Thought Leader: Jay Winter

February 14, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Jay Winter, currently the Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University, where he focuses on World War I and its impact on the 20th century.

DEVIN STEWART: Given your work as a historian, when you look at the world, what do you see? What is unique today? How would you describe the world, particularly from a moral perspective?

JAY WINTER: This is an age divided in two parts, Europe/North America becoming more and more secular, godless; Africa/Latin America/parts of Asia with a firm religious and church-oriented cultural life. That division between those countries that have passed through a process of secularization and those that are still in it seems to me to be the widest fracture in the world today.

DEVIN STEWART: What are the implications of that fracture?

JAY WINTER: One of the implications of the loss of purchase of the traditional churches in the West is a degree of uncertainty about the moral questions that are relevant to public life and to private life. The churches no longer have a hold on the ways in which people form families and the number of children they have in those families in the developed world.

In the developing world, I think the churches are still important, but they too have withdrawn from the private realm to a surprisingly great extent. So in questions of intimacyhow many children you have, when do you get married, divorcedthose are questions that are now less guided by what might be described as traditional moral considerations related to the teachings of the conventional churches than ever before.

I think the question of secularization is an absolutely fundamental divide between countries in the Middle East, for instance, or in Latin America and countries in the more industrialized world.

DEVIN STEWART: Professor, I want to explore these factors a bit more. Questions about moral decisions, you're saying that there is more uncertainty worldwide or between cultures?

JAY WINTER: One of the fundamental distinctions between communities in Europe and North America compared to communities in other parts of the world is the process of secularization in the developed world that has meant that religious life is less central to the profile of citizens in Europe or North America than it is in Latin America or in Africa or in Asia. The reason why this becomes a moral issue, and a deeply political issue, is because of the appearance of south-to-north migration by the millions that has produced a very large population of Muslims in Europe, for instance, and a very large population of Latin American Roman Catholics in the United States.

The Catholic Church has a specific position on migration, which is that the right of family unification is greater than the right of a state to control its borders. It is more important that families be united than that the national control of entry into a country be respected.

The large population of Muslims that now live all over Europe is a product of a migratory flow quite different from that which brought eastern/central Europeans to the United States or those from Britain, like Andrew Carnegie himself; very different. One of the distinctions, I think, is that those who are coming are more centrally self-defined as practicing religious people, people for whom church life matters a great deal. This is true among Latin Americans, Mexicans, who come north to the United States, as it is true among Africans who come to Europe, or Muslims.

The political problem is that this contrast between practicing religion in the migrant community and the secularized community in the host community can be explosive. In Europe, it is a fundamental challenge to the domain of human rights, which is, by and large, defined in Europe since the Second World War and is one of the defining features, I think, of the 21st century.

We have a test now: whether migrants are such as to describe a limit to the regime of human rights that has emerged in most parts of the developed world. I think the answer is yes. If you want to find out what people think about human rights, ask them what they think about undocumented migrants. Then you'll know.

And it isn't just the fact that they cross the borders. It's who they are that makes it difficult for many residents and their political leaders to adopt what might be described as tolerant, accepting, or liberal positions on this. I don't think that we are fully aware of the extent to which our human rights regime is put under the test by migration.

DEVIN STEWART: What would you recommend as a way to get through that test?

JAY WINTER: I think human rights come before anything else, and certainly come before the sovereignty of a nation-state. My view is that, both in Europe and in North America, human rights cannot exist with a regime of close control on migrant communities.

In Europe, there's an even worse problem, which is the extent to which the dress of Muslim women constitutes a challenge to the open society of Europe. In France, and not only in France, the issue of women covering their faces has been taken to be a sign of incompatibility between Muslim identity and European identity. There, I think, the same thing has to be said, that a human rights regime has to accept a wide variety of social and cultural practices that look alarming to the natives.

Switzerland voted a few years ago to ban minarets. That struck me as an absurdity, certainly something which makes "human rights" a phrase with no meaning at all.

