As the first World War drew to its close and Allied victory seemed inevitable, leading thinkers and the governing classes among the victorious powers, led by Wilson, saw that only a world government, overshadowing all states and guarding peace, could prevent future risks of wholesale destruction. For this, many eminent men, headed by Wilson, Smuts, and others, set to work. The chief outcome of their deliberations was the League of Nations …

The League Covenant was a perfect instrument — for angels. Human beings, with their passions and weaknesses, with their loves and hatreds, with the long traditions of autonomy, national sovereignties, of former wars and jealousies, could never have worked the Covenant successfully over long periods….

Now we have the present Charter [of the United Nations]. And once more there is disappointment, for in all real activity it seems to be as powerless as its defunct predecessor. Excellent on paper, ideally perfect in its fine adjustment of regulations, it is impotent the moment it touches the fundamental rights of any State that has the power and energy to challenge its decisions….

It has shown itself to be a wonderful platform for airing opposite views. If it is left as at present, sooner or later we will find the Great Powers settling things among themselves, either at the cost of the small fry, or with such bitterness after each so called pacific settlement of a thorny question as to make future warfare a probability first, a certainty later. So drift will replace the grandiose objectives of the founders of the United Nations, and the disillusions of the League be repeated.

Introduction by The Sunday Post

Spiritual leader of 100,000,000 [sic] Muslims and reputedly one of the richest men in the world, reviews the failures of the past, the difficulties of the present and the possibilities of the future.

Many people in Western Europe, North America, and outside that zone, live with the conscious or subconscious fear of another world war.

With the sense of approaching calamity goes the legitimate deduction, from given data, that this third war will be a thousand times more destructive than the last one, that vast areas, cities, whole countries and States may be reduced to wilderness, and that sooner or later not only the chief antagonists but the whole world will be drawn into it on one side or the other, with possible evolutions and fifth columns destroying what little is left by the military.

Is this fear justified? Is it only a vast wide-world [sic] illusion?

Of course, reasoning dispassionately, there should be no such disaster. But what reason did the world have in 1914 to set the ball rolling downward, to put an end to prosperity and peace, and to begin a series of upheavals which, far from settling any problem for the better, have complicated and actually worsened the situation of all human beings?

The case of 1939 is perhaps not on all fours with that of pre-1914 or with the situation today. At that time one demented person — who had the extraordinary power of making men like the late Earl Lloyd George, and many others, including myself, believe that on no account would he draw the sword — got such a hold on his own people by his successes that he could lead them to disaster in a totally unnecessary world conflict brought about by himself. At that time any sane man could have foreseen the inevitable ruin of the German race and unfortunately, of much besides.

Luckily we have no madmen in supreme power anywhere in the world today. On the other hand, we have now a danger that the inevitable clash of power politics may bring about a calamity which no one man can create or prevent. We must look back to history. When two more or less equally strong powers are face to face — across land or water, and especially when there are religious or economic differences, and ideals totally opposed to each other — time works like an explosive. Notwithstanding the good sense of the majority of the people, the governing classes on both sides, weary of undecisive conflict, worn out by responsibilities too heavy to bear, finally drift to that trial by force which has led to wars innumerable.

If a fundamental change is not brought about, you will find that some day the atom bombs will go off on their own. You cannot sow distrust and not reap the reward of disaster.

Something of that situation is arising today. It would be wishful thinking to imagine that the bickerings of Flushing Meadows, the oppositions of the partisans of East and West in every country, the Iron Curtain, and the inevitable support given by the powerful to the weak neighbours of the Iron Curtain — it would be wishful thinking to imagine that all this can go on permanently and that the world can live on fear and escape disaster. If a fundamental change is not brought about, you will find that some day the atom bombs will go off on their own. You cannot sow distrust and not reap the reward of disaster.

From time immemorial men have dreamt of world peace, of super-states, of central authorities that might enforce universal peace. The Roman Empire had this dream and, up to a point, realised it in the West. The Muslim Caliphate Empire, and Islam, which means peace, hoped and tried for it over its vast dominions — successfully for at most two generations only and strove for it unsuccessfully for the rest of its history. In the Middle Ages the Papacy tried to impose universal peace under Christendom. The Spanish monarchy, at the height of its power, dreamt of being so strong as to suppress all opposition for all time. Later, Castlereagh’s and Canning’s theory of brokerage politics, and Salisbury’s Concert of Europe system were attempts by different methods to prevent warfare among the Great Powers. In spite of the Crimean War and the Franco-German War, the methods of Canning, Bismarck, and Salisbury gave the world peace and prosperity for a hundred years. Unfortunately for mankind, the disaster of 1914 broke once and for all the system that had prevailed from 1815 onward.

