May 23, 2013

Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010

Page 38

Coalition’s Limits – Temples of Peace or Cockpits in a Tower of Babel?

By Harout Jack Samra

National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City

2022 International Churchill Conference

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Mr. Samra is an attorney at the Florida offices of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey L.L.P., focusing on international litigation and arbitration matters. He is a graduate of the University of Miami School of Law.

From the League of Nations to the United Nations, the EU and the G-8, statesmen have contemplated the importance of international institutions and their amorphous legal foundation. Is international law ultimately at the mercy of the vicissitudes of the state, or does it bind states just as domestic law does individuals? Do international institutions consist of sovereign nations acting with a common purpose, or do they transcend nationality?

During World War II, Hans Kelsen illustrated the conflicting approaches to international cooperation then materializing. Arguing that peace could be established though international law, Kelsen urged the establishment of a World Federal State. Nevertheless, he added, “only wishful thinking and ignorance of decisive facts allow us to underestimate the extraordinary difficulties” implicit in the concept.1 So Kelsen offered “an international union of states, not a federal state.”2 He called it a “Confederacy of States,” grounded in international treaties, which would secure peace in place of a world government. Kelsen’s contrasting approaches —the “World State” and “Confederacy of States”—capture the essential question. Either case involves the ceding of sovereignty by member-states, but in the confederacy, states retain their essential character as independent actors, whereas in a World State the role of individual nations would be subordinated.

Winston Churchill was in a unique position to engage in this debate over the decades of his long and consequential political career. A cabinet member during much of World War I, Churchill observed the formation of the League of Nations and regretted its eventual demise, though the extent of his interest has been the subject of debate (see preceding article). As Prime Minister in World War II, Churchill frequently spoke about the international union he and Franklin Roosevelt envisioned for the postwar world. Though Roosevelt is credited as the leading force behind the United Nations, Churchill characteristically did not lack for ideas as to what such an organization should look like.

After the war, out of office, Churchill delivered speeches in the United States and Europe extolling the virtues of formal international unity. After all, it was Churchill who was present at Yalta and whose government was represented at Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Woods, and the San Francisco Conference. Thus, as we consider the role of international organizations today, we may benefit by considering Churchill’s experience.

Before WW2

As David Freeman has just pointed out, Churchill referred to the League frequently as the world girded for war again with Germany. But his belief in the League’s usefulness was pragmatic, and always grounded in British foreign policy. This important fact bears emphasis as Britain’s interests remained at the core of his internationalist philosophy. Churchill saw international institutions as not only consistent with but complementary to bilateral or multilateral national commitments. In stark contrast, for advocates of a transnationalist approach, such arrangements are merely distractions which undermine their aspiration of transcending national interests.

Churchill remained remarkably consistent, repeating his rather progressive views whether in office or in opposition. Remarkably, as Prime Minister, Churchill specifically instructed his Government that “no public statement underrating the conception or achievements of the League of Nations” should be made “until we were in a position to make positive suggestions for something to put in its place.”3 This noteworthy instruction, from 1942, reveals the inner-workings of Churchill’s mind as he contemplated the postwar order.

The Wartime Summits

As Prime Minister, Churchill would put many of these long-held beliefs into action by collaboration with President Roosevelt. At Argentia, Newfoundland, the two great Allied protagonists met for the first time during the war, nearly four months before the United States formally entered it. This meeting, cloaked in secrecy, would resonate for years to come for its product, the Atlantic Charter communiqué, which stood as a beacon guiding the framers of the postwar international order.

Sir Brian Fall, former British High Commissioner to Canada, observed that the eight principles set forth in the Atlantic Charter can be found “reflected in the Charter of the United Nations…in the generous foundation of the Marshall Plan, and in the international economic and financial institutions that made it possible.”4 These principles included reference to the freedom of the seas, international economic collaboration, and “the establishment of a wider and more permanent system of general security.” Although Churchill did not wholeheartedly endorse each of the principles, it is clear that he did not merely stand by and approve this wide-ranging agreement, but rather was deeply involved in all phases of its drafting.

