"There has been no greater advance than this, gentlemen," the President of the United States said. "It is a definite guaranty of peace. It is a definite guaranty by word against aggression."
"If you look back upon the history of the world you will see how helpless peoples have too often
been a prey to powers that had no conscience in the matter... Now, the world, expressing its conscience in law, says there is an end of that."
The year was 1919. The speaker was President Woodrow Wilson and the tremendous advance in human history that he was talking up was the League of Nations.
Thirteen years later, Japan seized Manchuria and turned it into a puppet regime. China turned to the League of Nations which ordered Japan to withdraw from Manchuria. Japan instead withdrew from the League of Nations.
The United States declared that it would not recognize the new government. Japan replied that its puppet regime was "the necessary act of the local population". Five years later, Japan invaded China. China asked for help from the League of Nations. The League proved to be just as useless again.
Western sanctions against Japan were erratic. Chamberlain vowed that Britain would never submit to Japanese threats, but tacitly recognized Japan's conquests. He called Japan's repeated humiliations, "almost intolerable".
Japan told Robert Craigie, the British ambassador who urged appeasement and would go on to chair the UN War Crimes Commission, to apologize for Britain's opposition to the Japanese conquest and its acceptance of all future Japanese conquests as a pre-condition to further negotiations.
The UK had accepted the annexation of Austria and abetted the seizure of the Sudetenland. Japanese officials knew that behind British diplomacy lay not strength, but fear of provoking the rising power of the Rising Sun.
A few months before WWII, British negotiators had finally convinced the Japanese to stop stripping British subjects naked, but by then the forcible stripping of British men and women had served its purpose of stripping British power naked.
"We lived on bluff from 1920-1939, but it was eventually called," Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, wrote.
Wilson's "definite guarantee of peace" had failed miserably. International law had been exposed as magical thinking. When confronted with aggression, the diplomats who had talked boldly of ending war crawled on their bellies and proposed territorial partitions, desperately trying to appease Japan, Germany and Italy.
The end of war really meant the beginning of a self-righteous appeasement in which decadent states besotted with their own moral high ground sacrificed the weak to the strong in exchange for maintaining the moral illusion of their peacemaking.
The rhetoric of the illusionists of peace hasn’t changed. Diplomacy must be given time to work. The invaded countries brought it on themselves. The invaders have a legitimate territorial claim. Does anyone really want to die for Manchuria, the Sudetenland and Abyssinia? They didn't. Instead they ended up having to die for Hawaii, London and Paris.
Debating whether Putin is following the Hitler playbook displays a basic ignorance of history. Japan followed that same playbook in its invasion of Manchuria; a staged incident, a rapid invasion and a puppet regime. It didn't originate that playbook. It's probably as old as human history. Hitler's invasion of Poland made it notorious in a world that has managed to forget everything else that happened around that time.
The League of Nations was the successor to a 19th century organization and the men who conceived it and built it had largely been born in the 1850s and 60s. They weren't 20th century men building a better world, but 19th century men inflicting ideas that were already outdated on the modern world.
Their ideas didn't work then and they don't work now.
The bewildered responses to Russia's invasion of Ukraine are a naïve piece of theater that should have been retired in the 19th century, but somehow endures into the 21st as the lovers of peace insist on guaranteeing an end to aggression based on worthless pieces of paper that they have no intention of defending by armed force and then act surprised when their bluff is called and they frantically scramble to convince their own people that peace has been secured for our time.
Alexander Cadogan's blunt statement remains relevant today. The Pax Americana is over. We have been living on bluff and Putin called it.
Our response will be a variation on the Stimson Doctrine in which we will refuse to recognize Russia's puppet regime in Crimea, just as we refused to recognize the Soviet annexations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. There will be endless debates over whether the Ukrainians had it coming and praise for our wise leaders who kept us out of war.
Eventually war may come anyway.
The peacemakers have never been known for their honesty. When Woodrow Wilson tried to sell Americans on the League of Nations, he did it with the Pueblo Speech in which he accused opponents of the League of being disloyal foreign traitors.
"Certain bodies of sympathy with foreign nations that are organized against this great document," Wilson claimed, the great peacemaker sounding like the cheap jingoistic agitator with KKK sympathies that he really was. "Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready."
This vast hyphenated dagger conspiracy was directed at preventing Wilson from dragging the country into an international organization that would undermine national sovereignty
Switching back to imaginary progressivism, Wilson claimed that the League would work because countries would be embarrassed to invade other countries for fear of being frowned on by their neighbors.
"He will be afraid of the eyes of his neighbors. He will be afraid of their judgment of his character. He will know that his cause is lost unless he can sustain it by the arguments of right and of justice. The same law that applies to individuals applies to nations."
But foreign leaders are not part of a community of one street, instead they answer to the cultural pressures of their own societies and nations. Wilson’s expectations of decent behavior meant nothing in Berlin, Rome or Tokyo. They still mean nothing in Beijing, Moscow or Tehran.
Wilson assured everyone that China would be taken care of. "I am proud to have taken part in an arrangement which promises the protection of the world to the rights of China."
The League of Nations proved unable to protect China's rights. Only China was eventually able to do that.
International law did not protect any of the weaker nations of the world. Strong alliances did. There is no world government of the moral high ground that can substitute for alliances built on strength. International law does not stop invasions. Armed force does.
Ukraine is a reminder of the folly of putting our faith in 19th century illusions that have been discredited more times than spirit-rapping or phrenology. The only law that matters is the law of strength. The only agreements that matter are those that are kept, either through genuine friendship rooted in a shared cultural history, or the threat of force.
The illusion of international law is pervasive. It tells us that the world does not have to work the way that it really does if only we hold hands, think good thoughts and pledge to wage war no more. Its advocates pretend to be sober and sensible, but they might as well be the counterculture hippies trying to levitate the Pentagon.
There is no exit strategy from reality. The moral high ground is no substitute for battleships and peace doesn't come from pieces of paper, but from weapons and men willing to use them.
The United States did China no favors by holding out the promise of a collective security based on a common decency that had no defense against its violation except a scandalized harrumph and we have done Ukraine no favors by offering it useless pieces of paper while encouraging its disarmament.
"These men were crusaders. They were not going forth to prove the might of the United States. They were going forth to prove the might of justice and right," Woodrow Wilson said of the dead Doughboys of WWI, but the two are indivisible.
Wilson did not live long enough to discover that without the might of the United States, justice and right were easily overpowered by tyranny and evil.
American might allowed the advocates of international law to live in an imaginary world in which their doctrines and documents actually matter. And now that they have finally succeeded in tearing down American strength and ushering in a post-American world, their own world will end.
International law is a Potemkin village. A hollow facade upheld by the might of the United States. A post-American world means the end of international law.