Diplomacy and International Relations in the 20th Century

 Diplomacy and international relations dominated the daily lives of average people more in the 20th century than in perhaps any previous century. Whereas it had been possible for earlier generations to live their lives free of such concerns, escaping the state of international relations in the 20th century was a near impossibility for the majority of the world’s population. The state of international relations and diplomacy was instead their ever-present concern and interest. This heightened importance for diplomacy and international relations to nearly all people in the 20th century is largely attributable to two phenomena that arose essentially side-by-side, namely the rise of modern republican and democratic nation-states in which every citizen plays a part in determining the policies of the government and the increase in technology, especially the technology used for warfare, that, in a sense, made the world simultaneously a “smaller” place as well as a more dangerous one.

Earlier generations of people had had the ability to live lives largely independent of any concern with diplomacy, international relations, or even politics in a more general sense. This was true of the ancient and medieval worlds as well as of the early modern period, essentially right up to the beginning of the 19th century. Although, of course, warfare has existed throughout human history and various peoples have no doubt been subject to the vicissitudes of politics, the whims of rulers, war, and diplomacy, any change was generally gradual and, given the limitations in communication and travel, generations could pass their lives with little or no knowledge of the political situation of the kingdom of which they were ostensibly subjects. Historian William Chester Jordan notes in his history of Europe in the High Middle Ages, for instance, that in that time period few in France outside of Paris would have considered themselves “French.”1

The change from this situation to the one that predominated in the 20th century largely occurred in the 19th century. As with so much that distinguishes the 20th century from previous eras in history, the 19th century was the transition point. It was during this period, under the influence of such events as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, both of which occurred near the close of the 18th century, that the subjects of the various kingdoms of the world began the transition to becoming citizens of the nations of the world, a very important difference in terminology. Individuals of all ranks, races, and economic statuses had a greater say in the policies of their governments than ever before in history. As a result, politics became a greater concern for the average person than it had been at any previous point in history. Political decisions were now in the hands of the people as a whole rather than in being the purview of only kings and the various aristocrats and nobles who surrounded these monarchs. As a result, politics was a greater concern for the private individual than it had ever been before in history.

The 19th century was also in large part the transition point for the second and equally affective major change that brought about the differences in regards to diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century in contrast with previous centuries, namely the advent of a great deal of new technology, especially travel, communications, and military technology.

New technology in travel that arose in the 19th century and advanced significantly in the 20th century includes trains, airplanes, and motor vehicles. Railroad travel enabled materials and men to travel greater distances at greater speeds than ever before. Airplanes also increased the ability to move people and materials quickly and effectively, as well as to bring the war behind enemy lines in combat and reconnaissance. The reconnaissance balloons of the American Civil War in the 1860s led to the stealth craft used by the opposing powers of the Cold War to spy on each other and also led to the omnipresent danger of bombs falling suddenly and unexpectedly from the sky in any given place, making the matters of diplomacy an ever-present reality for all people.2 Similarly, motor vehicles made people all over the world more mobile than ever before.

In addition to these abilities to move people and things faster than ever before over great distances, messages also moved with greater speed than ever before. The telegraph changed the nature of warfare in the 19th century and in the 20th century the advent of telephones, radios, and, later, computers and the internet made it possible to communicate around the world in a matter of seconds. Allied radio messages sent behind Nazi lines during World War II demonstrate the effectiveness of these new communication tools in shaping ideas, diplomacy, and warfare.3

Military technology is perhaps the greatest inventive force in shaping the realities of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century and bringing these subjects into the homes of otherwise average people all over the world. The Cold War was largely the product of a mutual fear between the Soviet Union and the United States that the other would use nuclear weapons to advance their side in the conflict of ideas. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorist groups or rogue nations with bizarre ideologies such as Iran and North Korea continued to shape diplomacy at the highest levels as well as to bring the concerns of international relations to the minds of average people.

