"Peacemaking largely failed." With reference to two wars, to what extent do you agree with this statement?

From the May 2023 IBDP History Paper 2 exam 


I'm most grateful to a former student for giving me her essay after paying the IBO for it to be returned with the examiner's comments. She received 13/15 for this essay:



The exploration of the efficacy of peacemaking efforts in the 20th century provides a complex and nuanced narrative in the annals of global history. The focus here will be on two seminal conflicts that shaped the global socio-political landscape: The First and Second World Wars. The contention that "peacemaking largely failed" is a significant one, requiring a careful analysis of the nuances involved in the process of peacemaking, the historical context within which they unfolded, and the consequent effects on global relations. The influence of various international players, the effectiveness of peace treaties, and the contributing factors to the outbreak of subsequent wars will be assessed critically. 

The first case study under consideration is the end of the First World War and the subsequent peacemaking efforts, primarily encapsulated in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The signing of this treaty represented a substantial attempt to build a lasting peace following the horrors of the Great War. The treaty was predicated on the concept of blaming Germany and her allies for the war and insisting on heavy reparations. The Treaty's failures, however, are intrinsically linked with its stringent clauses, something that the historian Margaret MacMillan sharply critiqued, arguing that it planted the seeds for a future conflict. MacMillan asserts that the harsh conditions, such as the war guilt clause and substantial economic reparations, fuelled resentment and desperation in Germany, providing a fertile ground for extremist ideologies. MacMillan’s argument is given credence when we consider the political climate in Germany in the years following the treaty's signing. The burden of war guilt, the loss of territories, the reduction of their armed forces, and the crippling economic reparations caused widespread indignation and resentment amongst the German populace. The Weimar Republic was viewed as the "November Criminals," having signed the humiliating treaty, and this laid the groundwork for Adolf Hitler's rise to power, who capitalised on these sentiments and pledged to undo the injustices of the Treaty. However, this perspective has faced criticism from historians like John Keynes and William Carr. Keynes, an economist who attended the Paris Peace Conference, argued that the reparations were economically unfeasible, thus making the Treaty flawed from the onset. Carr, on the other hand, places more emphasis on the international climate and the policy of appeasement pursued by Britain and France in the lead up to the Second World War. Both perspectives offer a broader understanding of the peacemaking process and challenge MacMillan's argument by highlighting that while the Treaty was indeed flawed, its failure was not inevitable, and it was the lack of enforcement and will amongst the international community that led to its downfall.

Moreover, it's important to evaluate the argument of historian Niall Ferguson who suggested that the "chief cause of the Second World War was the Treaty of Versailles". Ferguson posits that the harsh conditions placed on Germany created such a magnitude of political and economic instability that it was merely a question of when, not if, these tensions would erupt into open conflict. It's an argument that holds merit, given that the humiliation and economic instability undoubtedly played a significant role in Hitler's rise to power. However, this viewpoint can be criticised for being overly deterministic, as it fails to take into account the role of individuals, like Hitler himself, and the agency of the German people who were active participants in the propagation of extreme ideologies. On the other hand, historian Zara Steiner argues that the peacemaking did not entirely fail as it brought a considerable amount of time of relative peace. The Locarno Spirit of 1925, where Germany, France, and Belgium agreed on the inviolability of their borders, showed some success of peacemaking. However, this peace was fragile, contingent on the collective will of nations to maintain it, which eventually faltered.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the failures of the Treaty of Versailles were starkly evident and weighed heavily on the minds of those attempting to forge a new path to peace. The establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 represents one of the most prominent peacemaking efforts of the 20th century, born out of the desire to prevent another global conflict. One of the main arguments regarding the UN's creation, as presented by historian Mark Mazower, is that it represented a fundamental shift in global diplomacy, aiming to promote cooperation and avoid the punitive measures that characterised the Versailles Treaty. However, this did not insulate the UN from controversy and criticism. Mazower's thesis presents the UN as a significant development, stressing its intention to create an international community that would work together to maintain peace. This argument is compelling, particularly considering the Charter of the United Nations' emphasis on peaceful conflict resolution, respect for human rights, and the upholding of international law. Nonetheless, there have been many occasions when the UN's actions, or lack thereof, have been sharply criticised.

