In December 1934, Arthur Henderson, a leader of the British Labour Party, declared in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that the immense human suffering caused by World War I “led to the very clear realization that international anarchy must be abandoned if civilization was to survive.”
Unfortunately, that realization did not go very far or very deep. Although, since that time, international law has been refined, nations remain far from adhering to its provisions or accepting its enforcement by the United Nations.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
The lengthy, bloody conflict between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors provides a dramatic illustration of this point.
On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted a plan to replace the British Mandate in Palestine with a partition of that land between a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The UN decision was fiercely resented by the surrounding Arab nations, which launched a war against the new Jewish state, Israel—a war from which Israel emerged victorious in 1948.
This victory did not end the violence, however, or the violations of international law. Having fled abroad from the fighting in 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians, in contravention of international law, were denied the right to return to their homes in Israel. Egypt, which, in 1956, had agreed under UN pressure to the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, expelled UN observers in 1967, massed its troops on Israel’s border, and together with Jordan, readied itself to invade Israel. In turn, Israel launched devastating attacks on Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi military forces. Victorious in this Six-Day War, Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
Over the ensuing decades, numerous violent clashes followed, with Israel, now the dominant military power in the region, defeating Arab and Palestinian resistance. Meanwhile, Israel defied international law by continuing to occupy the territory conquered in 1967, colonizing it with Jewish settlements, and violating the human rights of its Palestinian residents. For their part, Hamas terrorists, dedicated to unremitting war against Israel, committed horrendous war crimes against noncombatants in clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. When the Israeli government deprived Gaza’s civilian population of food, water, and other essentials of survival, it, too, defied international law.
The Russia-Ukraine War
The Russian invasion of Ukraine provides another clear example of flouting international law. Article 2, Section 4 of the UN Charter prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Ukraine had been an independent, sovereign nation since 1991, when the Soviet Union authorized a referendum on whether it wanted to become part of the new Russian Federation or to become independent. In the balloting, 90 percent voted for independence, which was formally accepted. Three years later, in the Budapest Memorandum, the Russian government pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against that nation.
Nevertheless, in 2014 the Putin regime drew upon Russian military power to seize and annex Crimea in southern Ukraine and to arm pro-Russian separatists and unleash its own thinly-disguised military forces in eastern Ukraine. In February 2022, the Russian government, determined to seize full control of Ukraine, launched a massive military invasion. Although fierce resistance by the Ukrainians prevented a complete Russian takeover, that September Putin announced the annexation of four additional regions of Ukraine, declaring that Russia would never surrender them.
Most of the world’s nations assailed this behavior as a flagrant violation of international law. In March 2014, after a Russian veto blocked a UN Security Council rebuke, the UN General Assembly voted by an overwhelming margin to condemn the Russian action that year. In March 2022, amid a new Russian veto of UN Security Council action, the UN General Assembly roundly condemned the full-scale Russian invasion by a vote of 141 to 5 (with 35 abstentions), while the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial authority, voted by 13 to 2 (with Russia’s judge casting one of the negative votes) that Russia should “immediately suspend” its invasion. That October, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 143 nations to 5 (with 35 abstentions), called on all nations to refuse recognition of Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of Ukrainian territory.
The Renewed Nuclear Arms Race
Perhaps the most chilling manifestation of international anarchy is the renewed nuclear arms race. Recognizing the potential for worldwide destruction in a nuclear war and pressed for action by an uneasy public, the nations of the world did, eventually, sign nuclear arms control treaties. Among these agreements was the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, in which non-nuclear nations pledged to forgo building nuclear weapons, while the nuclear nations agreed to divest themselves of their nuclear arsenals. Nevertheless, in recent decades, additional nations have become nuclear powers, while existing nuclear powers have scrapped previous nuclear disarmament agreements. Symptomatically, the nuclear powers oppose the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which became international law in 2021.
Indeed, all the nuclear nations are currently engaged in nuclear weapons buildups―planning and developing new, more efficient weapons of mass destruction. Some government officials, among them Vladimir Putin, publicly threaten to launch nuclear war against nations opposing their international policies.
The planet faces a perilous future, indeed, particularly when one considers that, as of early 2023, it was undergoing the largest number of violent conflicts since World War II.
Against this backdrop, it’s tempting to conclude that, thanks to the apparently ungovernable nature of the world, the annihilation of civilization is inevitable. But is the world ungovernable―or merely lacking an effective government?