If you will, the important point here is that religious belief is not static; it's a cultural phenomenon that changes over time. The way in which we handle the "other," the differences that we see, is a test of the degree to which I think both North American and European societies changed since the Second World War.

There is one additional dimension of this story, which is that, by and large, immigrants have larger families than the host populations to which they come. That brings together the problem of migration and declining fertility. In many parts of Europe today, there is a population growth rate lower than any before registered. The total fertility rate in Florence, in Tuscany, or in southern Spain, or in Greece, is as low as has ever been reported in history. So when Muslims come and migrate to these towns or these regions, they are doing it to places in which there has been a fundamental change in the nature of family formation, and indeed in the nature of the institution of marriage itself.

All of these are disturbing and complicated matters that test the commitment of each of these societies to what has been, I think, the greatest achievement of the last 60 years, which is the human rights regime in different regions of the world.

DEVIN STEWART: Despite these various relationships with the church or religious institutions, are there commonalities between cultures or within cultures on the area of values? In other words, do societies share common values?

JAY WINTER: No, I don't think societies share common values. But they do share common antipathies.

One of the things that I think I've seen over my lifetime is a move away from war and from the place of the military in political life. This to me is astonishing and unpredictable. No one in 1945 could have imagined a world in which generals basically didn't matter in the electoral, political, or other life of the countries of the major combatant states of the Second World War.

There are exceptions. China and Russia today have the military at the heart of their power structure. Certainly the same is true in Israel. And there are other countries in the world that I think have not given up the trappings of military power. But the public opinion that has emerged since the 1980s has been, by and large, committed to de-legitimate war as a means of addressing political problems and resolving them. I don't meanand that's why I said that societies don't share values but they share antipathiesthat societies are pacifist. But I think they no longer tolerate militarism.

When I was in Europe at the time of the beginning of the Bush war, I was really quite stunned at the unanimity of opinion against war in Iraq. It occurred to me that the reason why George Bush and Tony Blair had to lie about the weapons of mass destruction is they couldn't put national honor out and say that's sufficient grounds for going to war, because war itself has turned into an abomination.

How that happened is a very interesting and powerful question for which I have only a semblance of an answer. But the difference between my parents, who went through the Second World War, and my children, who are now adults both living in England, is the presence of war and the military in the everyday life of the countries in which they live. I find this to be a radical improvement for the good.

DEVIN STEWART: What's your guess on how it happened?

JAY WINTER: I think the three reasons why populations moved against war and the military were:

  • The open choice, the blunt choice, between defense expenditure and economic growth, which took place between 1945 and 1975, what the French call "the 30 glorious years."

  • The definition of the state shifted from that set of institutions that make war to that set of institutions that secure the well-being of a population. Think about Obama's State of the Union Address. The language is different in the United States than in Europe. But the notion that the state is there to defend the country militarily is now no longer the centerpiece of political life.

    There are places where it has to be, and there are conflicts where it is inevitable, but it seems to me that the horror of the Second World War showed that everybody is a victim. The victors suffer, the vanquished suffer, and then the collateral damage of millions of others make war into something like the bubonic plague. Vietnam did it secondarily, by showing, I think, the limits of military power, that political outcomes are not secured by B-52s or by the injection of 600,000–700,000 American soldiers into a colonial war.

  • The third reason I think why war has gotten a bad name and the military no longer plays the same role politically as it did before 1945, when they were everywhere, is a change in language. I'll put it this way. Americans still use the word "glory." Europeans don't. Glory is something that had been associated with the military and war for a long time. It also, by the way, has a religious set of associations, if you think about "The Battle Hymn of the Republic""Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord"not of Abraham Lincoln.

The important, as it were, linkage here between secularization and demilitarization is that there is no glory attached to the application of drone technology. Where is the glory in targeted assassination? Or for that matter, where is the glory in the lives of Iraqi or Afghan veterans who can't find a job?

There is a fundamental change, I think, in the nature of public tolerance of military force. It's not that it can't be tolerated after 9/11I think there was a consensus for its use. But it wore off very fast, as soon as it become evident that this war is like the last one, let's say Vietnam, where it never happens the way you think it will happen.

