On the day Russia attacked Ukraine, the UN Security Council convened in a televised 11th-hour attempt to avert the conflict. For several minutes, the session continued uninterrupted, with delegates unaware that Russian tanks had already crossed the border. On millions of screens worldwide, we were able to view, in real time, the ineffectual state of existing international institutions.
Indeed, our planet faces problems — climate change, pandemics and now the resurgent spectre of nuclear war. Given the magnitude of these problems, UN reform cannot exclude unprecedented forms of cooperation between the United States and its major rivals such as Russia and China. It is difficult to imagine a prominent American leader even daring to support such a proposal in today’s political climate.
But it is important to remember that this used to be a mainstream argument in American politics. A substantial debate about world organisation took place in the first half of the 20th century.
The main line of disagreement in this debate was not over unity or separation among nation states. It was over methods for taking cooperative actions, such as whether cooperation could be successful without some sort of binding international rules or laws.
In 1907, Hamilton Holt, publisher and editor of liberal magazine the Independent, presented the case clearly. Liberal reformers called for peace and disarmament around the globe.
The problem, Holt recognised, was that “disarmament cannot logically precede political organisation, for until the world is politically organised there is no way, except by force of arms.” Shortly after, in 1910, he set in motion the Bartholdt-Bennet Resolution calling for an international federation. It passed unanimously in both houses of the US Congress.
This perspective was loudly supported by journalist and intellectual Walter Lippmann, who declared in 1917 that the US aim in joining World War I should be “nothing less than the Federation of the World,” as well as a host of other American intellectuals, including the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and socialist intellectual Max Eastman.
A powerful international body
Similar calls preceded World War II, such as when Clarence Streit, a New York Times correspondent at the League of Nations, brought together a large constituency in support of international federation before yet another conflagration in Europe. His demands were echoed in 1943 by Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, whose wartime book “One World” was one of the best-selling books in American history.
Demands arose again in the aftermath of Hiroshima. Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, argued only a month after the bombings that the United States had to cooperate with the USSR on international atomic control to prevent the bomb from being unleashed on an anarchical world.
Even before the Soviet Union tested its first bomb in 1949, Albert Einstein, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins and many others argued that the dangers of nuclear war necessitated a world government, a demand later echoed by the influential international relations scholar Hans Morgenthau and the British philosopher Bertrand Russell.
These efforts all failed. The United States was not influential enough before World War I to persuade the powerful European states to abandon their system of power politics. On the eve of World War II, cooperation with rivals such as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan was clearly impossible.
And during the late 1940s and early 1950s, cooperation with the only other major state still standing, the Soviet Union, was stymied by the irreconcilable ideologies of the two Cold War superpowers.
But there was another reason the cause of international cooperation failed: The stakes of continuing as usual were not existential. States could survive wars even after defeat, as Germany’s rise during the 1930s showed.
Better to risk the dangers of anarchical power politics than to cede authority to a powerful international body — which was precisely why Joseph Stalin insisted on the Security Council veto in the United Nations.
Methods remain the same
The Soviet leader would take his chances on surviving the next world war rather than submitting to a global regime that probably would be dominated by the United States. Now, however, the Cold War is over.
Of course it would be ludicrous to contend that there are no longer acute differences between the world’s major powers. Even more important, we now face existential threats that simply did not exist before 1939.
Climate change, if left unchecked, portends catastrophic levels of global warming and the possibility of an uninhabitable planet. And as the invasion of Ukraine vividly reminds us, the major powers continue to possess thousands of nuclear weapons, which if used in a major war would destroy nations beyond repair and possibly exterminate the human race.
Yet while today’s dangers are greater, the methods of world organisation remain the same.
The United Nations, like the League of Nations, coexists with powerful nations in a world without binding international rules. In the interwar years, the League did not prevent the collapse of the European order, and a growing consensus emerged that the existence of world organisation was, in and of itself, not enough.
Unless the world’s major states work together, preventing catastrophe may be impossible, as the earlier world federalists understood.
The United States, the most powerful nation in history, could focus all of its efforts on stopping global warming or eliminating the possibility of nuclear war, and these efforts would amount to nothing if its rivals failed to follow suit.
The history of American global reform during the 20th century shows that prominent politicians and scholars regarded serious international cooperation as a mainstream, realistic approach to solving international problems. In an age of even greater dangers, the time has come to think seriously about it again.
Tiziana Stella is a historian of US foreign policy, international organisation and federalism. Campbell Craig is professor of international relations at Cardiff University.