The Limitations of the Idea of a United States of Europe

It is evident that the pressure of human development is pushing humanity beyond the narrow limits of a national view to encompass the entirety of humanity in some framework or another.  The imperial idea seems to have expended its energy and humanity is seeking for other formulations that may balance the various needs of the different peoples, cultures, religions, economic systems, etc. that are found around the world.  The once dominant European nations have had to recognise that the world has changed and there is a rising awareness and energy in Asia, Africa, and in the Americas that does not permit European domination as the primary factor in world governance.

As the world reacted to the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, several concepts arose that remain active yet today.  One of those was the development of a large number of newly independent nations, and the joining of those countries into the development of the United Nations.   Another one was the development of the European Union into a coordinated economic bloc and the eventual removal of travel restrictions, visas, border controls and the development, for the major portion of the EU of a common currency.  This developed a powerful political and economic bloc that could rival the development of the United States as a major power, as well as the rise of the Soviet bloc.  Eventually Asia also awakened and we see the rise of Japan, China and now India as major world players economically and politically.  The world could be polarised by these large blocs, as was raised by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984 which foresaw 3 major world power blocs constantly grappling with each other and holding dominion over the entire world and its peoples.

Sri Aurobindo raises the question as to whether this development of major groupings is in fact the direction that humanity needs to follow, or whether it is an interim idea that must be overpassed in order to achieve a wider, more comprehensive form of human unity:

“…the chief objection to the idea of a United States of Europe is that the general sense of humanity is already seeking to travel beyond its continental distinctions and make them subordinate to a larger human idea.  A division on the continental basis might therefore be from this point of view a reactionary step of the gravest kind and might be attended with the most serious consequences to human progress.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 10, The United States of Europe, pg. 81

Conditions Required for an Effective Free Association of Nations

A recurrent thought for those seeking to bring about the unity of the human race is that there should be a way to prevent war through the joining together of nations into some form of federation or league of nations, or in what might be called the United Nations.  After the horrendous experience of two global conflagrations and numerous local or regional wars during the 20th century, people were actively seeking a solution that would reduce or eliminate the possibility of warfare.

Sri Aurobindo explores this issue and points out the inherent weakness, under current circumstances, in such a program.  “One of these was the elimination of war by a stricter international law administered by an international Court and supported by the sanction of the nations which shall be enforced by all of them against any offender.  Such a solution is chimerical unless it is immediately followed up by farther and far-reaching developments.  For the law given by the Court must be enforced either by an alliance of some of the stronger Powers as, for instance, the coalition of the victorious allies dominating the rest of Europe, or by a concert of all the European Powers or else by a United States of Europe or some other form of European federation.  A dominating alliance of great Powers would be simply a repetition in principle of the system of Metternich and would inevitably break down after some lapse of time, while a Concert of Europe must mean, as experience has shown, the uneasy attempt of rival groupings to maintain a precarious understanding which may postpone but cannot eventually prevent fresh struggles and collisions.  In such imperfect systems the law would only be obeyed so long as it was expedient, so long only as the Powers who desired new changes and readjustments not admitted by the others did not consider the moment opportune for resistance.”

The rearmament of Germany between the First and Second World Wars, in contravention to the signed treaty between Germany and the victorious European powers, is a good example of the breakdown predicted by Sri Aurobindo.

“The Law within a nation is only secure because there is a recognised authority empowered to determine it and to make the necessary changes and possessed of a sufficient force to punish all violation of its statutes.  An international or an inter-European law must have the same advantages if it is to exercise anything more than a merely moral force which can be set at nought by those who are strong enough to defy it and who find an advantage in the violation.  Some form of European federation, however loose, is therefore essential if the idea behind these suggestions of a new order is to be made practically effective, and once commenced, such a federation must necessarily be tightened and draw more and more towards the form of a United States of Europe.”

