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"World Organization through Democracy": Clarence Streit and the Genesis of the Present World Order

By Tiziana Stella

Before the US entered WWII, many Americans contemplated the sobering realization that their country was to become the leading world power. This presented the problem of forging a foreign policy consistent with democratic values that could concurrently provide the degree and quality of force needed to maintain order. The advocate of democratic federalism Clarence Streit argued that there was no lasting solution to this problem on a national basis alone. International anarchy would inevitably cause the US to seek supremacy and become the motor not of harmony among nations, the traditional aspiration of past internationalists, but of new levels of power politics. Streit warned of the dangers associated with assuming world leadership, unless concurrent with a qualitative transformation of international relations away from power politics, a portent in which he was joined by other prominent voices. In the spring of 1941, Freda Kirchwey (1941, 299), editor of the Nation, observed: “The fact is, no democratic basis for national dominance can be found in any formula, no matter how you slice it. It cannot be found because it does not exist.” A few months earlier, Assistant Secretary of State, Adolph Berle (1940, cited in Wertheim, 2019, 5), commented in his diary:

I have been saying to myself and other people that the only possible effect of this war would be that the United States would emerge with an imperial power greater than the world had ever seen; but I thought of it as something that would happen more or less in the future. It has happened off the bat, and there isn’t much that anyone can do about it.

Since a democratic federal core within a broader world organization could address these dilemmas, it became a prominent conceptual pillar in the debate over what kind of postwar order the US should favor. However, because discussion on alternative structures for world organization was pushed to the margins once official planning was made public, the debate on world organization became a corollary of, and subordinate to, the dividing lines of isolationism and internationalism that came to characterize discourse about US entry into WWII.

In reality, the two debates that shaped the US position on postwar order – the first on participation in the war and the second on world organization – pivoted around different dividing lines. Positions on world organization cut across the lines of the first debate and generated different alignments. By proposing an alternative view of what Americans should be fighting for, the prospect of a transformed international system galvanized energies from different camps, proving the existence of a federalist constituency for which the traditional dividing lines had become obsolete. “After founding the Federal Union movement in 1939, Streit argued that the old lines were now subordinate to a new one “cut[ing] across all existing lines” and centering on the question of whether world organization would supplant international anarchy any be rooted in democracy” (Streit, 1942, 23).

Although officially presented to the public as a choice on whether world organization should be adopted, the actual line of disagreement in the second debate was summarized by postwar planners in 1943 in a secret draft of the United Nations Charter. They commented: “Two, and perhaps only two, alternatives in the basic form of organization were open: 1) The cooperative form, or 2) the federal form” (U.S. Department of State, 1949, 533). The UN would adopt the structure of universal cooperation among sovereign states.

In the clash between the two models for world organization, it became important to marginalize the role of the federalist constituency and diminish its narrative. As the war continued, official designs for world organization were portrayed as products of the “triumph of internationalism.” By then, the term “internationalism” had come to describe the camp that prevailed in the first debate, on joining the war. The “triumph of internationalism” characterization exploited the confusion the term “internationalism” created in reference to world organization, given the discrepancy between WWII and traditional internationalists’ views on this topic. Diminishing the narrative on the actual lines of contention in the second debate, i.e. the dispute over democratic and non-democratic construction in the relations between states, was instrumental to empowering those interests, nationally and internationally, that would continue to dismiss further discussion on alternative frameworks, discrediting them as “perfectionist,” “utopian,” and “idealist.”

This stereotyping mischaracterized federalist analysis as being unconcerned with the role of power, thus irrelevant in a post-fall-of-France world in which preponderance of power had become the sine-qua-non in all foreign policy calculations. Intentionally or not, it eradicated public discourse on the realist foundations of federalist frameworks. Federalists’ analysis was concerned equally with power and with democracy. They accused other internationalists of not prioritizing security enough, of compromising with the dubious security of hegemony and balancing. Federalists had focused on the centrality of the role of power in international relations before internationalists did. Some had rejected the League of Nations on that very basis. They differed from internationalists as to which “realist” approach they considered best to address the negative externalities of power in international relations. Federalists did not reject power but wanted to restrain it by changing its nature through democracy in a federal union. Their analysis indicated that without changing the nature of power, there was no “realist” solution to the problem of order in the modern world (whether balancing or hegemonic) that would not concurrently deprioritize democracy, disarmament, and the prevention of war. They spoke of moving from balances of power to sharing of power via federation, which would have the salutary effect of empowering both democracy and world organization. The democratic mechanisms that federalism extended to international relations would transform power relations into juridical relations, in ways different from those proposed by the champions of international law in a world of nation-states. Federalists highlighted the impasses democracy faces when world organization fails to supplant power politics, stressing that eradicating power politics is central not only to the problems of war and peace, but also to those of democracy, and the two intersect. By underlining the interdependence among democracy, world organization, and the future of humanity, they drew attention to the ethical and practical paradoxes of democracy as a practice that exclusively pertains to domestic life. Not less, but more democracy in interstate relations was needed to address the problems of security and of an increasingly disenfranchised citizenry.

