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The League of Nations: Origin, Aspirations, and Failure

Wars, battles, or conflicts, whatever we call them, are an inevitable part of civilization’s journey, from ancient city states to modern sovereign states. They have always been devastating, sometimes necessary, and often misfortunate. In order to avoid such crises, states often initiate diplomatic measures, treaties, and many more.

In Europe before World War I, major powers occasionally engaged in wars with each other, i.e., hundred-year battles between Britain and France, battles between Germany and France, Germany and Russia, etc. 

But when the First World War broke out in 1914, its horrific experiences and its wider expansion first made Europeans realize that this continual war-torn tradition must be stopped. The League of Nations was the product of such consideration.

During the fight, the contemporary wealthiest nation in the world, the USA, proposed installing a system that could lessen the intensity of war in the future. Regarding that, US President Woodrow Wilson set out fourteen points

Every point represented some immediate changes in the European system, and the last point stood for establishing an international authority to pursue mediation over military actions and peace over any potential conflicts in Europe (Lotha, 2023).

It was assumed that Woodrow Wilson got inspiration from famous philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace“. The President deliberately insisted on incorporating post-WWI peace treaties into the Covenant of the League (McLean, 2000). 

The British delegation supported Wilson’s position at the first Paris Conference in 1919. After the ratification and incorporation of the Treaty of Versailles, the League came into being in 1920 (McLean, 2000).

But institutions like the Council were structured on the basis of existing power positions in the international system, i.e., Britain, France, and the USA. It was decided that since these powers were the most significant actors in the system, they had major responsibilities as well as liabilities in rebuilding the international structure. 

From the beginning, bias beset the League, though it declared equal respect for every member of the League. However, the League consisted of three main institutions: the Council, the Assembly, and the Secretariat.

The Functions of the Council:

  • Representatives of the principal allied powers and four others (elected from the Assembly)
  • Each member of the council has one vote; decisions need the agreement of all present.
  • To deal with any matter within the League’s sphere of action or affecting world peace
  • To recommend a course of action to members

 

The Functions of the Assembly:

  • Representatives of all the members
  • To deal with any matter within the league’s sphere of action or affecting world peace
  • Each state gets one vote and ends up with three representatives; decisions need the agreement of all present.

The League is often described as the first international political organization created for common interests, but scholars argue that the League was the first as an international institution but not as a system or with objectives. 

The major example of that was the Concert of Europe or the Congress of Vienna in the 19th century, when Europe codified the rules of diplomacy (McLean, 2000). In fact, the League has created a platform for European major powers to meet regularly and address their mutual interests, devoted to maintaining international peace and a conflict-free situation.

Since its commencement, the League has remained vulnerable when the USA left Europe’s leading powers to straddle their own paddles. But incidents like the Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the German militarization of Rhineland, etc. showed these powers were incapable of managing such a global institution.

There were some basic causes of the failures of the League of Nations (McLean, 2000):

  • The Failure of the Covenant: The Covenant had been weak since its inception. It did not specify the range or parameters of an effective decision-making process. Even if another war started; how to resort that was not mentioned clearly in the Covenant. Moreover, the covenant provided the council with the highest authority to decide whether armies should be contributed and what should be done (Article 16.2). In addition, the Treaty of Versailles provided the victors of WWI with a legitimization of attaining their objectives, i.e., dismantling Germany and capturing both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires lucrative economic possessions.
  • Weakness of Membership: In the meantime, the USA, the proponent of the League, left its membership due to a US Senate decision. The absence of the USA was a great blow to the League’s members as well as its effectiveness.
  • Balance of Power vs. the League System: The provision of collective security underlined in the League Covenant conflicted with the interwar European political system. Moreover, the independence of alliance-making treaties (No to secret treaties) and open diplomacy created problems among the leading powers, i.e., Britain, France, and Russia.
  • Level of operation: The level of operation was undermined due to the emergence of fascist ideologies in Japan, Italy, and Germany. Japan invaded Manchuria, Italy took Libya, and Hitlar’s militarization in Rhineland was some direct challenges to the League. The League could not reach its initial goals of securing international peace and security. 

However, there are many reasons besides those mentioned above that led to the demise of the League of Nations. After WWII, major powers around the world focused on the League’s failure. They suggested another global institution to replace the League, and the United Nations came into force. 

Since 1945, despite some major accusations, the UN has been working on achieving its motto: to maintain international peace and security. Whether the UN has been successful or not, this needs a deep analysis.

 

Reference

Lotha, G. (2023). Teaching American History – Interpretation of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Brittanica.

McLean, A. (2000). From international organization to international organizations. In T. C. Salmon, Issues in International Relations (p. 167). London: Routledge .

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