The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

What can we learn by returning to the beginnings of the United Nations? After the atrocities of the Second World War, nations came together to create a new global governance system designed to provide lasting peace. As signs of growing fragmentation increase today, it is time to reconsider the founding moments and inspiration of our contemporary world order, so that the lessons of history will not be forgotten.

The 1930’s saw the rise of xenophobia and nationalism in the context of a prolonged and protracted economic downturn, the lingering impact of World War I, weak international institutions and a desperate search for scapegoats. The 2010’s has notable parallels: the protracted fallout of the global financial crisis, ineffective regional and international institutions, and a growing xenophobic discourse that places virtually all blame for every problem on some form of Other. The path to authoritarianism can be set by a dangerous drift in world order, the perception that the world is spinning out of control, and a search for decisive solutions from ‘strong man’ leaders offering to build protective walls and to retreat to the familiar. We see such trends across many different kinds of countries today, from Brexit Britain to Trump’s America, Duterte’s Philippines, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, and Erdogan’s Turkey. Are we forgetting all the lessons of the 1930’s and early 1940’s?

The rise of fascism and Nazism that swept across Europe in the 1930’s brought with it multiple new forms of discrimination and hatred, and a horrific new form of industrial killing focused on Jews, political dissidents, and many minority groups. The war, when it came, was calamitous not just for Europe, but for the world at large. The death and destruction was of a scale nearly impossible to comprehend, leaving Europe devastated and much of East Asia traumatised. The Japanese invasions of China and Southeast Asia were marked by a trail of brutality, as was the march of Stalin’s armies through the “bloodlands” between Moscow and Berlin. Allied forces also pushed, if not burst, the boundaries of violence; for example, in the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and in the first use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In these cities, men and women were going to work, children were playing and, as Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “more human beings died at once than anyone thought possible”. World War II brought humanity to the edge of the abyss, but not for the first time in twentieth-century history.

The politicians who gathered from 45 countries in San Francisco in 1945 were faced with the choice of either allowing the world to drift in the aftermath of the shock of the war, or to begin a process of rebuilding the foundations of the international community. Addressing the gathering of leaders, US President Harry Truman warned that the world was at a crossroads:

“You members of this Conference are to be the architects of a better world. In your hands rests our future. By your labors at this Conference, we shall know if suffering humanity is to achieve a just and lasting peace… With ever increasing brutality and destruction, modern warfare, if unchecked, would ultimately crush all civilization. We still have a choice between the alternatives: the continuation of international chaos, or the establishment of a world organization for the enforcement of peace.” (Address to the United Nations Conference in San Francisco, 25 April 1945)

At the heart of the post-war security arrangements was, of course, the newly formed United Nations and along with it the development of a new legal and institutional framework for the maintenance of peace and security. Article I of the UN Charter explicitly states that the purpose of the UN is to “maintain international peace and security and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace”. Moreover, Article I goes on to stress that peace would be sought and protected through principles of international law. It concludes with the position that the UN is to be “a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends”.

The titanic struggles of World War I and World War II led to a growing acknowledgment that the nature and process of global governance would have to change if the most extreme forms of violence against humanity were to be outlawed, and the growing interconnectedness and interdependence of all nations recognised. Slowly, the subject, scope and very sources of international law were all called into question. The image of international regulation projected by the UN Charter and related documents was one of “states still jealously sovereign” but now linked together in a “myriad of relations”. States would be under pressure to resolve disagreements by peaceful means and according to legal criteria, subject in principle to tight restrictions on the resort to force, and constrained to observe “certain standards” with regard to the treatment of all persons in their territory, including their own citizens.

If we no longer learn from the past, or openly threaten it, we weaken our hold on the future.

The creation of the UN was a watershed in the institutionalisation of world order. However, it would be wrong to ascribe a big bang theory of development to the creation of the UN system. It did not grow in a vacuum or without precedent. Indeed, there is a long and rich history of institutionalised relations between states. This tradition stretches at least as far back as the Treaty of Westphalia, in the European context, and includes the Concert of Europe, the Hague Conferences and the League of Nations, which, despite all its weaknesses, had set out to create a community of like-minded nations, cooperating fully with each other and settling their differences under law. The fatal flaw of the League was its lack of enforcement capability and buy-in from world powers. In this, there are notable similarities with the UN, as the latter was compromised, almost from its inception, by the Cold War – the ideological and geopolitical tensions that would shape the world for almost fifty years.