The limitations we note in the power of the United Nations to prevent warfare are mainly due to this type of weakness.  The existence of a veto power in the hands of a number of adverse and ambitious powers, combined with the development of power blocs, and the lack of an independent control and enforcement regimen, make the current formation of the United Nations at best such a “moral force” as Sri Aurobindo has described.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 10, The United States of Europe, pp. 80-81

The Path Forward Towards a Free Association of Independent Nations

While Sri Aurobindo identifies the free association of independent nations as a likely, and more ideal, outcome for the development of a truly functional human unity, he also points out that there are numerous obstacles towards the realisation of this ideal in the current status of humanity.  The imperialistic tendencies, and the biases of various societies in believing they are superior to and therefore have the right to control, dominate and change other societies, are the biggest hindrances that must first be resolved before this direction can become a functional reality.  The development of the European Union, as well as the founding of the United Nations, represent the first signs that such a path actually could become a reality for a more mature humanity in the future.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Every established order, because it is imperfect, because it insists on arrangements which come to be recognised as involving injustice or which stand in the way of new tendencies and forces, because it outlasts its utility and justification, must end in malaise, resistance and upheaval, must change itself or be changed or else lead to cataclysms such as periodically trouble our human advance.  But the time has not come when the true principle of order can replace those which are artificial and imperfect.  It is idle to hope for a federation of free nations until either the present inequalities between nation and nation are removed or else the whole world rises to a common culture based upon a higher moral and spiritual status than is now actual or possible.”

Various intermediate stages are possible, as the imperial tendencies are modified to address the realities and characteristics of the modern world.  “…while a federation of free nations is for the present impossible, a system of federated empires and free nations drawn together in a closer association than the world has yet seen is not altogether impossible; and through this and other steps some form of political unity for mankind may be at a more or less distant date be realisable. (The appearance of Hitler and the colossal attempt at German world-domination have paradoxically helped by his defeat, and the reaction against him entirely altered the world circumstances: the United States of Europe is now a practical possibility and has begun to feel towards self-accomplishment.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 10, The United States of Europe, pp. 79-80

Imperialistic Ambition Prevents a Free Association of Independent Nations

In the early 20th Century, Sri Aurobindo correctly foresaw both the potential of a free grouping of independent nations, maintaining their separate ways, but collaborating together in the world to address the larger issues of humanity on the planet, and the impossibility of realisation of such a dream as long as the spirit of conquest and imperial domination remained active.

After the end of the First World War, there was, to be sure, the attempt to develop a League of Nations; yet this attempt failed, as imperial ambitions still dominated the relations between nations.  It took the Second World War, and the subsequent dissolution of the hold of European nations over their far-flung colonies, to usher in both the development of a large number of new independent nations, and the founding of the United Nations, and more recently the development of the E.U.

Despite these forward movements, however, the imperial force remains active and thus prevents the true realisation of the potential of these developments.

Sri Aurobindo notes the ideal as “…a new ordering of the world on the basis of a system of independent but increasingly organised national States associated together more or less closely for international purposes while preserving their independent existence.  Such is the ideal which has attracted the human mind as a yet distant possibility since the great revolutionary ferment set in; it is the idea of a federation of free nations, the parliament of man, the federation of the world.”

“But the actual circumstances forbid any hope of such an ideal consummation in the near future.  For the nationalistic, democratic and socialistic ideas are not alone at work in the world; imperialism is equally in the ascendant.”

“National egoism, the pride of domination and the desire of expansion still govern the mind of humanity, however modified they may now be in their methods by the first weak beginnings of higher motives and a better national morality, and until this spirit is radically changed, the union of the human race by a federation of free nations must remain a noble chimera.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 10, The United States of Europe, pp. 78-79

The Socialistic State Idea Has Been Promulgated Widely in the Modern World

As England and then the United States took up the fight against the imperial German ambitions during both the First and the Second World War, they had to adopt systems and efficiency methods to compete effectively.  The traditions of individual liberty which were previously the hallmark of these societies were modified to bring about an organised, highly disciplined approach to military and economic affairs, with the inevitable effect over time of a political effect as well.  We can see today, looking back on that period, that the substantive changes brought about through the two world wars have had a lasting influence on modern day society throughout the world.

The development of a more cooperative form of mutual benefit in society has occurred to some degree everywhere, while it appears in more extreme and repressive forms in other places.  The melding of the democratic ideal, starting from the principle of individual liberty, with the socialistic idea of providing for the needs of all citizens in a society, has brought about innovations such as labor laws, child labor laws, national health care programs, retirement programs, and, today, various controls on business to ameliorate the worst excesses of unrestrained liberty of businesses taking advantage of the people and the resources of the world without concern for long-term consequences or societal benefit.

