Following the end of the Great War just over a century ago, an effort was made to end the ancient cycle of warfare by anchoring international order in a new multilateral League of Nations. US President Woodrow Wilson, a devout Presbyterian Christian, wanted to locate its headquarters in Calvin’s Geneva in historically neutral Switzerland, but he ruined his health in a vain effort to secure American membership. The League lasted for barely two decades, foundering on the imperial ambitions of the European dictators who had risen to power in the 1920s and 30s.
Now we remember the League as a largely toothless institution that occupied the interregnum between two devastating world wars. It could not prevent Italy invading Ethiopia in 1935. It could not prevent Germany dismembering Czechoslovakia and, the following year, conquering half of Poland.
The League ended in 1946, a victim of its own incapacities. It was replaced by a United Nations Organization, which, despite its uneven record of success, has lasted to the present day.
Nations mostly united
The UN is perhaps best known for its peacekeeping missions around the globe, beginning in 1956 with the Suez Crisis. UN personnel have been in my father’s native island of Cyprus for nearly six decades, with Canadian participation ending in the 1990s. The UN attempted to manage the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia 30 years ago, but it could not prevent the country breaking up or the associated ethnic cleansing.
The UN was hampered from the outset by the veto exercised by each permanent member of the Security Council. With the outbreak of the current Russo-Ukrainian War, Moscow vetoed the Council’s condemnation of Putin’s invasion.
Nevertheless, I have been amazed at the international response to what virtually everyone agrees is an unprovoked and unjust attack. Putin’s public pretexts for sending Russian troops into a neighbouring country are scarcely credible, and there is widespread recognition of this. With Russia now locked out of the international banking system and economic sanctions depressing the value of the rouble, Putin risks the welfare of his own country to satisfy his imperial ambitions. That he has nuclear weapons at his disposal brings an additional element of danger to his isolation. Nevertheless, few want to see Putin go unpunished for raining missiles on defenceless Ukrainian civilians, many of whom speak Russian as their first language.
At this point, I am grateful that Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. If he had been president when Russia attacked Ukraine, he would have vacillated between tepid condemnation and obsequious admiration of Putin. The global response would not have been as united as it has been. And while President Biden could stand to project a more solemn demeanour in public, he is in a better position to help coordinate an international response.
A moral consensus
What has changed over the past one hundred years? Everyone now gives at least lip service to state sovereignty or independence. The UN Charter prohibits “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (article 2.4). Many of the world’s leaders would love to march into a neighbour’s territory, but the current moral consensus against such obvious aggression has probably deterred any number of autocrats hungry for territorial gain. If China’s Xi Jinping could successfully annex Taiwan, he would do so tomorrow. But because he also values China’s position in the global network of trade and commerce, he is unlikely to put at risk the economic achievements of recent decades. For now, at least.
Will any of this stop Putin? Perhaps by the time this appears in print, Putin will have fallen on his knees and repented of his murderous ways. We should certainly pray for such an outcome. However, given the improbability of this turn of events, we might better pray that God would use the international community’s sanctions to thwart Putin’s ruthless ambitions.
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