Written by Vladimir Moss



     The outlines of the American new world order, writes Paul Kennedy, “were already being described by American military planners even as the conflict was at its height. As one of their policy papers expressed it: ‘The successful termination of the war against our present enemies will find a world profoundly changed in respect of relative national military strengths, a change more comparable indeed with that occasioned by the fall of Rome than with any other change occurring during the succeeding fifteen hundred years… After the defeat of Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union will be the only military powers of the first magnitude. This is due in each case to a combination of geographical position and extent, and vast munitioning potential.’”[1]

     If by “the fall of Rome” we understand the fall of all three of the Romes of history – the Old Rome of the pagan Caesars, which fell in 476, the New Rome of St. Constantine the Great and the Christian Roman emperors, which fell in 1453, and the Third Rome of Russia and the Russian Orthodox tsars, which fell in 1917 – we may agree with this assessment. In 1945 the Third Reich of Nazi Germany fell to two powers that both claimed, in different ways, to be heirs of the fallen Romes: the United States, whose capital’s classical architecture recalled nothing more than the Capitol of Old Rome, and the Soviet Union, which had destroyed the Third Rome of Tsarist Russia, and now claimed the whole of its patrimony and sphere of influence while fiercely persecuting the remnants of its Orthodox Christian faith. So now the prophecy of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 had come true: the Christian heartland of Europe had been divided up between the two “outlying” (and, to many Europeans, “barbarian”) nations of America and (Soviet) Russia.

     Among the world’s powers, continues Kennedy, “Only the United States and the USSR counted, so it seemed; and of the two, the American ‘superpower’ was vastly superior.

     “Simply because much of the rest of the world was either exhausted by the war or still in a stage of colonial ‘underdevelopment’. American power in 1945 was, for want of another term, artificially high, like, say, Britain’s in 1815. Nonetheles, the actual dimensions of its might were unprecedented in absolute terms.  Stimulated by the vast surge in war expenditures, the country’s GNP measured in constant 1939 dollars rose from $88.6 billion (1939) to $145 billion (1945), and much higher ($220 billion) in current dollars. At last, the ’slack’ in the economy which the New Deal had failed to eradicate was fully taken up, and underutilized resources and manpower properly exploited: ‘During the war the size of the productive plant within the country grew by nearly 50 per cent and the physical ouput of goods by more than 50 per cent. Indeed, in the years 1940 to 1944, industrial expansion in the United States rose at a faster pace – over 15 per cent a year – than at any period before or since. Although the greater part of this growth was caused by war production (which soared from 2 per cent of total output in 1939 to 40 per cent in 1943), nonwar goods also increased, so that the civilian sector of the economy was not encroached upon as in the other combatant nations. Its standard of living was higher than any other country’s, but so was its per capita productivity. Among the Great Powers, the United States was the only country which became richer – in fact, much richer – rather than poorer because of the war. At its conclusion, Washington possessed gold reserves of £20 billion, almost two-thirds of the world’s total of $35 billion. Again, ‘… more than half the total manufacturing production of the world took place within the USA, which, in fact, turned out a third of the world production of goods of all types. This also made it by far the greatest exporter at the war’s end, and even a few years later it supplied one-third of the world’s exports. Because of the massive expansion of its shipbuilding facilities, it now owned half of the world supply of shipping. Economically, the world was its oyster.

     “This economic power was reflected in the military strength of the United States, which at the end of the war controlled 12.5 million service personnel, including 7.5 million overseas. Although this total was naturally going to shrink in peacetime (by 1948, the army’s personnel was only one-ninth what it had been four years earlier), that merely reflected political choices, not real military potential. Given the early postwar assumptions about the limited overseas roles of the United States, a better indication of its strength lay in the tallies of its modern weaponry. By this stage, the US Navy was unquestionably ‘second to none’; its fleet of 1,200 major warships (centred upon dozens of aircraft carriers rather than battleships) now being considerably larger than the Royal Navy’s, with no other significant maritime force existing. In both its carrier task forces and its Marine Corps divisions, the United States had simply demonstrated its capacity to project its power across the globe to any region accessible from the sea. Even more imposing was the American ‘command of the air’: the 2000-plus heavy bombers which had pounded Hitler’s Europe and the 1,000 ultra-long-range B-29s which had reduced many Japanese cities to ashes were to be supplemented by even more powerful jet-propelled strategic bombers like the B-36. Above all, the United States possessed a monopoly of atomic bombs, which promised to unleash a devastation upon any future enemy as horrific as that which had occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As later analyses have pointed out, American military power may actually have been less than it seemed (there were very few A-bombs in stock, and dropping them had large political implications), and it was difficult to sue it to influence the conduct of a country as distant, inscrutable, and suspicious as the USSR; but the image of ineffable superiority remained undisturbed until the Korean War, and was reinforced by the pleas of many nations for American loans, weapons, and promises of military support…”[2]


     The biggest question arising, therefore, in 1945 was: how would the United States use its enormous power, unprecedented in human history? Would it use it to create a new despotic hegemony, or for the good of the whole world?