Given the fact that the United Nations was created to guarantee international security, a logical solution to the problem of effective governance is to strengthen the ability of the world organization to enforce international law. By curbing international anarchy, this action would prevent marauding nations and armed bands alike from indulging their worst impulses. It would also significantly enhance the prospects for peace, justice, and human survival.
Håkan Dahlström from Malmö, Sweden, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the immensely destructive Ukraine War lies in the fact that it could have been averted.
The most obvious way was for the Russian government to abandon its plan for the military conquest of Ukraine.
The Problem of Russian Policy
The problem on this score, though, was that Vladimir Putin was determined to revive Russia’s “great power” status. Although his predecessors had signed the UN Charter (which prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”), as well as the Budapest Memorandum and the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership (both of which specifically committed the Russian government to respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity), Putin was an ambitious ruler, determined to restore what he considered Russia’s imperial grandeur.
This approach led not only to Russian military intervention in Middle Eastern and African nations, but to retaking control of nations previously dominated by Russia. These nations included Ukraine, which Putin regarded, contrary to history and international agreements, as “Russian land.”
As a result, what began in 2014 as the Russian military seizure of Crimea and the arming of a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine gradually evolved into the full-scale invasion of February 2022―the largest, most devastating military operation in Europe since World War II, with the potential for the catastrophic explosion of the giant Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and even the outbreak of nuclear war.
The official justifications for these acts of aggression, trumpeted by the Kremlin and its apologists, were quite flimsy. Prominent among them was the claim that Ukraine’s accession to NATO posed an existential danger to Russia. In fact, though, in 2014―or even in 2022―Ukraine was unlikely to join NATO because key NATO members opposed its admission. Also, NATO, founded in 1949, had never started a war with Russia and had never shown any intention of doing so.
The reality was that, like the U.S. invasion of Iraq nearly two decades before, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was out of line with both international law and the imperatives of national security. It was a war of choice organized by a power-hungry ruler.
The Problem of UN Weakness
On a deeper level, the war was avoidable because the United Nations, established to guarantee peace and international security, did not take the action necessary to stop the war from occurring or to end it.
Admittedly, the United Nations did repeatedly condemn the Russian invasion, occupation, and annexation of Ukraine. On March 27, 2014, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution by a vote of 100 nations to 11 (with 58 abstentions), denouncing the Russian military seizure and annexation of Crimea. On March 2, 2022, by a vote of 141 nations to 5 (with 35 abstentions), it called for the immediate and complete withdrawal of Russian military forces from Ukraine. In a ruling on the legality of the Russian invasion, the International Court of Justice, by a vote of 13 to 2, proclaimed that Russia should immediately suspend its invasion of Ukraine. That fall, when Russia began annexing the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, the UN Secretary-General denounced that action as flouting “the purposes and principles of the United Nations,” while the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 143 nations to 5 (with 35 abstentions), called on all countries to refuse to recognize Russia’s “illegal annexation” of Ukrainian land.
Tragically, this principled defense of international law was not accompanied by measures to enforce it. At meetings of the UN Security Council, the UN entity tasked with maintaining peace, the Russian government simply vetoed UN action. Nor did the UN General Assembly circumvent the Security Council’s paralysis by acting on its own. Instead, the United Nations showed itself well-meaning but ineffectual.
This weakness on matters of international security was not accidental. Nations―and particularly powerful nations―had long preferred to keep international organizations weak, for the creation of stronger international institutions would curb their own influence. Naturally, then, they saw to it that the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, could act on international security issues only by a unanimous vote of its membership. And even this constricted authority proved too much for the U.S. government, which refused to join the League. Similarly, when the United Nations was formed, the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council were given to five great powers, each of which could, and often did, veto its resolutions.
During the Ukraine War, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky publicly lamented this inability of the United Nations to enforce its mandate. “The wars of the past have prompted our predecessors to create institutions that should protect us from war,” he remarked in March 2022, “but they unfortunately don’t work.” In this context, he called for the creation of “a union of responsible countries . . . to stop conflicts” and to “keep the peace.”
What Still Might Be Done
The need to strengthen the United Nations and, thereby, enable it to keep the peace, has been widely recognized. To secure this goal, proposals have been made over the years to emphasize UN preventive diplomacy and to reform the UN Security Council. More recently, UN reformers have championed deploying UN staff (including senior mediators) rapidly to conflict zones, expanding the Security Council, and drawing upon the General Assembly for action when the Security Council fails to act. These and other reform measures could be addressed by the world organization’s Summit for the Future, planned for 2024.
