Diplomacy Between the Wars: Five Diplomats and the Shaping of the Modern World

January 29, 2009

The title might suggest another run through the crises and treaties between the wars as the cast changes from the plenipotentiaries at Versailles in their top hats to the great dictators and the man with the umbrella. Instead, this is a study of the careers and influence of five diplomats who, apart from Ismet Inonu, Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs and then its President, can be described as lesser-known men. The names of Lewis Einstein, Sir Horace Rumbold, Count Johann von Bernstorff and Count Carlo Sforza will not be known to many.

What links them is a common outlook and approach to diplomacy. They can all be described as professional diplomats, although again Inonu fits uneasily into the category. Often aristocratic by birth, but invariably by taste, our man in Constantinople or Berlin and theirs in London had an influence on international relations beyond merely communicating their masters' wishes. Based for many years in foreign capitals, they understood the complications of disputes and had vast local knowledge. Patriots untainted by the fever of nationalism, they pursued their countries' interests, but realised that if the balance of power was to be preserved, this had to be done within limits.

Einstein, an American scholar-diplomat and anglophile, never held a post higher than ambassador to Czechoslovakia and later lived mainly in England. But, via his writing and contacts, he exercised considerable (though perhaps not quite enough) influence. His proposals for US aid to Europe in 1919 and for the containment, rather than appeasement, of Germany in 1933 foreshadowed the Marshall Plan and the policy successfully advocated by his admirer George Kennan for the Soviet Union after the Second World War.

Rumbold is best known for his prediction, made while in his last post in Berlin, that Germany would be ready for war in the East by 1939 or 1940. Bernstorff opposed Germany's pre-1914 naval programme and, as Germany's ambassador to the US until 1917, fought to preserve US-German relations by urging his Government not to launch unrestricted U-boat warfare.

Sforza, like Bernsdorff, was a patriot opposed to his country's extravagant nationalist policies, and sought to further Italian interests without incurring the implacable hostility of neighbouring states. Both Bernsdorff and Sforza were eventually impelled to live in exile, although Sforza played a role in Italy's reconstruction after Mussolini's fall.

Turkey figures large in this book owing to three factors: the inclusion of Inonu as one of the five case studies; the fact that all the other four diplomats served at some time in Constantinople; and that the Treaty of Lausanne, of all the post-First World War treaties, has stood the test of time. Inonu, a tough negotiator, was a realist who sought durable boundaries for the new state, while Rumbold disregarded orders from London that could have resulted in war. Lausanne was a diplomatic success, although it rested upon the "ethnic cleansing" that produced clear boundaries between Greece and Turkey. Thanks to Inonu's moderation and to Lausanne, the rest of the 20th century was a period of peace and progress for Turkey.

Liebmann's thesis will not be welcomed by those who give more than two cheers for democracy, believe that all international problems are capable of solution or think that international law and organisations are the answer to the world's problems. He makes a powerful case for realistic and informed diplomacy guided by professionals.

Diplomacy Between the Wars: Five Diplomats and the Shaping of the Modern World

By George W. Liebmann. I. B. Tauris, 288pp, £47.00. ISBN 9781845116378. Published 28 August 2008

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