*League of Nations (1920-46):
‘The creation of this, the world’s first general international organisation, was ensured by the determined advocacy of the president of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, but the detailed ideas it embodied came almost wholly from Britain. She, however, had taken US membership for granted. Thus, when America failed to join, Britain was, in effect, left leading an organisation that had suddenly become a possible liability rather than asset. But not too much was lost, for the obligations of League membership were to onerous. The only specific ones of importance concerned the use of procedures for the pacific settlement of disputes, and the imposition of economic sanctions on any state which made war in defiance of certain of these obligations. However, it was up to each state to interpret for itself what steps, if any, it should take in these matters. And all substantive decisions of the League’s organs had to be unanimous. That is, the league was based on the idea of cooperation rather than direction.
The League began with 42 members; twenty states were later admitted; seventeen withdrew; and one -the Soviet Union -was effectively expelled after it invaded Finland in 1939. The League’s headquarters were at Geneva, where its first secretary-general, Sir Eric Drummond, created a multinational secretariat from scratch. It was based on the British principle of a non-political civil service. The secretariat served the two principal organs, the assembly and the council. All member states (each having one vote) were represented in the assembly, which met once a year for about a month. In addition to Britain, six Commonwealth countries were League members: Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, India, and from 1923 the newly independent Irish Free State. They each had separate delegations and cooperated closely, but they did not always accept British leadership. Through the assembly, they and other small nations gained a voice in international relations, and assembly resolutions were deemed to be an important indicator of world opinion.
The council had three of four week-long meetings each year, and special meetings as required. It represented the institutionalisation on a global scale of the 19th-century ‘concert of Europe’. Permanent seats on the council were occupied by the great powers for as long as they participated in the League: Britain, France, Italy (until 1936), Japan (until 1933), Germany (1926-33), and the Soviet Union (1934-9). In addition, some non-permanent council seats, held for three, awarded by the assembly on a rotating basis. Like the assembly, the council was envisaged as a purely deliberative body. It had some specific tasks such as keeping an eye on the administering of mandated territories and well-being of national minorities in certain states. More generally, it was entitled to discuss any matter within the League’s competence ‘or affecting the peace of the world’. It was assumed that usually a public rebuke from the council would be sufficient to deter a wrongdoer; in turn this assumed the existence of a sense of community and common interest that in fact proved to be lacking (and is perhaps always lacking in a world of sovereign states). However, the League was right in recognising that it could only act effectively when states were in agreement.
The experience of the League reflected its circumstances. During the 1920’s, when the international climate was favourable, it was fairly successful; but in the 1930’s its weakness was revealed. When Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, Britain felt unable to act firmly without American support. That was not forthcoming, and without British leadership the other League members would not and could not act. Following Italy’s invasion of *Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935, fear of driving Mussolini into Hitler’s arms led to half-hearted and ineffective sanctions. Discredited as a collective security organisation, the League remained in showy existence until April 1946.
Although the circumstances of its decline resulted in the League generally being judged a failure, it was by no means a continuous or complete one. Moreover its covenant represented certain important milestones in the development of ideas about how international relations should be conducted, notably its condemnation of aggression and its ascertain that any war or threat of war was a matter of general concern. Perhaps, most significantly of all, the League established the idea that the world needed such a body. Unsurprisingly, its imprint on the shape of its successor, the United Nations, was far-reaching’.
From, … University of Huddersfield.
References: Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, ‘A Great Experiment’, London, 1941.
References: F. S. Northedge, ‘The League of Nations, its Life and Times’, Leicester, 1986.