Castaldi, The Federalist Debate

A History of World Federalism:
Lessons for European and World Federalists Alike

The Federalist Debate (Turin), 18, 2 (July 2005): 54–57

Roberto Castaldi

Baratta, Joseph Preston, The Politics of World Federation, Praeger, Westport, 2004.
Vol. I United Nations, U.N. Reform, Atomic Control.
Vol. II From World Federalism to Global Governance.


Introduction: an overview

It is unusual to congratulate the author for his ability to summarise a great many ideas, data and information in a short space, when commenting on a two volume book; and still it is appropriate in this case. Baratta offers a well-documented history of the many individuals and groups favouring world federalism in the U.S., focusing particularly on the period between World War II and the consolidation of the bipolar order known as the Cold War. He also considers other related groups in other countries, but the U.S. federalists are indeed the focus of the book.

Baratta’s work also includes a vast and extremely useful Annotated Bibliography of world federalist writings from all over the globe. I am unable to judge its accuracy, but the amount and variety of articles and books mentioned is extremely significant and shows that people in all regions of the world have been thinking about some form or another of world government, especially during, and immediately after, World War II. However this is probably a partial list, as the author cannot know all the languages of the world and he probably had to count on the help of other scholars to make up this list, and something may be missing, as is the case for the Italian federalist tradition, where some other relevant materials could be found. At any rate this will be a necessary point of reference for all federalists interested to know their intellectual origins and to develop federalism thinking building consciously on the federalist literature of the past. Similarly, the list of federalist journals, archives and collections where to find relevant material, clauses limiting absolute national sovereignty in many constitutions of the world, all contribute to make this book an indispensable starting point to study the history of world federalism.

The book basically proposes three main theses, which the author himself has summarised for me as a guide for my reading:

“1. After first use of atomic bombs on Japan, the Baruch plan for the international control of atomic energy was the nearest official U.S. approach to world government. Today, the European Union is the nearest practical realization of the dreams of federation.

2. The world federalist movement left behind a large literature, including two practical yet visionary plans: Grenville Clark and Louis B. Sohn’s World Peace through World Law, and Robert M. Hutchins, G.A. Borgese, and the Chicago Committee’s Preliminary Draft of a World Constitution.

3. The book recounts a deeply principled alternative to the Cold War that now could offer a vision for foreign policy.”

            It is impossible here to offer even just a summary of the book, but it may be useful to recall the main issues and topics addressed. Baratta analyses the period of World War II when the post-war organisation of the world took shape. He stresses that this was probably the period when an action for World Federation could have had more chances of success, as there still was cooperation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. But at that time most people where obviously rather concerned with winning the world war rather than thinking about the future settlement, and it was thus impossible to develop a popular movement for world federation. Clarence Streit, William Curry, Wendell Willkie and Emery Reves where among the first to call for a federation and getting to the public at large.

Also the atomic scientists were among the first to mobilise for the idea of world government, or at least for effective international control of atomic energy, that is for some form of limited world government. After the first use of the atomic bomb a number of people started thinking and campaigning on world government to save civilization. At that time the inability of the U.N., on which many hopes were initially places, to deal with the problem of peace among the great powers became clear. But then the Cold War consolidated and the Korean War showed the possibility of non-nuclear war. When the USSR managed to build the atomic bomb, the doctrine of mutual deterrence seemed to reassure many people, even if it meant living on the brink of destruction.

In that period a number of people and groups mobilised themselves following different strategies and without managing to unite, i.e. to do among the federalists what they were asking of governments. It is impossible even to pass though the many individual and groups mentioned in the book, but it is worth trying to learn some lessons from their history.


The crucial issues for all federalists to tackle

Baratta identifies the four most divisive issues among world federalists. Two deal with the final goal, and two with the transition. To mobilise people there is the need to clearly indicate the goal: What a world federation should look like? This question poses the problem of the institutional structure, i.e. of the form of representation of individuals and states within the federation, and of the powers to be vested in the federation.

