Idealists like President Wilson HAD expected that the collapse of the Romanov, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern empires would automatically ensure an increase in the number of democratic states. But, instead, much of Europe came under regimes that were hostile to liberal democracy. In the 1920s and 1930s the core of democracy remained the great North Atlantic powers—Britain, France, and the United States; the smaller states of Scandinavia; the Low Countries; Switzerland; and the inheritors of the British tradition—Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Certainly the totalitarian aggressors bore great responsibility for the unleashing of a second world war. Yet a major factor in the deterioration of the twenty years’ truce was the failure of the democracies to present a unified front against those who threatened world peace.
In the early 1930s Britain, France, and the United States were preoccupied with domestic problems. But this was the very time when international problems demanded equally urgent attention. International trade was steadily shrinking in response to the depression and mounting tariff barriers; the prospects for peace were steadily fading in response to resurgent and authoritarian nationalism. Nor was this all. During the twenty years’ truce, the democracies faced a third set of problems. This third set involved the relations between the democracies and the non-Western peoples, many of whom were still under colonial rule. Particularly in Asia and the Middle East, non-Western peoples were beginning to assert their nationalism and to demand the loosening of imperial ties.
Thus, the discrete histories of the non-Western peoples, always part of “world history,” as we customarily call it, now became an integral part of the history of “Western civilization” as well. Problems that would have been viewed as quite distinct two or three centuries earlier took on global significance.
Though on the winning side in World War I, Britain staggered from economic crisis to crisis. Immigration inward was steadily offset by emigration outward, especially to North America. Despite efforts to recover, the steam had left the British economy, which grew at half its prewar rate.