Clarence K. Streit’s “Nucleus Approach” to World Organization

Advocacy of world federations faced, since its inception, the impasse summarized by realist scholar Hans Morgenthau (1973, 398):

Our analysis of the problem of domestic peace has shown that the argument of the advocates of the world state is unanswerable: There can be no permanent international peace without a state coextensive with the confines of the political world.

But he went on to say that “a world community must antedate a world state” (Morgenthau, 1973, 406), referring to the role that supranational loyalty and consent must play in the creation and resilience of an international federation. This observation articulates the dilemma that progressive realists faced starting in the mid-1930s, when renouncing the “institutionally conservative faith in a Westphalian system” (Scheuerman, 2011, 168).

In practice, however, inquiry on desirability vs feasibility gave way to a third option, beyond the planners’ either/or framework. In the early 1930s, the journalist, political theorist, and activist Clarence K. Streit developed a formal model for how this third scenario might work. He called it the “nucleus” approach. His proposal – a federal union of democracies functioning within the outer ring of universal cooperation – was explicitly conceived to reinforce, not replace, the League of Nations that had been founded in the wake of WWI. It would allow coexistence of universal world cooperation with partial world federation.

Streit’s nucleus projected an interim period in which world organization would entail concentric and overlapping circles. In its outer global shell, the shallower universalism stemming from the principle of the sovereign equality of states would uphold cooperation among all nations. Its core was organized through federation and anchored in the more concrete and sturdier universalism stemming from the democratic principle of individual equality. The core needed enough critical mass to draw more nations into the inner circle, thus making the desirable also feasible. Eventually, the outer circle would be absorbed and the deeper inclusiveness of democracy would underpin the totality. Equality among nations would not subside but would be subordinate in hierarchy to individual equality sanctioned by the federation.

Toward the end of WWII, Streit’s supporters, who had initially taken the lead in the debate on world organization, rejected the approach of official proposals in which world organization was presented as a binary choice between two models: federation and cooperation. The actual choice, they countered, was between synthesis (not-only-but-also) vs non-synthesis (either/or) of these two models. It was between a nucleus of world federation within universal cooperation, which could empower both democracy and world organization, and universal cooperation without federation, which would weaken democracy and lead to cycles of hegemonic rivalry in the perennial competition for supremacy. The first would replace power politics and provide reliable security, and the second would lead to “power politics raised to a cosmic degree” (Kirchwey, 1945, 18).

The idea of a nucleus of federated democracies has a long history, dating back to the early 20th century. In 1917, the journalist Walter Lippmann stated in unequivocal terms that American participation in the Great War could be “nothing less than the Federation of the World.” This end would be achieved by establishing at first a union of democracies, which would serve as the “cornerstone” of the future world federation. Victory would be defined by the realization of this goal: “We can win nothing from this war unless it culminates in a union of liberal people […] determined to erect a larger and more modern system of international law upon a federation of the world” (Lippmann, 1917a, 59–61; 1917b, 1–10).

Progressive internationalists shared the perspective that American participation was to create a new order based on the principle of union through democracy. With few exceptions, at the end of the war, their endorsement of federal arrangements for world organization was rooted in the analysis that a world safe for democracy had to be a federal world.

At the same time, the League to Enforce Peace and the League of Free Nations Association, the two major groups working on public support for world organization, converged on a position that partially incorporated the perspective of the third option. They co-endorsed the goal of a “League of Free Nations, as universal as possible” (League of Free Nations Association, 1918), and the “Victory Program” that called for a League based on an “initiating nucleus” not bound to unanimity in its decisions (League to Enforce Peace, 1919, 2–4; Stella, 2003).

In the interwar period, in the new context of an existing world organization based on cooperation among all nations, the nucleus approach was formulated by Streit more specifically as a strategy to move beyond the cooperation vs federation binary. The success of the nucleus concept as a path toward world federation depended on whether it could fill the gap between desirability and feasibility over time. This explains the new focus on the dynamics of power between the democratic nucleus and the rest of the world, aspects that had not been explored in previous proposals.

Although this concept of a federation of democracies had been abandoned with the creation of the League in 1919, interest in the nucleus option climaxed again in 1941 and was once more rejected with the creation of the UN in 1945. It resurfaced in the immediate postwar period when the structures of Euro-Atlantic integration partially embodied this approach.

The Structural Interdependence of Democracy, Security, and Effective World Organization

First popularized by Streit in his bestselling book Union Now in 1939, the nucleus idea had its greatest impact during and immediately after WWII. Its intellectual roots, however, lay much further back. The notion evolved in the late 1800s among those who supported the federalist approach to the problem of peace. They rejected the ascendant “legalist approach” to world organization, arguing that international arbitration and law, with or without enforcement, were ineffective and bound to generate unjust outcomes. They indicated that in moments of crisis, change would continue to be either unjustly repressed, or the result of war or the threat of war. To make the world alterable by other means, it was necessary instead to extend democratic practices beyond the nation-state, and ultimately transition from absolute sovereignty to a supranational order with deliberative, legislative, judicial, and enforcement mechanisms.