In the meantime, it remains possible that the Ukraine War might come to an end through related action. One possibility is that the Russian government will conclude that its military conquest of Ukraine has become too costly in terms of lives, resources, and internal stability to continue. Another is that the countries of the world, fed up with disastrous wars, will finally empower the United Nations to safeguard international peace and security. Either or both would be welcomed by people in Ukraine and around the globe.
Although all wars are not imperialist wars, it is remarkable how many imperial conquests have occurred over past centuries.
Mobilizing their military forces, powerful states and, later, nations carved out vast empires at the expense of weaker or less warlike societies. Some of the largest and best-known empires to emerge over the millennia were the Persian, the Chinese, the Mongol, the Ottoman, the Russian, the Spanish, and the British.
The standard policy for these and other empires was to absorb new, conquered lands into their domains, either as parts of the mother country or as colonies. In the eighteenth century, the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires used their military muscle to seize substantial portions of the Western Hemisphere from the native inhabitants. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, imperial conquest accelerated rapidly around the world. By 1913 almost all of Africa had been colonized by European powers, while Imperial Russia, having annexed its neighbors, had become the world’s largest nation. Asia, too, had fallen largely under foreign domination. Meanwhile, the United States, established by a thin string of colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America, expanded across the continent to the Pacific, mostly thanks to successful wars against Mexico and Indian nations. Thereafter it moved on to colonize Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
Rising Resistance to Imperialist Wars
But imperialist conquests didn’t sit well with the emerging democratic spirit of the early twentieth century. They didn’t sit well with the rising socialist movement that denounced imperialism as a tool of the ruling class. They didn’t sit well with subject nationality groups and nations that were beginning to demand national self-determination and independence.
Consequently, as the horrors of World War I engulfed large portions of the globe and as war-weary soldiers and the public turned increasingly against imperialist war aims, government leaders adapted to the new mood. Having, belatedly, brought the United States into an alliance with Britain and France in their war against the Central Powers, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points in January 1918. This document promised no secret imperialist treaties, an adjustment of colonial claims, and a League of Nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity to great and small States alike.” The Fourteen Points evoked an enthusiastic response, including from the young Ho Chi Minh, who turned up at the 1919 Versailles peace conference to press for Vietnam’s independence from French colonial rule.
In many ways, the Versailles peace settlement proved a failure. The promised “self-determination” was limited to Europe, and although the League did establish a “mandate” system to prepare colonies elsewhere for independence, it merely shifted their rulers from the Central Powers to the war’s victors. Moreover, the rising fascist nations—Germany, Italy, and Japan—threw off even a pretense of favoring decolonization and launched imperialist wars in Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Important Breakthroughs and Setbacks After World War II
Ultimately, it took World War II to shatter the old colonial system. In its aftermath, the imperial powers gradually abandoned their colonial rule in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In some cases (for example, in Indonesia, Algeria, and Vietnam), they were driven out by anti-colonial revolutions. More often, however, internal agitation for independence and external pressure by the United Nations led to the advent of self-government, after 1945, in most of the former 80 colonies.
Even so, as the old-style imperialism crumbled, a newer model—replacing outright colonialism with political control through occasional military intervention—arose during the Cold War. For the most part, this new imperialism was practiced by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan and by the United States in Latin America, and Vietnam. With the end of the Cold War, however, even the new imperialism declined.
Therefore, it came as a shock when, this February, the Russian government, having formally recognized Ukraine’s independence in 1994, launched an old-fashioned imperialist war against that nation. Only a few days before the invasion, Vladimir Putin issued a proclamation denying Ukraine’s right to an independent existence and claiming that Ukraine was “Russian land.” Not surprisingly, the UN General Assembly condemned the invasion by a vote of 141 to 5.
Although Putin justified the military assault by claiming that Ukraine’s membership in NATO would provide an existential threat to Russia, that membership was not at all imminent when the invasion occurred. A month later, when President Zelensky offered to have his nation remain neutral in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, Putin ignored the offer. In May, when Finland and Sweden, horrified by the Russian invasion, announced plans to join NATO, Putin failed to halt it. Instead, this October, Russia annexed about a sixth of Ukraine’s territory. Nor has Putin ever renounced gobbling up the rest of Ukraine.
Stopping Imperialist Aggression
Can anything be done to bring an end to imperialist wars?
Yes, several things could be done. One that has been effective on some occasions is to mobilize an anti-imperialist movement in the aggressor nation and elsewhere. Another that has worked is for the colonized to militarily resist the imperialist power―although, of course, the human cost can be enormous. Furthermore, the international community can roundly condemn imperialist wars and refuse to recognize territorial annexations that flow from them.
