International peace: one hundred years on.

Author:Hendrickson, David C.

The bequest for the Church Peace Union--the predecessor of today's Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (and the publisher of this journal)--was given by Andrew Carnegie in February 1914. The Church Peace Union subsequently sponsored the first worldwide gathering of religious leaders, which was held in Constance, Germany, on August 2, 1914. Convened under the shadow of an impending war, not all delegates made it to the gathering. Six months previously, Carnegie had stipulated that the Church Peace Union devote its funds to the deserving poor "after the arbitration of international disputes is established and war abolished, as it certainly will be some day." This could happen, he noted, "sooner than expected, probably by the Teutonic nations, Germany, Britain, and the United States first deciding to act in unison, the others joining later." (1) The outbreak of war was a catastrophic blow to such hopes, as the very nations expected to be at the core of this civilized project descended into an orgy of destruction the likes of which the world had never seen.

The poignant clash between idealism and realism, between hopes for international peace and the sordid reality of war, symbolized by the meeting at Constance, suggests the problem for this essay. If the grand search remains, as it was a hundred years ago, one of how to achieve an international system that pushes war to the margins, it is useful to inquire what we have learned over the past century. We are undoubtedly sadder, but are we wiser? The question is particularly insistent for Americans. The United States, which in 1914 barely figured in the military calculations of Europe's Great Powers, emerged in the course of the century as the world's leading military power. Even today, amid fears of national decline and economic distress, the country retains its military dominance. Leaders of both major American political parties pledge to "maintain [U.S.] military superiority in all areas: air, land, sea, space, and cyber." (2) There is, moreover, a national consensus that such progress as has been made regarding international peace is owing to the role that the United States has played in international affairs. While the historian wants to say that the lessons of history are multiple, with rival judgments accompanying the march of events in every particular case, in the United States the popular narrative of the twentieth century is far simpler. It stresses the historic accomplishments of American power and the necessity, if peace is to be achieved, of a continued U.S. willingness to play a vital role as the enforcer of global norms.

I want to question this self-satisfied account. Americans have registered one set of lessons too well--those deriving from the seventy-five year war against German imperialism and Soviet communism. They have forgotten, or want to forget, another set of lessons--those deriving from the history of U.S. involvement in the Philippines and Vietnam, in Nicaragua and Panama, and on to Afghanistan and Iraq. Alongside the existence of the world's most powerful military establishment, which employs a method of war that allows it to deliver death and destruction with precision even from a great distance, we have witnessed an extraordinary expansion of the justifications for using force. Over the past generation alone, the United States has intervened to defeat aggression, to relieve humanitarian suffering, to secure the secession of disgruntled provinces, to prevent other states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, to promote human rights, to expand democracy, and to fight terrorism. Many of these interventions have proved controversial, but none has shaken America's glorification of war and warriors. To its advocates, American military power is the solution to the world's ills, the primary ingredient in any recipe for the achievement of international peace. A far more critical appraisal is required.


In the first decade of the twentieth century an organized peace movement grew up in the United States, of which Andrew Carnegie was one of the foremost leaders. Its sensibility is not easy to recapture today; it has labored long under the historical judgment that it was made up of "utopian idealists" whose ideas for how peace might be achieved were other-worldly and decidedly impractical. But public opinion suddenly seemed seized with the issue: "A rub-a-dub agitation once carried on in holes-in-walls," as Charles Beard later recalled, "became a national sensation which the most scornful politicians, even Theodore Roosevelt, could scarcely ignore." (3) Among its adherents were pacifists who believed the use of force to be inconsistent with Christian injunction and contrary to America's purpose. But there were others who took a more activist stance, broaching the possibility of military sanctions by a "league of peace" were a nation to refuse arbitration. The peace movement was very much conflicted over whether an international force comparable to that which existed in domestic society would be required, and even most "sanctionists" inclined to the hopeful view that the opinion of the civilized world or economic reprisals would render such appeals unnecessary in nearly all cases. But the movement, though uncertain of the remedy, saw presciently that the world was turning into one global social system and had formed an unprecedented web of interconnection in communication, trade, and technology. Such interdependence made the need for a new peace system--and new multilateral institutions--all the more evident. (4)

As Carnegie's bequest to the Church Peace Union indicates, the idea of international arbitration was the leading idea of the peace movement, but the idea itself was not new. "For more than half a century," former Secretary of State Elihu Root recalled in 1919, "the American government has been urging upon the world" the settlement of international questions by arbitration. "Presidents Grant, Arthur, Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft strongly approved the establishment of a system of arbitration in their messages to Congress." (5) As Root well knew, however, the United States Senate had repeatedly insisted on carving out broad exceptions or reservations in matters concerning national honor or sovereignty during the treaty ratification process--involving anything, in fact, that might actually cause a war--so progress on this score had been slight. Nor was there significant progress toward an international court that would handle justiciable disputes between nations. Disappointment over these setbacks, however, did not seem to be cause for great pessimism for most peace advocates. "Leg over leg the dog went to Dover," emphasized Root. It was in keeping with the gradualist and meliorist character of the American philosophy that progress would take time. The important thing was to start walking along the road. (6)

The early peace movement, often seen as Pollyannaish, was in fact divided with respect to the prospects for international peace. While some expressed unreserved optimism about the world's progress toward the nonviolent settlement of disputes, others saw that the armaments race was threatening disaster. (7) Benjamin Trueblood, the head of the American Peace Society, noted in 1899 that the "utterly inhuman system of militarism" had continued to grow "until it stands to-day, in appalling magnitude, fortified to heaven in the very heart of civilization. There is no tyranny of our time greater than that which it exercises.... Year after year the armies grow and the fleets expand. Year after year the war debts rise and the screw of taxation is turned down mercilessly another thread. Science is incessantly tortured in the hope of wringing from her some new death-dealing instrument, which will give one nation advantage over others." (8) Carnegie agreed with that perspective, which put him in opposition to his sometime friend Theodore Roosevelt. Also writing in 1899, Roosevelt expressed optimism that war among civilized nations was becoming "rarer and rarer." Roosevelt made a career in declaiming against the "peace at any price" men. He believed devoutly that the way to prevent war was to make potential enemies "think twice, thrice, ten times" before resorting to force. (9) Trueblood, the visionary utopian, saw the dangers more accurately than Roosevelt, the archnationalist and supposed realist, but our collective memory chooses to remember the dashed optimism of the peace advocates rather than their prescient warnings about the armaments race. (10)

The outlook of Carnegie's generation of peace advocates that is most difficult to recapture today is their belief in the historical role and meaning of the United States. Today, the old Left and the new Right are as one in viewing the United States, from its origins, as an aggressively expansionist and imperial power--a "dangerous nation" whose recent behavior, especially in Iraq, reflects a long tradition. (11) Far otherwise was the view of the peace advocates. They believed, with Charles Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, that the greatest contribution the United States had made to civilization was in showing a practical way to the abandonment of war as a means of settling international disputes. (12) They celebrated America's long record in utilizing arbitration as a method of diplomacy and pointed proudly to a series of negotiations with the British government, dating from the Jay Treaty of 1794, in which arbitration had figured prominently. (13) With Herbert Spencer, they saw America as the leading representative of an industrial civilization that would sweep away the atavistic remnants of militarism. As historian John Fiske had written in the mid-1880s, in a Spencerian projection that Carnegie shared:

The disparity between the United States, with a standing army of only twenty-five thousand men withdrawn...

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