Anatomy of a Diplomatic Failure

Philip Zelikow's "The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917" shows just how hard it is to end wars - even when that's what everyone wants

Philip Zelikow’s The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917 offers a compelling case that active American diplomacy could have brought the First World War to a negotiated end in the last months of 1916 and first months of 1917. Zelikow – former executive director of the 9/11 Commission and counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as a distinguished academic – provides a lively and concise account of the failed diplomacy of 1916 and early 1917 from American, British, and German perspectives.

At a time when the Biden administration strives to bring brutal conflicts around the world - and in the Middle East in particular - to negotiated ends through diplomacy, Zelikow gives us a timely reminder that wanting diplomacy to succeed does not make it so. It’s a must-read for all those truly interested in ending wars and resolving conflicts in places like Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan via negotiated settlements.

As Zelikow recounts, a brief window in which the United States could have helped negotiate a diplomatic settlement to the First World War came and went in the final months of 1916. Great Britain, for one, faced financial strains throughout the year as the UK Treasury and its American financiers resorted to increasingly intricate financial maneuvers to keep Britain and its allies afloat.

Matters first came to a head in early 1916, when Britain’s war cabinet debated whether or not to pursue a negotiated peace via the then-neutral United States and President Woodrow Wilson. Instead, they chose to gamble on a summer offensive on the Western Front that would become one of the bloodiest battles in British military history: the Battle of the Somme. After this failed offensive and continued deterioration of the country’s financial position, Britain’s political and military once again debated whether to encourage American mediation of the conflict.

At the same time, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Holweg – the head politician in Imperial Germany’s convoluted and often authoritarian political and governance structures – pried open a window for diplomacy. If there’s any one hero of Zelikow’s story, it’s Bethmann. Indeed, Zelikow clearly admires the German chancellor and his attempt to reach a diplomatic conclusion to the war. After all, Bethmann did manage to carve out domestic political space for a potential negotiated settlement with Britain and its allies in the second half of 1916. 

Like Great Britain and France – whose perspective remains curiously minimal in Zelikow’s account, refracted largely through American and British diplomatic reports – Germany felt the consequences of continued fighting. Beyond horrendous losses on the battlefield, Germany and its allies were subjected to a quite effective blockade enforced by Britain and its Royal Navy. Combined with the conscription of farmers and appropriation of national resources for military use, the blockade produced widespread hunger among the civilian populations of Germany and its European allies.

Both Germany and Britain felt the strain of two years of industrial war, and both looked to the United States to kickstart a diplomatic process that would bring the war to what both sides saw as an “inconclusive” end. Through diplomats and intermediaries like Wilson’s close political associate Edward House, both Britain and Germany signaled that they would accept a settlement in which Germany would pull out of Belgium and much of occupied France – effectively restoring the pre-war status quo, with some adjustments to be negotiated at a peace conference. But neither Berlin nor London felt they could make the first move, and both relied on President Wilson to call for conferences that would both end the war and build a postwar security system.

For his part, Wilson felt compelled to hold off on any diplomatic offensive until after the U.S. presidential election that November. Once re-elected, though, Zelikow argues persuasively that Wilson moved without any real sense of urgency or purpose. Personally inexperienced in the art of diplomacy and lacking an effective foreign policy bureaucracy, Wilson wasted precious weeks and months with a series of ineffectual diplomatic statements that only confused British and German officials. As 1916 gave way to 1917, German military leaders won Berlin’s internal policy debates and received authorization from Kaiser Wilhelm II to begin a full-scale U-boat campaign in the Atlantic – a disastrous strategic miscalculation that set Imperial Germany on a collision course with the United States and precipitated American intervention in the war on the side of the Allies.

Zelikow places primary blame for the closure of this window to bring World War I to a negotiated conclusion on Wilson’s maladroit diplomacy, compounded by a good deal of German strategic blindness in courting war with an America whose power its military leaders grievously underestimated. But there are more general lessons to be drawn from Zelikow’s account, lessons that bear directly on contemporary American efforts to end conflicts through diplomacy.

  1. Good intentions aren’t enough. As Zelikow makes clear, Wilson wanted desperately to broker peace in Europe and as a result keep America out of the war. Likewise, policymakers in Berlin and London both felt that their nations were reaching the limits of their capacities to make war and achieve their strategic objectives at acceptable cost. But in each case, the intention to reach a negotiated settlement to the war wasn’t enough. Neither Britain nor Germany wanted to be seen as making the first move toward talks, understanding that outreach would be taken as a sign of weakness. To make the first move, they instead relied on an American president who did not know how to carry out the necessary diplomacy. It’s not hard to see this dynamic play out today in Yemen, where both the Biden administration and the Saudi monarchy each for their own reasons want to bring external intervention in the country’s multiple conflicts to an end. But they can’t do so through good intentions alone.

  2. Battlefield results matter. Military conditions on the ground make negotiated settlements possible – and the prospect of decisive military action that promises to “win the war” undermines diplomacy. By the second half of 1916, political leaders in Britain, France, and Germany were all looking for some sort of diplomatic settlement to the First World War. British leaders had debated negotiations early in the year before taking their chances on the battlefield; failing to improve their military position, they re-examined the diplomatic option later that year. Likewise, Germany’s political leaders saw stalemate on the Western Front as the costs of the British blockade rose. But German military leaders believed they possessed a decisive, war-winning weapon in the U-boat – and successfully pressed to use it. Just like the Houthis in Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Assad regime in Syria today, Imperial Germany ultimately felt a military solution was possible.

  3. Leverage needs to be directed toward specific, concrete ends. One of the more fascinating incidents Zelikow recounts involves President Wilson leaning on the Federal Reserve following his re-election to warn financiers against more war loans to Britain. But this move wasn’t tethered to any particular demand on Britain or its war policies; instead, it seems to have been meant to convey Wilson’s general displeasure with British policy. In applying financial pressure to Britain and, by extension, the Allies with no specific goal or end in mind, Wilson squandered America’s enormous leverage over Britain. That’s perhaps the element of Zelikow’s narrative that’s most relevant to U.S. foreign policy debates today, with many advocates of using the leverage of American security assistance to express official displeasure with the policies and actions of countries like Israel and Egypt. Absent a clear and concrete ask from the United States, however, it’s unlikely that this leverage will produce much in the way of actual results. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that the United States has the same sort of leverage over these countries that it did over Britain in 1916 and 1917 – Israel, for instance, appears far less dependent on U.S. security assistance today than it was in decades past.

The Road Less Traveled reminds us that diplomacy is difficult. It can fail even with the best of intentions and when the relevant parties to a conflict want to bring it to an end. That’s reason to temper our expectations of what diplomacy can achieve in practice. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised by diplomatic success than bitterly disappointed and disillusioned by diplomatic failure. Zelikow has done a great service by bringing this forgotten episode to our attention – and warning us just how hard it can be to bring a war to an end.