It has become a cliché to observe that the First World War served as the launching pad for almost everything of international consequence during the long and painful subsequent century. But one consequence, in the very long run, could prove greater than any other: It ultimately gave rise to a movement to abolish war through the political, institutional, and constitutional unification of humankind.
How Could Any War End War?
The contention that the Great War might serve as “the war to end war” originated with author H.G. Wells in a series of articles released just months after the start of the conflict. Wells argued that the unprecedented scope and scale of the war, combined with globalization, presented the opportunity for humanity to find a way to govern itself as a single unified community.
Wells argued that war between nation-states, as well as the maintaining of permanent military forces by each state to defend itself against all others, could be abolished by the creation of a supranational state. Wells hoped that the end of the Great War would bring about the final consummation of this idea.
Once, There was a Movement to End War
Wells died in 1946, deeply despondent about the human prospect in the wake of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. However, those atrocities did bring about a brief but incandescent social movement, which proclaimed that the abolition of war — in the wake of the peril now posed by the prospect of global atomic war — was both an absolute necessity and an achievable historical goal.
In the years immediately following World War II, the world government idea was heatedly discussed and debated in dormitories, cocktail lounges, dinner parties, and symposia of every sort. For about five years, the movement to bring about a world republic was every bit as much a social and political force as the women’s rights and gender identity and racial justice movements today, or the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements in the 1960s, or the labor movement and women’s suffrage movements in the first few decades of the century.
Prominent figures of the day openly advocated the establishment of a world republic, and the idea even attracted formal American legislative support. No less than 30 state legislatures in the U.S. passed resolutions in favor of world government. And a 1949 joint resolution in the U.S. Congress, which declared that “it should be a fundamental objective of the foreign policy of the United States to support and strengthen the United Nations and to seek its development into a world federation,” was co-sponsored by 111 representatives and senators of both parties, including future presidents John Kennedy and Gerald Ford.
World Peace Through World Law
Today, prominent individuals with a large historical vision occasionally put the idea of a world state on the table. “If you ever wanted an argument for world government, climate change provides it,” said Bill McKibben in 2017, arguably the most prominent environmental advocate in the world. In 2015, Bill Gates gave a wide-ranging interview to the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung about the global landscape. In it, he said: “The UN system has failed … We are ready for war … We have NATO, we have divisions, jeeps, trained people. But what is it with epidemics? … If there were such a thing as a world government, we would be better prepared.” And in 2017, Stephen Hawking, “Since civilization began, aggression has been useful inasmuch as it has definite survival advantages … Now, however, technology has advanced at such a pace that this aggression may destroy us all … We need to control this inherited instinct by our logic and reason … This might mean some form of world government.”
But despite these outliers, the idea that something like a world federation might someday serve as the solution to the problem of war is conspicuous mostly by its absence from the public policy debate. Most people are neither for it nor against it, because most people have never thought about it, and may not have even heard of it.
But the idea might yet rise again, for the same reasons that drove Wells to make “the world state” his most passionate cause and conviction a full century ago. While many Americans embrace nationalism, many others in the U.S. and around the world insist that one’s allegiance to one’s nation can be accompanied by one’s allegiance to humanity.
“A federation of all humanity,” said Wells, “together with a sufficient measure of social justice to ensure health, education, and a rough equality of opportunity to most of the children born into the world, would mean such a release and increase of human energy as to open a new phase in human history.” Perhaps, some distant day, that just might become the war that will end war.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.