And so, on September 27, 1918, Woodrow Wilson took to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. There, amid the beaux arts glitter and gilt, he declared that what the world needed was a League of Nations.
The president expected it to be the speech of his life, but he was disappointed. As Edward House, Wilson’s chief confidant, wrote in his diary: “Most of [the speech] seemed somewhat over the[ir] heads…. [T]he parts that were unimportant [brought] the most vigorous applause.”
People cheered when Wilson affirmed he would treat our enemies like enemies and not negotiate with the Central Powers. But they scratched their heads over the idea that, once victory was achieved, we’d secure peace for all time by creating an international organization to dispense “impartial justice.”
Their puzzlement was natural. After all, international organizations open to all comers will attract all sorts of nations, with many different ideas about what is just and fair. And it's those differences that spark wars in the first place. So how would an organization made up of all different kinds of nations work? Answer: not well. See, for example, World War II.
Though the League of Nations was a dismal failure, it offered an object lesson in international “governance,” viz., that clubs granting democracies and dictatorships equal say serve, at best, as debate societies incapable of action. At worst, they become a dangerous playground for toying with individual freedoms and state sovereignty.
Unfortunately, the internationalist crowd has yet to learn that lesson. And pointless international clubs have proliferated.
Take the Group of Eight -- a club originally intended for the leading, highly developed, industrial powers that took a strange turn with the 1998 inclusion of Russia. But when one considers that the group doesn't really do anything, that's a rather academic criticism. Dropping Moscow from the forum over the Crimea crisis was little more than a symbolic punishment.
Now there is talk of booting Russia from the G-20, a gaggle of finance ministers from the world’s largest economies. Go ahead. That’s become a fairly useless forum as well — all shop talk and photo-ops.
These organizations are inept for the same reason the League of Nations was a loser. Their ranks are filled with countries that lack common interests, goals and values.
An effective international organization would seek to enhance, not threaten, the sovereignty of its members. It would help keep member nations safe, free and prosperous without usurping their power or bargaining with dictators.
We need new, reality-based clubs where membership is restricted to like-minded nations with common goals. Dump the G-8 and the G-20, and establish a global economic forum of nations who are committed to economic freedom and have demonstrably put that commitment into practice.
The forum's shared values would include respect for the rule of law and property rights and an antipathy against corruption. Its common agenda would press for free trade and liberalizing markets.
Such like-mindedness and commitment would give forum members every incentive to collaborate, take action and produce results, rather than just talk. Most importantly, they would trust and respect one another — working to strengthen the family of free and independent states rather than supplant it.
Free states might not stop with economic gatherings. Similar forums might also make sense for dealing with issues such as security and human rights. Such organizations might never completely sweep away bureaucratic monstrosities like the United Nations, but they could get the big and important things done.
- James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the Washington Examiner