Time and Space in the History of Globalism: An Interview with Or Rosenboim

Or Rosenboim, Lecturer in Modern History at City, University of London

In December 1945, a group of intellectuals and academics met in Chicago to devise a world constitution. Just a few months earlier, the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the words of the group’s convenor, global control over nuclear weaponry was imperative to prevent “world suicide.” Over the course of the next two years, the group met monthly to hash out a plan for world government. But when the results of their deliberations were published as a world constitution in 1948, it was greeted mostly with skepticism and derision. Since the project had begun in 1945, the world had moved on—the bipolarity of the early Cold War had narrowed the possibilities for world cooperation and a whole new set of international institutions (most notably, the United Nations) had been created.

And yet, as Or Rosenboim makes clear in her new book, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939–1950 (Princeton University Press, 2017), the Chicago world constitutionalists remain relevant to how we talk about global governance today. What’s more, they represent one episode in a crowded history of conceptions of world order in the 1940s.

Rosenboim is a Lecturer in Modern History at City, University of London. We spoke in a series of conversations via Skype that were equally global in geography: from the United States to Israel, the United Kingdom to Guatemala. The resulting interview ranges from questions of temporality and spatiality to global intellectual histories of “minor thinkers” and the importance of the 1940s in the history of the state.

—Aden Knaap

INTERVIEWER

Why did you want to write a history of globalism?

OR ROSENBOIM

I was attracted by the idea of the history of international thought and trying to understand what kinds of basic analytical categories people were using when thinking about the global in the past. I wanted to challenge the facile and simplistic ideas that people sometimes have in thinking about the international as something that is eternal or anachronistic or never changes. What I wanted to show is that people thought about it in the past in very different ways and their conceptions—of what it meant to have states relating to each other or what kinds of units we have in the world—have changed.

INTERVIEWER

The book centers on a particular set of intellectuals living and working in the Anglophone world. How did you settle on them? What was your criteria for selection?

ROSENBOIM

I focused on the US and the UK because these were essentially the two big countries where people could write freely in that decade, since totalitarianism skimmed down the possibilities in other countries. My choice of thinkers emerged first of all from my personal interest in people that seemed to have some kind of impact or at least some kind of will to engage with the public. I looked at public intellectuals—people who were trying to persuade their audience to bring about real change. What was interesting to me was this duality—the way that intellectuals tried to act publicly, as opposed to people who were just promoting a political cause.

Another consideration was that I was trying to create a republic of letters. All the people in the book can be mapped into a network. I wanted to show a sense of the social relations behind the way that ideas travel. We like to think of interconnectedness in global history, but I think these things have to be grounded in real relations between individuals. I selected, I think, 15 thinkers that seemed to be relevant to the questions I was asking. Not all the people knew each other. But a lot of them did. So you can see something like a global discourse emerging, one that’s very loose but still relevant.

INTERVIEWER

So they were all part of this transnational republic of letters. What else did they have in common? You note in your introduction, for example, that a lot of them were European émigrés fleeing persecution.

ROSENBOIM

Most of the people I look at were travelers, whether immigrants or people who spent time abroad or had a certain urge for exploring other places. I intentionally chose to include a lot of immigrants because I think in that period they made a major contribution to the intellectual lives of Britain and the US. I wanted to set the flashlight on these kinds of interactions without actually defining them as immigrant conversations—to show in an implicit way that these debates on world politics could not have taken place only among native Brits (if this is even a category that’s relevant).

But also on a more intellectual level it seemed to me that a lot of the thinkers I was interested in could not have reached their ideas without doing the travelling that they did. The experience of immigration and knowledge of other societies was really significant for them in thinking about world order and globalism in the 1940s. There was this mixture of personal and intellectual experiences that created this kind of way of thinking, this attitude to politics. Beyond that, this was also a way that I thought I could mitigate the frame of mind of the privileged white male that dominates most political debate at that time, That way, at least, I could insert people who had some experience of non-privilege, of persecution, of a different way of life.

INTERVIEWER

I imagine another way in which to subvert that male perspective would have been to focus on female thinkers. Barbara Wootton features in your book but she is really the only woman thinker. How did gender figure in your selection process?

ROSENBOIM

When selecting individuals, I did not intentionally seek out women. But I was aware of the fact that there were very few women to look at. Barbara Wootton seemed a very significant figure because she saw herself as marginalized because she was a woman. If you think about her autobiography, the title is In A World I Never Made. In the book, I show how she led debates within the British federalist group the Federal Union, but her positions were not always taken seriously. I think this was related to gender.