Hamilton Holt (1907, 615) disagreed with the legalist school that prevailed at the Hague Conventions, arguing there that “Disarmament cannot logically precede political organization, for until the world is politically organized there is no way, except by force of arms.” Holt (1914, 428–429) proposed instead the creation of a sufficiently large federal nucleus able to disarm enough internally to spark the necessary conditions to further global disarmament, until, with world federation, armaments would be “reduced to an international police force.” Its power would thus subsume the function that force has in domestic politics within a democratic state, where coercion is the enforcement of legitimate law.

Working within the Wilson administration, British intellectuals Norman Angell and Walter Lippmann also rejected the legalist approach. Its peace, Lippmann commented (1915, 141) would be “a very unsatisfactory peace.” Its laws, Angell decried, had no sounder basis than the fact that “powerful belligerents in the past” could “compel their reading of the ‘law.’” World organization had to provide methods to alter these laws, “so that justice to one will not involve injustice to another.” It had to prioritize not so much “a court to administer the law or a body to enforce it,” but “a legislature to make it.” In the midst of WWI, with Lippmann’s support, Angell tried to convince Wilson that, if world organization was ever going to include this method, its initial structures had to be created during the war. It was possible to start with joint deliberative bodies uniting the democracies. These would inoculate them from the resurgence of competing for national perspectives at the peace table, and world organization from being impermeable to change (Angell, 1918, 111–112).

Lippmann held that “[t]he grand disputes of states” were ultimately “political, not juridical,” and could only be solved with the creation of international machinery “by which one policy can be made to supplant another.” That machinery was nothing less than political union through federation: “The modern substitute for war,” he concluded, was “not arbitration, but election.” What happened in federation was “not the abolition of force but its sublimation.” With this analysis, Lippmann drew a correlation between democracy and security stronger than Angell’s and went further in his prescriptions. Political union could not occur among independent sovereign states; it required them to “break down the sovereign frontier, and merge in some kind of larger union.” Lippmann envisioned that “some kind of federation” or “coalition of western states” could initiate the process of “whittling away of sovereign pretensions and national separatism” needed for the “cooperation of mankind” (1915, 212, 216, 177, 186, 110).

The federalist approach to world organization was considerably strengthened in the interwar years when Streit formulated an independent federalist theory of international relations. Federalists could emerge with an identity of their own, not as subgroups within other larger constituencies, as had been the case in WWI.

Streit’s nucleus approach was rooted more deeply in democracy. He provided the political theory as to why democracy and effective world organization were structurally interdependent and why success of world organization depended on prioritizing democracy and democratic structures and not universality at inception.

From 1929 to 1938, as New York Times correspondent at the League, he was in a unique position to observe universal intergovernmental cooperation in action, and explore in contrast what would be the systemic impact of a democratic federal nucleus on democracy and security. He reported on the League’s inability to solve the world’s global economic and security crises, the rise of authoritarian regimes, and on the increasing consensus that “democracy was weak and dying, that its principles or its forms or both were wrong” (Streit, 1935, 223). Streit rejected this analysis, arguing instead that the crisis of democracy and that of world organization were a single interconnected crisis. Faltering collective security and international law were not side notes to democracy. They directly impaired individual freedom, equality, and welfare, and yet these shortcomings could not be altered as long as the processes of democracy were confined to the nation-state.

In “World Organization through Democracy,” a lecture at the Geneva Institute of International Relations, Streit observed that the “theories that grew in popularity were those of the adversaries of democracy” (Streit, 1935, 223). The democracies were ultimately at fault for the weakness of world organization, which in turn led to further concentration of state power at the expense of democracy.

By 1934 Streit had completed the initial manuscript of Union Now, in an attempt to save democracy from its own blind spots when interpreted as a practice that exclusively pertains to domestic life. Democracies and autocracies were in reality not two clearly separate camps.

The dictators are right when they blame the democracies for the world’s condition, but they are wrong when they blame it on democracy. The anarchy comes from the refusal of the democracies to renounce enough of their national sovereignty to let effective world law and order be set up. But their refusal to do this, their maintenance of the state for its own sake, their readiness to sacrifice the lives and liberties of the citizens rather than the independence of the state,—this we know is not democracy. It is the core of absolutism. Democracy has been waning and autocracy waxing, the rights of men lessening and the rights of the state growing everywhere because the leading democracies have themselves led in practising beyond their frontiers autocracy instead of democracy.

