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Above All Nations is Humanity
Baccalaureate remarks by George Ball, Weyerhaeuser Professor of Biblical Literature Emeritus

Dr. George Ball
Sixty-seven years ago, as an innocent and naive freshman, I walked across the campus of Cornell University for the first time. As I approached the main building of the College of Arts and Sciences, I saw an inscription cut into the stone or concrete over the main entrance. "Above all nations is humanity." Though I knew almost nothing about ethics, something in me responded. It was for me an experience somewhat akin to an inspiration, or in religious terms a revelation. Without knowing exactly why, I knew it was important. I have never forgotten it.

However, it took me many decades before I realized what it really meant. It was identifying the greatest threat to the human race, national sovereignty, the idea that the nations of the world are autonomous, that they can do what they like within their own borders, that they are accountable to no one. During World War II, I recall a big sign I saw on the wall in a German school house which read "National Socialism is our people's greatest belief." It does not fit well with "Above all nations is humanity." Nearly all the great atrocities of the 20th century are the result of the decisions made unilaterally by sovereign nations.

Here is the idea in the fine words of Max Frankel in a recent issue of the New York Times magazine: "Someday in the next century we will acknowledge that there can be no global rights without global laws and no way to write and enforce those laws without a global congress, courts and cops.

Doug Pierson, '99, whose composition for strings, Jigs, Dances and Shakes, was performed at Baccalaureate.
"As the lion in the jungle of nations, the United States is not ready to yield to higher authority. But in time we will realize, like the nations of Western Europe, that sovereignty has become the enemy of safety."

As Frankel indicates, there is reason to hope. Look at the 15 nations of the European Union which have established a single currency for all 15 of them, set up a Central Bank which will make financial policy for all of them. Next month, the citizens of those countries will elect the first international Parliament with power to make laws which they all have agreed to obey.

The United States is still a jealous guardian of its national sovereignty. It was one of the few countries which would not accept the Ottawa Convention against the sowing of land mines, to prevent the indiscriminate killing of people, largely civilians and often women and children. One commentator said the United States is being "sidelined by history."

Last year in Rome most of the nations of the world overwhelmingly adopted a statute creating the ICC, International Criminal Court, to try cases of "genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity." The United States did not sign, nor did Russia or China, all three doubtless seeing this Court as a threat to their sovereignty, which indeed it is and should be.

Yet there is a growing consensus that no nation should be allowed to commit "crimes against humanity." That phrase "crimes against humanity" appears now to be in process of acquiring a legal significance, and it is giving form to the words with which we began, "Above all nations is humanity," words which seem to me to have an almost scriptural importance.

Next year the Memorial Building, just across the street from here, will be 100 years old. This auditorium is well built and will doubtless be here 100 years from now. At that time, our successors will probably be here at this time of the year at another Baccalaureate Service. By then, it should be clear whether, as stated in A Constitution for the World, "the age of nations must end and the era of humanity begin." If this does not happen, the sovereign nations of the world may have such monumental destructive power that they may be able to scatter our planet in fragments like meteorites throughout the sky. Should that take place, it will not show that the ethical obligation did not exist; it will only illustrate that ethic in operation.