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Has the One World Idea's Time Come Again?

The United States, the writer and activist James Baldwin once remarked, was “an enormous province.” This was in 1963, during the Cold War, when he felt that relentless focus on containing the Soviet Union led too many Americans into a kind of blindness. They assumed themselves residents of an exceptional nation, with a special gift for liberty and a postwar mission as stewards of the world’s fortunes, but showed little interest in the actual lives of most people outside their borders. At the height of the so-called “liberal world order,” that much heralded compact birthed by the U.S. from the ashes of World War II, few Americans questioned their right to be both a world power and little concerned with world events unless they could be directed toward checking Communists. Caught up in the self-assured certitude of U.S. global power, they failed to see that “America is not the world.”  

Today, as the incoming Biden administration promises to deliver us from Donald Trump’s raging, bellicose parochialism, Baldwin’s pithy warning reminds us to think beyond our conventional ways of understanding the world at large. Blinkered self-assurance, it suggests, can underpin liberal internationalism and America First nationalism alike. Will the country return to the triumphalist provincialism of the liberal world order or can it find a new path?

There is a different way, one that was conceived during a previous time of global crisis by another prophetic, but largely forgotten American. Three quarters of a century ago, during World War II, as the U.S.-led global order was taking shape, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie tried to warn his fellow citizens away from taking too narrow a prospect on the world at large. The country, he wrote in his 1943 bestseller One World, was “like a beleaguered city that lives within high walls.” Americans were fighting the war blindly, with little sense of what it was actually about, and less sense of the world over which they fought.

One World was based on Willkie’s 49-day, 31,000-mile journey the previous year, undertaken with the blessing of his former rival, Franklin Roosevelt. The president had hoped Willkie would promote the Allied cause, showing friend and foe alike that the United States was politically united. But the 50-year-old Indiana native did that and much more. Meeting with Allied leaders and anti-colonial insurgents, gauging public sentiment from North Africa and the Middle East to the Soviet Union and China, Willkie discovered that people everywhere had high expectations for U.S. power. They hoped that full American entry into the war would deliver an equitable peace to a world that had become “small and completely interdependent.” Willkie was already one of America’s most admired public figures – a gregarious, iconoclastic advocate for both civil rights and free entreprise and a Democratic critic of the New Deal who turned Republican when he saw an opportunity to defeat FDR in 1940. The trip won him fans around the world, but few predicted One World’s runaway success, or the challenge it issued to Americans to come out from behind their walls and greet the world as it truly was.

Hungry for news of the war’s progress and enticed by tales of Willkie’s overseas adventures, hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to buy the book. Within a week of publication, the book was already on its fourth printing. At the height of the frenzy the book was selling 50,000 copies a day. It took two printing plants running around the clock to get ahead of demand. “I’d be kidding you if I said I hadn’t expected it to sell, but I didn’t expect it to go over a hundred and fifty thousand,” Willkie told the New Yorker a month into the fever. The regular edition—which appeared in both a $2 hardcover and a $1 tabloid—was followed by a Book-of-the-Month Club edition, a 25-cent reprint, an edition for soldiers overseas, and a panoply of foreign-language editions, including several samizdat runs behind Nazi lines. Over 100 newspapers in the United States, Australia, Britain, and Canada ran an abridged version of the book in their pages. It took less than a month to sell a million copies of what publishers took to calling “the Willkie,” and as spring turned into summer the phenomenon showed no sign of slowing. In just a few months the book would reach something like four million people, and there’s no telling how many people eventually read what the editor of Publishers Weekly called a phenomenon “unequaled since the days of the old blue-backed ‘speller’” – Noah Webster’s Revolutionary-era guide to American English.

One World’s popularity in the U.S. can be credited in part to a mood of internationalist optimism ascendant during the war. Mobilization sent millions of service members abroad, newspapers filled with dispatches from foreign lands, and an influential fraction of Americans began to look for a wider outlook on the world. Willkie was happy to oblige, and the spirit of jaunty bonhomie readers found in the pages of One World swelled support for internationalism. With its breezy tales of meeting the famous—Charles de Gaulle, Joseph Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek—and anonymous alike, One World displayed his warm, open, non-threatening feeling for international connection as a model for his fellow citizens to follow.

Readers of the book found themselves swept up in an expansive prospect. The travelogue-cum-manifesto laid out an idealistic vision for a post-war order characterized by decolonization, democracy, free trade, and a world beyond racism. A world made one by war and flight and radio had to be one politically as well. “Peace must be planned on a world basis,” Willkie declared in the book’s rousing conclusion. “It is inescapable that there can be no peace for any part of the world unless the foundations of peace are made secure throughout all parts of the world.” Reading the book, millions of Americans felt they could meet the world on those terms, too. By September 1943, one poll found that 81 percent of Americans thought it was a good idea for the United States to join a “union of nations” after the war—up from 63 percent in February, before the publication of One World.

