Global Perspective: A Note from the International Academy’s Bruce Paisner


Bruce L. Paisner is the president and CEO of the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

1917 is a gripping movie, both for its actual subject matter (two British soldiers in World War I have to get a warning to an advance unit before the Germans trap the unit), and for what’s implied. The movie has a compelling ***Image***plot and notable visual techniques, but the importance of this movie goes beyond what’s on the screen.

The causes of WWI have been studied at great length, but perhaps the most profound reason was a pervasive and misplaced nationalism, which drove the armies of European nations through that war and again in World War II. By 1945, leaders in Europe and the U.S. had had enough of the slaughter, and they drove a historic reordering of extranational institutions. That reordering is in danger today.

As Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake worked their way through trenches, battlefields and natural obstacles in 1917, I found myself thinking how unlikely such an adventure would be today, and yet how thin the leadership differences are between then and now. The leadership mantra in WWI was a variation on “Make [Germany], [France], [England], [Russia] Great Again.” The war had many other causes, of course, but ultimately each country involved was trying to pump up its citizens and win. To see this, one need look no farther than the ecstatic soldiers, who marched off to the trenches while crowds cheered them on.

Statesmen made an effort after WWI to craft a lasting peace, but the main instrument, the League of Nations, was a failure. It had neither the necessary enforcement mechanisms nor the support of the United States. A resurgence of nationalism, coupled with ever more counterproductive trade wars, led to the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Paradoxically, the more these countries threatened the peace, the more isolationists thought the way to avoid aggression was either isolationism, appeasement, or both. Some statistics are astounding: four months before Pearl Harbor, the draft in the U.S. was extended by just one vote. Men like William Borah of Idaho and Robert Taft of Ohio were resisting a standing army for the U.S., and opposing aid to Britain and France to fight Hitler as German and Japanese war plans were being finalized. The sad truth has always been that many people died who didn’t have to because isolationist politicians rejected evidence that was right in front of them.

After WWII, a remarkable group of statesmen came on the scene. Leaders from the U.S., the U.K., France, and eventually Germany abandoned nationalism and created a group of related international institutions, notably the UN, NATO, the European Commission, the Common Market. NATO, unlike the others, is a military alliance, but its genius was in forcing historic combatants into a common cause—and checking on each other in the name of a greater good. Since 1946, each of these organizations has been properly funded and has flourished. The world is not rid of war, of course, but contained, regional conflicts and proxy wars have replaced the carnage of total war.

This has been the reality for 75 years, a relatively peaceful time, particularly for Western Europe. But the glue is beginning to come unstuck. Nationalism and its ugly cousins—tariffs and trade wars—have started to reemerge, fanned by leaders who seem to have forgotten the lessons of the 20th century, and reverted to always lurking isolationism. Often today’s isolationists seem like lineal descendants of the isolationists of the 1930s. It is abundantly and sadly clear that today’s leaders do not have the vision or the fortitude of their post-WWII predecessors.

The continuing job of people in the media is to remind today’s leaders of the historic accomplishments of those predecessors and to raise a warning when the lessons are not being heard. It is something that my colleagues and I at the Academy and elsewhere do whenever we can. It is not enough to accept isolationism and nationalism as alternative tools for international organization. They are dangerous in any era, and especially when anyone in the world is one message away from everyone else.

Our era will be remembered as either a time when a new generation of leaders continued and built upon the vision of the post-war statesmen, or when they abandoned the principles and the organizations to enforce them and let the world fall into conflict and chaos. Particularly in the shadow of atomic weapons, let us fervently hope it is the former.