Ultimately, though, the world needs a strengthened international security system that will reject both the old and the new imperialism. In some ways, the United Nations already provides this framework through the UN Charter, the power to levy economic sanctions, and a structure for the mediation of conflicts. Even so, the world organization is not yet strong enough to wipe out the vestiges of imperialist aggression. No single country―and certainly not the imperial nations of the past―has the credibility and power to tackle this project alone. But the world community might just possess enough wisdom and determination to finish the job it began a century ago.
Even international alliances can unravel when nations confront the insanity of a nuclear holocaust.
An illustration of this point occurred recently, after Vladimir Putin once again threatened Ukraine and other nations with nuclear war. “To defend Russia and our people, we doubtlessly will use all weapons resources at our disposal,” the Russian president said. “This is not a bluff.” In response to this statement and to sharp UN condemnation of Russian nuclear threats, Chinese president Xi Jinping issued a public statement early this November, assailing “the use of, or threats to use nuclear weapons.” To “prevent a nuclear crisis” in Europe or Asia, he insisted, the world should “advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used” and “a nuclear war cannot be waged.”
Aren’t these two nuclear-armed nations currently aligned in their resistance to U.S. foreign policy? Yes, they are, and when it came to Putin’s war upon Ukraine, Xi refrained from suggesting a Russian withdrawal. But nuclear war, as the Chinese leader made clear, was simply not acceptable.
This was not the first time a Russian-Chinese alliance was ruffled by a dispute over the use of nuclear weapons. An even deeper conflict occurred during the late 1950s and early 1960s when, ironically, the roles of the two nations were exactly the reverse.
At that time, the Chinese government, led by Mao Zedong, was embarked on a crash program to develop nuclear weapons. In October 1957, China’s weapons program secured a major gain when the Russian and Chinese governments signed the New Defense Technical Accord, in which the Russians agreed to supplementing the nuclear assistance they had already provided to the Chinese by supplying them with a prototype atomic bomb, missiles, and useful technical data.
But Russian officials soon had reason to doubt the wisdom of assisting China’s nuclear weapons development program. As Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev recalled, the following month, at a Moscow conclave of Communist party leaders from around the world, Mao gave a speech on nuclear war that startled those in attendance. According to the Soviet leader, the “gist” of Mao’s speech was: “We shouldn’t fear war. We shouldn’t be afraid of atomic bombs and missiles. No matter what kind of war breaks out―conventional or thermonuclear―we’ll win.” When it came to China, Mao reportedly said, “we may lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass, and we’ll get to work producing more babies than ever before.”
Khrushchev found Mao’s remarks “deeply disturbing,” and recalled with irritation: “Everybody except Mao was thinking about how to avoid war. Our principal slogan was ‘On with the Struggle for Peace and Peaceful Coexistence.’ Yet here came Mao . . . saying we shouldn’t be afraid of war.’ In early 1958, as Soviet doubts increased about the reliability of China’s leadership in dealing with nuclear weapons, Khrushchev decided to postpone shipment of the prototype atomic bomb to China.
Eventually, the Soviet government not only withdrew its assistance to the Chinese nuclear weapons program in 1960, but took steps that placed the Soviet Union at loggerheads with the Chinese leadership. Key among these steps was working out an agreement on a nuclear test ban treaty with the governments of the United States and Britain—an agreement that, in part, was designed to block the ability of China to become a nuclear power. This Soviet shift toward a nuclear arms control and disarmament treaty with the West was bitterly opposed by China’s rulers, who were determined to develop nuclear weapons and, by 1964, succeeded in doing so. Meanwhile, the Sino-Soviet rift grew ever more heated, with the Chinese pulling out of the Soviet-dominated World Peace Council and ferociously competing with the Russians for leadership of the world Communist movement.
There are some lessons that can be learned from these incidents, in which major powers displayed signs of veering toward nuclear war. The obvious one is that even military allies might balk, at times, when they see an international confrontation slipping toward a nuclear disaster. Another, less evident, is that nations with access to nuclear weapons are not necessarily restrained from threatening or waging nuclear war by the prospect of nuclear retaliation from other nuclear powers. Or, to put it another way, nuclear deterrence is unreliable. Above all, these events and others underscore the fact that, while nuclear weapons exist, the world remains in peril.
Fortunately, abolishing nuclear weapons before they destroy the world is not an utterly utopian prospect. Thanks to popular pressure and disarmament treaties, the number of nuclear weapons around the globe has been reduced since 1986 from about 70,000 to 12,700. Moreover, a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, crafted and approved by an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations, went into effect in January 2021.