As a result of these two factors, the rise of individual concern in politics and the increase in technology that brought the realities of international relations into homes all over the world, a further element that defined diplomacy in the 20th century emerged, specifically the focus on nearly all-encompassing conflicts in ideology between large blocs of nations. Though it may seem ironic at first glance, the reality is that individual participation in politics, through spreading the concern in these issues wider than ever before, forced a situation in which international relations took on larger proportions than ever before. This can be seen in cases like World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, three conflicts which arguably defined international relations in the 20th century and all of which involved formations of alliances by dozens of nations arranged against an “equal and opposite” alliance of other nations, and all nations participating ostensibly out of a conflict of ideology coupled with a perceived existential threat from the other side.

The defining feature of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century, as with so much of what makes the 20th century distinctive, is ultimately the allegorical shrinking of the world. The concerns of the government became the concerns of the average person. Simultaneously, the realities and concerns of far off lands came into the purview of people far away. These new advances in the political participation of individuals and technology created the unique diplomatic situation of the 20th century.

1 William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 229.
2 Amrom H. Katz, Some Notes on the History of Aerial Reconnaissance (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1966).

3 Robert Rowen, “Gray and Black Radio Propaganda against Nazi Germany,” New York Military Affairs Symposium, 18 April 2003 (accessed 2 December 2012), http://bobrowen.com/nymas/radioproppaper.htm.

A Book Review of The Prince (1513) by Nicolo Machiavelli

Although he is the author of several important works on politics and international relations, The Prince is by far the work for which Nicolo Machiavelli is best known. This work alone has determined his reputation, including the frequent use of his surname as a byword for underhanded and amoral politicking. It has also earned him frequent comparisons with Friedrich Nietzsche, whose best known and arguably best work, Beyond Good and Evil, advocates a philosophy which is precisely as the title describes. As with so much else in history, however, the man and his work are both far more complex than the popular narrative alone tells.

Although he began public life with a promising diplomatic career, Machiavelli’s life would end in disappointment. Removed from public office following the accession of the Medicis to power in Florence in 1512, Machiavelli was exiled from the city, falsely accused of participation in a conspiracy to undermine Medici rule, tortured, and imprisoned. Following his release from prison, he spent the remainder of his life, until his death in 1527, living on a small farm outside of Florence, studying the ancient and medieval masters of political science, and constantly petitioning the ruling powers of Florence to allow him to return to his former position. The Prince is one of these petitions.

Originally addressed to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, who ruled Florence from 1513 to 1519, The Prince is a masterpiece of international relations and politics in the realist tradition. Chapter 15 contains what is perhaps the clearest statement of Machiavelli’s approach in The Prince:

Many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his own professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

He goes on to state himself even more concisely, saying that he will lay “on one side imaginary things concerning a prince” and instead discuss “those which are real.”

In other words, Machiavelli is not adopting a philosophy like that of Nietzsche which leaves the concepts of good and evil entirely behind or which espouses outright amorality, but is instead advocating a pragmatic point of view and basis for action. He does not claim that virtue is antiquated, unnecessary, or nonexistent, but acknowledges that the sphere of human activity is one populated by people who act is ways that are often in contradiction to virtue and that, as such, it is one in which even the virtuous or those who desire virtue must act in ways that are inconsistent with virtue in order to attain their ends. In the final sentence of the same chapter (15), he states plainly: “it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his [the prince’s] ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.”

Machiavelli is not willing to abandon the desire for and praise of virtue altogether, however. One of the most poignant statements in the entire work is the final sentence of Chapter 11, in which Machiavelli discusses “ecclesiastical principalities,” by which phrase he means, of course, the Roman Catholic Church. Following a discussion of the tactics which the Borgia family had applied in order to strengthen the position of the Church in Italy, Machiavelli sounds a note of simultaneous sarcasm, lamentation, and, perhaps, a bit of hope. “It is to be hoped,” he says, “that, if others made it [the Church] great in arms, he [Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family] will make it still greater and more venerated by his goodness and infinite other virtues.” Machiavelli could hardly have sounded a more pathetic plea for the Medici family to shun the amorality of the past and bring in an age of virtue, at least in the government of the Church.

While it may be possible to see this simultaneous desire for virtue and acknowledgment that men live in an unvirtuous world as balance and realism on the part of Machiavelli, and that is undoubtedly what he desired to portray it as, it rather seems to this reader that a full evaluation of The Prince seems to present one with a work which reflects some very human inconsistencies and contradictions. Machiavelli desires a state of affairs which almost certainly could not result from his own advice. He desires good while advocating pragmatic evil.

