President Obama is currently working on securing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran. In many ways, the manner in which the negotiations are being conducted is reminiscent of President Wilson’s attempt to secure the Senate's ratification of a treaty at the end of the First World War.
Almost as soon as the war began, Wilson began formulating plans for a permanent peace. This was, after all, “the war to end all wars.”
Wilson eventually called his peace plan the Fourteen Points. Most of these points can be summarized by saying that the assorted countries of the world should stop behaving like assholes and simply leave each other alone—sort of a Golden Rule kind of thing. (Such a simplistic plan would obviously never work.) While Wilson passionately believed in all of the fourteen points, he believed that the most important was the creation of the League of Nations—a precursor to today’s United Nations.
To negotiate the Versailles Treaty, Wilson went to Paris—which in itself was a huge mistake. Treaties should always be negotiated in neutral locations. Since France had lost over 4% of its population and had more than twice that number wounded, Paris hardly qualified as neutral ground.
Wilson—the first sitting president to travel to Europe—took with him several fellow members of the Democratic Party and a host of academics—this was a double mistake. (Including the latter was foolish. I’ve got nothing against academics—occasionally I’ve been accused of that crime myself—but the opinions of academics should be constrained to topics about which they know something: whining and filing bogus grievances.) This mistake was bad, but even worse: Wilson failed to take with him a single senator from the Republican Party.
Anyone can negotiate a treaty, and even sign it. I’d like to negotiate a treaty with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. The Peña-Milliorn Beer Treaty would swap two cases of Budweiser for a single case of Tecate. Ignoring the risk of Mexico's reigniting the Mexican-American War, this treaty would not become law until it was ratified by both governments, and here in the US, that means the Senate has to approve the treaty by a 2/3 vote.
Obtaining bipartisan approval of legislation is why, today, when presidents travel, the official party on Air Force One always includes members of both political parties.
Poor Wilson—in Paris he was simply outclassed. European nations brought seasoned and highly cynical diplomats. As French Premier Georges Clemenceau said, “God gave us ten commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us fourteen points. We shall see.”
Perhaps a more realistic appraisal was offered by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Referring to sitting at the conference between Wilson and Clemenceau, he said, “I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon.”
By the time Wilson returned to Washington, about the only thing left intact of the fourteen points was the provision to establish the League of Nations. Wilson had allowed the rest of the points to be eliminated one by one, but he stubbornly held on to the League, believing that whatever was wrong with the Versailles Treaty could later be repaired by the League of Nations.
This was a deeply flawed treaty, and the Senate was not at all happy with several provisions—including the League. Many senators believed that by joining, the US would inevitably be drawn into future wars. Republican Senator Lodge introduced 14 modifications to the treaty—all of which were refused by President Wilson. The disagreement quickly turned bitter and neither party would modify its position in any way.
The nation's foreign policy should always be a bipartisan cooperative effort, but both political parties behaved stupidly, turning the pending peace treaty into the major issue of the impending off year election. When the Republicans won control of the Senate, this made acceptance of the treaty even more unlikely.
President Wilson decided to take the fight directly to the American people by conducting a grueling speaking tour around the nation where the he spoke from the back of a train car at every whistle stop and crossing as he journeyed across the nation. In September of 1919, while speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, Wilson suffered a stroke and was forced to return to Washington and begin a long convalescence.
America never signed the Versailles Treaty, but officially ended the war with Germany in a separate treaty in 1921. Nor did America ever join the League of Nations, and without our participation, it never became the powerful force for peace that Wilson had envisioned. Wilson summed it up fairly well: “I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.”
Woodrow Wilson died in 1924. According to David Lloyd George, he was “as much a victim of the war as any soldier who died in the trenches.”
The current negotiation with Iran is not currently a bipartisan effort. President Obama, like Wilson, is trying to negotiate an agreement that—sooner or later—will have to be reviewed by Congress. It has been almost a hundred years since Wilson made his tragic mistake. Obama can still correct his. (Or will it be a case of "Plus ça change, plus ça même chose."?)