by Waqar H. Zaidi
If you were to ask someone about the drivers of globalisation, you would probably be told that it is caused by faster, greater, and more accessible transport and communications. These have allowed for greater international travel, faster movement of people and information, and the greater circulation of trade, commerce, and capital more generally. Questioning further, you will learn that the speeding up and spread of transport and communications have in turn been driven by transformative new inventions: most recently the internet, but going backwards in time: the aeroplane, the telephone, the steam-ship, and the telegraph.
Such ideas are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that there is little questioning them. But what if they could be questioned: problematised, analysed, historicised? That’s exactly what historians have begun to do. One line of enquiry has been to examine culture and boosterism in relation to particular technologies as they emerged and spread at particular time periods. By technological culture I mean widespread assumptions and beliefs about particular technologies and technological spectacles. By technological boosterism I mean publicity and rhetoric specifically created to boost these technologies and their positive impact. Important case studies of this ilk include studies of the telegraph in the late 19th century and aviation in the first half of the twentieth century.
But what if we could go further, and see these types of beliefs as ideological: that is as part of wider political ideologies, or cohesive enough to be considered as ideologies in and within themselves? In my new book, Technological Internationalism and World Order: Aviation, Atomic Energy, and the Search for International Peace, 1920–1950, I do exactly that. I argue that aviation and atomic energy were seen by liberal internationalists as internationalising technologies, and were incorporated into both their political projects for political transformation at the transnational level, and their beliefs about the nature of international relations.
The book explores US and British proposals for the international control of aviation between 1920 and 1945, and proposals for the international control of atomic energy in 1946. These proposals, I suggest, need to be seen not only as attempts at arms control (which they undoubtedly were) but also as parts of wider ideologies seeking to remake international relations, and as manifestations of internationalising beliefs about various sciences, technologies, and technical experts. These proposals, I suggest, point to a wider technological internationalism that was not only prominent amongst intellectuals and practice at the time but also more widely distributed in society. This technological internationalism was not uniform in its characteristics, and nor was it unchanging: rather it was heterogeneous, waxed and waned over time, and focused on different technologies and techniques at different points in time. The period 1920 to 1950 was a tumultuous time socially and politically, with ideas and discourses also emerging, changing, and/or dissipating. It is no surprise, then, that technological internationalism was also subject to the same push and pull of domestic and international politics, as well as social, economic, and technological transformations. Yet it retained an essential unity in terms of core beliefs and commitments.
What, then, is technological internationalism, and where might we find it? What’s to be gained by introducing this concept, and what aspects of our world might it allow us to understand better? Two terms currently used by historians shed light on how this notion might function: scientific internationalism and technological nationalism. Scientific internationalism is usually seen as both an activity and an underlying ethos: the activity being scientific cooperation across national boundaries with little regard for political and cultural differences, and the ethos behind it the notion that science as an unhindered knowledge-producing activity is, and should be, inherently international. Scientists, as carriers of scientific internationalism, are said to embody this ethos. Technological nationalism is also both an activity and an ethos, though is generally located in the policymaking sphere, and understood to be the pursual of national technological projects for prestige rather than economic or other rational reasons. It usually includes an ascription to particular technologies of qualities linked to the nation and national prestige. So, for example, in my study of the celebrated British engineer Barnes Wallis I showed that he ascribed aerial qualities to the English nation, and in turn saw his aeroplane designs as peculiarly English.
Technological internationalism, I suggest, is akin to both. Like technological nationalism it focuses on particular technologies, inserts them into historical narratives, and ascribes to them particular transformative properties. More than just artifacts, these technologies are political in that they are thought to naturally achieve, or have the potential to achieve, particular social and political outcomes. Like the science in scientific internationalism, the technology in technological internationalism also helps (so it is believed) to bring people together by transcending national boundaries and political differences.