After Argentia, Churchill and Roosevelt met with regularity, and their collaboration remains one of the most celebrated in history. As they approached the end of the war, however, their vision shifted from victory to governing in its aftermath. Emblematic of this shift in emphasis was the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

At Yalta much progress was made towards the establishment of international organizations that were intended to preserve peace. The establishment of the World Organization was central to the agenda. Among the most contentious topics discussed was the manner in which voting would be conducted by the Security Council, where Stalin demanded an absolute veto.

Interestingly, Churchill agreed with this Russian demand, a rare significant breach with not only the Americans, but also his own Foreign Ministry. Although Churchill was later persuaded to adopt the American view by Roosevelt himself, his earlier position was largely consistent with his firm belief that in order for the United Nations to survive, it would require the cooperation of the Great Powers. Of this debate, he noted that “it would be foolish to raise subjects in the World Organisation if they might break up the unity of the Great Powers.”5

After Yalta, Churchill once again affirmed his internationalist bent in his report to the Commons. Specifically, he reported that the United Nations would “be aided to the utmost by the ordinary channels of friendly diplomatic intercourse, which it in no way supersedes.”6

He repeated this sentiment in his memoirs, noting that “the World Organisation in no way destroyed normal diplomatic intercourse between nations, great and small. The World Organisation was separate and apart, and its members would continue to discuss their affairs among themselves.”7 Reinforcing the importance of national sovereignty, this is in direct conflict with transnationalism.

Yalta was not the only important conference in which Churchill’s government participated in the establishment of postwar international institutions and agreements. Britain directly participated in the Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco Conferences which led to the formation of the United Nations, and also the Bretton Woods Montetary Conference, which led to the establishment of international economic institutions including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and, eventually, though not at first, the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Postwar Wilderness

Invited to speak at Westminster College in Missouri in March 1946, Churchill delivered an address that reverberated worldwide. Standing before an admiring American audience only months after being removed from office by the British electorate, Churchill spoke frankly and presented a disconcerting picture of a world supposedly at peace. “An iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” he bluntly asserted, describing a new existential struggle so soon after victory.

To Churchill the solutions to this grave new challenge were apparent, and he laid them out with singular specificity. Referring to the United Nations, Churchill asserted that it was erected “for the prime purpose of preventing war.”8 The responsibility of statesmen, he added, was to ensure that “its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can some day be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.”

Churchill unmistakably felt it would be fatal to permit the United Nations to go the way of the League of Nations, which he explicitly mourned in this famous speech. It was essential, in his view, that this new era of international collaboration allow for unified action, unencumbered by parochial interests. Nevertheless, to the chagrin of some Americans, he supported policies that would maintain the power of individual “great powers” at the expense of the collective, such as the Security Council veto.

Although he went so far as to call for an international military force advocated by transnationalists, Churchill later specified that its soldiers must maintain their national identities, including their own uniforms.

Perhaps more troubling from the transnationalist perspective, Churchill thought any nation should have the option to refuse to participate in military actions if deemed to be against its interests. This notion of state interests it is not very different from conventional ad hoc military alliances between individual countries.

Churchill developed the themes struck at Fulton in two subsequent speeches. At the Staats-General of the Netherlands on 9 May and the University of Zurich on 19 September, he addressed the notion of international unity and formal organization. Lamenting the tragic suffering of Europeans, Churchill called for a “United States of Europe,” and noted that such a union would “as if by miracle change the whole scene” and cure the “tragedy of Europe.”9 Once again, as he did after Yalta, Churchill affirmed that such a regional grouping would not conflict with the United Nations. “On the contrary,” he asserted, “the larger synthesis will only survive if it is founded upon coherent natural groupings.”

