Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010
Theme of the Issue – Churchill and International Coalitions
The theme of this issue is Churchill’s experience with international groupings: formal and informal, organized and ad hoc, coalitions of the willing (and sometimes the unwilling) coalitions for victory, coalitions for peace. Given the recent “nuclear summit,” ongoing quandaries over international action on Iran and North Korea, religious terrorism and the endless Arab-Israeli stand-off, we could hardly have a more topical subject.
We all know Churchill’s observation that fighting with allies is better than fighting without them. But what, if anything, can we glean from his experiences today? What did he think about sanctions, for example: as over Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Abyssinia? What can we learn from the 1956 Suez debacle, which proved how fast things can go wrong when communications fail? What lessons did Churchill learn that still apply? Or has time passed him by? The theme was suggested when we read Ben Macintyre’s piece explaining that the NATO Afghanistan commander was taking lessons and philosophy from Churchill’s first book. We begin with WSC’s “Riddle of the Frontier,” which poses questions as worth answering in 2010 as they were in 1898. What follows is the work of outstanding writers and historians.
Sir Martin Gilbert’s “A Plan of War Against the Bolsheviks” is an amazing story, which he wrote because he considers Churchill’s four days in Paris with Wilson and the rest a watershed in WSC’s thinking and conviction. Their inertia over Bolshevik Russia is remindful of today’s inertia as a rogue regime marches toward a nuclear bomb. And as Churchill said in 1935, it’s nothing new:
“It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”1
Fred Glueckstein looks at a 1934 broadcast, “Whither Britain?,” wherein Churchill asked questions that might fall under “Whither Canada/America/Britain?” in 2010. At the least, Churchill said, a world organization might be “an august tribunal to which not only great powers but small peoples may use, if not for protection, at any rate for a declaration of where right and justice lie.”2
David Freeman shows that Churchill saw the League of Nations as “a tool—a potentially powerful tool. But a tool cannot function on its own; it must be picked up and employed. It requires a motive force.”
Harout Samra re-asks Churchill’s question: Is the world organization a “temple of peace” or a “coockpit in a Tower of Babel”? We’ve had nearly sixty-five tumultuous years to answer that question. What have we learned? The UN responded effectively to the Korean emergency in 1950—because Russia had temporarily vacated her seat and her veto. Did it work over Bosnia, Biafra, Dharfur, Iraq and Afghanistan? Most action there occurred through ad-hoc “coalitions of the willing.”
Churchill respected sovereignty and looked askance at the idea of world government. He thought world organization necessary, but it didn’t take the place of coalitions between individual states sharing common interests.
And what does that say today? Reasonably it says that the United Nations is potentially powerful but requires unanimity of view—not of just two countries but the five permanent members of the Security Council, including Russia and China—and where does that leave Churchill’s cherished concept of collective security?
George Will has posed the question: is the World War II-based Security Council reflective of today’s reality? What about India, Brazil and Japan? Should the European seats be amalgamated into one for the EU? Will’s posers are not ones that Churchill had to grapple with; history never repeats itself—only the lessons of history.
Giving up on the world organization, Churchill said, would be a “melancholy ending to the hopes of those who strive for peace and for justice, which is higher than peace.”3 But hear that: “justice is higher than peace.” And for justice to prevail, Churchill found no better vehicle than personal diplomacy between heads of government.
Even then, personal diplomacy failed when national interests were not congruent—even diplomacy at the level for which he had the most hope: the Big Three during the war, the Anglo-American Special Relationship after it. Suez proved that national interest trumps affinities of law, language, literature and government.
Churchill spent his last ten years in deep melancholy over that fact. In 1938 he said the coming catastrophe could only be saved “by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour.” A similar recovery is needed today among the great democracies.
1. House of Commons, 2 May 1935.
2. Notes for the 16 January 1934 broadcast, Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Companion Vol. 5, Part 2, The Wilderness Years 1929-1935 (London: Heinemann, 1981), 705.
3. Ibid., 706.
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