     Already before the end of the Second World War the western leaders were planning new economic and political institutions that would be appropriate channels for American power in the new world order…

     1. Economics. America came out of the war, writes Yanis Varoufakis, “as the major (indeed, if one excludes Switzerland, the only) creditor nation. For the first time since the rise of capitalism, all of the world’s trade relied on a single currency (the dollar) and was financed from a single epicenter (Wall Street). While half of Europe was under the control of the Red Army and ersystem, the New Dealers who had been running Washington since 1932 realized that history had presented them with a remarkable opportunity: to erect a post-war global order that would cast American hegemony in stainless steel. It was an opportunity that they seized upon with glee.

     “Their audacious scheme sprang from the two sources that lie behind every great [secular] achievement – fear and power. The war endowed the United States with unprecedented military and economic might. But, at the same time, it acted as a constant reminder of America’s failure properly to come to terms with the legacy of 1929 before the Japanese navy unleashed its bombs and torpedoes on Pearl Harbor. The New Dealers never forgot the unexpectedness of the Great Depression and its resistance to ‘treatment’. The more power they felt they had in their hands, the greater was their fear that a new 1929 could turn it into ash that trickled through their fingers.

     “Even before the guns had fallen silent in Europe, and even before the Soviet Union emerged as a dragon to be slain, the United States understood that it had inherited the historic role of reconstructing, in its own image, the world of global capitalism. For if 1929 nearly ended the dominion of capital at a time of multiple capitalist centres, what would a new 1929 do when the larger game, global capitalism, revolved around a single axis, the dollar?

     “In 1944, the New Dealers’ anxieties led to the famous Bretton Woods conference. The idea of designing a new global order was not so much grandiose as essential. At Bretton Woods a new monetary framework was designed, acknowledging the dollar’s centrality but also taking steps to create international shock absorbers in case the US economy wavered. It took fifteen years before the agreement could be fully implemented. During the preparatory phase, the United States had to put together the essential pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of the Global Plan, of which Bretton Woods was an important piece.

     “While the war was still raging in Europe and the Pacific, in July 1944, 730 delegates converged on the plush Mount Washington Hotel located in the New Hampshire town of Bretton Woods. Over three weeks of intensive negotiations, they hammered out the nature and institutions of the post-war global monetary order.

     “They did not come to Bretton Woods spontaneously, but at the behest of President Roosevelt, whose New Deal administration was determined to win the peace, after having almost lost the war against the Great Depression. The one lesson the New Dealers had learned was that capitalism cannot be managed effectively at the national level. In his opening speech, Roosevelt made that point with commendable clarity: ‘The economic health of every country is a proper matter of concern to all its neighbours, near and far.’

     “The two issues that were ostensibly central to the conference were the design of the post-war monetary system and the reconstruction of the war-torn economies of Europe and Japan. However, under the surface, the real questions concerned (a) the institutional framework that would keep a new Great Depression at bay, and (b) who would be in control of that framework. Both questions created specific tensions, especially between the two great allies represented, in the US corner, by Harry Dexter White[3] and, in the British corner, by none other than John Maynard Keynes. In the aftermath of the conference, Keynes remarked: ‘We have had to perform at one and the same time the tasks appropriate to the economist, to the financier, to the politician, to the journalist, to the propagandist, to the lawyer, to the statesman – even, I think, to the prophet and to the soothsayer.’

     “Two of the institutions that were designed at Bretton Woods are still with us and still in the news. One is the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the other the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), today known simply as the World Bank. The IMF was to be global capitalist system’s ‘fire brigade’ – an institution that would rush to the assistance of any country whose house caught (fiscal) fire, handing out loans on strict conditions that would ensure that any balance of payments deficit would be fixed and the loans repaid. As for the World Bank, its role would be that of an international investment bank, with a remit to channel productive investments to regions of the world devastated by the war.”[4]

