Daniel Gorman. The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 387 pp. $103.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-02113-6.
Reviewed by Natasha Wheatley (Columbia University)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2013)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
The History of International Society, Remembered and Forgotten
New historical literature on all things international is arriving thick and fast. Daniel Gorman’s The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s appeared within months of Mark Mazower’s Governing the World (2012), Glenda Sluga’s Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (2013), David Armitage’s Foundations of Modern International Thought (2013), and Patricia Clavin’s Securing the World Economy (2013), to name only a few highlights of the batch. No longer a promissory note but rather a robust field with emerging divisions of its own, this historiography lowers a different dredge down into our recent pasts in search of a genealogy--intellectual and otherwise--of our interconnected global present. At stake, often, are the roots of our contemporary world and condition--the origins of “us.”
Gorman’s book is no exception. It surveys an array of transnational projects and networks that sprang to life in the wake of the First World War. In these campaigns for peace, legal integration, humanitarian progress, greater colonial autonomy, and international friendship, he identifies the “antecedents of the modern phenomena of international NGOs and global governance” (p. 3). The origins of the responsibility to protect doctrine can be found, writes Gorman, in the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) to outlaw war as an instrument of national policy, while the interwar “trans-Atlantic international peace work of private foundations,” such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “laid the foundations for the private philanthropy of modern global organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” (p. 317). Readers may find some of these genealogies more compelling than others. One key fixture of the historical present that does not have its diverse pasts laid bare, however, is the concept of “international society” itself, which frames Gorman’s book. And it may be the idea that needs historicizing most of all.
Novelty is Gorman’s opening gambit. Internationalist programs and campaigns had punctuated the nineteenth century, he writes, but languished in nationalism’s shadow. The First World War changed all that. The shock of war provoked projects of international cooperation to spread like wildfire across the landscape of world politics, drawing state and private actors alike into a thick web of interconnectivity. With war isolated as its prime enabling condition, international society’s more structural foundations--whether tethered to trade or technologies of communication--figure only in the book’s fringes. Reflecting this causal frame, the international society portrayed in the book has a distinctly moral hue: movements for international peace and friendship feature prominently in its pages.
Gorman’s second contextual scaffold concerns the shifting place of the state. Before the war, an “old, state-run internationalism” had “reached out from within state apparatus” (p. 311). With the “new internationalism of the League era,” by contrast, foreign ministries and government initiatives lost their “monopoly on the conduct of international politics” (pp. 311, 317). In addition to the League of Nations, Gorman’s prime focus is private actors who shaped this new transnational political sphere through their issue-based networks of political association. Politically conscious citizens, he argues, assumed a central role in international relations, outpacing states in building “the habits and patterns” that constituted international society (p. 176). His historical argument morphs into a historiographical one as he challenges the common portrayal of the state as “a free-standing and autonomous entity” (p. 310). While states clearly remained important actors, they existed within a dense force field of pressures from citizens groups and international organizations as well as other states. Gorman takes particular care in exhuming illustrative moments of cooperation between state and non-state actors, with striking examples sprinkled throughout the book. Taken together, Gorman asserts, the interwar years witnessed nothing less than a shift “from international relations to international society” (p. 319).
Who were these private actors? Gorman fixes his gaze on a stratum of political activity just below the diplomatic, populated by lobbyists and claim makers busy brokering ideas and alliances. He terms them “political middle men” (although his book is populated by women, too), who liaised between academic theory, party politics, and state and league bureaucracies. In pursuing its theme outside high politics and parliaments in the domain of voluntary associational life, Emergence of International Society moves in step with much of the new international history in its search for a richer history of international order.
Eschewing either narrative or structural analysis of these sweeping changes in international political life, Gorman offers a series of case studies, with the introduction and conclusion alone binding them into a broader frame. These lively, well-sketched portraits convey the variety and dynamism of different interwar transnational publics. He divides the book into halves: the first concerns the “internationalization” of the British Empire, and the second explores the international initiatives of individual “Anglo-Americans.” The book, then, remains closely tethered to the British imperial and North American worlds.