Unfortunately, none of the world’s nine nuclear powers has signed or ratified this nuclear weapons abolition treaty. Until they do so and, therefore, stop producing, stockpiling, and distributing nuclear weapons to other countries, the world will continue to live in a state of nuclear peril, subject only to occasional flashes of sanity by these same nuclear-armed nations.
Surely, people around the world deserve a better future.
The war in Ukraine provides us with yet another opportunity to consider what might be done about the wars that continue to ravage the world.
The current Russian war of aggression is particularly horrific, featuring a massive military invasion of a smaller, weaker nation, threats of nuclear war, widespread war crimes, and imperial annexation. But, alas, this terrible war is but one small part of a history of violent conflict that has characterized thousands of years of human existence.
Is there really no alternative to this primitive and immensely destructive behavior?
One alternative, which has long been embraced by governments, is to build up a nation’s military might to such an extent that it secures what its proponents call “Peace through Strength.” But this policy has severe limitations. A military buildup by one nation is perceived by other nations as a danger to their security. As a result, they usually respond to the perceived threat by strengthening their own armed forces and forming military alliances. In this situation, an escalating atmosphere of fear develops that often leads to war.
Actually, governments are not entirely wrong about their perception of danger, for nations with great military power really do bully and invade weaker countries. Furthermore, they wage wars against one another. These sad facts are not only demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but by the past behavior of other “great powers,” including Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, China, and the United States.
If military strength brought peace, war would not have raged over the centuries or, for that matter, be raging today.
Another war-avoidance policy that governments have turned to on occasion is isolation, or, as its proponents sometimes say, “minding one’s own business.” Sometimes, of course, isolationism does keep an individual nation free from the horrors of a war engaged in by other nations. But, of course, it does nothing to stop the war—a war that, ironically, might end up engulfing that nation anyway. Also, of course, if the war is won by an aggressive, expansionist power or one grown arrogant thanks to its military victory, the isolated nation might be next on the victor’s agenda. In this fashion, short-term safety is purchased at the price of longer-term insecurity and conquest.
The More Promising Alternative
Fortunately, there is a third alternative―one that major thinkers and even, at times, national governments have promoted. And that is strengthened global governance. The great advantage of global governance is its replacement of international anarchy with international law. What this means is that, instead of a world in which each nation looks exclusively after its own interests―and thus, inevitably, ends up in competition and, eventually, conflict with other nations―there would be a world structured around international cooperation, presided over by a government chosen by the people of all nations. If this sounds a bit like the United Nations, that is because, in 1945, toward the end of the most destructive war in human history, the world organization was created with something like that in mind.
Unlike “peace through strength” and isolationism, the jury is still out when it comes to the usefulness of the United Nations along these lines. Yes, it has managed to pull the nations of the world together to discuss global issues and to create global treaties and rules, as well to avert or end many international conflicts and to use UN peacekeeping forces to separate groups engaged in violent conflict. It has also sparked global action for social justice, environmental sustainability, world health, and economic advance. On the other hand, the United Nations has not been as effective as it should be, especially when it comes to fostering disarmament and ending war. All too often the international organization remains no more than a lonely voice for global sanity in a world dominated by powerful, war-making nations.
The logical conclusion is that, if we want the development of a more peaceful world, the United Nations should be strengthened.
How the United Nations Could Be Strengthened
One of the most useful measures that could be taken would be to reform the UN Security Council. As things now stand, any one of its five permanent members (the United States, China, Russia, Britain, and France) can veto UN action for peace. And this is often what they do, enabling Russia, for example, to block Security Council action to end to its invasion of Ukraine. Wouldn’t it make sense to scrap the veto, or change the permanent members, or develop a rotating membership, or simply abolish the Security Council and turn over action for peace to the UN General Assembly―an entity that, unlike the Security Council, represents virtually all nations of the world?
Other measures to strengthen the United Nations are not hard to imagine. The world organization could be provided with taxing power, thus freeing it from the necessity for begging nations to cover its expenses. It could be democratized with a world parliament representing people rather than their governments. It could be bolstered with the tools to go beyond creating international law to actually enforcing it. Overall, the United Nations could be transformed from the weak confederation of nations that currently exists into a more cohesive federation of nations―a federation that would deal with international issues while individual nations would deal with their own domestic issues.
Against a backdrop of thousands of years of bloody wars and the ever-present danger of a nuclear holocaust, hasn’t the time arrived to dispense with international anarchy and create a governed world?