     The Bretton Woods system is “a system of fixed exchange rates, with the dollar at its heart. The main idea was that each currency would be locked to the dollar at a given exchange rate. Fluctuations would be allowed only within a narrow band of plus or minus 1 per cent, and governments would strive to stay within this band by buying or selling their own dollar reserves. A renegotiation of the exchange rate of a particular country was only allowed if it could be demonstrated that its balance of trade and its balance of capital flows could not be maintained, given its dollar reserves. As for the United States, to create the requisite confidence in the international system, it committed itself to pegging the dollar to gold at the fixed exchange rate of $35 per ounce of gold and to guarantee full gold convertibility for anyone, American or non-American, who wanted to swap their dollars for gold.”[5]

     The essence of the Bretton Woods system was a mechanism for the recycling of surpluses that would keep trade going and prevent the loss of confidence and “freezing up” that had led to the Great Depression 

     “Keynes’ blueprint for the surplus recycling,” writes Varoufakis, “was wonderfully grandiose. It included the creation of a new world currency, a system of fixed exchange rates between the world currency and the national currencies, and a world central bank that would run the whole system.

     “The purpose of this system would be to maintain monetary stability everywhere, to keep both surpluses and deficits in check throughout the Western world and, at the first sign of a crisis in a troubled nation, speedily recycle surpluses into it so as to prevent the crisis spreading. An international fund would be created to play the role of the world’s central bank and issue its currency – the bancor, as Keynes provisionally named it. The bancor would not be printed, just as the digital crypto-currency bitcoin does not exist in material form today, only as numbers on some spreadsheets or digital device. But it would function as the world’s currency nevertheless. Every country would have a bancor account with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), from which to draw when it bought goods from other countries, and into which other nations would deposit bancors when their citizens or corporations bought goods and services from it. All international trade would thus be denominated in the global currency, with the national currencies continuing to oil the cogs of the national economies.

     “Crucial to this system was a fixed exchange rate between each national currency and the bancor, and thus between all participating national currencies. The board of the IMF, on which all nations would be represented, would decide these rates centrally and by negotiation. They would be adjusted whenever necessary, so that countries with stubborn surpluses would see their currencies buying increasingly more bancors (to make their exports more expensive and their imports cheaper), and vice-versa for nations in persistent deficit.

     “Even more radically, Keynes’s IMF, recognizing that one nation’s deficit is another’s surplus, would levy a tax on a nation’s bancor account if its imports and exports diverged too much. The idea was to penalize both types of imbalance (excessive surpluses as well as excessive deficits; the Germanys of the world as well as the Greeces) and in the process build up a war chest of bancors at the IMF so that, when some crisis hit, deficit nations in trouble could be propped up and prevented from falling into a black hole of debt and recession that might spread throughout the Bretton Woods system.

     “White certainly understood the importance of political surplus recycling within the global system they were setting up, but Keynes’s proposals sounded ludicrous to his American ears. Is this wily Englishman, he might have asked, seriously proposing that the Europeans have a majority say in how our surpluses are recycled? Is he for real?

     “As a good Keynesian, White agreed that Bretton Woods should do more than merely dollarize the Western world. He recognized the need for a politically administered (extra-market) surplus recycling mechanism, which of course meant the recycling of America’s surpluses to Europe. Nevertheless, the idea that bankrupt Europeans who had put the world through the wringer of two world wars in less than three decades and still yearned for the reconstruction of their repulsive empires would now control America’s surplus was anathema to an anti-imperialist patriotic New Dealer like White. Quite understandably, he was going to have none of it. America was the only surplus nation, and America alone would decided how, when and to whom it would recycle it.

     “White listened respectfully while Keynes presented his grandiose scheme but then immediately rejected two of its key features. First on the chopping block was the idea of a new shadow global currency (the bancor) to be managed by an IMF governing committee in which the United State would be one of many. The second idea White vetoed was that of taxing the surplus nations – namely the United States. For White, the die had already been cast. Europe was to be dollarized and the dollar would be the world currency. The bancor was a great idea in the multilateral world but a joke in one where the dollar had already been crowned king and queen. Moreover, the idea that the IMF’s governing committee, with the Europeans in the majority, would tax America’s surpluses seemed to him too ludicrous for words. America owned its surpluses and would recycle them herself, without petitioning a group of bankrupt Europeans for their permission to do so.

     “By the end of the Bretton Woods conference, White had cherry-picked Keynes’s proposal so eclectically that its multilateralist spirit had vanished. Yes, the IMF would be created, but its purpose would not be to issue a new world currency. The loss of the bancor and the official elevation of the dollar to world currency statues meant that the IMF could not function as the world’s central bank. That role was now assigned de facto to America’s central bank, the Fed…”[6]

     The success of the “Bretton Woods system”, writes Liam Halligan, has meant that the world since then “has traded relatively freely, with the short-term protectionist instincts of politicians being kept in check by WTO [World Trade Organization] rules”, with the result that there was “a 12-fold expansion in global trade between 1950 and 2010 – and a huge increase in global prosperity”.[7]  As we shall see, there was an important change in the Bretton Woods system in 1973. Nevertheless, the “spirit of Bretton Woods” survived into the twenty-first century.

