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The Parliament of Man

The Parliament of Man by Paul Kennedy
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The Parliament of Man is the first definitive history of the United Nations, from one of America's greatest living historians.Distinguished scholar Paul Kennedy, author of the bestselling The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, gives us a thorough and timely account that explains the UN's roots and functions while also casting an objective eye on its effectiveness and its prospects for success in meeting the challenges that lie ahead. Kennedy shows the UN for what it is: fallible, human-based, often dependent on the whims of powerful national governments or the foibles of individual administrators—yet also utterly indispensable. With his insightful grasp of six decades of global history, Kennedy convincingly argues that "it is difficult to imagine how much more riven and ruinous our world of six billion people would be if there had been no UN."

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; September 2007
383 pages; ISBN 9780307387608
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Parliament of Man
Author: Paul Kennedy


The Origins


The Troubled Advance to a New World Order, 1815–1945

The idea of a universal association of humankind goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. Some works claim that ancient Chinese philosophers or Greek sages were arguing even then for the establishment of a world order. Others suggest that Catholic theologians in the Middle Ages proposed some form of universal governance, no doubt Christian in construction but reaching out to all peoples. All sorts of institutional and scholarly names are tossed out here: the federation of Greek city-states, the Stoics, various disciples of Confucius, Dante, William Penn, the Abbé de St.-Pierre with his “Project to Render Peace Perpetual in Europe” (1713), the American founding fathers in their pursuit of a “more perfect union,” and then, perhaps especially, the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace of 1795. The list is long; later, even Lenin wrote in favor of “the United States of Europe,” while H. G. Wells and Arnold Toynbee pleaded for a new international system of affairs.1

It comes as no surprise that most of these texts were composed near the end of, or shortly after, a great and bloody war. They were efforts to find a way out of the international anarchy, to escape the repeated struggles between cities, monarchies, and states, and to establish long-lasting peace. All of them sought to constrain selfish, sover- eign power, usually by some form of league of nations that would take action against a country that broke the existing order. The mechanisms were therefore reactive, assuming humankind’s propensity to conflict but trusting that such dangerous drives could be headed off. They were devices to chain national egoism; as St.-Pierre argued, all members must be placed in a “mutual state of dependence.” From this negative intent there would flow positive benefits: global harmony, rising prosperity, the pursuit of the arts, and so on.

To say that this was idealist would be a gross understatement.We might note that Kant’s great treatise was composed just a few years before Napoleon began his rampage across Europe, leaving damaged and raped communities everywhere. Nonetheless, these early writings contained ideas that would not go away. They were ideas, moreover, that formed a central part of the intellectual architecture of the Enlightenment, the rise of the free trade movement, and the advance of Western liberalism. There was, to be sure, no real move toward a universal monarchy in the early nineteenth century, nor toward any parliament of man. Indeed, the only international structure at that time was the rather informal Concert of Europe, run by the five Great Powers, which was usually conservative in hue. However, since each of those powers was reluctant to risk another expensive and potentially destabilizing war, a general peace obtained.2

Despite that conservatism, there also existed an urge toward the more liberal conduct of affairs, especially in Western Europe and the United States. Advocates of perpetual peace may not have had their hopes fulfilled (there were many smaller wars outside of Europe in the decades following 1815, and revolutionary movements within the Continent were usually crushed), but reformers applauded the news of the increasing legislation against slavery and the slave trade, the emancipation of Catholics in Britain and of Jews in France and the Habsburg Empire, and the reduction or elimination of protectionist tariffs such as the Corn Laws—not because any single change was of itself transforming, but because collectively they comprised movement in the direction of greater peace, tolerance, and interdependence. Tennyson, in the flush of composing “Locksley Hall,” was not alone in his optimism about humankind’s capacity for progress. He was preceded, joined, and followed by some of the greatest names in the Western liberal tradition—Smith, Ricardo, Bentham, Comte, and Mill—as well as by his great contemporary and former classmate, the later prime minister William Gladstone, who with like-minded politicians sought to turn these notions into practice.

