- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

I know what you are thinking. Any book with a title like "Toward a Just World" sounds like the post-campaign memoir of a failed moderate Republican presidential candidate, and so to be avoided. But this is not that, and it shouldn't be. In her brief, but well written, account of the idea of international justice as it developed in the first 50 years of the last century, Dorothy Jones, a scholar-in-residence at Chicago's Newberry Library, proves that the subject can be challenging, even illuminating while still leaving the reader awake.

It is the author's thesis that development was crucial to the very idea of international law and justice. What has happened since is only an annex of that time which stretched from the 1899 Hague Conference to the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Right or wrong (and she's probably right), this account of that history reads better, is more richly detailed, than most accounts, and while the author clearly believes the move away from national sovereignty is positive, no one can accuse Mrs. Jones of naivete.

Her approach is Augustinian in nature, seeing a glass half full, not half empty. Her adroit account, for example, of the 1932 Lytton Commission on behalf of the League of Nations that examined Japan's rape of Manchuria is surely the most neglected report of its kind. In the conventional view, both the Report and the League were toothless lions leaving Tokyo's militarists utterly free to carve up the Asian mainland, slice by slice to their liking.

Well, maybe not. The author argues that the Japanese conquistadores armed with their Malthusian sense of economic possibilities would not have been stopped in any case except by superior force of arms, which they were in the end. But Japan's victim in 1932, China, was not simply a goat tied to a stake passively awaiting its end.

If the international system had been a pure Hobbesian jungle, then Tokyo would have had a free ride into Manchuria and beyond. But it did not. As the author points out, Japan had to defend itself against charges of aggression and it had to take the work of the Lytton Commission seriously. Two decades earlier no such thing would have happened, and no international body such as the League's Assembly would have condemned Japan, largely because there weren't any around. The Japanese (and other aggressors) would, in short, have had the run of the world or those parts other powerful nations had no interest in.

In the end the League could not force Japan to retreat from Manchuria, although Tokyo found itself isolated in the international community an isolation that would later lend to its defeat. (Not only that, at the Tokyo trials men in some cases responsible for the so-called "Manchurian incident" found themselves in the dock on the basis of findings carried out under the League's auspices.)

After its formal dissolution in 1946, the League prepared the way for the United Nations. Mrs. Jones rightly focuses on the Nuremberg trials as the next step in the search for international justice. The author quite correctly sees these trials of Nazi war criminals in all their complexity.

The trials themselves remained controversial then and now and not only among conservative jurists who have always questioned the process as being itself lawless. This is not to say the critics were covertly Nazi sympathizers the leaders of that perverted Reich deserved any fate that could be dished up, but jurists wondered about the precedent and the procedure. On what could such trials be based other than the justice of the victor?

The author spends a good amount of time untangling the problems while exposing the innocence of the American prosecutors and highlighting the deeper wisdom of European experts (mostly French in this case.) What's left out remains the Soviets who hardly approached the trials with clean hands. In fact, that is a major defect of the book wrestling with the implications of the victor's justice when one of them is manifestly unjust. Here Soviet perfidy is confined to one footnote and doesn't even cover Nuremberg.

That leaves us with the question of what we have really learned. Is the first 50 years of the 20th century any guide to trying men and women found to be war criminals? The answer, it seems, remains incomplete and elusive and mostly confined to wicked regimes of small states that lose wars. Can we do better? Perhaps in time, but that question ultimately is well beyond the scope of this book.


Roger Fontaine worked on the National Security staff at the White House under President Reagan.

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