The danger of delusion in political posturing: Part one – World Government

The danger of delusion in political posturing: Part one – World Government

by Alan Sked
article from Thursday 18, February, 2021

I WAS ASKED recently by a publisher to review a manuscript on the theory of international relations. Its author used a comparison of the ideas of the two Renaissance Florentine writers and near contemporaries, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, to discuss theories of human nature and their impact on international relations. Like Thucydides, for example, they did not believe men changed very much, hence history tended to repeat itself.  

But were men basically good or bad? Machiavelli had little doubt that they were ‘ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of dangers, greedy for gain’. Thucydides believed that ‘love of power operating through greed and personal ambition’ was the cause of all the evil in the world. Guicciardini, on the other hand, was cautiously optimistic about his fellow men declaring that they were more likely to do you a favour than an injury. 

 When it came to diplomacy, therefore, Machiavelli believed that in order to safeguard the stability or survival of the state, a prince could use trickery, deceit or dishonesty to get his way. Guicciardini, on the other hand – and like Machiavelli he too had served as an ambassador – believed that honesty was a better policy. Today, most commentators seem to take it for granted that Machiavelli was correct, and that virtue has to be aligned by whatever means to whatever reality fortune has brought about.  

Classical diplomatists, surprisingly sided with Guicciardini. De Callieres, for example, wrote in 1716: “It is a capital error, which prevails widely, that a clever negotiator must be a master of the art of deceit... No doubt the art of lying has been practised with success in diplomacy but unlike that honesty which here as elsewhere is the best policy, a lie always leaves a drop of poison behind.”  

That peerless diplomat, Prince Metternich, wrote in 1825: “Few people understand how much advantage can be taken of cunning people... The only adversary it is difficult to vanquish is the perfectly honest man... In any negotiation simple truth is the most formidable weapon of all.”

The author of the manuscript before me was not aware of these quotations or several others I could use. The problem with his manuscript was that he extrapolated from Guicciardini’s optimistic view of a benign, unchanging human nature and the need for honesty in diplomacy to a theory of unchanging diplomatic manoeuvres in human history based upon it. This is simple nonsense.  

Whatever the views of Renaissance man, can we really accept that human nature never changes or is basically benign or not? Is it the same at all times and in all places? Surely not. Human beings are conditioned by their environments, their cultures, their politics, histories and religions. We cannot generalise. 

As for diplomats, do they really act out of purely personal ethics? Would they even be allowed to? What about national interests (not that most diplomats would agree on how to define them)? What about the information available to them, the pressure of domestic policy or public opinion, the influence of pressure groups, their political masters, their intelligence services, or armed forces? How do they evaluate all these matters, which diplomatic historians are trained to do? Why did Chamberlain appease Hitler? What would Machiavelli or Guicciardini have to say? And should we care? Theories of international relations do not usually help very much and can usually be easily punctured by some inconvenient historical fact or facts. 

One plausible theory of international relations, however, that I have never ever seen elaborated but which I personally would be prepared to give credence to, is the role of self-delusion in international (or domestic) affairs. I did once contribute a chapter to a book on the results of false information on diplomacy but that is a rather different albeit related matter. There should perhaps be a textbook or journal on self-delusion in international and domestic politics. For like the poor, it is with us always. 

Let me give a couple of historical examples before arriving at the present.

Before the Second World War America was firmly isolationist. The Nye Commission had apparently demonstrated the pull of US financial interests (Allied debts) on US policy-making and thus made the motive for entry into the First World War seem corrupt. The postwar Treaty of Versailles had then shown the Europeans to be greedy and self-interested. America should refrain from becoming involved in their affairs.

The rise of Hitler, however, did change attitudes. Americans still wanted to keep out of any conflict but in order to save democracy, especially after the fall of France, they were willing to offer ‘all aid short of war’. Hence the repeal of the arms embargo in November 1939, the destroyer-bases deal and the first peacetime draft in September 1940, lend-lease in March 1941, the occupation of Iceland and economic sanctions against Japan in July, FDR’s Atlantic Conference with Churchill in August, escorting cargo ships in the Atlantic in September, and the transport of lend-lease goods in American vessels to Britain in November. Yet the majority of Americans still had no desire ‘to go to war’.  