In such progressive yet pragmatic fashion, the nineteenth century thus witnessed a series of measures, both legal and commercial, that, it was hoped, would move the world away from international anarchy. The coming of free trade to Britain, later championed across Europe by its ardent disciple Richard Cobden, was hailed not just as an act of economic liberalization, but as a bonding together of peoples, their mutual dependency preventing future war. The creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (1864) was recognition of the need to treat prisoners of war fairly and a signal advance in “the laws of war”; it was, arguably, the first treaty-bound international organization. By century’s end, the two Hague peace conferences (1899 and 1907) would codify the treatment of civilians and neutrals in wartime and provide a mechanism for the peaceful settlement of disputes.3 Meanwhile, the technical innovations that fascinated Tennyson and his fellow Victorians continued apace. The laying of the first submarine cable between Britain and the United States was hailed by both governments as a bond of harmony; the Universal Postal Union provided a similar bond; and the free flow of capital across the globe was praised as if it were the lubricant to ease the world’s troubles and bring prosperity to all. In John Maynard Keynes’s gorgeous description, a gentleman before 1914 “could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country without passport or other formality, could dispatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself much aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement.”4

Yet, as the great economist would readily have conceded, there were other, more daunting elements within the international system. The first was that it remained in essence a European-centered pentarchy, right up until the 1890s; and when Japan and the United States joined the club at the end of the nineteenth century, it simply shifted a little to become a septarchy. The Great Powers still did bilateral or multilateral deals. The Treaty of Portsmouth (1905), for example, whereby Teddy Roosevelt brokered an end to the Russo- Japanese War, seemed more an affirmation of the old order than a harbinger of any new way of dealing with such matters, despite the award to him, as a result, of the Nobel Peace Prize. Second, advancing cosmopolitan tendencies did not stop the larger nations from their most massive bout of colonization, in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific; 1870–1914 was the age when the “North” really did take over the “South.” International civil society was thus confined to the Western nations, the British dominions, Japan, and the independent states of Latin America; it would remain so until the late 1940s. Subjugated to imperial rule, other peoples remained excluded.

Nor did growing international integration prevent the biggest armaments buildup in history up to that time. The Prussian army’s decisive defeats of the Habsburg Empire in 1866 and of France in 1870 spurred an anxious reform of all armies, both qualitatively and quantitatively—conscription of millions of men in peacetime became the norm, except within the Anglo-American nations. Defense spending soared to dizzying heights. Following Otto von Bismarck’s initial and secret contract with Vienna in 1879, the Great Powers began to assemble into combinations, each of which was pledged to war if an ally was threatened. In parallel with the military buildups, there was the proliferation of naval “races”—the Royal Navy against the French and Russian navies, the rise of the American and Japanese fleets, the Anglo-German antagonism across the North Sea. Truly, the era from 1871 to 1914 was a bizarre and puzzling one, with great and increasing evidence of international integration existing side by side with ethnic-nationalist passions, warmongering, and social Darwinist notions about the primacy of struggle. In many regards it is not unlike today’s world, where theories about the rise of new Asian superpowers and growing awareness of the possibility of a terrorist cataclysm jostle with evidence of the ever greater globalization and interdependence of all peoples.

This contest between “merchants and warriors” was won by the latter, decisively, in August 1914.5 Sparked by an assassination and a long-standing conflict in the Balkans, which then escalated through the alliance system across most of Europe, the Great Powers marched to war, as traditionally they had done, in defense of perceived national interests. Bankers like the Rothschilds were dismayed beyond measure; generals everywhere were confirmed in their beliefs. There was no parliament of man, only the god of Mars.

