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1939 and the International Spirit

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FIFTY years ago, the first great experiment in international organization, the League of Nations, came to an unhappy end. The league, though largely an American creation, had been crippled as early as 1919 when Congress rejected its covenant. America stayed out. So did Russia, newly under communist rule and in a revolutionary mood against the ``imperialist world order.'' By 1933 the new tyrannies of left and right seemed to be the wave to the future. In 1939 came war. All around one saw darkness.

Despite this depressing experience, many people in the remaining free countries did not abandon the project of internationalism. They saw that the world was shrinking and could ill afford its wars. They saw that the problem was not too much international organization, but not enough. They blamed the United States for staying out of the League of Nations; the US, they saw, was already the linchpin of the world economy, it was the linchpin of the defense of the democratic powers, and in its irresponsible isolation it was the linchpin of world anarchy. They blamed the league itself for having a powerless structure.

They launched a great debate on what forms of international organization would do better: what functions and goals (trade? peace? freedom?), what institutional structures, what kind of representation (diplomatic? popular?), what member countries.

The spirit of the time was epitomized in the book ``Union Now: A Proposal for a Federal Union of the Leading Democracies,'' by the New York Times correspondent to the League of Nations. It became a best-seller and inspired major movements of international federation. These movements continue even today as the Union of European Federalists, the Association to Unite the Democracies, and the World Federalist Association.

Thanks largely to these efforts, a plethora of new international institutions emerged after World War II, including the United Nations, the Bretton Woods system (IMF, World Bank, GATT), the Council of Europe, NATO, and the European Community. This time, however, the US was usually a joiner.

These institutions were not able to prevent the cold war or the nuclear arms race. Nor did the Soviets treat them with any love: In the United Nations they wielded their veto; from the others they stayed out, attacking them as new props of the ``imperialist world order.''


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