As far as representation is concerned there were two main alternatives. A direct and proportional representation of the people would be more democratic, and would have given a huge power to poor and populous states such as China and India. Alternatively, several forms of weighted representation take into account also the wealth, education, military power and other criteria. Almost all American world federalists favoured the second solution, on the basis that neither the US nor the USSR would accept the first.  They discussed several weighting formulas, or proposed electoral colleges corresponding to Toynbee’s nine civilizations, thus de facto ensuring weighted representation as they had different populations but would elect the same number of representatives.

In relation to the powers to be vested in the eventual world federation, minimalists and maximalists faced each other. The former favoured a limited transfer of power to deal with peace and war and enforce national disarmament and the control of atomic energy, arguing that these were the only powers that the major powers could maybe accept to transfer to the world level. The latter asked for a world government able to ensure justice on a global scale, thus also dealing with the issue of poverty, decolonisation, etc., arguing that these were the only aims on which all the people of the world and not of just a few rich countries could be mobilised.

But if there was disagreement about the institutional structure of the goal, even more there was about the strategy to reach it. Two issues were central: the prospective membership of the federation, and the transition from anarchy to federation. Even if universal membership was obviously the final goal for every federalist, the problem of starting a federative process and identifying the possible members is always crucial for any federalist movement. Two main possibilities confronted themselves. A federation of the democracies, that is of the emerging western bloc, favoured by Clarence Streit; and a universal federation, based on an east-west settlement and renewed cooperation, favoured by most American world federalists.

But whatever the prospective membership, there was the need to indicate how to reach the federation. The problem of the transition is the problem of strategy and again two main proposals were put forth. Those favouring universal membership were keen to build on the existing universal organization, and thus worked to reform the U.N.O., eventually with a gradualist approach. Others favoured a revolutionary act by the people of the world through a world constituent assembly, or the people’s convention approach.

These are to a great extent the same issues that the European federalists had to tackle. It was clearly easier to define the institutional structure of a European federation, although initially the pro-European movement was split among federalists and confederalists or unionists. But on the issue of membership and transitions the arguments were very much the same. With or without Britain was the question in front of the European federalists – since the division between eastern and western Europe depended on decisions taken in Washington and Moscow — so the Europeans could not divide themselves on this issue. The confederal Council of Europe was made with British membership and leadership. But to get any delegation of sovereignty, like in the European Coal and Steel Community, it proved necessary to start without the Brits, as Jean Monnet and Altiero Spinelli clearly understood. If the unification process would go ahead and bring positive results, the Brits would follow, as they eventually did. Here the European experience may be useful to help to define the  world federalist strategy. Union is the creation of a common power, not an organization with plenty of members but incapable of addressing the people’s problems. If federation is needed, integration will have positive implications and will attract other people and countries to join. On the world plane this is happening now with the World Trade Organization, which has some limited powers, and which many states aim to join.

On the issue of transition the same options were available to world and European federalists. Monnet’s gradualist approach – generally called neo-functionalism – and Spinelli’s advocacy of a European constituent assembly are history. Different groups followed the different paths. Just as Henry Usborne worked for a world people’s convention, so Spinelli organised the European People’s Congress, with more success but anyway to little effect. And just as many world federalists worked without success to reform the U.N., so Monnet cultivated the illusion that Euratom could be the key, and others hoped that the Economic Community could develop by itself into a political union.