     Varoufakis appears to favour Keynes’ truly globalist and internationalist solution to the solution proposed by White which eventually triumphed, preserving the hegemony of one country, the United States, in the post-war period. From a purely economic point of view, he may well be right. But economics is never entirely divorced from politics and even religion; and we may be grateful that Keynes did not prevail and that the spectre of single world government was put off for several generations. For there is no doubt about it: as the head of the Fed, Alan Greenspan, said many years later in the context of the creation of the euro, a single currency area can only be effectively governed by a single government. It was largely the hegemonic political and economic power of the United States that kept the world free, not only from that other globalist project, Soviet Communism, but also from the project of world rule by the IMF that was first proposed at Bretton Woods in 1944…

     2. Politics. The Second World War ended in a most paradoxical way. The two major victors were, on the one hand, the United States, which had fought, supposedly, “to save democracy”, and on the other, the Soviet Union, which had from the beginning of the revolution sought to destroy democracy and replace it with its own despotism. So who won? Democracy or Despotism? Since both had won, and since democracy and despotism were ideologically incompatible with each other, war had to break out between the unnatural allies, albeit in another, less open and “hot” form. Hence the Cold War of the period 1946-1991 (and, in the longer term, the semi-democratic and semi-despotic European Union, which claimed to be a “Third Way” between East and West). But before that war could begin, a seemingly final attempt had to be made to ensure peace, albeit between nations which from an ideological point of view had to be enemies. Hence the United Nations…

     World War Two destroyed more lives and property than any conflict in history. This fact convinced many that the only way to have peace on earth was to create a supra-national government that would restrain national rivalries and impose its will on aggressive states. Such an ideal goes back at least to Dante’s De Monarchia in the early fourteenth century. However, the origin of its modern, secular expression must be sought in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795), which contained the following axiom: "The law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states".[8]

     The first attempt at incarnating such a federation was the Congress System erected by Tsar Alexander I and the monarchs of Prussia and Austria after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. This came to a bloody end during the Crimean War of 1854-56. The idea was revived in a limited form by Tsar Nicholas II when he founded the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 1899. This Court had very little practical impact and did not prevent the outbreak of World War One in 1914. However, the unparalleled destruction wrought by the war that was supposed to end all wars forced the politicians to return to such ideas…

     “The first outline of the United Nations,” writes S.M. Plokhy, “was drafted by Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles on the basis of the covenant of the League of Nations. A creation of the Paris Peace Conference [of 1919], the League convened its first general assembly in Geneva in November 1920 and its last in April 1946, when representatives of its member nations voted to dissolve it. The League’s activities had in fact come to a virtual halt in 1939, the first year of the war that it had failed to prevent and for whose outbreak it was universally blamed. The problem was that the League could neither adopt nor enforce its decisions: all resolutions had to be passed with the unanimous approval of its council, an executive body that included great powers as permanent members and smaller powers as temporary ones, as well as its assembly. The principle of unanimity was enshrined in the League’s covenant, whose fifth chapter stated that ‘decisions at any meeting of the Assembly or of the Council shall require the agreement of all the Members of the League represented at the meeting.’ This was virtually impossible to achieve, especially when matters under discussion involved the great powers.

     “The United States did not join the League. Woodrow Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his role in its creation, but he failed to overcome Republican opposition and persuade an increasingly isolationist Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which would have led to American membership in the League. The American drafters of the United Nations Charter were mindful of the inevitable opposition that any international organization whose decisions would be binding on the United States would encounter in Congress. They also had to overcome a baleful precedent – the League’s inability to influence the conduct of Germany and Japan after their departure from the organization in 1933. Italy would follow suit in 1937. The formation of the Axis by these three countries in 1940 met with no effective response.

     “If the new organization was to do better, it would have to learn from its predecessor’s mistakes. The drafters of its charter had the daunting task of reconciling what struck many as irreconcilable. Since August 1943, the principal drafter of the document at the State Department had been Leo Pasvolsky, the head of the department’s Informal Agenda Group and Hull’s former personal assistant. A fifty-year-old Jewish émigré from Ukraine, Pasvolsky was no stranger to the subject of international peace organizations. Back in 1919 he had covered the Paris Peace Conference for the New York Tribune, and later he had campaigned for the admission of the Soviet Union, whose brand of socialism he rejected, to the League of Nations.