In the previously quoted passage from Chapter 15 of The Prince, for instance, Machiavelli states that what is commonly called “vice” can, in some circumstances, bring about “security and prosperity” for a ruler. The question that might naturally follow from such a statement is whether security and prosperity are really the highest ends of a human being, whether a ruler or not. If they are, then it makes sense to adopt the approach which has come to be called, after Machiavelli himself, “Machiavellian,” and to advocate that the ends justify the means. In such a case, it should not matter whether any particular act is commonly considered ethical or unethical, but only whether or not that action will bring about one’s desired ends, in this case “security and prosperity.” If this is the case, however, one should, for the sake of consistency, adopt a perspective closer to that of Nietzsche and reject the categories of “good” and “evil,” as well as related terminology and concepts, as useless and stultifying. To simultaneously advocate “Machiavellian” pragmatism while expressing a desire for virtue is clearly a situation in which one falls into the trap of wanting to “have their cake and eat it too,” to quote the common saying.

 If one answers the negative to the question of whether “security and prosperity” or some other good than virtue are man’s highest ends, it naturally follows that the Machiavellian approach cannot be adopted. If goodness, virtue, or beatitude are, as in most of the Western tradition, regarded as man’s highest ends, it must nearly automatically be acknowledged that one cannot use vice to attain one’s ends. One who answers the question in this manner would find more inspiration in Mahatma Gandhi’s famous charge to “be the change you want to see in the world” than in Machiavelli’s charge to be as the world to affect change in it. While Machiavelli’s approach can no doubt assist a person, whether a ruler or not, in the attainment of “security and prosperity,” as well as other similar ends, and while Gandhi’s approach may even inhibit the achievement of “security and prosperity,” the ultimate question here is one of priorities: does one desire the good even at the expense of material benefits or desire material benefits even at the expense of the good?

None of this should be taken as a blanket negative judgment upon Machiavelli the man, his works, or even this particular work, however. As already stated, this apparent contradiction in the thought of Machiavelli reflects an inconsistency that is nearly universally human. It has often been pointed out that even Adolph Hitler did not believe he was doing evil, but honestly believed that his cause was just, righteous, and good. There are exceedingly few human beings who intentionally do what they believe to be evil for the sake of doing or being evil. Rather, people generally do what they believe to be good or at least that from which they expect good to arise. Evil is, generally speaking, that which others do, not that which one does him or herself. There is, then, a simultaneous desire for virtue and an acknowledgment of the often unvirtuous nature of human social relations inherent in nearly all human thought and activity. Much of Machiavelli’s thought in The Prince seems to be merely a reflection of that tension in general human thought and action.

If there is a point upon which Machiavelli specifically can be faulted, it may be that he goes too far in his willingness to compromise with evil. Not only does he advocate the use of evil by the prince in this work, but perhaps worse is his own willingness to compromise with the evil around him. It has been held, for instance, given the nature of some of his other works, that he did not really believe everything he wrote in The Prince but was only trying to use this work as a means by which to regain his place in the government of Florence. If anything, if this is true, it only demonstrates the use of Machiavellian principles by Machiavelli himself, allowing the unflattering using of his name to stick all the more firmly to the man.

In spite of its flaws, The Prince remains a seminal and fascinating work of politics and international relations. No matter how firmly or otherwise Machiavelli himself held the principles he extolls in The Prince, the work certainly reflects a viewpoint that has been taken up and applied, consciously or unconsciously, by a great number of rulers and other people in the past and in the present. While the work is undoubtedly not one whose message should be advocated, it is one whose message should be heard and understood by students of history, psychology, and politics, as well as anyone else interested in the workings of the human mind and of human societies. If nothing else, The Prince is a worthwhile study in the psychology of those who engage in the kind of devious politicking that has become associated with the name of Machiavelli.