The attribution of internationalising abilities to technologies first emerged most forcefully in the 19th century as part of a wider attribution of internationalising attributes to international trade and commerce. As the argument that free trade and commerce brought countries together and so spread peace started to spread, boosters of particular new technologies promoted them through these ideas. So, for example, the telegraph was touted as a great internationalising technology bringing the nations of the world together. Similarly the steamship drove hopes for a closer integration of the British empire and English-speaking peoples.
As a ‘new internationalism’ spread in the first two decades of the twentieth century, so did the roster of technologies with these Cobdenite properties. For internationalist Norman Angell, writing just before the First World War, the steam engine and the telegraph were now joined by the railway, printing, and electricity in deepening interdependence. War, he concluded, was an increasingly irrational choice for nations whose commercial interests were so globally intertwined. These lists of technologies kept pace with the latest inventions in transport and communications. By the 1920s it was aviation which was seen as the leading world-changing technology. Radio was soon added too. One list, published by internationalist legal scholar Clyde Eagleton in 1932 read: ‘steam and electronic railways and ships, telegraphs and telephone, newspapers, and now aviation, radio, and moving pictures’.
Technological internationalism consequently emerged as an important component in liberal internationalist rhetoric and imagination because the artifacts that it placed at its center both encapsulated some of the central tenants of liberal internationalism and made them accessible to a wider public. Indeed, by talking about internationalist projects through technologies activists reflected back many society-wide assumptions about these technologies and the world more broadly. It was widely accepted that the aeroplane was ‘making the world smaller’ or ‘bringing people together’. Through technological internationalism internationalists could connect their calls for an international society or greater international organisation to such public ideas.
The interwar years, incubators of extreme ideologies and movements, produced radical liberal internationalisms which incorporated such technological internationalisms. These technological internationalisms functioned on two registers in liberal internationalist activist and intellectual output in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The first, noted above, connected straightforwardly to widely held notions of communications and transport-driven international connectivity. The second consisted of particular political proposals for the international governance of technology in the public sphere. These built on and amplified ideas about the inherently pacifying effects of technologies and the perverting nature of militarism, but developed them towards radical proposals that spoke to liberal internationalist agendas on arms control and collective security.
Building on the emergent liberal internationalism of the period (including earlier calls for international naval policing and international organisation), these proposals emerged in Europe after the First World War in the form of calls for the formation of an international police force. This was to consist largely or solely of military aircraft, and was supposed to create collective security by enforcing peace and disarmament. These proposals expanded further during the 1932 Geneva disarmament conference, at which European delegates discussed proposals for the internationalisation of civil aviation as well. Both military and civil aviation, it was argued, needed to be taken out of the control of nation-states and instead controlled by the League. In most proposals nation-states were to retain fighters and small transport aircraft only, with bombers and civilian airliners being handed to the League to create a League air force and airline. Once the disarmament conference collapsed, and rearmament accelerated into the latter half of the 1930s, hopes for internationalised aviation dwindled, but were rekindled during the Second World War. A United Nations air force was widely discussed in US and British internationalist policymaking and internationalist circles (prominent proponents included James T. Shotwell and Quincy Wright in the US, and Philip Noel-Baker in Britain), and even raised at the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the formation of a United Nations organisation. Although no air force was formed, the finalised Charter of the organisation retained some scope for its organisation.
Although these proposals were sustained by a number of social processes, they were also founded on a number of particular beliefs about the nature of science and technology. First, it was believed that modern science-based technologies, such as aviation, were inherently civilian with the potential for great positive impact, but could be, and often were, perverted for militaristic and nationalist ends. Human thinking and institutions were not advanced enough to understand or cope with these negative effects, and so needed to be developed further in an internationalist direction.
In August 1945 a powerful new technology was introduced to the world, atomic energy, which clearly had the potential for great destruction but also promised (so it was believed) cheap energy and other benefits. The internationalist impulse towards international organisation was rejuvenated, though atomic energy now replaced aviation as the great transformative technology in world affairs. The foundational beliefs about the nature of science and technology continued, transferred now from aviation to atomic energy, and from the League of Nations to the United Nations. Internationalists turned to call for the transfer of atomic plant and equipment from the control of nation-states to international organisations, and official proposals (such as the Baruch Plan) were tabled and discussed at the United Nations. It ‘seems inescapable’, announced Manhattan Project physical chemist Harold Urey at a major internationalist conference in 1946, ‘that within a relatively short time a world government must be established if we are to avoid the major catastrophe of a Third World War’.