But this war was different from that of 1870 or even the hegemonic struggle of 1793–1815. World War I fatefully combined international anarchy on the one hand and modern mass industrialized warfare on the other. The losses of human life, along the western front, the Isonzo, and the eastern front, in the Balkans, the Atlantic, and Mesopotamia, were beyond all measure and comprehension. When, for example, the British army retired, bloodied and hurt, at the end of the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, it had taken nearly sixty thousand casualties, around twenty thousand fatal. (To give some perspective, U.S. forces’ losses in more than twenty-five years’ fighting in Vietnam were around fifty-eight thousand.) This mutual leaching of the strength and manhood of all the combatant nations had immense consequences, unintended by the decision makers of 1914 who had disregarded the warnings of prewar liberals that modern industrial conflict would shake the pillars of Western life and society. The war shifted the balance of economic power across the Atlantic and undermined Europe’s hegemony. It led to the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Romanov, and Habsburg empires and to the creation of myriad successor states. It transformed the Middle East. It advanced Japan’s claims in the Pacific and Far East. It allowed the Bolshevik Revolution and boosted the tendencies toward Fascism elsewhere in Europe.

The war also led, in almost equal measure, to unexpected and radical domestic consequences. It furthered the cause of labor, since modern warfare could not function without the recruitment of the masses. It advanced the liberation of women, at least in the West, since they, too, could not be recruited without trade-offs. It encouraged the growth of the welfare state, since politicians on all sides promised their warring proletariats “a home fit for heroes.” It increased the Exchequer’s penetration into the economy, since this total war called for vastly increased expenditures, and vastly increased taxes, upon virtually everything that moved or stayed still. The First World War, in a nutshell, created the modern age.6

This catastrophe stimulated, as a reaction, the revival of the Tennysonian idea that humankind simply had to bring their nations together before they destroyed the world. Within a year or so of the first battles, individuals in various countries—Lord Robert Cecil in Britain, Léon Bourgeois in France, the South African general Jan Smuts, President Woodrow Wilson, and his adviser Colonel Edward House—drafted schemes for a postwar organization of states that would prevent any future conflagration, through structures of con- sultation and arbitration. The victory of the Allied Powers in No- vember 1918 allowed those ideas to become the matter for serious political negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference (it is doubtful if the victory of Wilhelmine Germany would have led to talks leading to world organization). The result was the Covenant of the League of Nations, a treaty whose clauses laid out a set of rules and procedures that League members pledged to observe in the pacific settlement of all future disputes. Every sovereign nation, large or small (except for a while the defeated Central Powers), could register for membership and participate in the deliberations and decisions of this new body.

While contemporaries marveled at the revolutionary and unprecedented nature of the League, with Wilson in particular praising the arrrival of a new international setup, it is important to notice the extent to which the Covenant built upon the nineteenth-century Concert system rather than replacing it. The committee that drafted the Covenant consisted of representatives of the five victor powers (the British Empire, France, the United States, Italy, and Japan), joined by some smaller states. Essentially, though, this critical document was the work of Wilson and House on the one hand and Cecil and Smuts on the other. All were for a more open and inclusive international order, but none intended to rock the boat. Inis Claude, the great historian of the United Nations, puts it beautifully and wryly:

[The founders of the League] accepted the independent sovereign state as a basic entity, the great powers as the predominant participants, and Europe as the central core of the world political system. They felt no sense of failure or inadequacy when they created a League which did not represent a fundamental alteration of the old system, since they regarded that system as basically sound and workable. World War I was to them not an indication that war is the typical and necessary result of the existence of sovereign states, but a warning that accidents can happen. The task to which they set themselves was that of creating safety devices to obviate the repetition of such an unfortunate breakdown as had occurred in 1914.7

Thus, there would be an Assembly of all the (noncolonized) nations of the globe, but its meetings in neutral Geneva would be occasional, and real weight would lie with the Council of the League of Nations, whose nine members automatically included the five victor powers, the other four seats being for rotating members, usually elected on a regional basis. The world system had indeed advanced from the mere pentarchy of states that ran the show after 1814; yet the League’s arrangements, like those that emerged from the San Francisco conference in 1945, were a compromise between the more egalitarian instincts of the smaller and medium-size nations and the claims to privilege of the powerful few—with the latter having the upper hand.