So there was no kind of crusade for women. However, after I finished writing the book, I realized that this is actually not enough. I am now part of a group—along with Patricia Owens (Sussex University), Katharina Rietzler (Sussex University) and Tamson Pietsch (University of Technology, Sydney)—working to highlight the contribution of women to international relations, both as a discipline and the history of political thought more generally. We want to understand why women are absent from these stories. We don’t really know about these women because no one tells us about them. What Patricia Owens has found is that there were a lot of women in Britain who taught in prestigious courses in International Relations in Oxford and in London and made significant research. However somehow (often intentionally), they were not acknowledged, or were denied tenure, or were not kept in the faculty.
One of my next projects is on another international thinker that I dropped from the book but who is very interesting: the economist Barbara Ward.

INTERVIEWER

Returning to the book, what was it about the 1940s in particular that interested you?

ROSENBOIM

Initially I wanted to work on the interwar years. But then I decided that I didn’t really know anything about the 1940s, which seemed a very crucial moment. It seemed to me that the war really shuffled the cards—previous categories of realism and internationalism and idealism were not really relevant any more. There was a sense that everything is possible because the war had really shuttered almost every national and imperial boundary around the world. This provided those intellectuals that I was interested in with the impetus to really think big, to really try to imagine something new. But everybody was very concerned with the feasibility of their schemes; these were not pipe dreams. It seemed like a lot of these projects could be realized. The British and the Americans were keen to get those people involved in some way and to bring real change around the world. So this tension I found really interesting.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you choose to structure the book thematically rather than chronologically—focusing on a series of spatial categories for thinking about the globe in the 1940s rather than, say, a progression of globalist ideas over the course of the twentieth century? What do you think your analysis gained as a result?

ROSENBOIM

What came up in my research was that we really can’t think about international thought without thinking about space. This seems a bit banal, but it’s not really the way things are always thought about today. There is a tendency to consider internationalism through various political categories that are not really translated into spatial or geographic ideas. What I tried to do in the book was to organize the chapters on the basis of spatial scales: starting first with the state, then federations, regions, and finally the world. What I wanted to do was to show that in the ‘40s what really mattered was not necessarily a progression of ideas on a chronological basis but a competition between different spatial conceptions—that some of these ideas remained relevant and up for discussion throughout the decade. And then what really brought an end to that discourse was another spatial shift that divided the world in two (later three): the bipolarism of the Cold War.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the differences between these global spatial categories of the 1940s?

ROSENBOIM

Essentially what I found is this openness to thinking about politics in various spaces in the 1940s. The point of departure for many of these thinkers was the idea that the state could no longer be the exclusive space of politics. The book starts with an exploration of how thinkers like Raymond Aron and David Mitrany thought about the state in a global world. They did not think the state should be abolished. Instead they posed the question how would the state have to adjust itself to the new spaces that would emerge after the war, especially to global interconnectedness? That was a real point of difference from the 1920s when many internationalists called for a world state that would erase all national boundaries.

From the state, I move on to thinking about regionalism as creating an intermediary level between the state and the globe. Geopolitical thinkers were very inspired by the idea of the region as a kind of political system that could guarantee order and peace but also substitute, in a sense, the imperial system of abuse and exploitation.

Two different visions of regional order from the early 1940s. Top: Nicholas J. Spykman’s tripolar world order, centered on the US, the UK, and the USSR. Bottom: Owen Lattimore’s tripolar world order, centered on the US, the USSR and China. From Or Rosenboim, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939–1950 (Princeton University Press, 2017)

The next set of ideas is about federation. In many cases, federation seemed to mid-century thinkers as an attractive situation that could keep the state but also take away some of its power: to wage war, for example. I explore two different sets of federal thinkers. The first were more connected to the heritage of empire. They went a bit out of fashion in the ‘40s and didn’t really gather that much of a following. The second group of thinkers thought federation was not only beneficial in preventing war but could also bring about democratic progress and economic growth. Their main motivation to federate was to bring about a better social economy for all existing states.

After that I move on to the global or universal scale of politics. I look at thinkers who sought to find a new solution to the global space as a whole. Often that included the more specific categories that I looked at before—like the state, the region, the federation. This was done by, for example, writing a new global constitution or thinking through science as a metaphor of global interaction that could be implemented in a political way.

Finally, I look at people who used religion as a proxy for political universalism and a way of thinking about unity. Not only in the sense of belonging to a specific community but also in belonging to a universal spiritual community that went beyond the state but was also supported by the state. This duality was very important for globalist thinkers—trying to connect the different scales of politics.

INTERVIEWER

You make the point that midcentury globalists didn’t necessarily want to abandon the state. Why did so many insist on the state’s continued relevance?

