The Nobel Peace Prize awarded last week to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, journalists from the Philippines and Russia, respectively, was an important reminder of the vital role that civic actors play in advancing international peace. It also provided a fitting window for a look back one hundred years, to the Nobel Peace Prize of 1921. That year, the prize was awarded to Christian Lange, a Norwegian peace activist, intellectual, and chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In his lecture accepting the prize, Christian Lange set out a public manifesto for the cause of “internationalism.”

Both impassioned and precise, Lange’s description of a world in transition still resonates: “Today we stand on a bridge leading from the territorial state to the world community. Politically, we are still governed by the concept of the territorial state; economically and technically, we live under the auspices of worldwide communications and worldwide markets.” He championed internationalism as the only force that could defeat a rising tide of nationalism, militarism, and protectionism.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
More >

Lange’s work made him a kindred spirit and personal friend of “the Carnegie men,” a group of European and American thinkers associated with Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that he founded in 1910. This informal network promoted international cooperation, peace, and disarmament in the first half of the twentieth century. Lawyers, diplomats, and historians, they were both idealistic and hard-headed. They included some of the finest minds of the age, such as John Maynard Keynes and Hersch Lauterpacht.

Andrew Carnegie presided over and funded the peace movement of the era. It was a flowering of what we might call the first manifestation of “global civil society,” which met at the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907. The 1907 conference saw the foundation stone laid of Carnegie’s “Peace Palace.” There, William Thomas Stead, a British newspaper editor and peace activist, called Carnegie himself “a modern Count of Monte Cristo, a Midas Reborn, an Aladdin whose chequebook served him for magic lamp.”

Lange’s Inter-Parliamentary Union, a big part of this network, benefited from Andrew Carnegie’s generosity. When the Germans seized the union’s Brussels office and assets in the First World War, Carnegie saved it from bankruptcy. Lange was a special correspondent for the endowment at the League of Nations in Geneva for a decade.

Like Lange, three Carnegie men won the Nobel Peace Prize. Elihu Root won the prize in 1912 while serving as the endowment’s first president, part of an illustrious career in which he also served as U.S secretary of state and a senator for New York. Root sent Lange to Russia after the abdication of tsar Nicholas II in 1917 to gather information before leading the U.S. government negotiations with the provisional government.

The French diplomat and internationalist Baron Paul Henri d’Estournelles de Constant, who had won the prize in 1909, was picked to lead the Carnegie Endowment’s European office in 1911. And Nicholas Murray Butler, Root’s successor as president of the endowment, was awarded the prize in 1931 for his work in promoting international diplomacy after the end of World War I.

Thomas Carothers
Thomas Carothers is interim president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a leading authority on international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society.

To that list we should add the historian James Shotwell, a later president of the endowment who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize but did not receive it. Shotwell had a seat at the table in both the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the postwar Dumbarton Oaks Conference of 1944. Most of Shotwell’s proposals were not accepted in Paris, although he was the chief architect of the International Labour Organization, founded in 1919. In 1943, the Shotwell Commission drafted principles for the foundation of the United Nations that closely resembled the eventual blueprint adopted by the Great Powers.

At the Carnegie Endowment, we know the names of these men and sit in rooms named after them. But, along with Lange, their names are not as well known to the world as they deserve to be.

Perhaps this is because the ambition of Carnegie and others to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization,” as Carnegie himself urged, seems utopian today. The instrument with which Carnegie hoped to achieved world peace—international arbitration—had no power of enforcement over the big nations of the day. Two international courts still sit inside Carnegie’s Peace Palace in The Hague, and they issue important judgements, but they did not prevent the two world wars or many conflicts since then.

Carnegie’s network was also associated with the League of Nations, which the United States never joined and postwar Germany and the Soviet Union were members of only briefly. The league is now mostly remembered as a weak organization that trumpeted the idea of collective security without any proper instruments to enforce it, allowing Adolf Hitler to tear down its paper walls in 1938 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. But as the historian Andrew Webster says, “The League was only a mechanism for the management of international relations, the success or failure of which depended on the willingness of states to make use of it.”

The same could actually be said about the United Nations (UN), which benefited from the lessons of the league’s failures and received greater international support in 1945. Lange would surely have approved of the UN, as it echoed his Nobel lecture’s pronouncement that “a world federation, in which individual nations linked in groups can participate as members, is the political ideal of internationalism.” And he would have undoubtedly endorsed the European Union, history’s most ambitious and successful project of sharing national sovereignty in pursuit of peace and prosperity.

Lange’s legacy will be honored next week in Oslo at a ceremony at the Nobel Peace Center marking the centenary of his winning the Peace Prize. Today, his call for internationalism deserves a new hearing. Global politics is reverting to the kind of clash of big powers that Lange and the Carnegie men would have recognized instantly: a world in which great powers, some of them led by aggressive nationalists, approach international affairs as a zero-sum competition. Yet the world faces a daunting battery of transnational governance challenges—climate change foremost among them—that makes the short-term agendas of nation-states and their destructive military postures toward one another look foolish.

The multilateral organizations and mechanisms intended to constrain such competition are not as weak as the League of Nations, but they are not so strong either. In recent decades, governments around the world have failed to commit the needed political capital and financial resources to build adequate multilateral responses to the many grave global problems at hand.

Where governments have missed chances, civic actors around the world, like the two courageous journalists awarded the Peace Prize last week, have performed better. In 1921, Lange talked of “the intellectual interdependence created through the development of the modern media of communication: post, telegraph, telephone, and popular press.” Nowadays that information is dispersed even faster, and the intellectual heirs of Carnegie’s peace movement have to respond to events even more quickly.

From Belarus to Brazil, civic groups and valiant activists are still learning how to harness the new global information revolution. They are successfully challenging entrenched, repressive power holders, pushing climate change and other pressing global governance challenges higher up the international agenda, and building bridges between clashing camps in aggravated conflicts on multiple continents. Diverse as these civic actors are, most of them are linked by their commitments to a set of values that is rooted, for want of a better word, in internationalism.