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Is International Cooperation Possible?

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.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post