ROSENBOIM

What many thinkers tried to do in the 1940s was to separate the state from nationalism. They viewed the ideology of nationalism as a factor that was dangerous to world policy, as well as to progress and humanity. At the same time, they recognized that states still held a significant power over individuals because they embodied a strong part of their identity and provided them with a sense of belonging that individuals very much needed. So a lot of thinkers—federalists (like Lionel Robbins) functionalist non-federalists (like David Mitrany) and global constitutionalists (like Giuseppe Antonio Borgese)—all recognized that individuals needed to find their own political community; and that community had to have some historical significance; it couldn’t be artificially made. For them, the solution was to create this multi-layered, pluralistic system that retained states while at the same time creating new levels of social and political order—which could be federal, regional, or global—but that could limit the power of the state to do harm.

INTERVIEWER

How does the history of globalism change the way we think about the history of the state? What is the importance of the 1940s in this story?

ROSENBOIM

I think the 1940s are an important moment of transition. In the early 1940s, you still had very powerful empires in the world, as well as very powerful states aspiring to become empires (like Germany, Japan and to a lesser extent Italy) and this idea that imperial competition can still define world order. It was not really just about states; it was about states in expansion. This idea was opposed by those people that I define as globalists, who tried to suggest that actually states could relate to each other in a different way. But it’s not black and white. The globalist discourse that I talk about still has lots of remnants of the imperial world order that was so strong in the mentality of people in the 1940s. Some were able to argue in a globalist manner (like Nicholas Spykman) for a new role for the United States in the world that really translated the legacy and heritage of empire into global terms.

What’s important to remember is that globalism is not just one thing; it’s not necessarily about expanding liberalism and democracy to the world. It’s a much more complex story that has its own shadows as well. We should be careful, I think, in trying to depict what globalism really means and what it offers in the 40s in this history of the transition from empires to an international system of states. The 1940s really brackets this transition and shows some potential avenues as to where we could have gone.

INTERVIEWER

What were some of the limitations of these alternative spatial categories? What was included and what was left out in globalists’ visions of the world in the ‘40s?

ROSENBOIM

Something I tried to show in the book is the limits of these ways of thinking. They often seem to be inclusive and progressive but actually are not so. If we look, for example, at the democratic federalism of the British Federal Union, there was a very strong awareness—from people like Barbara Wootton, Lionel Robbins and Friedrich Hayek—of the need to involve non-Western people or at least find a solution for the colonial world. However, there was no real awareness of the means of involving these people in decision-making. Very few of them had any real connections or knowledge of the colonial world.

Logo of the Federal Union

There was also this idea that grassroots politics could balance out an excessively centralized political federation. Yet the actual mechanisms for translating opinion from the grassroots level into policy was never really thought out. In that sense, this remained a very crude system. There was quite a tension there—how to provide people with good living standards in a federation that had very big gaps between the poor and the rich. Would the rich be happy to let go of their privileges for the benefit of the poor? These questions were addressed in the discussions of the Federal Union because they knew that they had to consider the limits of their proposal as well, but they were not always able to find a solution.

INTERVIEWER

In the book, you discuss the place of democracy in these ideas of globalism. What was the relationship between democracy and plans for world order in the 1940s? Was there a tension between their emphasis on democracy on one hand, and political pluralism on the other?

ROSENBOIM

That was a strong problem that a lot of people were very much aware of. They had their own conviction that without democracy it was not really worth it. But at the same time they wanted to embrace diversity. If you wanted to oppose totalitarianism in any meaningful way you had to really embrace differences. If you look at the constitutionalists at the University of Chicago that I examined in one of the chapters, they initially thought that the influence of American democracy should really be limited and that the values that the global constitution should have should be inspired by a diversity of cultures, including Russia and Saudi Arabia, among others. They did not want to replicate the American Constitution on a global scale, not only because they thought that people around the world would not want that but also because that was the product of a specific nation and was thus not really applicable to the whole world. However, if you look at the world constitution they ended up with, you see that the idea that there was something inherently better about democracy and specifically American democracy got the better of them. So the outcome was really in a sense a confusion. There wasn’t really a clear way out.

INTERVIEWER

Who were these Chicago world constitutionalists and what did they seek to do? In the book, you make the point that the Columbia historian Mark Mazower dismissed their world constitution as a “staggeringly implausible document that sank almost without a trace.” And yet you find lots that is historically illuminating in their efforts.

ROSENBOIM

In 1945—after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Japan—the President of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchens, did a radio broadcast in which he said that the world must unite or perish. Two professors at his university heard the broadcast and decided that they should really do something. These two were the philosopher Richard McKeon who was a famous pragmatic philosopher, and the literary critic Giuseppe Antonio Borgese who was an anti-fascist Italian émigré. The two of them decided to round up a group of intellectuals of all sorts, who would put their intellectual minds together and draft a constitution for a world federation. The group was very heterogeneous. There were philosophers, historians, a linguist, an anthropologist, people who had been involved in drafting the New Deal. They met almost every month for two years and published 150 documents including the minutes of their meetings and other essays and reflections. Today it’s almost inconceivable to think of academics who would spend two years of their time writing a world constitution.

