Tworek on Gorman, 'International Cooperation in the Early Twentieth Century.'

Daniel Gorman
Heidi Tworek

Daniel Gorman. International Cooperation in the Early Twentieth Century. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 288 pp. $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4725-6795-6.

Reviewed by Heidi Tworek (University of British Columbia) Published on H-Diplo (June, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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Daniel Gorman is to be congratulated on writing an impressively wide-ranging and thought-provoking synthetic account of international cooperation in the early twentieth century. International Cooperation in the Early Twentieth Century is published in a Bloomsbury series called New Approaches to International History that incorporates newer themes in international history such as the cultural turn. The series aims to provide both introductions for researchers and textbooks for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. Still, any scholar of internationalism and international diplomacy will learn a great deal from Gorman’s text. 

The book examines “the social movements, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international and transnational voluntary movements, and international civil society networks whose collective international cooperation contributed to early twentieth-century globalization” (p. 2). Gorman demonstrates how different types of internationalists cooperated across borders for myriad reasons, whether on anticolonial projects, particular issues like human trafficking, sports, or intergovernmental collaboration on technical standards.  

While histories have often taken World War I as a start or end point for international cooperation, Gorman’s book ably traces networks across that divide to show how the pre-World War I decades laid the foundations for multiple forms of interwar internationalism such as humanitarian movements or scientific cooperation. Although the state was the main political container, Gorman reminds us how many people strove to escape or undermine the constraints of state-based action. The book is not a paean to internationalism, but an exploration of how and why certain “regimes, patterns, and projects of international cooperation” grew exponentially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 5). Gorman places particular weight on globalization and new types of communications and transportation technologies like telegraphy that enabled swifter dissemination of information and ideas. 

As Gorman rightly notes, one of the challenges of these types of international history is that they do not have obvious centers or subjects. International networks may have nodes but those nodes are not the same for the League of Nations as for the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association. To make his history manageable—and Gorman ably traces complex networks across time and space—the book’s chapters focus on themes of international cooperation, from competing visions of international order to legal internationalism and the rise of expert governance. 

Unsurprisingly, European and American figures dominate much of the narrative. Gorman includes the now standard groups of League officials, international education institutes, and international women’s activists, like British female pacifist Dorothy Buxton who founded Save the Children in 1919. One major contribution of this book lies in interweaving these figures with non-Western people, places, and organizations, whether Trinidadian anticolonial activist George Padmore, who supported the International Union of Seamen and Harbor Workers, or Argentine lawyer Carlos Saavedra Lamas, the only non-Western recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Gorman also reminds us that the normative assumptions of internationalism did not provide the potential for emancipation for everyone, particularly for indigenous people. Groups such as the Maori in New Zealand, Maasai in Kenya, and Six Nations in Canada “faced a double struggle” (p. 33). First, they struggled against the colonial powers who ruled their lands. Second, they had difficulty asserting rights vis-à-vis other ethnic groups in colonial societies. While Poles or Czechs could fight for and build a nation-state after World War I, indigenous peoples sought a sovereignty that did not fit into the logic of an international system of nation-states. Although the Six Nations adopted Western forms of protest like petitioning the League of Nations in the 1920, the efforts were to no avail. Only in the 1970s would “Fourth World” international cooperation emerge between indigenous peoples around the world. To use the vocabulary of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, indigenous people were one group who fell “in between” the nodes and connections of international networks.[1]

Furthermore, Gorman shows how the language of internationalism and its foci, such as humanitarian aid, could bolster European imperial control, as with the Institut Colonial International (ICI), created in 1895 in Brussels. In many instances, international cooperation offered imperial advantages of cooperative information-gathering and collectively imposing standards on colonial territories, a dynamic that Gorman might have emphasized further. The League of Nations Health Organization gained such strong support from Japan, for example, because successive Japanese governments saw an opportunity to exchange health knowledge and shape norms through cooperation with European empires, or what Tomoko Akami has called “intercolonialism.”[2] 

One final form of international cooperation deserved more sustained attention: businesses and multinational enterprises. Gorman mostly describes private international cooperation through philanthropies, international scientific institutes like the International Institute for Agriculture created in Rome in 1905, or financial institutions like the Bank of International Settlements. But businessmen often served as key representatives at League conferences on economic issues. They also created and expanded firms across borders throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, sustaining other types of international coordination like cartels. The expansion of American businesses like Ford, Singer, or supermarkets around the world fostered new types of cooperation in marketing and education. Singer, for example, created an international network of embroidery schools everywhere from Mexico to Syria by the early 1930s to market its sewing machines.[3] 

Overall, Gorman’s book dexterously explores many international organizations and networks ranging from the International Federation of National Standards Association to international trade unionism, while never descending into a laundry list of acronyms. Cooperation across borders in the early twentieth century often stemmed from utopian goals and visions of international society; cooperation could also exclude communities, aims, and practices that did not fit Western understandings of how international networks should function or what internationalism meant. In all of its many guises, though, international cooperation was fragile. Even if its incarnations prior to the 1930s laid the foundations for many post-World War II organizations, the forces of nationalism and exclusionary violence all too easily overwhelmed well-meaning technical experts, humanitarians, and activists.


[1]. Bruno Latour, “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications,” Soziale Welt 47, no. 4 (1996): 369-81,, last accessed May 15, 2018.

[2]. Tomoko Akami, “Imperial Polities, Intercolonialism, and the Shaping of Global Governance Norms: Public Health Expert Networks in Asia and the League of Nations Health Organization, 1908-37,” Journal of Global History 12, no. 1 (2017): 4-25.

[3]. Paula de la Cruz Fernandez, “Marketing the Hearth: Ornamental Embroidery and the Building of the Multinational Singer Sewing Machine Company,” Enterprise & Society 15, no. 3 (2014): 442-71.


Citation: Heidi Tworek. Review of Gorman, Daniel, International Cooperation in the Early Twentieth Century.. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL:

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