Streit, 1939, 24 

Unlike many liberal intellectuals, Streit never lost faith in the participatory processes of democracy. In Union Now, he approached the problem of world organization from the standpoint of how it could be a force for democracy, a perspective that resonated powerfully with others in his generation who had shared President Wilson’s conviction that WWI was a struggle to create a system of international governance for peaceful change, without which democracy could not thrive across the world. Like so many others who had been strongly opposed to war but “broke with the pacifists because they saw in this war a means of realizing pacific ideals” (Dewey, 1919, 14), Streit volunteered in WWI, persuaded by “President Wilson’s support of a League to Enforce Peace and his appeals to ‘make the world safe for democracy’” (Streit, 1939, 288). The day he enlisted, he wrote in his diary: “This day 1917, I hold that my fight is against war” (Streit, 8). World organization for peace and democracy were the terms upon which much of Streit’s generation enlisted.

But the League’s system of inter-governmental cooperation led neither to peace nor democracy and made world organization irrelevant. It led instead to democratic backsliding in older democracies and the rise of dictatorships in newer ones.

Streit shared the analysis of other federalists and realists who blamed international anarchy for the failure of world organization, but he further believed that in an age of deep interdependence and escalating violent capabilities, international anarchy was causing ethical and realpolitik dilemmas for democracy. Democracy was suffocating within the “once protective but now choking political shell” of the nation-state (Streit, 1934). By pitting one nation’s free citizens against another’s, the nation-state was undercutting the emancipatory role of democracy and the strength of democracies in the world. Citizens in democracies were increasingly disenfranchised, without voice or vote in a growing number of worrying contexts. They were also more vulnerable to the consequences of the degeneration of democracy at home and abroad.

Streit argued that those trying to save democracy and world organization by limiting membership in world organization to democracies could not save either: a league of democracies sacrificed universality without eliminating international anarchy. Universal intergovernmental cooperation sacrificed democracy. And although many agreed that the answer to both was world federation, none of the offered proposals was likely to lead in that direction. This seemingly unsolvable puzzle, which blocked answers to the interconnected problems of democracy, security, and world organization, hovered over all interwar discussions on League reform. It forced most in the generation between the two leagues to compromise. If one certainty emerged, it was that world organization could not survive without some derogation of national sovereignty, but more in the form of a generalized answer than a specific plan on what to do in practice.

Against this backdrop, Streit’s plan became all the more relevant. It showed that it was possible to save both democracy and universality, solving the intellectual and practical puzzle that had trapped his generation’s best efforts. Before detailing how this could be done using the nucleus method, which “alone combine[d] the truth in the restricted method with the truth in the universal method,” Streit introduced the concept of “unit” of government (Streit, 1934, 1939, 87).

“How the Unit Shapes the End”: The Primacy of Individual Equality

Closely resembling the language of “only two” alternatives used by the planners in 1943 was a passage in Union Now used to usher the concept of “unit” of government: “There are only two ways of organizing inter-state government—the league way and the union way—and we must choose between them” (Streit, 1939, 160). The importance of this choice for the future of democracy ran deeper than commonly assumed.

That choice was widely presented in static terms, as one between what was practical and possible and what was not. Streit used it instead to pinpoint the roadblock that prevented the solution to the twin crises of democracy and world organization.

Already in the early 1930s, Streit argued that built into that choice was a decision – whether or not deliberate – for or against democracy. Ultimately it entailed choosing between “two basic units” of government, “man or the state.” In a union, the unit of government was the individual, in a league the state. The ramifications of this decision, and not the chooser’s intentions, would “determine the real end toward which the resulting organization would be directed” (Streit, 1939, 166).

The choice of unit had the same importance for political organization that “a continental divide has on the course a raindrop will take on reaching earth.” World organization through cooperation of states, as in the League system, would inevitably strengthen “the state against its citizens in order to strengthen it against other states.” The selected unit would shape the “course and end” of international organization, not the “will” or “desire” of those involved in its creation (Streit, 1939, 168, 171).

Streit’s wager that an open federal union of democracies could remove the roadblock that caused the crises of democracy and world organization stemmed directly from these considerations. He made a distinction between the fact that lack of world government was the most urgent public problem and the assumption that it therefore had to, or could, be solved in one stroke through universal world government.

The priority was instead to alter international anarchy. World peace and federation would be perennially unattainable if the process of ingraining the individual as the unit of government in the actual mechanisms of world organization never started. Federation kept the individual as the unit of government also internationally because democracy was the method by which it organized interstate relations. However, only democracies could unite on this basis.

In the intellectual history of the idea of a union of democracies and its relevance as a third approach to world organization, Streit’s contribution marked a clear turning point. At the foundation of Streit’s nucleus metamorphosis was the notion of the individual as the true federator. To alter an order based on the equality of nation-states, the nucleus of democracies had to be anchored to the individual, and his/her democratizing power. This concept was supported by political theory (the unit of government), and the normative notion of the primacy of individual equality.

The nucleus effected two syntheses which, in Streit’s opinion, would clear the path to world federation and in the interim protect democracy and world organization. Key to both was the equality of individuals, and the concept that government, at all levels, was a means to that end.