     “Pasvolsky’s appointment as principal drafter of the charter was a testament of the triumph of Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s vision over an alternative model championed by Sumner Welles. Hull favoured a centralized structure, while Welles wanted the great powers to bear primary responsibility for security in their respective regions. Welles’s model followed FDR’s thinking of the role of the ‘four policemen’ – the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, China – in the postwar peace arrangement. By the fall of 1943, with Welles resigning in the midst of a homosexual scandal, Roosevelt had opted for the centralized model. FDR’s decision was guided by the fact that his ‘four policemen’ would be permanent members of the UN Security Council…”[9]

     After much argument with both the Russians and the British, Roosevelt finally achieved his principal goal at Yalta, the founding of the United Nations. He had been forced to concede to the Soviets that Ukraine and Belorussia should have seats in the General Assembly alongside Soviet Russia, which violated the principle that only sovereign states should sit there. But he more or less got his way with the most important of the six major organs of the United Nations, the Security Council. It was composed of fifteen members with five permanent members - the Big Three, China and France, - any of which could veto decisions of the Security Council, although unanimous decisions of the “Big Five” were deemed to be binding on other members. In this way Victors’ Justice continued to operate in the adjudication of international disputes in the post-war era.

     The Security Council convened for the first time on January 17, 1946. However, in the atmosphere of the Cold War that developed very soon thereafter (Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech was delivered on March 5, 1946), it showed its virtual impotence to achieve justice and peace when the interests of one of the Great Powers was affected. The old politics continued; the world was divided into two vast spheres of influence, the Communist East and the Capitalist West; and with the explosion of two atomic bombs over Japan in the summer of 1945 the very real prospect beckoned of world war between the two blocs leading to the annihilation of mankind. Never before in the history of mankind had it been so urgently necessary to find a solution to the problems of international relations, peace and justice. But clearly the plan of locking the most evil power in history into a quasi-world government in which it had the power of veto not only did not solve the problem, but made the task of taming and neutralizing that power far more difficult...

     This potential strangle-hold exerted over the United Nations by the Soviets was revealed right as early as May, 1945, when the foreign ministers of the victor powers gathered in San Francisco to establish the organization’s ground rules. Molotov, as Martin Gilbert writes, “told his American and British opposite numbers – Edward Stettinius and Anthony Eden – that sixteen members of the all-Party Polish Government in Warsaw, who had gone to Moscow at the request of the American and British governments to negotiate a peace treaty, were all in prison. In the Daily Herald a future leader of the British Labour Party, Michael Foot, who was in San Francisco as a journalist, described the impact on the conference of Molotov’s announcement. The distressing news, wrote Foot, came ‘almost casually’ towards the end of an otherwise cordial dinner, Molotov ‘could hardly have cause a greater sensation if he had upset the whole table and thrown the soup in Mr. Stettinius’s smiling face.’”[10] 

     Truman telegraphed Churchill that if they did not hold the line against the Soviets, “the whole fruits of our victory may be cast away and none of the purposes of World Organization to prevent territorial aggression and future wars will be attained.”[11] Churchill, of course, agreed…

     “In San Francisco, on June 26, the United Nations Charter was signed. Even as bloody battles were being fought in the Pacific and the Far East, a blueprint for avoiding future war had been agreed upon by the victorious powers. But the power of the gun and the tank was still determining territorial change. Three days after the Charter was signed the new Czechoslovak government signed a treaty with the Soviet Union, ceding its eastern province of Ruthenia. The citizens of Ruthenia, having been annexed by Hungary during the war, became Soviet citizens, subjected overnight to the harsh panoply of Soviet Communism…”[12]

     The United Nations did much valuable humanitarian work for many decades after the war. Particular important for its work in Europe after VE Day was UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). In fact, as Tony Judt writes, “there are actually many UNs, of which the political and military branches (General Assembly, Security Council, Peacekeeping Operations) are only the best known. To name but a few: UNESCO (the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, founded in 1945); UNICEF (the International Children’s Emergency Fund, 1946); WHO (World Health Organization, 1948): UNRWA (the Relief and Works Agency, 1949); UNHCR (the High Commission for Refugees, 195), UNCTAD (the Conference on Trade and Development, 1963), and ICTY (the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, 1993). Such international units don’t include intergovernmental programs under the UN’s aegis; nor do they cover the many field agencies established to address particular crises. These include UNGOMAP (the Good Offices Mission to Afghanistan and Pakistan that successfully oversaw the Soviet withdrawal there), UNAMSHIL (the Mission in Sierra Leone, 1999), UNMIK (the Mission in Kosovo, 1999) and many others before and since.

