The League of Nations and the United Nations
By Charles Townshend
Last updated 2009-11-05
The imposition of a peaceful world order was a key objective for the League of Nations, established in the aftermath of World War One. How can its successor, the United Nations, react to the challenges of the 21st century? Charles Townshend assesses its chances.
* The birth of the League ideal
* The growth of a system
* Death and transfiguration?
* A new international age?
* The challenge ahead
* Find out more
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The birth of the League ideal
The League of Nations, born of the destruction and disillusionment arising from World War One, was the most ambitious attempt that had ever been made to construct a peaceful global order. It was rooted in a comprehensive liberal critique of the pre-war international system, which was widely believed to have been the cause of the carnage of 1914-18. The secret diplomacy of the old order would be replaced by...open discussion The idea of the League was to eliminate four fatal flaws of the old European states: in place of competing monarchical empires - of which the Hapsburg Empire was perhaps the most notorious - the principle of national self-determination would create a world of independent nation states, free of outside interference; the secret diplomacy of the old order would be replaced by the open discussion and resolution of disputes; the military alliance blocs would be replaced by a system of collective guarantees of security; and agreed disarmament would prevent the recurrence of the kind of arms race that had racked up international tensions in the pre-war decade. Before this, the closest approach to an international political structure had been the Congress System, in which the European great powers held occasional summit meetings to discuss issues they found urgent. (To his credit, the much-maligned Tsar Nicholas II of Russia had sponsored international efforts to ban 'inhumane' weapons such as expanding or exploding bullets; but these efforts were only partially successful.) The surviving victorious great powers at the end of the Great War - Britain and France - would have preferred to go no further than regularising the old Congress System. The spirit of the times, however, which was overbearingly personified in the president of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, pushed towards the creation of a more comprehensive global organisation, which would include all independent states, and in which even the smallest state would have a voice. Top
The growth of a system
President Wilson; America failed to ratify the League Covenant © Unfortunately, Wilson's thinking about the way that self-determination would work in the real world, and about getting his idea for a 'community of power' off the ground, remained vague. Partly this was to avoid alarming US isolationist opinion, but in any case, when the League Covenant was agreed at the Paris peace conference in 1919, the US Senate refused to ratify it. How the League would have worked with American participation remains one of the great 'what ifs' of modern history. As it was, the direction of the system was left in the hands of states - primarily Britain and France - whose altruism was questionable and whose economic resources had been crippled by the war. There was a widespread belief...that the League's prestige was growing incrementally Yet the League of Nations did work surprisingly well, at least for a decade after the war. By December 1920, 48 states had signed the League Covenant, pledging to work together to eliminate aggression between countries. A series of disputes - between Germany and Poland over Upper Silesia, between Italy and Greece, and between Greece and Bulgaria - were resolved under its auspices. Though relatively minor, these were just the kind of incidents that had in the past triggered regional conflicts - and indeed World War One itself. There was a widespread...
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