On the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations

Today the world celebrates the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, an international alliance forged in the crucible of World War II to prevent future military cataclysms. The preamble to the UN Charter lists four guiding aspirations:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom
President Harry Truman watches as U.S. delegate Edward R. Stettinius signs the UN Charter

The United Nations succeeded the League of Nations, formed after the first World War in 1920. Though U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his fundamental role in developing the league, the United States never joined as an official member. During the second World War, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill envisioned a stronger global organization and developed the Atlantic Charter, the seed from which the UN Charter sprang. Years later, the Nobel Peace Prize committee first acknowledged the role of the UN by honoring Ralph Bunche, a U.S. diplomat who helped bring about peace in the Middle East after the original negotiator was killed by extremists. Bunche was also the first person of color to become a Peace Prize laureate.

Interestingly, Woodrow Wilson and Bertha von Suttner spent some time together at Skibo, the luxurious Scottish castle owned by the American pacifist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Woodrow was then president of Princeton University; Bertha had hopes of convincing Carnegie to become her new patron after the death of Alfred Nobel some years earlier. It’s not hard to imagine Bertha bending Woodrow’s ear about peace during the long carriage ride from the train station to Carnegie’s countryside estate. In fact, their signatures appear, one atop the other, in Skibo’s guest registry.

At the Fourth World’s Peace Congress in Bern, Switzerland, in 1892, Bertha had co-sponsored a proposal concerning “the formation of a confederation of states on the basis of the solidarity of their interests.” She and her co-signers invited “all the societies in the world, especially at the time of political elections, to draw attention to the necessity of a permanent congress of nations, to which every international question should be submitted, so that every conflict may be settled by law and not by force.” Their vision would eventually be realized not only in the League of Nations and the United Nations but also in the establishment of the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Arbitration. These latter organizations are both housed in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, a grand building funded in large part by Carnegie at the request of Suttner and her pacifist colleagues.

The Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands

All of the efforts noted above evolved from centuries of philosophical inquiry, most notably, perhaps, from the written works of Hugo Grotius and Immanuel Kant. They also stand as a testament to the value of shared knowledge, received and transmitted through time. Imagine how our world leaders today might fulfill the goals of the U.N. charter if they educated themselves more deeply in the history and philosophy of pacifism. Such inquiries can inspire us all as we work together toward a more peaceful coexistence around the globe.

BONUS: Hear Sir Laurence Olivier read aloud the preamble to the UN Charter.

On Brexit and the European Union

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With so much debate roiling around the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, I’ve found myself wondering, “If Brexit succeeds, should UK citizens be asked to forfeit their Nobel Peace Prize?”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the entire European Union in 2012, noting that “the work of the EU represents ‘fraternity between nations’ and amounts to a form of the ‘peace congresses’ to which Alfred Nobel refers as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.”

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The 2012 Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma, which honors the EU motto “United in Diversity.”

 

Nigel Farage, then leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), disagreed and called the decision “baffling.” He further claimed that the committe had dragged the award “into total disrepute.” Since then, Farage has continued to campaign vociferously against the idea of a united Europe, earning him the moniker “Mr. Brexit” from Donald Trump.

It’s worth noting that Farage began his career as a trader on the London Metal Exchange and that the UK was not one of the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which many consider to be the precursor to the European Union itself. Former Atlantic editor Robert Wright noted, “It’s possible that, had far-seeing leaders not in 1951 created the European Coal and Steel Community, and had this not led to a series of free trade agreements among European nations, economic nationalism would have started trade wars that led to real wars.”

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An engraving of Bertha von Suttner appeared on Austria’s 1,000 schilling note prior to the adoption of the Euro.

The ECSC formed after World War II as a result of the Paris Treaty, which intended to foster a new era of economic cooperation and supranationalism. (Please be careful not to read that last word as “supernationalism.” Supranationalism refers to an aggregate political entity above the level of state or country, not a claim that any one nation or empire is superior to others or has comic-book-style superpowers.) In his favorable response to the question “Did the European Union deserve a Nobel Peace Prize?” author Steven Pinker wrote, “The EU grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community, which was designed in 1950 to reduce the chances of a recrudescence of war between Germany and its neighbors. The rationale came right out of Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay ‘Perpetual Peace’: democracy, free trade and an international community should discourage leaders from dragging their countries into war. More than half a century of Western European peace later, we can see that the architects of European economic unification had a point.”

In his essay, Kant argued that scientific reason and respect for the rule of law were prerequisites for the formation of a Völkerbund, or “union of nations.” While allowing that such a political entity might result in enhanced economic prosperity, his prime objective was to eliminate war as a means of settling disputes between nations. Though Darwin hadn’t yet been born, Kant saw a European confederation in evolutionary terms, part of a natural progression of human society and civilization.

 

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This sort of idealism sat well with Alfred Nobel and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers. It also inspired Bertha von Suttner and her fellow pacifists E.T. Moneta and S.J. Capper (himself a Brit) to propose “A Confederation of European States” back in 1892 at the International Peace Congress in Bern, Switzerland. “At the time the idea had not yet begun to be understood at all,” Bertha wrote in her memoirs. “It was generally confounded with the idea of the United States, that the North American pattern was being proscribed for Europe.”

Here, in full, is the Suttner/Capper/Moneta proposal:

“Whereas both the injury caused by armed peace and the danger that is ever threatening the whole of Europe from a possible great war have their basis in the condition of lawlessness in which the different states of Europe stand toward one another;

Whereas a confederation of European states, which would be desirable also in the interest of commercial relations of all countries, would do away with this condition of lawlessness and create permanent legal relations in Europe;

And finally, whereas such a confederation would in no wise impair the independence of the individual nations as regards their internal affairs, and therefore as regards their forms of governance;

The Congress invites the European peace societies and their adherents to exert themselves, as the highest aim or their propaganda, for the formation of a confederation of states on the basis of the solidarity of their interests. It moreover invites all the societies in the world, especially at the time of political elections, to draw attention to the necessity of a permanent congress of nations, to which every international question should be submitted, so that every conflict may be settled by law and not by force.”

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The 1892 International Peace Congress convened in Bern, Switzerland.

 

At the time, Europe had yet to endure the sort of “great war” that Suttner and her colleagues envisioned in 1892. Nations might have agreed with their proposed “European Confederation” in theory, but in practice, world leaders continued to promote military tradition and to finance standing armies, favoring costly force over the rule of moral law in settling international conflicts. Peace remained the pipe dream of philosophers such as Kant, and, as the first of two world wars soon demonstrated, the world paid dearly for the oversight.

Today, some world leaders are once again stoking the furnaces of misguided patriotism and despotism, insisting on separatism and isolationism in place of cooperation and unification. Stubborn partisanship has replaced rational political discourse in both the public square and the chambers of government.

Shortly after the Nobel committee’s announcement in 2012, Wall Street Journal writer Simon Nixon remarked that the EU was “on the brink of failure.” With so much at stake, he considered the awarding of the Peace Prize to be an “inspired decision.” Like the Nobel Committee, citizens of the world today should continue to feel inspired and work to support and strengthen the European Union’s stated commitment to “the ideals of international unity, solidarity, and harmony“—with or without the United Kingdom.

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