     “Much of the work done by these units is routine. And the ‘soft’ tasks of the UN – addressing health and environmental problems, assisting women and children in crisis, educating farmers, training teachers, providing small loans, monitoring rights abuse – are sometimes performed just as well by national or nongovernmental agencies, though in most cases only at UN prompting or in the wake of a UN-sponsored initiative. But in a world where states are losing the initiative to such nonstate actors as the EU or multinational corporations, there are many things that would not happen at all if they were not undertaken by the United Nations or its representatives – the UNICEF-sponsored Convention of the Rights of the Child is a case in point. And while these organizations cost money, we should recall that UNICEF, for example, has a budget considerably smaller than that of many international businesses.

     “The United Nations works best when everyone acknowledges the legitimacy of its role. When monitoring or overseeing elections or truces, for example, the UN is often the only external interlocutor whose good intentions and rightful authority are acknowledged by all the contending parties. Where this is not the case – at Srebrenica in 1995, for example – disaster ensues, since the UN troops can neither use force to defend themselves nor intervene to protect others. The reputation of the UN for evenhandedness and good faith is thus its most important long-term asset. Without it the organization becomes just another tool of one or more powerful states and resented as such.”[13]

     3. Ideology.  The Americans’ reorganization of global economics at Bretton Woods and of international relations at the United Nations was incomplete without a global ideology.

     Such an ideology was expounded by the United Nations in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved on December 9, 1948. It provided in essence a new moral code for the world, a code that has no religious base - unless atheism is considered to be a religion. However, this has not prevented the pseudo-Christian West from embracing it enthusiastically, considering it to be the culmination of Christian Capitalist culture in spite of the fact that its spiritual ancestor was clearly the anti-Christian Declaration of Human Rights of the French Revolution…

     According to Martin Gilbert, “the voice of the individual as enshrined in 1948 in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, became the voice of dissent. The scrutiny carried out by organizations like Amnesty International brought the focus on human rights to a global public. Meeting in Geneva, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and the Non-Governmental Organizations which represent specific minority interests at the Commission, cast a strong spotlight on human rights abuse. Two areas in which it was particularly active in the 1970s and 1980s were the inequalities and indignities of apartheid in South Africa, and the struggle of the Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union without harassment or imprisonment…”[14]

     The philosophy of human rights goes back a long way in western history – at least to Grotius in the seventeenth century and perhaps as far as the medieval scholastics. The French Declaration of Human Rights of 1789 located the source of human rights in the sovereign power of the nation. However, most human rights are universal, that is, they are framed in perfectly general terms that apply to all men and women; so to locate their obligatoriness, not in some supra-national or metaphysical sphere, but in particular nations or states that may, and often do, disagree with each other, would seem illogical.

     The problem, of course, is that if we pursue this argument to its logical conclusion, it would seem to entail that all national states must give up their rights and hand them over to a world government, which alone can impartially formulate human rights and see that they are observed. This logic was reinforced by the first two World Wars, which discredited nationalism and led to the first international organizations with legal powers, albeit embryonic, over nation-states – the League of Nations and the United Nations.

     One of the first to formulate this development was the Viennese Jew and professor of law, Hans Kelsen, in his work, A Pure Theory of Law. “The essence of his theory,” according to Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, “was that an obligation to obey the law does not stem from national sovereignty but from a fundamental norm. In practical terms, this led after the First World War to his advocacy of an Austrian constitutional court as part of the Austrian constitution and, after the Second World War, to support for the idea of an international court with compulsory jurisdiction as a key part of the framework of the United Nations.”[15]

     Another Austrian Jewish academic, Hersch Lauterpacht In his dissertation “combined his interests in jurisprudence and Zionism with an argument about mandates granted by the League of Nations which implied that the mandate given to Britain to govern Palestine did not give Britain sovereignty. Rather, this rested, argued Lauterpacht, with the League of Nations…

     “Despite the failure of the League of Nations to prevent Nazi aggression, the Second World War and the murder of his family in the Holocaust, Lauterpacht remained attached to notions of an international legal order. Before his early death in 1960, he served as a judge on the International Court at the Hague. Lauterpacht was devoted to the view that fundamental human rights were superior to the laws of international states and were protected by international criminal sanctions even if the violations had been committed in accordance with existing national laws. He advised the British prosecutors at Nuremburg to this effect. Together with another Jewish lawyer from the Lviv area, Raphael Lemkin, Lauterpacht had a major role in the passage by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Lauterpacht’s publication in 1945, An International Bill of Rights, also had a formative influence on the European Convention of Human Rights drawn up in 1949 and ratified in 1953.

