The return of great power diplomacy

One of the original conceptions of the United Nations Organization, and the 1925 Locarno Pact, show how leading states might think about diplomacy in the new age of great power competition.

British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, right, was a key player at the Locarno Conference. Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister of Italy, sits far left.
British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, right, was a key player at the Locarno Conference. Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister of Italy, sits far left. Credit: AFP via Getty Images.

On 10 January 1946, the first meeting of the United Nations’ General Assembly was held in London’s Westminster Central Hall. Presiding over that meeting was the acting secretary-general Gladwyn Jebb, who, for the previous four years, had been responsible for leading Britain’s planning for a post-war organisation. Though he and his colleagues’ contribution to the UN had been integral, they were hardly visionary internationalists. As students of nineteenth century diplomacy and witnesses to the instability of the interwar period, they were shaped by certain fundamental assumptions about the nature of international politics and the capacity of international order. Foremost in their minds was the notion that a workable order must be calibrated to modern realities, especially concerning the interests of the major powers in the international system. Building from this, a second assumption held that a rules-based international order was not as a replacement for balance of power politics, but dependent, to a large degree, on such a balance functioning properly.

Seventy-five years on, this historical precedent offers a valuable strategic and conceptual framework in the present day, just as the consensus in the western world has settled on the perception that great power competition has ended its hiatus. The 2017 US National Security Strategy said as much when it delivered an ominous warning that ‘after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned.’ Nadia Schadlow, one of the principle authors of that strategy, has followed up with pieces in The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, both of which make similar arguments that great power competition is the natural state of affairs and that the ‘illusion’ of post-Cold War liberal internationalism has run its course. Foreign Affairs itself has commissioned countless articles on the ‘return’ of great power competition, and has asked over seventy experts the question ‘Should US Foreign Policy Focus on Great-Power Competition?’ But while many of the thinkers canvassed speak of the need to either compete directly with China or to shore up the so-called ‘liberal international order’, there has been less focus on the need to negotiate certain outstanding disputes—settlements which, if arrived at, might also herald the arrival of an international system more suited to the times.

Original conceptions of the United Nations Organization

In March 1945, the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden met with one of his former colleagues, Lord Robert Cecil, at the Foreign Office. It was just a month after the Yalta Conference where, among other fateful decisions, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to push forward with a post-war international organisation. In the weeks that followed, officials in the Foreign Office prepared for the forthcoming San Francisco Conference, where plans for the post-war organisation would be presented to forty-six nations.

The meeting in the Foreign Office marked a snapshot of some of the continuities and changes in British internationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. Lord Robert Cecil, as assistant foreign secretary in the final years of the First World War, was arguably the statesman who did the most to design the detailed structures and functions of the League of Nations. Sitting opposite him was one of his successors, Anthony Eden, who had overseen British planning for a post-war organisation throughout the war. Cecil wasted no time in expressing his reservations about the nature of the organisation that the British, Americans and Russians had agreed to in principle. Chief among these concerns was the voting system within the Security Council—an arrangement he considered ‘unjust’ as it ‘in effect made an alliance of the five powers.’ Eden was defensive in his reply, noting that the institution they planned to set up was not to be solely ‘a theoretical security organisation for the maintenance of peace.’ The relationship and the collaboration of the great powers, Eden stressed, was the lens through which the Foreign Office viewed the potential of the world organisation, and it was essential to get these powers ‘round the table’ from the start.

For nearly three years, officials working under Eden had been developing plans for what they believed would be a suitable post-war order. Conscious of history, they looked to certain precedents of ordering systems, chief among them the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century and the League of Nations which had been built on the ruins of the First World War. But where the former had been an example of great power cooperation and authority, the latter, in their eyes, had been well intentioned but imperfect in both theory and practice. Not only were great powers such as the United States and Russia outside this post-war system, but the influence of the key states within the organisation was constrained by procedure. As Gladwyn Jebb, the chief architect of the British planning machine had written in February 1944:

The League system … was about as perfect as the human mind could derive. The only trouble about it was that it wouldn’t work. The reason why it wouldn’t work was in the first place because the existing Great Powers could not agree as among themselves on certain essential things. And until we do get agreement between the World Powers on these essential things no international machine however perfect will ever work.