Elisabeth Mann and Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, two members of the Chicago world constitution project

In 1947 there was an attempt by the US to make the members of the UN sign a document limiting atomic weapons. There was a debate over whether the Russians would sign it or not and eventually the Russians did not sign it. That was a watershed moment for the committee because one of their main assumptions was that, for it to be of any use, they had to write a constitution that the Russians would want to sign. They wrote it with a very pragmatic, realist state of mind. But once they realized that the Russians were not going to collaborate with anything American, they decided to write an ideal constitution instead. In their constitution, they planned the organs of government, the judicial system, and provided a set of values that the members should adhere to. Essentially, they wanted to keep the national structure of states but add a layer of other institutions that would provide not only peace but also prosperity and wealth.

Now, as Mark Mazower rightly noted, this had absolutely no chance of realization. However, what was interesting for me was that the minutes of their meetings included very detailed discussions of key concepts in political thought today. They discussed the impact of global constitutions on sovereignty, on representation, on boundaries and on pluralism and human rights. They tried to provide answers to questions that still haunt us today, such as how to represent people in a world parliament without repeating national biases. Rather than being interested in the final document that they produced, I was interested in the questions and answers that arose from their discussions. And in that sense I think they are fascinating historical case study for thinking globally. Like other globalists, their ideas were not necessarily realized. Yet we see seeds of what was going on there on a longer timescale.

INTERVIEWER

How did globalists like the Chicago constitutionalists greet the creation of the United Nations in 1945? One might think that they would be support of such an international institution but in the book you note the UN provoked a mixed response.

ROSENBOIM

Absolutely. The UN doesn’t feature in the story as much as one would expect it to because most of the people I looked at didn’t really want to have anything to do with it. None of the thinkers that I look at actually signed up to help the UN. For example, the Chicago constitutionalists thought the UN was just a replica of the League of Nations and that it would repeat its same errors because it gave too much power to the nation-state. There were others like the American cultural critic Lewis Mumford who was very skeptical about the UN. That pushed him beyond thinking about a world constitution to thinking about the need for deep moral change for the world. So globalists’ interaction with institutions was not always constructive. Sometimes it generated in people a deep pessimism that pushed them to a kind of moralistic doomsday prediction.

My idea for the book was really to try to pull the ground a little under teleological theories that support the institutions that we have today, that assume that the only possible thing that could have happened after the Second World War was the UN. For many people, the UN was just one option out of many and not necessarily the best one.

INTERVIEWER

You start the book with an n-gram analysis that shows the phrase “world order” peaking in the 1940s and receding afterwards. Why do you think globalism fell out of favor after the 1940s? And what happened to the globalists of the 1940s?

Google Ngram analysis of “world order” in twentieth-century English language publications

ROSENBOIM

I think that in different moments from roughly 1947 to 1951 people started to realize that there was no longer this window of opportunity for change, for re-conceptualizing human relations and political spaces in a new framework, but actually that this framework had already formed itself as an opposition between two great powers. I think that it was the rise of realism in the sense that the thinkers I looked at realized that their possibilities to implement this kind of change was gone and they turned to other issues. These were not all crusaders for a cause—these were intellectuals who at a certain point in time were attracted by a specific political idea or the ideology of globalism writ very loosely. But once they realized this was not going to happen, each of them turned to other things.

INTERVIEWER

Global intellectual history is still in its infancy as a discipline. What do you see as its future? Might we think of your book as part of a global intellectual history of what Emma Rothschild has called “medium thought”: individuals who might have been dismissed as being too popular or not intellectually rigorous enough to be included within intellectual history in the past.

ROSENBOIM

What’s important in intellectual history is to remember that the people who had more influence were not necessarily the great minds. These were actually the exceptions. I mean, how many Kants do you have per generation? I’m much more interested in people who were able to communicate their ideas in a level of complexity that is maybe above the average man but is not beyond the reach of the average man. You could call this “medium thought.” I sometimes call them “minor thinkers” in the sense that they were perhaps not going to change the world but had some ideas that contributed to a discourse or conversation that was meaningful at the time. I think if we’re interested in the way that ideas evolved over time, we should look not only in grand books of theory but also in lesser pamphlets that had massive circulations or in radio broadcasts or just in regular books that people bought.

INTERVIEWER

What is it that you hope readers will take away from the history of globalism?

ROSENBOIM

What’s interesting for me is that we haven’t necessarily been able to find a good solution to many of these problems. Some of these issues are still very much on the table. Yet people are not really aware of the fact that people some seventy years ago already flagged these issues as problematic. I think a longer-term perspective would help to understand some of the limits of what are otherwise very good and well-intentioned proposals for world unity or federation today.

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