The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is international cooperation possible?

It’s time to revisit past debates about how nations can act together to address global problems

Screens show the countries taking part in a vote on suspending Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council this month. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
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On the day Russia commenced its invasion of Ukraine, the U.N. 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, a point Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky angrily reiterated this month.

Indeed, our planet faces problems — climate change, pandemics and now the resurgent specter of nuclear war — that current forms of international organization have proved incapable of solving. Only a far stronger international body than we saw on display in late February can meet these challenges. Given the magnitude of these problems, reform cannot exclude unprecedented forms of cooperation between the United States and its major rivals such as Russia and China. This prospect seems fanciful at best, if not eccentric and dangerous. 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 organization 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 recognized, was that “disarmament cannot logically precede political organization, for until the world is politically organized 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 U.S. Congress.

This perspective was loudly supported by journalist and intellectual Walter Lippmann, who declared in 1917 that the U.S. 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.

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.

Streit’s plan brought together pacifists and interventionists alike. Roger Baldwin, ACLU co-founder and executive director, and Gen. George V. Strong, chief of the Army’s War Plans Division, both took prominent roles in Streit’s movement for world government.

Inspired by Streit’s plan, in December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of high-profile figures signed a bold petition requesting that the United States join the war not through the “entangling structure of an alliance” but by establishing a federal union that would mark the beginning of a “universal world government of, by and for the people.” Among the signers were Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, counsel to the War Department Grenville Clark, international lawyer and future secretary of state John Foster Dulles, realist scholar Frederick L. Schuman, and Russell Davenport, editor of Fortune and Willkie’s 1940 presidential campaign coordinator and speechwriter.

Such 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 U.S.S.R. 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.

The Soviet dictator 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. As he told his biographer Milovan Djilas just before World War II ended, “We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years, and then we’ll have another go at it.”

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. The authoritarian regimes of China and Russia stand vividly in contrast with the liberal democracies of the West. But the differences are not irreconcilable, at least not in the way they were before World War II or during the Cold War. Nazi Germany openly sought to conquer Europe and dominate it with a master race. The Soviet Union openly sought to overthrow liberal capitalism by means of worldwide socialist revolution. We have nothing like that today.

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 organization 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 organization was, in and of itself, not enough. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler, who had blocked action on the Bartholdt-Bennet Resolution in 1910, openly regretted his choice in 1938 and a year later called for a world federation.

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.

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