Leaving World War II Behind: Create an Alternative Approach December, 2020

I like the idea of using imagination to reflect on the build-up to WWII and to consider how that war might have been avoided, had different paths been chosen. The writer Cormac McCarthy says (loosely translated) that it’s not the mess we’re in now that’s the problem, but rather the choices we made back at the crossroads – the ones that led us to this point. That is what we need to examine and learn from.

A few guiding principles:

1. Make gender equality a requirement in policy-making, planning, process design, negotiation, & leadership. This principle is ranked in order of importance.

2. Make non-violence a core value, non-negotiable.

3. Break conflicts down into manageable parts for analysis and designing good process.

4. Use bona fide 3rd party “neutrals”, trusted elders, fair & wise advisors – for conflict analysis, process design and preparation for all important negotiations.

5. Include those who could destroy or sabotage agreement. Make sure they’re represented /heard in some way.

6. Build a “safe container” to hold important processes, such as careful, inclusive development of guiding principles, and designate keepers of the process with authority to safeguard it.

7. Focus on values & interests (“what matters” to parties); search continually for common ground.

8. Include music, art, theatre, poetry, & a focus on children – aspects of human existence that give meaning and purpose to life and are universally valued. Honour diversity through culture. Dehumanize no one.


1. Closely involve existing organizations working for peace at the time, such as:

War Resisters International

Fellowship of Reconciliation

Women’s international League for Peace & Freedom

War Resisters League

2. Work on strengthening the League of Nations

It was approved January 25, 1919, by 30 countries. US President Woodrow Wilson was one of its champions. The US Congress, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, then refused to join because of the “collective security” aspect (requirement to protect independent territorial integrity of all other countries). Obstacles to joining needed to be revisited and negotiated – until all major powers joined. Smaller powers would inevitably follow.

The League of Nations had as its goals: disarmament, prevention of war through “collective security”, negotiation and diplomacy for settling conflict and improving global welfare.

Had its founders truly focused on the latter 2 goals, the League of Nations might have revisited the Treaty of Versailles and reconsidered its punitive, humiliating treatment of Germany post WWI. They might have listened to the voices of colonized peoples; they might have paid attention to Ghandian principles on non-violent resistance.

3. Work on follow-up to the Kellogg-Briand Pact

This general treaty, also known as the Pact of Paris, renouncing the use of war, was made in 1928, outside the League of Nations. It was signed by France, US and Germany, soon followed by most other states. Reaching agreement is often merely the first aspect of a change process. Especially with a significant agreement that threatens the commercial interests of those holding power, crafters must build in oversight, enforcement, fine-tuning, follow-up. There must be a strong “container” to hold the agreement and see that its signatories abide by it. Revisions often need to be made to ensure buy-in and continued viability. Information needs to be shared broadly, and the principles upon which the agreement is based need to be widely understood and accepted. Big agreements like this need “teeth” to make them enforceable. The route of diplomacy and discussion needs to be pursued in a pro-active, not reactive way.

4. The role of Women

The active and equal presence of women in public forums is needed, not to replace men, but to provide gender parity, and more synergistic leadership. We know that between 1950 and 2004 fewer than 4% of all national leaders have been women. During those 54 years, there were only 48 female leaders across 188 countries, and 2 of them (Ecuador and Madagascar) were replaced by men in 2 days! 1

A 2010 UN study found that 2.4% of mediators were women, 9% of negotiators, and 4% of signatories of 31 peace processes (with women at the table) were women.2 It’s important to avoid stereotyping genders, and the sample of women in leadership is simply too small to generalize. We all know of women leaders who adopted a hawkish stance. Token women in leadership roles often behave like aggressive males, as if proving to the world that they are up to the job. Gender parity reduces competitiveness and creates space for a partnership way of problem-solving.

The UN study just noted found that with women at the table, peace agreements are more likely to endure, and that with just a 5% increase of women in parliaments, a state is 5 times less likely to use violence in an international crisis. They attribute these findings to women’s preference for dialogue and inclusivity, as well as their place outside formal power structures, making them seem as less threatening. We need to bring women into formal power structures on an equal basis with men.

At the founding table of the League of Nations, there were no women. Each state could send 3 delegates to its meetings, and had one vote.3 Norway and Sweden each sent a female delegate, and Australia brought an “alternative delegate” after persistent lobbying by feminists. In 1922, of 177 delegates, 6 were women; in 1930, 14 were women; in 1936, with 50 countries in the League of Nations, only 12 delegates were women. The numbers speak for themselves. It has now been 2 decades since UN Resolution 1325, recognizing the role of women in Peace & Security. There are only 2 countries in the entire world who have had more than 2 women Prime Ministers (New Zealand & Iceland).


We can never know the difference these ideas might have made in the build-up to WWII. In this time of endless wars, however, we might consider the ongoing dearth of women in leadership roles today and direct our attention to radically increasing those numbers.

Sally Campbell

1 Study by Katherine W. Phillips, Columbia Business School

2 Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations: Connections between Presence and Influence. UN Equity for Gender Equality & Empowerment of Women.

3 Article 3, League of Nations Charter