 Critics like historian Noam Chomsky argue that the UN, in reality, often served the interests of the superpowers, particularly the United States, more than it acted as a neutral force for peace. The Cold War context, in particular, showcased the power dynamics at play within the UN Security Council, often rendering it ineffective. The use of veto power by the permanent members to block resolutions not aligning with their interests severely undermined the UN's ability to act as an unbiased mediator. The Korean War and the Vietnam War are just a few instances where political interests interfered with the peacemaking attempts. Historian Paul Kennedy further asserts that while the UN has seen some success in peacekeeping missions and in areas such as health and development, its record in preventing war and conflict is decidedly mixed. The Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian War stand as stark reminders of its limitations. Nonetheless, attributing the blame entirely to the UN would be an oversimplification. Its effectiveness is in many ways a reflection of the will and commitment of its member states, who, at times, have chosen national interests over international peace.

Additionally, the Potsdam Conference of 1945, aiming to negotiate terms for the end of World War II, can be examined as another facet of the post-war peacemaking process. Historian James Sheehan emphasises the immediate success of the conference in ensuring the cessation of military actions, but also highlights the underlying tensions between the Allies that later manifested in the form of the Cold War. This division, primarily between the USSR and the Western Allies, led to the partition of Germany and the onset of a new form of conflict – a 'cold' war. Sheehan's perspective places the Potsdam Conference as a crucial turning point. It can be argued that while the conference might have succeeded in ending the Second World War, it laid the groundwork for further conflict, manifesting as the ideological battle between the capitalist West and the communist East. However, blaming the onset of the Cold War solely on the Potsdam conference would be reductionist.

Historian John Lewis Gaddis, a renowned Cold War expert, places the blame less on the specific outcomes of Potsdam and more on the ideological incompatibility and mutual suspicion between the USSR and the Western Allies. The divide, he asserts, was an inevitable clash given the drastically different ideological stances and the power vacuum left in the wake of the Second World War. Thus, while the Potsdam conference indeed played a part in shaping the post-war world, the broader geopolitical context was equally, if not more, influential. Furthermore, the Yalta Conference earlier in February 1945, as argued by historian S. M. Plokhy, set the tone for Potsdam. The decisions regarding the division of Germany, Poland's borders, and the formation of the United Nations were all discussed at Yalta. Hence, examining Potsdam without considering the prior agreements at Yalta would paint an incomplete picture.

In evaluating the contention that "peacemaking largely failed" in the context of the 20th century, the analysis presented reveals a complex tapestry of factors that contributed to the successes and failures of peacemaking efforts. It is evident that peacemaking attempts following both World Wars had significant flaws. The Treaty of Versailles, characterised by punitive measures, sowed the seeds of resentment in Germany and, along with the lack of enforcement, set the stage for the Second World War. In the aftermath of World War II, despite the notable shift towards cooperation and collective security with the establishment of the United Nations and agreements like the Potsdam Conference, the limitations became evident amidst the geopolitical realities of the Cold War era. However, concluding that peacemaking largely failed would be too simplistic and deterministic. While peacemaking did not prevent further conflicts entirely, there were periods of relative peace and significant advancements in international cooperation and diplomacy. Moreover, the failures should not overshadow the potential that peacemaking institutions like the United Nations have in fostering global cooperation and resolving conflicts, even if they have not always lived up to their ideals. In light of the analysis, it can be argued that peacemaking, in reference to the First and Second World Wars, had limited success, but its failures were not absolute. It is a testament to the complex, multifaceted nature of peace-building endeavours, always contingent on the shifting sands of international politics and the collective will of nations to uphold peace.