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On June 22nd 1941, in the largest German military operation of World War II, Hitler struck east to invade the Soviet Union. It was a big affair; over three million German soldiers and three thousand tanks. In December of that year, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Hitler declared war against the United States. The European theatre of conflict was now a global one; not the most promising of starts to 1942.
Notwithstanding its historically gargantuan proportions, the German army was stopped at the gates of Moscow in the winter of 1941, and over the course of 1942-43 Hitler lost his entire Sixth Army in the Battle of Stalingrad. Now that Germany’s war mongering fortunes were on a downward slide, the Allied leaders; Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin, could free up some headspace to start thinking about victory and the shape of the post-war world. Churchill and Roosevelt though, had entirely different shapes in mind.
Churchill envisioned a rebuilt Britain, France and Germany allied with the U.S., as a counterbalance to the unwieldy Soviet Union. Just as Putin is regarded as a political opportunist by many leaders today, so too was Stalin regarded as such by Churchill back then. Roosevelt saw the three Allied victors – U.S., Britain, and Russia, joining with China and becoming referee, judge, and jury of a new world order, while keeping an especially wary eye on Germany. Not only did Roosevelt want some form of collective security, he wanted this collective security to have enforcers who would maintain universal peace, and these enforcers would be the Four Policemen.
Roosevelt’s Four Policemen idea arose from his disappointment in the failure of the League of Nations after World War l; a failure indeed that was one of the causes of World War ll. A bit of a rag tag affair, the League of Nations did not include every nation and membership was discretionary. Decisions required that all countries agree – a rarity, and the League could not raise an army to enforce its decisions. Consequently, it was unable to prevent major incidents in the nineteen-thirties like Japan invading Manchuria, or Italy invading Ethiopia.
A little short-sighted in retrospect at any rate, Roosevelt’s Four Policemen vision rejected the idea that Russia might fill the vacuum created by a defeated Germany. He also would not entertain the possibility of post-war rivalry between the victorious allies – Britain, France, and Russia. Furthermore, Roosevelt had never been impressed with the imperialism of Britain and France. He did not simply want to curb their colonial ambitions, he wanted to dismantle the British and French colonial empires. Indeed, at the Yalta conference in 1945, he upbraided Britain for announcing its intentions to rebuild France. Astoundingly, Roosevelt included France in the same category as Germany – as one of the countries to be supervised and controlled after the war.
As early as 1942, Roosevelt had described his Four Policemen idea to Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov on a visit to Moscow. Harry Hopkins, one of Roosevelt’s closest advisors, reported this meeting in a letter to Churchill:
‘Roosevelt had spoken to Molotov of a system allowing only the great powers – Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and possibly China – to have arms. These ‘policemen’ would work together to preserve the peace.’
But as it turns out, the Four Policemen would not be the ‘boys in blue’ to deliver world order. Let’s get China out of the way first. Underdeveloped and wracked with civil war, China was in no position to be a policeman after World War ll; and anyway, would Europeans like being policed by China?
There was a flaw in Roosevelt’s logic; he mistakenly believed that Great Britain could resist Soviet expansion on its own, or, perhaps more accurately, Churchill had succeeded in convincing Roosevelt that this was the case. Either way, it was, according to Henry Kissinger, this very belief that explained Roosevelt’s post World War ll vision for Europe – American troops withdrawn, Germany disarmed, France reduced to second-class status, and a Soviet Union left with a huge Central European space to fill on its doorstep. ‘The postwar period thus turned into an exercise for teaching America just how essential it [America] was to the new balance of power,’ says Kissinger.
Of course, as we now know, the Soviet Union was not an ideal recruit to the Four Policemen. The world would soon learn that Stalin wanted to take advantage of being a victorious ally by extending Russian influence into Central Europe. He would turn conquered countries into buffer zones to protect Russia from any possible future German aggression. Always strange bedfellows, the Soviet Union was no ideological partner of Great Britain and the U.S. Now, with Hitler’s Germany out of the way, Stalin would do what Stalin wanted, regardless of his wartime allies. One of the policemen was turning aggressor, and Roosevelt had not allowed for this.
Not unlike Ireland today being stuck between Trump’s America and Brexit Britain; in 1945, Britain was stuck between two leviathans – the U.S. and Stalin’s Russia. Both threatened her position; remember that Roosevelt wanted to stop the march of British colonial expansion; remember also that Stalin wanted to move further and further into Europe, and this threatened British security. Churchill manoeuvred between them, knowing that Britain would need America after the war; he just needed to convince Roosevelt that he was not in the business of advancing British imperial interests, and very much in the business of achieving a peaceful new world order, Roosevelt style. In a game of cops and robbers it was Churchill against Stalin with Roosevelt playing the nice guy. Might a similar triangle play out between Trump, Putin, and May?