Sri Aurobindo emphasizes the impact the war against Germany had on the eventual victors, in terms of their own societal developments:  “Even if German militarism and Junkerism were destroyed, the collapse of the imperial form of government can only hasten the more thorough development and victory of that which has been working behind them and forcing them to minister to it, the great modern tendency of the perfectly organised socialistic State, while the evident result of the war in the nations opposed to her has been to force them more rapidly towards the same ideal.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 10, The United States of Europe, pp. 77-78

The Progress of the Socialistic Idea in the Late 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries in Europe

The concept of equality as a principle of societal governance had a growing impact from the initial expression during the French Revolution.  The development and evolution of this concept led to more and more focused attempts to carry it out, through a variety of means and governmental organisations.  Sri Aurobindo described the approach:  “The progress of the socialistic idea would seem therefore to lead towards the evolution of a perfectly organised national State which would provide for and control the education and training, manage and govern all the economic activities and for that purpose as well as for the assurance of perfect efficiency, morality, well-being and social justice, order the whole or at any rate the greater part of the external and internal life of its component individuals.  It would effect, in fact, by organised State control what earlier societies attempted by social pressure, rigorous rule of custom, minute code and Shastra.  This was always an inherently inevitable development of the revolutionary ideal.  It started to the surface at first under pressure of external danger in the government of France by the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror; it has been emerging and tending to realise itself under pressure of an inner necessity throughout the later part of the nineteenth century; it has emerged not completely but with a first rudimentary sketch of completeness by the combination of the inner and outer necessity during the present war (n.b. World War I).

Much of the development took place under the extreme conditions of warfare, which implied that the first watchword of the French Revolution, “liberty” was very much curtailed.  This, while not an absolutely necessary result, was a first step towards more extreme formulations of the socialistic idea into the 20th Century with the rise of communism in various places, and the development of National Socialism in Germany.  In these various instances, the individual freedom was suppressed in order to achieve some form of equality, and due to the authoritarian nature of the regimes who implemented these steps, the concept of equality was itself sacrificed through the development of a ruling class of political leaders and a subordinated class of citizens who simply were asked to obey and support the ideas of the ruling elite, and a third class of those who were disfavored and not entitled to the fruits of equality at all!

This does not imply that the idea itself is faulty and we see a resurgence in today’s world of a focus on the increase of income inequality and unequal access to education, health care, and opportunity throughout the world, which is putting a new emphasis, from a new direction, on the need to achieve some balance between individual liberty and structural equality in the society.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 10, The United States of Europe, pp. 76-77

The Socialist Idea for Organising the State to Try to Address Inequality

The watchwords of the French Revolution, “liberty”, “equality” and “fraternity” are being systematically explored since the late 18th century.  As Sri Aurobindo notes, the development of individual rights of liberty, freeing members of society from the control of an aristocratic elite who managed the lives of all, was the key focus through much of the 19th century.  With the advent of the 20th century, the concept of equality came to the fore, and various options were reviewed to try to bring about equality for people in terms of access to the resources and opportunities of society.  This brought forward the concept of socialism, and the development of communism.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “This is the ideal of the perfectly organised State.  Fundamentally, the ideal of the perfectly organised State is socialistic and it is based on the second word of the great revolutionary formula, equality, just as the movement of the nineteenth century centered round the first, liberty.  The first impulse given by the great European upheaval attained only to a certain kind of political equality.  An incomplete social levelling still left untouched the one inequality and the one form of political preponderance which no competitive society can eliminate, the preponderance of the haves over the have-nots, the inequality between the more successful in the struggle of life and the less successful which is rendered inevitable by difference of capacity, unequal opportunity and the handicap of circumstance and environment.  Socialism seeks to get rid of this persistent inequality by destroying the competitive form of society and substituting the cooperative.”

Since the scale of human society and population is far beyond the reach of the simple commune approach tried in small groupings in the past, the idea of the “rigorously organised national State” arose as a method of trying to achieve this goal.  “To eliminate poverty, not by the crude idea of equal distribution but by the holding of all property in common and its management through the organised State, to equalise opportunity and capacity as far as possible through universal education and training, again by means of the organised State, is the fundamental idea of modern Socialism.  It implies an abrogation or at least a rigorous diminution of all individual liberty.  Democratic Socialism still clings indeed to the nineteenth-century ideal of political freedom; it insists on the equal right of all in the State to choose, judge and change their own governors, but all other liberty it is ready to sacrifice to its own central idea.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 10, The United States of Europe, pp. 75-76