Nevertheless, this was the closest the world community had come to creating a parliament of man, and its proceedings generated much excitement and hope throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. It was only later that the view developed that the League experiment had been worthless. In its early stages, though, the optimism seemed justified. Here, for the first time in the history of humankind, there existed an international organization, with headquarters in a settled neutral state, which was committed to ways of solving problems through peaceful means and thus avoiding the recourse to war. Much of the world was to be fascinated at the regular and extraordinary meetings in Geneva, and many rejoiced at the promise it offered. Small states especially—such as Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Finland, and Colombia—felt that at last they had some place at high table.

Progress toward international cooperation advanced on four parallel fronts during the 1920s. The first was at what might be described as the merely technical level—except that much of their work was not “merely” at all. The International Labour Organization (ILO) had commenced its important reviews of labor standards. There was an Opium Commission and an older committee to prevent what was called “white slave traffic” (international forced prostitution). There were agreements on civil aviation, which was swiftly exploding in the 1920s. International postal and telegraph unions flourished, as did maritime arrangements. Most of these were intergovernmental organizations and thus not directly under the League’s control. Still, they were a part of the evolving international architecture and were increasingly associated with the League. Even the Americans and Soviets, usually suspicious of entanglements abroad, began to appreciate that international structures were not always a bad thing. It is interesting to note that it was these technical bodies that were to enjoy the greatest respect and that most of them would be absorbed into the larger United Nations family by the late 1940s.

It was obvious to all why air traffic control, or opium control, was uncontentious. They simply were needed for civilized life to go on. By contrast, it was at the political level, and especially the territorial level, that serious quarrels occurred. Even here, the League had successes. It brokered a Finnish-Swedish dispute over the Aaland Islands as early as 1920. It supervised, through a high commissioner, the Free City of Danzig. It carried out a plebiscite in the disputed districts of Eupen and Malmédy, awarding both to Belgium. It had a far harder task to achieve settlements of the Polish-Lithuanian disputes over Vilna and Memel and even more over the Council’s 1922 boundary award on the impossible German-Polish disputes over the future of Upper Silesia, where the two populations lived cheek by jowl. Rejecting British and Turkish arguments, it decided in 1924 that the former Ottoman province of Mosul should go to Iraq—and Britain accepted. Although there was much grumbling (and, in the case of the division of Upper Silesia, nationalist fury in Germany), Zara Steiner is surely correct in remarking that the League’s participation in these tricky disputes “made it easier for the loser to accept unwelcome judgements.”8

Other positive aspects of the League’s political endeavors are worth noting. The first was the insistence (chiefly by the Anglo-Americans at Versailles) upon the recognition and protection of ethnic rights. This was first pushed upon the new Polish regime in 1919 (including the recognition of Jewish rights), then extended to a slew of other new states in Central and Southeastern Europe. There were complaints against this double standard of requiring only new states to be fair in their treatment of minorities, although it was also true that pogroms and other injustices were most likely to occur in recently established and precarious nations such as Albania, Latvia, Poland, and Yugoslavia. There was no need to require, say, Norway to preserve the rights of ethnic minorities. Not all, or many, of the thirteen states that had recognized minorities as “collective entities” carried out their League pledges. But at least they knew they were under some sort of international scrutiny.

In an ironic way, so, too, were the imperial Great Powers themselves subject to scrutiny, since in the Versailles arrangements they had agreed to inspect—or at least to report on—their “mandated” territories, those lands seized from the German and Turkish empires during the First World War. The British complied best, though coolly. The French hated any oversight of what they were doing in Syria and Lebanon. And the Japanese simply refused all requests to report on how they were administering the central Pacific islands they had seized from Germany in 1914. Still, however unevenly the mandate reports turned out to be in practice, precedents were being set regarding accountability to some higher body than the nation-state.