Some lessons for all federalists

Both strategic proposals proved wrong in Europe, because a constitutional act would eventually be necessary to reach a federation, but it was unlikely to be obtained without a previous process of pooling of sovereignty. In the 1960s Mario Albertini developed the theory of constitutional gradualism to exploit both insights. First, he recognised that the unification process had two crucial aspects: integration, the transfer of competences to the European level; and construction, the building of common institutions endowed with power to deal with those competences. Then, he suggested that the federalists should campaign on the basis of this plan: European election, European currency, European government. The election would create a democratic forum, which would demand growing powers, on the basis of its democratic legitimacy, and promote further integration. The currency would imply a real and visible transfer of sovereignty and create a main symbol of sovereignty at the European level. This would make the European economy unmanageable without a European government. Once a democratic federal institutional structure with a judiciary, a legislative and an executive was in place, they would ask for more powers also about foreign and security policy. Eventually this process would result in the creation of a European federal state. It would have been possible to try with the army, as in the 1950s, but the currency seemed more feasible at that time. Looking back, it is possible to say that Albertini’s strategy proved right. After the creation of the Euro, a constitutional debate opened up. Europe is now on the verge of its first constitution, but still lacks a government. And this should be the focus of the European federalists’ future campaign. Again, here there may be a lesson for world federalists. Building embryos of democratic institutions at world level may be a useful starting point. At the same time it is also necessary to identify the competences that may really be transferred at the world level. The difficulty is that in the world there are a number of international organizations, and the most powerful – the economic ones – are not really within the UN control.

A comparison between European and world federalist also shows their political role. Baratta recalls Glenville Clark’s conviction of the possibility, and hence duty, for individuals to take the initiative to confront great problems whenever the government fails to act. The Italian journal Il dibattito federalista has in its cover a sentence by Albertini: “The militant is one who makes a personal issue of the contradictions between facts and values”. Individual commitment and sacrifice is at the basis of all vanguards, including the federalists. This crucial aspect emerges in the history of the individuals and groups mentioned in Baratta’s book, and it brings the reader to deeply respect them all. This is what makes recruitment and cultural training of the activists so important for the future of organised federalism. Only somebody deeply convinced of the federalist ideas – who has thought them out at some depth – may be ready to sacrifice throughout for the establishment of the political goal of European or world federation, which may often seem attainable only at a distant future.

Clark’s idea also shows that the federalist role is precisely to take the initiative — but they should take it for granted that national governments will fail to act when faced with supranational problems. Federalists are not a government. And if they were a party, it would be unlikely that they could be in governments at the same time in all the states involved in a federative process in order to take the decision to federate. They are a movement with the little but important power to provide a useful answer to difficult problems. And they have more chances to be heard when there is a widely perceived crisis on a supranational problem requiring a federalist answer. In this case the political class needs to act in response to the crisis and may take up the federalist proposal as a course of action. Albertini identified this sequence of crisis-initiative-leadership to guide the federalist search of a strategy. Clark also stresses the role of crisis in setting the agenda, the role of the federalists in taking the initiative, and the need to find a strong political leader ready to follow that path. Crisis and leadership are out of the federalist’s control. They can only, and have the duty to, be ready to seize the opportunity that a crisis may open up to take the right initiative, mobilising as many people as possible to convince some political leaders to follow that path. As Machiavelli recalled, virtue and fortune are both needed for political success. The federalists must have the virtue to seize all opportunities by taking proper initiatives, at which point they will have more chances to be lucky in finding a political leader ready to listen.

The European and world unification processes offer several examples to confirm this point, as Baratta’s book shows. The greatest world federalist mobilization came after the first use of the atomic bomb, which precipitated the world in a deep crisis about the possibility of survival of civilization in the face of a possible nuclear war. The call of the atomic scientists for the abolition of war through a world government and the development of several world federalist groups all came about at that time. Still, as Baratta suggests, the time when they could have succeeded was much earlier, during World War II, when the US, the USSR and the UK were still cooperating and planning the future. At that time a committee of the State Department of the American government even discussed the idea of world federation. By the time the cooperation diminished and they decided to create only a confederal arrangement like the U.N. where each of them would have a veto, thus not renouncing to their external sovereignty, most chances were gone. Similarly, Spinelli thought that immediately after the war it would be possible to build a European federation, while the nation-states were still in ruins. But the growing hostility between the US and the USSR brought them to quickly rebuild the old nation-states and to include them into their spheres of influence, thus the expected opportunity did not materialize for the European federalist to seize.