As the first World War drew to its close and Allied victory seemed inevitable, leading thinkers and the governing classes among the victorious powers, led by Wilson, saw that only a world government, overshadowing all states and guarding peace, could prevent future risks of wholesale destruction. For this, many eminent men, headed by Wilson, Smuts, and others, set to work. The chief outcome of their deliberations was the League of Nations, the Constitution of which they thought more important than the Treaty between the Allies and Germany. I was intimately associated with this League for seven years and saw its day-to-day working, its many serious failures, and its rare successes.

I was intimately associated with this League for seven years and saw its day-to-day working, its many serious failures, and its rare successes.

The League Covenant was a perfect instrument — for angels. Human beings, with their passions and weaknesses, with their loves and hatreds, with the long traditions of autonomy, national sovereignties, of former wars and jealousies, could never have worked the Covenant successfully over long periods. The League could not settle the German question. It failed in the Far East, and ended by withdrawing even its pinpricks from aggressive Italy, it was very strong in dealing with third-rate questions and still more so in removing the least cause of dissatisfaction for France, Britain and Russia. But with America absent, with Japan, Germany, and Italy walking out, by the time I left it in 1938 it had become, for all Practical purpose, impotent. Powerless from its very beginning, it had lost even its prestige. It died with the last war.

Now we have the present Charter. And once more there is disappointment, for in all real activity it seems to be as powerless as its defunct predecessor. Excellent on paper, ideally perfect in its fine adjustment of regulations, it is impotent the moment it touches the fundamental rights of any State that has the power and energy to challenge its decisions. Gradually it is leading to open opposition among the Great Powers and their friends and clients, or to make-believe, face-saving resolutions that lead nowhere. Neither atomic energy nor military, naval and air force budgets are within its grasp.

It has shown itself to be a wonderful platform for airing opposite views. If it is left as at present, sooner or later we will find the Great Powers settling things among themselves, either at the cost of the small fry, or with such bitterness after each so called pacific settlement of a thorny question as to make future warfare a probability first, a certainty later. So drift will replace the grandiose objectives of the founders of the United Nations, and the disillusions of the League be repeated.

What are we to do? Is there a remedy? What does history teach? What is our own reading of the human heart, its desires and passions?

The world is getting smaller. Even these half-hearted attempts at Customs unions, the Marshall Plan, the 16 Nations’ economic requests to America — these are all indications that, despite almost chauvinistic nationalisms, some forces are working for international consolidation. But these methods will be far slower in the long run than the opposite currents of violent criticism, of military and atomic preparations, of alliance safeguards, of looking out for friends to face the enemy.

Once more I ask: What is the remedy? There is only one that can be called effective and just. Let all the peace-loving nations … show their will…. [H]ere and now begin the making of an overwhelming peace league, with the Charter in its hands and the veto thrown to the winds …

Once more I ask: What is the remedy? There is only one that can be called effective and just. Let all the peace-loving nations, all the nations who are ready to fight future aggression as they fought Hitler’s Germany, all who believe differences should be settled not by warfare but by arbitration and jurisdiction — let all these show their will. They must not wait for this, or look behind, but here and now begin the making of an overwhelming peace league, with the Charter in its hands and the veto thrown to the winds, ever ready to use all its force to crush an aggressor, great or small, and to compel respect for the U.N.’s just constitution.

For this, an association of nations, with the pooling of all resources is necessary, whether that association starts in Europe, America, or Asia. Political geography must change over generations, just as the geological characteristics of the Earth vary with the passing of the ages.

Security — yes. But only those who are responsible for security must have the force, and not continue behind a facade of super-national organisations the covetous and aggressive dreams of 19th-century imperialism.

Great Britain has won the esteem and friendship of all Asia by her magnificent acts towards India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon. Just as Britain is infinitely stronger in prestige and power in Asia than she was when the King was Emperor of India, so possessors of colonies must learn that a vast stream of peace-loving nations cannot exist with suppressed nationalities struggling for freedom under various member States. The position will be all the stronger if former dependent areas that have reached a certain standard of modernisation can be brought in as willing associates. Frontier adjustments over decades and generations are inevitable, but they must come from honest plebiscites organised by a supreme court of nations. Security — yes. But only those who are responsible for security must have the force, and not continue behind a facade of super-national organisations the covetous and aggressive dreams of 19th-century imperialism.

His Highness the Aga Khan III

SOURCES

  • Text (secondary source): Aga Khan III, Selected Speeches and Writings of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Edited by K.K. Aziz, Kegan Paul International, 1997, Vol II, pp 1245

    [Text verified and/or corrected from this source by NanoWisdoms]

  • The Sunday Post, Nairobi, 16 November 1947.
  • Originally published in the Egyptian Mail of Cairo, and this fact is confirmed by The Sunday Post, but the date of original appearance is not given. The date on which the Aga Khan wrote it or sent it to the Cairo newspaper is not available. Later it was also reproduced by The Tanganyika Tribune, Dar es Salaam on 27 December 1947.

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