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Book Review


Glenda Sluga and Patricia Clavin, eds. Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xiv + 372. $34.99 (paper).


     The Paris Agreement, adopted at the UN Climate Change Convention in December 2015, represented a remarkable consensus among the world's states, as virtually every sovereign nation became a signatory. This dramatic example illustrates the ways the contemporary world is often shaped by international activities. Intergovernmental organizations like the UN impose sanctions on states whose belligerence threatens regional stability. Trading blocs create common markets, facilitating the movement of products and capital freely among member states. Nongovernmental organizations investigate and expose human rights abuses. But if internationalism is a key feature of the contemporary world, so is the persistence of nationalist decisions that undermine international coalition efforts. The Trump Administration's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 was a serious blow to the pact, as was Britain's exit from the European Union the previous year. And neither intergovernmental nor nongovernmental reports on the Syrian government's use of sarin gas on civilians have had much consequence for the regime.

     A book that provides perspective on the development of various forms of internationalism and their complex entanglement with nationalism over the last hundred years is a welcome offering. Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History, edited by Glenda Sluga and Patricia Clavin, includes fourteen essays on different types of intergovernmental and non-state internationalism. With contributors from Australia, Canada, England, Italy, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States, the book is itself a model of international collaboration. Chronologically, the essays span from the late nineteenth century, when a "self-conscious" awareness of internationalism developed, to the end of the Cold War. The essays are grouped into three topics: traditional foundations of internationalist thinking, including religion, communism, and feminism; states whose activities and interests were often at odds with internationalism; and, the working of international organizations. While a collection of more than a dozen essays should not be expected to offer a coherent argument, the editors suggest that the book's "most assertive premise" is that "internationalisms were central to the major political questions and themes of the twentieth century: war and peace, imperialism and nationalism, states and state-building" (6).

     One of the book's virtues is to show just how widespread the internationalist impulse has been over the past century or more, along with its embrace of diverse, often contradictory notions. Key non-state forms of internationalism pre-date intergovernmental internationalism. Abigail Green details the emergence of "religious internationals" in the transatlantic Protestant world by the early nineteenth century, which expanded to include Catholics and Jews by mid-century. Around World War I, this pattern pluralized with the inclusion of Buddhists, Muslims, and others. She explores the paradoxical fact that while religion was an "integral and even constitutive part" of the emergence of internationalism, religious groups contributed to the transformation of the secular realms of politics, culture, and society (17). Green's case study of Jewish internationals illustrates how religious internationalism became a "vehicle for transcending the religious-secular divide" that is central to both modernity and internationalism (37).

     Tracing the history of human rights internationalism, Roland Burke shows how this issue became largely a non-state concern. He argues that between 1945 and 1970, human rights was dominated by a model where the UN Charter pledged "a world of states" and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "promised, at some future point, a world of rights-bearing citizens within them" (294). After 1970, the failure of this regime to protect individual rights gave way to an era in which non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International pursued a "minimalist" standard of human rights, defending the integrity of the individual and the right to emigration without directly confronting the state's role in abuse.

     The emergence of an indigenous rights movement among non-state peoples also complicates internationalist narratives. Hanne Hagtvedt Vik explores the ways World War II began the process of turning "indigenous" peoples—Native Americans, Aborigines, Maori, and others—into rights-bearing citizens. In the 1970s, indigenous internationalists, rejecting the assimilationist policies of earlier groups and inspired by Third World UN leaders, adopted a global ideology of indigeneity, culminating in the 2007 Declaration of Indigenous Rights.

     If internationalism has often been a non-state force, it has also shown up in many unexpected states.  It is difficult to imagine anything more counterintuitive than fascist internationalism. Roger Griffin's influential definition of fascism, which encompasses Italy, Germany, and Japan, as a "genus of political ideology whose mythic core…is a palingenetic form of populist nationalism" (quoted on 195) would seem to preclude participation in international organizations. But as Madeleine Herren shows, fascist states all sought to infiltrate liberal international organizations.

     The editors argue that the essays challenge common perceptions about internationalism. The contributors reject, for example, the notion that internationalism represented utopian escapism, rather than an alternative form of realpolitik. They challenge the idea that international efforts were always dominated by legal or economic elites who manipulated activities to advance their own interests. While they acknowledge the inequalities of power in the international system, they suggest that the international sphere still gave agency to a broad assortment of participants. The contributors also disagree with the view that only the "seething cauldron" of nationalism, as Rogers Brubaker calls it, stirs people's passions; they argue that internationalism, too, can provide strong "emotional valence" (10). Finally, they reject Manichean historiographical visions that attempt to sort internationalism into good and bad varieties.

     Beyond these points the editors explicitly introduce, the essays collectively suggest several important themes. First, internationalist visions, which long predate the twentieth-century, are a function of modernity. Socialist workers' collaboration across state lines, rooted in reactions to the first phase of industrialization, was synonymous with "internationalism" for much of the twentieth century, notes Patrizia Dogliani. In the longue durée of women's internationalism, Glenda Sluga argues, peace activism during World War I represented an extension of women's efforts on modern issues like temperance, sex trafficking, and suffrage.

     Second, the League of Nations played a central role in the growth of internationalism. The organization is the subject of some essays, and it makes an appearance in every essay. Despite its relatively short duration as a viable organization, the non-participation of one of the world's leading nations, and its failures to achieve disarmament or to stop aggression in Ethiopia, China, and elsewhere, it was nevertheless a crucial forerunner for all successive forms of international cooperation.

     Third, as Akira Iriye, who pioneered the field with his 1997 Cultural Internationalism and World Order, suggests in his foreword, "national and international affairs developed in symbiotic relationship to each other" (xiv). Internationalism has historically hinged on the cooperation of sovereign states, and national objectives have routinely thwarted cooperation. As fascist Japan's activities illustrate, internationalism has often functioned as an expedient for advancing national interests. Similarly, Andrew Webster's effort to show the value of the League's disarmament negotiations, despite their lack of substantive progress, more often succeeds in revealing sovereign nations' ability to trump any meaningful interstate collaboration.            

     Fourth and at the same time, this does not mean that internationalism was inconsequential. As Susan Pedersen persuasively shows, the League's Mandate system attempted to balance the principle of a collective of equal, sovereign states and the reality of a world dominated by powerful member empires. To the chagrin of imperial leaders, the international apparatus of the Mandate system, which explicitly denied empires sovereignty over their Mandate territories, limited imperial economic authority while creating a mechanism for subject peoples to lodge grievances about abuses by these governments.

     Finally, an internationalist lens can shed new light on familiar subjects. Sandrine Kott's exploration of Cold War internationalism suggests that each superpower's ideology was a competing internationalist ideology that created international institutions to further its aims and that these institutions had real consequences for populations in developing regions. Ironically, superpower competition did not simply erect barriers; it also generated a "circulation of knowledge" which deepened theoretical and practical understanding on both sides.

     This text would be suitable to assign to students in an upper-division seminar on the modern world, particularly one focused on the twentieth century. At more than 350 pages of text, it is too long, and its subject-matter too narrow, to assign in its entirety in a survey course. Individual chapters, however, particularly those that illuminate stories that often get short shrift in survey courses or that counter conventional expectations, would make good lecture material or could be assigned to students. In a world inescapably entangled globally through manufacturing and trade, diplomacy and war, and global environmental challenges, internationalism has great contemporary resonance. Helping students contextualize these important issues is a worthy goal, and this book is a good place to start.

Dave Neumann is an Assistant Professor of History Education at Cal Poly Pomona. He can be reached at


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