For Jebb and his colleagues—among them the historian of nineteenth-century British diplomacy, Professor Charles Webster—a functional international order would rely on certain essential tenets. First, was that any ordering system must be based on the ‘interplay of living forces.’ In other words, it needed to take account of changing power dynamics within the international system. Next, in the minds of British planners was a nuanced conception of a stable and prosperous international order—one that was rooted in power politics but also advocated an inclusive internationalist system. The approach, in Jebb’s words, was between ‘idealistic nonsense and stony mountains of half-baked ‘Real- and Geo-politik”’

But what did this look like in practice? For Jebb and Webster, the future international order would have as its foundation stone the post-war security organisation. But this rules-based international order would rely, in the first place, on a balance of power between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. As Jebb explained in one of the drafting papers:

Whatever ‘World Organization’ may be set up … peace is not going to be preserved unless the Big Three are in a position to cooperate. This entails a) that they must regard each other as equals b) that they pay due regard to each others ‘vital interests’. This is what is meant by the Balance of Power, and if its balance is unbalanced then trouble is bound to follow.

Ironically, it was important that these officials mask their conception of order from their principal partners in peace: the United States. At the end of the Moscow Conference in October 1943—the meeting at which the idea of a post-war organisation had first been agreed between the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union—the American Secretary of State Cordell Hull had returned home to denounce the kind of ideas British planners had in mind. Once the organisation could be erected, he said, ‘there will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power or any other of the special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests.’

Given this mindset in Washington, British planners understood they needed to tread lightly. ‘This doctrine’, one official wrote, ‘if it is ever acted on, must be most carefully concealed from the US.’ He continued, ‘“Power Politics”—“the balance of power”—“divide and rule”—are almost universally held to be both wicked and peculiarly British practices.’

Looking to the present day, these conceptions of an international order carry insight for policymakers, particularly in the United States, China, and Russia. Those American officials who champion the rules-based international order should pay special attention to the great power relationships which, if coordinated properly, might allow it to persist and function as intended. A modern concert system between the great powers, as some commentators, such as David Bosco, have called for, is imperative in some cases; but crucially, this need not exist outside of—or supersede—the United Nations. Instead, if one of the original conceptions of this international security organisation could be invoked, a concert of great powers might rest at the heart of the institution itself.

But a crucial question remains: how do we get there?

The Locarno approach

Ushering in a new era of great power diplomacy will require more than simple platitudes about ‘working together’, ‘mutual interest’, or ‘competition within a framework of cooperation.’ The gears of great power diplomacy must be moulded according to modern realities. Questions over territory and access in the South and East China seas, border disputes between China and India, and nuclear negotiations between the United States and Russia are just a few of a number of outstanding disputes in need of negotiation and piecemeal settlements. But the framework for how this is achieved is perhaps more important than the agreement itself. Great power diplomatic negotiation and settlement should have as its end the reaffirmation and the revitalisation of a concert system sat at the centre of a wider rules-based international order, one which is suited to the realities of the modern-day. To arrive at such an agreement, modern statesmen and women might look to a historical precedent from 1925.

The signing of the Locarno Treaties on 1 December of that year stands out as an important inflection point in the interwar period. In his classic The Origins of the Second World War, A.J.P. Taylor writes that Locarno ‘was the turning-point of the years between the wars. Its signature ended the first World war, its repudiation eleven years later [when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland] marked the prelude to the second.’ Meeting in Locarno, Switzerland for over ten days in October 1925, leading statesmen of the major powers of Europe agreed to resolve certain issues which had dogged their relations since the end of the First World War. For Germany, the objective was one of recovering territory lost during the Treaty of Versailles; while for France, whose security concerns continued to be dominated by fear of a revanchist Germany, protecting against future attack remained the priority. Among the agreements reached, the most important were the confirmation of Germany’s western frontiers with France and Belgium, and the promise to keep the Rhineland a demilitarised zone. To guarantee this Rhineland Pact, as it was known, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy (along with representatives from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Poland) signed a Treaty of Mutual Guarantee whereby Britain and Italy pledged to intervene on the side of the victim in the event of Franco-German aggression. At last, Germany had resolved the issue of its western borders while France had now secured a security guarantee from Britain, which it had long sought.