At the same time other crises occurred and were seized. In the impasse of the coming Cold War, Monnet was able to successfully propose the European Coal and Steel Community to manage together the resources for whose control France and Germany had been fighting for a century. He found in Schuman a national leader to take up the idea. Then the start of the Korean War made people think that the same would happen in Germany, another divided country, and allowed Monnet to propose the European Defence Community. But Pleven, the prime minister who accepted the proposal lost his power, like Schuman, and Stalin’s death made the world look more secure, so the French Assembly finally postponed indefinitely the ratification of the Treaty, already ratified by Germany and the Benelux countries. Similarly, the world federalists were unlucky that Henry Wallace was not reappointed vice-president by Roosevelt, who took up Truman for his last term. The confirmation of Wallace would have made a world federalist president of the US at Roosevelt’s death. The issue of leadership comes up times and again throughout Baratta’s book, which confirms that the federalist can have only the role of initiative.

At the same time it is important to understand the conditions in which a leadership may be found. Baratta recalls some speeches by important members of the British government in favour of world rule of law or some form of world government. But he concludes that the British felt their decline and thus were unable to take the lead. Leadership requires power. The Philippines and other states took the initiative to propose radical reforms of the UN Charter – even suggesting weighted representation, rather than pretending that each state was equal, thus making the UN Assembly powerless, and the five permanent members of the Security Council the only relevant actors – but they were not strong enough to force the great powers to consider the proposal. In Europe France and Germany had a leading role, as they were powerful states, but, unlike Britain, had lost enough wars to accept the idea of renouncing part of national sovereignty. At the world level it could be hoped that the US would take the lead in the 1940s, when they had not yet developed an “imperial” manner. Today, they are against world rule of law, and oppose the International Criminal Court, just as the Kyoto Agreements. As it is difficult that non-democratic states could take the lead in proposing a delegation of sovereignty, unfortunately only Europe, if united, may have enough power to take the lead in a world federative process. It is a shame that the Europeans have not yet united and are still unable to play a more positive role on the international arena. But the goal of uniting Europe to unite the world should help the European federalists to continue their efforts.

All these examples show the effectiveness of the crisis-initiative-leadership scheme to conceptualise the strategy and role of the federalists and pose the issue of getting ready to seize the opportunity with an appropriate initiative: this is the issue of the organization of the movement. All the world is discussing the globalization process, i.e. there is a wide recognition of the growing interdependence and the creation of a number of global problems, which require global solutions. The expression global governance can be interpreted as a way to indicate the goal, since good governance requires good government, or as an ideology to hide the fact that without global government there cannot be any effective or democratic global governance. At any rate there are several global crises for the federalists to exploit to promote a world federal government, even if the situation of power seems unfavourable to the emergence of a leadership.

However, the federalists are not really prepared to seize their chances. Baratta rightly points out that the weakness of the world federalists since the 1940s until today lay in their inability to federate. Each group was unable to transfer its “sovereignty” to a common world-wide organization – often even just to a common national organization. Still, success requires action at a European and world level, according to the goal pursued. And this implies common decision and campaigns at this level. “Federate or perish” may be true for federalists as well. A supranational campaign may gather more consensus and offer to a potential leader in one country a useful help in other countries too. Only a strong organization, used to discuss together, can eventually seize the opportunity when it arises. But this requires a great deal of humility by all activists. Since every activist only acts on the basis of his convictions, it is difficult to work on the basis of a strategy that I disagree with. At the same time, if I admit that all other activists have the same goal as mine, and are as reasonable as I am, I shall be able to accept that it is better to take a common decision and to work together on a given campaign rather than not doing anything or splitting the forces by running a separate campaign. The challenge of building a strong world federalist organization is still ahead, and should be taken up by all activists.