After World War ll, the geopolitical landscape was unrecognisable. Before the war there were three super powers – the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States. After 1945 an unstoppable train of independence movements whittled away so many of Britain’s colonies that she lost her super-power status. By 1947 a Cold War was freezing relations between the two super-powers left, the United States and the Soviet Union. Roosevelts plan was stuck in a gridlock of permafrost.
Of course, as we know, the political landscape of Europe would again change drastically after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, in the nineteen-nineties, schoolchildren were confronted with lots of new countries [or resurrected old ones] to learn in geography class. Filling in a blank map of Europe was now a far more difficult exercise for the unfortunate students.
Hard to believe then, that President-elect Trump might be considering the same idea as Roosevelt – aligning with Russia, maybe Britain, and perhaps China. But Churchill had better foresight than Roosevelt when it came to envisioning a post-war world order. His idea of rebuilding France and Germany as allies of Britain worked. And what about President Putin?
Just as Trump might be following in the footsteps of Roosevelt, Putin would seem to be following in the footsteps of Uncle Jo. Like Stalin, he wants to expand Russia. After World War ll, Stalin took as many Eastern European countries as he could; Putin has taken Crimea and is hankering after the rest of Ukraine. This is also eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 – let’s invade it because it is mainly populated by ethnic Germans. Hitler had plenty of help from the Sudeten Nazi Party who were demanding union with Germany and started rioting so violently that the Czechs had to send in the army.
Then German newsreels carried stories of so called Czech ‘atrocities’ against the Sudetens, and an outraged Hitler threatened to invade. Later that year he was allowed do so by Britain and France, Neville Chamberlain deciding that it was best to appease Hitler rather than antagonise him. Chamberlain’s ‘peace in our time’ pronouncement would prove a hard one to live down. On marching into the Sudetenland unopposed Hitler declared:
‘Thus we begin our march into the great German future . . .’
The scenario of Sudetenland being just the first step into Czechoslovakia was frighteningly prescient of Crimea perhaps being the first step into Ukraine. Tim Judah, author of In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine, explains recent events in Ukraine:
‘Nobody in Ukraine, or just a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of people in Ukraine were agitating to become a part of Russia. When the revolution came, Putin decided that this was the time to activate these people and to use them to seize Crimea, which he could easily do because he had a large amount of troops in Crimea anyway.’
Putin’s promises to his new Crimean subjects compare worryingly with Trump promises to Middle America – massive salary and pension hikes, none of which happened; so now there is a disgruntled mob simmering with anger. We will find out soon enough if Trump can ace his set of promises to the disaffected who voted him in.
And why is China annoyed at President-elect Trump for taking a telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen? This act was certainly a snub to Sino-U.S. relations. His response to China’s annoyance went the way of so many of his ‘diplomatic’ missives – the Twittersphere. This time Trump tweeted,
‘Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.’
Notwithstanding China’s anger at the Trump Tsai Ing-wen telephone conversation, Trump’s nomination of Republican Terry Branstad as the next U.S. ambassador to China has pleased Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both Xi Jinping and Branstad have enjoyed warm relations for over thirty years. Following his appointment Branstad, a leading advocate for trade, who has led six trade missions to China as Iowa governor said,
‘I look forward to building on our long friendship to cultivate and strengthen the relationship between our two countries and to benefit our economy.’
So where can this be leading?
China has her eye on Taiwan just like Hitler had his eye on Czechoslovakia or Putin has his eye on Ukraine. Putin can start ‘improving’ relations with the U.S. in partnership with the president he wished and wished and wished for. Have we even figured out what Mr Putin is? A president, a dictator; a despot even? Furthermore, Trump still mysteriously refuses to believe that Putin’s agencies were responsible for stealing the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails released on WikiLeaks, even though the U.S. Intelligence Services have said this is the case.
While the Russian Federation might be a democracy on paper, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party dominates the State Duma. Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a monopoly on political power. And now the U.S. will soon have a Republican president with a Republican majority in both houses and a Supreme Court seat to fill that has remained open since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. And post-Brexit Britain; well, the more nationalistic and inward looking she becomes, the more accommodating she will be for right-wing politicians.
So, if Trump is resurrecting Roosevelt’s Four Policemen, will they be the United States, Russia, China, and Great Britain? Has he even asked Great Britain yet? It didn’t work in 1945. Will Theresa May then, have another idea? Trump is Time Magazine’s 2016 person of the year for all the wrong reasons. The article tellingly reminds us that Trump will also be leader of the free world,
‘Now he has upended the leadership of both major political parties and effectively shifted the political direction of the international order.’
Suddenly, the world’s problems have become Trump’s problems whether he likes it or not; whether he is interested or not; whether he cares or not.
F is for he Four Policemen; it was a mistake in 1945 and it would still be a mistake in 2017. F is also for the Free World, fairness, and fate. Is it fair for the fate of the Free World to be at the mercy of the 57.9 per cent of the U.S. electorate who voted in the 2016 presidential election?
A version of this article appears on Old FIlibuster, Berni Dwan’s blog. Her current project, from which this is taken, The A to Z of Historical Misadventures can be read here.