Of War and Peace


Part two: Controlling Genghis Khan


Last month we referred to the problem posed by powerful warlords such as Genghis Khan, who have crushed civilisations and terrorised populations from time immemorial. Two inventions, one of the 18th century and one of the 20th, when taken together, offered for the first time in human history a solution to this all-important problem. This month we have space to describe only the 20th century invention.


For centuries prior to the first world war there had been attempts to reduce the threat of war by the signing of treaties between neighbouring states. It made obvious sense, peace being a desirable condition, to sign a non-aggression pact with a powerful neighbour. This device was recommended four hundred years ago by Niccolo Machiavelli, though he did advise against keeping treaty promises if those promises became seen as having become too burdensome or contrary to the interest of Princes. It was even recommended as worthwhile sometimes to make a treaty with a neighbour in order to throw him off guard, as a prelude to invasion.


An instance of such thinking can be found in recent times in Hitler’s speeches. Earlier speeches were frankly threatening, talking about the need for a talented people to spread out, when economic threats must give way to the power of the sword, about the need for lebersraum at the expense of inferior races, and so on, but nearer the time of the second world war, a time when he had firmly decided upon war, Hitler’s speeches (1938) became bland and conciliatory, even expressing the wish to live in peace and eternal friendship with his neighbours.


A dense web of treaties, with no solid guarantee that any would be honoured, was clearly not the answer to controlling rogue states. Sometimes, indeed, treaties were used as a prelude to war on neighbouring non-signatories, the purpose of the treaty being not to seek peace, but instead to ensure the success of a combined military adventure.


But with the prompt of a savage world war, perceptions changed. A genuine attempt was made to approach the problem of war along cooperative lines with the founding of the League of Nations. The interlacing network of unreliable treaties was to be replaced by an open set of rules, backed up by the power of a great coalition of nations, guaranteeing security to all member states. The League was a promising attempt to rid the world of the plague of war, but it was the first practical attempt, and was flawed from the beginning when the most powerful nation, the United States, refused to join (surprisingly, as it was on the initiative of the US president Wilson that the league was formed).


The League did well at first, but failed due to lack of commitment of its member nations. Mussolini broke the rules by invading Ethiopia, and the sanctions promised by the League’s Covenant were not fully implemented. Then Hitler broke the rules by invading the Sudetenland, conferring before so doing with Britain and France, but ignoring the League. And Japan, a member of the League’s equivalent of the U N Security Council, broke the main and all-important rule of respecting the territorial integrity of members by invading Manchuria. The League condemned the action, but the response from Japan was simply to resign membership. No action was taken against the invader. The League was revealed as weak and useless for the purpose for which it was set up.


Then came the second world war, even more horrific than the first, and once more an attempt at cooperative security was tried. The United Nations Organisation was formed, and this time the US became a founder member. This attempt at ridding the world of war through mutual security still survives, though there have already been ominous failures to keep to provisions of its Charter, reminiscent of the failures of its predecessor. Nevertheless the continuing effort to make a success of the United Nations is a heartening sign.


Next month: Of war and peace: The 18th century invention that complements and completes the 20th century invention.


Harry Davis