The Day Peace Under Earth Was Achieved
The Centenary of the League of Nations’ Debut Is a Good Reminder for What Global Diplomacy Is Really About
March winds and April showers
Make way for sweet May flowers
And then comes June, a moon and you
March winds and April showers
Make way for the happy hours
And the May time, June time, love time and you
~Abe Lyman & Ruth Etting, whose voices echoed through the 1920–30s~
It wasn’t April neither May, nor was it June but rather a cold, rainy, November in Geneva. Yet an exceptionally bright mid-Nov morning stroke the city when Mr. (for Monsieur of course, not Mister) Léon Bourgeois, both limpingly and steadily, back straight with shoulders back, with a posture saying confidence and a face saying joy, stepped out of his car and trudged towards the Palais Wilson, expecting one of the best days of his life to begin.
Not much so for Walter Simons, though. Foreign minister of a nation forced to hail peace yet forced out of this hall of peace, ironically internally resenting both but externally expressing a very little bit bitter ahead of its time sense of vergangenheitsbewältigung, being loser of the war it ignited and thus officially excluded from the global community, Mr. Simons stayed home. He didn’t even apply for admission, waiting for an invitation never to arrive.
Lord Balfour was rather ambivalent. It’s not a bagatelle for a real self-respecting Londoner to give up an orchestral premier in West End. All the more so when it’s not a mere bagatelle but a historic one-in-a-lifetime seven-movement suite performed after years of writing, Gustav Holst’s celebrated the planets. However, being in British company cheered him a bit. If I’m not to enjoy, no one is. British, already mentioned? Amongst the Brits was one, Lord Cecil, who ignited a storm over whether or not one can represent a country not of his own, being there in the name of South Africa, but for Mr. Balfour he would always be his little cousin. Two other British-fellows were present: Messrs. Barnes and Fisher. At home the three could be considered rivals, being Conservative, Liberal, and Labour MPs, unless they were part of the same government — an unprecedented arrangement in British history caused by the war and continued since, which will not repeat until Churchill, and never since. At any rate, here all brits are brothers.
Oh, and Woodrow? Well, for the then American president sending a nice postcard was enough. Having seen him a year before in Paris having all but sanity and santé, having contracted the Spanish Flu just as he arrived there for post-World War talks (leaving him incapacitated in all but name since), the diplomats must have not been tristful for the League’s founder’s missing, though the American absence was well felt all through the organization’s existence.
Becks, beckons and other single-handed gestures were plenty among those who did arrive, representatives of virtually all countries but a few. When finally reaching concreteness, the message was sharp and clear: “One idea has dominated this assembly: the necessity of riding the world of the greatest and most terrible of all scourges — war”. Unanimity wrapped the room. This room was, at this moment, the world. Having the entire world in one mind with such an idea, a mere biennium after a World War, is not to be underrated. By evening, those men in charge for global peace have already outlawed any treaty registered outside that room, making way for a novel world order, dominated by “the sacrifice of particular interests and of our dearest ambitions to the common good and for the interests of all”.
Powerful, meaningful, delightful, peaceful, pastoral, magical, anticlimactical, catachrestical — all would be well describing for that Monday of November 15th, 1920, when the League of Nations’ first assembly gathered. For a few days did romance last.
Six days, more accurately. Then came Bloody Sunday, with more than 30 deaths. By the next year two dozens of new wars have begun. Seven years since, and the notorious Chinese Civil War would begin. A decade — and the worst ever recession will shock and shake the world. 15 years — Spanish Civil War, half a million dead. 20 — World War, with 9 million massacred, 80 million killed, about a hundred million injured, hundreds of millions orphaned, widowed, PTSD’d, 2 billion living — in a world scathed, battered, defiled, by the horrors of war.
It took a mere silver jubilee for a peace under Earth to become a hell on Earth.
Lessons can and should be drawn all over the spectrum of human philosophy, raising the strategic of questions: how could the nature of man allow it all, why is humankind so self-destructive, what does it mean when some 5% of world’s population is deceased, what is the meaning of life. But for the very least, a more tactical lesson should be learned: the peacekeeper of the world, the guarantor of serenity, the League of Nations, was clueless in the moment of truth. World marched to war with eyes open and ears shut. No guarantee can be given for it not to happen again. And no guarantor. Not even our celebrated, oh so different from the LON, UN.
If it’s broken, fix it?
This is no obituary to multilateralism. Nations are stronger together than separate, nations will less likely fight when talking. All true. Dispute is over the method.
When China and Russia join the Human Rights Council, and Saudi Arabia almost makes it too (an American veto finally prevented it), and the both are members of the Security Council, making condemnations and deciding who is bad and who is good; when the peacekeeping forces repeatedly turn out to be useless; when resolutions ignore genocides and other misbehaviors while disproportionally obsess with other topics; and when the organization is subject to condemnations just as regularly as it makes them, over various scandals, from sexual abuses to corruption — a rethink is needed.
Problem is not ad-hoc and regarding specific countries or topics, but rather inherent. A global institute is a great global debate club, but a terrible moral authority, condemnations stage, or decision making platform, given that it consists of all nations existing, no qualifications. UN has long been criticized for injustice and irrelevancy. Such accusations are so frequent that we got used to them, but while the former, being heard from various players in the international diplomatic game, is bothering, the latter is unbearable, given what killed UN’s predecessor.
Solution can’t be merely fixing UN. Of course, handling corruption and power abuse, making more just and balanced resolutions, and being relevant — are all important. But accepting that an institute whose source of authority are North Korea and Iran doesn’t qualify for world leadership and moral ethos, is crucial to truly tackle the problem.
Rather, solution is creating an alternative. A forum of liberal democracies eager to lead can make a better authority, democratically and liberally speaking, than a cluster of all nations exist. Such forum is now coming to existence. The D-10 is destined to replace the G7, and consist of democracies who gather to discuss common problems, with spotlight on 5G right now. It should be bolder and broader, and construct consensuses over various of global issues. NATO used to be exactly about that, with the genocide prevention in Kosovo as a classic example. But the lack of ambition and vision interrupts this goal from realization (as well as the membership of the now autocratic Turkey). Liberal leaders should take the lead. Macron has long pushed in such direction (calling for the establishment of a European army). Biden seems to reflect similarly for now. Others have been more skeptical so far. UN is and hopefully always will be a good platform for discourse and problem solving, for dialogue. But nothing more. A liberal-democratic multilateral is in need.
Half a year after November 15th, Léon Bourgeois received his Nobel Peace Prize. Dying in 1925, confident in bringing serenity and peace to the world, he didn’t make it to see 1939. Neither did his British, German or American counterparts, nor did most of the assembly’s participants. At the end of the day, they were all just a bunch of white haired men eager to change the world for the better, failed only by reality. They are not to blame. Their successors are not that different. Their incompetence, at times, and rather mediocracy at others, are not to be wondered — they are inherent. But if the world’s liberty and democracy supporting white haired men are to unite, then, their predecessors’ vision of peace under Earth, of a systematic, ongoing, change to the better, can actually approach coming true.