Three years later during an important speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mid-Century Conference, Churchill reiterated his theme: The “one way” to prevent war was “the creation of an international instrument, strong enough to adjust the disputes of nations and enforce its decisions against an aggressor.”

Since the war’s end, he said, the United Nations had “been rent and distracted by the antagonism of Soviet Russia and by the fundamental schism which has opened between Communism and the rest of mankind….as the gulf continues to widen, we must make sure that the cause of Freedom is defended by all the resources of combined foresight and superior science. Here lies the best hope of averting a third world struggle, and a sure means of coming through it without being enslaved or destroyed.” His meaning was clear: if the Soviet Union persisted in its intransigence, the United Nations would serve as a bulwark, checking its ideological and territorial expansionism.10

Lessons for Today

By repeatedly expressing the desirability of regional groupings, Churchill reiterates a view that he had expressed even before the Yalta Conference. Though he proclaimed that “our constant aim must be to build and fortify the strength of the United Nations Organisation,” he nevertheless noted that the European structure he described would exist “under and within that world concept.”

Considering Churchill’s views of the importance of international unity in the wake of World War II reveals his affinity for Kelsen’s view that the fundamental purpose of international organization was the preservation of peace. It is likely that he also viewed the United Nations as necessary to counter the influence of the Soviet Union, as well as to preserve Britain’s standing in world affairs.

Even so, Churchill repeatedly presented a nuanced picture: Though he believed in the need for international institutions and postwar cooperation, he drew the line quite short of Roosevelt’s broader vision of world governance. No transnationalist, Churchill nevertheless viewed a “confederacy of states” (Kelsen’s words) as playing a productive role in maintaining peace and the balance of power.

It is striking that many of the issues Churchill grappled with nearly a half century ago are still relevant. The role of entities such as international courts and military forces, so prevalent in Churchill’s public statements, are far from settled today. Indeed, the efficacy of the United Nations is the topic of frequent debate. As today’s political leaders continue to discuss the proper role of the law of nations, they would do well to consider the experience of Churchill and other founders of the modern international order.

Churchill in particular—since Roosevelt died before the postwar era—offers compelling and surprisingly fresh views on modern debates which are eerily similar to those of a half-century ago. We may still consider the question Churchill posed to his audience at Fulton in 1946: Are we to settle for a “Cockpit in the Tower of Babel”? Unlike Churchill, however, we have the advantage of nearly sixty-five tumultuous years of history that have intervened.


1. Hans Kelsen, Peace Through Law (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press 1944), 9. Kelsen’s work was reprinted in 2008 by The Lawbook Exchange Ltd.

2. Ibid., 12.

3. E.J. Hughes, “Winston Churchill and the Formation of the United Nations Organization,” in the Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 9, No. 4 (October 1974), 182. (Internal quotation omitted.)

4. Sir Brian Fall, “Commemorative Remarks at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, 11 August, 1991,” in Douglas Brinkley and David Richard Facey-Crowther, Eds., The Atlantic Charter (New York: St. Martin’s Press 1994), xv.

5. Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, (New York: Houghton Mifflin 1953), 311. This view coincides with his belief that addressing such issues distracted from the war effort. See Hughes, note 4, 189.

6. Winston S. Churchill, Report to the House of Commons on the Crimea Conference, 27 February 1945. House of Commons Debates (Hansard), Vol. 408. Col. 1273.

7. Triumph and Tragedy, 311.

8. Winston S. Churchill, The Sinews of Peace (London: Cassell, 1948), 95. Westminster College, Fulton, Mo., 5 March 1946, 93-105.

9. The Sinews of Peace, 198. University of Zurich 19 September 1946, 198-202. The Staats-General speech is at 128-35. Churchill earlier referred to these themes in a speech to the joint Senate and Chamber of Belgium in Brussels, 16 November 1945; see The Sinews of Peace, 41-45.

10. Winston S. Churchill, In the Balance (London: Cassell, 1950), 45.

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