The third area in which advances occurred in the international system lay outside the League itself, in a set of Great Power treaties, very much in Bismarckian style. Yet they were significant nonethe- less. In 1921–22, the United States, the British Empire, Japan, France, and Italy signed a series of accords in Washington, D.C. These were very detailed agreements upon comparative naval strengths, forti- fied bases, and respect for China’s independence, along with solemn pledges for perpetual peace in the Far East. The real point to note is that, while producing the first ever treaty to limit naval strength (not only in overall numbers of various classes of warship, but in their displacement and the size of their guns) and being thus in its way a remarkable breakthrough in arms negotiations, it was still an “old boy” deal, as among the five largest naval powers.

The same might be said about the famous 1925 Treaties of Locarno. This was the contract that was widely supposed at the time to have “buried” the First World War. Germany, France, and Belgium agreed to recognize their 1919 boundaries in Europe and not transgress them—a critical French anxiety. Britain and Italy declared they would take up arms against any or each of the three prime signatories that violated the deal. Locarno was, alas, full of inconsistencies, but it didn’t seem to matter.9 There was general rejoicing at this act of reconciliation. In the giddy age of the mid-1920s, all was well in the world.

This frivolity was driven by a fourth factor, the remarkable (and yet fragile) economic recovery of the era. Europe had of course been badly hurt by the First World War, and the years immediately following were grim. But the economic stabilization projects regarding war debts and reparations (the Dawes Plan of 1924 and the Young Committee of 1929), plus the flow of short-term American investments into Europe during the 1920s, created a minor miracle. Industries such as automobiles, aircraft, and chemicals boomed. Housing starts were up, and the middle classes began touring abroad again. The new system of peace seemed to be working.

Yet for all the hopes placed in the League, and the various advances made in the growth of international civic society after 1919, the system failed within less than two decades of its founding. Perhaps no global machinery for keeping the peace could have survived the lingering ideological hatreds, economic dislocations, and primal passions that coexisted with the Locarno optimism. But the League was in any case cruelly flawed from its inception, and as the 1920s moved into the 1930s, its weaknesses became more and more evident.

To begin with, it was never a real world organization, only a partial one. About half of the globe was still in a condition of colonial dependency, lacking representation (and at least two advanced nations, Japan and Italy, were out to increase their imperial holdings). The vast Russian lands, torn by civil war and then transformed into the mysterious, isolated Soviet Union, had no place in the system— indeed, although Moscow joined certain technical agencies, it regarded the League itself as a form of capitalist conspiracy that had to be opposed (until, that is, the mid-1930s, when the USSR deftly joined the organization following Germany’s departure). Japan paid mere lip service to the League. The defeated Germany was not allowed membership until 1926; Hitler marched it out in 1933. That was a seven-year stint, beaten only in its brevity by that of the Soviet Union, which was expelled in early 1940 after its invasion of Finland—the one country to be voted out of membership of the League. Wilson had argued years earlier that only nations committed to democracy should be members of the League; he would have been sorely disappointed at the list of those within the club by the mid-1930s.

Most important, the Geneva-based body lacked American participation as a result of Wilson’s angry confrontation with, and defeat by, the U.S. Senate. Thus, the country that had pushed hardest for the creation of an international security system—and by that time was the most powerful nation on the planet—was absent from the world stage. Not only was it absent; its actions, and more often its inaction, operated as a drag upon efforts at international cooperation. Its angry demands for the repayment of Allied war debts soured transatlantic relations throughout the 1920s and complicated negotiations over German reparations. Its wariness during the 1931–34 Manchurian crisis prevented any possible coordinated action by the West that might have made Japan act more cautiously. Its continued trading with Italy (especially in oil supplies) during the Abyssinian crisis of 1935–36 caused a worried British government to drop the idea of a total commercial blockade of Mussolini’s Fascist regime. And Roosevelt’s habit in the late 1930s of encouraging Britain and France to be stalwart against Hitler’s aggressions while at the same time publicly insisting upon American neutrality drove Neville Chamberlain crazy.10 This was not helpful at all.

From the Hardcover edition.
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