League of Nations

Beginning of International Organizations

It is generally believed that the most of the International Organizations are 20th century phenomenon which started with the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919. This is mostly correct but the phenomenon actually started in late 19th century. Some startling examples of a 19th century organization include the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), founded in 1865 (originally called the International Telegraph Union), and the Universal Postal Union, which dates back to 1874. Today, both of these organizations are part of the UN system.

The International Peace Conference held in The Hague in 1899 established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which started its work in 1902. It was the first medium for settling international disputes between countries and a predecessor of the UN’s International Court of Justice.

The carnage of World War I

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 and the carnage that followed showed the limits of this mechanism by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It also signalled the final end of an international system-the so-called Concert of Europe-that had saved the old Continent from the scourge of a major war since Napoleon’s adventures a century earlier.

Between 1914 and 1918, Europe witnessed the worst killing spree of its already bloody history. Almost twenty million people perished in the World War-I. Empires (the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, and, temporarily, the Russian) collapsed during this period. New nations (such as Czechoslovakia Estonia, and Finland) were born. Radical revolutions were won (in Russia) and lost (in Germany). In short, a new world order emerged in these crucial years.

The utter devastation of the war led to support for the idea of an international organization. To many, an international organization with the power to settle disputes before they escalated into military conflicts appeared to be the answer.

The League of Nations-Beginnings

While the First World War was still underway, a number of governments and groups had already started developing plans to change the way international relations were carried out to try to prevent another such conflict.

United States President Woodrow Wilson and his adviser Colonel Edward M. House enthusiastically promoted the idea of the League as a means of avoiding any repetition of the bloodshed of the First World War, and the creation of the League was a centrepiece of Wilson’s Fourteen Points for Peace. Specifically the final point stated: “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

Amid the carnage, in January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson outlined his idea of the League of Nations. But eventually, United States would fail to join the League of Nations; Wilson chaired the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference‘s commission on the establishment of an international organization. Wilson, for one, had few reservations about the significance of the League.

In 1919, he made the following declaration in the joint session of the U.S. Congress:

“It is a definite guaranty of peace. It is a definite guaranty by word against aggression. It is a definite guaranty against the things which have just come near bringing the whole structure of civilization into ruin. Its purposes do not for a moment lie vague. Its purposes are declared, and its powers are unmistakable. It is not in contemplation that this should be merely a league to secure the peace of the world. It is a league which can be used for cooperation in any international matter.”

The League of Nations (LON) was founded as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first permanent international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace.

Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing war through collective security and disarmament, and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. Other issues in this and related treaties included labour conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. At its greatest extent from 28 September 1934 to 23 February 1935, it had 58 members.

But the new League was given a devastating blow when the US Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty. The country never joined the League, making the newly formed organization permanently handicapped.

‘Nevertheless, after being housed temporarily in London, the League commenced its operations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1920. It soon scored some limited successes. In the early 1920s, the League settled territorial disputes between Finland and Sweden over the Aland Islands, between Germany and Poland over Upper Silesia, and between Iraq and Turkey over the city of Mosul. The League combated the international opium trade and alleviated refugee crises in Russia with some success.

The League of Nations acted as the umbrella organization for such agencies as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Permanent Court of International Justice (predecessor of to day’s International Court of Justice, ICJ). It also provided a model for the future United Nations.

Failure of League of Nations

But the League was a victor’s organization. It was dominated by France and Great Britain, with Japan and Italy as the other two permanent members of the League Council (the rough equivalent to the UN Security Council and the highest authority on matters of international security). The twenty-eight founding members, represented in the General Assembly, were mostly from Europe and Latin America. Thus we see that League of Nations was an expression of Eurocentric world and this was also because of the fact that virtually all of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were controlled by European imperial powers at that time.

  • The League of Nations is also known for having established the so-called mandate system to prepare the “natives” of the different regions for self-government and independence. The governments that received the mandates for example, Britain in Palestine and France in Lebanon and Syria-were granted broad authority regarding such preparations. They took their time. Independence for most European mandates would have to wait until after 1945 and would be accompanied by much violence, instability, and, in the long run, chronic insecurity.

Short-sighted though they were, the mandates were a time bomb that would explode only after the League had ceased to exist. It was the League’s failure to prevent the outbreak of World War II that caused its demise.

The World War II & Failure of League

Although the absence of the United States was a significant factor in rendering the League of Nations ineffectual, the organization’s importance was further minimized by the lack of respect it commanded among other great powers.

  • Germany and the Soviet Union were members, but only briefly: Germany joined in 1926, only to exit the League after the Nazis came to power in 1933.
  • In 1933 the Soviet Union entered the League. Six years later, after its attack on Finland in late 1939, the USSR became the only League member ever to be expelled.
  • By that time the League of Nations had seen the departure of two of its founding members.
  • Then, a time came when the League of Nations criticized the Japan’s occupation of Manchuria. So Japan left the club in 1933.

In 1935-36 Italy was equally dismissive of its membership obligations after its successful attack and occupation of Ethiopia, one of the three African members of the League (the others were Liberia and South Africa).

The question is- What was the reason that LON failed so many aggressive actions by the member countries?

We should here note that the global economic crisis of the 1930s & the Great Depression certainly curbed the enthusiasm of others-France and Britain in particular-to risk lives and resources to fight distant wars that did not have an immediate bearing on their national security. Thus, they turned to appeasement, a policy that ultimately failed.

1938 Munich Conference

During the 1938 Munich Conference, Britain and France acquiesced in the dismantlement of Czechoslovakia by agreeing to the addition of the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Reich. If that act had been justified by the existence of a large German-speaking population in the ceded parts of Czechoslovakia, there might have been no excuse for Germany’s later occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia. When Germany finally attacked Poland in September 1939, after concluding a sinister pact with the Soviet Union a month earlier, the high hopes placed upon the Leagueonly two decades earlier were completely crushed. Then, the League of Nations was further handicapped by its inability to apply sufficient pressure in clear-cut cases of aggression.

According to its covenant, the League could introduce verbal or economic sanctions against an aggressor and, if these methods failed, intervene militarily. In theory these steps were logical and reasonable. But while verbal sanctions could not deter an aggressor that was determined and strong, economic sanctions required international collaboration. As the League had no authority beyond its limited membership, a country suffering from the pressure of economic sanctions could still trade with non-members. Especially during the international economic crisis of the 1930s, willing trading partners were not hard to find. Because the League had no army of its own, military intervention required member countries to furnish the necessary troops. In practice this meant French or British troops, but neither country was interested in getting involved in potentially costly conflicts in Africa or Asia.

When the League expelled the Soviet Union in 1939, it was almost clear that League had failed in its overall objective. It had not become, as Wilson had hoped, a “definite guaranty for peace. The onset of World War II made it even more evident that some form of international organization was needed to safeguard against yet another descent to Armageddon in the future. One goal was paramount: a repetition of the League experience could not be allowed.

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