Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institute, provides us an excellent overview of human political history enriched by personal experiences and comments, all organized to show how humanity is slowly but surely creating ever larger political units to the point where now the next step is a creation of a global nation, a politically unified community that encompasses the whole Earth. Talbott gave us his general viewpoint in his 1992 article in TIME when he said, “I’ll bet that within the next hundred years . . . nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single, global authority” (pp. 126-27) He now adds,”I have qualified my forecast somewhat, but not in essence” (p. 127). The book’s vast historical sweep, apparent in the subtitle, is also evident in the three parts into which the 405-page survey is divided: “The Imperial Millennia” (roughly up to 1914), “The American Centuries” (roughly up to the end of the Cold War in 1990), and “The Unipolar Decades” (from 1991 to the present). There are also another 71 pages of notes in this carefully documented work.
This book is a dramatic erudite narrative of human history told by a top-notch American scholar with an insider’s view of current events. Strobe Talbott and Bill Clinton shared a house while both were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University (p.17), and Talbott later was asked by Clinton to be his Deputy Secretary of State. Talbott’s own account of his life and career, which includes 21 years with TIME, is in the “Introduction” (page 11).
World federalists will especially enjoy reading chapter 10 titled “The Master Builder,” which covers the end of World War II, the beginning of the U.N., and the all-too-brief flourishing of the world federalist movement. Most readers will be surprised to learn that Harry Truman, from the time he graduated from high school in 1901, carried a scrap of paper in his wallet on which were written 12 lines of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall,” including the lines “Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d, In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.” Talbott notes that “Truman recopied this text by hand as many as forty times during his life” (p.184) and that in a 1951 conversation with author John Hersey Truman said, “Notice that part about universal law. . . . We’re going to have that someday. I guess that’s what I’ve really been working for ever since I first put that poetry in my pocket” (p. 210).
The negative reaction of world federalists to the U.N. plus their arguments for a radical change are described in detail. One example is this quotation from Einstein’s September 1945 letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer: “The wretched attempts to achieve international security, as it is understood today by our governments, do not alter at all the political structures of the world, do not recognize at all the competing sovereign nation-states as the real cause of conflicts. Our governments and the people do not seem to have drawn anything from past experience and are unable or unwilling to think the problem through. The conditions existing today force the individual states, for the sake of their own security based on fear, to do all those things which inevitably produce war. At the present state of industrialism, with the existing complete integration of the world, it is unthinkable that we can have peace without a real governmental organization to create and enforce law on individuals in their international relations. Without such an over-all solution to give up-to-date expression to the democratic sovereignty of the peoples, all attempts to avoid specific dangers in the international field seem to me illusory” (p. 197).
The book also contains several statements that suggest that world federalist ideas are having some influence in unexpected places. For example, Talbott notes that in the first edition of his 1948 classic POLITICS AMONG NATIONS prominent realist political theorist Hans Morgenthau noted that “the argument of the advocates of the world state is unanswerable. There can be no permanent international peace without a state coextensive with the confines of the political world [and] a radical transformation of the existing international society of sovereign nations into a supranational community of individuals” (p. 198). In 1992 Ronald Reagan said that he could foresee “a standing UN force–an army of conscience–that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out human sanctuaries through force if necessary” (p. 258). In his 2006 farewell address at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “The United States has given the world an example of a democracy in which everyone, including the most powerful, is subject to legal restraint. Its current moment of world supremacy gives it a priceless opportunity to entrench the same principles at the global level” (p. 391).
Talbott provides interesting inside accounts of crucial events and international meetings during the years of the Clinton administration as well as an insightful analysis of the actions and views of individuals in the current Bush administration. His last chapter, “The Crucial Years,” focuses on the upcoming U.S. Presidential election and the policies Talbott believes the United States should adopt as well as the issues that must be addressed. “The next administration should . . . waste no time in demonstrating that respect for international law is once again part of the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy” (p. 393). There should be greater support for the United Nations, but beyond that “the UN needs to be incorporated into an increasingly variegated network of structures and arrangements–some functional in focus, others geographic; some intergovernmental, others based on systematic collaboration with the private sector, civil society, and NGOs” (p. 394). The United States should “encourage regional organizations to develop their own capacities as well as habits of cooperation with one another and with the UN itself” (p. 395). Also “ensuring a peaceful twenty-first century will depend in large measure on narrowing the divide between those who feel like winners and those who feel like losers in the process of globalization” (p. 395).
With regard to the most urgent problems to be tackled Talbott points to “two clear and present dangers. One is a new wave of nuclear-weapons proliferation; the other is a tipping point in the process of climate change. These mega-threats can be held at bay in the crucial years immediately ahead only through multilateralism on a scale far beyond anything the world has achieved to date” (p. 395). Talbott concludes with this comment: “By solving [these] two problems that are truly urgent, we can increase the chances that eventually . . . the world will be able to ameliorate or even solve other problems that are merely very important. Whether future generations make the most of such a world, and whether they think of it as a global nation or just as a well-governed international community, is up to them. Whether they have the choice is up to us” (p. 401). It seems to this reviewer that Talbott strays from his own basic insights when he suggests that the nuclear proliferation problem might be resolved by multilateralism on a grand scale in the absence of a prior revolutionary change to the global nation system (that is, to a world federation) which would substantially restrict national sovereignty.