‘A strong-man world threatens global peace’

War veterans: From the ashes of 60 million dead, a new world was born. © Getty

Has the world forgotten the lessons of VE Day? The “long peace” of the post-war era has given way to a new age of nationalism. We urgently need international co-operation, says Theresa May.

“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.”

These were Churchill’s words, addressing joyous crowds in London on 8 May 1945.

Now, 75 years on, with a new global crisis removing any chance of crowds, there is a risk that the lessons learned in the aftermath of WWII have faded from the minds of many.

Back then, rising from the wreckage of a global conflict, victorious political leaders decided that a new world was in order. Freedom and democracy had defeated fascism.

Countries would look out for one another. Never again would genocide and totalitarianism stalk the planet.

Later that year, in October, the UN was founded. The International Court of Justice came in 1946 followed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

On the financial and economic front, global solidarity was ensured by the Bretton Woods system, the World Bank, and the IMF.

The West prospered, and enjoyed 30 years of continued growth. The EU joined old foes in countless agreements. And, in 1989, the last world power standing against liberal Western democracy – the USSR – fell.

But then it all started to go wrong. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 16 militarised border fences in the world. Now, there are 65 fortified perimeters that are either completed or under construction.

Authoritarian leaders have sprung up in Hungary, the Philippines, and Russia. An us-versus-the-world narrative has emerged – even in the countries that once led international efforts to bring the world together.

The UK voted to leave the EU. The US elected a man who ran on an ‘America First’ platform.

Populists on the right call for the end of internationalism. Populists on the left call for the end of open markets and free trade.

This week, former UK Prime Minister Theresa May, wrote: “Lost is the idea that countries do better by working together to solve common problems.”

The Brookings Institute (a think tank central in espousing the liberal American view of the international order) reiterated the lesson that “consolidating peace and stability, and promoting reconciliation and prosperity, requires working together toward building an economic system of shared and interdependent wealth”.

So, has the world forgotten the lessons of VE Day?

Long peace

Yes. Seventy-five years is a very long time ago. International collaboration has been reduced for years. The UN cannot stop wars. World powers still break international laws. Economic ties are threatened by the increased talk of a trade war between China and the US. VE day was about coming together to defeat a common enemy. Today, friends of liberty and democracy are surrounded by potential foes.

No. Not since 1945 have major world powers entered into direct armed conflict with one another. No two democratic nations have ever gone to war with one another. Millions of people around the world have been lifted out of poverty and the overall standard of living has increased dramatically. The goals of those who triumphed on VE day have mostly been achieved.

You Decide

  1. Do you think there will ever be another world war?
  2. Does history go in cycles or in a straight line?

Activities

  1. Design a new flag for the UN in its 75th year.
  2. Imagine you are making the victory speech for the day that a vaccine for Covid-19 is discovered. Write it on one page.

Some People Say...

“Globalisation is also a view of the world – it is an opinion about man and why men are on the world.”

John Berger (1926-2017), English art critic and novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
VE day was a huge, symbolic victory. The historian Margaret MacMillan argued that the post-war order was “underpinned by notions of a common humanity possessing the same universal rights. The idea that there were universal standards to be upheld was present, no matter how imperfectly”.
What do we not know?
We do not know how universally effective such theories were. Writing in the Times, Daniel Finkelstein says it was important not to overstate the power of history, or to sugarcoat the years that followed VE day. “Wartime memories might keep people warm for decades metaphorically but, in reality, they still froze without enough coal or modern gas production, and electricity generation.”

Word Watch

Fascism
A form of ultra-nationalist, authoritarian political system, which came to prominence in early 20th-Century Europe. Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany were two examples.
Totalitarianism
A political system that takes control of every element of someone’s life. Tied to a rigorous system of ideas, it doesn’t allow for any opposition. Communism, fascism, and extreme religious groups, like ISIS, can all be seen as totalitarian.
Bretton Woods
A system of payments based on the dollar that kept the price of the dollar tied to the price of gold. This allowed for relative global economic stability for many years.
IMF
The International Monetary Foundation works to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth.
Authoritarian
Favouring or enforcing strict obedience to those in power at the expense of personal freedom.
America First
A policy and slogan used by US Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Warren G Harding, and Donald Trump. It refers to an American foreign policy stance that generally emphasises US nationalism, unilateralism, protectionism, and isolationism.
Populists
Politicians who pit the will of the people against established elites and experts. Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are good examples.
Internationalism
The belief and promotion of cooperation and understanding between different nations. Institutions like the UN and the IMF depend on such ideas.
Free trade
The notion that governments should not get too involved in the price or movement of goods. In theory, this means that the best goods will reach the most people at the lowest possible price, speeding up the spread of wealth across the world.
Think tank
A research group that publishes articles, studies, or even draft legislation on political or social ideas or events.

Subjects

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