Towards a New World Order


By P. J. NOEL BAKER, Member of Parliament of Great Britain

Delivered over British Broadcasting System, December 12, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VI, pp. 208-209.

ONE day in March of 1895 two men sat together in the moonlight on a sledge in the frozen ice-fields of the Arctic Sea. They were farther North than anyone had ever been. One of them was Fritjhof Nansen, a famous athlete, a scientist and man of letters, and now the leader of a Norwegian expedition to find the Pole; the other was Otto Sverdrup, the captain of Nansen's ship, the Fram.

It was Nansen who had conceived the expedition's plan: he had formed the theory that there was a current through the Arctic Ocean which, if he could jam his vessel in the icefloes, would drift it across the Polar region and so would take it nearer to the Pole than any previous expedition had ever been. Almost with one accord the scientists and explorers of every nation had denounced both Nansen and his plan. Nansen listened to his critics, but he was certain that he was right, and he went on. And they were already victors, Nansen and Sverdrup, as they sat together in the glittering ice-fields beneath the Arctic moon. Everything had gone as Nansen had foreseen. He was farther North than any earlier expedition. His success was greater than he had dared to hope.

Thirty years later I worked for Nansen in the League of Nations. He had been given the task of bringing home half-a-million abandoned prisoners of war whose governments were powerless to help them. Later he was asked to organise relief for the famine-stricken millions on the Volga, to exchange Greek and Turkish populations, to settle a million-and-a-quarter refugees from Asia Minor in their motherland in Greece. Every time a new task was laid upon him, the experts and the "practical politicians" told us that the thing was hopeless; failure this time, they said, was certain—no such thing had been tried in international politics before.

Every time Nansen listened to the difficulties and objections which they made. Every time he overcame them. His successes were not an accident. He once told me the rules by which, in his explorations and at Geneva, his work was done. There were three of them, and they were very simple:

"Never stop because you are afraid—you are never so likely to be wrong."

"Never keep a line of retreat: it is a wretched invention."

"The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer."

When people tell me that the peace aims of the Labour Party are Utopian, or visionary, or idealistic, or whatever contemptuous expression they may use, I think of the things which experts called impossible which I saw Nansen do. And I remember the rules by which he did them.

Mr. Attlee told you a month ago what the Labour Party want to do when the war is over. We want it to end with treaties that will bring us peace—real peace, built on justice, destined to endure. We want the horror of Nazi cruelty to be wiped out. We want Poland and Czecho-Slovakia to be restored. We want the Austrian people given freedom to decide their fate. But more than all these things we want to make what we call a new world order. Our world is becoming very small; we live in a society of nations—we must organise it if we want ordered peace. We want to settle disputes between peoples, not in bloody trenches, but in a court of law. We want to get the nations to give up the monster ships, the submarines, the aircraft, the tanks and poison gas, by which modern war is carried on. We want to ensure that if any nation does commit the crime of war all the other nations shall stand together in overwhelming strength to protect the victim and uphold its rights. We want our own Government to say, now, in plain and concrete terms, both that they mean to do these things and how they mean to do them. We want our men to know what they are fighting to attain; we want the Germans to know, at once, beyond all doubt or question, that when they have a government that will give justice and equality to other nations, we will give justice and equality to them.

I know that many listeners will say "That's Utopian"; or "It's been tried and failed"; or "We must first win the war." Yes, we must first win the war; and I wish I had the time to tell you why I am absolutely certain that we shall win. One reason is because I know that behind the facade of Goebbels' propaganda there is a new Germany—a Germany not only anti-Nazi, but anti-militarist as well—a Germany which, if we state our peace aims clearly, may soon become a genuine ally in the cause of peace. But my task here is to look beyond the confusions of the present moment, and to answer those who say that even if we win, no international institutions can be made to work; that we have tried the League of Nations and it has failed; that the Covenant was a grandiose mistake; that we must face realities and drop our humbug about disarmament and the rule of international law.

I begin by denying that the League was tried and failed, that the Covenant was wrong, that the great experiment in Geneva has left us no further forward than we were before. In actual fact, when the League and the Covenant were used they never failed. The fault lay, not in the tables of the law but in the fact that the commandments of the law were not observed. I remember a conversation I had in Geneva in 1932 with a British Minister, which gives thekey. It was when the Japanese invasion of Manchuria was at its height. In answer to a question, the Minister replied: "Oh, we knew that Japan was the aggressor; we didn't want to do anything about it, that was all." But in the twelve years before Manchuria happened, the experience of the League had brought us further on the road to peace than we bad ever been before. It had shown us how war can be abolished; what rules and what machinery are needed: it had shown us this machinery works when it is used.

