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  • Liberal and Illiberal Internationalism in the Making of the League of Nations Convention on Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace
  • David Goodman

The 1936 League of Nations Convention on the Use of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace sought to shape a liberal international public sphere, through encouragement of empathetic and neighborly broadcasts to other nations and prohibitions on international broadcast of hostile speech and false claims. It expressed 1920s liberal hopes that adding protocols and rules to international communications would foster peace. How was it then that by the late 1930s these same hopes for an international public sphere of civil and peace-fostering international discourse appeared to many liberals in national contexts as not only fantastical, but illiberal, a clear threat to the emerging core liberal value of free speech? Analysis of the making and early implementation of the Convention facilitates understanding of the rapid change in the valency of these ideas and illuminates the historical contours of the always-contested line between liberal and illiberal policies in communications history. That line is difficult to discern clearly in this case for two main reasons: removing offensive criticism of other nations from international broadcasting was perceived as illiberal censorship by some and as laudable self-restraint and international good manners by others; positive liberal internationalist content was perceived as educational by liberal internationalists and as potentially illiberal propaganda by nationalists. Viewing the making of the Convention through the lens of the contest about what constituted liberal and illiberal internationalism helps us better understand both its high ambition and some of the reasons why it was so quickly labelled a failure. [End Page 165]

Broadcasting and Peace

Broadcasting was from its inception often hailed as intrinsically internationalist. The new capacity to become familiar, at home, with foreign speech and music struck many commentators as having historic, epoch-defining possibilities for bringing about enduring peace. The BBC's motto, adopted in 1927, "Nation shall speak peace unto Nation," boldly expressed the soon-to-be commonplace hope that broadcasting would foster world peace by improving understanding between nations. This expectation, that better communications improved the prospects for peace, became a key element of 20th-century liberal internationalism. The League of Nations imbibed this heady optimism and soon interested itself in communications in general and broadcasting in particular. Sir Eric Drummond, Secretary General of the League, observed in 1926 that "radio and the League of Nations are both in their youth" and that "assuredly their fruitful cooperation will make for the peace of the world."1 Radio, he added a few weeks later, would be an "enormous new force" for the "better understanding between peoples, on which peace must ultimately depend."2

Little more than a decade later, this belief that enhanced communications and contact would make world peace more likely was already coming to seem absurdly optimistic. Rudolph Arnheim could still assert in his 1936 book on radio that "wireless without prejudice serves everything that implies dissemination and community of feeling," that it "eliminates not only the boundaries between countries but also between provinces and classes of society" and that it might even eliminate war: "Is it not essential for the creation of a war-spirit to have a certain distorted caricature of one's idea of the foreign nation; is it not essential to forget that beyond the trenches are men like ourselves living in the same way?"3 But it was generally by the mid-1930s becoming less and less plausible to think that broadcasting—the medium that nationalists, communists and fascists were using with such skill and apparent efficacy—would somehow inherently create international friendship and peace. The common optimistic liberal belief that fuller and freer international communications would produce peace and understanding in fact always had a pessimistic shadow, the fear that instantaneous mass communications would do [End Page 166] just the opposite—introduce a new potential for conflict and a new volatility into international relations. American intellectual Lewis Mumford expressed this idea well when he argued in 1934 that the "lifting of restrictions upon close human intercourse" was "dangerous." Enhanced communications had he claimed only "increased the areas of friction," "mobilized and hastened mass...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 165-193
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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