Book review: Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope by Amy Welborn

My grandfather had been suffering from a disease that had crippled his mind for quite some time. His memories were confused, incomplete, and, in many cases, missing. He was unable to remember the many faces and voices that made up the story of his life, including those of his own ten children. Even his sense of structure, progress, and time were gone. As members of my family who lived closer to him reported it, he believed near the end of his life, in 2010, that Jimmy Carter was president, and, worse, he believed he was a good president. In spite of all of this, when he was told that his wife of 58 years, my grandmother, had passed away, he cried and yelled that he wanted to go to his wife. A few weeks later, he died.
Amy Welborn’s Wish You Were Here is a story about that kind of love and that kind of loss. Her story of the premature and unexpected loss of her husband is an insight into the kind of love that, like my grandfather’s, overcomes decades of hazy memories and alters the courses of lives. In other words, it is a story about the kind of love we should all seek to cultivate in our lives.
We are told, as Christians, that Christ has defeated death and that death and sin have no more power over us. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, an early Christian writer, once said that “the business of a Christian is to be always preparing for death.” Death (and taxes) are the only things certain in life, as the old saying goes. And yet we still mourn for those we have lost. We still doubt and fear for what death means for them and for all of us. We still wish that we could only delay it just a bit longer. We still struggle with how this pain fits into God’s great plan. We still feel the loss of their presence, even as we retain hope that we will be with them again in a better place.

Amy’s story is that story. Amy’s story is our story. Her husband, a pious Catholic, a loving husband, and a father to her young children, was taken from his family one morning. No one expected it and no one could explain it. In her efforts to deal with her loss and the loss felt by her children, Amy took three of her children on a vacation in Sicily several months after her husband’s death. While there, they explored the beautiful and ancient cathedrals, churches, ruins, villages, and countrysides. They spoke with the people and experienced – often, endured – the culture. And amid those medieval buildings, created by men who lived and died and whose bones crumbled into dust long ago, and those people there today with their strange communal afternoon naps, she discovered something. What she found is not a way to make the pain go away, but a way to transform her feelings of loss into the yearning for something higher.

The Silver Age of Russian Culture

The Silver Age of Russian culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, roughly from 1898 to 1918, was a period simultaneously marked by a burst of creativity and a foreboding pessimism. This dichotomy and the general diversity of the era make it a difficult time to accurately summarize. Russian artists, composers, poets, authors, and other cultural figures of the Silver Age exhibited “aestheticism, mysticism, decadence, sensualism, idealism, and pessimism,” as well as a “sense of uncertainty and disintegration, of deep skepticism about all received truths and certainties, and a pessimistic foreboding … though also hopeful anticipation.”1 In short, there is no easy way to describe the full range of Russian culture during the Silver Age.

The beginning of the Silver Age of Russian culture is generally identified with the publication of the periodical Mir iskusstva, or The World of Art, by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois in 1898. The periodical, published bimonthly for its first two years and monthly after 1900, was intended “to lead its Russian readers away from Realism … and to introduce them to the freer styles that were flourishing throughout Europe.”2 Diaghilev and Benois saw Russian art of the late nineteenth century as stagnant and overly focused on the concrete. Through The World of Art, they attempted to expose Russian audiences to the art then popular in Western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, which tended toward the abstract and the innovative. Their hope was that this exposure to new forms of art would act as an impetus for Russians to take up these new styles themselves. Their hopes quickly came to fruition.

“What followed was a cultural explosion,” according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg: “almost overnight there sprung up in Russia a rich variety of literary and artistic creeds, circles, and movements.”3 While a variety of young artists took up the call put out by Diaghilev and Benois, outstanding figures in the visual arts of this period include, for instance, Mark Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall pioneered a new form of painting that avoided the extremes of either realism or complete abstraction. According to James Johnson Sweeney, an expert in modern art, “this is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.”4 His unique style was a significant influence on surrealism.

Kazimir Malevich, meanwhile, established the foundations for a new style of art he referred to as “Suprematism.” In contrast to other, more representational artistic styles, Suprematism embraced the abstract and instead focused on basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Perhaps the most well-known exhibition of Suprematist art was Malevich’s 1915 exhibition in Moscow, which he titled “0.10: The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition.” The most remarkable feature of the exhibit, which included a number of Suprematist paintings, was the placement of the Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas, in the icon corner, the place where Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other important religious figures would traditionally be placed in a Russian home. Though initially “most reviewers voiced incomprehension and even scorn in viewing these experiments in abstraction as a new way of seeing,”5 and even Malevich’s friend and coworker Vladimir Tatlin broke with him over the exhibit, Malevich and his Suprematist school continue, like Chagall, to exert a considerable influence on artists even today. In addition to his influence, his popularity has also continued to increase; one of his paintings, Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, sold for $60,002,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.6

Closely connected to the new movements in art were the new movements in musical composition and performance; Malevich, for instance, designed the set for the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. In addition to this connection between artists and composers, many of the same themes and styles predominated in Russian music, which tended to focus on “the lyrical and elegaic to the mystical, Dionysian, and even apocalyptic.”7 The composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin represent two of the extremes of Russian musical culture in the Silver Age.