The second fundamental reason why this happened is that war itself has mutated since the Second World War. It is now no longer a conflict between states, but, by and large, a set of conflicts between groups that are larger than states (like al-Qaeda) or smaller than states (such as how many guerrilla groups are fighting in ColombiaI have no idea).

Those who want their independence, like the Palestiniansyou might argue this is something we've seen before in the anti-colonial wars, wars of decolonization. But war has fragmented into a set of institutions that are not ruled by the structures of international law set up from 1648 on, from the Treaty of Westphalia.

So we are in an era where not only are ordinary people less likely to tolerate war, but they are less likely to understand it as a fundamental challenge to their communities.

There may be as well an extent to which feminism has had its part to play in the demilitarization of societies. Many countries that don't have a feminist movement have strong military. Those countries which do have feminist movements sometimes have strong military and sometimes don't. By and large, the extent to which war has been exposed as a regime of masculine power, alongside other structures of authority, has further undermined the claim of the military and those who organize war to be centrally important to the way society is organized.

The money expended on weapons is still very substantial. But the deficit in this country or in other countriesthe subprime crisis and all thatwas not about the military, it was not about defense; it was about something else. I think the overshadowing, the eclipsing, of the military in the political, economic, social, religious life of the developed nations of the world is one of the most striking developments of the last 50 years. That's why I started with it.

DEVIN STEWART: One of our questions, Professor, is about a global ethic. Do you want to talk about that at all?

JAY WINTER: I can talk about that, yes.

One of the strikingcoincidences is too weak a word; parallels is probably the better wordof developments all over the world is secularization in very substantial parts of the industrialized world and the retreat of the military to a minor role in the political and economic life of the nation. But it strikes me that the notion of a global ethic is a question that has a direct relationship to both of those phenomena. A global ethic has to be independent of confession and religious observance as a test of inclusion or exclusion.

Andrew Carnegie was nothing but a Scot Presbyterian; that's who he was. But the ethic that comes out of the work of those who follow in his footsteps and who search for international peace can't be defined by a Protestant faith or a Catholic faith or a Muslim or Jewish faith.

There has to be what I would call a non-transcendent approach to ethics. It came out fundamentally in one place, and one place alone, I think, which was in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948, agreed to by the United Nations as a whole at one of the worst moments of its history: the Berlin blockade; the Chinese communist army was on the edges of Beijing; who knows how many people died, certainly over a million, in India and Pakistan; the Arab-Israeli War.

And yet, this document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provided a non-transcendent, non-religious set of commitments to establish what might be described as a bedrock or a guideline towards the behavior of individuals in public life and in private life. By private life I mean civil society, those associations that dominate our world when we are not thinking about the state or the familyand they are all over the place. If you look at that document in 1948, you'll see the basis of what I would call a global ethical standard against which every country needs to measure its social and collective life.

DEVIN STEWART: Clearly, war played a role in the construction of that global ethic. What was war's role?

JAY WINTER: The leading drafternot the only drafter but the leading drafterin the writing of the Universal Declaration was a French lawyer named René Cassin. He had almost been killed in the First World War. He had three wounds, including a stomach wound; everybody in 1914 realized that was a death certificate. But, for reasons that are obscure, he survived. He even survived the delays in the treatment accorded to him by the French medical service. He survived it all.

He then went on to organize with others a very substantial veterans' movement demanding that people who were killed in the service of their country or those who were wounded in the service of their country have a contract with the state so that the families who survive and the men who survive without an arm or whatever, they have a right, not to charity, but to dignity. What happened was that this initial commitment to rights for veterans, for the victims of war, turned into the rights for everybody who were victims of war in 1939–1945. The two world wars together created the environment in which the notion that war creates millions of victims and they have rightsnot to charity, but to a dignified life.