Membership in the nucleus was a synthesis between the extremes of nationalism and universalism, not a middle ground between the two as in other proposals where the criteria for limited membership (language, region, great power status) precluded growth into a universality. By founding the nucleus on “the principle of free union through the equal sovereignty of man” (Streit, 1939, 209), Streit endowed the concept of non-universal union with the potential of unlimited membership.

The best prospect to bypass the feasibility/desirability deadlock and the mutually exclusive choice of the planners was, in Streit’s wager, to prioritize a partial but transformative change in the sovereign nation-state system. The pivot of this change was making the individual the “unit” of government in the core of world organization and then organizing this core as an open democratic federal nucleus. The core would gradually alter the larger structure. As countries became democracies, the individual would progressively replace the state as the unit of government throughout, and world federation would become the form of world organization.

Realism through Democracy: Dynamics and Traits in Streit’s Formal Model

Ultimately the success of Streit’s wager depended on whether the nucleus could eliminate international anarchy by means other than classical hegemony or a universal world government. The nucleus had to spark a chain reaction that could permanently alter the global dynamics of power and tilt them in favor of democracy and peace.

The convergence of realpolitik and ethical aspirations always underpinned the “third approach” to world organization. Streit theorized that the locus of this convergence was democracy, its processes, methods, and principles. Power and democracy reinforced each other to transcend power politics. Streit’s “realism through democracy” stemmed from the observation that the expectation, shared by 19th-century federalists like Giuseppe Mazzini, that spread of democracy at the nation-state level first would lead to federation later – an expectation that equally underpinned the optimistic WWI hope in an organic evolution from League to Federation – never materialized. The interwar period saw the retreat of democracy and the emergence instead of autocratic regimes. The second stage, federation, then became a potentially ever elusive target. That was the urgency of the “now” in Union Now. The survival and further spread of democracy and its survival needed federation first. Consolidating the power of democracies and altering the nature of their power through federation was the priority.

Considerable analysis went into determining the specific traits and dynamics that would allow the nucleus to operate as a strategy to supplant power politics globally. Streit explained what these conditions would be. He calculated that it was possible to eliminate global anarchy by federating initially 15–20 democracies. This union would cause a sufficient rupture with the old balance-of-power system to break through the feasibility/desirability deadlock. Changes in the core – the nucleus where balance-of-power was replaced by sharing-of-power – would affect the global system and make world federation a gradually achievable goal. The survival of democracy depended upon this breakthrough. By uniting in federation, these democracies would prevent relapse into the systemic competition between democracy and autocracy that inevitably would resurge in moments of crisis in an anarchic world.

The combined power of democracies was vastly superior to that of the rest of the world; democracies, not autocracies, were then ultimately to blame for global instability. International anarchy was essentially kept alive by their own anarchy, which was also the cause of their weakness, and the general distrust in democracy: “Disunion among these democracies is the source of their ills, and of the world’s. The problem of organizing world government is the problem of organizing government among only a few democracies” (Streit, 1939, 147). Streit explained that the power of democracies had become additive only when mobilized after the outbreak of war, in order to win a war. If permanently and more efficiently mobilized through federation, their power would instead coalesce to prevent war. Today the difference between these two approaches might hold the key to human survival.

Transcending power politics meant supplanting balance of power. Internally balance of power was replaced by power-sharing which in turn maximized power efficiency, allowing disarmament. Externally balance of power would be replaced in an interim period by a preponderance of power. As more countries joined, power would be shared on a wider scale, allowing further disarmament; power would eventually be shared globally and subsume the function that police have in domestic affairs. This again was not possible if democracies united in an alliance system.

Like other realist thinkers, Streit insisted that the merging of sovereignties, forced by the imperative of security through power-sharing, could not occur without societal support. As such, the initial nucleus had to be small and somewhat homogeneous while securing enough power to be able to use deterrence alone for its defense. This was the necessary trade-off that came with choosing federation, i.e. union based on individual equality, which for Streit was non-negotiable. A certain degree of socio-economic homogeneity would facilitate societal support and help get the union off to a good start. At the same time, the nucleus was not intrinsically exclusive because its criteria for membership, democracy, held the potential for universal inclusiveness.

As the organization showed itself viable, the federal structure would allow fast inclusion of new members. Federation did not rely on consensus as did other forms of international organization; its democratic decision-making procedures allowed the integration of a greater proportion of new countries. In addition, access to the nucleus could occur with a simple majority of favorable votes. This process would quickly increase diversity within the union, offsetting the initial condition of homogeneity. A wider common identity would slowly emerge but would not replace local and national identities, which federation would protect. The promise of inclusion in the union would encourage, together with global stability, endogenous democratization in non-democracies.

Today Streit’s formal model offers important theoretical insights on the realist potential of democracy. It offers also a rare example of an intellectually rigorous political vision in which the ethical and moral aspirations of democracy are not compromised, but enhanced, by realist considerations.

