letter to editor

In studying history when I was growing up, I always thought of former Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) as a bad guy.  

He’s been portrayed that way because he didn’t support President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. Like many, I thought World War II would have been shorter and cost fewer lives if we had entered the league. However, a case can be made that England and France were members of the League of Nations and failed to stop Hitler and his allies march through Europe and North Africa. Like many who believe the rhetoric of Wilson and his political allies, I always thought of Lodge as a weird nationalist or isolationist when I was growing up. However, in my later studies of history, I’ll have to make a reevaluation. 

For one, Lodge was a key supporter of civil rights. In 1890, Lodge, then a U.S. congressman, supported the Federal Elections Bill which would have protected African American voting rights around the country. Our country didn’t pass the Voting Rights Act until the 1960s. Lodge was an internationalist of sorts, and his reservations about the League of Nations were very real. He disagreed with the fact that the League of Nations charter left no provisions for a nation that wanted to leave the League. He also thought the League would take the authorization to declare war away from Congress, and this would mean American troops would be stationed in wars around the world and lives would be lost.  

In addition, Lodge said the league would interfere with the enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, or the United States' right to drive foreign empires out of the western hemisphere. A military buildup by a foreign empire in the western hemisphere would kick off an arms race that would change the nature of the American republic, making it more militaristic, a worry of statesmen in America from the start of the republic.     

This week the media has been filled with images of the horror unfolding in Afghanistan. No doubts about it, the Taliban will institute theocratic rule in the country, and this will be horrid to those who hold Western values dear. So, what does this have to do with Mr. Lodge? We can learn much from his internationalism on this issue. Lodge wanted an organization to keep the peace around the world but not under the rules of the League of Nations. Lodge’s views inspired the original plans for the United Nations, which President Franklin Roosevelt called the Four Policemen, referring to the United States, China, Soviet Russia, and the United Kingdom. The United Nations has proven to be a failure in today’s world. However, the original plans for it were quite different from what emerged. Wilsonian Cordell Hull, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of state, made the United Nations more like the League of Nations in insisting on a larger security council, five members. 

Keep in mind, only two of the powers in the Four Policemen were democracies. The United States and the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom held an empire at the time. China was ruled by a tyrant dictator, Chiang Kai-chek, and the Soviet Union had the murderous Joseph Stalin. The original plans were for a United Nations was of a great power concert, or the great powers would police their own hemispheres and not kill each other off in a war every 30 years or so. Stalin’s creation of Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe after World War II set off the Cold War, a power balancing act.  

The idea of international law as a method to secure the peace was an idea Lodge held dear, but he also understood the balance of power in the world and what it means to the idea of international law. Some are worried about Afghanistan becoming a terrorist haven under the Taliban. However, this is unlikely, as stated by Daniel Byman’s story “Will Afghanistan Become a Terrorist Safe Haven Again?” Byman doesn’t feel that the Taliban’s incentives to make the country a terrorist stronghold are high enough. He also states Al-Qaida’s weakness and post-9/11 improvements in U.S. intelligence coordination, homeland security, and remote military operations are enough to reduce the threat of terrorist groups operating in the country. Byman also considers the history of the country: “the Taliban were not consulted about 9/11, and they didn’t favor previous terrorist attacks the group carried out, such as the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. The Taliban also paid a heavy price for 9/11, losing power for 20 years and seeing much of their core leadership die in the fight with the United States.” 

China and Russia, our geopolitical opponents, have made their peace with the Taliban. In her story, “Why the Taliban Won, and what Washington can do about It,” Vanda Felbab-Brown states both countries are “far more likely to pressure the Taliban to guarantee their counterterrorism and economic interests and share power and resources with their Afghan political clients than they are to urge the group to care about human rights and political pluralism.”  

Our counterbalancing China and Russia is the factor driving huge defense budgets now. If we can work with our adversaries to make sure Afghanistan does not project power beyond its borders, it would be a success for all three countries. The power that can be projected by all the countries, soft power, could isolate Afghanistan and make it less violent and give it time to liberalize. We might find a new concert of power, in a reformed United Nations or a successor organization, could keep geopolitical tensions to a minimum and prevent more conflict between China, Russia, and the United States. Is there a Henry Cabot Lodge in today’s political arena?  

Jason Sibert

Executive director of the Peace Economy Project