Central to the Locarno approach of both Britain and France, however, was that these negotiations, while taking place outside of the League of Nations, would embody its Covenant—and in effect, reaffirm the post-war international order. As the historian Zara Steiner has noted, British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain hoped to ‘re-establish the concert system based on the reconciliation of France and Germany and operating through the League of Nations.’ In what had been a precondition of the talks, Germany was admitted to the League of Nations (eventually taking its seat on the League Council in September 1926). Moreover, the series of interlocking treaties signed at Locarno, a number of which submitted states to compulsory arbitration in the event of a dispute, adopted the legal framework set out at the Paris Peace Conference.  They were, to borrow a phrase from the Locarno accords, completed ‘within the framework of the Covenant of the League of Nations.’

But while the chief negotiators believed they had delivered a watershed moment in international politics—one for which they were awarded Nobel Peace Prizes in 1925 and 1926—the majority of historians in recent decades have derided its clauses as naive and illusory. The agreements forged in Switzerland, as historian Gaynor Johnson has written, ‘were well intentioned but spectacularly failed to fulfil their purpose.’ Among a number of shortcomings was the absence of major international powers such as the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as the lack of any agreement as to Germany’s eastern frontiers, especially with Poland. Where the United Kingdom had guaranteed the western frontiers between Germany, France, and Belgium, they refused to extend a guarantee to the German-Polish frontier—a reluctance which, to Gustav Stresemann, the German foreign minister, was a promising development. Thus, even before taking into account the knock-on effects of the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler’s machinations after his rise to power in 1933, historians have argued convincingly that the terms of the Locarno treaties were inherently flawed from the start.  Although they may have secured Western Europe for a time, they gave implicit acquiescence to the future revision of Germany’s eastern borders.

By March 1936, as Nazi forces reoccupied the Rhineland, what was left of the treaties were unceremoniously eviscerated. The German leader’s denouncement of the accords—coupled with British reluctance to enforce the guarantee they had signed—marked the end of the Locarno system. But while it may be easy to denigrate the accords in hindsight, it is worth noting that their underlying motive does carry some relevance for the present period of great power politics.

Though the settlement was imperfect, it succeeded in lessening tensions on the European continent for a time, a detente which gave rise to what was described as the ‘spirit of Locarno.’ The principal statesmen of the period—Chamberlain, Stresemann and French minister Aristide Briand—operated in the months and years after the signing of the treaties in a genuine, although sometimes exclusive, air of cooperation. For a period, the statesmen of Europe looked to deliberation and negotiation, as opposed to deterrence through bilateral alliance building, as the key to ensuring peace on the continent. As Taylor writes, ‘Locarno gave to Europe a period of peace and hope… Geneva seemed to be the centre of a revived Europe: the Concert really in tune at last, and international affairs regulated by discussion instead of by the jangling of arms.’

Important, too, was the legacy of Locarno, which, despite its ultimate shortcomings, resonated with statesmen in the following decades. In May 1953, Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons about the dire state of Soviet relations with the West, and the need to begin reaching piecemeal settlements which might form the foundation of a lasting peace. ‘The Locarno Treaty of 1925 has been in my mind’, he said, adding that, ‘It was the highest point we reached between the wars.’ As Chancellor of the Exchequer in this period, Churchill had witnessed first-hand the diplomatic vision and tact of his colleague, the Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain. ‘I have a feeling that the master thought which animated Locarno might well play its part between Germany and Russia in the minds of those whose prime ambition is to consolidate the peace of Europe as the key to the peace of mankind.’