     “Lauterpacht’s public philosophy was based on the conviction that individuals have rights which do not stem from nation states. He was an internationalist who had a lifelong mistrust of state sovereignty which, to him, reflected the aggression and injustices committed by nation states and the disasters of the two world wars.”[16]

     However, as Pinto-Duschinsky rightly points out, while “international arbitration may be a practical and peaceful way to resolve disputes between countries,… international courts which claim jurisdiction over individual countries do not coexist comfortably with notions of national sovereignty…”[17]

    In spite of that, and in spite of the terrible destruction and blood-letting caused by the idea of positive freedom in the period 1917 to 1945, in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood… Recognition of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. While this is anodyne enough, even a superficial reading of history since 1789 should have convinced those who drew up the Declaration to be more specific about the meaning of the words “freedom” and “rights” here. They should have known that very similar statements had served as the foundation of the French revolution, and almost every other bloody revolution right up to and including the Russian revolution, which at that very moment was still destroying millions of souls in the name of “the spirit of brotherhood”… In any case, the Communists interpreted human rights in a very different way from the Capitalists. They saw in the theory merely a means of imposing the capitalist world-view. And there was some justification for this: the United Nations was, after all, the child of Roosevelt and his very American (but also leftist) world-view.

     As John Gray writes, speaking of human rights in the context of global capitalism: “The philosophical foundations of these rights are flimsy and jerry-built. There is no credible theory in which the particular freedoms of deregulated capitalism have the standing of universal rights. The most plausible conceptions of rights are not founded on seventeenth-century ideas of property but on modern notions of autonomy. Even these are not universally applicable; they capture the experience only of those cultures and individuals for whom the exercise of personal choice is more important that social cohesion, the control of economic risk or any other collective good.

     “In truth, rights are never the bottom line in moral or political theory – or practice. They are conclusions, end-results of long chains of reasoning from commonly accepted principles. Rights have little authority or content in the absence of a common ethical life. They are conventions that are durable only when they express a moral consensus. When ethical disagreement is deep a wide appeal to rights cannot resolve it. Indeed, it may make such conflict dangerously unmanageable.

     “Looking to rights to arbitrate deep conflicts – rather than seeking to moderate them through the compromises of politics – is a recipe for a low-intensity civil war…”[18]


     More fundamentally, profound ethical questions cannot be resolved without reference to the ultimate arbiter and judge – Almighty God. But the knowledge of the will of God belongs only to those who know Him in the true faith. In other words, these questions are ultimately religious in nature. But by the middle of the twentieth century religion in both East and West had been wholly subordinated to secular concepts such as “human rights”. Therefore for the men of this age they were and are insoluble… 

     The attempt to satisfy all desires on the basis of some kind of overarching “right to happiness” must lead in the end, not just to Sodom and Gomorrah, but to the collapse of all civilization. For “we then advance,” writes C.S. Lewis, “towards a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add ‘unfortunately’ – be swept away…”

     But, as Nicholas Berdiaev pointed out: "Neither 'human rights' nor 'the will of the people', nor both together can be the foundation of human society. For the one contradicts the other: 'the rights of the human personality', understood as the final foundations of society, deny the primacy of social unity; 'the will of the people', as an absolute social basis, denies the principle of personality. There can be, and in fact is, only some kind of eclectic, unprincipled compromise between the two principles, which witnesses to the fact that neither is the primary principle of society. If one genuinely believes in the one or the other, then one has to choose between the unlimited despotism of social unity, which annihilates the personality - and boundless anarchy, which annihilates social order and together with it every personal human existence."

     In spite of the manifest failures of these extremes, modern man continues to search for some such foundation for his life. For although He does not believe in God, he does believe in morality. Even when committing heinous crimes he takes care to try and justify himself. But what he really wants is to be free to pursue the life he wants to lead, - the life which brings him the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain, - without being interfered with by anybody else, whether God, or the State, or some other individual or group of individuals. However, he knows that in a society without laws, in which everybody is free to pursue the life he wants the life he wants to lead without any kind of restriction, he will not achieve his personal goal. For if everybody were completely free in this way, there would be anarchy, and life would be “nasty, brutish and short” – for everybody. So a compromise must be found 

     The compromise is a kind of religionless morality. Let some powerful body – preferably the post-revolutionary State, certainly not God or the Church, because God is unpredictably and unpleasantly demanding – impose certain limits on everybody. But let those limits be as restricted and unrestrictive as possible. 

