Tension in the Middle East and populist presidents: what the world was like 100 years ago

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tags: Middle East, populism, 1920

David Charlwood is author of 1920: A Year of Global Turmoil (Pen & Sword, 2019).

On the morning of Friday, 16 January 1920, representatives of governments from Asia to the Americas sat beneath the ornate chandeliers of the clock room in the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. The chairman of the gathering told them: “January 16 1920 will go down in history as the date of the birth of a new world.” He would be proved profoundly wrong. Instead, the inaugural meeting of the first world peace organisation – the League of Nations – ushered in a year of violent conflict and political populism.

More than 2,000 miles east, in Baghdad, Gertrude Bell penned a letter to her stepmother. The trailblazing British diplomat was already concerned for the future. “You say that when you open the papers the world seems tempestuous – one does not need to open the papers to realise that here.”

Iraq (then Mesopotamia) had been largely freed from Ottoman-Turkish rule by the British in 1917, but as the liberators stepped up plans to exploit the region’s oil, they were increasingly viewed as occupiers. Resentment at the British military and political presence was building. Leaders of Sunni and Shia groups, who had traditionally been at loggerheads, began weekly meetings. “The underlying thought”, Bell reported in another letter, this time to her father, “is out with the infidel.”

It was also an election year in the United States. Woodrow Wilson, the occupant of the White House at the start of 1920, was a Democrat internationalist who in his inaugural address of 1917 had stated that the First World War had “made us citizens of the world” and that “there can be no turning back.” But Wilson was dying. He was making painfully slow progress recovering from a crippling stroke and would be too ill to run again. There was no guarantee his successor would share his vision, that the US had a defining role to play in the affairs of other nations and in the maintenance of world peace.

Read entire article at BBC History Extra

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