The Idea of a League of Nations

"What has happened is essentially this, that the natural limitations upon warfare which have existed hitherto appear to have broken down."
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H. G. WELLS, Chairman

H. WICKHAM STEED, VISCOUNT GREY, GILBERT MURRAY, LIONEL CURTIS, J. A. SPENDER, WILLIAM ARCHER, Secretary, A. E. ZIMMERN, VISCOUNT BRYCE

I.

Unification of human affairs, to the extent at least of a cessation of war and a worldwide rule of international law, is no new idea; it can be traced through many centuries of history. It is found as an acceptable commonplace in a fragment, De Republica, of Cicero. It has, indeed, appeared and passed out of the foreground of thought, and reapeared there, again and again.

Hitherto, however, if only on account of the limitations of geographical knowledge, the project has rarely been truly world-wide, though in some instances it has comprehended practically all the known world. Almost always there has been an excluded fringe of barbarians and races esteemed as less than men.

The Roman Empire realized the idea in a limited sphere and in a mechanical, despotic fashion. It was inherent in the propaganda of Islam—excluding the unbeliever. It may be said that the political unity of Christendom overriding states and nations was the orthodox and typical doctrine of the Middle Ages. The individual states were regarded as being, in the nature of things, members of one great body politic, presided over by the Pope, or the Emperor, or both. It was the idea of the world supremacy of the Empire which inspired Dante's De Monarchia; but, as Lord Bryce has remarked, 'Dante's book was an epilogue instead of a prophecy.'

It cannot be claimed that history shows any continuously progressive movement of human affairs from a dispersed to a unified condition. Rather it tells a story of the oscillating action of separatist and unifying forces. And the process of civilization itself, if we use the word in its narrower and older sense of the elaboration of citizenship in a political and social organization, and exclude mechanical and scientific progress from it, has on the whole been rather on the side of fragmentation. It was, for example, much easier for loosely organized tribes and village communities scattered over wide areas to coalesce into vague and often very extensive 'nations,' like the Scythians and Thracians, or to cooperate in 'amplictyonics,' or federations, like the small peoples of central Greece, than for highly developed city-states or fully organized monarchies, possessing a distinctive culture and religion and definite frontiers, to sink these things in any larger union. For such higher forms of political organization, enlargement occurred mainly through conquest., which created unstable empire systems of subject and subordinate peoples under the sway—which might of course be the assimilative sway—of a dominant nation, rather than real unifications.

The Renaissance presents a phase in history in which a large vague unification (Christendom) is seen to be breaking up simultaneously with the appearance of a higher grade of national organization. Machiavelli, with his aspiration toward a united Italy, involving a distintegration of the Empire, opened the phase of the national state in Europe, which reached its fullest development in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Before the Renaissance Europe was far more of a unity than it was at the close of the reign of Queen Victoria, when it consisted mainly of a group of nations, with their national edges sharpened and hardened almost to a maximum, each aspiring to empire and each acutely suspicious of and hostile to its neighbors. The idea of international organization for peace seemed far more Utopian to the normal European intelligence in 1900 than it would have done eight hundred years before.

But while those political and social developments which constitute civilization in the narrower sense of the word were tending to make human societies, as they became more elaborately organized, more heterogeneous and mutually unsympathetic, there were also coming into play throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for the first time, upon a quite unprecedented scale, another series of forces diametrically opposed to human separations. They worked, however, mutely, because the world of thought was unprepared for them. Unprecedented advances in technical and scientific knowledge were occurring, and human cooperation and the reaction of man upon man, not only in material but also in mental things, was being made enormously more effective than it had ever been before. But the phrases of international relationship were not altering to correspond. Phrases usually follow after rather than anticipate reality, and so it was that at the outbreak of the Great War in August, 1914, Europe and the world awoke out of a dream of intensified nationality to a new system of realities which were entirely antagonistic to the continuance of national separations.

It is necessary to state very plainly the nature of these new forces. Upon them rests the whole case for the League of Nations as it is here presented. It is a new case. It is argued here that these forces give us powers novel in history and bring mankind face to face with dangers such as it has never confronted before. It is maintained that, on the one hand, they render possible such a reasoned coordination of human affairs as has never hitherto been conceivable, and that, on the other, they so enlarge and intensify the scope and evil of war and of international hostility as to give what was formerly a generous aspiration more and more of the aspect of an imperative necessity. Under the lurid illumination of the world war, the idea of world-unification has passed rapidly from the sphere of the literary idealist into that of the methodical, practical man, and the task of an examination of its problems and possibilities, upon the scale which the near probability of an actual experiment demands, is thrust upon the world.

All political and social institutions, all matters of human relationship, are dependent upon the means by which mind may react upon mind and life upon life, that is to say upon the intensity, rapidity, and reach of mental and physical communication. In the history of mankind, the great phases seem all to be marked by the appearance of some new invention which facilitates trade or intercourse, and may be regarded as the operating cause of the new phase. The invention of writing, of the wheel and the road, of the ship, of money, of printing, of letters of exchange, of joint-stock undertakings and limited liability, mark distinct steps in the enlargement of human intercourse and cooperation from its original limitation within the verbal and traditional range of the family or tribe.

A large part of the expansion of the Roman Empire, apart from its overseas development, may be considered, for example, as a process of road-making and bridge-building. Even its trans-Mediterranean development was a matter of road-making combined with ship-building. The Roman Empire, like the Chinese, expanded on land to an extremity determined by the new method of road-communication; and sought to wall itself in at last at the limits of its range from its centres of strength. The new chapter of the human story again, which began with the entry of America and the Oceanic lands upon the stage of history, was the direct outcome of that bold sailing out upon the oceans which the mariner's compass, and the supersession of the galley by the development of sails and rigging, rendered possible. The art of printing from movable types released new powers of suggestion, documentation, and criticism, which shattered the old religious organization of Christendom, made the systematic investigations and records of modern science possible, and created the vast newspaper-reading democracies of to-day. The whole of history could, indeed, be written as a drama of human nature reacting to invention.

And we live to-day in a time of accelerated inventiveness and innovation, when a decade modifies the material of inter-communication far more extensively than did any century before, in range, swiftness, and intensity alike. Within the present century, since 1900, there have been far more extensive changes in these things than occurred in the ten centuries before Christ. Instead of regarding Around the World in Eighty Days as an amazing feat of hurry, we can now regard a flight about the globe in fifteen or sixteen days as a reasonable and moderate performance. The teaching of history compels us to recognize in these new facilities factors which will necessarily work out into equally revolutionary social and political consequences. It is the most obvious wisdom to set ourselves to anticipate as far as we can, so as to mitigate and control, the inevitable collisions and repercussions of mankind that are coming upon us. Even if we were to suppose that this rush of novel accelerating contrivances would be presently checked,—and there is little justification for any such supposition,—it would still behoove us to work out the influence which the things already achieved will have upon our kind.

And it is not simply an increase of range and swiftness that we have to consider here, though these are the aspects that leap immediately to the eye. There has also been, for example, a very great increase in the possible vividness of mental impact. In education and in the agencies of journalism and propaganda, there has been an increase of power at present incalculable, owing to vast strides in the printing of pictures, and to the cinematograph, the gramaphone, and similar means of intense world-wide information and suggestion.

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