Although these visions and proposals did not come to pass, and liberal internationalism declined in fervor as the Cold War deepened, notions of communications and transport-driven international connectivity survived. It is still commonplace to hear today that the aeroplane, alongside newer inventions such as the internet, is shrinking the world.
But perhaps the aeroplane, the internet, and other technologies have indeed shrunk the world, and brought about greater globalisation and globalised interactions. If this is so, what benefit do we gain by marking these beliefs as ideological, rather than as common sensical commentary on reality? My book suggests that many such beliefs about these technologies go far beyond simple shrinkage. They focus on the implications of shrinkage, which are generally taken to mean a heightened possibility of both peace and war. These beliefs are thus inherently politically, and allow these technologies to be referenced in or be incorporated as touchstones of political programs or rhetoric that promise international peace and the abolition of war.
Today, the integrationist properties of modern technologies such as the aeroplane and the internet are so widely taken for granted that they are often assumed rather than explicitly stated, and are sometimes even seen as cliched. Yet challenges to technological internationalist assumptions have emerged over the years, especially as the allure of globalisation wore off in the 2000s and people turned to question the meaning and benefits of global integration. More recently, we have discovered that the internet can just as easily spread disinformation, hate, and fear as it can spread understanding. So we continue to grapple today with the questions to which technological internationalists once thought they had the answer: what are the inherent potentials of new technologies, and how can they be use to bring about our utopias and avoid our nightmares. The answers to these questions, I would suggest, are more ideological than one might care to admit.
 Simone M. Müller, Wiring the World: The Social and Cultural Creation of Global Telegraph Networks (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines, 2nd ed. (London: Penguin, 2013); Robert Wohl, The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); Jenifer Van Vleck, Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
 Waqar Zaidi, Technological Internationalism and World Order: Aviation, Atomic Energy, and the Search for International Peace, 1920–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
 There is a large literature on scientific internationalism, for an overview see: Brigitte Schroeder-Gudehus, ‘Nationalism and Internationalism’, in R.C. Olby, G.N. Cantor, J.R.R. Christie, and M.J.S. Hodge (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science (London: Routledge, 1990), 909-919.
 The term was coined in the seminal paper: Maurice Charland, ‘Technological Nationalism’, Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory X 1-2 (1986): 196-212.
 Waqar Zaidi, ‘The Janus-face of Techno-nationalism: Barnes Wallis and the ‘Strength of England’’, Technology and Culture 49,1 (January 2008): 62-88.
 Müller, Wiring the World), chapter 3.
 Duncan Bell, ‘Dissolving Distance: Technology, Space, and Empire in British Political Thought, 1770–1900’, The Journal of Modern History 77,3 (September 2005): 523–562.
 Following from the nineteenth-century liberal intellectual Richard Cobden, Cobdenism was a commitment to international free trade and commerce as an antidote to war. Peter Cain, ‘Capitalism, War and Internationalism in the Thought of Richard Cobden’, British Journal of International Studies 5,3 (1979): 229-47.
 Norman Angell, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage, 4th ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1913), 142, 277.
 Clyde Eagleton, International Government (New York: Ronald Press, 1932), 10.
 I take liberal internationalism to mean, broadly, a belief in a community of nations and a commitment to peace and international order through international trade, commerce, and organisation. See for example: Fred Halliday, ‘Three Concepts of Internationalism’, International Affairs 64,2 (Spring, 1988): 187-198.
 Harold C. Urey, ‘Atomic Energy, Master or Servant?’, World Affairs 109,2 (June 1946): 99–108.
 On the internet, see for example the work of historian and social theorist Mark Poster. E.g. Mark Poster, ‘National Identities and Communications Technologies’, The Information Society 15,4 (1999): 235-240.