The Nucleus Idea and the Postwar Euro-Atlantic Institutions

The postwar institutions of Euro-Atlantic integration did not emerge out of thin air. To the degree that they implemented paradigms, methods, and purpose of previous proposals, popularized by the WWII movements for federation, they succeeded in transforming the nature of power in the Euro-Atlantic area and beyond (Stella, 2001; Straus, 1999).

The “political conditions” to effect this change and move beyond power politics were first formulated by the internationalist vanguard of WWI. Common to their analysis was that in the 20th century the survival of democracy depended on world organization and that effective world organization meant the ability to supplant power politics “through democracy.” This could not be accomplished at once; it required gradually setting in motion structures to internationalize the power of democracies – democratic, alterable and open. In 1917 Angell postulated (149–150) that these “political conditions” would allow “the slow growth of a common purpose as against conflicting purposes.” Liberal democratic forces would be energized by the prospect that after overthrowing their illiberal governments they could join the union of democracies. The transformative potential of these dynamics would drive a wedge between illiberal governments and their people, and change hostility into hope through the prospect that their individual and societal interests would be guaranteed best as participants in the union. However, Lippmann warned (1915, 214, 211), “[w]hether struggle [could] be sublimated into politics” depended ultimately on whether this process culminated in federation, i.e. in the ability to accomplish by “elections what sovereign states do by war.”

Streit’s model of an open federal nucleus refined these ideas in light of two interwar intellectual developments: the realist critique of the League and new concerns over the relationship among international organization, the weaponization of information, public opinion, and democracy. As a journalist, Streit noted that the League, due to its intergovernmental structure, was powerless in countering misinformation, had to rely on propaganda, and inadvertently contributed to the rise of emotions lethal to democracy. This experience had considerable impact on how he conceived the nucleus external relations.

The union defense had to rely on deterrence alone: “Unlike armament and alliance policies, Union leads to no crusade against autocracy abroad, to no attempt to end war by war or make the world safe for democracy by conquering foreign dictatorship” (Streit, 1939, 28). At the same time implicit in Lippmann’s warning was the notion that unless the overthrowing of illiberal regimes meant inclusion in the union, the expectations raised with the powerful symbol of a union of democracies could lead to further chaos and exacerbation of dangerous emotions. Streit understood the revolutionary power of an institutional promise to that effect. It meant a pledge to those living under totalitarian regimes that, through their democratic revolutions, they would gain actual governing agency in the union.

Union Now was written while Mussolini and Hitler were consolidating their regimes, increasingly stripping Italians and Germans of their democratic freedoms. Several passages in the book were direct appeals to the democratic resistance. The book’s first edition was printed privately in the same clandestine printing press, run by anti-fascist Italian refugees, where were printed Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine, and Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi’s Manifesto Programma di Ventotene, the founding document of the European federalist resistance.

Union Now became a programmatic manifesto not only for progressive internationalists in democracies but also for those not initially included in the union who especially needed a pledge of security through union, a guarantee that they would be met at the other end of the tunnel. This pledge became a common feature in the programmatic document of the WWII American, British, and European federal union movements. At the end of the war, they insisted that a guarantee that others could join be incorporated in the founding documents of the new EuroAtlantic institutions and reflected in the democratic methods of union.

The institutions of international integration created since 1947 on both sides of the Atlantic embedded the nucleus perspective in the text of their treaties. This perspective had an unmistakable role in the East during the 1980s and in the aftermath of 1989. However, after some Eastern countries joined, a widening and deepening tension arose in both the European Union and NATO. It originated in the fact that these institutions were created with the double promise – of deep unity and of being open to new members – born out of the ideas of the 1939 federalist movements. The pledge was incorporated, however, without giving these structures, since inception, the deep federalist character advocated in the original 1939 nucleus proposal.

In both the EU and NATO treaties, the nucleus is present not as originally conceived, but as a “double nucleus”: a nucleus of institutions and a nucleus of countries (Straus, 1999, 294). This duality reflects the neo-functionalist strategy of Jean Monnet, on the one hand, and the federalist strategy of Clarence Streit, on the other. Split along two dimensions, the dynamics of the two halves of this nucleus were not independent from one another, and the interplay of widening and deepening became a constant trait in the life of these institutions.

As to deepening, the preamble to the original EU treaty opens by stating the treaty was meant to “lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” As to widening, the preamble closed by “calling upon the other peoples of Europe who share their ideal to join in their efforts” (European Union, 2010).

The double nucleus is present also in the NATO treaty, though less emphatically. It offers the potential for “any other European State” to join (Article 10). It also pledges that its members will work to develop mutual economic cooperation (Article 2), alongside political, diplomatic, and military cooperation (Articles 3, 9), supporting provisions for collective security (Article 4) and “collective defense” (Preamble and Article 5) (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1949). The deepening aspects of Article 2 were a compromise between the federalist and nonfederalist forces at play in the drafting of the NATO treaty. Federalists insisted from the beginning that “any pact, however negotiated, should be broader and deeper than a military alliance” (Pearson, 2016, 44).

