Early in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the cynical Lord Henry Wotton visits his uncle, a world-weary retired diplomat, to learn more of the novel’s beguiling title character. Among the uncle’s complaints about the decaying fin-de-siècle universe he inhabits is the new meritocratic procedure of hiring British diplomats. “But I hear they let them in now by examination,” he mourns in disgust, adding “if a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.”

The First World War somberly ended this transitional world—which Wilde chronicled with such devastating wit—and spelled doom for continental Europe’s traditional elites, who had resisted the professionalization of diplomacy. Ever...

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