When the world came together
It’s frankly almost impossible today to imagine the hope and optimism that must have existed in the aftermath of the Second World War for the leaders of the world to have come together to create the United Nations. While there had been precedents for such a global organizing body, like the League of Nations, the resolve and commitment behind the creation and purpose of the UN were unparalleled.
The UN officially began on October 24, 1945, after its Charter had been ratified by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and a majority of other signatories for a total initial membership of 51 countries. There are now 193 member states.
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
– Preamble, UN Charter
Peace, human rights, justice, and progress. Aspirations for a hopeful world. How is it possible that a world that had just witnessed such evil, horrendous, and unprovoked atrocities against mankind in the name of nationalism, racism, fascism, and unbridled ambition could be so optimistic? And how can we today, by comparison, be so cynical?
AND FOR THESE ENDS
to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS.
– Preamble, UN Charter
Is it simply that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to endure a global threat of this magnitude? The threats of similar scale that we see today are arguably so remote that, in the US and other wealthy parts of the Western world, we can ignore them. It’s relatively easy to turn a blind eye, for instance, to threats to human rights in distant places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Yemen, Myanmar, and Syria as well as Africa.
“Anyone could become a refugee. It’s a thing that happens to you, it’s not who you are.”
– Trevor Noah
More problematically, some threats to global well-being are ignored perhaps because we are either morally or ethically complicit or compromised in our stance. As Americans, we want cheap energy or goods but may not want to consider the consequences for global workers or the climate. We may also be reluctant to criticize important and powerful economic partners like China. And other existential threats like climate change are easy to ignore because they develop more slowly so they feel remote in time. For all of these reasons and more, it is sometimes difficult to take a moral stand for peace or justice.
With blatant arrogance and disregard for international law, in advancing his imperialist ambitions in Ukraine, Putin has taken advantage of a world that has grown conflicted and ambivalent in its resolve to fight such threats and bad actors.
With authoritarian undertones and antidemocratic tendencies, the far-right movement in this country and around the world — aided by conspiracy theorists — has eroded the strength of global institutions and weakened the ties that bind countries to each other and to higher moral and ethical standards. And on the far-left, pointing to the US’s own history of imperialism and sometimes hypocritical role in nation-building, progressives have also sowed suspicion of such institutions and fomented America’s withdrawal toward greater isolationism.
Tucker Carlson, in his typically shameless fashion, has attempted to redirect his viewers’ attention away from Putin’s actions by making a kind of “everything but the kitchen sink” case for Putin. Putin’s not so bad really. This is just a border dispute. And Ukraine isn’t a democracy anyway. And you only hate Putin because the Democrats told you to because of the debunked Steele dossier. When we allow immigrants to invade the US, it’s equity; when Russia invades Ukraine, it’s a war crime. We only care about Ukraine because of Hunter Biden. What about the economic cost of sanctions to Americans’ standard of living?
As for the left, in its recent statement on Russia’s invasion, The Democratic Socialists of America (“DSA”) focus on the conflict’s impact on working class people in Ukraine, Russia, and the world. The DSA condemns Russia’s actions but also takes the opportunity to reaffirm its call for the US to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict. Whatever its views on prior US policies toward undemocratic regimes across the globe, this kind of back-handed what-about-ism from the DSA is not so different from Carlson’s arguments. These efforts to conflate neoliberalism and globalism with imperialism and nationalism are frustrating and self-serving and show a selective historical memory.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (“NATO”) is committed to the mutual defense of its member states. Stemming from the Treaty of Dunkirk, an alliance signed by France and the UK in the event of a possible attack by Germany or the Soviet Union in 1947, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1948 by its 12 founding member states, including the Benelux countries, the US, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. NATO’s membership now includes 30 countries.
Its purpose is to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means. NATO promotes democratic values among its members and around the world with the aim of solving problems, building trust and, ultimately, preventing conflict. Its military role is a backstop to coordinated diplomatic efforts. Despite missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq, its peacekeeping missions and responses to genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and elsewhere have been vital.
Putin has stated that expansion of NATO and the deployment of long-range missiles in Ukraine would be a “red line” for Russia. While neither NATO nor the US would make such assurances to Putin, Russia’s invasion was clearly pre-emptive rather than responsive to any legitimate security threat. And blaming US imperialism, such as it is, for the aggressive imperialist invasion of a sovereign country unfolding before our eyes is ironic at best.
That the only true basis of enduring peace is the willing co-operation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security; and that it is their intention to work together, and with other free peoples, both in war and peace to this end.
– The Declaration of St. James Palace, June 1941, an early step toward establishment of the UN
All this brings me back to the case for globalism rooted in optimism. In the decades following the Second World War, globalism has been a pillar of the neoliberal international order along with democratic governance, open trade, and international institutions. Globalism is based upon the economic and political integration of countries and economies; the moral and ethical belief that people, information, and goods should be able to cross national borders unrestricted. It places the interests of the entire globe above the parochial interests of individual nations. If there’s a nobler vision for co-existing on this planet in peace, I can’t think of one.
In the debate about how to respond to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, we can let ourselves get distracted by the many ways in which we fall short of our goals for peace, equity, and justice or we can continue to stay focused on our shared values and optimistic vision for the world we want to live in. Our prior mistakes don’t erase the good we’ve done in the past, any more than they prevent us for doing the right thing now.
We are living through a watershed era.
And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before.
The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law. Whether we permit Putin to turn back the clock to the nineteenth century and the age of the great powers.
Or whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check.
That requires strength of our own.
– Olaf Scholz, Chancellor, Federal Republic of Germany
Putin has succeeded in dramatically shifting Germany’s stance toward Russia and its approach toward foreign policy, more broadly. Scholz is dramatically increasing the country’s military spending along with its investment in NATO, providing direct military assistance to Ukraine, and joining in economic and financial sanctions against Russia that it has long resisted. And in the US, despite all the efforts from both ends of the political spectrum to undermine support for US involvement, 84% of both Democrats and Republicans support increased economic sanctions against Russia; and nearly 65% in each party think we should be doing more to support the Ukrainians. Putin’s aggression has framed such policy positions in stark relief for most voters in the West.
In the end, it comes down to values…. We want the world our children inherit to be defined by the values enshrined in the UN Charter: peace, justice, respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity.
– António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General
Such unity around these ideals and support for coordinated action is refreshing in these polarizing times, to say the least. And if we can stay true to these shared values that were forged in the darkest days of the last global conflict, I believe we have a chance to rebuild our faith in these institutions that have brought us so far — and perhaps accomplish other big things together for the betterment of humanity.