They reiterated the not-only-but-also perspective, echoing WWI and WWII federalist reflections on “the dangers of halfpreparedness,” epitomized in Angell’s (1916a, 1916b, 19) warning: “Not that we do not need armament, but that we need something else as well.” As in the past, they argued that the alliance would be incomplete unless built “not only to defend” but also to lead to “an eventually united world” (Pearson, 2016, 44). Several authors of the treaty shared the view that the alliance should serve as the “chrysalis” of an Atlantic federation (Reid, 1977, 187). Theodore Achilles, the principal State Department drafter of the NATO treaty, and Jack Hickerson, his senior and forerunner – together with Lester Pearson and Escott Reid, the Canadian Under Secretary and Deputy Secretary of State – were open about this goal (Wrong, 1948, 407; Pearson, 1972; Reid, 1977; Henderson, 1982; Kaplan, 1984; Kaplan, 1988).

Federalists, unsatisfied with being “simply … part of an American war machine” (Pearson, 2016, 44), asked for a positive program. The deepening potential of Article 2 was meant to foster “a metamorphosis of alliance into community, a community which would increasingly acquire the characteristics of a federation” (Reid, 1977, 187). Pearson (2016, 61) hoped it could, at the same time, “establish in the Treaty the basis” for “a full Atlantic Union,” a goal that Achilles and Hickerson supported.

As to widening, the treaty references potential membership of “any other European State,” a compromise on the original WWII idea, broached in the negotiations, of gradual universal inclusiveness (Reid, 1948a, 1948b, 525). The nucleus was “Atlantic” because the democracies initially uniting were in the Atlantic area, not by virtue of a regional essence. Federalists hoped the treaty could “pave the way to the creation of a union of all the free states of the world in a collective defence agreement under article 51 of the Charter” (Reid, 1948a, 1948b, 505).

Jack Hickerson asked his collaborators to read Union Now before concluding the NATO negotiations. Theodore Achilles (1983) spoke of the impact that this federalist vision had on the generation that forged the present world order:

A lot of people got a hold of that book [Union Now] and read it – Chris Herter, Will Clayton, Jack Hickerson, myself […]. I heard Clarence Streit speak in 1941, got a copy of the book and read it. From here came the whole idea of Atlantic unity.

He added a bold statement: “If it hadn’t been for Union Now, I don’t think that there would have been a NATO Treaty.”

After the disappointment of 1945 with the UN, Union Now had kept alive this hope of Achilles’ generation that the door to world organization through democracy was still open and could eventually lead to federation. The prospect of a federal union of democracies, Achilles (1972) reported, was the reason for his and Hickerson’s “shared enthusiasm for negotiating a military alliance and getting it ratified as a basis for further progress towards unity.”

Back when he started as a correspondent at the League, Streit gained international attention in 1932 with a provocative report on freedom of the press and the League’s role in contributing to “false news” (Streit, 1932, 16–27). Two years later, the reflection on truth and peace at the core of that report was particularly relevant for the moral and ethical foundations of his proposal for a union of democracies. Federalism in international organization would eradicate the moral dilemmas in the otherwise mandatory choices among peace, truth, and democracy. The participatory processes of federation allowed internal reconciliation of perspectives; they also transformed the outlook of the external “enemy” relation. At the other end of the spectrum from a Carthaginian peace was peace by federation, resting on validation and inclusion of the “other’s” truth in the formation of the shared rule of the whole. This prospect offered a qualitatively different incentive to democratization, which stemmed, Streit maintained, from the natural aspiration that our truth, individual and societal, be given agency.

Streit (1939, 155) believed that the “provision for ultimate universality on the basis of equality among all the citizens” would break the cycle that, through “despair or offended pride,” led unstable democracies back “into the hands of the absolutists.” The nucleus “would need no propaganda bureau.” Endogenous democratization would occur with freedom of the press and methods of world organization could either facilitate or undermine its emergence. “Would not the establishment of genuine freedom of the press,” Streit asked, “in, say, Soviet Russia, be hastened by the wish to join this world organization?”

If history can serve as an indicator, however incomplete, Streit’s predictions seem somewhat vindicated. Peace with Germany, Italy, and Japan, consolidated through institutional integrative bonding, immediately following WWII, eliminated the enemy-relation. In contrast a high-powered enmity relation reemerged with Russia, following a lack of institutional integration after the end of the Cold War. In 1954, Streit (p. 254) warned against the likely resurgence of “aggressive dictatorship and war” if “before the free are organically federated, revolution should sweep through Soviet Russia and its satellites and replace the Communist dictatorships with Western-type democracies or chaos.” That scenario, he commented, “would not end the basic tension of our time.” It would reinstate, rather, a situation of international anarchy similar to that in existence after WWI, when, years ahead of the lead-up to WWII, he wrote Union Now. In calling for a federal union of democracies, then and again in 1954, Streit’s wager was that its promise of universal inclusivity was not resting on good intentions and high-sounding principles, but on a pledge that could be honored, ingrained in the dynamics and structures set by the methods of its organization.