The second half is more cohesive. It opens with chapter 6, “Anglo-American Conceptions of International Society in the 1920s,” a survey of different visions advanced by individuals like Arnold Toynbee and Lola Maverick Lloyd, and bodies such as the League to Enforce Peace. Its strength lies in the treatment of the great divergence between these conceptions, an awareness that does not always filter through to the other chapters, where “international society” is often used as an unproblematic general category. Chapter 7, on ecumenical and spiritual internationalism, details the emphasis many Christian internationalists placed on ideas of international friendship and fellowship, upholding “human interdependence” as a “higher reality than state cooperation” (p. 243). Gorman’s focus on the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches serves as a window into transnational political methods (congresses, outreach, and information dissemination) and their accommodation of national and regional particularities. Chapters 8 and 9 trace the background and consequences of the Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war, contextualizing the multilateral agreement within a thicker milieu of both state and private actors. Here Gorman looks to rescue its framers from the charge of naïve idealism, unpacking, for example, the way the pact was intended as the first move, rather than last word, in a project of “normative change in human beings’ perception of the world” (p. 287). All four chapters align directly with Gorman’s accent on private actors and associational life.
The first half of the book, by contrast, moves between a number of different scales and spaces. Chapters 2 and 3 form a pair: both deal with the league’s campaign against the traffic in women and children. Reviewing the league’s creation of an international civil service, Gorman focuses on the role of Rachel Crowdy, who served as the first head of the league’s Social Section and coordinated its anti-trafficking campaign. These chapters effectively document the new “public-private” breed of international activism bridging league agencies, government officials, and voluntary organizations (p. 89). “NGOs,” like the International Council of Women, for example, assumed advisory positions under Crowdy’s watch. The case study also illustrates the complexity of defining and legislating for an international problem: how to pry apart trafficking from prostitution more generally, when many activists were themselves focused on domestic questions, but convinced of the need for international solutions? “International society” in this iteration could be as much about reinforcing national boundaries as breaking them down, as lobbyists sought fortifications against social ills from abroad. Gorman phrases it nicely: “International humanitarian and social work in the interwar period thus reflected both a cosmopolitan engagement with a widening global community and an effort to prevent the perceived problems such a world brings about” (pp. 313-314).
For all that, Gorman has trouble articulating the historical significance of his case studies in light of their limited success. He concludes his section on the league’s anti-trafficking activism, for example, as if the historical value of his research depended on a defense of the league’s achievements. Conceding many of the points of “the critics” of the league’s campaign, he sums up: “What critics were and are not able to do, however, is to make a normative case for trafficking--therein lies the League’s success” (p. 108). Surely the relevance of his research on the anti-trafficking campaign lies less with the substance of trafficking than with the style of politics it represents. In its hybrid patterns of mobilization, alliance building, lobbying, and especially the generation, collation, and publication of information--all probing the line between the domestic and the international, and routinely navigating cultural differences--the campaign doubled as a laboratory for political form and technique.
While imperial questions remained secondary in the anti-trafficking case study, they assume center stage in chapters 1 and 4. The first details the indeterminate position of the Dominions within the British Empire and in international affairs more broadly. Did they form one juridical-political bloc with mother Britain and the empire, or were they autonomous agents? In exploring this theme, Gorman discusses the establishment of Dominion high commissioners in London and the Dominions’ standing at the league. Chapter 4, alternately, explores the campaign for equal imperial citizenship rights launched by Indians in Kenya Colony. The systematic discrimination endured by Indians domiciled in East Africa spurred moderate Indian nationalists there and in India to lobby the Colonial Office and India Office (and, at least once, the League of Nations) for greater equality within the empire, building arguments on the basis of their status as loyal British subjects.