Let me take four vital factors in its system, in respect of which the experts used to tell us that nothing could be done. The first is law courts. Without courts to settle quarrels, British life and British government would very soon break down. A court to deal with nations' quarrels is just as vital. In 1920 the League drew up its plans for such a court. The basis was that judges, when elected, were to be loyal, not each to bis own nation, but to the nations as a whole. The Lord Chief Justice of Great Britain thought the plan impossible; he didn't believe that we or our children's children would see judges who would give verdicts against the States from which they came. But in three years' time the thing had happened; the court had been established, and had rendered judgment in a case of grave international importance in which a French judge had decided against the thesis which the French Government had maintained.

The second factor is Disarmament—by which I mean, of course, not the total disarmament of a single country, but the general reduction of all armaments by an international treaty to which all important countries must agree. Lord Grey told us, after the last Great War, that we must disarm or perish; but an eminent Foreign Office expert wrote a memorandum in 1918 to prove that the technical difficulties of a disarmament treaty could never be overcome. Fourteen years later, when Arthur Henderson was struggling against great odds in the Disarmament Conference at Geneva, we heard a lot about these technical difficulties from the experts, but we found, as a witty Spaniard said, that a technical difficulty was really a political objection in uniform. When the Conference had been sitting eighteen months Sir John Simon told the delegates that every technical problem of disarmament had been solved; only the political decisions were required. It had been proved that a general treaty of disarmament was not impossible; in other words, that the governments could have made one the moment they desired.

The third factor in a peace system is joint resistance to aggressive war. The Covenant was founded on the principle that if any government attacked another, the nations of the League would stand together to protect the victim. While it was believed that this principle would be upheld, the League settled nearly a hundred international disputes, and it actually stopped four dangerous wars that had begun. Then came Manchuria, Abyssinia, Austria and the rest, when the principles of the Covenant were not upheld. But we know now that, if they had been, we should never have had this war. The history of these events shows, not as so many experts have asserted, that the Covenant was wrong, not that joint resistance to aggression is a mistake, but that at certain moments of grave international crisis powerful governments made mistakes which have cost us very dear. And we must learn the lesson that the line of least resistance— surrender to aggression—will never bring us peace.

The fourth factor in international economic action is to promote the common welfare of mankind. Since 1931 almost every government has been trying to prepare itself economically for war; to reduce its dependence on international trade; to make itself "self-sufficient." And everybody knows that the further they have gone, the poorer they have madetheir peoples. If the governments would work together, instead of against each other—if they would plan their production of wealth and its distribution—they could double the income of the world, and enormously reduce the present mass of human suffering and disease. There is no economist or banker who would deny that this is true. And when it comes to war, we do such planning. For war we can pool our joint resources in shipping and industry and raw materials, with the French. Why can such things not be done for peace? Not because it is impossible to do them. Not because they would be failures if we tried. The International Labour Office in Geneva has already shown what improvements can be made in the lives of the workers if the governments will co-operate together for a common end. We know how to deal with slumps and unemployment, how to manage currencies and trade, how to plan the work and the production of mankind. Why haven't we done it, and so removed the causes that helped to bring this war? Because the peoples don't desire it? But ninety-nine per cent of all mankind now want it done! In all the last eight years no aggressor has been able to make his people want a war. The enthusiasm, the excitement, have disappeared. The Nazis have spent a decade glorifying war; they won a striking victory in Poland; yet every neutral traveller tells us that Germany is the land where no one smiles. No one indeed in all the world, except the Nazis and a few crazy militarists in other countries, now believes, as nearly everybody believed a quarter-of-a-century ago, that military power can make a nation happier or richer, that victory in war is the hall-mark of greatness and prestige. And this is the fundamental change which Time, and the League of Nations, have brought about.

This is the real reason why we can still hope—the real reason why the sacrifices of this war are well worth while. Don't misunderstand me; don't think I am saying the League was perfect. I know just as you do that we have got to make a new and better start. I am only saying that we failed because at decisive moments the governments allowed fear to dictate their policy, and so went wrong; because while they were trying to make a new world order they kept open their lines of retreat to the old world of power politics; because they let the so-called "experts" tell them that things were impossible, which in fact were well within their grasp.

The rule of law; a general treaty of armament reduction; collective resistance to the criminal who starts a war; joint economic action among nations to end the senseless waste and hunger which our present system now involves—these are the things which together will ensure a real and lasting peace. And experience has proved, not that they are impossible, but that they can all be done.

They can be done when this war is over, provided that one condition is fulfilled; and that condition is that Britain leads. Twenty years of harsh experience have taught us that no other nation in the world can do it, but that other nations follow when Britain leads. Our people want these things more than they ever wanted them before. We are fighting for what we call Democracy. Democracy means that the will of the people shall prevail. Next time neither fear nor vacillation, nor the advice of so-called "experts," nor the power of vested interests, nor the subterfuges of diplomacy, shall stop us. We must lead the peoples. And when we do, we shall find that from the Far North of Nansen's Norway to the remotest village in the Isles of Greece, there are in every country vast multitudes of simple men and women who are longing for a world in which they can be safe and happy, and who know, as you know, that such a world can be created if only statesmen have vision enough and faith enough to make it.