How To Think About War and Peace

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How To Think About War and Peace

Mortimer J.
Fordham University Press (307 pages)
Reviewed By:
Ronald J

This book is a classic presentation of the argument for why the world community needs a federal world government.  Writing at the height of World War II in 1943 Mortimer J. Adler focuses on the key questions, "What is the basic cause of war?' and "What needs to be done to have lasting world peace?"

Adler first distinguishes between the notion of the inner peace of individuals and the political peace within the global community.  He notes that it is only during the last 400 years that humans have begun thinking seriously about how to develop the political institutions that can maintain a peaceful society.  On that issue pessimists think that such perpetual social peace is simply impossible or at least improbable in the near future. They see that a world federation could produce a peaceful world, but they believe that national loyalties, cultural differences, and economic rivalries will never allow that.   Optimists recognize that an enduring world government must be federal where local internal sovereignty is maintained while external sovereignty which opens the way to wars is eliminated.  Such a world government must be constitutional and based on political justice and liberty for all.  Optimists believe that war, like chattel slavery, is a defect in society that can be removed.  There have always been wars, but there have also always been peaces or truces.  We must distinguish between the ultimate goal of establishing enduring peace and not merely truces.   The only way to get lasting world peace is to establish a democratic federal world government.

Adler points out that civil peace is always the result of good government.  With government peace continues to exist even in the presence of factors that are often regarded as causes of war. "[E]verything which has ever been regarded as a cause of war operates within a single [governed] community without causing war." (p. 73)   When we consider the matter carefully, we can see that "anarchy is the only controllable cause of war." (p. 75)

With regard to understanding what a world federation is, nothing is more important than a clear understanding about "sovereignty" and its relation to war and peace.  Adler explains that the German philosopher Hegel claimed that nations have a natural and inalienable right to sovereignty.  If that were so, one could never have a legitimate world government where the right of nations to ultimate sovereignty could be transferred to that higher government.  Adler argues in response that it is crucial to note how the issue of sovereignty has changed from the past when there were individual sovereigns viewed as having unlimited authority.  Now that republics are based on a constitution and the sovereignty of the people no individuals can any longer be such sovereigns.  We now must distinguish between the internal aspect of sovereignty and the external aspect of sovereignty. The internal sense refers to "an attribute of civil government in relation to the individual men who are subject to its laws and administration." (p. 85). National governments are sovereign over individuals living voluntarily within their territory.  That is, there is no higher or external authority to which those individuals can appeal.  The external sense of sovereignty refers to "an attribute of the political community as a whole, including its government, but now in relation to other distinct, and independent societies." (p.85)  In this external sense, sovereignty has always been at the heart of the problem of war and the relations of nations to each other.  Hegel is right that if there were a world government the nations would no longer have this external kind of sovereignty because they would be subject to the sovereignty of the world government.  "The word "sovereign" can no longer be used to designate a man.  It now designates the government of a community which has framed and adopted its own constitution." (p. 88)  "A community of the world's peoples, living together under government, will not be a society of nations, but a society of men . . ." (p. 120)  After we are clear about popular sovereignty, we can better understand the difference between a confederation like the UN where external national sovereignty remains unlimited and a democratic world federation where the external sovereignty of national governments is limited by a world constitution (pp. 143-45).  We will also realize why in a world federation there is no room for totalitarian national governments where the people are not sovereign.

The first two theoretical parts of the book discussed to this point deal with "The Problem of Peace" and "The Possibility of Peace."  The last two parts are "The Probability of Peace" and "The Practicality of Peace."  In the first chapter of the third part, Adler presents his optimistic perspective that over time progress gradually occurs, but setbacks occur too.  "The spread of constitutional government and . . . the gradual democratization of the world are phases in the progress toward lasting world-wide peace." (p.187)  Because of modern technology "the whole world now forms a single economic community." (p. 227)  Racial and cultural differences are impediments that can be overcome, but the big obstacle for a democratic world government is that all the constituent states would have to be constitutional (p. 239, p. 276).  Adler's persuasive argumentation based on this point shows how democratic peoples have no reason to fear a democratic world federation.   As long as government is based on popular sovereignty there is no fundamental difficulty in transferring some of that sovereignty from the national level to the global level.  In his final chapter he observes that "perpetual peace will never be made unless the work is begun by generations of men who will not live to see it accomplished." (p. 301)

The 1995 introduction by John Logue is well worth reading on its own.  Adler wrote the book before the United Nations was established and atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  On pages xii-xx Professor Logue provides an insightful review of events from the end of World War II in 1945 to the writing of his 1995 introduction.  On pages xx-xxxiv he analyzes why the world federation alternative is being ignored even though it provides the alternative which the USA should be promoting on the basis of its own history and traditions    On pages xxxv-xxxvi he discusses three ways that the global community might move from the inadequate UN to a world of lasting peace under a democratic world federation, but unfortunately none of them seem likely to happen in the near future.

On page xli Clifton Fadiman in his "A Plea to the Reader" succinctly summarizes Adler's basic message this way [with my specifications inserted on the basis of my own understanding of Adler's careful and very extensive argumentation]:  "Something causes peace. It is [democratic] government. Something will cause world peace.  It is [democratic federal] world government.  Something causes war.  It is anarchy.  Something causes world wars.  It is world anarchy. "