How does the British imperial society depicted in these two chapters relate to international society? The term “international society” hardly appears in either chapter. Gorman invokes “imperial internationalism,” but his impressionistic use of the term--encompassing the British Empire on the world stage, the pressure on the empire from “internationalist” ideas, the politics of nationalists who were also loyal imperial subjects, and so on--brings no analytical precision. Is the British Empire a mini “international society” of its own? Indian and Dominion spokespeople clearly made claims across borders when they appealed to London, but if this were the bar, then most all imperial politics might count, and the focus on the British Empire and the 1920s would need to shift.
Is the key aspect rather the presence of Indian and Dominion representatives on the world stage, using the forum of the League of Nations to pursue their goals? While, in the Indian case, Gorman recounts a single episode in 1923 when the Indian delegate K. S. Ranjitsinhji raised Indian citizenship rights before the league, this portentous moment lies outside Gorman’s main narrative thrust. He also argues that the new mandate system framed the conflict, but in the evidence he presents, this link proved more important for British humanitarians than Indian nationalists themselves. In the case of Dominion autonomy, Gorman presents rich material on the fate of the inter-se doctrine (holding the British Empire to be one unit in international politics) at the league: concerns were raised about the British imperial bloc vote, while the Dominions occasionally flaunted their new international autonomy. Through a slightly wider historical lens, however, the bloc vote question may have less to do with the particularities of the British Empire and the 1920s and more to do with the ambiguities of Great Power influence within international organizations more generally--witness parallel concerns about a Soviet bloc vote at the young United Nations, for example.
Without question, Gorman highlights suggestive intersections between the league and these episodes in imperial politics. But what of the nature of that intersection? Was it constitutive or merely incidental? Did it fundamentally shape the phenomena at hand, or simply reflect transformations whose real motors of causation and consequence lay elsewhere? These questions point toward a more fundamental one. Is “international society” the crucial analytic frame for these imperial interactions, or at least a very important one? We wonder not least because another, more obvious frame is conspicuous in its absence.
“Nationalism” does not appear in the index of Gorman’s book. It is present on the pages of Emergence of International Society, to be sure, but the index reflects its nonappearance in the book’s conceptual architecture. Outside the colonial chapters, nationalism figures as international society’s kryptonite, lurking in the negative space around Gorman’s main story. Faced with the rising tide of nationalism in the 1930s, international society withers and crumbles--so the narrative arc runs--until its revival in the postwar world. International society found its “limitations,” writes Gorman, where “national interests were too entrenched” (p. 315).
Discernible in the new literature is a trend pushing in the opposite direction. Internationalism is slowly being rezoned from the idealist fringes of history’s main currents into its central drift. Glenda Sluga’s new book in particular seeks to reintegrate internationalism into the history of nationalism, highlighting the “long, intimate, conceptual past shared by the national and the international as entangled ways of thinking about modernity, progress, and politics.” Nationalism was a key component of dominant nineteenth-century strands of internationalism (and their twentieth-century afterlives), writes Mark Mazower, with Mazzinian internationalism only the most famous example. Clearly the presentation of the two as Manichean opposites has a history of its own.
In Gorman’s case, nationalism’s standing is closely connected to his periodization. It is almost predetermined by his decision to lift the 1920s out of the modern fray as the moment of genesis. Had his temporal frame been opened up to the preceding decades--or to the subsequent ones--it would be far more difficult to construct a portrait of internationalism that set itself at odds with nationalism so cleanly. By isolating the 1920s and identifying the First World War as prime determinant, nationalism becomes the anti-project of international society, that which it must overcome.
Its standing is also connected to Gorman’s use of “international society” and “internationalism” as loose equivalents. As indicated above, a number of chapters do not trade directly on the former term, with internationalism presumably serving as its representative. This elision means that there is little conceptual room for parsing the difference between international means and international goals. The vast majority of his protagonists are advocates of internationalist ends, driving to remake the world in the image of international peace and friendship, transcending national divisions and state antagonism. Yet this representation does not quite fit the colonial chapters, where national political rights receive articulation on the international stage. And there is the rub: in including the strivings of Indian nationalists (and to a lesser extent Dominion statesmen), Gorman has made his book broader, more interesting, but also more unresolved--pointing, backhandedly, to fine cracks in his framing of “international society.” It is through these cracks that we glimpse another, submerged history of international society, written in invisible ink in the spaces between his chapters.
