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Internationalism in an Age of Nationalism


Glenda Sluga


Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013

Hardcover. 211 p. ISBN 978-08122448472. $69.95


Reviewed by Eric J. Morgan

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay



The ghosts of internationalism haunt this concise and erudite volume from Glenda Sluga, whose ambition is to recover “a distinctly twentieth-century internationalism that was imagined through the same dominant lens of realism as nationalism” [2]. Sluga largely succeeds, illustrating that nationalism and internationalism have lived side-by-side for decades, and that the perceived differences between the two ideas are not necessarily irreconcilable. Nationalism, Sluga correctly asserts, has dominated our understanding of the past, and internationalism has often been portrayed as a radical or naïve pursuit, embraced by visionary yet ultimately idealistic leaders like U.S. President Woodrow Wilson while being shunned by realists. However, both nationalism and internationalism, Sluga argues, were and remain influenced by the same underlying questions on the nature of groups and individuals and, most important, the shaping of human destiny during perhaps the darkest of human centuries.

In four brief chapters, Internationalism in an Age of Nationalism moves chronologically through the twentieth-century, highlighting critical moments in the rise, decline, and rebirth of internationalism. The basic tenets of internationalism—international institutions and the transformation, in the words of political scientist Hans Morgenthau, of “the existing international society of sovereign nations into a supranational community of individuals” [2]—were not idealistic, but rather the only real alternative to the perpetual war and conflict brought about by rabid nationalism at the dawn of the twentieth century. Perpetual peace and the expansion of democracy were the aims of internationalism, objectives that were limited or obfuscated by ever-feuding nation-states and lingering colonialism.

Sluga begins her analysis with “the international turn” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, assessing the contributions of thinkers such as the Austrian Alfred Fried, who strongly advocated Esperanto as a universal language, and Jane Addams, the American feminist and peace activist who, during the First World War, was a leading member of the Central Organization for a Permanent Peace (OPP), which sought not only to end the horrific global conflict, but to ultimately bring more openness to international relations through internationalization. The First World War and the resulting League of Nations are discussed as the initial apogees of internationalism, followed by its ultimate zenith with the creation of the United Nations in 1945. “The significance of this apogee,” Sluga argues, “lay not in its utopianism but in the fine gradations of political realism inspired by the vogue for being internationally minded” [79-80]. Nationalism—most specifically the quest of colonized peoples in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere to achieve self-determination—complicates the traditional narrative of the United Nations and post-war internationalism that focuses on the leadership of the United States or the utopian visions of a few select leaders.

The early years of the Cold War—particularly the emasculation of the U.N. and aggressive attacks on UNESCO—altered the progress of internationalism, though the emergence of détente and the “global” 1970s enlivened discussions on internationalism and its meaning. Drawing on a host of emerging and exciting new scholarship on the 1970s, Sluga concludes her study with an exploration of the U.N.’s domination by the third world, and by offering a prescient question: “What constituted the international when states with non-Western cultural values exerted international political influence?” [137]. Sluga notes that, in the post-9/11 twenty-first century, little consensus exists on how to describe the modern world we inhabit. Global? Transnational? International? Post-international? Evidence for all of these terms exists, and without argument we live in a more connected world than ever before. Yet, Sluga writes, “The kind of international organization that was central to the imagining of twentieth-century visions of international community is increasingly sidelined in the face of imposing world-scale environmental and economic challenges, in favor of nation-state-specific responses” [148-149]. The conversation over human destiny and the world order is hardly over, yet perhaps internationalism as an idea, Sluga concludes, is now beyond its summit.

This volume, while not explicitly a synthesis as it integrates an array of primary sources, serves as a useful introduction to the evolution of internationalism, offering readers a brief chronology and sharp analysis of how the world community has thought about and experimented with internationalism. Yet its succinctness is one of its weaknesses. Sluga’s sweeping scope, covering a century of thought, and large cast of characters, from Woodrow Wilson to W.E.B. Du Bois to Alva Myrdral, remain largely flat and undeveloped, unfortunate since Sluga frames this story as one largely about human destiny, hopes, and dreams. Further elaboration on the background of these individuals, as well as the interplay between them and their larger legacies, would have added a missing personal touch to Sluga’s brisk narrative. Overall, though, this volume largely accomplishes its important goal, and delivers a solid study that is bound to prompt discussions on the evolution of internationalism during a century of revolutionary change throughout the world.


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