Thursday, December 31, 2015

A New Deal for the World, by Elizabeth Borgwardt

This week I'm reading a historical book that seeks to analyze the creation of international institutions after World War II by the United States through the influence of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In specific Borgwardt focuses on three main areas and ties them back to economic stability, collective security, and international justice. Specifically she talks about the Bretton Woods system and its main agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the creation of the United Nations, and the Nuremberg Charter and associated trials for Crimes Against Peace and Humanity. Borgwardt's main thesis is that all three of these efforts can be traced back to Roosevelt's goal to expand the New Deal beyond the United States and create, as she titles her book, a New Deal for the world.

Borgwardt begins her text with the Atlantic Charter, an informal agreement made between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in August of 1941. Although the United States was still “officially” neutral until the December attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had worked on pushing the United States towards entering the war and was already heavily involved in the Lend-Lease program. The Atlantic Charter was not meant to be a binding treaty but was more an informal statement of overall war goals for the Allied powers and why they were fighting against the Nazi regime. Roosevelt also worked on including his Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want, which he considered to be essential to the creation of a sustainable peace once the war was over. Borgwardt credits the informal Atlantic Charter as an important step in the foundation of the principles of human rights and the idea that there are international ideals which transcend national law.

The Atlantic Charter proved to be very influential on public opinion and its inspiration spread much further than its drafters intended. The statement of self-determination for all peoples in the world Churchill almost definitely meant to apply only to the oppressed people of Europe under the Nazi regime. Rampant Imperialist that he was, he certainly did not mean for the principle of self-determination to extend as far as India! Roosevelt was also confronted with the awkward system of racially-based repression and discrimination in the United States, which unfortunately lingers to this day. Despite the shortcomings of the creators of the Charter, it would be the first step the Allies would take in organizing the peace after the war in an attempt to avoid the failures of 1919.

Borgwardt also focuses on the differences in public opinion in 1945 versus 1919. Obviously the high aspirations of a post-war international order had their origins with Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, which proved utterly ineffective at accomplishing anything or even preventing a second war twenty years later. After World War I, Americans in general were ready to return to normalcy, as Warren G. Harding put it, and had no interest in joining an international organization that promised to get them entangled in more European politics. As Borgwardt puts it, everyone wanted to go back to 1913 before the war began. However, by 1945 there was a very different attitude among the American population and a majority of Americans believed that the United States should be involved in international organizations after the war was over to help prevent future conflicts. This assessment was made easier by the creation of scientific polling in 1935, which provided both Congress and the Roosevelt administration with a hitherto unprecedented insight into the mind of the average American.

However, it is curious that a majority of Americans should be supportive of further American involvement abroad when so many Americans had supported neutrality before 1941. Borgwardt's explanation for this shift was the shared experience of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and then service by millions of Americans in the armed forces during World War II. No one wanted to relive the 1930's and the economic and political instability that came with it, so people were placing their hopes in international organizations that would have the resources to promote stability. In addition Borgwardt places special emphasis on the entire generation of Americans the grew up during the Great Depression and saw first-hand the benefits of big government projects during the New Deal which reduced hostility to government-led solutions for big problems. In addition, that same generation was drafted in large number into the military and taken across the globe. Men who may have spent their entire lives in the same small town found themselves in locations as distant as China, Africa, and Europe. Borgwardt asserts that through this exposure to the power of big government, as well as the world at large, the Greatest Generation (to use the popular phrase) became greatly supportive of multilateral international organizations to create a better world for tomorrow.

The three organizations Borgwardt chooses to focus on are, as I said, the Bretton Woods system with the IMF and World Bank, the United Nations, and the Nuremberg Charter and Trials. I will say the final one feels the weakest and there's probably good reason for that, but I'll get to that in a minute. Roosevelt and other New Dealers believed that for a sustainable peace to exist when the war was over, there needed to be economic, social, and political stability in the world which would help keep peace and foster cooperation between nations. Perhaps most important was the Bretton Woods system and its attendant financial institutions, which would hopefully help prevent the problems such as currency devaluation which had made the economic woes of the Great Depression that much worse, as well as promote a certain level of economic welfare. The United Nations, meanwhile, was to serve as a collective security agreement for the Allied Powers and a means to help prevent wars before the start through diplomacy and negotiation. Both of these failed to meet their original intents for a variety of purposes.

In the case of the IMF and World Bank, there has in recent years been criticism leveled against them for engaging in neocolonial practices and there is a certain amount of evidence to support this charge. As the capitalism vs. communism standoff of the Cold War began to set in, the directors of both of these institutions took a very strong pro-capitalism stance and would look to expand free markets regardless of the attendant cost in economic well-being to the populations of various nations. In addition, the World Bank and IMF have demanded strict repayment schedules for loans to developing countries which do not have the political or economic clout to defy these organizations. The result is outsiders demanding harsher and harsher austerity measures from the governments of these nations so they can pay back the loans to the outsiders on time. In an indirect manner this has led to a neo-colonial relationship between the developed and developing world.

In the case of the United Nations, the failure was once again the divide between capitalism and communism. Borgwardt asserts that the United Nations rested on the assumptions the four Great Powers of China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, would continue to act in concert after the war was over and serve as the policemen of the world. However the divide between the United States and the USSR, both with veto power in the UN's Security Council, resulted in almost perpetual deadlock in that body. This resulted in more power being shifted to the General Assembly, which had relatively small membership while the French and British colonial empires were still considerably large and the Americans assumed they could readily control the General Assembly. However, as decolonization continued the membership of the General Assembly continued to grow and many countries in the Third World, finding themselves ignored and marginalized by the Superpowers, increasingly banded together in defiance of both the United States and the USSR. And of course, superpowers are happy to ignore the UN whenever they find it most convenient for themselves.

I have saved the Nuremberg Charters and Trials for last because they certainly seem a bit odd compared to the other two. While both Bretton Woods and the United Nations meet specific economic and security needs for the United States in a post-war world, the Nuremberg Trials seem more an exercise for the benefit of the Allies more than anything else. This is not to say that these trials were unimportant and they did a great deal to establishing the concept of Crimes Against Humanity. However, as Borgwardt points out, after the Nuremberg trials were over there was no permanent international court of justice until 2002, and the first international tribunal for war crimes and Crimes Against Humanity wasn't until the tragedies of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990's. There are certainly individuals who have been placed on trial by their own countries for such atrocities, but the history of international condemnation of such atrocities to the scale of the Nuremberg Trials is noticeable lacking.

It definitely seems like the Nuremberg Trials were an attempt for the Allies to cope with the sheer inhumanity of the Holocaust, as well as to take out punishment on more prominent members of the Nazi regime. However, there was plenty of public opinion which had serious doubts about the Nuremberg Trials, stating that instead of being an example of the rule of law and justice for millions of innocent people it felt much more like victors taking one last revenge on the vanquished. The Nuremberg Trials definitely should have happened and set an important precedent to the world in how to handle atrocities such as genocide, but their legacy is far more muted than Bretton Woods and the United Nations.

Overall I think this book is pretty good, it goes into great detail explaining the American motivations for creating these international institutions and explaining after the war was over how they failed in ways their creators didn't necessarily anticipate. I do feel like it's a little incomplete in explaining how exactly all three of these systems were supposed to work, it seems to focus more on building up to these three rather than the actual nuts and bolts mechanics. For people who are interested in American foreign policy and especially policy initiatives of the World War II era, I think this is a very interesting look at an almost unique point in American history.

- Kalpar  

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