Ostrower, Journal of American History

Book Review, The Politics of World Federation

Journal of American History, 92, 4 (December 2005): 1044-45

The Politics of World Federation. By Joseph Preston Baratta. (Westport: Praeger, 2004. Vol. 1: The United Nations, U.N. Reform, Atomic Control, xiv, 298 pp. Vol. 2: From World Federalism to Global Governance, 527 pp. $150/set, ISBN 0-275-98066-9/set).

Joseph Baratta wears two hats, one as academic historian, one as peace activist.  Under the first hat, he provides what comes close to being a definitive history of the world federalist movement.  Under the other, he advocates world federalism even after many of the characters who populate his pages have passed from the scene or retreated from federalism.  World federalism is an extension of Wilsonian idealism, and Baratta is as much an idealist as predecessors like Harris Wofford, Cord Meyer, Louis Sohn, and Grenville Clark whom he rescues from oblivion.

Paradoxically, however, Baratta is a realist, at least about the failures of his own cause.  And yet he can’t quite believe what he has discovered. Nowhere is this more evident than in his final paragraph where, after noting the technological developments that help to explain 21st century globalization, he ends by asking plaintively:  “And we cannot summon the will and political creativity to govern our world?”

Certainly he does his part.  This two volume work offers an exhaustive narrative of the men and women who created organization after organization advocating different varieties of world federalism.  All wrestled with serious issues of sovereignty and law.  Baratta covers all bases: minimalist and maximalist, world law advocates and international law advocates (they are not identical), student organizers and congressional leaders, and more.  The organizational complexity of this movement occasionally bewilders even the specialist.  This is not a book for vacation reading.

Baratta’s first volume focuses on four main subjects:  the pre-World War II origins of the federalist idea; the redefinition of world federalism in light of the founding of the UN and the challenge presented by the Security Council veto; the influence of the atomic scientists concerning their own handiwork in a world organized around state sovereignty; and the efforts of Bernard Baruch and his allies who sought, claims Baratta, to limit state sovereignty in pursuit of genuinely international nuclear control.  Hiroshima, argues the author, transformed the federalist ideal from something desirable to something necessary, though the exact direction and organizational shape of the movement remained in dispute for decades.

Baratta’s second volume advances his story from the 1950s to the present. For Baratta, this was a much less hopeful period as Cold War nationalism on both sides of the Iron Curtain reduced the appeal of federalism.  As evidence, Baratta describes the way that many state legislatures rescinded resolutions earlier passed to promote the ideal of peace through world government even before the Korean War had ended.  From the sixties to the eighties, claims the author, world federalism suffered not only from wounds inflicted by its enemies, but by self-inflicted damage largely a result of organizational rivalries.   Even the efforts of committed idealists like Norman Cousins and Stringfellow Barr could not undo the damage.

For the most part, Baratta’s factual narrative is strengthened, not weakened, by his advocacy.  Not always, however.  Baratta’s brand of federalism is intimately connected to the belief that people, universally, will refrain from war.

For many federalists, it was an article of faith that global democracy, not self-interested governments, are the first line of peaceful defense.  This is a noble ideal, but Baratta might have given more attention to the kind of writers like Fareed Zakaria and Samuel Huntington who focus on cultures, not states, in ways that raise serious question about the meaning of global democracy.  Neither author appears in Baratta’s otherwise splendid annotated bibliography.

Nevertheless, this book has too many virtues to dwell on its shortcomings. The primary sources alone recommend Baratta’s two volumes, sources that include scores of resolutions from states and  conferences addressing federalism.  The author even includes the relevant sections of many state constitutions in his appendix. This isn’t bloodless academic history.

This is a labor of love.

Gary B. Ostrower
Alfred University
Alfred, New York