The harmful irrelevance of world organization has served as a scapegoat to deflect responsibility, rather than a wake-up call followed by proposals to strengthen world organization. There is little to no understanding among policymakers, as evidenced in the 2021 Summit for Democracy, that the larger asset democracies should rely upon does not lie in adding more power, but in transforming its nature. The true competitive edge of democracies lies in their ability to reinforce democracy and its power by uniting in federation. Autocracies cannot do that. Autocracies can only temporarily add power in alliance with other autocracies. Further, democracies would thrive with stronger world organization. This was the intellectual breakthrough of the generations between the two leagues. Their contribution is even more essential today when no amount of added power would ever be sufficient to eliminate the risk of existential catastrophe.

Quoting Ambassador William Bullitt (1938, cited in Streit, 1939, 27) Streit stressed the generative role of perspectives:

It is not enough to observe with a sense of superiority the worst mistakes of the new fanaticisms. The origins of those fanaticisms lie in part in our [the democracies’] own unwisdom.

He warned against the heightened dangers of the anarchy bound to resurge at the end of the Cold War if democracies failed to unite through the democratic procedures of federation.

At that juncture, the policy community’s dismissive attitude toward federalist arrangements as belonging to the realm of theoretical “utopia” in a world of immutable anarchy precluded using the rare chance that the unipolar moment offered for “global state formation” to inoculate the world from nuclear and environmental catastrophe. That opportunity disappeared soon with the rise of new powers, the inevitable byproduct of anarchy (Craig, 2003, 172).

Current threats are undoubtedly greater than those of the interwar years, but the sources are not dissimilar:

[The] autocratic governments are adding to the world’s ills but they are not the real cause of them. They are instead an effect of the anarchy among the powerful democracies. When the really powerful members of a community refuse to organize effective government in it, when each insists on remaining a law unto himself to the degree the democracies, and especially the United States, have done since the war, then anarchy is bound to result.

Streit, 1939, 27

This is a stark reminder that the key to setting the world on a different course remains in the democratic dynamics of federation. It is also a warning that the powerful symbol of a union of democracies can be used for qualitatively different ends. United in an alliance of nation-states, democracies ultimately sustain a competitive international system unaltered by democracy, together with its byproduct: the resurgence of emotions that naturally occur within the psychological and realpolitik confines of international anarchy. In a nucleararmed anarchic world, the emotions of “us-vs-them” are injected with existential risk power.

In the Spring of 2022, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened investigations into possible war crimes in Ukraine. The ICC was founded on the principle of individual criminal responsibility. The notion of linking international structures directly to the individual was strongly advocated in federalist proposals. But they saw moral, ethical, and practical contradictions in its application to an anarchic world. This measure does not eliminate war, and as such a layer of residual responsibility will continue to lie with forces – policies, institutions, people – that reify anarchy. In this respect too, democracy is key to survival. Individuals and nationstates have different sets of priorities when it comes to self-preservation. Further, on democratic grounds, it becomes possible to challenge what Luis Cabrera (2020) describes as the inherent “political arrogance” of the present sovereign nation-state system. This system today deprioritizes and neglects individual democratic rights and interests, including that of self-preservation.

Inclusiveness through federation was the promise behind the positive anticipation stirred by the proposals for a union of democracies of the past. The transformative element behind that vision is absent in today’s calls for unity among democracies that discount as “utopian” the original aim to transcend power politics. As we saw, those proposals stemmed instead from a rigorous realist analysis of the dynamics of power in international relations, and the implications for the future of democracy. Without new political frameworks that altered the nature of power internationally, normative goals such as peace, freedom, equality, human rights – i.e. the principles more recent plans for uniting democracies want to “defend” – could not be realized. A convergence of realpolitik and ethical concerns could be achieved exclusively when democratic processes and procedures started regulating world organization.

Unlike their predecessors, recent reconfigurations of the idea purposely avoid reference to those transformational aims. They disregard the fact that past frameworks would structurally enhance the power of democracies, the democratic world, and its values. The predictable result has been a shift in the interpretation of those values. Cohesiveness is sought for greater “interoperability” and aggregate power to “defend” the democratic world and its principles in a competitive interstate system. With no focus on how the methods and scope of a “union” of democracies will in the end determine the realization of those principles, within and beyond the “democratic world,” current proposals sound hollow and are inadequate to foster the global cooperation so critical to address the threats in our time. Democracies today would do well to direct attention to the more “radical” models of the past. That culture and its realist and moral wisdom are worth reexamining. Having disregarded these models’ goal of positive peace, the adopted frameworks have left humanity running after an ever more elusive hope of negative peace and survival.


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The original article by Tiziana Stella can be found in How Democracy Survives Global Challenges in the Anthropocene published by Routledge. It has been republished with permission of the journal and using Taylor & Francis' Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.


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