From 1944 on, it became evident that this notion of rights coming out of the suffering of war was one of the few things that bound together the allies while they were in the process of creating the Cold War and flying apart. So by 1948 the only thing that kept together the Soviet Union, its allies, and the West was a commitment to rights. It sounds strange that Stalin would have a commitment to rights, but even the Soviet Union had its own notion that rights included the dignity of a decent wage and so on. At the same time, of course, he was one of the great killers in history.

Nonetheless, the principle was not only tolerable, but it was signed on by everybody. It's the only, if not universal statement of what the United Nations is about or what international law is about, but it's the only one that nobody voted against. There were abstentions, but there were no "no" votes. So the world as a whole took a stand in 1948, which to me described much more the world that had just ended and the horrors of the Nazis than the Cold War that was to come.

In short order, the Cold War killed that human rights moment, destroyed it. It did so because of the Russian position and because of the American position in defense of national sovereignty. National sovereignty and human rights are antithetical. In order to have a human rights regime, you have to sacrifice national sovereignty. There has to be a law above the law of the state. That's intolerable under the American Constitution, according to some readings, because the Constitution says there is no higher law than the Supreme Court. Human rights regimes say otherwise.

What happened after the failure of the human rights moment was the emergence of regional human rights regimes. There is one in Africa, there is one in Latin America, and there is one in Europe. The one in Europe is probably the most powerful, and it's the one in which all states have to promise that the decisions of this transnational court will be read into their legal system.

There was a momentan astonishing momentwhen, after General Pinochet retired, he was actually arrested in London while visiting his good friend Margaret Thatcher. The reason was that a magistrate in Spain was petitioned by Spanish citizens that their sons had been tortured and murdered in Buenos Aires by Chilean secret police. Imagine what has happened to national sovereignty. A Spanish judge telegrammed to London for the arrest warrant, which was duly delivered to Pinochet, to answer a charge of murder and torture for an event that happened in Buenos Aires as a result of the Chilean Condor project to get rid of their opponents. This could not have happened in 1950; it couldn't have happened in 1850. The notion that there is a law higher than the law of the nation-state is a reality.

There is something very similar going on in Africa and in Latin America, although with more difficulty.

The one project of realizing the Universal Declaration that has really happened is in the Strasbourg court, the European Court of Human Rights. In my view, that is one of the most positive developments towards peace in the last century. The reason is it has made national sovereignty no longer sacrosanct. There's something higher than that, which is what you would call an ethical guideline, an ethical code. And it is written down. I mean this is not a vague statement; this is a law, a set of laws, that came out of the Council of Europe, which is a set of nation-states. The key leader in all that in 1950 was Winston Churchill, the most nationalist orator of the 20th century.

This is a revolution in the boundaries between the nation-state and the law of international rights. The boundaries between the two have shifted so radically that I am one of many who believe that within Europe war between nation-states is no longer thinkable. Conflicts now take other forms: the one related to Islam in Europe; I mentioned earlier the potential collapse of Europe [inaudible] more than predicted is another one. But we are living in a world which my grandparents, who came from Warsaw and from Russia, couldn't conceivably have imagined, a much better world.

DEVIN STEWART: You've answered a lot of these questions already. Thinking about the human rights revolution, where we are today, where do you see it going in the next few decades?

JAY WINTER: I think there is a real stumbling block, and it's the United States Constitution. I do find it shocking personally, but understandable, that President Obama has not been able to close the camp in Guantanamo Bay.

One reason why he can't do that is that he can't argue that they have human rights and, therefore, the men in that camp need to be judged according to everybody else, in a court of law or whatever. He can't do that because the American Constitution doesn't work in the way in which the European Court of Human Rights does. The Supreme Court is the equivalent of the College of Cardinals in the Vatican. They are the people who choose the truth and make the final statement.

As a result of that, it seems to me that the obstacle to the development of what I would call a cosmopolitan human rights order is the United States Constitutionleading to a possibility of an amendment. But even there I wonder whether it would take a lot more than an amendment to change the notion that the United States is simply different from everybody else. American exceptionalism I think is a danger, and maybe an obstacle that's very hard to move, to the construction of an international human rights order.