These tensions stemmed from the political, economic, and military rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, each bolstered by their respective allies. However, this standoff facilitated, somewhat paradoxically, a deepening of interdependence among world powers. It is difficult to imagine a more immediate form of interdependence than Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Once the world reached a point at which a small group of decision-makers could release weapons that could, literally, obliterate the rest of the world, it created a new recognition of shared vulnerability. This awareness demanded greater coordination among world powers. Thus, the nuclear standoff of the Cold War drew world powers closer together as a way to mitigate the threat and ensure that military posturing did not escalate into all-out nuclear confrontation.

Thus, despite all its complexities and risks, and in contrast to the past failures of the League of Nations, the post-Second World War UN system, including weapons of mass destruction and the threat of MAD, facilitated a new form of governed globalisation that contributed to relative peace and prosperity across the world over several decades. The importance of this should not be underestimated. The period was marked by peace between the great powers, although there were, of course, many proxy wars fought out in the Global South. This relative stability created the conditions for what now can be regarded as an unprecedented period of prosperity that characterised the 1950’s onward. While the economic record of the post-war years varies by country and by region, many experienced significant economic growth and living standards rose rapidly across several parts of the world. By the late 1980’s a variety of East Asian countries were beginning to grow at an unprecedented speed, and by the late 1990’s countries such as China, India and Brazil had gained significant economic momentum, a process that continues to this day (although Brazil is faltering now).

But what has worked so well for a long time is working less well now. The economic and political shifts in large part attributable to the successes of the post-war multilateral order are now among the factors grinding that system into deadlock. As a result of the huge gains from global cooperation in the post-war order, human interconnectedness weighs much more heavily on politics than it did in 1945. What happens in one corner of the globe can quickly ricochet across borders and boundaries to affect many others, thousands of miles away. Accordingly, we live in a world of overlapping communities of fate where the need for international cooperation has never been higher. Yet, the ‘supply’ side of the equation, effective institutionalised multilateral cooperation, has stalled. From issues such as nuclear disarmament, to the containment of small arms, prevention of terrorism, global economic imbalances and instability, and climate change, effective global cooperation is now in short supply. Among the threats facing the world today are some that are existential in nature: climate change risks the very future of humanity, sustained wars in some countries have erased and displaced entire generations of people, while the rapid rise of migration, in the hands of those that stress only its negative effects, is destabilising many societies.

To many, globalisation is not only unmanaged today, but out of control. It is against this background that we see shades of the 1930’s and pre-World War II political dilemmas. Great powers are retreating from the multilateral order, and replacing principles of cooperation with isolationism and wall-building. Protectionism is on the rise, as is xenophobia across large swathes of the West. A populist brand of national politics has taken hold and feeds a resurgence of authoritarianism, which all too easily breaches fundamental aspects of the rule of law – from Hungary to the United States. A new generation of demagogues appears to be in the making and have risen to power in several countries. In the US, Trump is openly hostile to all of the institutional structures established after World War II, as are all of his surrogates and appointees. In Britain, Farage and others have championed Brexit while Prime Minister May walks (quite literally) hand in hand with Trump and celebrates the UK’s independence from Europe. Many other political leaders across the world echo these sentiments.

The UN and the EU were built on the ashes of the first half of the 20th century. Turning our back on these institutions and the lessons of Nazism, Fascism and Stalinism brings us back to the risks of that period. It is only too easy to imagine that humankind will meet with calamity again in the years ahead. Hence, it is no longer business as usual. We have to struggle to protect what is important in our institutional heritage and fight to deepen the hold of its core principles on our everyday lives, from our local communities to our great international institutions. Of course, any alternative approach will not be easy to follow. Every element of this project needs further articulation and a new generation of activists and champions.

While individual lives follow the trajectory of ashes to ashes, communities and institutions do not. Each generation has learnt from the past in order to further nurture and protect its own achievements. If we no longer learn from the past, or openly threaten it, we weaken our hold on the future.

David Held

David Held is Master of University College, Durham, and Professor of Politics and International Relations at Durham University. He is also a Director of Polity Press and General Editor of Global Policy journal.

Kyle McNally

Kyle McNally is a Research Fellow in the Global Policy Institute at Durham University. He writes regularly for a number of online outlets including openDemocracy, Social Europe, Global Policy Journal, and Duck of Minerva. Kyle also works as an independent consultant for a number of international organizations. Prior to his academic career he was a Congressional Aide in the U.S. House of Representatives.