At the end of the war to end all wars — more commonly called World War I — global support for President Woodrow Wilson’s almost Utopian vision of an international organization designed explicitly to prevent future wars was sufficient to create the League of Nations he had envisioned.
Wilson, whose reputation for idealism remains intact to this day, persuaded his foreign counterparts that the new organization would achieve world peace by sponsoring collective security agreements and disarmament and that it could settle the inevitable disputes among nations through negotiation and arbitration.
Well, that didn’t work, largely because in the early 1930s Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain all withdrew. The League of Nations stood in the way of Adolf Hitler’s expansive plans for the Third Reich and Benito Mussolini’s vision for Italy, and that was that. After a life of only 27 years, the League was history.
Idealism fell victim to reality, and World War II quickly followed. But historians tell us that its causes and, in fact, the origins of even more recent conflicts and tensions, can be traced to the winner-take-all way in which the victors treated the losers of the first war. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the terms of which were dictated by the victors (naturally enough), has had a lengthy shelf life.
As the second big war drew to a close in 1945, the world’s leaders decided to try again, and this time the United Nations Organization, or UNO, was created. With lessons learned from the failure of the League of Nations, the founders hoped the new global agency would get the job done.
Almost 70 years later what we have seen is that although the U.N., as it is now known, has struggled at times, it has survived and still enjoys broad, if uneven, support. Significantly, it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, and it remains a vigorous voice for world peace.
It draws its sharpest criticism when one or more members of the Security Council veto a measure popular with the rest of the members. Thus, Russia and China have been roundly denounced for their recent vetoes of measures that would help the rebels in Syria. But guess what? Since 1972, the United States has cast more vetoes than any other member of the council (most of them dealt with issues involving Israel).
In any assessment of the U.N. it is most important to recognize that since its inception there has been no third world war. But look around. Despite the best efforts of the U.N. and those who genuinely believe, as Woodrow Wilson did, that world peace is actually attainable, there’s serious strife all over the globe right now, and at least some of these conflicts are severely testing the U.N.’s peacekeeping capabilities.
And if the U.N. can neither prevent nor end such strife, who can?
Some experts fret that the conditions that led to World War I are much in evidence even today. Back then, unrest in the Balkans contributed — historians still argue about how much — to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.
“The Mideast today bears a worrisome resemblance to the Balkans then,” Margaret MacMillan, the author of “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” and the warden at Antony’s College at Oxford University in England, has written. “A similar mix of toxic nationalism threatens to draw in outside powers as the United States, Turkey, Russia and Iran all look to protect their interests and their clients.”
(She didn’t mention that in the Balkans, the same old tensions — ethnic in their origin — are still in place as rivalries among Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, for example, boil just below the surface and threaten to end the shaky peace that has existed there since the 1990s.)
It is interesting, and perhaps instructive, that the only time after World War II that there was anything resembling genuine peace in that region was when it was ruled by a “benevolent” dictator, Josip Broz Tito, whose death in 1980 led, in time, to the dissolution of the stable state of Yugoslavia.
To say that is not to suggest that the best way to preserve peace in such a culturally and religiously diverse region as the Balkans is to have a dictator calling the shots because the repression of political competition — the lifeblood of a democracy — insulates such leaders from a lot of risk.
But if they’re not wise in their leadership, the risk that does exist may get them in the end. A good example: Romania’s communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was arrested by the nation’s army, then tried and executed, along with his domineering wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 1989, just as the Soviet Union was passing into history.
And it is the absence of wise leaders — Syria, Egypt and now Turkey and South Sudan provide relevant examples — that seems to be causing the most grief today. These leaders haven’t grasped, or rejected, the fundamental truth that a nation’s people want, and need, a voice in their affairs and that disagreement and even competition with the leadership, elected or otherwise, is not grounds for reprisals.
Nor have they been inspired by the splendid example set by Nelson Mandela, who, upon assuming the political leadership of South Africa after spending 27 years in prison, took care to include his critics in his government.
In the end, idealism wasn’t enough to make Woodrow Wilson’s dreams of world peace come true. Reality has a way of intruding, and reality (as they understand it) is the strong suit of cynical leaders. Don’t you wish the U.N. could develop a way to deal with them?
Al Hutchison is a journalist whose career included work at nine daily newspapers in six states and a 15-year stint as publisher of The Recorder, a small daily in Greenfield, Mass.