An historical backdropMORE
Most textbooks say the bullet killing Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 sparked World War I. Technically, it did. But if empires were not already crumbling, if new technologies of mass murder had not already been created, and if rigidly sovereign states had not organized themselves in a dangerous configuration domino-like alliances, that assassination would have been a personal and political tragedy, not a global cataclysm.
In the years after World War I, both the liberal internationalists and the authoritarians and hyper-nationalists understood the race was on to reshape the world. The liberals dithered. The idealism of Woodrow Wilson Fourteen Points gave way to cynical manipulations by big powers. The grand idea of a League of Nations collapsed under the weight of the nationalist “America First” in the US. The fascists, Communists, and ultranationalists marched. Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin all wielded the new tools of power and capitalize on people’s fears and insecurities. Two decades following the “war to end all wars,” our world faced another cataclysm.
In 1941, however, the direst year of the Second World War when it appeared likely the forces of fascism and intolerance could win, something remarkable happened. In January, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared his Four Freedoms, the rights of every human to live in dignity. In August, FDR and Winston Churchill announced the Atlantic Charter, setting out a broad vision for a more peaceful post-war world. These principles were the North Star giving navigational direction and hope to peace-loving people around the world as the deadly war raged on.
When victory finally arrived in 1945, leaders like Harry Truman, Churchill, and others helped establish a set of international treaties like the 1945 UN charter supported by a series of institutions including the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, and, later, the European Union, all designed to counter the rigid sovereignty and extreme nationalism that had fueled WWI and WWII respectively.
With our world again in ruins, our economies devastated, and a cascade of collapses – of lives, health infrastructures, economies, governments, and global power structures -- only just beginning, we find ourselves at yet another transitional moment for our planet. Like with the two World Wars, we see the same jockeying for power and influence, the same constellation of people organizing to seize the momentum of this moment. Revolutionary communications technologies are similarly bringing people together in new ways and creating new possibilities for good and for ill.
It would be easy for many people to lose hope at a time like this when so many lives and livelihoods are being destroyed. But just as FDR and Churchill put forward the aspirations in 1941 for the world they hoped to build after the war, we must all, in the absence of equivalent leaders, come together to establish our own collective North Star, the set of core principles around which we would like to reconstruct our world better as we overcome this crisis.
In 1648 the modern nation state was born. In 1945, wise leaders recognized states needed to be tempered by international institutions. In 2020 the post-war world has come to an end and something new (or chaos) will emerge. The fight is now on to determine what this next phase of our history will be -- and our global coalition of citizens from around the world is entering it in a very big way.