How does Gorman define “international society”? He cites the Australian political scientist Hedley Bull, writing that Bull understood international society “as the shared norms and values of states and non-state actors and the means by which they regulate and shape international relations” (p. 16). Given Gorman’s interests, the invocation of Bull is intriguing. For Bull and his contemporaries in the “English school” of international relations, states remained the principal actors (if, crucially, not the only ones), and state sovereignty the key value. International society exists, Bull wrote, “when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another.” A central question became the nature of those common values and interests as the sovereign club swelled in the twentieth century, a process that he explicitly viewed as diffusionist, as Europe and a European model expanded to unify the globe into one system.
By contrast, Gorman examines something closer to international civil society in the West. While he remains interested in the capacity of his campaigners to influence state policy, his real truck is with private actors--pacifists, feminists, religious leaders, academics, and others--who “led internationalist campaigns, lobbied their governments on behalf of internationalist causes, carried out publicity work, built personal transnational networks, created international events, and volunteered for the first international civil service at the League” (p. 10). If it was “associational, voluntary, normative” in style, with a “premium placed on personal relations” (pp. 15, 16), it was also internationalist and distinctly Anglo-American in substance. “International society” here is neither Bull’s society of states, nor a general, vacated, open-ended container to catch any form of transnational communal life. On the contrary, international society featured fixed and essential attributes: “at its heart,” writes Gorman, international society “was a liberal and progressive idea” (p. 3). It emerged as a “concept” in the 1920s “to underwrite the international peace and functional cooperation projects of the 1920s,” winning “supporters,” “adherents,” and “proponents” (pp. 16, 17, 18). With these goals, Gorman’s international society is very much one for our times, closely matching the research preoccupations of the new international history.
Thus, while he acknowledges that other kinds of transnational communities existed in the 1920s (from socialist internationalism to pan-Africanism and pan-Asianism), this recognition does not affect his categorization or his attribution of essential characteristics that correspond largely with his Anglo-American case studies. The integration of other forms of transnational cosmopolitanism would require a reconceptualization of international society with alternate models of causation and periodization. The civil society paradigm, accordingly, strains under the weight of Gorman’s colonial examples: in line with his focus on private actors, he portrays the lobbying efforts of “private Indian nationalists both in India and East Africa” (p. 116), leaving us to wonder what a “private” nationalist is, if one does not possess a national state?
Gorman’s recourse to Bull is all the more intriguing because the latter saw no necessary connection between the expansion of international society and the growth of internationalism--the two terms that serve as teammates in Emergence of International Society. On the contrary, Bull viewed the latter ambivalently, and noted its tethering to a particularly Western set of preoccupations that might not align with the nation- and state-building efforts in other parts of the world. He warned of the “Western globalist” and their desire to reshape the world beyond state sovereignty and ethnic nationalism. This was not a program that evinced support either in the “Socialist countries” or in the Third World, who suspected that the sovereign borders to be swept away were the same ones they had “set up against Western penetration,” along both capitalist and imperialist lines. The prescriptions of the “Western solidarists or global centralists,” “high-minded though they are, derive wholly from the liberal, social-democratic, and internationalists traditions of the West, and take no account of the values entertained in other parts of the world, with which compromises may have to be reached,” wrote Bull in 1979. Ironically, then, in remaining state focused, and aloof from internationalism, international society in Bull’s rendition possessed meanings that almost reverse the signs of Gorman’s.