DEVIN STEWART: Another one of our questions is to describe what you feel is the greatest ethical challenge facing the planet, but I think you touched upon that.

JAY WINTER: I do think that the greatest ethical challenge is in overcoming national sovereignty and the construction of an international human rights order, a transnational human rights order. The obstacles are enormous. The biggest one by far, I think, is the presence of the military in China and Korea and Russia and so on.

But the second one, as I mentioned, is the American Constitution. It's a basic obstacle to the creation of an international order of human rights because it requires there to be a part of the law that doesn't happen in the legal structure of the United States. The Supreme Court can be overruled if there is an international human rights order.

I think most of the people in this country don't want that. Most of the people in Russia don't want that, or in China.

There are other problems that are undoubtedly built into this challenge, but the biggest one is to make the nation-state less important than the rule of international law under a human rights regime. Maybe our grandchildren will be able to say that it has gone well. But don't hold your breath.

DEVIN STEWART: You've talked about how armed conflict within Europe is no longer thinkable. Is world peace in general a possibility?

JAY WINTER: I'm with Immanuel Kant in saying that perpetual peace is the peace of the graveyard. The greatest achievement of utopians is not the total elimination of the scourge of war, but the reduction of the incidence of war to an extent that it is like a brushfire rather than like a conflagration.

War, like sin, is inevitable, but it need not dominate the world. I think the notion of a regime in which war is an exception, rather than a rule, in the conduct of the business of states and their citizens is an objective that I would call utopian. That is a great objective, to make war into a marginal, serious, though not dominant, element in the way in which states conduct their business and the citizens of the world look to the future.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at the role of leadership in history, historians have all sorts of views on the role of leaders and what they call great men. Two questions: How would you define leadership and what is its role in history?

JAY WINTER: Leadership is the ability to articulate what millions of other people are thinking. It's to bring to a very precise formulation a set of ideas that are already in existence.

Prophets speak the language of those ideas which are not held by a large number of people. Leaders can't be prophets. They have to be able to hear the voices of those who have no power. When they do hear that and formulate what ordinary people who never get to the microphone say, then leadership becomes evident.

It's evanescent, doesn't happen very oftena bit like grace; you never know when it will hit. But not everyone who has it today will have it tomorrow.

DEVIN STEWART: What is its role in history?

JAY WINTER: I think the role of leadership in history is to turn away from disastrous mistakes. I like the idea of leaders as people who don't frame history but who avoid making it worse than it actually is.

In 1940, Winston Churchill could have made some kind of accommodation with the Nazis, and they were expecting to do so, and so were most people in the British cabinet. But he didn't do it. He didn't do it because he was bloody-minded, he was so stubborn. But that made a huge difference. The structures were all moving in one direction and he said no.

I think there are moments where individuals, like Abraham Lincoln used to say in the cabinet when he was the one yes vote, "Vote in the cabinet, 15 nays, one ayethe ayes have it." There is a time when standing against is the greatest achievement of leadership in history.

I am a structural historian. I have studied war as a set of institutions for 45 years now. I'll keep studying it as long as I can. "Know your enemy" is probably the right way to put it.

There are those individuals in every single war that I know anything about who make things less bad than they would have been. They don't determine the nature of conflict, but they lessen the horror of it. Some of them are strange and mixed men. Think of Schindler and Schindler's List. He simply said, "Not my Jews. I'm going to keep them alive." It didn't stop the Holocaust, but he did something. He did something that was astonishing.

I think when Harry Truman said, "No atomic warfare in Korea" or, "I won't threaten it and not even think about an invasion of China," stopping MacArthur from that line, I think he stopped terrible things from happening.

The older I get, I think the word "leadership" is one that we should use only in conjunction with the word "humility," and to see the effect of leadership as lessening the damage of history, rather than creating a vast set of opportunities. It's a mixed view of leadership, but it doesn't ignore it completely.

DEVIN STEWART: I think that's a perfect ending, Professor. Thank you so much.