsars. Britain would demand no reparations but would be forgiven its war debt to the US instead, plus a favorable American attitude towards its acquisition of territory in the collapsing Ottoman Empire. In planning its strategy against Russia, Germany would be given considerable deference if it felt it needed to influence border questions and/or regime composition in the successor states of the disintegrating Austrian empire. America, rather than going home at once, would remain involved for a few years in several wars further east, against such players as the Russian revolutionaries and Kemal Ataturk, ending in a kind of loose dominance by the Western democracies, with a somewhat humbled but also somewhat empowered Germany as their most influential subordinate, holding a line against Islam and Bolshevism running from the Baltics through a German-dominated Mitteleuropa through the Balkans and a newly expanded Greater Greece, while most of the rest of the world was ruled by British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and now American colonial empires.

    Don’t you think that some such settlement would have been every bit as feasible as the one that took place at Versailles? The reason the Allies imposed national self-determination was that they, and above all Wilson, believed it was right. National self-determination had certainly been around for a while, but so had the Hohenzollern and Habsburg dynasties; so had colonial empires; so had realpolitik. National self-determination had genuine and widespread appeal, but so did other forces, and there’s no reason to think it would have triumphed on its own without the legitimization and power backing of the democratic allies and especially the United States. Indeed, the history of the Third Reich may be taken as an illustration of how little the Wilsonian new order in Europe was a naturally self-sustaining equilibrium without the active support of the United States. Outside Europe, it didn’t even begin to be established until after World War II, when it had the backing, more or less, of the UN-led world order and both the superpowers, yet it still took a couple of decades to get established.

    Contra your assertion, I think the Wilsonian order does seem to have been very successful in preventing *international* war, which dropped off dramatically after World War II. I agree with you that it led to a whole lot of carnage, but since WWII at least, this has usually taken the form of ethnic cleansing and civil war and genocide rather than international war. I agree with you that the shift in emphasis from individual liberty to the “freedom” in the sense of democracy of “peoples” conceived in a nationalist sense is unfortunate.

    1. Interesting scenarios. I am a little tired right now, so first only some thoughts. I will have to think about it more and will get back to you. And I have to admit that my knowledge of WWI is not as good as of other periods.

      My remark “it would have happened anyway” had a much more limited scope. I was thinking of a scenario where everything would have been the same, except that Wilson had not postulated his 14 points and insisted on them to a certain extent. The 14 points played a role in convincing many Germans that Germany would be treated fairly, and hence they made surrender easier. So maybe without them, it would have taken a little longer. However, the war was lost for Germany anyway. I’d think the blockade by the British navy would have achieved that all by itself.

      With even less of a role for the US, the French would have gotten their way right from the start, namely to see to it that Germany could not be a danger anymore and that the German state would be as weak as possible. So everything regarding Germany would have been the same: return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, a hand on the Rhineland, Ruhr region and the Sarre, establishment of an independent Polish state with rather a little too much territory for pure self-determination. Poland would have battled it out with the Soviets, etc. Not unlike what really happened.

      As for Austria-Hungary, it would also have been the same. To remove a potential ally for Germany would have been a major goal, and what better way than to split up Austria-Hungary along the faultlines. So Austria and Hungary would have ended up rather a little too small for pure self-determination, as they did. The rest of Austria-Hungary would have broken up along ethnic lines and also based on a somewhat biased principle of national self-determination because that was already the standard argument in the region without Wilson: Czechoslovakia, an expanded Serbia as Yugoslavia, annexation of mostly Hungarian and German parts by Romania, expansion of Italy.

      Wilson’s 14 points came very late, only in early 1918. So they could not change the dynamics a lot. Only perhaps encourage those who would have needed no encouragement anyway. I’d view the 14 points as a noble attempt to get on top of the stupidity of the continental powers. I don’t think the US was in a position to play as large a role as you envision. The US was a smaller country then with only about 100 million in population.

      And then “national self-determination” looks fine from above, but on the ground with mixed populations it is a formula for disaster. This stems from the premise of the nation state that states should correspond to ethnic groups (or “nations”). Since that is hardly ever possible, it leads to a kind of “nation building” where minorities are not allowed and either have to be assimilated (and since they hardly do this voluntarily, by force), expulsed or exterminated.

      Why it worked so much better after World War II? The common threat of Communism was part of it. Then the French were much wiser and had the greatness to avoid another round of “heriditary enmity.” But I think the main reason was that the Germans had to learn it the hard way. After WWI it might have looked like you could win the next war, after WWII you could be as stupid as you wanted, all you had to do is look around and see that, no, it would not work. And I think the US and Americans on an individual level did a splendid job (sorry, all American libertarians who can only see the blunders of American foreign policy). I don’t think that national self-determination had much to do with it.

  4. I usually see the modern nation-state system described as having its origins in the Peace of Westphalia that marked the close of the Thirty Years’ War. This is why the current international arrangement is often called the Westphalian world order or some such. But I think you’re right that this was really cemented at the end of the First World War.

    I think an interesting upshot of your post is that you can invert the commonly trotted out idea that open borders (or a presumption in favor of free movement) is a dangerous new thing that risks corrosion of cherished national institutions like the welfare state. Instead it is this newer Westphalian or Wilsonian idea that has corroded the freedom of movement of individuals.