In the words of Riasanovsky and Steinberg, “Rachmaninov’s work exudes gentle and lyrical spirituality, aestheticism, melancholy, and fatalism.”8 His two most important choral works, for instance, are both settings for services of the Orthodox Church, one for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the other for the All-Night Vigil (1915). Ivan Moody, a modern British composer whose work is also deeply influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical traditions, has written of Rachmaninov’s setting for the Liturgy that “musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition.”9 This ability to combine the ancient and the modern into a single cohesive whole characterizes the greater part of Rachmaninov’s works.

Alexander Scriabin, in contrast, was primarily “influenced by an eclectic mixture of Chopin, Wagner, Nietzsche, symbolism, and religious mysticism” in the form of the Theosophical occultism advocated by Helena Blavatsky; as a result, his work “offers a mix of Dionysian emotions, mystical spirituality, and pure sound.”10 His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), for example, both revel in the sensuality, emotion, and individualism which Rachmaninov’s compositions sought to transcend.

In spite of the differences between the two composers, however, Rachmaninov and Scriabin retain a number of similarities. Their compositions both draw and build upon previous Russian music and contain a great number of religious, especially mystical, undertones and philosophical influences. In this, they are both examples of the musical currents in Russia during the Silver Age.

Like music, poetry remained an important conduit for self-expression during the Silver Age, just as it had during earlier periods of Russian history. However, also like music, poetry took on a distinctly different flavor during the Silver Age. The poetry of the acmeist school, which favored a principled clarity, simplicity, and personal theme to poetry, for instance, focused on subjects such as “love, beauty, and sadness.”11 The first published work of Anna Akhmatova, one of the most preeminent of the acmeist poets, for example, “reads like an intimate diary of a woman in love.”12 Consonant with the acmeist focus on simplicity and individuality, “Akhmatova speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow.”13 Like Russian music of the Silver Age, and in great contradistinction to earlier ages, poetry of the period reveled in the sentimental, the emotional, the sensual, and above all else the personal.

Though each of the great figures of the Silver Age of Russian culture is unique in a variety of ways and different from his or her contemporaries in style, approach, and interest, there are a number of features which bind all of the great artists, poets, composers, and other cultural creators of the Silver Age together and which allow them to constitute a single and important age in Russian culture. The Russian cultural Silver Age is characterized by both a radical departure from previous currents in Russian culture and a remarkable continuity with previous themes. The Silver Age perhaps stands out most especially for the vibrant creative spirit that ran throughout the arts and for the focus on intimacy, personality, and the individual. When the Silver Age finally ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in 1918, a period of great cultural growth and exploration closed on a terrible note that, with its consistent undertones of foreboding, it perhaps expected all along.

1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 450.

2 Michelle Potter, “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal,” National Library of Australia News Vol. 15 No. 10 (July 2005): 4, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/

3 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 450.

4 James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall (Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969), 7.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 456.

6 Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year,” Art Knowledge News, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html

7 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 453.

8 Ibid., 454.

9 Ivan Moody, “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” Hyperion Records, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318

10 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 454.

11 Ibid., 451.

12 Leonid I. Strakhovsky, “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Vol. 6 No. 1/2 (May, 1947): 2.

13 Ibid.
Moody, Ivan. “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Hyperion Records. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318
Potter, Michelle. “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal.” National Library of Australia News Volume 15 Number 10 (July 2005): 3-6. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year.” Art Knowledge News. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html
Strakhovsky, Leonid I. “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love.” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Volume 6 Number 1/2 (May, 1947): 1-18.
Sweeney, James Johnson. Marc Chagall. Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969.