     And let there be a set of rules accepted by all States - preferably enforced by some World Government – that puts limits on the limits that States can place on their citizens. These rules we can then call “human rights”, and they can be our morality. Thus “human rights” include civil and political rights, such as the right tolife and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; judicial rights, like the right to a free trial, and freedom from torture and the death penalty; sexual rights, like the rights to have sex of any kind with any consenting adult, reproduce a child by any means, and then destroy it if necessary; and economic, social and cultural rights, like the right to participate in culture, to have food and water and healthcare, the right to work, and the right to education. This morality will be permissive in the sense that it will permit very many things previous, more religious ages considered unlawful. But it will not permit everything; it will not permit others to interfere with my life of pleasure so long as I don’t interfere with theirs…

      There will be another important advantage to this system: for those who believe in, and champion, “human rights”, it will be a source of great pride and self-satisfaction. They will be able to preach it to others, even impose it on others, with the sweet knowledge that they are doing good and serving mankind – no, rather, saving mankind. After all, the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Actiondeclares: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and related. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis”. So the belief in, and justification and implementation of, “human rights” will turn out to be a new kind of universal religion, with a new kind of god, a new kind of sanctity and a new kind of paradise – a kingdom of gods on earth that is so much more conducive to the needs of modern man than the old kind that was too far away in “heaven”, too distant from, and opposed to, his material preoccupations!


February 4/17, 2020.


[1] Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, London: William Collins, 1988, pp. 459-460.

[2] Kennedy, op. cit., pp. 460-462.

[3] White was exposed in 1948 as a Soviet agent (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Dexter_White).

[4] Varoufakis, The Global Minotaur, London: Zed Books, 2013, pp. 57-59.

[5] Varoufakis, op. cit., p. 60.

[6] Varoufakis, And the Weak Suffer What They Must? London: Vintage, 2017, pp. 25-27. Richard Horowitz writes: “The US assumed that a formal identification of their own currency as the official world reserve would be too aggressive a position diplomatically… The US proposed instead a vague euphemism: ‘gold-convertible currency’. It fooled no sophisticated observer and Keynes called it ‘idiocy’. Given its uniquely vast gold holdings, the US had the only currency realistically convertible into bullion. But the US delegation feared diplomatic disaster by trying to codify this fact.

     “Handling the issue at the conference for Britain would be Dennis Robertson, the Cambridge economist to whom Keynes delegated many key negotiations, admiring his intellectual subtlety and patience of mind and tenacity of character to grasp and hold on to all details and fight them through. Robertson was present during the final discussion of the IMF’s charter when the delegation representing British India demanded that the US define exactly what ‘gold-convertible currency’ meant. To the amazement and delight of the Americans, Robertson rose to propose its replacement with ‘gold and United States dollars’, effectively crowning the dollar supreme. A giddy White stayed up until three o’clock in the morning incorporating Robertson’s proposal into the draft articles. The rest is monetary history…” (“How a Briton Created the Almighty Dollar”, History Today, January, 2017, p. 6)

[7] Halligan, “We should be tearing down barriers, not putting them up”, The Sunday Telegraph, Business section, September 4, 2016, p. 4.

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perpetual_Peace:_A_Philosophical_Sketch.

[9] Plokhy, Yalta: The Price of Peace, London: Penguin, 2010, pp. 118-119.

[10] Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, vol. 2: 1933-1951, London: HarperCollins, 1998, pp. 682-683.

[11] Gilbert, op. cit., p. 686.

[12] Gilbert, op. cit., p. 694.

[13] Judt, “Is the UN Doomed?”, in When the Facts Change, London: Vintage, 2015, pp. 257-258.

[14] Gilbert, Challenge to Civilization: A History of the Twentieth Century, 1952-1999, London: HarperCollins, 1999, p. 924.

[15] Pinto-Duschinsky, “The Highjacking of the Human Rights Debate”, Standpoint, May, 2012, p. 36. “Central to the Pure Theory of Law is the notion of a 'basic norm (Grundnorm)' - a hypothetical norm, presupposed by the jurist, from which in a hierarchy all 'lower' norms in a legal system, beginning with constitutional law, are understood to derive their authority or 'bindingness'. In this way, Kelsen contends, the bindingness of legal norms, their specifically 'legal' character, can be understood without tracing it ultimately to some suprahuman source such as God, personified Nature or a personified State or Nation” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Kelsen).

[16] Pinto-Duschinsky, op. cit., pp. 36-37.

[17] Pinto-Duschinsky, op. cit., p. 37.

[18] Gray, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, London: Granta Books, 1999, pp. 108-109.

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