The decision of President Woodrow Wilson to participate personally in the Paris Peace Conference ushered in the modern era of summit conferences. For the first time an American president was asserting the right to be present at negotiations affecting his nation's and the world's future security and to deal directly with his foreign counterparts, the heads of the Allied Powers. That the meeting to settle peace terms would be conducted by the principal political leaders of the allied nations was a logical continuation of wartime diplomatic experience. In almost every nation, the Allied Powers and Central Powers alike, elected leaders had assumed personal control of foreign policy. The British prime minister, David Lloyd George, had established a private diplomatic operation, bypassing even his foreign secretary, Lord Balfour. Similarly ignoring established channels and his secretary of state, President Wilson chose to use his friend and adviser, Colonel Edward House, as a personal representative, often communicating with other governments through him alone.
For the Allies, suspicion and dislike of the professional diplomats largely explained the direct intervention of heads of government. As Keith Eubank wrote: "Leaders of the Allied nations blamed secret diplomacy for World War I. Professional diplomats had secretly constructed entangling alliances which many thought had caused the war. Allied politicians were convinced that in the future they must control diplomacy to ensure peace. The professionals could not be trusted." In 1916 and 1917, meetings of allied premiers, with their chief assistants, had taken place. This practice was continued under the Supreme War Council, which brought together elected officials (or their representatives) and military spokesmen. During the final months of the war, the Supreme War Council assumed direct control over allied operations and also set in motion arrangements for the meeting of victorious governments to decide the terms of peace. All the major allied leaders planned as a matter of course to attend at least some planning sessions for the peace conference. For example, when President Wilson arrived in Paris, he immediately replaced Colonel House as U.S. representative to the Supreme War Council. By the time this body convened on 12 January 1919, to hear a report from Marshal Ferdinand Foch, allied commander in chief, on Germany's implementation of the armistice, the heads of the principal allied nations were in attendance. Thus, there existed precedents and procedures to make Versailles a true summit conference. Only the "spirit" of summit diplomacy was lacking, and Wilson soon provided a surfeit of that commodity.
President Wilson had not journeyed to Europe to exchange chitchat with obscure diplomats. From the beginning, the Supreme War Council (renamed the Council of Ten), which included the heads of government or foreign ministers of France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the United States, dominated the proceedings. The great powers decided to meet separately "to find out their own minds before they entered into the process of the peace conference," thereby relegating the other delegates to a passive role. Conscious of his special status as a head of state and supremely confident about his powers of persuasion, Wilson willingly acceded to these arrangements. It appears that he was relying upon the enormous popular acclaim accorded him in Europe and the self-evident wisdom of the policies he advocated. He hoped to achieve an easy consensus within the "Big Five" and then to obtain quick ratification of his peace program by the full conference. It could then be offered to a jubilant world. President Wilson was counting on the powerful impact on American opinion should he return from Paris a modern Moses, carrying down from the summit the tablets of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations Covenant that he and Europe's wise men had inscribed.
It did not work out as planned. The Versailles Conference lasted too long and grappled with too many specific, complicated issues for the tone of lofty detachment to be maintained. Although Wilson dealt personally with almost every problem brought before the conference, many proved too esoteric even for him, and he was forced to call upon the "experts" for advice. Even more important, Wilson simply did not possess the power to dictate terms to the other participants. His status as folk hero and senior statesman meant little to the shrewd, experienced leaders with whom he had to negotiate. These men had specific goals, and they forced President Wilson to compromise on such matters as reparations and the mandate system. Convinced that the League of Nations, if inaugurated, would soon correct the imperfections of the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson chose to sacrifice other points to ensure that the League Covenant got through intact.
His was to prove a meaningless victory, for the United States eventually rejected membership in the League of Nations. There were to be various causes of the rejection of Wilson's dream. Certainly, though, President Wilson's presentation of the Versailles Conference as heralding the approach of the millennium was pivotal. Having exaggerated the benefits to be gained from this convocation of global leaders, whom he described as the forces of righteousness, Wilson was vulnerable to attack from all sides. The Versailles Conference must be termed the first modern summit conference. It demonstrated many characteristics that later practitioners were to emulate and improve. But Wilson's plunge into personal diplomacy also served as a warning, for he had failed to orchestrate the episode so as to ensure favorable public reaction. One explanation for this failure was his foolish attempt to use a summit conference to deal with substantive issues. His successors would not repeat that particular error.