The Consequences of World War I

One hundred years ago today, the fighting in World War I ended in an armistice agreement. An old order disappeared and our modern era began. The work of our Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism (CRT) has evolved to challenge the darker sides of our modern temperament by providing ideals and standards for constructive globalism and just social orders.

Thanks to World War I, an imperial age evaporated. Russian, Ottoman, German and Hapsburg empires collapsed. The British Empire, though triumphant on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, was financially wounded and spiritually subverted. The 2,000 year Chinese empire in Beijing, in the process of collapse, would be replaced first by warlordism, then by civil war and then by an ideological, one-party dictatorship. The Japanese attempt to create a new empire in East Asia and the attempt by Hitler to build a similar empire in Europe would both fail. The United States emerged as a first among equals with a determining role to play in building a new international political and economic order.

The new norm for the global community became the self determination of peoples. Each “people” was thereafter entitled to a sovereign nation state, a legal order derived from the 1648 European Westphalian compromise between church and secular powers. To protect nation states, aggressive war was outlawed. This norm was incorporated into the League of Nations and today’s United Nations. To check the powers of such national sovereignties, international law on human rights was created and multilateral organizations were established.

But the definition of who a people entitled to its own state might be was left vague. Today, conflicts among “peoples” are a source of contention and violence. What is the proper status of the Scots, Catalans, Palestinians, North and South Koreans, Uighurs, Tibetans, Kurds and the Ukrainians? What is the proper balance of power between the peoples of the European Union and the Union’s central administration? Does China have sovereign territorial rights over the South China Sea or the Senkaku Islands? Are the Taiwanese a “people?”

The end of World War I ushered in modern culture with its angst and distempers of nihilism and narcissism. In Europe, history was abandoned as having led to failure of systems. Architecture abandoned classicism and turned to modernism with its clean horizontal and vertical lines and its ideal that form should follow function. Philosophy under Dewey and Wittgenstein embraced rational skepticism. Law turned more and more to legal positivism and instrumental response to contemporary values and policy needs. Music replaced symphonies with Jazz and syncopation. In literature, Joyce, Proust, Kafka and Hemingway set forth new modes of writing and chose new subjects for reflection. Innovation, embracing whatever was not old, became the common currency of culture. The marginalization of religion began. The spirit of the age became what Pope Francis calls “anthropocentrism” – humankind taking over from both God and nature.

Modernity was thus unsettling and still is. Reaction set in, perhaps most importantly under Hitler in Nazi Germany.

In economics, after World War I, socialism took on new power to displace capitalists as a ruling elite. Our economic order is still unsettled by the conflicting claims of capital and labor. Governments evolved a welfare state ideology to balance and compromise the respective interests of finance, production, workers and communities. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in China under Deng Xiaoping solidified a modern approach to economic growth and social justice which blends private goods and the common good on terms mediated by the state.

Thus, the CRT’s principles for business, ethical government and ownership of wealth address the central problem of our time.

Our need to move beyond the fears and power imbalances of today can be met by finding common cause in fundamentals so that the “upsettingness” of modernity becomes both constructive and comfortable for all.

Inscribed on his grave is Karl Marx’s Thesis Eleven on the philosopher Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.“ And on David Livingston’s burial market in Westminster Cathedral are his last written words: “All I can add in my solitude, is, may Heaven’s rich blessing come down on everyone, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world.”

As I stood on the back of our Capital in Washington, D.C. on Friday, January 20th, 1961, I heard our new President John F. Kennedy urge: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you. Ask rather what you can do for your country.” Today, I would amend that to replace country with “world.”

One hundred years after the Great War – the War to end all wars, the War to make the world safe for democracy – ended, our task remains to act to ensure that modernity reflects the better angels of our nature.