But Willkie salted his feel-good travelogue with less cheery fare as well. He urged Americans to foreswear what he called “narrow nationalism.” The only way to do that was to abandon the racial discrimination that underpinned both “international imperialism” and U.S. segregation—their own “imperialisms at home.” Across the globe, Willkie found, people expected that the United States would help usher in a world beyond empire. Whether they looked to throw off British, French, Dutch, or even American rule, they hoped for their own equivalent of the American Revolution. But the catch lay closer to home. Americans had to see that their fate lay entwined with everyone else’s fate. It was a tricky balancing act, equal parts warning and thrilling prospect: in a world shaken by war, divided by empire, and shrunken by planetary air flight, he argued, ignoring global interdependence would jeopardize American independence.

In many ways the success of One World marked the apogee of an American internationalism dedicated to a truly equitable world order. Accused by fellow Republicans of wanting to bargain away American sovereignty, Willkie lost the GOP presidential nomination in 1944 and died later that year of a heart attack. He spent the last year of his life campaigning for a fully democratic organization to replace the forsaken League of Nations, calling for a “world council” that would give all nations equal voice in shaping the postwar planet. He did not live to see the United Nations founded the following year, which was just as well, because his rival Roosevelt’s ultimately succesful designs gave the so-called Four Policemen—the U.S., Soviets, British, and China—power over smaller nations, who could gather once a year or so to “blow off steam,” as FDR put it.

The U.N. became the imperfect vehicle of Willkie’s hopes. Hampered by a Security Council empowered to quash any threat to great power politics, hamstrung by Cold War tensions and bureaucratic infighting, given the often hopeless tasks of “peacekeeping” in the world’s conflict zones, the U.N. has nonetheless persevered. Even in its reduced form, the world body has worked towards making “one world” real. European colonialism was ushered off the world stage from the floor of the General Assembly; serious efforts to combat global poverty, confront planetary urbanization, and restrain climate change have issued from its councils.

Indeed, people around the world report high levels of trust in the U.N. A recent survey of opinion in 26 countries by the research firm Glocalities found that 47 percent of those asked had faith in the world body, while only 29 percent distrusted it, far better ratings than for the EU, NATO, or their own governments. (Just 27 percent had any trust in the United States—a precipitous fall from the urgent expectations that greeted Willkie on his world tour in 1942.) When the United Nations gathered on the East River last fall, the world body celebrated a remarkable milestone: for three quarters of a century, against all odds, nations have continued to put their faith in an international organization pledged to tackle humanity’s greatest global problems.

Here in the United States, however, the country that embraced One World and helped create the UN, the occasion was greeted with relative silence. During a catastrophic year of plague, fire, and an election menaced by systemic disinformation, few Americans even noticed the world body’s 75th anniversary, preferring instead to remember the end of World War II. We won the war, we tell ourselves, and saved the world from fascism and then “totalitarianism.” But that self-regard is the mark of the deep seated provincialism Baldwin decried.

The U.N. has never been more sidelined than it is today, but the truth is it has never been fully welcomed in the country of its birth. President Trump’s effort to withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organization was red meat for the recalcitrant right, which has always seen the world body as a superstate in miniature, a global fifth column ready to overthrow U.S. sovereignty. The threat drew the usual chorus of liberal incredulity, but in actuality it was only the latest in a long line of bipartisan American attempts to override, manipulate, or undermine the effectiveness of the UN and the international institutions it created.

From defunding UNESCO, to the massaged evidence for war on Iraq, to perpetual stonewalling in the Security Council over Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, the U.S. has long seen the UN as an inconvenient hassle, a minor debating society trifling at the fringes of the great world historical projects of the Cold War and the War on Terror. Americans themselves have embraced the benefits of globalization—cheap goods and easy travel—but have shown far more ambivalence towards its oft-neglected responsibilities: regulation and protection from the perils brought on by the quick flow of money and people across the globe. Only 34 percent of Americans surveyed by Glocalities trust the United Nations.

Today, in a time of pandemic, on a warming planet riven by inequality, with “America First”-style nationalism exploding at home and abroad, Willkie’s expansive “one world” vision is ripe for rediscovery. The incoming Biden appointees would seem to offer some hope. Diplomacy, they have announced, is back on the table. The U.S. will return to the W.H.O., resume climate talks, and appoint an envoy to the U.N. who is not overtly hostile to its very existence. This is all to the good, but just beneath the surface the usual triumphal provincialism lurks as unbidden reflex. Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony J. Blinken, promises a return to multilateralism, but cannot help invoking American indispensability: “Whether we like it or not, the world simply does not organize itself … when some other country tries to take our place or, maybe even worse, no one does … you end up with a vacuum that is filled by bad events.”

What remains unimaginable, to Trump and Biden alike, is U.S. participation in world cooperation as an equitable partner rather than either a petulant bully or a self-appointed organizer. That’s why “one world” deserves to be known as more than the vague marketing jargon it has become. It could be a call to fully reckon with global interdependence, not just an offhand way to signify a vague spirit of world unity or the capacious reach of a firm’s business interests.

One world-style idealism may appear ill fitted for the rough arena of actual politics on an ever more divided planet, but Willkie’s warnings about the perils of racial nationalism have never been more indispensable, and his diagnosis of the pressing demands of global interdependence has never been more prescient. Power politics may always menace world cooperation, but the fact—and the feeling—that we are all interdependent remains at the heart of today’s most pressing movements for racial, economic, and climate justice. The story of One World reminds us that Americans once stretched their imaginations to consider the challenge of full and equitable relations with the world. What will it take, this time, to revive the spirit of non-provincial America?