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1939 and the International Spirit

By Ira L. StraussIra L. Strauss is executive director of the Association to Unite the Democracies in Washington, which grew out of ``Union Now'' in 1939. / September 13, 1989



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.

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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.''

Despite this, the new institutions have thus far prevented the trade and currency wars that ruined the world economy in the 1930s. They have thus far averted a third world war. They have also given Europe its longest period of peace since Roman times. They have reconciled France and Germany. They have enabled democracy to succeed in Western Europe as never before, so that it is the accepted norm for legitimate government throughout Europe and, less rapidly, throughout the world.

Compared to the years 1919 to 1939, international institutions since 1945 have been a spectacular success. Today the worldwide trend toward democracy offers a political opening to fill in many of the gaps in their work. Now is the time to build on their success with major international initiatives.

In Moscow this is clearly seen. The Gorbachev government is reversing all the old Soviet attitudes. It is paying its dues to the UN and promoting an increased role for the UN. It is making peace with its old b^etes noires, the European Community and NATO. It is asking to join the Bretton Woods institutions and even the Group of Seven economic summits. It is calling for new joint institutions to link Europe and Russia in a ``common European home.''

Where, in all this, is America? One might expect the US to leap at the opportunity to complete the projects it launched after 1945. Yet some in the US are disillusioned with international organizations. Their attitude in 1989 is closer to that of 1919, which brought such ruin, than to that of 1939 or 1949, which brought such impressive fruits. The US is standing on the sidelines while the world is being reshaped. It is leaving Europe to Mikhail Gorbachev. It is running the risk of losing the peace, much as it did in 1919, now that it has practically won the cold war.

Many things are being remembered this month about the dark days of 1939. One thing that deserves to be high on the list is the enlightened spirit of Americans and free people everywhere in 1939 on international organization. That spirit enabled free people to bring light out of the darkness.

America needs to recapture that spirit.