Entering a decisive moment for the future world order

Concern over the stability of the modern international system has led to varying diplomatic prescriptions, among them the need for a great power settlement or for a reform of existing international institutions. For years, the academic and writer Christopher Layne has written about the need for the United States to accommodate a rising China—an approach he likens to a policy not taken by the United Kingdom in early 1907—namely, that proposed by Lord Sanderson which advocated for the United Kingdom to incorporate Germany into the international order. Scholars Michael Mazaar and Michael Kofman have called for future American strategy to ‘confront hard choices and make painful compromises in dealing with Russia and China.’ Elsewhere, others have advocated a new framework for relations between the great powers, with some calling for an economic G2 made up of China and the United States, and others debating the benefits and drawbacks of a ‘concert’ system for the present day. David Bosco, to take one example, has even drawn from the origins of the United Nations to champion its mode of great power concert in the future.

While these approaches have their merits, a more nuanced conception—one rooted in the historical precedents discussed above—is needed. The great powers, and principally the United States, should aim at establishing a functional relationship, one that is predicated on deliberation and negotiation. This might resemble a modern concert of powers, but crucially, this should not exist outside of a rules-based international order. Instead, by taking into account some of the original conceptions of planners during the Second World War, the United Nations Security Council might be revitalised as a forum and arena for great power negotiation. Modern reform of this body, including a possible expansion of permanent members with veto power, might be considered in the future, as a way of constructing key ordering mechanisms on the ‘interplay of living forces.’

To arrive at this arrangement, the great powers of the modern period—but principally the United States and China—might work towards negotiation and settlement of certain outstanding disputes. Without speculating on the content of these agreements, they will undoubtedly involve uncomfortable concessions from opposing sides whether in the East or South China seas, the Ukraine, the Middle East or the Arctic Circle. Here the Locarno approach—as opposed to the terms of the settlement itself—serves as an important historical precedent. Beginning in 1925, Britain, France, and Germany sought to resolve through conference diplomacy pressing disputes which directly threatened peace between them. For Britain and France in particular, reaching terms outside of the League of Nations served, in this instance, as a way of buttressing the organisation and the existing rules-based international order it represented.

In the years ahead, American policymakers and commentators will speak endlessly about the need to compete with China; but if this competition is viewed as an end in itself, the tension and instability of the Cold War will return. Though some find comfort in the dichotomous, Manichean perception that this decades-long conflict evoked, they also forget the visceral terror and uncertainty it produced.

In the years after 1945, Gladwyn Jebb, whose work in helping to develop the United Nations led to him becoming the first acting-secretary general of the organisation, continued to grapple with the balance between the inescapable reality of great power politics and the desire for an international system tempered by a stable security order. As British Permanent Representative to the United Nation between 1950 and 1954, he described his approach to the increasing hostility between the Soviet Union and the Western powers:

If there is ever to be any negotiation about anything with the Stalinists, it must, I think, be on the basis of at least some give and take. Experience has taught us that in dealing with these people the great thing is to be very firm and very patient, and at the same time very strong, and that if you are all these things, the odds are on your getting what you want. But that does not mean that occasionally, in order to get what you want, you should not yield a point here or there, and incidentally the use of the United Nations machinery may make it more easy.

Similarly, for those who recognise and even encourage great power competition today, the approach should always be pursued with one eye towards forging a diplomatic understanding — ideally one forged inside the existing structures of the international system. To put it another way, if one of the objects of statecraft is to strike a balance between deterrence and diplomacy, the former must not be seen, at least from the outset, as a replacement for the latter. Deterrence—or competition—should instead be viewed as one of the principal means by which the terms of a diplomatic negotiation might be sculpted.

Leaders in Washington and Beijing—to say nothing of those in New Delhi, Brussels, London, Moscow and Tokyo—are entering a decisive moment, one which will define the nature of a future security order. At stake is an international system which will be shaped either by the contours of suspicion, or by a settled arrangement in which competition, though undoubtedly existing across economic, security and ideological dimensions, is tamed by a modern framework of understanding—one in which the principal great powers aim, in the final sense, at deliberation and negotiation as opposed to efforts based solely on deterrence.


Andrew Ehrhardt