They didn’t have to. First, the Japanese deluded themselves they could win a war against the world’s greatest power and bombed Pearl Harbour after which Hitler, deluding himself that America was more or less at war with him already and, in any case, was racially inferior, declared war on the USA in solidarity with his Japanese friends. Self-delusion had brought about a true world war. 

Yet it was now the Americans' turn to delude themselves. As the war continued and they found themselves allied with the USSR and China, American leaders began to convince themselves that these allies were really democracies. Since they were fighting a common enemy they must surely share common ideals. The land of isolationism therefore soon transformed itself into the land of democratic universalism with the government, the Republican Party and public opinion looking to a postwar future where a world government based on a new form of League would consolidate democracy through regional federations. US troops might even serve abroad to enforce this new world order.

The extent of this ludicrous self-delusion is set out in an hilarious chapter of Professor Robert Dallek’s classic ‘The American Style of Foreign Policy. Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs’.  

Statements of this outlook can be found in Wendell Willkie’s 1943 bestseller ‘One World’ which sold over a million copies and Sumner Welles’s ‘Time for Decision’ of 1944. The distinguished US journalist, Walter Lippmann, also published in the same year his ‘US War Aims’ refuting such deluded universalism but his book did not sell as well. 

For a taste of this renewed Wilsonianism here are some quotes. Henry Luce, the publisher of Life magazine wrote in March 1943 that Russians ‘look like Americans, dress like Americans and think like Americans’. The NKVD was ‘a national police similar to the FBI’. In April 1944 the New York Times declared it was no misrepresentation ‘to say that Marxian thinking in Soviet Russia is out. The capitalist system, better described as the competitive system is back.’ In 1944 Herbert Hoover told the Republican convention that Russia was no longer truly Communist. Willkie himself visited the USSR in 1942 and found it to be a democratic and meritocratic country whose leader Stalin was a ‘simple man with no affectations or poses’. He himself told Stalin that if he kept educating the Russians so well ‘you’ll educate yourself out of a job’. The Soviet dictator was highly amused. 

FDR himself boasted how well he got along with Uncle Joe. When asked to sum him up, he replied: “I would call him something like me...a realist”. He forecast excellent postwar relations. So America fought the war believing everyone in the world shared its ideals and values. Willkie thought it remarkable how alike everybody looked from an aeroplane and concluded they were. No doubt the Man in the Moon felt the same.

The Chinese were also given the benefit of the doubt. Having no Communist or Imperialist past to live down the Americans saw them as closer cousins than the Russians or Brits. Chiang Kai-shek’s government offered limited resistance to the Japanese, imprisoned its opponents and put the personal gain of its leaders above the economic welfare of the Chinese people. But so what? It became America’s favourite ally. Willkie visited it and poured praise on Chiang.  Madame Chiang visited the US and was received almost as a deity. FDR said that the people of China ‘have been in thought and in objective, closer to the Americans than almost any other peoples in the world – the same great ideals. China in the last – less than half a century – has become one of the great democracies of the world.’ 


Reality only broke in with the advent of Truman to the White House, the outbreak of the Cold War and the defeat of Chiang in the Chinese Civil War. 

Still ‘one worlders’ in the OSS and other US institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the US Committee for a United States of Europe and not least the State Department itself, managed to send huge amounts of money to Jean Monnet and his federalist acolytes in Europe to create a regional organisation there. However, the US plan to create a federal Europe in return for Marshall Aid was frustrated by Britain’s Ernie Bevin. The Belgian prime minister Paul-Henri Spaak became the leader of the American federalist effort in Europe after Churchill turned them down. Churchill had no intention of making Britain part of the United  Europe he had called for. The British politician who worked with Monnet to make Britain part of a federal Europe was instead Harold Macmillan, who like Monnet himself also believed in world government. Thus after he became prime minister he had one of his foreign ministers, the Earl of Gosford, inform the House of Lords on 7 November 1957, that HMG was “fully in agreement with world government” which was its ultimate goal and which it would do everything possible to achieve. It never happened of course but the delusion lived on. 

This brings us to Britain and my next article will consider some of the delusions which have marred and scarred recent British political history. 

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Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. @profsked 

Photos of US Postage stamp of FDR, Blue by MMphotosRed by By konstantant, both from Adobe Stock. 

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