  5. I’d say that the peace of Westphalia established the modern sovereign state, which might also be called the Hobbesian state, since it is pretty well described in Hobbes’ Leviathan. The Wilsonian world order substituted ethnic nationalism and democracy for dynastic monarchy as the reigning principle of legitimacy. Yes, history is useful in that it mitigates the radicalism of open borders and puts it in perspective. Open borders advocates are reactionaries as much as revolutionaries.

  6. @ Paul and Nathan: I totally do not get your point (or points).

    In my view, the nation state has only been a “success” in as much as it has been successful to prevail. I’d think the older model (as in the US or in Switzerland) is far superior which does not try to achieve congruity with a “nation”, but only with “the people” as individual human beings whatever their ethnic affiliations are. Even Austria-Hungary was not per se worse than the nation states of its time, e. g. Poles were in a better position there than in Germany. My criticism with regard to Austria-Hungary would not be that it was multiethnic, but (along the lines of Ludwig von Mises) that the state was too intrusive and could be used as a tool to suppress other groups and set them against each other.

    Historically, the nation state could go along with open borders (e. g. in Germany from 1867-1885 to some extent). However, the concept of a nation state as a country with a uniform culture has a tension with open borders and liberty more general, as it does not allow for what people want to do voluntarily which may lead to different cultures on a territory that is claimed for just one.

    Under global borders you would certainly see that the delineations between different ethnic groups would move in ways that do not conform to some lines in the sand. And it would also probably lead to patchworks and mixed regions like you had all over Europe before the nation states bulldozed them away. Maybe such a pattern has some inherent problems (as is often claimed), but in my view mostly if you cross it with nation states that already reject such a situation on a basic level, and have a dynamic to make uniform what has to be uniform by assumption. In some cases, that may work out voluntarily, but if not, the “solutions” are all rather unappealing.

  7. I promised to get back to your counterfactual. I’d say that with a good counterfactual you change a few things and see how this impacts everything else. Kind of: What would have happened if railways had not been invented?

    In my view, the problem with your alternative scenario is that you have to alter reality at every step, a lot and for most countries involved. Just a few things, you write:

    “For example, suppose France had insisted on keeping Alsace-Lorraine and on getting reparations from Germany, and America and Britain had backed that demand, but to appease Germany for these losses, they had allowed it to annex Austria and the Sudetenland,”

    I guess there was not that much interest in Germany to annex Austria and the Sudetenland, which had always been Austrian. The interest was more from the other side. The constitution of Austria established Austria as a part of Germany, but that was blocked already in 1919 with the treaty of Saint Germain. In 1921 there were referenda in parts of Austria which resultated in 99% approval for accession to Germany. Again that was blocked. Contrary to national self-determination the Sudeten Germans were not allowed to accede to Austria. So you would have to assume that all Allied powers had pursued a different course.

    “and to keep the Polish corridor,”

    I guess that was not negotiable for Poland. With a potentially hostile Germany you would want access to the Baltic sea. In Upper Silesia, Poland simply occupied the territories it wanted and that was then sanctioned by the other powers. Probably that would have happened also with the corridor. Poland was strong enough to battle the Soviets. I can’t see how the Allied powers could have stopped them, especially, if they wanted to wage war with the Soviet Union at the same time as you assume below.

    “while demanding, as the price for this generosity, that Germany surrender all its overseas possessions to a new American Empire,”

    Were there any plans in such a direction? I have never heard of anything like that. The former German colonies had been taken over by the Allied powers already early on in WWI (1915/1916), so there wasn’t anything to surrender.

    “and contribute a large military contingent to an Allied effort to suppress the revolution in Russia and restore the tsars.”

    In 1918, the Germans were no more willing to fight. The German revolution broke out when the troops started to mutiny. Most Germans supported parties who wanted to topple the Tsar, so now they would have had to turn around and restore him to power.

    “Britain would demand no reparations but would be forgiven its war debt to the US instead, plus a favorable American attitude towards its acquisition of territory in the collapsing Ottoman Empire.”

    Which happened anyway as far as I can tell. Britain was the superpower of the day, and so it did not really need a sanction from the US.

    “In planning its strategy against Russia, Germany would be given considerable deference if it felt it needed to influence border questions and/or regime composition in the successor states of the disintegrating Austrian empire.”

    German politicians had not been interested in the Balkans because they knew what that meant for Austria-Hungary. Bismarck once remarked that getting involved in the Balkans was not worth the bones of a single soldier. The intended German sphere of influence was “to the East” in a direction of Poland, the Baltic states, Russia..

    “America, rather than going home at once, would remain involved for a few years in several wars further east, against such players as the Russian revolutionaries and Kemal Ataturk,”

    The US was not the superpower it would later become. Its population was only on a par with the European powers individually.

    “ending in a kind of loose dominance by the Western democracies, with a somewhat humbled but also somewhat empowered Germany as their most influential subordinate, holding a line against Islam and Bolshevism running from the Baltics through a German-dominated Mitteleuropa through the Balkans”

    The concern with Islam is pretty modern. Turkey had been Germany’s ally in WWI, so you have to assume a complete turnaround.

    The direction of French politics at the time was to weaken Germany as much as possible. In your scenario Germany would have come out of WWI even stronger than before.

    “and a newly expanded Greater Greece,”

    Atatürk alone could see to it that that did not come to pass.

    “while most of the rest of the world was ruled by British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and now American colonial empires.”

    All in all, you have to change so many things to make such a scenario possible that it is hard to tell whether it is not the many assumptions that yield the results. I don’t think everything had to happen like it did, but my impression is that there was far less room for alternatives than you assume.

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