The mere juxtaposition of Bull and Gorman should be enough to alert us to the simple fact that the category “international society” has a history of its own. And in organizing and decoding the world in different ways, the concept itself has played a role in twentieth-century political life. A relatively small number of Gorman’s protagonists use the term. Yet its history is bound up with Gorman’s period: Bull’s thinking links back to the interwar years via influential older colleagues E. H. Carr and Martin Wight, who grappled with the disintegration of the interwar order. But more directly, the interwar years themselves witnessed a lively debate among jurists and others about the nature and meaning of “international society”--a debate that is not part of Gorman’s story.
“International society” in the interwar legal vocabulary raised the question of a shared consciousness or civilization undergirding international law. The scholar and statesman Alfred Zimmern, a character in Gorman’s book, surveyed the legal literature in 1934 and asked with some exasperation, “Is there, in fact, an international society?” He was skeptical: no elixir of common culture tied together an increasingly heterogeneous cast of states. These questions pressed themselves with great urgency in the 1930s, as crises inside and outside Europe struck contemporaries as harbingers of the decline of the European state system as hitherto understood. As the jurist Georg Schwarzenberger reminded his readers in 1939: “If the discussion on the existence and character of the international community at present attracts more attention than ever before, or if it even appears to be one of the main issues at stake, this phenomenon in itself is an indication that the ‘community’ is no longer regarded as stable.” Notions of a “society” of states had been a mainstay of nineteenth-century international law, clearly delineating a circle of civilized, fully sovereign (European) states, and correspondingly structuring the damaged sovereignty of the non-European states outside this circle. If some small piece of that certainty came unstuck in the interwar years, the term nevertheless remained interwoven with the hierarchical relationship of European states to other peoples around the world.
Inextricably bound up with the history of “international society,” then, is the question of how the non-European world fits into such a category. With the inclusion of the empire in Emergence of International Society, and yet no word about the concept’s historical role in structuring international hierarchies, a curious historical amnesia pervades the book. Let us by all means recast old terms to capture new historiographical concerns, but in doing so remain reflective about how notions of “society” worked to disconnect or differentiate parts of the world as much as we now see it bringing them together. Gorman deploys “international society” as though he could cleanly lift it out of time, without sifting through its different meanings, sorting the salvageable from the unsalvageable. Not only is it a question of subtlety or differentiation but also at issue are the contours of a larger story--the sinews that connect the 1920s to what came before and what came after. It might be that the main drama of “international society” within the broader arc of the twentieth century was staged not just (or, perhaps, not even) against the antinomies of realism and nationalism, but over the fault lines between the “West and the rest.”
The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s is a rich and engaging work that scholars of internationalism and the interwar period will consult with interest, profiting not least from its range and the broad spectrum of secondary literatures tied skillfully together. They will also have much to ponder in Gorman’s choice of examples. Two different international societies appear to extend geographically in different directions: the expansion of international society through statehood and citizenship rights across the colonial world, and the expansion of international society as voluntary, associational life in the high West. Lodged in the book’s architecture are unanswered questions about the relationship between the two. Even in the book, then, the concept “international society” seems on the move, resisting the definition he ascribes it, and pregnant with all the ambiguities of transnational political life in an age of extensive imperial dependency.
. Glenda Sluga, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 3.
. Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea (New York: Penguin, 2012), xiv, 31-64 passim.
. Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (London: MacMillan Press, 1977), 13.
. Hedley Bull, “The State’s Positive Role in International Affairs,” Daedalus 108, no. 4 (1979): 120. See also Sluga, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism, 137-138.
. Alfred Zimmern, “International Law and Social Consciousness,” Transactions of the Grotius Society 20 (1934): 40. For an example of a more positive assessment, see J. L. Brierly, “The Rule of Law in International Society,” Acta Scandinavica Juris Gentium (1936): 3-17.
. Georg Schwarzenberger, “The Rule of Law and the Disintegration of the International Society,” American Journal of International Law 33 (1939): 56.
. See Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 32-114.
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Natasha Wheatley. Review of Gorman, Daniel, The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s.
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